Smethwick: Introduction

Pages 87-88

A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 17, Offlow Hundred (Part). Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1976.

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The Growth of the Town, p. 88; Communications, p. 96; Manor, p. 98; Other Estates, p. 99; Economic History, p. 107; Local Government, p. 118; Public Services, p. 120; Parliamentary History, p. 123; Churches, p. 123; Roman Catholicism, p. 129; Protestant Nonconformity, p. 129; Sikhs, p. 134; Social Life, p. 134; Education, p. 136; Charities for the Poor, p. 141.

Smethwick (fn. 1) was originally a township within the ancient parish of Harborne to the west of Birmingham. Harborne parish was shaped roughly like an hour-glass, with Smethwick forming the upper part and the neck and Harborne township the lower part. The boundary between the townships followed the Birmingham-Halesowen road. (fn. 2) Smethwick became an urban district in 1894, a borough in 1899, and a county borough in 1907. In 1966 it became part of the new Worcestershire county borough of Warley, which itself became part of the metropolitan borough of Sandwell in 1974. (fn. 3) There was a boundary adjustment in 1897 involving the transfer of 8 a. to West Bromwich, (fn. 4) and in 1901 the borough had an area of 1,929 a. (fn. 5) It was enlarged to 2,496 a. in 1928 by the transfer of Warley Woods from the urban district of Oldbury (Worcs.). (fn. 6) The present article is concerned primarily with the history of the area covered by the borough of 1899; some account is given of Warley Woods from 1928, but its earlier history has been treated under its parent parish of Halesowen (Worcs., formerly Salop. and Worcs.). (fn. 7)

Smethwick, a name which has been variously interpreted as meaning the smith's dwelling and the village on the plain, (fn. 8) is situated on the South Staffordshire Plateau. The geological formation is mainly sandstone with drifted boulder clay. (fn. 9) The higher ground is in the south and west, and a height of 753 feet is reached in Harborne Road on the former south-western boundary; the ground drops to 421 feet at Black Patch on the north-eastern boundary. (fn. 10) It is through the lower ground in the north that the canals and railways run, and the presence of those lines of communication led to the siting of the main industrial area in the north. There is some undulation of the ground, with several streams, now largely culverted, flowing through the valleys. Many of the streams helped to form the boundaries: Hockley Brook on the north-east; its tributary Shireland Brook (also known in the 1830s as Bear or Cape of Good Hope Stream), forming much of the eastern boundary; a stream rising in West Smethwick Park and forming the northwestern boundary; and Spon Brook, forming much of the northern boundary. (fn. 11) Thimblemill Brook flows north-east through the town to join Hockley Brook but is culverted from Edmund Road. (fn. 12) A stream (known in the 1830s as Bluegate Stream) that rises to the south of Holly Lane flows through Smethwick Hall Park, part of the grounds of the former Smethwick Hall, where it has been dammed to create a pool; it is then culverted through the lower ground by Stony Lane and discharges into the Birmingham Canal and Hockley Brook. (fn. 13)

Before the 19th century Smethwick was a thinly populated rural area, and in 1675 it was described as 'a discontinued village' strung out along the Birmingham-Dudley road. (fn. 14) A rental of the manors of Smethwick and Harborne dating from c. 1275 lists 39 tenants in Smethwick. (fn. 15) In 1666 49 people in Smethwick township were assessed for hearth tax. (fn. 16) The first church was opened in 1732. (fn. 17) The cutting of the Birmingham Canal through the northern part of the township in 1768-9 brought some industrial development. As a result there was a sharp rise in the population of the township, which numbered 1,097 in 1801. (fn. 18) From the later 18th century too a number of Birmingham business and professional men came to live in Smethwick. (fn. 19) In the early 19th century, however, settlement was still scattered. (fn. 20)

The number of industries continued to increase, above all with the opening of Telford's new canal in the later 1820s. (fn. 21) By 1831 the population had reached 2,676. (fn. 22) Development was very rapid in the 1830s, with the New Village growing up on either side of the Birmingham-Dudley road north of the old centre round Bearwood Hill. In 1842 the new parish of North Harborne was created, covering the northern half of Smethwick. (fn. 23) The first railway through the town was completed in 1852. (fn. 24) The population had reached 5,020 by 1841 and 8,379 by 1851. By 1871 it was 17,158, by 1891 36,170, and by 1901 54,539. Thereafter the increase slackened, and eventually there was a decline. The population of the enlarged borough was 84,406 in 1931, but by 1951 it had dropped to 76,407 and by 1961 to 68,390; in 1965 it was estimated as 67,370. (fn. 25) The drop is partly to be explained by the fact that the corporation had to build much of its housing outside the borough owing to the shortage of available land within its boundaries. (fn. 26) Nevertheless Smethwick was one of the most densely populated county boroughs in England: outside London it was exceeded only by Salford in 1951. (fn. 27) In the later 1940s only 21.2 per cent of its land was not built up, whereas the figure for the Black Country conurbation as a whole (including Birmingham) was 56.1 per cent. (fn. 28)

The French and Belgians whom R. L. Chance brought to the Spon Lane glass-works in 1832 provide an early example of immigration into the town from abroad. In 1837 there was a Belgium Street on the north side of Union Street (now part of the site of Kenrick Park and in West Bromwich). In 1851 there were several French and Belgian families living in Scotch Row adjoining the works and in the Smethwick part of Spon Lane. In spite of attempts to replace highly paid foreign workers with cheaper English labour, there was still a colony of French workers and their families in 1862 living in a row of houses adjoining the factory. (fn. 29) In the 1950s many immigrants settled in Smethwick, notably Sikhs from the Punjab. (fn. 30) There was a sufficiently large Indian community in Spon Lane ward by 1955 for the Conservative candidate in the council elections to send out a translation of his address. In 1961 the population included 1,219 people born in India, 209 in Pakistan, and 769 in Jamaica.

Among notable people with local connexions George Frederick Muntz (1794-1857), the political reformer who was M.P. for Birmingham from 1840 until his death, produced Muntz metal at the French Walls from 1842. (fn. 31) Charles Fox (1810-74), the engineer, knighted in 1851 for his work on the Crystal Palace, was a partner at the London Works from 1840 to 1856. (fn. 32) James Timmins Chance (1814-1902), created a baronet in 1900, was associated particularly with the development of lighthouse glass at the Spon Lane works of Chance Brothers & Co.; he was also prominent in local and county affairs and was made high sheriff of Staffordshire in 1868. (fn. 33) Edward Caswall (1814-78), divine and poet, was a founder of the Roman Catholic mission at Smethwick; ordained in the Church of England, he joined the Roman Catholic Church in 1847, and in 1850 he became a member of the Oratory at Edgbaston (Birmingham), where he remained until his death. (fn. 34) William Siemens (1823-83), the metallurgist and electrician, knighted in 1883, was as a young man employed by Fox, Henderson & Co. at the London Works. (fn. 35) Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914), the statesman, was with the firm of Nettlefold & Chamberlain from 1854 to 1874 and became a partner in 1869. (fn. 36) George Newnes (1851-1910), created a baronet in 1895, the publisher who founded several magazines including Tit-Bits, The Strand Magazine and Country Life, attended Shireland Hall School c. 1865. (fn. 37) Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914), who became well known for his application of scientific techniques such as finger-printing to police investigation, taught French at the Collegiate School in South Road in 1874. (fn. 38) S. F. Barnes (1873-1967), the England Test cricketer, outstanding as a bowler, was a native of Smethwick. (fn. 39)


  • 1. This article was written mainly in 1970 and 1971; some material has been added up to 1974, the date to which the additional matter refers being indicated. Grateful acknowledgement of help is made to Mr. A. H. Huskinson, former borough librarian of Warley, and his staff, especially Mr. K. W. Inskip, Miss R. J. Armstrong, and Mrs. O. T. Herbert, and to others named in footnotes.
  • 2. C. and J. Greenwood, Map of Staffs. (1820); Lich. Dioc. Regy., B/A/2(i)/L, map facing p. 142. For the history of Harborne township see V.C.H. Warws. vii.
  • 3. See pp. 119-20.
  • 4. See p. 1.
  • 5. Census, 1901. The area of the Smethwick local board of health district (the boundaries of which were the same as those of the 1899 borough), was given as 1,795 a. in the 1894 petition for incorporation and as 1,872 a. 'or thereabouts' in the charter of incorporation: Hackwood, Smethwick, 108; printed copy of charter in W.P.L.
  • 6. Census, 1931; S.R.O., L.G.O. 9/11; below p. 119.
  • 7. V.C.H. Worcs. iii.
  • 8. E. Ekwall, Concise Oxford Dict. of Eng. Place-names (4th edn.); Eng. Place-name Elements, pt. II (E.P.N.S.), 130-1; W. H. Duignan, Notes on Staffs. Place Names (1902), 139-40.
  • 9. Price, 'Smethwick', 1-5; Geol. Surv. Map 1", solid and drift, sheet 168 (1924 edn.); Hackwood, Smethwick, 7.
  • 10. Birmingham and its Regional Setting (Brit. Assoc. 1950), 4-5, 8; Price, 'Smethwick', 5; O.S. Map 1/2,500, Staffs. SP 08 (1952 edn.).
  • 11. J. Ogilby, Britannia (1675), plate preceding p. 99; Yates, Map of Staffs. (1775), part of which is reproduced above, p. 2; B.M., O.S.D. 256; Act to consolidate and extend powers and provisions of the several Acts relating to the Birmingham Canal Navigations, 5 & 6 Wm. IV, c. 34 (Local and Personal), p. 64; W.S.L., S. MS. 417/ Harborne; Roper, Plan of Smethwick, 1858; Willett, West Bromwich, 248; 'Old West Bromwich', 24 Dec. 1943; Geol. Surv. Map 1", solid, sheet 168 (1924 edn.); above p. 1. Shireland Brook is so named in the late 18th century: S.R.O., D. 1141/4/3/2, pp. 2, 33. For the Cape of Good Hope inn see below p. 94.
  • 12. Smethwick Civic News, Oct. 1958 (copy in W.P.L.); 'Smethwick and Round About', 25 Nov. 1955; B.M., O.S.D. 212, 219; J. C. Stuart, Street Map of Smethwick, 1890 (copy in W.P.L.).
  • 13. Ogilby, Britannia, plate preceding p. 99; B.M., O.S.D. 212; Act to consolidate and extend powers and provisions of the several Acts relating to the Birmingham Canal Navigations, 5 & 6 Wm. IV, c. 34 (Local and Personal); Roper, Plan of Smethwick, 1858; O.S. Map 6", Staffs. LXXII. NW., NE. (1890 edn.); Stuart, Street Map of Smethwick, 1890; Smethwick Civic News, Nov. 1959. For the suggestion that it may be the Stonnoss Brook of 1757 see below p. 97.
  • 14. Ogilby, Britannia, 99.
  • 15. Court Rolls of the Manor of Hales, 1270-1307 (Worcs. Hist. Soc.), i. 21-3.
  • 16. S.H.C. 1923, 254-5.
  • 17. See p. 123.
  • 18. Shaw, Staffs. ii. 126; White, Dir. Staffs. (1834), 294; below pp. 97, 109-10.
  • 19. See pp. 94, 99-100, 104-6.
  • 20. C. Hicks, A Walk through Smethwick (Birmingham, 1850), 7 (copy in W.P.L.). And see 'Smethwick and Round About', 18 Nov. 1955.
  • 21. Hicks, Walk through Smethwick, 9; below pp. 97-8.
  • 22. White, Dir. Staffs. (1834), 294.
  • 23. See p. 125.
  • 24. See p. 98.
  • 25. For the population figures see White, Dir. Staffs. (1851); Census 1861-1961; K. W. Inskip, Smethwick: from Hamlet to County Boro. (1966), 14 (copy in W.P.L.).
  • 26. See p. 121.
  • 27. Smethwick Civic News, Apr. 1954.
  • 28. West Midland Group, Conurbation (1948), 89, 172-5.
  • 29. J. F. Chance, Hist. of Firm of Chance Brothers & Co. (priv. print. 1919), 6-9, 43-4, 49, 51-2, 56-7; 'Old West Bromwich', 4 Feb. 1944; Wood, Plan of West Bromwich (1837); H.O. 107/2050(2) ff. 203-8.
  • 30. For the rest of this para. see Smethwick Civic News, Apr. 1961; Smethwick Telephone, 13 May 1955; Census, 1961; below p. 134.
  • 31. D.N.B.; below p. 111.
  • 32. D.N.B.; below pp. 110-11.
  • 33. D.N.B.; below p. 116.
  • 34. J. Gillow, Bibliographical Dict. of Eng. Catholics, i. 429-31; D.N.B.; below p. 129.
  • 35. D.N.B.; below p. 111.
  • 36. 'Smethwick and Round About', 2, 9, 16 July 1954; below p. 113.
  • 37. Hulda Friederichs, Life of Sir George Newnes, Bart. 27-8; D.N.B.
  • 38. H. T. F. Rhodes, Alphonse Bertillon, 54-7, 220. For the Collegiate School see 'Smethwick and Round About', 12 Dec. 1952.
  • 39. L. Duckworth, S. F. Barnes—Master Bowler, 35-8, 146-8; article on Barnes in Smethwick Telephone, 10 Nov. 1934; obituary in The Guardian, 27 Dec. 1967.