Some history on Alma Street at Aston in Birmingham in the County of Warwickshire
The clue is in the name. Alma Street was formally developed in the years following the Battle of Alma of 1854. In the Post Office Directory for Birmingham published in 1855 there were four listings for Alma Street: the builders Charles Slater and Roger Harley, the plasterer and colorer John Davis, and Isaac Brookes who traded as a galvanized iron & zinc worker. I suspect that the Welsh-born builder Roger Harley, along with his workforce of almost 20 men, had a fair bit to do with the construction of shops and housing on Alma Street. Charles Slater, the other builder listed in the directory, led a smaller workforce but probably added to the streetscape of Alma Street. He also obtained a beer house licence and opened the Three Horse Shoes at a property known as Blyth Cottage. Development of Alma Street was rapid with other public-houses opening for business. For example, the Alma Tavern was trading by 1859.
A continuation of Summer Lane, the thoroughfare slowly rises up from the Hockley Brook, or Aston Brook depending on your allegiances, until reaching Lozells Road. Alma Street would become one of the Six Ways at the junction of this name.
I have a half-decent collection of old photographs showing Alma Street so I can provide a brief online tour of the thoroughfare. There are a few gaps in my collection, particularly around Whitehead Street and Gerrard Street. Still, through my little archive, browsers will be able to gain an insight into the street of old. I will show these in the same way the street was ordered in trade directories, starting at Six Ways and heading down the west side of the thoroughfare down to Summer Lane, and back up the other side, returning to Six Ways.
The Post Office was at No.1 Alma Street. There was another retail shop on the corner of Six Ways but No.1 was just inside the thoroughfare. It faced the bank on the corner of High Street Aston and Victoria Road. Indeed, because the premises were visible from most parts of the road junction it was generally known as the Six Ways Post Office rather than the Alma Street Post Office. In the Victorian and Edwardian years, it was run by the Ginn family who also retailed stationery and fancy goods. The shop next door at No.3 had a long tradition of being a newsagent's. During the late 1930s it was run by Fanny Skidmore whilst Ada Barron was the postmistress next door. In the late Victorian period, when the Ginn family were running the post office, No.3 was occupied by the hair dresser William Plant. He had been snipping the hair those living in Aston and Lozells for over two decades.
A few metres along the road there was a greengrocer's shop at No.11. By the way, it is all odd numbers on this side of Alma Street so the numbers jump up by 2 for each building fronting the thoroughfare. No.5, which was next to the aforementioned hair dressing salon, was once known as Rose Cottage and, in the 19th century, was occupied by the tailor George Maddox. The shop seen here on the right was No.9 and occupied by a branch of the Birmingham Dairy Co. Ltd., a business that also sold bread and cakes. No.11 was a shop that was traditionally a greengrocer's, though with different occupiers over the years. Here the shop is run by Rickett & Co. They are flogging 'scraped new potatoes' for 10d. per lb., or 4p in today's currency. That is 8p for just under a kilogram. There is no plastic on display here - all goods where either in wooden crates or straw punnets and customers were served with paper bags. It is only in more recent times that retail has screwed up the environment big style. In a trade directory for 1939 this greengrocery was run by Henry James Archer who, along with his wife Lily, also sold rabbits and poultry. In the late Victorian era Eli Lloyd was the greengrocer trading from these premises. Note the entrance to a passage between the shops. This led to a small court in which there were three houses. It was known as Jessamine Place.
Next door to the greengrocery store was the draper Florence Uebersax who had occupied these premises before the Second World War. Unfortunately, this, along with many of the photographs, was taken prior to many of the shops of Alma Street being knocked down. Here Florence Uebersax has a poster in the window for a "Demolition Sale" and "Prices Slashed" with "Final Reductions" for the "Last Few Days." The main signboard above the frontage shows that she specialised in hosiery and underwear. Initially, this was a lock-up shop for Florence Uebersax. Her commuting distance was, however, very short for she would only have to walk from her house in Freer Road where she lived with her mother. In later years she moved to Alma Street, sharing the house with the Spragg family. In her retirement she lived in Sutton Coldfield where she died in 1972. To the left of the shop is an entry which led to Avenue Place, another small court of a couple of houses. A woman is waiting at the bus-stop. There were three services that trundled up the hill - the Nos. 42, 51 & 52. Oh, nearly forgot ... in the late 19th century the shop where local women bought their knickers was a chippy.
This view along the west side of Alma Street is from the bus-stop. A long line of terraced housing with small courts to the rear of some. There are men in white overalls working on one of the shops at No.39. As this row's days were numbered, I imagine they are salvaging some elements of the building. Or perhaps this section of the street did hobble on for a little longer. This part of Alma Street has vanished from the landscape, the area being completely redeveloped. At the time of this photograph the shop on which the men are working was occupied by Ivy Bradbury. There is another shop much closer to the camera. The premises was No.23 and here it was kept by Doris and John Proudman.
The confectionery shop had been in the family for decades. Before the Second World War it was run by Sarah Proudman. Her husband John worked in an engineering works. The premises started off as a grocery store. This newspaper notice shows that in April 1877 Alfred Francis Perrin applied for a licence to retail beer, effectively turning the shop into an off-licence. The cenus conducted four years later shows that he had departed and the premises where occupied by the grocer Elizabeth Mott. However, it did however become an offie for a number of years, certainly into the 1920s. In later years the Proudman family concentrated on confectionery. But what of Alfred Francis Perrin? The son of the grocer Francis Perrin, he became a noted landscape artist and worked from premises in Ann Street before moving to Denbighshire. He specialised in landscapes of rural Wales and his work was exhibited in celebrated art galleries.
A bit of a gap as the tour passes Gerrard Street and further along Alma Street towards the junction of Clifford Street. In this photograph one can see the properties that were neighbours to the Alma Tavern. Part of the pub can be seen to the extreme left of the photograph. The house next door, or was, is No.121 so that is probably Janet Clarke standing on the door step peering up the road. There is a general shop on the other side of the entry. Excitingly, for me at least, the house on the right used to be the home of a cycle maker named Fisher.
This photograph shows the junction of Alma Street and Clifford Street. At the time of this photograph the premises on the north corner was occupied by the Fieldhouse family. Before the Second World War the shopkeeper was Gladys Oldbury. The 'luxury' cars parked outside the large building to the left possibly belonged to managers at E. J. Leek Ltd., the company occupying the corner site. The firm must have moved here from the Empire Works in Livery Street from where they manufactured fine tableware such as vases, tea-sets, tankards, cake stands and electrical table lamps. For many years the site was home to the metal-spinning firm of John Levick Ltd.
The Levick family came to Birmingham from Sheffield. John Levick established the firm at Alma Street by 1860. He was succeeded by his son John who successfully carried on the business until his death in 1915. In his obituary it stated that he was a "familiar figure in the district with which his works were associated and was also well-known in scientific and musical circles in Birmingham. He was one of the oldest members of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, and an enthusiastic member of the Scientific Society. In his early days he was a member of the History and Microscopical Society, which became the Microscopical and Philosophical Society, and it was owing largely to his energy that the Natural History Society became noted for its researches into natural science." John Levick studied French at Mason College, and "following the establishment of the university he had, on many occasions, lectured in French to the students. He was also well versed in photography, and an accomplished musician. In has youth he played in the orchestra at the Old Argyll, and was regarded as one of the best piccolo players in the district."
John Levick's son, grandson of the founder, and also named John, carried on the business. For 20 years he was also a member of the Board of Management of Birmingham Children's Hospital, and chairman from 1933 to 1936. He was chairman of the building committee responsible for the erection of the nurses' home. In addition, he was a vice-president of the United Hospital. In his retirement he was a keen fly-fisherman and an enthusiastic amateur photographer. He had a collection of butterflies which was regarded as one of the best in the country. He had a residence in the village of Eardisland where, in order to preserve the beauty of the village unimpaired, he bought many of the cottages.
The photograph below shows another view of the works of E. and J. Leek Limited. Apart from the Council School, this side of Alma Street gave way to industry over the years.
Part of the school can be seen to the left of this photograph. This part of the building was the Boys' School. The overall complex extended back to Furnace Lane, a narrow thoroughfare off Porchester Street. According to the National Archives website "Alma Street Board School was opened in 1878 by Aston School Board for boys, girls and infants. It was reorganised in 1931 for Junior Mixed and Infants Departments. The Junior Mixed Department closed in 1938 and the Infants Department closed in 1941. The main building re-opened in 1952 as a temporary County Primary School. It closed in 1969. The school buildings also housed a manual training centre [opened in 1902] and a day nursery and handicraft centre."
The Alma Street Board School can be seen again in this photograph that focuses on two firms trading on the thoroughfare. A window cleaner is buffing up the windows of the Beverley Works of Redfern, Stevens Ltd., a firm engaged in drop forging and machining. Based in Birmingham since 1924, this company relocated to new premises at Hay Mills. The firm's premises in Alma Street suffered terrible damage in September 1926 when a fire caused the collapse of the roof. It took 60 fire-fighters to bring the blaze under control. The large factory to the left was occupied by the mechanical engineers Fox & Offord Ltd., a firm founded by Samuel Alexander Fox in 1923. These premises was once the production site of sheep-shearing equipment made by the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company Limited which was originally based in Australia. This business was managed by Herbert Austin prior to him concentrating on the production of motor cars.
The ornate offices of the Crocodile Works in the foreground have survived. Next door, behind the telegraph pole in this photograph, are the premises of George Pike Limited, a toolmakers business. The firm originally sold road construction tools before his son, George Pike, started to produce portable traffic light signals. His son Andrew concentrated on this side of the business and founded Pike Signals in September 1981. In this photograph the premises next door were occupied by Hunt & Turner Limited, stampers and piercers.
This shows the extensive Crocodile Works on Alma Street. The origins of this business extend back to the early development of Alma Street. The founder, Horace Chavasse, was not included in the aforementioned trade directory listing of 1855 but it is thought he established a sword manufactory here shortly after this date, possibly in 1860. He was the brother of the surgeon Thomas Chavasse of Wylde Green House. His firm also manufactured bedsteads but he was in financial straits by 1864 when his assets were awarded to his creditors, including his brother Thomas, the Wolverhampton steel manufacturer Isaac Jenks and the Birmingham accountant William George Dixon. The firm continued as Horace Chavasse & Co. The business subsequently profited from the export of swords and bayonets to the Confederation during the American Civil War. The firm was later acquired by Ralph Martindale and the trading name of the business changed accordingly.
This view of the Crocodile Works of Ralph Martindale & Co. Ltd. shows different stages of development as business expanded and the site enlarged. Note the street name sign for Summer Lane so the tour has drifted slightly off-piste. However, it sort of makes sense to feature this factory in one place.
Ralph Martindale's career was seemingly something of a rollercoaster ride. Born in 1831 at the foot of the Yorkshire Wolds in the town of Pockington, he followed in his father's footsteps and became a cordwainer. In the space of seven years he had married, had two children, lost his wife, re-married within a matter of months and moved south to Handsworth. The 1861 census shows him living at Mount Pleasant on Park Road and working as a commercial traveller. He went into partnership with the lamp manufacturer John Williams who had premises in Cecil Street. In 1862 he applied for a new patent for improvements in globes and glasses to be used with hydrocarbon lamps. Having moved to Upland House at Sandwell Lane in Handsworth with his second wife Emma, he continued his career path as a commission agent. He had an office on Temple Row and a warehouse in Slaney Street. It all went pear-shaped and he was declared bankrupt in August 1865 by which time he and his growing family were living at Bromford Lane in Erdington. I am not sure how he bounced back but he seems to have been resourceful and somehow took charge of Horace Chavasse & Co. in the late 1860s. In the census of 1871 he was recorded as a sword manufacturer and living on Lozells Road.
This view of the Crocodile Works was captured from Asylum Road and shows the new extension to the complex. The managing director of the firm around this time was Alfred Spencer who lived at Sharmans Cross Road in Solihull.
Looking back to Ralph Martindale, his business floundered again in 1873. It is conjecture on my part but the production of swords fluctuated with military actions across the globe so business could be unpredictable. It was much safer to manufacture cane cutters and machetes plus other tools. This is the direction the company took after it was restructured. Ralph Martindale had probably mixed in affluent circles and he salvaged the business by finding backers, including Ralph Stanley Salter. The business was registered in 1874 as Ralph Martindale & Company Limited. Remaining as managing director, the former cordwainer died in February 1879 at the family home of York Lodge at Erdington.
Concentrating on edge tools, the company prospered and the works gradually enlarged. Ralph Martindale & Company Limited, like many of Birmingham's firms, prospered during the First World War manufacturing a wide range of products for the military. The manager of the works at the outbreak of the war was Charles F. Pougher. He was a member of the North District Evening Schools Committee in which the management of Aston Technical School was vested. He had a long association with the latter and, under his direction, the engineering workshop at the school was enlarged and equipped with new plant. During the war this facility was used for training munitions workers.
Sidney Halbert Cope was appointed works manager in 1922. The former Raleigh and B.S.A. man was appointed managing director three years later. He is credited with the reorganization and rebuilding of the factory at Alma Street. His obituary stated that he was also responsible for the "design and construction of mechanical equipment for carrying heated tools through the quenching process. In addition he designed and built an eccentric rolling equipment to produce tapered materials."
I have definitely strayed into Summer Lane territory for this photograph but I thought it was worth showing the extension to the Crocodile Works of Ralph Martindale & Company Limited at the junction of Porchester Street. Work on the building is still being undertaken in this photograph dated October 29th 1959. At this time the firm employed some 250 people. An early VIP visitor to the complex was Don Sergio Rojas Santamarina, the Cuban ambassador, who came to see the factory in April 1960. The firm had long trade associations with the island. In September 1966 it was reported in the Birmingham Daily Post that police were to step up security measures at the Crocodile Works as it had been plagued by vandalism since it opened this new extension in 1960. The move followed the biggest wave of vandalism in which nearly all the windows at the Alma Street works were damaged. The cost of repairs was estimated to be £2.500. Although some of the older buildings have survived this modern extension has been demolished and replaced by an apartment block. The company was relocated to Willenhall.
The tour of the thoroughfare now crosses the road and returns north along the eastern side of Alma Street. The buildings fronting the street had even numbers on this side. This is the view along the road where Summer Lane joined Alma Street. The junction of Asylum Road can be seen just beyond the parked van.
Here we have the building on the north corner of Asylum Road, a house used by the local surgeon. A trade directory of 1939 shows that the house was occupied by the physician and surgeon James Griffin. The doorway to the right had the address of No.34 Asylum Road. The doorway fronting Alma Street was No.160. Dr. James Griffin had been in practice here from 1934. At that time his wife Eileen was a former deputy matron. The couple remained here for over 30 years.
Here is James and Eileen Griffin from a newspaper article dated May 1965. They were featured in the Birmingham Post because Eileen Griffin was something of a pioneer as she took on some of the duties as her husband's caseload was perhaps getting a bit much for the elderly doctor. In the 21st century we have become accustomed to nurses having more medical responsibilities but this was not the case in the mid-1960s. Eileen Griffin, a trained nurse and former deputy matron, helped by interviewing patients in the surgery and visiting them in their homes. She trained as a nurse at St. Thomas's Hospital at London, where she was a gold medallist, and a sister-tutor and deputy matron at Stoke-on-Trent. She was not able to prescribe medicine but helped with many other tasks. Dr. Griffin told the Birmingham Post that many of his former patients had left the neighbourhood but had wanted to stay on his list, so there was more travelling for him to undertake. Is it me or does Eileen Griffin look like the archetypal stern matron?
I am going off-piste again to take a closer look at the shop close to the surgery. There was a pub at either end of Asylum Road but they belonged to High Street Aston and Summer Lane. Technically, therefore, I do not need to create a page for Asylum Road but I do have some photographs of the thoroughfare so I will come back to those in the future. But, being as we are looking from Alma Street, here is a closer view of the corner shop ...
The shop was located on the corner of Hartington Place. It appears to be a tobacconist's but I think it may have sold other goods. Hartington Place ran behind the doctor's surgery and contained fourteen small houses, including the shop itself. There was another short stub a little further along at Gladstone Place which had housing on both sides of the narrow street. As can be seen here, there was a café on the corner of Gladstone Place. Louisa Thompson was the shopkeeper just before the Second World War. The premises that would become a café was then a draper's shop run by Nellie Ashby.
Here we have another view of the surgery along with a view along the eastern side of Alma Street. The shops here have all closed down and awaiting their fate. Two women are about to walk past the surgery and are having a good natter. The last occupants of the property next to the doctor's were Nelson and Doris Townley. Nelson's mother, Martha Townley, had once kept dining rooms at this address. A sign for a café can be seen further along the row. This was once run by Richard and Dorothy Fawcett. In the 1920s the surgeon at No.160 was Dr. John L. Yuill. In the late 19th century the house was occupied by Dr. Vincent Alex Jones.
Courtesy of Lyn Harrington, this photograph shows Nos.148-150 during what would appear to be structural repairs. It can be seen in the previous photograph that these shops survived until 1960. However, here in the inter-war years, serious cracks in the brickwork can be seen. It would appear that the joist or cast-iron supports that created the late 19th century shop frontages has given way. Consequently, with the weight of the upper floor brickwork, the line above the shops has sunk causing cracks, particularly around the windows. The wooden screen was probably erected to prevent injury to pedestrians or damage to passing vehicles. The previous photograph shows that the builders managed to recover the situation and save the building. The shop at No.148, later the café run by Richard and Dorothy Fawcett, can be seen here as a retail outlet for pianos and organs. The name of the mechanical engineer H. E. Dann can be seen on a sign on the front of the premises, along with another for Charles Ray [Bedstead Plant] Limited. Harold and Hannah Dann later lived on Lozells Road. Half of the shop at No.150 can be seen to the right of the image. This was occupied by Thomas George Fripp, a mangle repairer. I assume that mangles often went out of action for a business repairing was to thrive. In the 1920s Thomas Fripp was a furniture broker on New Town Row.
In this view we have gone past the factories of Richard Berry & Son, spring makers at the Australian Works, along with Flewitt Limited, motor body builders. The photographer is looking back along the eastern side of Alma Street. The notable property in the foreground is the café that stood opposite the school. This was at No.110 and, at the time of this photograph, was run by George and Mary Robinson. The premises had formerly been a small grocery shop. Alice and Thomas Brain were the shopkeepers in the late 1930s. This image was captured by a photographer stood close to the Dew Drop Stores and pointing the lens along the eastern side of Alma Street. Once again, the buildings are boarded-up and awaiting a visit from a crane and wrecking ball. The property on the right-hand side of the photograph was on the corner of Inkerman Street and, indeed, was No.2 in that thoroughfare. The property next door with the large bay window on the first floor was No.94. An inset stone on the terrace bears the name Harley's Place so it is hard not to imagine that the properties were erected by the builder Roger Harley, one of the four names first listed in Alma Street in 1855.Thomas worked in the jewellery trade when the couple married at Saint George's Church in February 1910. Four years later the couple were separated briefly when he joined the Worcestershire Regiment. However, his record sheet states that he was discharged after three months on account of him "not being likely to become an efficient soldier."
For this image the photographer was stood close to the Dew Drop Stores on the corner of Inkerman Street. The property to the right of this photograph was on the opposite corner of Inkerman Street. It was No.2 on that thoroughfare. The premises next door, featuring a large bay window on the first floor, was No.94 Alma Street. In the 19th century it was a beer house trading under the name of the Clock Tavern. Further along, an inset stone bears the name of Harley's Place and it is hard not to imagine that this terrace was erected by the builder Roger Harley, one of the four people listed in Alma Street in 1855.
This off-licence was a little further up the slope at No.44. Alma Street. Next door to the right there is another shop front. At the extreme right-hand side of the image there is a newsagent's shop at No.50. At the time of this photograph the premises were occupied by the Broadfield family. In the late 1930s the man getting up early to flog the papers was Benjamin Phillips. Between the shop and No.48 was an entry to Builth Place, perhaps another reference to Roger Harley as the builder was born in Wales. People living here that probably nipped into the shop of Benjamin Phillips included the Bardlsey, Wardell and Goddard families. In the early 1930s the shop at No.46, next door to the offie, was a draper's emporium run by Maria Wharton. The Rose family also lived here for many years, from around the 1920s until the early 1960s.
This is a close-up of the window display of the offie at No.44. Many off-licences piled up stock and point-of-sale material in the front window but Margaret Alton opted for the minimal approach for this outlet of Mitchell's and Butler's. Those cardboard display boards fetch a tidy price on e-bay these days. There is some very nice leaded-windows in the screen between the window and the shop space. Note also the cellar drop beneath the front window where the draymen would roll in the barrels of beer. In the previous photograph an unusual metal sign bracket can also be seen. Margaret Alton lived on the premises with her husband Joseph. Bertie Cottrell was the licensee in the 1930s. He combined this role with his day job, leaving the running of the shop to his wife Beatrice. The business had been managed by the same family since Edwardian times when Betsy Cottrell was the licensee.
This photograph shows that some demolition had already taken place by this date. There is a view of High Street Aston to the left of what was No.26 Alma Street. This was a few doors along from the Salutation Inn. It was some years since this was a shop but the window shows that it was a little emporium back in the day. In the late 19th century John Roath was a shopkeeper here. In the early 1880s it was a greengrocery operated by William Cooke. The entry led to Court No.2. A van from Civic Electrical is parked outside. Perhaps an engineer has called to fix a radio or telly. The lettering on the side of the van shows that the firm had five premises, including shops on Easy Row and Albert Street. This gives the impression that it was a prosperous business. However, this van is a complete disgrace and is falling apart. The sills are completely rotten and bits of the panel were probably flying off as it travelled along the streets of Brum.
"Henry Glover, a steeplejack of Alma Street, Aston, fell 90 feet from a chimney stack, but is walking about only slightly injured. Falling 20
feet, he alighted on a roof, dropped another 30 feet to another roof, thence to a fowl pen, and finally to some soft earth. He was treated at the General Hospital and
allowed to go home."
"Steeplejacks Remarkable Escape"
Dundee Evening Telegraph : December 23rd 1924 Page 8
"The driver of a van had an extraordinary escape from death when his vehicle was completely wrecked in a collision with a Midland Red
bus at the corner of Inkerman Street and Alma Street, Aston, today. The van, owned by M. Bywater and Co., was turning out of Inkerman Street when it was struck
broadside by the bus, and forced across the road towards a works' gateway. Onlookers were astounded to see the driver, George Albert Bromley [aged
25], of 68 Station Road, Stechford, pick himself up from the wreckage only slightly injured. He was examined by a doctor, and taken the General Hospital for
treatment, but was not detained."
"Wrecked in Collision"
Birmingham Mail : April 21st 1939 Page 11