The Watson family in Acocks Green, by Ted Tann-Watson
The Watson family arrived in Botteville Road, Acock’s Green in the early 1860s, and maintained a presence in the area for over a century (1).
John Watson moved into the Birmingham area from Worcester in the late 1830s, having served an apprenticeship as a grocer with William Griffiths in Great Malvern. By 1839, he was established as a “Grocer, hop, corn and cheesefactor” at 34 Smallbrook Street (2), a business which survived until the redevelopment of the Bull Ring area of Birmingham in the 1950s. He appears to have been joined by his brother Joseph soon after, and by 1843, Joseph was described as being the Grocer, whilst John and his wife Sarah were described as Hosiers (3).
Both businesses appear to have flourished throughout the 1840s, with Joseph running the grocery business at 34 Smallbrook Street, John and Sarah as Hosiers and Haberdashers at 5 Smallbrook Street, and John also running a wholesale Tallow Chandlery at 34½ Smallbrook Street. The descriptions varied in the trade directories over the years (for example, the Post Office Directory of 1845 describes Sarah as Hosier and Haberdasher at No 5, Joseph as Grocery and Provision Dealer at No 34, and John as Wholesale Tallow Chandler at No 34½ (4), whereas in 1855, John was described as Draper at No 5, and Joseph as Grocer and Provision Dealer at No 34, with no mention of Sarah (5) – it is possible that by this time she was more involved with the upbringing of two children.)
The hosiery business continued to flourish, such that, between 1856 and early 1858, John and Sarah sold the business at 5 Smallbrook Street, and bought the business of William Syson, hosier and laceman, at 72 High Street, Birmingham (6). This appears to have been an upward move, from a more peripheral position to the centre of the town. In 1861, the business was employing two assistants, with a further domestic servant (7), with the couple’s older son working in the Grocery business with his Uncle, and the younger child (Charles Joseph) still at home – still a pupil at King Edward VI School.
By 1863, John and Sarah had obviously made the decision to retire to the country, choosing the then newly developing hamlet of Acocks Green. In the latter part of that year, the architect J D Johnson oversaw the building of a house in Acocks Green by William Box for them.
The house was completed in the spring of 1864, the final stage payment being made on April 2nd (Figure 1 shows the Account prepared by Johnson, detailing the cost and payments on account). The business at High Street was sold by the time the information for the Post Office Directory was collated, recording Miss Laura Chandler as Hosier and Lace Dealer at 72 High Street (8).
Having moved to the village, John quickly became an active member of the Church, then part of the Parish of Yardley. In 1864, a series of meetings of some of the principal inhabitants of the village were held, as a result of which it was decided to build a new Church for the village (9). From these meetings a committee was formed to oversee the building of the Church, which was completed in 1866. John was a member of the committee, and on completion of the building was presented with a Presentation Book of Common Prayer (presumably in common with the other members), the flyleaf being inscribed by Henry Gwyther, then Vicar of Yardley:
“To Mr John Watson in acknowledgement of kind and generous assistance afforded as one of the Committee in building the Church of St Mary at Acock’s Green in the parish of Yardley is this book given: with the best wishes of his faithful servant in Christ
Henry Gwyther M.A. Vicar
Oct. 17th 1866”
Joseph joined his brother in Acocks Green in 1867; (the Post Office Directory of Birmingham (1867) shows Frederick John Watson as Grocer at 92 Smallbrook Street, and has no listing for any address between numbers 5 and 52. Kelly’s Directory of Birmingham (1868) also shows Frederick John at number 92, with Kelly’s Directory of Worcestershire(1868) having John at Alton Cottage and Joseph at Berne Cottage (14 and 12 Botteville Road respectively). White’s Directory of Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Walsall etc (1869), however, lists Joseph as grocer at 34 Smallbrook Street and living at Botteville Road), taking the house next to John.
Following Sarah’s death in 1870, the brothers appear to have provided homes for siblings and other relatives. The 1871 census records Joseph and Mary Ann at number 12 (albeit calling the road Shirley Road, Yardley), with one servant, Sarah Burnock, whilst John is recorded as resident at Alton Cottage, Shirley Road, again with one servant, Emma Underwood. In 1873, a number of alterations were made to the house, including the making of a skylight in the roof, and what appear to be several internal alterations to rooms and staircases (10). These may well have been to make the house more suitable for the various relatives.
By 1881, Joseph and Mary had been joined by Elizabeth Watson, Joseph’s cousin, whose occupation is recorded as retired milliner. In 1851, Elizabeth had been an assistant to John and Sarah, and apparently living at 6 Smallbrook Street. The census return for Alton Cottage shows John’s blind brother and sister Arthur and Elizabeth present, with another sister Sarah Jane Woodward recorded as a Domestic Housekeeper. The latter’s daughter Louisa Jane was also at Alton Cottage, and one servant, Priscilla Scrivens.
In the 1881 Census, Joseph’s occupation is given as Retired Grocer, whilst that of John is Grocer. It seems that Joseph may have retired from the business, leaving his brother and two nephews to run it; Hulley’s Birmingham Directory (1881) not only lists the business at 34 Smallbrook Street as Joseph Watson & Co, but has the business in brackets against the three men, but no mention of it against the entry for Joseph.
It is certain that Joseph remained actively involved in the Church in Acock’s Green until his death in 1889. A series of plaques above the central aisle of the Church remember the early officers of the Church, and name Joseph as the Third People’s Warden; similarly the headstone above his grave recalls that he was Warden from 1878 until 1889 (11).
Joseph’s will left his entire estate (valued at £12,561.10s.7d net) to Mary Ann. She remained at Berne Cottage, with John’s cousin Elizabeth until her death in 1905.
Since 1880, John’s younger son Charles Joseph had lived above the Grocery shop, whilst his older brother Frederick had moved to Speedwell Road in Birmingham. In 1889, his wife Victoria also died, which event was probably the catalyst in a change in the business, with Frederick buying his brother’s share of the business. Certainly, by the time of the 1891 census, Charles Joseph had moved from Smallbrook Street to Acock’s Green, and was living at Maycroft Lodge on Victoria Road. His occupation was now described as “Retired Grocer”, and the household appears to have consisted of himself, his wife Ada, their two children, his mother-in-law, and two servants. The sale of his business interest allowed Charles Joseph to retire to the village and pursue his more intellectual interests. For example, in 1890, he joined an expedition to Norway (12).
It is interesting to note that, although neither Frederick or his wife appeared to have a direct connection with Acocks Green at the time of her death, Victoria was buried in St Mary’s Churchyard. Moreover, although Frederick owned No 12 for some years, he never appears to have lived there, but was buried with his wife.
Following John’s death in 1891, Charles inherited Alton Cottage. One of his first steps appears to have been to engage the services of the architects Messrs Dunn and Hipkiss to install new heating facilities in the house and conservatory (13), together with various items of maintenance and improvement to the fabric of the house, and improvements to workshops for his scientific experiments. One of these was the provision of a fume cupboard, presumably for work with noxious chemicals.
Mary continued to support the Church after her husband’s death, contributing to an illuminated address to Rev. Swinburn in 1889, and in her will made in October 1889, left the sum of five hundred pounds to the Vicar and Churchwardens of the Church “to apply … in such manner as they in their absolute discretion may seem fit for the benefit of Saint Mary’s Church its service or building”. However, there appears to have been some disagreement within the Church and congregation over the departure of the Curate, Rev. Charles Thomas Evans, as a result of which Mary changed her will. In a Codicil dated 3rd January 1891, commenting that Rev. Evans had “been permitted to leave the parish without a Congregational Testimonial … notwithstanding the express desire of some members of the Congregation that they were willing to contribute to a testimonial Fund”, revoked the legacy of five hundred pounds together with the gift of her late husband’s watch and chain to her great nephew Leonard, and substituted a legacy of one hundred pounds to the late Curate as a rememberance of his Curacy. After some other additional legacies to members of the family, the sum of two hundred pounds, or however much was left after paying legacy duty and other expenses, was given to be used for or towards the “improvement of or addition to the Church of St Mary’s Acocks Green” if her trustees (Frederick and Charles) felt that the money could be “usefully applied to any such purpose”.. Otherwise, the sum was to be given to any Charitable Institution or “necessitous Clergyman or Clergymen” as the trustees deemed fit. In the event, one hundred and seventy five pounds was given to the Church for the building of a Church Room in 1905, following Mary’s death the previous year (14).
Mary left Berne Cottage to Frederick, although he never appears to have lived there. Elizabeth, Joseph’s cousin, continued to live in the house on favourable terms until her death in November 1917. For the 1911 Census, completed by Frederick, her occupation is recorded as “Housekeeper”, with one other domestic servant, Priscilla Bourne (in contrast, the 1901 Census showed both Mary and Elizabeth as “living on own means”) (15). It is interesting to note that Elizabeth left a sum of twenty five pounds to Miss Bourne, if she was still resident at Berne Cottage at the time of Elizabeth’s death. After Elizabeth’s death, Frederick appears to have sold the leasehold of the property, it being occupied by William Foster Gould in 1922 (16).
By the time Charles Joseph and his family moved to Acocks Green, Ada, his wife, had been suffering from chronic rheumatism or rheumatoid arthiritis for some years. By 1901, this appears to have required the services of a full-time Nurse, the Census recording the presence of Eliza Bentley in that function. Over the ensuing few years, Ada became bed-ridden, dying in August 1909 (17).
Having retired from the business, Charles kept himself busy with his interests in science, being an enthusiastic member, and for many years Honorary Keeper of Apparatus, of the Scientific Society of the Birmingham and Midland Institute. He had joined the institute in 1861, on leaving King Edward VI School and starting work (18). Initially continuing studies in languages, in 1867 he became interested in the sciences, culminating in a great expertise in electricity. In addition to the equipment available to him at the Institute, he maintained some at home (19), and wrote a number of articles for a variety of magazines, varying from describing experiments with ionization (describing the basic process of a modern laser printer in the process) through to instructions on building a simple galvanometer (20). Charles maintained his interest in science for the rest of his life, marking 50 years with the Scientific Society in 1922.
His other areas of interest included such diverse elements as photography (surviving photographs show experiments with telephoto lenses, as well as x-ray images), geology and genealogy (the author has Charles’ notebook containing records of family members, and maintained by subsequent generations).
The two children, Ernest and Ethel, were both educated in Birmingham, the former at King Edward VI School (then on New Street), and the latter at King Edward VI School for Girls. From school, Ernest went to Birmingham University, and thence to Liverpool University, where he completed a Master’s Degree in 1909. By 1911, he was working as an electrical engineer for the Morris and Lister Magneto Syndicate in Coventry21 (presumably commuting daily from Acocks Green to the factory in Coventry), joining his former mentors at Birmingham University. During the First World War, the company was given the task of developing magnetos for aero engines, the principle source before the War being the Robert Bosch organisation of Germany. For his work, Ernest was awarded the OBE.
The company was subsequently taken over by Joseph Lucas in the 1930’s, and he became Chief Engineer, becoming involved with, amongst other things, gas turbine ignition systems in collaboration with the Rover Car Company, leading to the two companies being involved with the development of the aero jet engine with PowerJets in Lutterworth during the Second World War. This work, together with his contributions to the development of the motor car between the Wars, led to Ernest being awarded an honorary Doctorate of Science in 1944 (22).
By contrast, Ethel remained in Acocks Green, living with her father until his death in 1939. Voting records for 1930 and 1935 show Charles and Ethel registered at 14 Botteville Road, along with Priscilla Bourne (23). It seems most likely that, following Elizabeth’s death in 1917, Priscilla moved next door to 14 as Housekeeper. In the later nineteen thirties, there appears to have been a cook, Mary, employed in the household (24), and it seems likely that Priscilla had either left or died before 1939.
On Charles’ death, Ethel inherited the leasehold of 14 Botteville Road. She did not stay in the house, but seems to have moved to 76 Shirley Road very quickly (25). She remained there until her death in 1973, being very active as a lay preacher in the Methodist community within Acocks Green.
1 I am indebted to the staff at Birmingham Central Library, and also to those at the Special Collections at Birmingham University Library for their assistance in the preparation of this article.
2 Robson Directory of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Wolverhampton and Their Immediate Environs (1839)
3 Wrightson and Webb Birmingham Directory (1843)
4 Post Office Directory of Birmingham (1845)
5 White Directory of Birmingham (1855)
6 Post Office Directory of Birmingham (1856) records Syson at 72 High Street, with Dix Directory of Birmingham (1858) showing John Watson as a Hosier and Glover at this address, with no entry for 5 Smallbrook Street.
7 The 1861 Census records the presence of Matilda Walter (24) and Caroline Bonehill (21) as the Hosier’s Assistants, and Jane Childs (27) as House Servant.
8 Post Office Directory of Birmingham (1864)
9 The History of St Mary’s Church is detailed on the website of the Acocks Green History Society, being re-written at the time of writing of this article.
10 In a bill dated 22nd October 1873, C. Smith details works to a total value of £127.17s.0d to the house.
11 The epitaph reads “In loving memory of JOSEPH WATSON (of Berne Cottage, Acocks Green) Warden of this Church from 1878 to 1889 who died June 21st 1889 aged 68 years”. Mary Ann and Elizabeth were both subsequently buried with him.
12 The expedition to Norway was organised under the auspices of the Vesey Club, a society of intellectuals based in Sutton Coldfield, led by John Benjamin Stone. Stone placed Charles in joint charge of photographic arrangements for the overland group, travelling from Christiana to Oslo.
13 The works were completed by Thos Mills and Son in April 1892. There would seem to have been some problems with the original boiler proposed by the Griffin Foundry, resulting in the installation of a gas boiler.
14 This legacy is noted in the History of St Mary’s Church on the Acocks Green History Society website.
15 Both the 1901 and 1911 Censuses are available on line via Ancestry.co.uk.
16 Kelly’s Directory of Birmingham (1922)
17 Ada’s death certificate records the cause of death as “Arthritis Defermans - six years exhaustion”
18 Un-numbered The Institute Magazine (October 1906) p21, published by the Union of Teachers and Students at the Birmingham and Midland Institute, in “Our Portrait Gallery” states that “at the tender age of thirteen he (Charles Joseph) was taken from school and set to learn his father’s business of general grocer…Notwithstanding these long hours, (he) joined that same year the French Class at the Institute.”.
19 On several occasions, Charles’ grand-daughter Jill described Christmases in the Watson family – after breakfast and opening presents, her family drove from their Coventry home to Botteville Road, where she and her sister Ruth were left in the charge of her Aunt and the cook, while her Father and Grandfather sat in the front room discussing scientific experiments and mathematics. She thought that her two brothers, if they were there, were probably upstairs, investigating the machines for making sparks.
20 Amongst three boxes of papers deposited in the Special Collections at Birmingham University by his son in 1975 were two notebooks into which some of these articles had been pasted; the two referred to here are C J Watson “Simple Ionisation Experiments with a Wimshurst The Model Engineer and Electrician (September 1910), and C J Watson “A Simple Galvanometer” Engineering Mechanics (May 1931) (reference number MS34).
21 The 1911 Census.
22 R L Graeme Ritchie Honoris Causa Being Speeches Made In The University Of Birmingham 1934 - 1946, By The Public Orator (1946) University of Birmingham, Birmingham (UK), p 70
23 Voter records for Acocks Green are held in Birmingham Central Library, and are also available through Midlands Historical Data.
24 Charles’ grand daughter remembered the cook Mary, but had no recollection of Priscilla. Voter records for 1939 show only Charles and Ethel present at 14.
25 Kelly’s directory of Birmingham (With Its Suburbs) and Smethwick for both 1940 and 1941 shows no named occupant at 14 Botteville Road, but Miss Watson at 76 Shirley Road. By
contrast, the directory for 1939 shows no occupant at the latter, with Charles Joseph Watson at the former.