Friday, August 19, 2016

Time Travel: Smallbrook Queensway

There is talk of redevelopini ng one of the modernist buildings on Smallbrook Queensway (formerly known as Ringway until the Queen misunderstood what was meant by opening the Queensway and the whole inner ring road became the Queensway). It is the first part of the Inner Ring Road to be completed and even manages to get an honorific mention in the Birmingham Pevsner:
‘From here [Holloway Head Roundabout] Smallbrook Queensway runs E. The best piece of mid-C20 urban design in the city, and the only stretch of the Inner Ring Road built as a boulevard, rather than an urban motorway. Much of the effect is due to the S side. First the plain former Scala House, offices and cinema by James A Roberts, 1962-4. Then a single six-storey block by Roberts of 1958-62 runs as far as the Bull Ring. Grand urban scale, and a good balance between the thin concrete mullions, bands of windows, and relief panels. Projecting concrete trough uplighters give it excellent relief. In the centre a glazed section bridges Hurst Street on raking concrete pillars.’ (Andy Foster: Pevsner Architectural Guides: Birmingham. Yale University Press, New Haven, 2005, p. 201.)
Architect Joe Holyoak has waded into the battle (it seems that the fans of modernist architecture are becoming more alarmed at the rate at which Birmingham’s 1960s buildings are vanishing, girded by the fate of the Central Library):
' Roberts' Queensway building is a grand and elegant urban gesture. Its curvature on plan and sweeping horizontal lines, its rhythm of vertical fins, together with its characteristic projecting concrete uplighters, make it still the most impressive piece of modern streetscape in the city, even 54 years after its completion.
It is directly comparable with the work of John Nash in the early 19th century, when Nash cut the curving new boulevard of Regent Street through a tangle of lanes and alleys in London and lined it with elegant neoclassical commercial buildings.
But the Smallbrook Queensway building is now threatened">by a redevelopment proposed by its owners
CEG (Commercial Estates Group).
CEG proposes to demolish the section between Hurst Street and Horse Fair, including the bridge over Hurst Street, and to rebuild it as residential apartments. A tower of at least 22 storeys is proposed on the corner with Hurst Street.
'The section of the building between Hurst Street and the Bullring is proposed to be stripped back to its concrete frame and rebuilt, with two additional floors of offices added on top.
'Nothing of the original character of Roberts' building would survive this redevelopment. The architecture of the proposal is bland and unexceptional, lacking the distinctiveness of the existing building.
'The developer claims the continuous sweep of Roberts' building is maintained in the new proposal but this is not so as can clearly be seen in the published images.' (
I don’t dislike it, myself. I think that probably Norfolk House over the road is a better building architecturally, less fussy and more effective. SBQ 1, 2, and 3 (as the building is now known, see below for its original names) is effective from a distance. Close up it is rather repetitive, and when seen from behind, it is apparent that the fa├žade is (as we would say locally) all kippers and curtains. There is the additional drawback that it is best seen from below the road level, and now that the subway into Hurst Street has been filled in, it cannot be seen in its most effective light. It has also been incredibly neglected, and what first made me look up the building in the books was overhearing a mother say to her daughter that the place was very neglected.
Be that as it may, this is a time travel post, and so as usual the Hound has turned to his Kelly’s Directory of 1967/8, since I find it fascinating to know what buildings were used for in the past. Of course that would have been well before the building’s architecture became unfashionable, and there were continual advertisements on it of offices to let. It is not completely clear to me what is where, since the names used for the buildings have changed, so I shall post the whole of that side of the Ringway after Scala House and up to the steps to the Bullring. The uses of the buildings start off in style:
…Here is Holloway Circus…
Locarno Ballroom (entrance)
21 Eastern Moon, restaurant
23 Ying Wa, Chinese restaurant
25/27 American Express Company Inc. (The), travel agts
29 Midland and Western House entrance
31 Nunn’s Barber Shop
31 Brooke Opticians (hearing aid dept)
31 Brooke Opticians
33 Bruno, ladies’ hairdrssrs
35 Government Bookshop, booksllrs
39 Pantheon Espresso
Laing John Construction Ltd. Bldg.. cntrctrs
1 Beekes Shoe Repairs
2/3 Thorley S. R. grocer
4/5 Comfort Shoe Warehouse Ltd. Shoe fctrs
6 Sewing Machine Shop (The), sewing machine dlrs
Withers (Tobacconist) Ltd. Tobccnsts
Leeson J. H. & Co. Ltd. Newsagts
… here is Hurst st …
Ground floor.
Lloyds Bank LTD
First Floor.
British Railways
Second floor.
British Railways
Third floor.
Initial Laundry Birmingham, laundries
Interior & Structural Cleaners (Midlands) Ltd. Office cleaners
Union of Shop, Distributive & Allied Workers
Fourth floor.
Shell Chemicals U.K. Ltd. Distributors
67 Powe Hector Ltd. Tailors
69 Sodazone Ltd. (Wimpy Bar), restaurant
71 Stylo Shoes Ltd. Shoe rtlrs
73/75 Paling Ltd. Outfitters
77 Collier Phillip Ltd. Tailors
79 Lewis Separates, ladies’ outfitters
81/83 Young’s Dress Hire, dress clothing hire
First floor.
Selwyn F. Maitland & Co. estate agts
Paling Ltd. (office), outfitters
Brittain Thos. & Co. chartered accntnts. Midland 4646/7/8
Jacks William & Co. Ltd. Metal mers
G.K.N. Steel Company Ltd. Steel mfrs
Woolley W. B. & Co. Ltd. Steamship agts
United States Lines, freight agts
National and Local Government Officers Association
Dictaphone Co. Ltd
Second floor.
Satchwell Appliance Controls Ltd. Thermostat mkrs
Satchwell Control Systems Ltd. Thermostat mkrs
Midlands Computing Centre Ltd. Computer bureau
Mann (Handling) Ltd. Conveyor and elevator mkrs
Tower Shipping (B’Ham) Ltd. Forwarding agts
Berisford S. & W. (Northern) Ltd. Sugar imptrs
SHAW, GILBERT & CO. F.A.I. Chartered auctioneers T.N. Midland 9125 (5 lines)
Capitol Motor Finance Ltd. Hire purchase financiers
E.M.I. Ltd. (Computing Services Division)
Third floor.
Planned Music Ltd. Music relay service
Bramley Oliver L. & Co. estate agts
Oakley, Vaughan & Co. Ltd. & at Lloyds, insur. Brkrs
English Steel Corporation Ltd. Steel mfrs
Renwick, Wilton & Dobson (Fuels) Ltd. Fuel distributors
Whitecroft Designs Ltd. Commrcl. Artists
FIRTH-VICKERS STAINLESS STEELS LIMITED, stainless steel manufrs. Telegraphic address, “Noncrode, Birmingham”; Telephone, Midland. 6877/8/9 (& Staybrite works, Sheffield 9)
Turvey B. H. & Co. accntnts
Midland Silicones Ltd. Chemcl. Mfrs
Fourth floor.
Ford Motor Co. Ltd. (design offices)
87/89 Stone T. & F. Lighting and Radio Ltd
91 Johnson’s (The) Jewellers (B’Ham) Ltd. Jewelers
95 Howard Hudson, optician
97 Scholl Foot Comfort Service
As is to be expected, these time travel posts always illuminate the past of a site, and even though this is only going back fifty years (the trouble with Brum is that if you go back even a decade beyond that the streets are unrecognizable) it is apparent that the building has fallen on hard times. Rather than the predominance of takeaways now, the businesses in the ground floor are relatively high class. Incidentally this proves how there were shops in the underpasses, and that shopping underground was normal for Brummies from the 60s up to the 90s!
The businesses which occupy the offices also include a high proportion of prominent large businesses, suggesting that this row of buildings was very desirable at the time. What has really changed is that there are only three telephone numbers (I have a feeling there may have been more, but that it required a higher payment to get it into Kelly’s, which of course was separate from the telephone directory. I also love Firth-Vickers’s telegraph address.
Anyone my age (I’m looking at you, Inexplicable) will automatically be taken back to their childhood by the Wimpy Bar. Anyone for a Bender in a Bun?


  1. Oh, yes, I remember when Norwich had a Wimpy. I think The Mother may have taken us there once (or maybe even twice) when we were very young. It later became a Burger King, and is now part of Marks & Spencers. If I remember rightly, of course...

    I like this description: "its rhythm of vertical fins" as, to me, it speaks more of some gigantic seamonster than a building!

    1. Actually I think that's a fair description, although I was always fascinated by the uplighters myself.
      If you visit Brum in the past I promise we'll go to the Locarno Ballroom!


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