An interesting article about Austen Chamberlain and the Bull written by Maureen Perrie can be found here: Austen and the Bull. Thank you Maureen.
There are some interesting memories from former local resident Philippa Robinson which can be found here: Phillipa Robinson
History of Highbury
The Highbury estate was the rus in urbe estate of the Chamberlains from 1879 to 1914, when the idea of bringing the countryside into the town was popular among wealthy families. It was named after the London suburb where Joseph Chamberlain grew up. The latter came to Birmingham in 1854 to join a family manufacturing business, and this brought him enough wealth to retire and enter politics in 1874.
Highbury Hall was built in the ‘Venetian Gothic’ style, and the grounds – 25 acres on a south facing slope – were landscaped by Edward Milner, whom Joseph had employed at his previous Edgbaston home.
At that time the main entrance was from the western boundary in Shutlock Lane, next to the lodge cottage, to allow for a carriage drive to the Hall. One side of this was planted with the rhododendrons which are still there, partly to screen Yew Tree Road from view.
At the south-facing front of the Hall was a lawn with clipped holly and box along a semicircular path that also featured beds of shrubs and annual plantings.
Further out was a wide gravel path around the estate boundary, including rustic bridges across to the two islands in the lake. Existing field boundaries were removed to create thirteen acres of parkland. Trees were retained, additional stands were planted, including the beech copse north of the lake.
By 1903 the grounds extended to over 100 acres, some leased from Richard Cadbury (who had built Uffculme in 1891 next door to Highbury). In 1903 Charles Curtis describes the features of the estate, including iron railings, borders planted with bulbs, annuals and herbaceous plants on either side of the circuit path. There was extensive tree planting to mask the sight of the growing Kings Heath.
The gardens followed the fashion of the times, thus, in 1890 there was a new rose garden, in the ‘Elizabethan’ style, with beds edged with box, and enclosed by yew hedging, at the end of the kitchen garden. In 1901 a ‘Dutch’ garden had beds wholly of bulbs, with terracotta tile edging and paths, and surrounded by a holly hedge. Next in 1902 came the ‘Italian’ garden- this and the rock garden below it are the only visible sites of Chamberlain’s formal gardens. This had a pergola for climbing roses, and an attractive brick balustrade. A photograph taken in 1904 shows the steps between the rock and Italian gardens. The latter had ornate iron gates from Siena, and a fountain and a small pool at its centre, and was enclosed by the beech hedge (which still exists, unlike the pergola). In 1904 a formal tea garden was added to the front of the Hall, while the shrubbery near the lodge had additional plantings, including magnolia and bamboo, newly introduced from the east.
However it was hothouses for which Highbury was best known. There were 25 by 1903, 12 containing orchids. These had a central corridor, with electric lighting installed in 1889.
The idea that food should be fresh meant that estates grew as much of their own produce as possible. This was Austen Chamberlain’s interest, and the farm produced fruit, vegetables, with dairy cows, pigs, poultry and sheep. By 1904 a new lodge was needed to house the farm bailiff. Furthermore, Chamberlain’s three oldest daughters lived at Highbury and took a lively interest in the farm; if one sister was away, the others took care to report farm events by letter. The ‘farmery’ was on the eastern border, where it was judged unsightly so a thatched dairy was built to hide it. The dairy verandah was also used for having tea and coffee with visitors.
The spectacular gardens were suitable for entertaining the many house parties held during Joseph’s political career. But garden parties were also given to Birmingham society, and used for larger events, such as the Moseley Flower Show and the Kings Heath horse show.
There were 20 gardeners, 5 for the hothouses alone, with Edward Cooper, affectionately remembered by the family, as head gardener, until he retired and the Kew–trained John Deacon took over.
Joseph left politics after a stoke in 1906, and died in 1914. His son Neville continued Joseph’s passion for orchids at his house Westbourne in Edgbaston.
The family left the house and it became an auxiliary military hospital. Most of the grounds became a public park in 1930.
If you have memories of the Park since then, or know someone who has, please send us your stories, so we can build up an extensive description of Highbury Park.
More About The Park
The north-western part of the park and the house and grounds behind were the property of Joseph Chamberlain MP, and, at the turn of the last century, included formal gardens and a circular walk around the estate. This area was given to the City for ‘the benefit of the people of Birmingham’ in 1932. Currently the conference and banqueting centre based at Highbury Hall, and the Social Services premises at Chamberlain House are fenced off from the main part of the park.
The north-eastern part of the park, including the allotments, belonged to the Cadbury family. This property was given to the City in 1916. The Uffculme house and garden is not now part of the park. The pasture land and the Henbury’s garden area now forms the allotments and the park’s entrance from Alcester Road. The Southern part of the park had also been owned by the Cadbury’s. This 42 acre parcel was bought at public auction in 1923 by the Birmingham Civic Society and gifted to the city in the same year. For many years this area was leased to the Chamberlains who used it to graze animals from their hobby farm.
Our highest aim would be to restore many of the historical aspects of the park, thus enhancing its recreational and educational aspects. Other improvements might include sports and recreational facilities being introduced or reintroduced to enable local people to make greater use of the park. The park has many beautiful, but neglected, trees. Large-scale tree management would also be part of the improvements. It should be possible to make all of these changes or improvements and still retain what many people value about the park: its ‘natural’, parkland feel.
HISTORIC MAP (circa 1883)
This image is derived from an 1883 Ordnance Survey map shown at Old-maps.co.uk. The shaded area is roughly what became parkland, and shows something of what the land was used for prior to becoming parkland. Highbury and Henbury estates occupied two portions of the land, with farmland occupying much of the rest.
(tbd: later maps [1912, 1937,1950?], more text, historic photos)