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Flowing stream of historic tales.

ONE of the earliest people from Birmingham's past who reaches out to us as an individual, rather than as an unknown member of a larger group, is Mund.

Mentioned in a document from 972, he gave his name to a dene, a valley, much of which was later called Sparkbrook.

Despite our awareness of Mund, he remains a mystery. Nothing more is known of him, although we can presume that he must have lived locally or else had some standing thereabouts.

Indeed, he is a lonely figure, for not until 300 years later can we distinguish anyone else in this area by their name.

About 1280, a record of taxation for Worcestershire was compiled.

It included an Adam de la Dene. It is tempting to see this Adam of the valley as a descendant of Mund but it is impossible tomake the connection, although Adam may well have lived in the valley of what became the Spark.

Two other men were more certainly bonded with the district.

They were Adam and Reginald Spark. Their near-neighbours were the Bulleyes, who took their name from the Bull Spring, also noted in 972 and which was to lead to Bulley Lane, later Billesley Lane.

Further towards the River Cole were the Gretes, who called themselves after the gravelly spot that is now known as Greet; upstream were the Fulfords, so named because of the foul ford which became Formans Road.

An Adam Spark, but not a Reginald, is recorded in another tax document from 1327. His - or his son's - tax assessment was less than it had been for the two men 50 years before. It seems that the position of the Sparks had deteriorated following the Great Famine of 1315-17, which had been caused by crop failure and cattle disease.

The Sparks were not alone.

Most of the more prosperous families in the parish of Yardley also suffered. A generation later, many of them had disappeared both from tax records and the district, probably having been wiped out by the Black Death.

The Sparks were amongst them. Perhaps called after the Anglo-Saxon word 'spearca' meaning brushwood, they may be extinct but are forever remembered in the stream that bears their name - the Spark Brook.

Arising from a number of springs in the vicinity of Belle Walk, the Spark is now mostly culverted. It flows underground down the Stoney Lane, across the Stratford Road and along the Walford Road. Over Golden Hillock Road, the Spark finally emerges into view at the Ackers before discharging into the Birmingham and Warwick Canal - originally, it used to run into the River Cole.

It was first highlighted in its own right in 1495 when "the true Bounds of the parishe of Yardley" were viewed by 12 men from that parish, along with 12 each from the adjoining parishes of Aston, Kings Norton, Solihull, Bickenhill and Sheldon

It would seem that the viewing had come about after boundary disputes. Be that as it may, the men of Aston and Yardley "concluded that the water of Cowle parted the said Lordshipps untill it come to the Poole taile of Hayemill And from there upp to Sparkbrook untill it come to Sparke greene and to Lowe lane".

Hayemill was Hay Mills and Sparke Green was the locality below what would become The Mermaid. As for Lowe Lane, it is now the Stoney Lane. Both names are appropriate: low because it runs below Spark Hill and stoney because it was the stony ground alongside the Spark Brook.

These boundaries make it clear that Sparkhill was in Yardley and that most of modern Sparkbrook was in the manor of Bordesley, within Aston. A rental for the manor from 1511 stated that the Spark Brook was "a torrent".

This was probably an exaggeration, although the stream did continue to flood even after it had been culverted in 1896.

My great-uncle Bill told me that in the early years of the 20th century, he and other lads would earn a few coppers by making rafts to row across the waters after heavy rain to fetch men out of the Lion and Lamb at the junction of the Highgate Road and Stoney Lane.

In my own youth, this spot was regularly under water after downpours and the problem was not solved until engineering works in recent years.

There is little mention of Sparkbrook before the late-18th century, although in 1663 John Betteridge of Birmingham, a whitesmith, made a settlement upon the marriage of his daughter of a tenement and lands in Bordesley near Sparkbrook.

However, in the late-1700s the district gained unwanted publicity when an angry mob stormed out of Birmingham and burned down the house of the clergyman and scientist Joseph Priestley, close to the modern Priestley Road.

A reformer and Non-Conformist, he was not alone in drawing the ire of Church and King loyalists.

The homes of a number of wealthy and prominent men were destroyed, amongst them the "costly mansion" of George Humphreys.

A merchant of considerable means, Humphreys had employed first-class craftsmen to build Spark-Brook House in 11 acres of grounds close to the Spark as it came down from the Stoney Lane to the Stratford Road.

The mansion was attacked at midday on July 16, 1791, but its sturdy brickand-stone exterior saved it from burning.

Frustrated at their failure to burn it down, the enraged mob turned their fury to destroying its interior.

They did so with venom, ripping out doors, furniture, staircases and furnishings.

With the end of the riots, Sparkbrook once again became a calm rural district.

Its chief attraction was the Angel, a tavern and tea garden at the junction of the Stratford Road with the Ladypool Lane.

A favourite haunt for Birmingham's middle class, it was extolled in 1838 as "one of the few retreats at the edge of the town for persons wishing to enjoy the delights of the country with a party of friends without having to travel a great distance".

Eight years later, Sparkbrook was declared to be "a secluded but aristocratic neighbourhood" and in A Topographical Dictionary of England (1848) it was praised as "a beautiful suburb of the town of Birmingham, situated on the road to Stratford-on-Avon and distant about a mile-and-a-half from the Post-office".

It boasted "several good houses", among which were the Farm of Samuel Lloyd; Yew Tree Cottage of Thomas Simcox; the Larches, which had replaced Priestley's Fair Hill and at which had lived Dr Withering, the bot-anist famed for recognising the beneficial properties of digitalis for heart disease; and the Poplars, a large brick mansion recalled in Poplar Road.

The wealth of these men was empha sised by a sale in 1855 at The Poplars at which were offered paintings by artists such as Rubens, Van Dijk, Titian and Turner. Soon after, Sparkbrook was transformed into a working-class neighbourhood.

More on Sparkbrook next week.


Schoolchildren larking about on the way home in the early 1960s; Tr am 705 heads along the Stratford Road. Thanks to Mark Norton whose late father, Dennis, took wonderful photos of 1950s Birmingham. (see; The Lion and Lamb on the corner of Highgate Road and Stoney Lane in the 70s, when flooding still occurred there
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Feb 14, 2009
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