Saturday, April 16, 2016

Hidden City: Castle Street B4

‘Look up’ is the usual advice given if you are interested in finding out the history of a built environment. Granted, digging will usually provide much evidence, but looking up provides immediate evidence as to how buildings and so on have changed over the years. When shops are refurbished, it is naturally much cheaper just to put a new front on them than to rebuild the whole things, and the upstairs stories can provide much evidence. The whole building may not be leased to the same person, and the different floors can show evidence of different current uses, and even previous uses in the form of ghost signs. This practice of looking up can be supplemented in a place like Birmingham, which has had its share of rebuilding and change over the years, by looking at some remnants at ground level, including the many stubs of former streets which have been left hanging by rebuilding. The tell-tale sign of these is often that there will still be a street name, but it may not seem to go anywhere.
The classic example is Castle Street, which is next to Marks and Spencers in the High Street, and cannot really be described as a street in any meaningful sense of the word. This has been raising my historic suspicions for some time, but only this week did I get to the library to investigate. I also read on the internet that it was an actually street right up to the 1990s – I don’t remember it as such myself, and imagine that it must have been one of those passages we take for granted, and also that Castle Street’s demise was caused by the linking of Marks and Spencers to the Pavilions . The giveaway signs that it must have been a recent thoroughfare are the street sign showing the postcode and the sign advertising the salon, which surely nobody would put up in a dead end like that, and which must have been put up in 1995 at the earliest, when 021 area codes changed to 0121.
First stop as always is maps, and I discover that Castle Street is clearly shown as a street in the 1979 A to Z. In fact it is shown as a street as far back as the 1780s, when it must have been a relatively more important thoroughfare in the pre-industrial revolution town. The map which illustrates this post is the 1912 ordnance survey, which shows how Castle Street was a warren of entries and presumably tiny, higgledy-piggledy buildings, before the post-war rebuilding of the city.
I see that one of the buildings is called a hotel, and have read rumours on the internet of there being a pub in that street, so that may be it. To find what these buildings actually were and give a flavour of what life in Castle Street was actually like, the old faithful Kelly’s Directory was my next stop. The latest I have access to is the 1973/4 one, and unfortunately wasn’t that helpful in terms of Castle Street, showing only the Birmingham Co-Operative Society Ltd at no 10.
The 1916 Kelly’s Directory, therefore only a few years after the map shown here, was much more helpful. It gives the location of the street as 42 High st. to Moor street. I will give the businesses occupying the street in full, because they are redolent of a different age:
4 Woolley Tomas F. Manchester warehouseman
5, 6 & 7 Goodman John & Sons, printers
8 Sumner’s “Ty-phoo Tea” Limited, tea specialists
9 & 10 Bromley W. R. & Co. provision merchants
15 Shaw Harry, dining rooms
16 Broberg Soph, prov[i]s[io]n mer[chant]
18 Booth Frank, shopkeeper
19 McCullagh George B. provision merchant
20 Laming W. C. & Co. provision merchants
21A, Eagles & Co. printers
……… is Moor st………..
Gordon & Lowe, shop fitters
21 Tidmarsh Ambrose, provision merchant
24 Watson & Ball Limited, paper merchants
……… is High st…………
Once again, I am struck by how this list speaks of a different age. In our retail habits, for example. All those tiny provision merchants under the name of their owners rather than large chains with no individual names at all. Presumably going out shopping in Castle Street meant visiting several little shops, which must have stocked different things. The old photograph shows the Typhoo tea factory when it was in Castle Street, and since it moved well before 1912 the Typhoo name must have been kept for the tea merchants as the single example of branding here. And this list also a different age in terms of the names above. The most foreign-sounding name is Scottish, indicating how different the population of Birmingham was before the multiculturalism heralded by later immigration.
Well before all of this happened, I see that a murder took place at the Golden Elephant pub (or inn) in Castle Street, in April 1888, committed by the landlord’s son:
' Widower [Nathaniel ] Daniels, a printer, was in the habit of visiting Emma Hastings, the daughter of a Birmingham publican with whom he was having an on-off relationship. At closing time on 14th April he called at the back door of the pub, and after kissing her he shot her twice with a revolver. One bullet hit her in the chest, the other blew her brains out. His defence of insanity failed. Sentence of death was carried out in Birmingham on the 28th August 1888.  Daniels was thirty four at the time of the execution.' (
So by looking round a corner, as opposed to looking up, the history of this corner of the city has been revealed.
Oh, Inexplicable Device will be disappointed that this post is not about music, but the music I grew up with really is genuinely too embarrassing to post about in any great detail…
Picture credit:


  1. More embarassing than the Dinosaur Record and Paula Abdul? Pah!

    Poor Castle Street, now relegated to little more than alley status. Has it been blocked at one end for long? I only ask because on that old map it looks like there's some sort of building at the High St end. Or does that X indicate that the 1st/2nd floor straddles the street?

    1. I think the X indicates an entry under the straddling first floor.
      As embarrassing as Wham!


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