Handsworth History by Bill Dargue

Handsworth, Honesworde/ Hunesworde: first record in the Domesday Book 1086 Research by Bill Dargue

Although its name is Anglo-Saxon,Hune's worthmeaning 'Hune's farmstead', archaeological finds from much earlier times have been unearthed in Handsworth. Evidence of the Stone Age was found by Mrs James while gardening at her home in Queens Head Road. She unearthed a neolithic axe made of polished stone which had originated in Cornwall. Two hundred years previously, a bronze object had been discovered in Handsworth, and was described and illustrated by Robert Plot in his'Natural History of Staffordshire'of 1686. Plot, who is noted as the first person to describe prehistoric finds in his published writings, wrongly believed that it was a Roman catapult bolt. It is in fact a Bronze Age palstave, a spearhead so made that that the shaft would fit inside it, and a significant find.

By the time of William the Conqueror there may have been two manors of Handsworth, which were listed in 1086 as Honesworde and Hunesworde. These were originally Anglian settlements on sand and pebble soils, part of the kingdom of Mercia and later lying within the Offlow Hundred of south Staffordshire. There is reason to think that Victoria Park may be the site of the Anglo-Saxon manor house - Hune's farmstead? It lies adjacent to the church and the pinfold for stray livestock stood opposite on the site formerly occupied by the church school. During the 12th century the manor house transferred to Hamstead. The locations of Handsworth's medieval open fields are uncertain but they are likely to have lain west of the old manor house site at Heathfield Road and Birchfield Road, hence the origin of these streetnames.

The ancient parish of Handsworth was divided into two halves. The Perry Barr half lay on rising ground north-east of the River Tame. The southern part of Handsworth south-west of the river was confusingly known simply as Handsworth, and so was the hamlet around St Mary's Church.

In 1086 the overlordship of Handsworth is shown in the Domesday Book as one of the many holdings of William FitzAnsculf. Drew held the manor under William. The first reference after 1086 is to an under-tenant in 1212 when the manor was held by William de Parles. The records detail a protracted, intermittent and costly dispute of the ownership for over a hundred years, complicated by the fact that William's lands were declared forfeit for his support of the enemies of King Henry III, and the imprisonment by Roger de Somery of a later William de Parles who was subsequently hanged for felony.

The manor was then held by Roger de Somery and his successors, though there is evidence that the Wyrley family held part of the estate and the manor-house from the 13th century. The manor passed through many hands by inheritance or purchase until it was bought in 1679 by Humphrey Wyrley. He passed it to his son, also Humphrey, whose grandson John Wyrley Birch died in 1775 leaving it to George Birch and his wife Anne, the great grand-daughter of Humphrey Junior. In 1819 the Birch family moved to Norfolk and the manor was sold by George's son, Wyrley Birch to the Earl of Dartmouth of nearby Sandwell Park.

St Mary's Church.
The Watt chapel is the redder addition nearest the camera

Well worth a visit - Handsworth Church
The parish church of Handsworth is St Mary's, a Grade II* Listed building. First documented in the year 1200, it is certainly of earlier foundation. However, the oldest remaining part of the church is the lower part of the tower which is 12th-century; the upper tower was rebuilt in the 15th century.

To accommodate an expanding congregation major alterations and extensions were made in 1820 by the Birmingham architect, William Hollins who rebuilt the north aisle and added a north transept. Six years later the south-east chapel was added as a memorial to James Watt by Thomas Rickman, a pioneer architect of the Victorian gothic revival. Between 1876 and 1880 most of church was rebuilt in a 14th-century early English decorated style by Birmingham architect, JAChatwin whose accurate gothic can be seen in many fine Birmingham churches.

There are the tombs here of the lords of the manor, William Wyrley who died in 1561 and Thomas Wyrley who died in 1598. However, the church is best known for its monuments commemorating Birmingham's 18th-century industrial triumvirate of Boulton, Murdoch and Watt. The church has been dubbed'The Westminster Abbey of the Industrial Revolution'.

In the north aisle a bust of Boulton who died in 1809 is set in a neo-classical roundel above two cherubs, one holding a relief of his Soho Manufactory. William Murdock who died in 1839 is commemorated in the chancel by neo-classical marble bust which stands within a gothic arch above a tablet which also bears the names his sons. Alone in the Watt Chapel is Sir Francis Chantrey's 1825 marble statue of James Watt. The great engineer who died in 1819 is depicted seated, deep in thought and holding a pair of dividers on a large sheet of paper. The pedestal was carved by Birmingham sculptors, William and Peter Hollins in gothic style to match the chapel. A similar Chantrey statue of Watt can be seen in Westminster Abbey. See alsoSoho.

Among those laid to rest in the churchyard are Francis Eginton, the noted 19th-century stained glass maker of Soho Hill, as well the Handsworth forger, William Booth. Hanged at Stafford Jail for his crimes in 1812, he met his death only at the third attempt. Before 1701 the tower held only four bells. The fine ring of eight now in place were cast in 1955 by Taylor's foundry in Loughborough.

St Mary's Church.
Handsworth Town Hall - drawn 1940.
Grateful thanks
and acknowledgements for the use
of this image to E W Green,
Historic Buildings in
Pen & Ink -
The Work of William Albert Green.
See Acknowledgements.

By 1800 Handsworth had become a fashionable rural location for the wealthy of Birmingham and the Black Country. Here, close to their work via the turnpike but far from the smoke, they built here in some style: Heathfield House in a park between North Drive and West Drive, was a large Georgian-style house designed c1790 for James Watt who lived here until his death in 1819. William Murdock also had a neo-classical house built at Sycamore Hill in 1817, and Hawthorne House on Hamstead Hall Road was in 1841 the home of William Bullock whose iron foundry was in West Bromwich.

Take a look at Handsworth Grammar Schoolwhich was set up in 1862 by Handsworth Bridge Trust, who had accumulated more capital from tolls and investments than they could spend on bridge maintenance. (SeeHolford.) The Bridge Trust School, which originally had a hall and three classrooms for 59 pupils, became a grammar school in 1890. By 1914 there were 7 classes with two more in the hall. The building was enlarged in 1929 and again in 1951. The gothic front with its entrance, clock and bell turret were designed by George Bidlake of Wolverhampton. An outstanding architect he designed a good number of important Birmingham buildings many of which, like this one, which are now Listed buildings. The Bridge Trust was also responsible for setting up the Handsworth National School which was built next to St Mary's Church in 1812. The trustees provided girls with a set of clothes every year, boys every two years. The school was the forerunner of the present St Mary's Church of England Primary School.

Handsworth was an area of scattered farmsteads until the 19th century. There were small concentrations of cottages, barely big enough to be called hamlets, at Birchfield, Hamstead, Old Oscott, Perry, Queslett, and Newton End. Towards the end of the 18th century some large villas were built on Handsworth Heath and further building was stimulated with the enclosure of the heath in 1793. By 1840 the southern part of Handsworth parish roughly north of Soho Road and Lozells Road had developed into an upper middle-class a suburb much on a par with Edgbaston, though without the leasehold arrangements that were to preserve the latter's social standing.

Building development northwards was encouraged with the opening in 1837 of Perry Barr station on the Grand Junction Railway (Birmingham-Liverpool) and again after 1854 with the opening of Handsworth & Smethwick station on the Birmingham, Wolverhampton & Dudley Railway. By the end of the century the suburban area had reached northwards into Handsworth Wood, houses there being large and few to the acre.

South of the Holyhead/ Soho Road a much greater density of working-class housing was beginning to be developed. With an increasing population Handsworth Urban Sanitary Authority was set up in 1874. The district became an Urban District under the Local Government Act in 1888 which was amalgamated with the City of Birmingham in 1911.

The tollhouse at the junction of Hamstead Road and Villa Road.
Acknowledgements to Handsworth Historical Society for
their kind permission to use this image -
‘All Rights Reserved’.
See Acknowledgements for a link to their website.

Well worth a visit: Handsworth Old Town Hall

A rare medieval survival at the junction of Slack Lane and Oxhill Road is Handsworth Old Town Hall which dates from before 1500. It is a timber-framed building of three bays each divided by a cruck truss. Few examples survive in the Birmingham area of cruck-frames. The technique involved sawing a tree, usually oak, lengthways and leaning the two halves against each other to form an arch. This building served variously as a community meeting place, a village jail and a workhouse. In a poor state of repair and due for demolition, it was bought by the Birmingham Archaeological Society who modernised it to form two dwellings and who gave it to the City in 1947.

The Wednesbury Turnpike was set up in 1727 along the present Soho Road/ Holyhead Road. Largely a new road via existing villages, it left Birmingham from Bull Street and met its first tollgate at the bottom of Constitution Hill. Travelling down Hockley Hill to cross Hockley Brook and up Soho Hill another tollgate at Villa Road gave access to the present Holyhead Road. This was a vital busy route bringing coal from the Black Country to the iron furnaces of Birmingham. However, it traffic must have decreased dramatically with the opening of the Birmingham Canal to Wednesbury in 1769. In 1781 William Hutton noted of the road:

To Wolverhampton, thirteen miles, much improved since the coal-teams left it.

The road takes its present name from the London-Holyhead Mail Road set up after the 1801 Act of Union when further improvements were made to enable Irish MPs easier access to the port of Holyhead. Thomas Telford raised the road level across the valley of Hockley Brook and reduced the height of Soho Hill. A milestone has survived inscribed '111 miles from London. 3 miles from Birmingham. 10 miles from Wolverhampton' and is now in the grounds of St James's School nearby. The road was disturnpiked in 1870.

Although itwas thenonly a hamlet, the old village centre of Handsworth lay on the road to Walsall which was turnpiked in 1727 from Soho Hill along Hamstead Road, Handsworth Wood Road, Hamstead Hill, Old Walsall Road and Birmingham Road. Stagecoaches used this route from 1752. William Hutton was less impressed with this route:

The road to Walsall, ten miles, is rather below indifferent.

There was a tollgate and tollhouse at the junction of Hamstead Road and Villa Road. Tollgate Drive now commemorates the fact. This roadwas bypassed in 1831 by a more direct route, the New Walsall turnpike along Birchfield Road and Walsall Road. The gates here were removed in 1872 and the toll house was subsequently used as a girls' private school. The road was officially disturnpiked in 1879.

Handsworth Council House.
Image reproduced from Birmingham UK
in accordance with their copyright restrictions.
See Acknowledgeme3nts for a direct link to this website.

With the building of Handsworth Council Housein 1877 the Soho Road became the focus of the area. The population continued to grow, that of 1841 increasing five times by 1891. The chronology of the area's late 19th-century development is reflected in the dates of new Anglican churches and the creation of parishes out of the ancient parish. Most of these buildings now have Listed status.

St James' was built off the Soho Road in 1840 and was greatly enlarged in 1895, St Michael's on Soho Hill was consecrated in 1855, St Chrysostom's on Handsworth Park Road 1888 and St Peter's in Grove Lane 1907. On Oxhill Road St Andrew's, which was originally set up as a mission chapel in 1894, moved into Bidlake's new church building in 1908.

The dissenting population was served by host of non-conformist churches and chapels ranging from grand churches to corrugated iron chapels, including Union Row Wesleyan Chapel built in 1789 which later became a Congregational church and was Handsworth's first Sikh temple in 1972, Westminster Road Congregational Church 1882, Soho Hill Congregational Chapel 1892 and Somerset Road Wesleyan Chapel 1894. Not until 1939 was a Roman Catholic parish created here with the building of St Augustine's on Avenue Road. By 1906 Handsworth was largely built up; much of the remaining farmland was built over during the first quarter of the 20th century, and as the district became increasingly crowded, Handsworth became increasingly a working-class area.

Showell'sDictionary of Birminghamdescribed the district in 1888:

Till within the last thirty or forty years, Handsworth was little more than a pleasant country village, though now a well-populated suburb of Birmingham. After the erection of the once world-known, but now vanished Soho Works, by Matthew Boulton, a gradual change came o'er the scene; cultivated enclosures taking the place of the commons, enclosed in 1793; Boulton's park laid out, good roads made, water-courses cleared, and houses and mansions springing up on all sides, and so continuing on until now, when the parish (which includes Birchfield and Perry Barr) is nearly half covered with streets and houses, churches and chapels, alms-houses and stations, shops, offices, schools, and all the other necessary adjuncts to a populous and thriving community.

The Local Board Offices and Free Library, situate in Soho Road, were built in 1878, at a cost of £20,662, and it is a handsome pile of buildings. The library contains about 7,000 volumes. There is talk of erecting public swimming and other baths, and a faint whisper that recreation grounds are not far from view.

The north of Handsworth has wide areas of open space. Handsworth Cemetery was opened in 1909 by Handsworth Urban District Council; it became the responsibility of the City when Handsworth voted for amalgamation in 1911. Adjacent to the cemetery off Oxhill Road is a remarkable allotment site. There are many such in Birmingham, but this outstrips them all in size. Formed in 1948 at a time when wartime shortages of fresh produce were still very much in mind, the Uplands Allotments Association has grown to some 400 members and has a waiting list for plots. As well as native British plot holders, many have origins elsewhere in the world including the Caribbean, China, the Indian sub-continent, Poland and the Ukraine, many growing plants from their home countries.

There is also open parkland, a number of school and public playing fields, two golf courses and, just over the Birmingham boundary is Sandwell Valley Country Park and Bird Sanctuary where flocks of waterfowl can be seen. Regular visitors include gooseander, lapwing, little ringed plover, pochard, snipe, tufted ducks, whitethroat and wigeon.

Handsworth Heathwas an extension of Birmingham Heath north of Hockley Brook.

See alsoBrowns Green,Cherry Orchard,HamsteadandHandsworth Wood.

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