Birmingham house museums need you!
I am one of the expert house historian co-hosts for #HouseHistoryHour, a weekly focus on house history themes on Twitter (follow @HouseHistoryHr and come join in the chat and discussion every Thursday at 7pm!).
On 25 June 2020 we focused on the UK’s house museums, places which reveal how people lived in the past. Many have been struggling financially due to the Covid-19 lockdown situation and resultant temporary closures, and need our support now more than ever. Details of the many of house museums discussed have been collated by fabulous house history website Trace My House.
And so to Birmingham’s house museums…As I hail from Birmingham, I welcome any opportunity to shout about the area’s heritage, and happily Birmingham’s domestic built heritage has much to offer. Although many early buildings are long since gone, there are some wonderful survivals that can be visited, including medieval and Tudor timber-framed houses at Kings Norton, Bournville, and Yardley, an elegant red-brick Jacobean mansion in Aston, a fine Georgian residence in Handsworth, and Victorian back to backs in the city centre.
Here follows a brief twirl through these fantastic Birmingham house museums.
The back to backs in Hurst Street are rare survivals of Midlands back to back housing, and show the lives of working class people from the 1840s to the 1970s. Apparently over 500 different families lived here over the years; the stories of some of these families are told within, the designs of each room reflecting different cultures, faiths and professions of these former occupants. Visiting is an immersive and evocative experience.
St Nicolas Place, Kings Norton Green is a former Tudor merchant’s house which forms a group with the 15th century Old Grammar School and 13th century church of St Nicolas: ‘the finest collection of medieval buildings in Birmingham.’ The house was built in 1492 by successful local wool merchant Humphrey Rotsey and he lived there with his family for some years. In the 18th century part of the house was converted to an inn, the Saracen’s Head, and in 1930 the owners, Mitchell’s & Butler Brewery, gave the buildings to the parish to use as offices and a community centre.
By the end of the 20th century the building and Old Grammar School had fallen into disrepair, but in 2004 were the triumphant winners of the BBC’s Restoration programme. Following renovation and renaming, St Nicolas Place reopened in 2008. Tours are available- look out for original features including wattle and daub, and fine timbering.
Blakesley Hall, Yardley, is a timber-framed late Tudor house built in 1590 by prosperous local merchant Richard Smalbroke.
The interior has been created from a 17th century inventory and shows how a wealthy family and their servants lived in this period. Outside there is a lovely herb garden and orchard.
Selly Manor Museum comprises two historic houses, Selly Manor and Minworth Greaves. Selly Manor was originally located in Selly Oak, and was a high status medieval house known as Smyth’s Tenement. A slow decline from the end of the 17th century included its conversion into three dwellings known as The Rookery by the end of the 19th century, and it was subsequently abandoned. Intervention by George Cadbury probably saved it from demolition, and he had it removed to its present site.
Minworth Greaves, an impressive Grade II listed cruck-framed hall, dates from at least the 14th century. It originally stood in Sutton Coldfield and was relocated to the present site by Laurence Cadbury in 1932.
The site became a museum in 1916 and includes the fabulous Laurence Cadbury Collection of furniture and domestic objects.
Soho House in Handsworth is a Grade II* listed Georgian house, the home of industrialist and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton between 1766 and 1809. The Lunar Society regularly met here for discussions on science and philosophy; noted members included Erasmus Darwin, James Watt and Joseph Priestly.
Soho House has been restored to its 18th century appearance, and features a fine collection of silver and ormolu which were made in the nearby Soho manufactory. The garden is much smaller than its originally form, but part of it has been recreated using Boulton’s original planting notes.
Aston Hall is a magnificent Grade I listed 17th century red-brick Jacobean mansion set within lovely grounds. It was built between 1618 and 1635 for wealthy landowner Sir Thomas Holte; the Holte famly resided at Aston Hall for almost 200 years.
The house was part of Birmingham’s Civil War history, and was home to James Watt Junior between 1817 and 1848. The rooms have been restored to Jacobean grandeur and its long gallery is especially worth seeing. Interestingly, part of the extensive grounds became Villa Park!
Although not in Birmingham, the wonderful Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, and Avoncroft Museum in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire deserve an honorary mention- both have reconstructed houses to explore within their expansive grounds. Recommend taking a picnic to enjoy at Avoncroft, while the Black Country Living Museum has several historic food options. Fish ‘n’ chips is enduringly popular!