The City of Birmingham

The Council House declined from its eminence, becoming a suburban registry and library. A huge task faced the municipality in providing the services and amenities the Rural District Council had lacked the resources to supply, and in improving the roads. Re-surfacing, widening, raising, re-bridging, laying of drains, water and gas mains, installing street-lamps, and collecting refuse, were unspectacular but essential labours. As the scores of marl-holes were already filled with rubbish, the City continued its former practice of dumping and burning refuse at the boundaries - around here using part of Yardley Wood Common beside Priory Millpool. This activity raised the level so that future building would be possible. The site is in the news at present, being now destined to carry housing instead of the long-deferred and recently-abandoned school.


Sparkhill Baths were not in use until 1931, and Hall Green Library was three decades later. But an early start was made on the provision of open space. The Rural District Council had decided in 1909 on a plan to keep the Cole valley green. It was to be a parkway from end to end of the District, some nine miles of meadow. This was incorporated in the Town Plans. During the 1920s the Dingle, the Chinn Valley, Trittiford Mill Pool, Swanshurst Park, and parts of Billesley and Yardley Wood Commons were acquired and opened to the public. School playing fields were allocated at the Dell, just above the willow swamp that had been the bed of the Old Pool until the dam was breached in the 1890s, Colebank in what had been Cotterell's Meadow, and - belatedly - at Yardley Wood. There planned streets were abandoned, leaving odd short dead-ends. The Rural District Council had received a gift of several pieces of land from the Charity Trust, but had opened only one of these, as Sparkhill Park (1904). This had a small pool until after World War II.



This topic is studied in detail in my ‘Urbanisation of Yardley’. The first O. S. map shows a sprinkle of buildings stretching from Spark Green over Sparkhill to Showell Green, along the ridgeway Highfield/Fox Hollies Roads, along the Turnpike, 35 bordering Yardley Wood Common and twenty about the northern edge of Billesley Common, with a dozen in the southernmost part of the Quarter - whose total of buildings of all kinds was about a hundred. The dwelling pattern then and for perhaps three decades more was related to a rural economy: there were farmhouses, cottages, and a country mansion or two. Thereafter suburban development began to make inroads into agriculture and husbandry. It spread southward from built-up Bordesley into Spark Green and Greet. Mansions like the Chains on Sparkhill and farms like Grove were bought and razed by building societies, straight streets were cut across pastures, and there was sporadic growth of villas and terraces for the better class of artisans and minor professional people. But along the high-hedged lanes of southern Swanshurst Quarter mansions were built among the old large farmsteads. Wealthy folk came out from Birmingham's smoke to the fresh air and clean fields of rural Yardley. They had their carriages for transport to Acocks Green Station on the Oxford Line from 1852. Urbanisation is closely linked to public transport: steam tramcars to the Cole on the Stratford Road made possible the large-scale terrace building of south Sparkhill and Springfield.


 Between 1851 and 1901 Yardley's population increased eleven-fold. The greatest growth was centrally in the parish, from the 1870s. Many streets were laid out but infilled fitfully by small builders. However the end result was always that of a practically continuous brick facade along both sides: two or three-storey narrow tunnelbacks in red brick from Greet claypits and imported slate with Georgian or baroque decorations. After the widening of Stoney Lane over the Spark Brook, seven streets were completed down to it, and a shopping street of sorts developed. South of Durham Road streets were named after members of the Smith-Ryland family who owned the land. In 1895 the late Stuart Mermaid was replaced by a twin-towered hotel, but the old carved inn-sign was retained, and Sparkhill Institute was opened. Four years later Eastbourne Market opposite the Mermaid accelerated the change of the Stratford Road to a shopping street. Villas were steadily converted to shops, and their small front gardens became forecourts. Meanwhile in Wake Green and Hall Green the fancy mansions were going up in large gardens. In 1905 the Women's Hospital moved from a converted villa opposite the Council House to its present site on Showell Green Lane. Springfield's long terraces were quickly and uniformly built and soon occupied. Hall Green Parade was built as a shop row in 1913. When World War I began, the Green Bank Estate of wider, lower houses - still joined in rows but otherwise the same as post-war semi's - was near completion. Sarehole Road extended only to Dunsmore Road. The Showell Green Estate, Sidney Road, etc. had just been completed. A castellated chocolate factory beside Webb Lane and the new railway had failed after a hopeful start. South of Wake Green Road/College Road the landscape had changed little, apart from rebuildings.



The small factories on Sarehole Road were started during World War I. There was to be no further industrial growth in what was designated a residential suburb, except for Newey Goodman, already established earlier and no spoiler of the amenities in its pleasant grounds. The Webb Lane premises found other users, and light industry appeared at Warstock between the Wars. Those relics of rural industry the watermills all went out of use within a few years of each other, and farming activity lingered for a time.


Between the wars

Sale of the Taylor land from 1913 enabled the City to move into the Quarter, the largest area of undeveloped land country in Yardley. 470 acres were bought for housing estates, and between the wars the farmhouses fell one after another - Billesley c. 1923, Quagmire  and Trittiford two years later, Trittiford Mill Farm and Ivyhouse (Brook Lane) c. 1930, Little Sarehole 1935, Brook Farm the following year. The 'Battles' Estate opposite Swanshurst Park was completed in 1923 and Billesley largely within the next two years. The houses were non-parlour cottages in twos, fours, and sixes, the earliest being no-nonsense rows, but some blocks were designed to look like Tudor or Stuart mansions with projecting wings and eaves. Yardley Wood Estate was built between 1926 and 1930. No attempt was made to give a village character to these new villages. They had no central green, and no focal point. Shops and amenities were usually peripheral, there were cul-de-sacs but far too many through roads, and the street patterns were complex. On the intended extension of Highfield Road a library and clinic were opened in the 1930s.

In contrast to the sweeping curves of council streets, the privately-developed ones were straight or only gently-curved, often following old hedge-lines. Oldhouse, Oaklands, Barton's Lodge, and other farms were demolished: a few like Sarehole, Coldbath, and Yew Tree lingered as dwellings only.


Yardley lacked riverside and north-south roads. A 65-feet wide road was planned to go from Highfield Road to the Warwick Road, and in the late 1920s Cole Valley Road joined up with the extended Sarehole Road. Baldwins Lane/Shirley Road and the Outer Circle route were improved, and dual carriageways were made or provided for. On Yardley Wood Road and others the building-line was set back for all new houses. The city's largest traffic island was made at Six Ways.


In the 1930s a new council estate appeared between Brook Lane and Trittiford Road, and there were new semi's on and off Wake Green Road (a new road was made south from Sarehole Farm, the old one being left to return to nature, as it was too close to the Cole for development), off Brook Lane, off Billesley Lane, and at Warstock, Bradnock Close was built on the site of Ivyhouse Farm. Wheelers and Barn Lanes, Phipson Road, Hayfield, Woodlands, and Mackenzie Roads and the roads round St. Agnes' Church were all built or completed in the 1920s and 1930s. Shops continued to spread along the Stratford Road: small groups appeared at strategic points elsewhere.


The first post-war estates, except for the prefabs on park edges and small off-street sites were like those of the 1930s - Greenstead off Springfield Road for example. The first multi-storey blocks were built on the new Hollybank Road beside Billesley Common, and these were to be the only municipal towers in the Quarter, apart from the few which replaced bombed terraces on a small site off Stoney Lane. Later municipal estates - Coldbath Farm, Brompton Pool, Trittiford Mill, Braceby Drive, for example, are of short rows with small gardens or open fronts and garages.


Public transport

Horse buses plied from Birmingham to the Mermaid in the 1870s. By 1885 steam trams had reached Sparkhill, a depot being built on the site of the present Salvation Army Citadel. A few years later lines were laid to Knowle Road. Further extension had to await rebuilding of the narrow humped bridges over the former millrace and the disused river channel. Meanwhile Birmingham had taken in Balsall Heath from Kings Norton (1891) and wished to lay lines along Stoney Lane to what was then the city boundary, opposite Esme Road. There used to be a cast-iron sign indicating that Birmingham, Yardley Rural District, and Kings Norton and Northfield Urban District met there. Trees survive which once stood beside the Spark Brook by there. It was at that time a dismal trickle, its bed a dump for rubbish, so, largely at City expense, the lane was remade and widened over a culvert in which the brook ran from then on. The boundary ran down the middle of the lane until the enlargements of 1912. In 1896 the first trams - electric ones - arrived at the farthest point they were ever to reach on that route.


In 1907 the G.W.R. constructed the North Warwickshire Line from Tyseley to Stratford. It came across the central ridge in a cutting. A station was opened at  the Stratford Road and a halt at Highfield Road, the latter becoming Yardley Wood Station eleven years later. From the opening of the line it was obvious that Hall Green would become a popular commuter district. The 1913 advertisements for Southam Road's first houses referred to the nearby station and to the projected tramway extension. This had followed immediately after the making of the present Cole bridge, and by 1914 one could ride on an electric tram as far south as the Bull's Head. When track work resumed in 1928 the lines were laid on sleeper tracks along central grassed reservations, with a wide carriageway on either side, to the boundary at Shirley.


The lanes of the Quarter, like those elsewhere in Yardley, were quite unsuitable for trams - and little better for buses. The 1 and 1A routes were served by open-topped petrol buses from 1920 after road surface and lighting improvements along Wake Green and College Roads. An early service from Stoney Lane tram terminus to 'The Valley' on Yardley Wood Road caused deaths in 1924, when two girls were killed at Coldbath Bridge, where the hedged lane was narrow, steep, and sharp-bending. The road there was hurriedly widened, raised, and straightened, and a compulsory stop was put at the brook culvert. In 1926 the Outer Circle bus service began (though it did not go right round the city until 1928), along Brook Lane, Coldbath Road, Swanshurst Lane, Cole Bank Road, and so out of the Quarter by an awkward dog-leg into School Road. Improvement work on this route included the rebuilding of the Cole bridge by Sarehole Mill. Other services traversing the Quarter by the decade's end were the 13, 13A, 24, 29 and 29A.


Beyond the Outer Circle, a Ring Road was planned to go through more open country. Wheelers, Brook, and Robin Hood Lanes and Highfield Road were part of this. During the 1930s unemployed men were engaged in the clearance of land on the line of this road, which was to be a dual carriageway throughout with islanded intersections, as were the Stratford, Priory, and Yardley Wood Roads. This work involved the destruction of many great trees and a number of farmhouses and cottages. In the late 1930s and late 1940s trams were replaced by diesel buses on all routes. When World War II brought an almost immediate end to road works, Highfield Road was completed from Four Ways to the Cole, but the other roads were single carriageways bordered by green swaths - and so they remain, except for Priory Road, improved almost to the boundary. By decision of the West Midlands Council, the sixty-year-old scheme will never be resumed. The approach ramps for the new bridge by which Highfield Road was intended to cross the Cole before sweeping on up the opposite bank to join the widened School Road are already four decades old, and should soon qualify for preservation as ancient monuments. High Bridge is still as narrow as when first built, though the companion bridge on Yardley Wood Road was replaced before World War II.


Swanshurst Quarter in 1979

The Quarter has even less unity now than it ever had, and only the need to keep this booklet to a reasonable size justifies studying its modern state in isolation from neighbouring districts. Development was apparently nearing completion four decades ago, but that was by the standards of that time. Pressure of population has - until the last few years, when economic stagnation and birth-rate decline have changed everything - brought the disappearance of many pieces formerly open space beneath tarmac, concrete, and brick. Map 12 illustrates this very clearly. Nurseries, private playing fields, tennis courts, brookside meadows, wasteland borders, mansion grounds, and enclosed bits made accessible by the demolition of a semi or two and filled with a cul-de-sac of 'town houses', have produced a concentration of housing that would had horrified the generous planners of the 1920s.


The Quarter's four cinemas have closed, the Piccadilly after a brief spell as Dreamland, showing Indian films. The Springfield is a furniture store, the Rialto and Robin Hood have been replaced by supermarkets. Most of the Edwardian mansions have gone. Court Road's small fire station has closed following the building of a big new one at the top corner of Swanshurst Park. Hall Green's villa police station is no more. Since 1974 police, fire, and health services, and road maintenance have been controlled by the West Midlands County. The Webb Lane factories have been rebuilt. The Women's Hospital is threatened with closure. Four Arches Bridge was restored in 1956, and Sarehole Mill in 1969. Warstock Allotments are overbuilt, as is half of the Springfield tract: the rest is a 'leisure garden' (a tidied-up allotment patch). Two Circle intersections - Stoney Lane/Walford Road and Cole Bank/School Roads - have been straightened, and Priory Road is dual carriageway almost to the city boundary. But elsewhere only service roads have been made along the green swaths, and now the W. M. C. C. has decided to abandon the dual carriageway plan of a half-century ago. Hall Green has its library and St. Peter's Church off Highfield Road, both from the swinging sixties.


Designated open spaces survive, and prefabs are not to be replaced on park edges by towers as we once feared. Sarehole Mill Meadow and the play-space by Marion Way (Foster Bequests), and the 1913 Hougham Bequest land from Green Road ford to Stratford Road have been added to the Coleside amenity. There is a regretted break in the walk between Brook Lane and the Mill, because of the schools' field, but the well-beaten track parallel to Old Wake Green Road's trees shows that the peasantry are establishing a right of way through there. Coldbath Brook has been culverted from the Pool eastward, and beyond the site of Lady Mill there is a great underground stormwater reservoir. The Dell is encroached upon from both sides, by St. Bernard's School and private cul-de-sacs. South of Scribers Lane the Coleside level has been raised. The remaining part of Yardley Wood Common is under threat of development.


Surviving antiquities (pre-1850) are: The Chalet in Green Road, Sarehole Mill, Sarehole Farm outbuildings, Yew Tree Cottage and Showell Green Cottages, Yew Tree Farm, The Firs, Moorlands, Paradise Cottages, Highfield House, and Four Arches and Trittiford Bridges. Losses since World War II include both Springfields, Spartans, Cateswell, Sarehole Hall, Coldbath Farm, Showellhurst, and Trittiford House. Early council houses are being modernised, as are many terraces. Only the oldest rows at the Quarter's north end can be described as sub-standard dwellings. Recent immigrants - Irish, European, West Indian, Asian - outnumber Yardleians in the terrace streets north of the Council House - still proudly displaying its Yardley District Council shields - and are rapidly growing in numbers in Springfield. Sparkhill shopping centre is predominantly Asian, and many old-established stores have closed or changed function. Springfield and Hall Green have still flourishing shopping rows. Much of the Quarter is still a very pleasant place to live, if increasingly dangerous for children and pedestrians.


Short bibliography

Charter of King Edgar 972

Domesday Book, translated

Aris’s Birmingham Gazette

Notes and Material for a History of Yardley – W.B. Bickley

Kelly’s Directories

Local press

Birmingham and its regional Setting – British Ass., 1950

Victoria County Histories of Worcestershire and Warwickshire

Transcriptions and Summaries – the Discovering Yardley Group

Medieval Yardley – V.T.H. Skipp

The Manor of Yardley, Urbanisation of Yardley, Sparkhill and Greet, Watermills of the Cole and Blythe Valleys – John Morris Jones

Place names
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Geology and natural vegetation
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Relief and drainage
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Place-names, and names indicitaive of landscap
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Medieval topography
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Old roads
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Early nineteenth century
This map has been traced from a poor print
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Land ownership 1843
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Public transport
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Swanshurst Quarter

Geology, Natural vegetation, and relief and drainage

Early settlement, and Saxon beginnings

Boundaries, Domesday Yardley, and Moats and earthworks

Section two 

Medieval times, and Ancient roads


Old houses, Local government, and Tudor to Georgian times

Families and houses

Georgian times

Section three

Bridges, Watermills, and the Stratford Canal

The Tithe Map

Churches, and Schools

Yardley Rural District

Section four

The City of Birmingham, and Urbanisation

Industry, Between the Wars, and Public transport

Swanshurst Quarter in 1979, and Short bibliography



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