A Day Out with the History Society

Recently a number of the society members had a day out, planned by our chairman Bernard Taylor.
The visit was to Aston Hall and, after lunch, to Blakesley Hall. Both Aston and Blakesley Halls came as a surprise as they are both surrounded by more modern buildings.

Firstly we went to Aston Hall and to find a Jacobean house so close to the centre of Birmingham is indeed a surprise. On our arrival we were met by two guides, who each took half of our party on a tour of the Hall.

Aston Hall

The tour started in the Great Hall, where the guide told us some of the background to the Hall, the fact that it had taken 17 years to build (from 1618 to 1635) and had been designed to show how rich and powerful Sir Thomas Holt, the owner and builder, was.

Entrance Hall and Sir Thomas Holte painting

Sir Thomas had two wives and fifteen children and outlived all of his children. He had a quick temper and it is alleged that he killed his cook simply because his meal was not ready on time. Sir Thomas fell out with his eldest son as he disapproved of the lady he had married and with one of his daughters who was also in a relationship he did not agree with. Sir Thomas locked his daughter in a small room at the top of the Hall (below) .... more about this later.

When there was   no male heir to inherit the Hall, it and it's contents had to be sold, and the proceeds distributed to the remaining members of the Holt family. The room used by the family as a dining room has been furnished with pieces from the correct period. The dining room, where guests would have been entertained, is a much grander room and has a table laid as though a feast were to take place, showing the type of food they would have been served. Here our attention was drawn to the plaster work around the freize.

Ceiling freize

Hole in staircase caused by a cannonball

After the meal they would have moved to the Withdrawing Room, and maybe some of the guests would have taken a walk in the Long Gallery. The Long Gallery is where the family as well as guests would have taken exercise on wet days. The Gallery also provided a show case for the family wealth.

The Long Gallery

Family Crest in Stained Glass

When we reached the top of the Hall where the servants lived the guide pointed out the room where Sir Thomas had incarcerated his daughter. It was very small, and the room where she died. It is said that she haunts the area around where she was imprisoned.

The butler's room, as befitted his status, was larger than expected. Our guide pointed out a small cupboard, by the side of the fireplace, which had been used to store the kindling, as it was one of the butler's duties to light the fires each morning.

Butler’s Room

There are two kitchens in the Hall, because the original one proved to be too small for all the entertaining which took place and it was replaced by a much larger one. The original kitchen was later used by the servants.

The kitchens

During our tour, ceilings and plasterwork were pointed out to us, they were exquisite. The guide explained that work was in progress to repair and make good all of the plasterwork, as well as the fabric of the Hall. The guide also told us the James Watt's son had rented the Hall for a period and had made some additions to the plasterwork, but it had all been done in the Jacobean style.

When the Hall was eventually sold, it was bought by a consortium who planned to open it up for the entertainment of the public. Unfortunately things did not work out and the consortium had to close. Birmingham City Council eventually purchased the hall, making it the first such property to be owned by a local council. The restoration was started using craftsmen versed in traditional methods, and as you can imagine the work is still ongoing.

Following a very good lunch, we travelled a few miles to the second property, Blakesley Hall, which was built in 1590 for a Birmingham merchant named, Richard Smalbroke. It is a timber framed property much smaller than Aston Hall but equally as interesting.

The Hall has a Long Gallery, smaller than the one at Aston Hall but no doubt as impressive to visitors of Richard Smalbroke. The Hall has a Painter Chamber with a tester bed and 400 hundred year old wall paintings, which along with the carved wooded furniture show that the Hall must have been a comfortable and prosperous home.

Blakesley Hall, Yardley and the entrance mural (below)

Dining room and kitchen (below)

Richard Smalbroke had a room on the first floor, where he may have carried out tasks relating to his business. This room also gave him a clear view of anyone who came to his front door.

When we visited there was an exhibition about Thomas and Elizabeth Merry and their three children, who lived at Blakesley Hall from 1901 to 1932. The Merry children Tom, Frank and May were all involved in the First World War. Tom was an officer in the Army Service Corps and was based in Rouen, Frank fought at Passchendaele with the Artists Rifles and May enrolled in the Voluntary Aid Detachment working in a number of military hospitals.

In the exhibition there were photographs, medals and letters from the family's archive which enabled visitors to understand what it was like for a family during the First World War, The Merry family were very fortunate as all three children came home from the War.

If you should make a visit to either Hall you may be pleased to know that they both have tearooms. Blakesley Hall also has a herb garden and an orchard. Both properties made us very welcome and a great day out was enjoyed by us all.

Thank you Bernard.

Ed’s comment-My thanks to our member, who wishes to remain anonymous, who has offered to do an article for the Oracle on the society visits during the year. Usually we have four a year and the next one is on Thursday 5th March 2015. The day includes a visit to St Cassians, Chaddesley Corbett followed by lunch at The Fox and then a guided tour of Hagley Hall. Forms are available now and the cost is just £25.

Click here to go back to the Oracle page.