Friday, October 21, 2016

Time Travel: Swallow Street

There was me thinking that this would be a relatively simple time travel post, and you wouldn't believe the difficulty I have had getting to the bottom of this historical mystery. I have even had to resort to a hand job in the library to get to the bottom of Swallow Street - but enough with the innuendo, on with the mystery. My interest was first aroused by Brunel Street, which runs at an angle between Navigation Street and Suffolk Street Queensway; you won't discover a time travel post about that one because I've discovered that it is actually a relatively new street which appeared while Manzoni's boys were joyously going round the city centre with a bulldozer. And what started my interest in Brunel Street was that I remember it from trips to the city centre with my parents. I remember going to Allegro Music and also I remember Gino's, which I thought terribly sophisticated at the time. Anyway, I hadn't noticed then that Brunel Street intersects with a street called Swallow Street which runs between Suffolk Street Queensway and Hill Street. It is not an unsubstantial street by any means; in fact I think I had always assumed that it was one of those empty patches of land left over in the post-war rebuilding of the city, but it is only recently that I noticed it has a proper street name.
Swallow Street on the surface seemed to have gone back a long time without leaving any trace of itself, for some reason. It appears on the 1913 Ordnance Survey map of the city centre, where the characteristic pictures of buildings show that there were some at each end, but it didn't look like one of those tiny passages of higgledy-piggledy slums which formerly marked the city centre, so it must have left some trace of itself. First I looked on the internet. There was no history whatsoever. Nothing. Not even someone whose family emigrated to Nova Scotia (or wherever) in 1904 and whose great great grandmother was born above above a nailmaker's in Swallow Street. Literally the only historical reference was the picture from the 1960s which illustrates this post, and which made me think that really there should have been some history for the street, since it looked as if businesses were operated from the houses.
I turned to my 1967-68 Kelly's Directory and found only two entries for Swallow Street:
Here is entrance to Queen's College ch[a]mbers
Stanford & Mann Ltd. st[a]t[io]n[e]rs
I didn't see this almost complete lack of information as discouraging. I joined up the pieces by assuming that everything in the road except the stationers and Queen's College Chambers had been demolished in between the photo being taken and my Kelly's being published. Of course Queen's College Chambers is still there although its address is given as Paradise Street and it is prestigious apartments; it started off as a medical school in 1828 and was one of the colleges which made up the University of Birmingham. The present theological college called the Queen's Foundation was near there too.
I naively thought that it would be simple to find out the historical residents of Swallow Street. I naively thought that some trace of them would have been left in previous Kelly's Directories. I was naturally surprised on arbitrarily choosing the 1930 one in the library to find there was no record of Swallow Street at all. Nothing. It was bizarre that the street was there on the map of 1913, had houses standing in the early 1960s, apparently inhabited by at least one business in 1968 and yet had left no trace in Kelly's at all. I really began to think that I had imagined the street's existence as I went through successive Kelly's and still found absolutely nothing.
The earliest reference in a Kelly's Directory I could find was in 1962, where there were at least a couple of businesses:
12 O'Higgins and Secondini, tailors.
12 Docker F. dance studio
28 Cutler Bob Ltd. turf comm[i]ss[io]n[ing] ag[en]ts
All three of these businesses had vanished in the succeeding six years. There was no indication what was happening at numbers 13 - 27. Swallow Street looked as if it was determined to retain its mystery.
Then I started going through books of the city centre's history by hand (the Hound is not easily deflected when he wants to get to the bottom of a mystery), and finally found the reason for Swallow Street's elusiveness. The simple fact was that nobody noticed it or was bothered about it:
'Some of Birmingham's byways were built as access roads and had nothing more important in them than the back doors of buildings whose frontages were on more prestigious avenues. SWALLOW STREET first appears on Hanson's map of Birmingham in 1778, having been cut around 1750. It linked Hill Street with Suffolk Street and runs parallel to and to the north of Navigation Street, which it slightly pre-dates. The building of the cuttings into New Street Station divided Swallow Street in half, and steam and smoke can be seen rising [referencing the black and white picture of the street] above the bridge parapet on this bitterly cold Friday, 1 February 1963, as a train passes through the last, short, 20-yard cutting before the railway line disappears into the tunnel built by the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) and out beyond Monument Lane locomotive shed into the Black Country. Opposite the bridge, beyond the covered timber yard on the left and the elderly gentleman struggling along the snow-covered footpath, is Summer Street, which was on the same line as the present-day Brunel Street. On the right, behind the Morris LD 1-ton van, are buildings that had originally been the offices of the Inland Revenue, while Scruton's the tailor's, founded in 1931, occupies part of the rear of Queen's College Chambers. A 10hp Ford Prefect E493A of about 1952, one of Ford's last 'sit-up-and-beg' motors, which was phased out during the following year, is parked on the left. The winter of 1962-63 was particularly bad, and the snow lay from the end of December until early March. Behind the car is the West End Ballroom on the corner of Suffolk Street and Holliday Street, while coming out of Holliday Street is a Corporation Daimler CVD6 double-decker fitted with a locally-manufactured Metro-Cammell body, leaving its city terminus on the 95 service to Ladywood.' (David Harvey: Birmingham Past and Present, the City Centre Volume 1, 2002, p.16, which is also the source for the black and white picture of Swallow Street, taken facing the other way from the colour picture.)
So, mystery solved. The simple reason Swallow Street didn't appear in the directories was that nothing happened there which would have made an appearance. If it had it would have been a collection of rear entrances. Of course the situation may well have been different before the advent of the railway, but Swallow Street by the twentieth century was already a relic of a vanished past.
There remained one mystery. The colour picture shows the back of the Golden Eagle public house (in fact the 1913 map shows a P.H. on that site). The address of the Golden Eagle was actually in Hill Street, and it turns out that in the twentieth century it was an art deco 1930s rebuilding of whatever was there before. It was one of the buildings over which the conservationists tussled with the demolitionists and the demolitionists won (I believe in the 1980s) because there were apparently unrepairable structural faults with it. It turns out that the Golden Eagle was a pub known for its music and many famous bands of the time played there, but that isn't really a part of Swallow Street. Certainly, looking at the remaining pictures it looks as if it would have been a sexy art deco building, which it is a great pity is lost.

Image sources include and one I didn't make a note of. Sorry.

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