16 June 2012

A Blank Canvas: Bennett's Hill & Waterloo Street

~1751 map showing (in the grey central area) the Pemberton family home, Bennett's Hill House and the attached garden. Swinford Street became the top end of New Street and Bewdley Street became Ann Street and is now called Colmore Row.~

The previous landscapes of a town influence the proceeding ones and this can be seen in Birmingham. The parts of the town that are the oldest generally have fewer surviving old buildings; they were often the first areas to be redeveloped when the town altered its image. These are areas such as the Bull Ring, Spiceal Street, Moor Street, Dale End, High Street and the bottom end of New Street (the top end of New Street by Victoria Square is relatively new). Also, being the primary shopping streets, these are the places that the town planners would decide place new and innovative buildings. The growing town spread out from these streets; the further the distance from them, the newer the street and the more chance of finding older buildings. If we were to go north-west for example, from the top end of New Street up the roads leading from it to St. Philip’s (such as Temple Street) and to the buildings around the church then to Colmore Row and the roads leading off that we would find many buildings that are generally mid to late Victorian. These replaced buildings that were initially built around the 1740s and 1750s. Further out still is the area around St. Paul’s where a large number of the original buildings from the 1780s still survive, probably, in part, because that part of the town was divided from the central district by the inner ring road.

Bennett’s Hill and Waterloo Street are exceptions in this, as their primary architecture dates from the 1820s and 1830s. There is very little architecture of this period that survives in the central areas apart from in these two streets, and the fact that there is a focus of this period here is peculiar. These two streets are right in the middle of the area that was being built up in the mid 1700s, but the land that they cover was once the large garden of a grand house; Bennett's Hill House. The house had been built in 1698 by John Pemberton outside the town on the top of Bennett’s Hill, which was at that time, just a hill. The lease for the land of the house and garden was for 120 years, and in 1748 Thomas Pemberton (John’s son) added a clause that the land could not be built upon for the term of the lease to protect the elegant gardens and tree lined walks that he had created (see map above).

Little snippets of the land were cut away over the next 70 years, the corner was negotiated for the building of a free church in 1805, and houses popped up along the edges adjoining New Street and Ann Street, but the vast bulk of the land was not able to be built on till 1818. William Hutton stated that prospective builders were just waiting for ‘a word from the owner to speak the houses into being’.* It took a few years for the two new roads to be cut across the land, but after that houses, offices, banks and other buildings quickly lined them; it was a blank canvas for the architects of the age to fill. Several architectural additions were from Charles Edge, John Fallows and Rickman & Hutchinson. At the same time many of the older buildings along the sides of New Street and Ann Street that joined the land were replaced, some of these survive on Ann Street (now Colmore Row), but none on New Street.

It was the relative newness of Bennett’s Hill and Waterloo Street that meant that the Victorians replaced so few of the buildings when they revamped this whole area from the about the 1860s onwards, the newer buildings are mainly of the twentieth century. Many of the buildings at the bottom of Bennett’s Hill were taken out by bombs, and there has been a great alteration to the St. Philip’s end of Waterloo Street, but there are still a number of the original (and they are original) buildings intact. And all because Thomas Pemberton liked to walk in his garden.

*References on request
Image courtesy of Birmingham Library and Archive Services.

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