The early history of Kings Heath by Ivor Davies
Little is known of the area before the late 18th
century. A few earlier references mention land adjacent to it but tell us
nothing about Kings Heath itself. However, in the 18th century, it would
certainly still have been entirely rural and sparsely populated, with a number
of farms and the dwellings, probably mostly isolated, of those who worked on
the land. A large expanse of common and heath stretched across the later High
Street and Alcester Road South. There was no village or hamlet.
After the Norman Conquest, Kings Norton,
Moseley and Kings Heath were all in the Royal Manor and parish of
Bromsgrove hence the name, the Kings Heath. By the 13th century,
Kings Norton had become a separate Royal Manor and a virtually
independent parish, although owing nominal allegiance to Bromsgrove Church.
Only in 1846 was the link finally severed
In 1564 Queen Elizabeth sold the manor of
Bromsgrove but kept Kings Norton as a Royal Manor and parish, which
included Kings Heath as part of the Moseley Yield, one of four divisions
for tax purposes. Moseley was a village long before Kings Heath began to
grow but there has always been a close relationship between them, so that, even
today, it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins.
Kings Heath is between 3 and 4 miles from
Birmingham and this proximity ultimately decided its long term future. More
immediately, it was one of the causes of its growth from the late 18th century
A track-way ran across the heath which gave
Worcestershire farmers access to Birmingham markets. It was said that 80
packhorses daily carried produce from Evesham to Birmingham in the 18th century
and cattle and sheep would also have been driven along the road.
Birminghams population began to rise in the second half of the century
resulting in an increased demand for food. This would have brought more traffic
across the heath.
It would have been hard going on the road,
particularly in winter, as there was probably little maintenance carried out.
Manors had gradually lost their authority, so in 1555 Queen Mary established
the parish as the unit of local government. The church vestry was to be
responsible for certain secular duties, one of which was the upkeep of the
parochial roads. This depended on forced, unpaid labour, so the task was
unlikely to have been done well on a regular basis.
Already, during the turnpike mania
(1751-72), which finally created a dense network of turnpike roads, an Act of
Parliament of 1767 had put the road from Spernal Ash to Digbeth, via the
Kings Heath, in the care of a turnpike trust to maintain and to improve
it. The cost was met by charging tolls to traffic and gates were set up at
intervals for this purpose. It is doubtful if turnpiking the road had more than
a marginal effect on the increase in traffic, though it did eventually make the
journey easier. The main cause, however, was Birminghams burgeoning
population, which expanded enormously in the next one hundred years, from about
70,000 in 1801 to 522,000 in 1901.
Improvement to the road seems to have been slow.
In 1781 it was criticised as being too narrow and it was only some time in the
early 19th century that it was straightened and the surface made more durable.
By 1840 it was said to be improving.
The increasing traffic helped to promote
development along the road on both sides of the present High Street. The first
inn, the Cross Guns, dates from the late 18th century. It was made by
converting two cottages, in 1792 according to a sign displayed on the front of
the building. A pear tree growing outside predated the conversion and gave the
pub its local name. A much bigger building replaced it in 1897. The Hare and
Hounds followed between 1824 and 1828, while the Kings Arms at Alcester
Lanes End was formed by joining a cottage and a shop by 1795.
There is no definite record of what other
services were available before 1841 but it is reasonable to assume that there
would have been a smithy early on and, perhaps, a wheelwright. Thomas Adams,
wheelwright, is recorded in Kings Heath in 1802. There may also have been
a few shops, particularly in view of an event which took place a few years
after the road was turnpiked.
In 1772, an Act was passed for dividing and
inclosing the Commons and Waste Lands within the Manor and Parish of
Kings Norton in the County of Worcester. The award of 1774 benefited the
larger landowners most and resulted in the formation of a number of fairly big
estates on which substantial houses were later built, probably in the 1790-1820
period. Additional farm land was also brought into use.
The changes namely, the growth of
Birmingham, improvements to the road and the enclosures must have led to
an increase in jobs in the area for example, servants and estate workers
for the big houses and a demand for facilities to satisfy the needs of
the increasing population.
Unfortunately, no plan of the 1774 awards is
extant and the first firm record we have of the physical development of
Kings Heath is the map of 1840 made in connection with the 1836 Tithe
Commutation Act, which abolished tithes in kind and substituted a money
This map shows the presence of a small village
along the present High Street and some buildings on two side roads
Silver Street and Poplar Road. There was a farm (Church Farm) on the turnpike
road, on what is now the Sainsburys site, with a few cottages opposite. A
number of big houses are also shown, two of them, the Grange and Kingsfield,
adjacent to the road, with driveways leading on to it. There is little else
before Alcester Lanes End and Kings Heath is still a predominantly rural
However, the map shows another feature which
gave a further impetus to growth. In 1840, the Birmingham and Gloucester
Railway passed through Kings Heath and a station called Moseley
until 1867 was opened there. Birmingham was now less than
half-an-hours train ride away and this easy access to the town helped to
promote the more rapid expansion of Kings Heath in the second half of the
It is easy to trace the changes on the ground in
the next 40 years or so if we compare the 1840 map with the First Edition 25
inch Ordnance Survey Map of 1884. Most of the High Street is now built up,
together with Silver Street and Poplar Road. There are new roads
Valentine, Middleton and Albert. Development has begun to move out from the
High Street with house building on Vicarage and Avenue Roads and along the
turnpike road beyond Wheelers Lane towards Alcester Lanes End.
It is easy to see the physical growth of
Kings Heath from the map but it is harder to appreciate the changes in
life style which went with the expansion on the ground. Most people who lived
in the Kings Heath of 1840 were still engaged in agriculture or small
handicrafts, or were providing for the basic needs of those who were. By 1884,
this was no longer true.
Fortunately, some record of the changes is
provided in the trade directories which become available at this time.
Bentleys History, Gazetteer, Directory and Statistics of Worcestershire
in 1841 give the first mention of Kings Heath in its Kings Norton
section. It lists some of the local inhabitants with their occupations.
Between them, they cover a range of basic
necessities of a small community which is beginning to grow. There are two
grocers and a baker; two boot and shoe makers; a blacksmith and a mason; a
grocer/farmer/butcher and a farmer/cooper; two beer sellers and three
victuallers; a fire iron maker; a police officer and a railway official; a rope
spinner and a manufacturing chemist, who must surely have plied their trades
elsewhere, and a number of farmers.
During the next 40 years or so, services
increase greatly in both numbers and variety. A count of entries in the
commercial sections of directories gives some indication of the speed of
change. The 1854 Post Office Directory has only 18 entries in a separate
Kings Heath list, farmers still being included in Kings Norton. In
1856 there are 39; in 1868 46; in 1871 61; the 1880 (now
Kellys) directory gives 88; while 1884 has 112 entries.
Besides giving the number and variety of
services, directories also tell us approximately when they first became
available. A chemist, for example, is listed in 1867 and a doctor in 1883.
Earlier entries show provision chiefly for every day needs like food and
clothing but the later ones point to a changing life style. In 1868, 2
haberdashers, a dressmaker and a tailor are included; in 1871 a newsagent; in
1876 a laundry; in 1878, a bookseller; 1882 has two gas fitters and a piano
tuner, while in 1884 there are a house decorator, sewing machine agent and two
coffee houses. Surprisingly, perhaps, a sub-post office first appears as early
As previously noted, Birmingham was growing
rapidly in the 19th Century and great pressure on housing led to expansion into
the countryside. During its growth, Kings Heath managed to avoid the
worst aspects of Birminghams own the squalid back-to-backs,
defective sanitation and polluted water. It came to be known as a healthy spot
in which to live and, even before being formally annexed to the City was by the
end of the century, well on the way to becoming a dormitory suburb where people
could live and travel into town to work.
It developed uniform rows of terraces with
larger houses for the better off. In 1871, there were 410 houses and a
population of nearly 2,000. By 1891, both figures had more than doubled to 940
and 4,610. In 1901, the population was 10,078.
During the last decade of the 19th Century,
estates at each end of the High Street were taken over for housing. Addison,
Drayton and Goldsmith Roads were built on land from the Alcester Road Estate
(Kingsfield) in 1890, while at the bottom of Kings Heath, the Birmingham
Freehold Land Society purchased the Grange Estate in 1895 and seven new roads
were laid out. As farming decreased in importance, the inhabitants became a
mixture of business, industrial and professional middle class, together with
artisans, many of whom worked in Birmingham.
Meanwhile, necessary changes had taken place to
fit Kings Heath for its new role. Various institutions suitable to a town
or, as it turned out, a suburb were in place by 1900. Pubs have already been
mentioned and, in the 19th Century, churches were also established. The
Baptists were first with a church in 1815, rebuilt in 1872 and 1898, on its
present site in the High Street. All Saints Church followed in 1860 and was
given its own parish in 1863, while in 1887 a Methodist Church was erected in
Cambridge Road. There was also a corrugated iron Catholic Church in Station
Road in 1896.
Law and order was not neglected either. The
first police station was on the corner of the future York Road, next to the
Hare and Hounds, in the 1820s and later moved to Balaclava Road in the 1850s.
From 1852, the Magistrates Court sat in a room upstairs at the Cross
Guns. In 1893, a new police station and court house were built on a site near
There was a brewery, dating from 1831, behind
the Cross Guns, where the licensees brewed their own beer, but it barely
outlasted the century before being sold off to Birmingham Breweries and closed.
After the 1870 Education Act, local boards were
set up to build and run state schools in areas without adequate voluntary
provision. The first such school in Kings Heath was erected in 1878 at
the corner of the future Institute Road. This was not the first such school in
Kings Heath, however. A schoolroom, connected with Moseley Church School,
had been located at the site of the later All Saints Church in 1856 but closed
for lack of finance in 1876.
On the corner opposite the Board School, the
Kings Heath and Moseley Institute was opened in 1879. This was a
middle-class venture in entertainment and education. The Institute arranged
lectures, plays and musical shows. Evening classes were held at a small private
school opened to prepare fee paying pupils for grammar school. It had a
library, reading room, coffee room and gym. A workingmens club occupied
the basement. There were facilities for private parties, dances and meetings of
local organisations, of which there were a considerable number at this time.
A horse omnibus from Birmingham to Kings
Heath was operating in 1851 but services were infrequent and interrupted.
Although buses were still certainly running to Alcester Lanes End as late as
1885, the advent of the trams probably killed them off. A steam tram service to
and from town began in 1887. The route terminated at All Saints Church and
there was a depot in Silver Street. A short distance further along that street
a volunteer fire brigade started in 1886. Whilst on the high Street the London
and Midland Bank opened an imposing building in 1898.
As most of the changes already described were in
or around the High Street, it is surprising that it is not quite clear when the
name was officially adopted for that part of the Alcester Road between
Queensbridge and Vicarage Road. It first appears in the Kellys 1888
directory for a single entry. By 1895 it is in general use in the listings.
However, it was probably current locally well before the first date. Previous
directories assigned relevant entries to Alcester Road. South was added to the
latter in the early 1920s to distinguish it from Moseleys road of the
Other changes beyond Kings Heaths
control ultimately settled its future. A Local Government Act of 1894 created
civil parishes with elected councils, Kings Norton became a Rural
District Council, of which Kings Heath was a ward returning two
Just four years later the civil parishes of
Kings Norton, Northfield and Beoley were amalgamated as the Kings
Norton and Northfield Urban District Council with greater powers than the
parish councils. By this time, Moseley and Kings Heath were the most
populous part of the new authority and there was some local agitation for
independence, but to no avail. Little more than a decade later, the Urban
District was absorbed by Birmingham.
Tithe map 0f 1840 showing