Aston Manor 1870 - 1911
By John Niblett
How many thousands of individuals have driven down the A38(M) and, as they have sped along glanced at Villa Park? Indeed as they hurtle past on their way to the City of Birmingham how many have ever given a thought to what was there before this huge structure was erected? Again, how many have driven through Aston, past the rows of semi detached houses and the park and looked at the imposing edifice which is Aston Hall and wondered what it was like in the old days? Again how many who have actually enjoyed a visit to the Hall on one of its open days might have pondered what went on, if anything, in the parkland in years gone by? In fact how many would know that the very area that Villa Park, Aston Hall and its surrounding parkland stand was once in a location that was known as Aston Manor!!
Of course many people might be able to say that they know all about the area. Those who have visited the Hall might well be conversant with the stories that are attached to it, the tale of murder and its battle scars, whilst others might be able, as fans of football to relate all about the exploits of Aston Villa FC and its place within the history of the game in this country. However, there is much more to the area that was Aston Manor than is generally appreciated. For, as much as the events that are connected to the magnificent Hall and to Villa Park are important they only form a part of the story. The area that carried the title of Aston Manor from Norman times until 1911 has a history that is as interesting and as varied as many other better known locations. Yet, it is perhaps within the period that is to be considered that Aston Manor made its greatest contribution to both local and national social history, one that perhaps sets it apart from the vast majority of locations within the British Isles.
Aston Manor, during this period was an integral element of the County of Warwickshire and stood proud and defiant as an independent entity against the expansionism of the dominant force of the then town, later City of Birmingham. Though in the November of 1911 it finally became, as it is today an element of a Greater Birmingham it was not before it had provided an immense contribution, not only to the recreational landscape of the area but, in a very real sense the national. That such a small area, it never up to 1911 had a population of over 100,000, could make such a colossal input into the world of recreation perhaps makes it almost unique. It is therefore the intention here to provide an insight into the developments that occurred in the area that once carried the proud name of Aston Manor, Warwickshire.
The period of time chosen for consideration, 1870-1911 has been selected not simply because of convenience. Rather, it is because it was from the years around 1870 that the Victorian era began to witness the development of a recreational movement that was to encompass its society which has come to form the basis of much of what we enjoy today. However, though this was a national movement the effects were, in regards to Aston Manor, if not unique then certainly dramatic and far reaching in their results. Though located adjacent to the expanding and influential Birmingham, Aston Manor developed a recreational identity that was, in many ways far more sophisticated and diverse than its larger neighbour. That it could boast of a large entertainment area, a nationally renowned football club, a still revered athletics club, a public swimming facility that stood at least as equal to anything in the area and a theatre that developed into one of the most renowned in the country is tribute to its vitality.
It is not, however, the intention of this study to simply dwell on these, the most obvious reflections of recreational development in the area. Essential as they are, they do not tell the whole picture. For certainly, in common with many other towns and villages Aston Manor enjoyed particularly well founded recreational locations and pursuits, the public house being the most prominent. Though time honoured and already well established this work will illustrate that they and other elements added to the variety available recreationally in the area and developed new characteristics to meet the increasingly diverse demands of the population. Importantly it is also essential to recognise that this examination is not simply concerned with the individual. Though the ‘individual’ is the one that makes the choice to participate within a pastime or recreation it is when he or she bands together with others of the same ilk that the greatest influence is made, a factor which will be clearly indicated in relation to the forming of clubs and associations.
The intention is not however to examine the recreational development of Aston Manor ‘warts and all’. To do this would certainly result on an emphasis on repetition, an example being that one bazaar is very much like any other. The aim therefore is a more general approach, one that will give to the reader an overall appreciation of what developed and was enjoyed in the area. Within this approach the matter of gender is also considered. The stance taken in regards to participation is effectively homogenous, providing for a ‘neutral’ approach. However, though it is clearly appreciated that, in general terms the female during the earlier years of the period was fundamentally excluded it is not to say progress was not made in regards to her participation, particularly within the areas of swimming and cycling. Nevertheless it must be acknowledged that her emergence fully into the world of recreation belongs to a later period. Given these general outlines the work, so as to give a sense of continuity is presented via eight chapters, each providing a different facet to the discussion.
Chapter 1; A Brief History of Aston and Aston Manor. Within this chapter is given a very brief description of the area through the passage of time from the Norman Conquest until the time of annexation. Within this section consideration in regards to the Holte family and the proceedings that led to the final absorption of the Manor by her larger neighbour, Birmingham are made.
Chapter 2: Time to Enjoy. This part of the work is concerned, again via a general approach with the attainment of the shorter working week/half day Saturday holiday. As will be indicated within this short chapter it was the gaining of extra non-working hours that both provided the impetus for the development of new recreational forms and the ability to participate. The general approach here is to consider Aston Manor within the developments that emerged as a result of the wider campaign.
Chapter 3: The Tavern and Anti-Social Behaviour. Within this element of the work will be discussed the role of this particular influential location. As will be indicated they not only continued to sustain their natural role, as a centre for social gathering but also as a location which assisted the development of new aspects of recreational opportunities. Additionally, what we now term as ‘anti-social behaviour’ will also be considered. Here the pleasure of the wager, the behaviour of youth and the effects of drink, amongst other items are examined, indicating perhaps that, in reality little fundamentally changes!!
Chapter 4: The Church and School: Within this particular chapter these locations are presented as being fundamental in the presence and development of what might be considered ‘respectable recreation’. In regards to the church its actions will be implied as being prompted by the revivalism that resulted from the holding of the religious census of 1851. As for the school, after it’s cementing into the social fabric of Aston Manor via the 1871 The Education Act, it will be shown to have had an involvement that was of immense value to the development of what might have been, at the time considered decent and edifying recreation.
Chapter 5: A New World: Aston Park and Aston Lower Grounds. Here will be considered the forming, consolidation and eventual demise of perhaps the most vital recreational development that occurred within Aston Manor, the forming of what we now know as Aston Park., This area which was in fact an element of the grounds of Aston Hall was the location for much that occurred during our period of interest. It was this facility, formed as it was via a national movement towards the establishing of public open spaces for the masses that allowed many of the local population to enjoy a modicum of recreation and provided the location for the site that was known as The Aston Lower Grounds. It was this, which can be perceived as being recreationally speaking the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Aston Manor. For it is here that a commercially inspired entertainment centre was established, one that, for most of our period of interest provided often spectacular amusement. Perhaps reflecting the innovation that made the Victorian era so special it presented not only imaginative buildings but wild animals, tight rope walkers, intrepid balloonists and much much more, often drawing in vast crowds.
Chapter 6: The Grand Event. Here will be examined the large scale events that were enacted upon the Lower Grounds and park site during our period of interest. Many of these were of such a nature that they would not to have been out of place, for example in the Vauxhall Gardens and Crystal Palace establishments in London. Within this element will also be considered events that actually occurred prior to 1870, and which can be identified as being important in the development of recreation in the area.
Chapter 7: Breaking Out. Here the emphasis is on what might be identified as the movement towards recreational independence by the working class of the area. The discussion here will centre of the introduction of sporting activity along with the multitude of other pastimes, such as horticulture that emerged as popular during the period, as well as the development of organisations devoted to the young, ie the scout movement and school sports. Inherent within the discussion here is the implication that recreation began to move towards commercialism, with the participant being either a spectator or competitor and that the respectable middle classes had, in some ways failed in their bid to control the masses.
Chapter 8: Breaking Out – Continued. This final chapter is simply a continuance of the one previous. Here the discussion centres of activities that continued the trend towards independence by the masses. Additionally, from within the activities of cycling and swimming will be considered the advance of the female perhaps, for the first time into the mainstream of recreational participation. Attention will also be drawn to the less appreciated recreational forms that were popular at the time, such as shooting, bowls and the formation of early working men clubs.
Finally, so as to provide the reader with a greater overall impression and understanding of the area appendices are provided. These are intended both to indicate the nature and extent of participation in particular activities as well as provide additional information not possible from within a footnote. It has to be appreciated though, in regards to the various club and societies mentioned that they must be seen, despite the effort made to provide an accurate as possible a picture, as simply general indicators of activity. The unavoidable fact is that the local press often as not, as the period progressed tended to ignore the activities of the smaller clubs and societies, perhaps due to no more a basic reason than a lack of column inches. The result was that much went unrecorded, a fact that can be appreciated when examining, for example the latter years of appendices vi and vii. Nevertheless what is presented is, as far as can be ascertained a reasonable reflection of activity within Aston Manor.
To draw the work to a conclusion there is a bibliography which, it is hoped will provide guidelines for anyone who might wish to further his or her knowledge. Additionally, throughout there are also provided illustrations, which it is hoped will add flesh to descriptions provided of the many forms of recreational enjoyment that took place in Aston Manor.
It might be thought however that there has been an over emphasis on sport. Though it cannot be denied that it is central to the discussion here it has been, hopefully, not at the cost of other areas. Though an overall appreciation of recreational development has been attempted it has to be appreciated that within the late Victorian age sport exploded into a multitude of facets and directions. However, as this work hopefully indicates it is appreciated that it was only one element within the advance of recreation during our period of interest.
It is sincerely hoped that this work will illustrate that the area of Aston Manor was not, recreationally speaking simply a small location adjoining a larger and more dominant area. Though, if not totally unique it certainly seems that there cannot have been too many locations which came to enjoy such a vibrant and active recreational identity. It is therefore hoped that some of what is recorded will surprise those who know the area and for those who don’t inspire them to examine the location further. Though it is the purpose of this work to indicate, recreationally speaking what was available during the period circa 1870 - 1911 it is also to perhaps introduce the area to those who were unaware of its existence and, for those who were to illustrate that there was a lot more to it than might be imagined.
A. Davidson, A History of The Holtes of Aston, Baronets, Birmingham: E. Everitt,