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A country-feel dominated most of Summer Lane.

Byline: Carl Chinn

THE Colmore family was one of the richest in the history of Birmingham.

With wealth founded on the buying and selling of fabrics in the 16th century, its members went on to purchase wide estates, including the Newhall Estate and Bell Barn Estate.

In the early 19th century, the heiress to these lands was Miss Caroline Colmore, brought to mind in Caroline Street.

A map published for the Earl of Dartmouth in 1824/25 showed that she also owned most of the extensive area south of the Hockley Brook to Snow Hill and bounded to the west and east by Great Hampton Street and New Town Row respectively.

By the time of Drake's map Hospital Street, Tower Street, New John Street, New Summer Street and Brearley Street had come into view but many small gardens remained.

The map also showed the new St George's Church, set amidst fields built on land given by Caroline Colmore. It had been consecrated in 1822 by the Bishop of Chester, who had expressed his surprise that Birmingham people should build a church so far away from the population.

Yet, as Robert K Dent emphasised in the Making of Modern Birmingham (1894): "Birmingham grows fast, and before many years had passed St George's was in the midst of a densely populated district."

This was made plain by Drake's Map of 1832, the fields and gardens had begun to fade away as Asylum Road, Harding Street and Ormond Street had appeared north of New John Street.

Despite their appearance, a country-feel dominated most of the Summer Lane district.

A child in the 1830s, Dyke Wilkinson wrote up his reminiscences of Bygone Birmingham in 1923.

He grew up in a house that "that was one of a row of half a dozen, having nice gardens, and get-able from Lower Brearley Street, Summer Lane, or Tower Street.

And nearly in the country."

As for Summer Lane, beyond John Street (now New John Street) it "was indeed a country lane; on the eastern side - deep below the roadway - were a number of tiny cottages with large gardens."

Beyond these cottages "I can remember but one building in Summer Lane, large red-brick house, the asylum for pauper children connected with the old workhouse." This was then in Lichfield Street, which was swept away in the late 1800s for the development of Corporation Street.

The asylum was founded in 1797 by the Guardians of the Poor as an industrial residence and school for 250 children.

Standing close to where Milton Street would emerge, it was closed and knocked down in 1846, although the Beehive carved over the door remained on the ruins for a few years afterwards.

Asylum Road recalls this institution. Its older name, however, was Bread Lane.

On the opposite side of Summer Lane to the Asylum, in Wilkinson's childhood were "the brickkiln fields, more than a hundred acres of grass lands, stretching away over the sandhills to the Lozells. These fields for many years afforded free pasturage for anybody's horses, donkeys, or pigs, and it was also the playground for the young folks in our part of town."

In his vicinity was a hollow where "there was a large pool where we fished for minnows.

Farther down the lane, nearly opposite the asylum, there was a smaller pool, where we waded for bullrushes."

Then, in the bend of Summer Lane, where it went into what would become Asylum Road, not far from the Walsall Road, "was one of Birmingham's oldest pleasure resorts, The Cherry Gardens, where, for a few coppers, you could eat your fill of that delicious fruit."

Caroline Colmore died unmarried and without direct heirs in 1837.

Most of her property went to Frind Cregoe of Cornwall, hence Cregoe Street and Cornwall Street - although some had already passed on to the third Marquess of Hertford of Ragley Hall, Alcester.

Over the next 20 years, the countryside was banished from Summer Lane. Behind the larger houses on The Lane itself and in the side streets, a host of back-to-backs were built cheaply and quickly.

The area was transformed into a working-class neighbourhood.

It is difficult to ascribe an exact space to that district because it merged almost imperceptibly with both Hockley to the west and Aston to the north.

Still it would seem that its eastern boundary was Newtown Row. To the north it was divided from Aston by the Hockley Brook, just above Asylum Road and Paddington Street. To the south it ended at the junction of Constitution Hill and Snow Hill; and to the west the probable limit with Hockley was Hospital Street.

On Ebenezer's Map of 1820 this district was shown as Somers Town. It was a name that did not gain acceptance and in the succeeding years much of the Summer Lane neighbourhood was seen as belonging either to Aston or Hockley.

However, local people knew it simply and expressively as 'The Lane'.

As such, Summer Lane became the epitome of working-class Brum.

It embodied all those things which the poorer working class felt were the most important in life: neighbourliness, kinship, sharing, toughness and respect.

In the post-war redevelopment of Birmingham, the Summer Lane neighbourhood was altered dramatically.

It became part of the official Newtown, but its identity has not been lost and folk still sing: "See the palm trees swayin' way down Summer Lane."

More on "See the Palm Trees Swayin" next week.


REMEMBER... the Colmore Flats in Hospital Street in 1956, which recalled the Colmore family who had once owned the Summer Lane locality. Does anyone know anything about the history of these flats?; POWERFUL...children in a yard of back-to-backs off Summer Lane in the early 1920s. Does anyone recognize any of the faces? Notice the bare-footed lad on the left of the girl holding the baby and the huge shoes on the feet of the lad wearing the muffler in the centre of the photo. The rest of the youngsters seem to be wearing Daily Mail boots.; GENTEEL...a wonderful photo of men in a horse brake about to set off from the Stag's Head, Summer Lane, for a trip out in the early 1900s.
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Apr 19, 2008
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