Some history of Aston
I have created this page for Aston mainly for those unfamiliar with Birmingham. For strangers and new visitors to the modern City of Birmingham the word Aston means one thing - footy. However, although the team in claret and blue have enjoyed periods of great fame, the area around Villa Park has much more to offer the visitor. Take Aston Hall for instance - it is one of the most impressive Jacobean manor houses in the Midlands. Aston was also the home of Ansell's Brewery, one of the most famous brewing names in the region. As you would expect of the suburb which was once one of the largest ancient parishes of the modern City of Birmingham, Aston had a good number of pubs.
Aston is located two miles to the north of the city centre. Witton is just to the north-east of Aston and Nechells to the east. Today, Nechells is part of the Heartlands area where many creative efforts have been made to regenerate the district as it passes through a transitional period with its role within the city. The Eastside Locks development was another bid to regenerate Aston. It was here that there was once a street named A. B. Row. This thoroughfare once formed the boundary between the borough of Aston Manor and Birmingham prior to the Greater Birmingham Act of 1911. Most people are surprised to learn that Aston remained independent of the "Second City" until such a late date. However, the fact that Aston was once the more important settlement may help to explain or underline the reasons for this.
Aston was recorded in the Domesday Book where it appeared as Estone and was five times the size of Birmingham and rated at five times the value. It was a large Warwickshire parish which covered some 10,000 acres and embraced the now-separate districts of Castle Bromwich, Duddeston, Nechells, Deritend and Bordesley. By 1550 Aston had become known as Aston-juxta-Birmingham. During the 19th century the borough of Birmingham slowly took chunks away from Aston which remained outside the city's jurisdiction. During this period it was governed by the Aston Manor Local Board. However, it had become an Urban District by 1903 and was finally absorbed into Birmingham in 1911. The Domesday survey reveals that Estone had a priest, a mill, woodland and ploughland. The fact that the manor had a priest tells us that a Saxon church existed here.
This was replaced in medieval times by the Church of Saint Peter and Paul. Part of this old church remains but the greatest relic in Aston is the Hall which was built by the Lord of the Manor, Sir Thomas Holte, in the early 17th century. Aston was then largely a rural area which is perhaps a little difficult to envisage today. The village consisted of only a few farm cottages, a mill, taverns, the Holte almshouses, a rectory and Aston Furnace. Like other settlements close to the city centre, Aston developed rapidly during the height of the industrial revolution. The construction of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal promoted industrial growth and factories large and small were concentrated in the Aston area. Consequently, new streets were laid out and filled with tightly-knit housing communities. The expanding population led to the opening of many public houses and beer shops, most of which have since disappeared.
Aston's excellent transport links have played a key role in its development. The Birmingham and Fazeley Canal was an important trade route and was followed by the Grand Junction Railway in 1837. Actually, Aston did not have its own station until 1854. Pre-dating these links however is the Lichfield Road which has always been a major road route. Today, the Aston Expressway ploughs through the middle of the suburb and connects to the infamous Spaghetti Junction just down the road at Gravelly and Salford. At Dartmouth Circus on the Expressway an old Boulton and Watt beam engine was placed at the roundabout at the time of the road's construction.
Aston is home to one of the most successful English clubs, Aston Villa F.C. The club was formed in the Spring of 1874 by members of a Wesleyan chapel in Aston. In 1897 the club took over the site of Aston Lower Grounds and in 1885 the club turned professional. A committee member, William McGregor, then put forward the idea that prominent sides in the Midlands should form a Football League, and Villa became one of the original twelve league teams in 1888. The club enjoyed an early period of extraordinary success winning the league five times between 1894 and 1900. Their record of seven F.A. Cup wins stood for many years until it was exceeded by both Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United. In the modern game clubs such as Arsenal and Chelsea have racked up more wins. Aston Villa's greatest achievement was the winning of the European Cup in 1982. They lost the F.A. Cup in more ways than one when, in 1895 the cup was stolen from a local shop window where it was on display. The trophy was never recovered.
Just down the road from Villa Park on Witton Road is the Church of Saint Peter and Paul, the only church within the city's boundary that is mentioned in the Domesday Book. Replacing an older structure, the church was built in medieval times although the only remains from this period is the tower and spire. Even this was partially rebuilt in 1776-7 by John Chesshire. There is however a scrap of 14th century work re-set in the middle of the south wall of the south aisle. The main church was rebuilt and enlarged eastwards between 1879 and 1890 by J. A. Chatwin and further rebuilt in 1908. The interior is well worth further investigation, especially as it contains many fine monuments dating back to 1360.
Aston Hall stands on the hill overlooking both the church and football ground. Located within the greatly-reduced Aston Park, it remains as a great example of 17th century architecture. The hall is now owned by the City of Birmingham and it is open to the public during the summer months and for special events throughout the winter. It was built by Sir Thomas Holte between 1618-1635 and has since had an illustrious history. For example, in 1642, King Charles I spent the night here and, a year later, it was besieged by Parliamentarian forces during the English Civil War. Indeed, the great oak staircase still bears marks from the cannon fire endured by the building. The house was later occupied by James Watt Jr., the son of the world-famous engineer. It was in 1858 that the hall was purchased by the Aston Hall and Park Company and opened as a place of public entertainment.
The inauguration ceremony was conducted by Queen Victoria during the first of her two visits she made to Birmingham as Queen. A massive arch was erected for the monarch's entrance into the city. The event attracted national media coverage and an illustration of the ceremony appeared in the Illustrated London News. However, this early attempt at developing a mansion into a public attraction failed and, in 1864, Birmingham Corporation bought the building. Consequently, Aston Hall became the first 'country' house to be opened to the public by a local authority. At the time of construction, Aston Hall stood in over 300 acres of woodland, gardens and ponds. The house was probably designed by the architect John Thorpe though nobody seems certain on this fact. Whatever, the design was commissioned by Sir Thomas Holte whose family lived here until 1817.
Construction started in 1618 and Thomas Holte took up residence in 1631, four years before its completion. Subsequent alterations have been minor leaving a building which Dugdale once described as a 'noble fabric which for beauty and state much exceedeth anything in these parts,' a statement validated by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner who wrote 'it is one of the great houses of the county.' Today, the house is displayed as a series of period rooms containing fine furniture, paintings, textiles and metal work from the collections of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. One of the best ways to visit Aston Hall is by the wonderful Aston Hall by Candlelight, a biannual event in which the Grade 1-listed building is lit by over 500 candles with actors helping to recreate the 17th Century Christmas festivities.
The long association of Aston with the Holte family stretches back to 1367 when the manor was purchased by John atte Holt. The hall was built by his descendent, Thomas Holte II who was knighted by King James in 1603. Eight years later he bought the newly created title of baronet, a dignity which entailed maintaining thirty soldiers in Ulster at a cost of £1,000. This is the reason that he added the Red Hand of Ulster to his coat-of-arms although some say it represents his own hand which was bloodied when, at his previous home at Duddeston Hall, it is claimed he split his cook's head with a cleaver, so that one half fell on his left shoulder and one on his right.
Legend also has it that his second wife, Anne Littleton, disliked a daughter from his previous marriage and persuaded him to lock her up until she went mad. The daughter is supposed to be the ghost of Aston Hall. Whoever came up with the phrase that 'everyone gets their comeuppance' didn't reckon with Thomas Holte - he outlived all but one of his sixteen children. The eldest son, Edward, fought against the Parliamentarians and died at the Royalist headquarters in Oxford. Successive generations, most of whom were MP's for Warwickshire, held on to the family home.
Constructed using mostly local materials, Aston Hall was built of red brick with a diaper patterning of darker bricks and with stone facings and quoins only at the corners. The ground floor contained the parlour, hall, service rooms and kitchen, and the first floor the showpiece Long Gallery, with state rooms and family apartments. The house, with its fine examples of Jacobean plasterwork, woodwork and chimney pieces remains very much in the 17th century character, despite minor alterations. Many of these were the work of James Watt Jr. who installed a warm air heating system and a steam kitchen range.
One of Aston's lost buildings that was designed to echo the architecture of Aston Hall was the old clock at Aston Cross. The ornate brick tower was erected in 1854 but sadly replaced by a cast-iron clock in 1891. It once stood on a triangular island which also featured bus stops, underground toilets and a cast-iron Ionic column supporting a double lamp-post. It was designed with a Romanesque emphasis by Arthur Edwards and cast in Glasgow. The completed clock was given to the Aston Local Board in 1891 by Lewis Spokes Richards.
From Aston Cross it was only a matter of yards to Ansell's Brewery. Also here was the smell of vinegar and sauces. The HP Factory, home to one of Britain's best-loved brands, was first established in Aston by Edwin Samson Moore in 1875. It then traded as the Midland Vinegar Company and the excellent hard water from the well was ideal for his brewery. HP Sauce was invented by a Nottingham shopkeeper, F. G. Garton but he sold it to Moore to repay a debt plus £150. First sold in miniature bottles by door-to-door salesmen, HP Sauce quickly became a favourite and was soon on the table at 10 Downing Street. It was even used in the First World War to make bully beef more palatable to the troops - a lucrative contract no doubt. When Samson's health failed and his children did not want to enter the business, the company was sold in 1924. Six years later, they acquired another famous brand - Lea and Perrins of Worcester. Under ownership of Heinz, the factory was closed in 2007 and production moved to the Netherlands.
On the other side of the Aston Expressway, Witton Road has a number of buildings worthy of inspection. Pictured above is the library which was once also the Aston Manor Council House. Officially opened on January 5th 1882, the building was designed by William Henman of Alexander and Henman. Featuring a corner tower with a beautiful baroque cap, the building is a good display of neo-Jacobean restrained brick and terracotta. It was around 1883 that the librarian, Robert K. Dent, inaugurated a series of free lectures for the public. This early example of library extension activities proved enormously popular.
The Roman Catholic church of the Sacred Heart was designed by Harrison and Cox in 1922. The building was consecrated in 1933. Built in the Italian Romanesque style, the church features a splendid campanile which was designed solely by G. B. Cox and added in 1934. It reminds me of Father John Lopes's "church that never was" at Deritend. The design, much favoured by local Catholics at the time, would not look out of place amid the Byzantine churches of Greece and is further enhanced by mosaics and marble panels.
At the top of Witton Road on the junction called Six Ways is Christ Church Baptist Church which was built between 1862 and 1865. The building has been described by Bryan Little as 'a fantastic polychrome exercise' by James Cranston. Certainly, its brickwork which mixes red, yellowish white and blue, is a striking sight. The body of the church features iron internal pillars. Featuring rounded octofoil windows, the church is joined by a strange arcaded vestibule to a wonderfully ornamented tower. The stone spire of the tower is fortified with ornately tabernacled pinnacles.
Not far from the Baptist Church is St.Paul's which is located in Lozells Road. Looking much older than its construction date, the building is particularly attractive. Designed by J. A. Chatwin, the church was built in 1880. It has many of his periodic characteristics including an apsidal chancel and is made in the perpendicular style. The north-west tower is particularly good and, although much of construction is built with brick, much use has been made of bath stone. In more recent times the building has been used by the Assemblies of the First Born Church of God. J. A. Chatwin also designed Church of Saint James in Frederick Road but this has since been demolished to make way for a much less interesting building. However, the densely-populated streets around here feature many fine buildings which confirm that Aston was once a place where public money was made available for bold borough statements
The-then independent Aston Manor Borough were probably attempting to compete with the fine buildings springing up in the neighbouring metropolis of Birmingham. On the corner of Whitehead Road and Ettington Road stands the fine terracotta construction of Aston Manor Technical School which was founded in 1891 following the Technical Education Act in 1889. This photograph however shows the old school on the opposite corner which is another fabulous old building of stone and red brick. This building would later become the home of Broadway Lower School. Returning to Witton Road you can head down to Witton Lane, particularly if you are a transport buff. This is where Aston Manor Transport Museum is located. The museum displays a good number of buses - I spotted a model that once took to me to my Junior School. Around the corner on the north-western side of Witton Road is the building pictured above. It is the office block of the Kynoch works now owned by IMI. The factory here was founded by George Kynoch when it produced percussion caps. However, it was after he absconded to South Africa in the late 19th century to avoid debts, that the company expanded into production of brass, copper and steel castings and required ten plants to cope with demand. By the time the firm had changed its name to ICI Metals in 1929, it was producing all manner of goods from bicycles, paper, soap, and gas engines. The factory here produced munitions during the First World War. A stone memorial to the company's employees who died in the conflict was incorporated within the gatehouse wall.
At Nechells Park Road are the twin-towered baths that were constructed in 1910 to the design of Arthur Harrison. The building features some excellent detail, particularly on the curved pediment. The separate entrances for Men and Women are a reminder of the times. The building fell into disrepair and closed in 1995 but the community facility was saved and restored after more than £5m funding from Advantage West Midlands and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The architectural splendour continues across the road at the Villa Tavern.
The Bloomsbury Free Library was another ostentatious display of red terracotta. Located on Saltley Road, the building was designed by Cossins and Peacock and constructed in 1891-2. Jethro Cossins originally lived in Somerset but, following his move to Birmingham, played a key part in the architecture of the city during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, he worked on the repairs of Aston Hall. He took on F. B. Peacock as a partner in 1887. The library featured much sculpture in all the tympana and plenty of good classical detail on the building's gables.
Closer to the city centre is the Science Park, Aston University and the Central Fire Station. Nikolaus Pevsner famously described this building as 'peculiarly inept for fire engines.' However, whether it was practical or not, the brick and Portland stone Georgian design was fabulous to look at. Aston University, Birmingham's second university, opened in April 1966 though its history can be traced back to 1891 when public technical education first started in the city. This was in the form of evening classes in metallurgy at the Birmingham and Midland Institute. This laid the foundation of the Birmingham Municipal Technical School which, in 1927, became the Central Technical College and, in 1951, the College of Technology. It underwent another name change in 1956 - the College of Advanced Technology. The college's evolution attracted first-grade engineers and scientists to the college staff before its natural transition to university status.
Have Your Say
If you would like to share any further information on Aston - perhaps you drank in one of the pubs in the past? Or maybe knew a previous publican running one of the boozers? Whatever the reason it would be great to hear of your stories or gossip. Simply send a message and I'll post it here.
Related Newspaper Articles
"At Aston Police Court, yesterday, before Messrs. J. Aston and A. Evans, John Ryan, a hawker, residing at Wolverhampton, was charged with
stealing a horse and trap, the property of Charles Jacobs, Darwin Sreet, Birmingham. It will be in the recollection of our readers that the prisoner was apprehended the
night of the 1st instant, at Aston, whilst drunk and incapable. He was brought up at the Erdington Police Court on the following day, and fined for that offence. Being
unable to find the money, the prisoner was sent to prison for seven days. Whilst in gaol it was discovered that the horse and cart belonged to the prosecutor, and the
prisoner was accordingly apprehended as soon as he left Warwick. Charles Jacobs, smith, Darwin Street, stated that on the 1st instant the prisoner came to him early in
the day, and asked him for a quantity of trade articles. These not being ready, the prisoner was requested to wait, and whilst doing so had his dinner at the
prosecutor's house. After dinner the parties took a drive in the vehicle, and called at several public houses. Whilst drinking at the Bordesley Park Tavern, the
prisoner suddenly decamped with the horse and cart. Police Constable Paine gave evidence to the fact that he found the prisoner drunk and incapable in Whitehead Street,
Aston. After being duly cautioned, the prisoner stated that the prosecutor and himself were drunk at the time, and further that he had not the slightest intention of
taking the trap away. He was committed to the Sessions."
"The Recent Robbery a Horse and Cart"
Birmingham Daily Post : November 10th 1865 Page 3