Note that the Lady Well is marked on the plan, a few yards from the future site of the Fox Inn. Another key feature on the 1553 plan is the water channel just to the south-east of the Roebuck Inn's future site. Cut from the Rea near Spring Street, this fed the manorial mill from which Mill Lane takes its name. Originally built to grind corn, the mill later produced sword blades for the Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War. This led to its destruction by Prince Rupert's forces when he attacked the town in 1643. It was rebuilt and later converted to a slitting mill by Sampson Lloyd, a descendent of a Quaker family from Leominster whose son would later co-found the famous Lloyds Bank in Birmingham.
Holme Park was a natural habitat of roebucks up until the 18th century. Thomas Hanson's 1778 plan shows how Holme Park had become something of a market garden for Birmingham in the late 18th century. However, the land to the south-west was still open fields. By this time the former Holme Park and surrounding area held by the Marrow family had been acquired by Thomas Sherlock, Bishop of London. He was something of a speculator and bought the land in 1730. The estate was later bequeathed to Sir Thomas Gooch of Benacre Hall, Suffolk.
The baronetcy of the Gooch family commenced in 1746 with William Gooch who was appointed Governor of Virginia in 1727. He was succeeded by his brother, Thomas, who was later Bishop of Ely and Norwich. He married Mary Sherlock, Thomas Sherlock's sister and, subsequently, the estate passed into the Gooch family. It was Sir Thomas Gooch, the third baronet, who started to develop the area, naming many of the streets after his family or parts of the country that were of significance to them - hence Gooch Street, Sherlock Street, Benacre Street and Suffolk Street. Hurst Street was first developed in the late 18th century. Gradual expansion down the road led to the laying out of Lower Hurst Street. The Gooch archive collection reveals that the first 99 year lease agreements for the newly-built properties in Lower Hurst Street date from 1834. The Roebuck is the only surviving Lower Hurst Street building from this period.
Featuring variety bills, the new venture was a success and was re-named the Hippodrome in 1903. A slump in fortunes saw the place close again but the theatre re-opened once more in 1910 when Fred Karno was on the bill. The theatre was back in the fold of the Draysey family in 1914 when they acquired the business. Another re-building programme was undertaken after the First World War but the venue hobbled along before being put up for auction. However, the asking price was never realised and in 1924 the Hippodrome was purchased by Moss Empires who invested £40,000 on a major refurbishment. It was the beginning of a successful forty year programme of shows. Everybody who was anybody appeared at the Hurst Street theatre over the years. The building has been radically altered since the mid-1960's but remains a key component of Birmingham's attractions.
The other major tourist attraction in Hurst Street can be seen on the left of this photograph which also has a view of the Hippodrome. The row of shops was not only saved from demolition, but they were also restored and opened as a museum. Why? Because the buildings form part of the last surviving back-to-backs in Birmingham. Now owned and operated by the National Trust, the back-to-backs are open to the public via guided tours - booking advisable. The properties fronting both Hurst Street and Inge Street were originally houses but were gradually opened as shops in the Victorian era. Separated from the front properties by a single brick wall, the houses to the rear formed Court 15 and, like thousands of similar housing developments throughout Birmingham, had shared facilities such as the yard, the privies and a brewhouse. Typically, the courts were owned by an individual who had built the houses and then collected the rent from the residents who moved in. In some cases, publicans and innkeepers were the landlords of a whole mini-community behind the boozer - see the Black Lion Inn for such an example.
The early landlords were, by and large, speculative builders who tended to lease the land from the private estates - here it was the Gooch Estate. Although not the case here on this particular corner of Hurst Street and Inge Street, many would find it easier to sub-let a corner public house and the funds would help to infill the spaces between the taverns with relatively cheap housing. The incoming residents could then enjoy their purpose-built community pub. It was toymaker John Wilmore who leased the plot on the corner of Inge Street from the Gooch Estate in 1789. At first, he only erected a few workshops but, as the numbers of people moving into Birmingham dramatically increased, he [and seemingly every other landowner] opted to utilise every inch of space available to maximise rent income. The first houses were erected in 1802 and more were squeezed into the plot so that by 1831 Court 15 was pretty much as we see it today. In the succeeding 200 years, it is estimated that some 500 different families have lived and worked in Court 15.
Court 15 was just one of some 20,000 similar housing developments in Birmingham so you can imagine the numbers of people that were crammed into the town. And the construction of the back-to-backs correlated with the population growth of Birmingham during the 19th century. At the beginning of the century there were some 70,000 inhabitants; at the end of Queen Victoria's reign there were more than half a million people living in the 'workshop of the world'. The incomers hailed from all over the country and, indeed, parts of Europe. In 1851, for example, steel toy filer Charles Nation had come from London via Gloucester and tailor Thomas Williams hailed from Denbighshire. One of the families featured in today's museum moved up from Wilmore's Court from London. Lawrence Levy was a descendant of a Jewish family from Poland. He and his wife Priscilla lived at No.28 Hurst Street in the corner of the plot forming Court 15.
A key motivation for the Levy's move to the corner of Hurst Street and Inge Street was that Jewish people had concentrated in this locality. A synagogue was erected in Hurst Street in 1791 before being replaced by others at Severn Street and Blucher Street. However, a Hebrew School opened in Lower Hurst Street as late as 1843. Working as a watchmaker, Lawrence Levy probably created a workshop on the upper floor of the house where greater light from the window could be enjoyed - there was no electricity in those days! The National Trust have re-created the working environment that Benjamin Levy would have utilised. The room, of course, doubled as a bedroom. Additional income would have been generated by taking in a lodger or two - with curtains forming the division between living space. Enjoying some success, the family moved to Coleshill Street and, later, Vyse Street where the business was continued by sons Morris and Emmanuel. Recorded as a watch manufacturer, Morris Levy later lived in Unett Street with his wife Pauline. Emmanuel meanwhile moved to Icknield Street with his mother and continued to operate as a gift watch manufacturer.
Another featured family of the National Trust back-to-backs are the Oldfield's. Herbert and Ann Oldfield moved to No.1 15 Court from 71 Hurst Street by the time of the 1871 census which records Herbert as a bead and glass toy maker. He manufactured glass eyes for stuffed animals, dolls and teddy bears. He probably extended this trade to the manufacture of glass eyes for those who had lost an eye in an industrial accident or even at war. Household income was boosted by Herbert and Ann Oldfield's children. Their son Matthew, for example, worked as a printer. The family took in a lodger for additional income. In 1871 30 year-old William Hunt lived in the house whilst working as a brewer. The whole experience of the back-to-backs is highly informative and engaging. Moreover, they offer a tactile experience of Victorian times and help the visitor to envisage what life was like in old Brummagem.
The survival of the back-to-backs is remarkable in that the rest of Hurst Street hasn't fared so well. There are very few old buildings these days. Regeneration swept away a considerable number of buildings during the 1950's and 1960's. However, a fair amount of damage had already been wrecked by bombs that fell on Birmingham during the early part of the Second World War. Hurst Street was hit by at least nine incendiary bombs and three high explosive bombs. There was also one unexploded bomb on the corner of Kent Street. The photograph above shows damage to Tony's Ballroom and adjoining shops. This ballroom was one of two Tony's in Birmingham, this one being known as Tony's Royale Ballroom. It was well appointed and all members of staff were trained teachers of dance.
In the immediate post-war years, there was a hasty clearance of Birmingham bomb sites and some temporary buildings and shops were erected to maintain some sort of normality. In this photograph you can see some temporary shops that were put up hurriedly next to the Empire chip shop and restaurant, the latter being a popular port-of-call for many a pub-goer in the 1950's and, indeed, those who were coming out of the Hippodrome and tucking into a bag of chips before getting the bus home. The chip shop lasted for quite a few years and was used by customer of The Locarno that was opened close to the junction of Smallbrook Street.
Those temporary shops didn't last long - they seem to have disappeared in this
photograph taken in April 1958. By this time the 'top' end of Hurst Street
became a building site and would remain so for a number of years whilst the
elevated buildings that would form the Smallbrook Queensway were erected. This
would create a subway that connected Hurst Street with Hill Street. This was
later removed to create a more pedestrian-friendly zone within this part of the
"Thomas Rayworth , fishmonger,
Bromsgrove Street, was charged with
violently assaulting Thomas Atkins, also a fishmonger, living at No.10
Congreve Street. Mr. Francis appeared for the prisoner, and Mr. Cheston for the defence.
On Thursday afternoon Atkins, who had been to the Corporation Baths, in
Kent Street, was returning along Hurst Street, when he met the prisoner, who said,
"What are you doing down here? You are after my wife again." Before he had time
to reply Rayworth struck him across the face with a ginger beer bottle, and
followed up the attack by a vigorous application of his "bunch of fives." The
prosecutor was knocked down again, and his injuries were so serious as to render
incumbent his removal to the General Hospital. With reference to the imputation
of "coming after the wife," Atkins solemnly averred that he had not seen the
lady for eight or nine months. In answer to Mr. Cheston, he said he did not know
where the prisoner lived, but he knew he had summoned him five or six months ago
for an assault. Mr. Cheston : Was it not distinctly proved on that occasion that
you had committed adultery with this woman? I have no recollections of it. In
cross examination did you not admit having taken her to a house of ill fame
twice? No, I did not. The policeman who arrested the prisoner said he confessed
to having assaulted the prosecutor in the manner stated, and professed sorrow
for what he had done. Mr. Cheston, for the defence, said he could not deny that
his client had struck the man with the ginger bottle, but in mitigation of the
punishment, he urged the Bench to take into consideration the gross provocation
which he had received. Some time ago he was summoned for beating the prosecutor,
and fined a light penalty. In consequence of the revelations made on that
occasion he sold up his home and separated from his wife. Some time back a
gentleman feeling interested in the case, interposed his good offices, and
succeeded in bringing the pair together again, when peace and harmony was
restored. But the demon jealousy was once more aroused in the husband's breast
on discovering the man, whom he believed to be the seducer of his wife hanging
about the house, and gazing intently at the windows. It was on one of these
visits that the watchful eye of Atkins detected Rayworth, whom he followed, and
the the heat of the moment, and believing that he was "hankering after his wife
again," he struck him a blow. The story of the baths he imagined and was a pure
invention; he was there for the purpose of meeting Mrs. Atkins. A woman with
whom the prisoner lives was called, and affirmed that she never saw the
prosecutor in the vicinity of her house. The Mayor : Atkins, we consider this a
very serious assault, and if we did not believe that you have had some little
ground some time back for this illusions about your wife's relations with the
prosecutor, we should have sent you to prison without the option of paying a
fine. This time we fine you £3 and costs, or six weeks' imprisonment."
"William Edward Mountford , was indicted for unlawfully wounding George
Smith, a hawker, on May 10th. According to the evidence for the prosecution the
parties lived in the same yard in Hurst Street, and on the Sunday night in
question Smith was going into the court when he was set upon by a number of
women and knocked down. Whilst they were beating him Mountford rushed out of his
house with a knife in his hand, and shouting "I'll do the lot of you,"
stabbed prosecutor on the arm. Mountford alleged that prosecutor and some other
men were knocking his father about, and that as Smith, had a poker in his hand,
he picked up a rasp and struck him on the wrist to make him drop it. The
prisoner was sentenced to eight months’ hard labour.”