The name “Smethwick” derives from Anglo-Saxon, and although it was once thought to mean “the smiths’ dwelling”, modern place-name experts interpret it as “the settlement on the smooth land”. As neither iron ore nor evidence of early metal working has been found in the area, this is more likely to be accurate.
Smethwick as a town was born of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century and grew to industrial eminence in the 19th century, but for the centuries of its existence before this it was a rural hamlet: a district of scattered cottages and small farms, country lanes, heaths and woodland.
This was to change with remarkable speed after 1769 when the canal system was built to bring coal to the Black Country to the dealers of Birmingham. The canal passed through northern Smethwick, and within a short time, foundries, rolling miulls and glassworks began to spring up at the canalside. Workers began to arrive from the outlying districts, and an industrial boom-town was created.
THE PARISH AND THE MANOR
For the greater part of its history, Smethwick was a township within the parish of Harborne in the county of Staffordshire. The Domesday survey of 1086 records in Harborne one, and in Smethwick two, carucates of arable land (that is, the amount of land one plough could cover in a year); they were held by a man named William and were part of the episcopal manor of Lichfield. At some time before 1229, Harborne and Smethwick became the property of Halesowen Abbey. Dating from this early period but long since vanished, were a moated farm in Bearwood called The Beakes, and a large farmstead adjacent to Brasshouse Lane called Holt Hall.
After the dissolution of Halesowen Abbey in 1538, Smethwick and Harborne were acquired by the Dudley family. Several changes of ownership followed, then Henry Hinckley acquired the sole manor of Smethwick in 1710; in 1790 it was bought by John Reynolds, a Birmingham plater. His son put all the manor lands up for sale in 1830 and that were finally dispersed.
Before the Industrial Revolution, cottages were strung out along the road from Birmingham to Dudley (turnpiked from 1760 to 1876), following today’s Cape Hill, High Street and Oldbury Road; Bearwood Road, the route from Smethwick to Harborne, was recorded as early as 1278.
What was then called Shireland Lane, and is today’s Waterloo Road, was the scene of fighting during the Civil War, when, in 1643, the Parliamentarian defenders of Birmingham were attacked by a Royalist force commanded by Prince Rupert. The Royalists broke through the Parliamentarian barricades in the town, pursuing the defenders as far as Smethwick, where a vicious skirmish took place and the Royalist Earl of Denbigh was fatally wounded by a Parliamentarian officer.
EARLY PUBLIC HOUSES
Several well-known public houses, though rebuilt over the years, are still on the sites of much older inns that stood beside these roads. The Bear has a claim to being the oldest of Smethwick’s pubs, as a field named “The Bear Leasowe” is recorded in 1699. The original Red Cow, which dates from at least the early 18th century and was demolished in 1936; the Blue Gates (not named after the toll gates, but after a nearby farm which existed by 1699), by the 1770s. The Old Chapel Inn, still relatively unchanged, may date from a similar period to the Old Church which is our oldest surviving building.
SMETHWICK’S GREAT BENEFACTRESS
Originally called “Parkes’ Chapel”, the Old Church was consecrated in 1732. Previously St Peter’s, Harborne, was the only church for Smethwick people’s baptisms, marriages and burials. Although it was only built as a chapel-of-ease, not to set up an ecclesiastical parish, this new place of worship helped Smethwick to establish a separate identity from Harborne. Miss Dorothy Parkes, who was born in Smethwick in 1644 and was a wealthy heiress, appointed trustees in her will to spend up to £800 in building and furnishing the chapel, and endowed it with a bequest of land. She also made several other provisions: for a minister for the poor, and for the setting up and maintenance of a charity school. The church of Holy Trinity was built in 1837 and in 1842 the parish of “North Harborne” was created in Smethwick.
THE CANAL SYSTEM
The cutting in 1768-69 of James Brindley’s canal to transport coal from Wednesbury to Birmingham began to attract manufacturing industry to the area. So great was the demand for using the canal that the system had to be improved in 1788-90, and again, by Thomas Telford in 1827-9. His work included the building in 1828-29 of Galton Bridge, now a Grade I listed structure. Carrying Roebuck Lane a distance of 154 feet across the 70-foot deep cutting, this was the longest canal bridge over the deepest cutting in the world. Later the railways followed the line of the canals and stations were established at Rolfe Street and Spon Lane in 1852.
THE COMING OF LARGE-SCALE INDUSTRY
Metalworking has been predominant in Smethwick’s industrial development. Blacksmithing is recorded in the 16th century, and nailmaking, although not here a major industry, was carried out during the 17th and 18th centuries; in the latter there was also some gunsmithing work. A brasshouse existed on the canal bank by 1772, followed in 1796 by Boulton, Watt and Son’s Soho Foundry which was built for the casting of components for their extremely successful steam engines. The first general manager of the foundry was William Murdock who pioneered there the industrial production of coal gas for lighting purposes.Throughout the 19th century, the land around the canals was bought up for the building of factories, many companies moving here from the crowded centre of Birmingham. Smethwick’s workforce excelled in light engineering, and materials of the highest standards were exported to every corner of the world.
Bramah, Fox and Co, which developed into the London Works and later produced the ironwork for the Crystal Palace, set up in 1839. Muntz’s Metal Works began in 1842, and the 1850’s saw the beginnings of the partnership whose manufacture of nuts and bolts was to develop into Guest, Keen and Nettlefold. 1864 saw the arrival of two more famous Smethwick factories: the forerunnner of the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Co. Ltd., and Tangye Bros. Cornwall engineering works. Two years later came Evered’s, which later became the Surrey Works, and in the 1880s, several tube-making firms: among them George Burn, who set up the Credenda Works. In 1895, the Soho Foundry was bought up for re-development by W and T Avery, and in 1903, the “Birmid”, Birmingham Aluminium Casting Co. Ltd moved to the Dartmouth Road site. The Halford Works of Henry Hope and Sons was built in 1905.
Glassmaking was Smethwick’s second most important industry, principally carried out by the Chance family, who acquired the Spon Lane site in 1822, and produced all the glass in 1851 for the Crystal Palace. Chance’s made stained glass for a while but gave it up in 1867, after which several of the artists, among them Thomas Camm, set up on their own in the town. The town’s busy brewing industry expanded through Henry Mitchell’s operations, who moved to Cape Hill in 1878 and developed further 20 years later when he went into partnership with William Butler.
This great expansion of industry attracted enormous numbers of works to the two from the surrounding countryside. In 1801 the population numbered 1,097; by 1901 this had risen to 54,539, which represents one of the highest proportional rises ever known in Britain. Streets of terraced houses, the majority of which were cramped and without sanitation, were hastily erected to house them, and it was not until the 1880’s that proper sewage and drainage systems were begun. The early 20th century saw Bearwood developed as a mainly residential area, which resulted in the felling of the famous Three Shire Oak, which grew in Staffordshire, Worcestershire and an isolated area of Shropshire at a point where the boundaries met.
SMETHWICK’S STATELY HOMES
During the late 18th and 19th centuries a number of business men had large mansions built here in the then pleasant countryside; the names of some of them reflected the well-wooded character of the neighbourhood: The Coppice, The Woodlands, Smethwick Grove, Holly Lodge, Capethorn and The Lightwoods.
Smethwick Hall and Warley Abbey were built in the area to the west which did not finally lose its rural character until the late 1920s. Of Smethwick’s mansion houses, the only survivor is Lightwoods House (Grade II Listed) built circa 1793. The house, together with its parkland, was acquired by a consortium in 1902 and opened as a park, with the house now in use for community events. In 1906 the parkland of Warley Woods was similarly bought and it today leased by Sandwell MBC to, and managed by, the Warley Woods Community Trust.
LOCAL GOVERNMENT – LOCAL LOYALTIES
Modern local government in the town began in 1856 when a local board of health was set up. In 1888 Birmingham was planning to extend its boundaries by annexing several adjacent parishes, intending to include Harborne by exclude Smethwick. Some local businessmen thought where would be advantages in the town becoming part of its large neighbour and factions for an against annexation arose. Eventually the proposal to apply to join Birmingham was only defeated by the casting vote of the chairman, Arthur Keen. Harborne joined Birmingham in 1891 and Smethwick became a borough in 1899, with Jabez Lones as the first mayor.
The Council House was built in 1907 when county borough status was conferred. From a rural hamlet of less than a thousand inhabitants in 1801 had grown a busy, crowded town of over 50,000 people, a growth level second in the country only to Salford. The town developed a reputation for sound local government and a pioneering attitude to education, and the residents took considerable pride in their community.
THE EXPANSION OF GROWTH
After the First World War ended in 1918, there was pressure as never before for housing. In 1920 it was calculated that 2,000 houses here were occupied by more than one family, and 480 houses were unfit for human habitation. 4,000 new houses were needed but by now the town was rapidly running out of land on which to build them. The council began to buy up land in the west, and there the fields and farms, such as Joey Lowe’s Farm at Old Chapel, began to vanish as new housing estates, both council and privately-built, began to spring up. In 1927, after much acrimonious debate, 571 acres of land in the Warley Woods area were acquired from Oldbury, allowing the council’s building programme to continue.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
When the Second World War broke out in 1939, a number of Smethwick factories, such as Avery’s, were turned over to War Office production. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth made two morale-boosting visits to the workforce. The Railway Carriage and Wagon Works built both tanks and aircraft; as well as Blenheims, Halifaxes and Lancasters they also built the Hamilcar gliders that were used to such good effect in the D-Day landings. Chance’s expertise in optical glass was used to keep the Allied forces supplied with gun-sights and searchlights. The town was thus a natural target for enemy action. Over 90 civilians, their ages ranging from 2 to 81 years, died in the ten air raids during which the town was hit between 1940 and 1942.
20th CENTURY DECLINE AND UPHEAVAL
Unfortunately, during the middle years of the 20th century, the pressing needs of housing and modernisation led to the demolition of a number of picturesque and interesting buildings. Warley Abbey was demolished in 1957 as it was considered too costly to restore. Many of Smethwick’s landmarks have been irretrievably lost and are only known through old pictures and documents.
The post-war years brought changes just as massive as those that had brought the town into being. Thousands of new residents from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent arrived in the 1960’s, attracted by the prospects of work, but opportunities were reduced with alarming speed as many local companies first shrank their workforces and then closed altogether.
The town was met with complex social and political problems and gained unwelcome notoriety for issues concerning race relations, overcrowding and housing. These came to the attention of the American political activist Malcolm X, whose interpretation was wildly exaggerated. When visiting Birmingham in 1965 to address university students, he was brought to Marshall Street by BBC reporters, where he posed for photographs before being taken on to the University of Birmingham.
Smethwick’s identity became blurred by local authority re-organisations. In 1966 it was removed from its historical county of Staffordshire to join Oldbury and Rowley Regis in the new borough of Warley in Worcestershire, and at the same time it lost its status as a single parliamentary constituency. The absorption in 1974 of Warley into the Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell left many Smethwickians with a sense of loss and the feeling that their town had somehow been robbed of its significance.
New arrivals brought new cultures and new energy with them, establishing new shops and restaurants, revitalizing areas that had become run-down. This was most notable by the Sikh community who built the Guru Nanak Gurdwara on High Street as the largest Sikh temple outside India. Smethwick is now a multi-faith and multi-cultural town and remains an industrial centre of many companies, although far fewer people are employed than in the 20th century.
The early 21st century has seen Smethwick trying hard, with ambitious programmes of regeneration, to re-establish itself, after experiencing large-scale and far-reaching changes.
2021 Smethwick Local History Society