Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Time Travel: Glimpses of Life in Old Square

As befits a studious witch I spent some of this afternoon in the library, and amongst other things glanced at a little book called Memorials of the Old Square (by Joseph Hill and Robert K. Dent. Birmingham: Printed for and published by Achilles Taylor [what a marvellous name], at Caxton House, in the Old Square. MDCCCXCVII). In true Victorian fashion it is subtitled 'Being some Notices of the Priory of St. Thomas in Birmingham, and the Lands appertaining thereto; also of The Square built upon the Priory Close, known in later times as The Old Square; with notes concerning the dwellers in the sixteen houses thereof. and of some notable persons associated therewith'. In this post I want to give a few snap shots of life in the Old Square before it turned into the, well, traffic island it is now. The book is actually in commemoration of The Old Square: at the time of its publication the square were in the process of being demolished to build Corporation Street.
'Of No.1, familiarly known as "Hector's House," the first occupier was John Pemberton, the Quaker, the purchaser of the Priory lands and the originator of the Square, whilst the next house, No. 2, was tenanted by John Pemberton, described in the early rate books as "Gentleman." The contemporaneous existence in the town of two John Pembertons, both landowners and opulent men, has long been a source of difficulty in treating of this very important Birmingham family. The difficulty was increased when it was found that they were living next door to each other in the Square, and that the name disappeared from No.2, at the period of the death of John Pemberton, of No. 1, whilst it continues on the rate books for No. 1, until after the death of John, of No. 2.' (p.21) Well, that's that cleared up then. Despite these two gentleman being very confusing, the land for the Square was bought by one of them in 1701. It had previously been part of the close of the Priory.
The Hector of the Hector's House was a great friend of Dr Johnson, who used to stay with him before and after he lived in the Square, when he visited Birmingham. It was here that Johnson met one of his great loves, Mrs Carless, and Hector provided Boswell with much material for his life of Johnson. Hector's House was so beloved of Birmingham people that when it was demolished, the woodwork from one of the rooms was set up as a Johnson room in Aston Hall. Johnson used to walk from Lichfield to Birmingham to see Dr Swynfen, his physician, the The Square.
'[John Bingham] was the owner of the houses Nos. 3 and 4; these he was allowed to retain [i.e. after being financially ruined], and converting them into a commercial and private hotel, known as "The Stork Tavern," he thus recommenced life as a hotel keeper. The venture was successful, and the Stork became a well-known private posting house. About 1812 the whole was stone-fronted, and became the "Stork Hotel."
'At an early period of its history, May, 1802, the stableyard was utilised for a circus, and the following announcement appeared in Aris's Gazette:
"The Ladies and Gentlemen of Birmingham are respectfully informed that a very commodious portable Amphitheatre is fitting up on the premises of the Stork Hotel, and will open on Monday, the 31st May, with the greatest variety of Equestrian Feats ever exhibited in Birmingham by the most select Horsemen from Astley's and Jones' Amphitheatres in London."
'Four years later a new Burletta, Feats of Horsemanship and new Comic Pantomime and other attractions were announced for every evening until further notice, at the Amphitheatre, Stork Tavern Yard. Lectures were also frequently announced at the Stork Tavern. In 1805 Dr Birkbeck gave there a course of lectures on Electricity, Galvanism, and Pneumatic Chenistry.' (p.42)
'The last house of the [East] angle was, from its earliest days, held by Richard Baddeley, Birmingham's first patentee. In a town which has produced far more inventors and patentees than any other in the kingdom, which was, in fact, the nursery of invention, and had almost a monopoly of patents, this fact entitles Baddeley to a prominent and distinguished local position.' (p.61) His patent was for a new invention for making iron binding for cart wheels.
Doctors, manufacturers, entertainers...while perhaps not all as solid as we would like them to be, the inhabitants of the Square were all prominent citizens. I see that Samuel Galton (as in Smethwick Galton Bridge station) was expelled by the Society of Friends, thereby breaking a tradition that many of the Square's prominent residents were Quakers. It was also associated with banking:
'In 1765, Sampson Lloyd (the third), in conjunction with John Taylor, opened the first regular banking house in the town. [...] A few years later, 1770, as the bank began to pay, Sampson Lloyd and Oswald Hanbury, in conjunction with John Taylor and William Bowman, started a bank in Lombard Street, London. [...] The London Bank having, in 1887, absorbed Bosanquet's and Salt's Banks, an amalgamation took place with the Birmingham house, and in 1889 the whole were comprised under the shortened title of "Lloyds Bank, Limited."
'It was immediately after the founding of the London bank, ten years after his marriage, when he had seven children, and whilst still engaged with his half brothers in the lucrative business in Edgbaston Street that Sampson Lloyd settled in the Square. Hitherto the new Bank in Dale End had made little or no profit, but it was just beginning to prosper, and the convenience of living so near is manifest.
'In 1776 (Friday, March 22nd), occurred the remarkable visit of the great Dr. Samuel Johnson, which gave this house a local fame. According to Boswell, the pair travelled from Henley very early, breakfasted about nine o'clock at their inn, High Street, and proceeded to the Square. Hector had gone into the country, and the maid servant was unimpressed by the importance of the Doctor's name, which, says, Boswell, he roared at her, and he departed in a Johnsonian rage, proceeding to Mr Sampson Lloyd's house. Mr. Lloyd was, of course, at the Bank, and Mrs. Lloyd invited them to dinner. This restored the Doctor to good temper, and they walked about the town.' (pp. 101-2)
I could just wish that any encounter with Lloyd's bank had that effect on me nowadays. I hope that these few snapshots of life in the Old Square have given a taste of the spirit of place. Certainly next time I sit in the square (contemporary view included) I will not merely commune with Tony Hancock, but with Dr Johnson as well. And if one of the John Pembertons should happen to wander past I will ask him which he is.


  1. Ooh, I remember Old Square from a previous post of yours (I think there were other locations, too). I recall rather liking those two big houses on either side in the second picture. I must find that previous post, now!

    1. Those houses are favourites of mine too!
      Actually Old Square is proving unexpectedly fruitful, considering my first post was wondering why that area of the city is called the Minories...


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