The History of Kings Heath
The settlement and development of the Kings Heath district essentially began in the eighteenth century. Until then, it was a largely unoccupied wasteland with ancient woods and commons. As part of the Royal Manor of Kings Norton, this wasteland came to be called the Kings Heath. The attractions of the area were timber, clay suitable for brick- making and flax.
Two particular events brought new settlers at this time. In 1767, the old track from Alcester to Birmingham was improved and became a turnpike road. The toll gate and house were probably located at the northern end of what is now the High Street, near the boundary with Moseley. This stretch of the road was then quite marshy, being much lower than the road to the south, but nevertheless a scattering of cottages appeared around the Cross Guns where travellers stopped for rest and refreshment. The second event was the further enclosure of the heath from 1772 when new farms were established on its borders.
Until 1800, the most important private house was Hazelwell Hall, built on an estate dating back to 1325. Now wealthy manufacturers from Birmingham began to buy farms and land here. William Hamper at the Grange and John Cartland at the Priory were both sons of Birmingham brass- founders. Attracted by its healthy air, the fine views to the south and its convenience to the town, such new settlers began the growth of Kings Heath as a residential district. A railway station opened in 1840, providing quicker access to Birmingham. The largest business enterprise throughout the century was the brewery, founded in 1831, but most local people worked on the farms or in small handicrafts.
After 1850, the district began to change dramatically as the population increased. New churches, chapels and schools were built. The trams arrived in 1886, increasing access to Birmingham, but work could also now be found at Stirchley and Lifford.
Large brickworks between Grove Road and Kings Road supplied materials for new building in the area. In 1900, the police station had a staff of ten, with a local court for licensing and for rating appeals. The fire station, established in 1886, had eight men. There was also a flourishing social life, much of it taking place at the Institute, with cricket, tennis, football and bowling clubs, choral groups and the inevitable Temperance Society.
At the turn of the century, Kings Heath was still growing and prosperous, with many residents hoping for independence from Kings Norton. Local pride was shown in 1906 in the planting of 228 trees along the Alcester Road, 'for the welfare and betterment of the district' and paid for by public donations. Ambitions for independence were however doomed, and in 1911 Birmingham acquired Kings Heath under the Greater Birmingham Scheme. Birmingham already supplied its gas and water and proceeded to develop Kings Heath as a residential suburb for people from its overcrowded and unhealthy slums. Farms disappeared under private and municipal estates but the ancient open spaces at Billesley Common and Cocks Moor have been partly preserved.
The 1901 census tells us that 9 year old JRR Tolkien was living at 86 Westfield Road, Kings Heath, with his mother Mabel and brother Hilary, aged 7.
Since 1945, the motorcar has brought mixed blessings: the traffic congestion is infamous, but the High Street needs cars and buses to survive as a retail centre. It remains a centre of activity with the new community centre close by, as well as chain stores, small businesses, an indoor market in the old TASCOS Branch 24, and even a craftsman in stained glass works locally. A few minutes walk from the bustling High Street leads to the quiet, secluded roads of Victorian villas. In the west lies the splendid park with spacious roads of detached and semi-detached houses of the 1930s nearby. There is no medieval church or green here, but its origin as a nineteenth century village gives Kings Heath character and distinction.
The Library acts as the focus for local history activity in Kings Heath. The Kings Heath Local History Society meets in the Library once a month, and has its own archive of local history materials. The Library has a collection of photographs, maps, and newscuttings as well as a selection of books about Birmingham and the surrounding area.
The Library Service and Tempus Publishing have jointly published a book about Kings Heath compiled by Margaret Green, which contains over 200 old photographs of Kings Heath. It costs £9.99 and is available from bookshops, the Library Service or direct from Tempus (01453 883300).
If you have an enquiry about the history of Kings Heath, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. The Library is seeking to expand its collection of local history materials. If you can help with information, or especially if you have any old photographs we would be very pleased to hear from you.