Handsworth Stories

Heathfield Road betrays its original status in its name, just as Birchfield Road does, since the former describes the landscape as it was when the latter-named road was merely the only track from the village of Handsworth to the road which ran through the birch-wooded area half-way between Aston and Perry Barr.

The whole area in between these three points was wild countryside, then considered totally unsuitable even for farming. Heathfield was simply a large area of common land, a heath, or an open flat waste tract of land, partially covered with shrubs. Until the passing of the Enclosure Act this had all been common land, collectively held by the community.

Then Matthew Boulton started expanding what was arguably the first true factory (the word used then was a “manufactory”) in the world, at Soho, or what today would be called Hockley. He Invited the Scottish engineer, James Watt (born in Greenock in 1736) to work with him in partnership at the Soho factory making many products for sale. Watt would go on to have a hall built for him on land that is a relatively short distance from the factory. (See featured image depicting Heathfield Hall in 1865.)

Watt, who is credited by history with having already designed the first effective steam engines with serious industrial application, was born on January 19, 1736, in Greenock, Scotland. He worked as a mathematical-instrument maker from the age of 19 and soon became interested in improving the steam engines, which were used at the time to pump water from mines. Having determined the properties of steam, especially the relation of its density to its temperature and pressure, Watt designed a separate condensing chamber for the steam engine. This prevented enormous losses of steam in the cylinder and enhanced the vacuum conditions. Watt’s first patent, in 1769, covered this device and other improvements on earlier designs. 

Watt had been the partner of John Roebuck, who had financed his researches but, in 1775, Matthew Boulton, owner of the Soho Manufactory in Handsworth took over Roebuck’s investment. Watt continued his researches at Heathfield Hall and patented several other important inventions, including the rotary engine for driving various types of machinery; the double-action engine, in which steam is admitted alternately into both ends of the cylinder; and the steam indicator, which records the steam pressure in the engine. He retired from Boulton’s firm in 1800 and thereafter devoted himself entirely to research work. Watt was also a renowned civil engineer, making several surveys of canal routes. He invented, in 1767, an attachment that adapted telescopes for use in measurement of distances and it was he who coined the term horsepower. The electrical unit, the watt, was later named in his honour.

But making steam engines for use in pumping water out of mines was the main reason Boulton wanted Watt, who held the patent of his own particular design and, after he had secured a 25 year extension of his earlier 1769 patent, entered partnership with Boulton in 1775 and looked for somewhere where he could live in the style to which the funds he was making from this enterprise would match. 

In 1789, on the empty space then known as Handsworth Heath, Watt had a spacious hall built under the direction of the architect Samuel Wyatt, The site of this is halfway up today’s Brecon Road, where a private bowls club was situated for most of the 20th century. Burnt down in the Noughties, the land was sold for redevelopment and new homes crammed into the space. In contrast with this later despoliation, Watt’s Hall was well appointed, with a countrified view across and down the valley in which Soho nestled. Also, it was only twenty minutes’ walk across the countryside, or a short carriage ride to the Soho manufactory.

Taking advantage of the Enclosure Act, which previously “enclosed” the heath, Watt acquired 40 acres of land around the Hall and had it planted and laid out as a great park, as such things were then understood, should be. This was roughly the triangular area bounded by today’s Heathfield Road, Hampstead Road and Church Hill Road. Within it, a walled garden was built, with stables, outhouses and a couple of lodges erected.

Pav = pavilion, the site of Watt’s house.

The position of today’s Brecon Road was originally the main driveway to the Hall for delivery carriages and its straightness and width, so attractive to learner drivers and rat-runners today, is testament to that fact! A scenic driveway though the estate began at Hampstead Road and meandered along what is today Radnor Road and North Drive. A large pond was created at what is now the comer of Gibson Road and Brecon Road, the legacy of which today is possibly the occasional spring sighting of breeding frogs in many of the gardens of the area. The lodge was situated in what is now Radnor Road.

Watt began living at Heathfield Hall as soon as he was able in 1791 and stayed there until he died there in August 1819 at the grand old age of 84.  He was buried in Handsworth Parish Church, where Matthew Boulton had already been interred. The church has head and shoulder busts of both men. 

The hall also housed his personal workshop, which in 1924 was transferred lock, stock and barrel to the Science Museum at South Kensington in London, where it can still be seen as it was the day Watt died. 

By Beatrice Bullock

The workshop was kept as a “relic room” all during the stewardship of subsequent owners. Half-formed, machined mother of pearl buttons and buckles have been found in some quantity in acnearby garden, along with examples of the shells which provided the raw material. These appear to be creatures from the Indian Ocean – there are identical examples in the Natural History section of Birmingham Museum.

The shell samples found would seem to be ones poor from the point of view of machining, being particularly horny or hard. The thought is raised that these might be off-cuts and waste from an experimental button making machine, since it is well known that the Soho factory was involved In the manufacture of such objects and that the site would have been only a few yards from the side of the house. (There again they could have come from elsewhere and have been buried into the soil a few decades ago to provide calcium. But, if that was the intention, it was a forlorn hope since there is no sign of any degradation in the material.)

Watt’s workshop was in a garret on the south side, facing at a slight angle today’s Brecon Road, on the second floor over the kitchen; its sole window overlooked the back yard, This workshop has been the subject of much detailed description and study – plans, drawings and lengthy accounts of it are to be found in several 19th century books.

Watt died at his home Heathfield House, Handsworth on August 19, 1819. After Watt’s death, his son James Watt Junior used the Hall for a while, but it lay empty for some time after his death in 1848. This was when the Soho manufactory was abandoned, later being demolished in 1862-3. However, George Tangye lived at the Hall for forty years until his death in 1920. He was the Chairman of Tangye’s, the machine tool manufacturing family firm, which was based at the Cornwall Works in Smethwick, near to the Boulton-Watt foundry. Tangye’s tenure was perhaps under a lease arrangement, since the owner in 1924 who presented the contents of Watt’s garret to the nation was Major J M Gibson Watt, Watts great-grandson.

He was no doubt the person after whom Gibson Road, which unites Hampstead Road with Church Hill Road, was named. Whilst on the subject of street names, it may not be idle speculation to consider that Brecon Road and Radnor Road, being Welsh place names, may reflect the Welsh properties owned by Watt and his subsequent heirs, which were probably being disposed of at the same time as Heathfield. It must surely be a disgrace that Watt himself was not honoured in any such way until the 1980s, with the naming of a new close that broke into the remnants of the old Halls’ grounds.


Perhaps, back in the early days of street-naming, Watt’s descendants felt conscious that they were breaking up this great man’s memories, merely for financial gain, and felt reticent about mentioning him? In 1985-6 developers began the process of building three floor blocks of flats in the sole remains of Heathfield Park, a green sliver between Brecon Road and North Drive. Fortunately, residents were able to partially stop the development, but only to the extent of enforcing the construction of bungalows, except on Heathfield Road itself.

The perpetual legal covenants, restraining building and development with the aim of maintaining the semi-rural character of Heathfield Park, which Watt’s descendants had insisted upon when selling property had been ignored by the developers and the local authority. But residents belatedly realised the power of the covenants, which they had hitherto seen as historical quirks. Even so, it was the end of Watt’s sylvan glades and, perhaps to make amends, the shame-faced developers suggested to the council the name of James Watt Drive, the cul-de-sac off Heathfield Road. 

It had been the end of a long process of chipping away at the estate. From as early as May 1874 Heathfield Park gradually began to be parcelled into lots for building purposes. From 1879, what is now Brecon Road, was given a name, since it began to be used as a short-cut to Church Hill Road and Hampstead Road from the Lozells area. Tangye had begun to reside at the Hall and it may be that other, less wealthy tenants needed to be assured of rights of way. The name – “Petty Road”- is not very suggestive of any origin, unless it is somehow indicative of the fact that the public were allowed, or ‘let’, access and that this was a minor concession to rights. Or perhaps it simply means “Unimportant Access Road” to the estate, which is surely was? It is interesting that Radnor Road had once been seen as the salubrious entrance, is now a seen as socially rather off-colour, whilst Brecon Road, the tradesmen’s entrance now features as the main and, most important, road through Heathfield Park! 

For a few years after Tangye’s death the Hall lay deserted until it was eventually demolished in 1927 and the grounds sold off to building developers. However, the estate, known by the postal district of Heathfield Park, as mentioned, was subject to strict covenants by the sellers of the Watt estate, acting for descendants living in America. (Until 1912 Handsworth was separate from Birmingham, having its own Urban District Council and, strange as it seems, all the way from when Watt had the heath developed until 1972 Heathfield Park was in Staffordshire.) There was to be individual and tasteful building of homes and strict rules to prevent business activity were imposed of purchasers unto perpetuity. All to preserve some feel of the grandness and rural nature of the original estate. 

The Hall in 1880

Some housing had begun to spread sporadically along both sides of Heathfield Road in the late 1860s and 1870s and of course all around, to the south in Lozells, to the north in Birchfield, and to the east in Aston, terraced housing was being built for relatively prosperous skilled workers and their families to own. Hampstead Road and Heathfield Road saw the building of occasional rather grander houses for small business men and those who worked in the professions, the upper middle class. 

Towards the end of the 19th century more commercial activity can be noticed. Around 1904, St George’s Presbyterian Church was built on the corner of Brecon Road and Heathfield Road. Presbyterianism, now merged within the United Reform Church, took its ideas from the Church of Scotland, in that it was based upon an elected government of “elders” of equal status, rather than priestly control. The local United Reform Church, which opened when St George’s closed, is now in a side road off Wellington Road. Today, St George’s has been refurbished and restructured into the Shri Geeta Bhawan, a Hindu Temple, the first of its kind in the Midlands, being opened in 1967. 

Brecon Road was first called such sometime between 1904 and 1917, it has been difficult to pin down an exact date. But there were as yet no houses. Building began on Heathfield Park In 1923, initially on North Drive. The east side of Brecon Road was built on first, that is to say the odd numbers. Initially, only a very few, very large homes were constructed and none were given numbers, only names! By 1930, the east side was complete and houses began to appear on the west side (the even numbers). There had been only one or two houses at the far ends on the west side during the 1920s, but by about 1934-5 most of Brecon Road was constructed more or less as it is today. What became Brecon Road Bowling Club was in fact originally a tennis club, founded in the early 1920s. 

The title for the longest residency in the road probably lies with Alfred and Eileen Crane – who lived at No 20 Brecon Road until about 1995 and were first listed in directories as being resident in 1933, a total of 62 years residency. Only a handful of houses were in existence on the west side, Charles Burrows was the first owner of 22, Brecon Road, from 1934 to 1&38, Percy Fairbrother followed him; then Ronald Walker with his wife Doris and children, Isabel and Alice, were at No 22 from 1961 to 1979, although Alice left in the mid-sixties.

1901 Heathfield Hall: a lightening conductor erected by Watt is isolated by means of a flint chipping used as a non conductor

In the meantime Heathfield Road itself was undergoing a big change, becoming decidedly more commercial rather than residential in character. Heathfield Maternity Hospital, later the City of Birmingham Maternity Home, was at No 134 Heathfield Road. At first a private concern, opening in around 1916, the premises were listed coyly as being occupied by a Miss Axten and later by a Mrs Gostling. In 1919, rather more boldly, it listed itself as the “Association for the Rescue and Training of Young Women” and Miss Axten was described as “Matron”. 

It seems fairly certain that a private house was being used by philanthropists as a maternity hospital for young, unmarried mothers. Such a creature at that time was a matter of considerable social disgrace, especially if the father had deserted the mother before birth and was refusing to marry her. The timing of the opening of the centre is also suggestive of this, being in the middle of the First World War, when social cohesion was, to say the least, somewhat affected by the massive numbers of young men called up for military service and the staggering numbers of casualties and deaths on the Western Front The temptation to comfort a young man on his way to front being great, it is certain that there would have been significant numbers of young women in Birmingham deserted for one reason or another in this mayhem. It is likely that the same function arose during the the Second World War also.

But with the advent of the NHS, the maternity home eventually came into the ownership of the Birmingham Health Authority from 1953 until it closed, on 29 June 1968. The closure arose only because more modern facilities had become available at Good Hope Hospital, Sutton Coldfield, and at Dudley Road Hospital, Winson Green. There were still some one thousand or so births a year right up until closure. [Birmingham Mail 29 June 1968]. 

The only remains of the hospital are the bricked up fireplaces along the red brick wall that divides the school to the row of buildings next door. Next to the maternity home, and a building still there at number 136, for most of the 20th century was always a childrens’ outfitters, latterly Mary Meir’s, which was there for decades. That block of shops, between today’s Heathfield School and Finch Road, has always been a row of shops, back to the turn of the century. There has always been a tobacconists and/or newsagents and what are now take-away food shops were a grocers’ and a greengrocers’. On the other side of the maternity home was a doctor’s practice and on the sites of what are now the two schools, Heathfield and Mayfield, before these were built, were houses back to 1890 at least.

The oldest local school, Holy Trinity, so named after the nearest Established Church in Birchfield, was opened in Finch Road around 1830. The first master was Ernest Blakemore and the mistress was Miss Harrop. The school was in use continuously up to at least 1939-9. It is unclear what it was used for until it was clearly derelict by the late 1980s but its shell could still be seen in Finch Road, as it approaches Heathfield Road for the second time, nearer to the Birchfield Road end, up until around 2007 when it was finally demolished.

first written 1995, amended 2009.

The Hall in its heyday
A Christmas card of the Hall from the time of Tangye

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply