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Birmingham City Council

Harborne: 19th Century History

Greenfield House
By the mid 19th century the development of the village was accelerating. At first housing appeared on the land to the south of Harborne Heath Road. Bull Street, South Street and York Street were built by developer Josiah Bull York in the 1850s.

Others followed, encroaching on the fields and gardens that had provided a pleasant rural outlook for the artist David Cox when he lived in Greenfield House. Harborne historically was located in the county of Staffordshire. An 1845 directory of the county includes a description of the village:

The chief agricultural productions are corn and potatoes, with market gardening carried on to a considerable extent, particularly for strawberries. There is a blacking manufactory and a steel mill. The labouring population are chiefly nailers, working in their own cottages.

Nailmakers are first recorded in Harborne in a legal document of 1600, but it had been an established occupation in these parts for many years before. Often it would be an alternative employment to agricultural labouring when the weather prevented working on the land. The whole family might be involved, helping at the small forge built to the side or rear of the cottage. Iron was supplied by the nail masters, a few of whom were among the wealthier residents of Harborne. A finished load of nails might have to be carried into Birmingham to be exchanged for the raw material to fashion the next load.

A rhyme relating to Harborne runs

Hungry Harbone, proud but poor,
A washerwoman at every door


And for some reason Harborne had a reputation for laundresses. Perhaps the proximity of wealthier Edgbaston guaranteed a demand for such work. Certainly the Census of 1851 provides plenty of evidence of both nailmakers and laundresses, and of the young age at which schooling might be abandoned to take a place at the forge. However, by this time, nailmaking on this small scale was in a decline, and would soon have disappeared completely.
Harborne Park Road


Increased housing and improved transport (the first omnibus service into Birmingham having commenced in the 1840s) encouraged the growth of a thriving High Street.

The opening of the railway line in 1874 signalled the start of more development to the north of the High Street. Although the trains still passed the fields of Hill Top Farm as they left the village, the importance of agriculture to its economy was waning. Small businesses and light industry were on the increase.

Johnson Brothers 1900



In the early years of the twentieth century the Chad Valley Toy Company was to build a new factory close to the railway, continuing an association with Harborne that had begun years before as Johnson Brothers, and would continue until the 1960s.


Moorpool Avenue 1910



A short distance away Harborne's 'garden suburb' Harborne Tenants' Estate (Moor Pool) would be built, an attractive answer to the need for housing, yet maintaining an impression of space and greenery. In 1908 the first houses were occupied.


Harborne Cricket Club 1907



Social life in the village was rich and varied. The Harborne and Edgbaston Institute was opened by Sir Henry Irving in 1878, providing a centre of culture and entertainment for the next twenty-five years.

Harborne Cricket Club was founded in 1868, and Harborne Golf Club in 1893, both are thriving today.



In Harborne once upon a Time published in 1913, Tom Presterne relates his memories of an earlier age, when the old King's Arms public house (on the site of The Fallow and Firkin) was the scene of many a village celebration. At the Green Man, the Gooseberry Growers' Society was thriving throughout the 19th century, growing 'the largest berry in all England' in 1875.

In 1888 The Greater Birmingham Scheme was drawn up, to include the annexation of Harborne. Harborne ratepayers voted to oppose this. Most issues of local government were the responsibility of the Local Board, and the rate levied on the residents was favourable.

The following year a further attempt was also rejected. But in 1890, after a rise in local rates, and the promise of increased policing, improved pavements and street lighting, and the provision of a free library, a resolution in favour of annexation was passed. This occurred the following year, heralding in a new phase in Harborne's development as it made ready to enter the twentieth century.


Harborne History
Harborne: Early History
The Don Wright Local History Collection
Harborne in World War Two
Harborne Schooldays
Harborne High Street Landmarks
Harborne Railway History
Harborne Library: A Brief History
Harborne Local History Group