A Potted History of Lightwoods Park and House

A postcard of Lightwoods House

In June the society was fortunate to be offered a tour of the newly re-furbished Lightwoods House and Park. We were shown around the house by Julia Morris giving us an insight into the cost involved and how the house was to be used when it was finally open to the public. I was able to take quite a few photographs and asked if it was possible to make the members aware of the history of this landmark right on our doorstep. There will be a diary of events taking place in the house and park during the remainder of the year, so please look in the press for details or obviously visit the Internet and Google “Lightwoods House”. The article that follows is supplied by Julia and the photos are taken by yours truly-I do hope you enjoy them both.

Little is known of the early history but the parkland was once part of an ancient tract of woodland likely to belong to the lands of Halesowen Abbey. In the Domesday Book 1086 the parish of Halesowen included Warley and Smethwick (Smedewich) forming part of the Episcopol Manor of Lichfield. In 1166 the Bishops tenant at Smedewich was Henry Fitz Gerold. Following dissolution of the monasteries under the reign of Henry VIII it is thought the lands passed to the Lyttleton Family of Frankley and Hagley.

This rural area at the southern extremity of Smethwick was called Bearwood linking the once joint manors of Smethwick and Harborne. The Bear Inn stood at the crossroads from at least 1718 to the present day. The Bearwood Road is also of age and recorded as early as 1278 linking to the Halesowen Turnpike now the Hagley Road. An Oak tree stood at the junction of Three Shires Oak Road, Thatcher’s Lane (now Abbey Road), Love Lane (now Wigorn Road) and Thimblemill Lane (now Thimblemill Road) but was cut down in 1904 when the roads were widened into the present day roads. Plots of arable land to the south of Three Shires Oak Road known as the Bear Wood in the 1830’s and the surrounding land formed part of the estate at The Lightwoods.

1780-1887

In the late 18th Century it remained an area of woodland. Jonathon Grundy II (1744-1803) a merchant living in Birmingham in 1777 inherited a large sum of money and land in the Midlands from his father Jonathon Grundy I who died in 1778.

The house is thought to have been erected in 1791 during the reign of King George III, architects etc. remain unknown but a stone on the east side of the front porch is inscribed “Jonathon Grundy June 19 1785”. Jonathon Grundy II died in 1803 and the estate passed to his daughter Hannah and her mom Hannah I, they continued to live at Lightwoods until Hannah I’s death on 30th June 1815. She is buried with her husband at Smethwick Chapel. Hannah II never married and died on 21st December 1829 and is also buried at Smethwick Chapel.

Hannah’s Cousin Eliza Grundy inherited the estate and married Henry Goodrich Willett in 1818 at St Philips church in Birmingham. An estate plan circa1820 shows the first evidence of the house and parkland as it shows the property and a defined area to the estate.

Original brick showing 1918-Hannah Grundy

A Tithe map from 1840 confirms the land holdings within the estate and clearly records Lightwoods in ownership of Willetts and this is the first accurate record within a landscape setting showing paddocks, house and garden, lawn, pool and pastureland.

Eliza died 4th March 1837 with no children and the estate was administered by Willett a JP for the counties of Staffordshire, Worcestershire and Salop until he died in 1857. His will, however, was contested and the inheritance disputed for some time. Lightwoods House with 14 acres of parkland is described as a ‘fine estate in a well wooded park where a herd of deer roamed at will’. The property and land was leased to George Caleb Adkins from around 1864 with a deposit of £870. Between 1859 and 1865 most of the real estate of the Willetts family was sold, Lightwoods was at auction in March 1865 and George paid a balance of £7830 to purchase outright and it included two areas; Grundy’s Meadow and Bellamy’s Close. (1864 auction lot plan).

George Caleb Adkins (1828-1887) was a wealthy owner of a local soap and red lead factory at Merry Hill, Smethwick, Adkins & co. He married Anne and had 10 children and lived at Lightwoods until 1902. George had begun to enlarge the original 14 acres by buying neighbouring farmland until 1874. He was a man with a strong interest in agricultural pursuits and bred Shorthorn Cattle at Lightwoods until he gave this up and went into Pedigree Poultry becoming well known for his breed of Polish Fowl.

George was also a generous employer and known as a man of great geniality and kindness and took a prominent role in public life. He was a magistrate for Staffordshire and Worcestershire and regularly sat at Petty Sessional Courts at West Bromwich, Smethwick and Oldbury.

1887-1902

George died in 1887 leaving a considerable estate to widow Anne who remained living at Lightwoods with her family including son George Anderson Adkins and unmarried daughters Emily, Lucy and Maud. He left will instructions for Anne and encouraged her to profit from an expanding Bearwood population as workers were willing to commute to work in Birmingham from surrounding rural settlements. A catalyst for the development was the opening of the Harborne Railway Company in 1874 linking Harborne to Birmingham with a station on the Hagley Road.

At this time builders and building societies were looking to build better quality housing for the artisan and lower middle class families moving to the area. In an estate plan from the 1880’s it shows the new residential road layout. The Adkins family sold areas of the estate to a syndicate of developers from 1888; Jones and Fitzmaurice public work contractors were clearing the farmland north of Adkins Lane and widening the rural road network.

Expanding builders Coy, Griggs, Lane and others built terraces of identical housing called the Lightwoods Estate. In 1899 the Borough Architect reported that “150 houses have been built nearly in the last 12 months in Lightwoods, Milcote Lane etc”.

George’s trustees did exercise control over the estate developments with covenants stating that there were to be “no tallow melters, soap boilers, Lucifer match, aqua fortis manufacturers, hotel, tavern keepers, beer shops or places of entertainment”. As George and his forbears had been tallow chandlers and soap makers the family wanted to keep this manufacture, with the accompanying pollution, away from the estate in which they intended to continue to live.

In 1902 the farmland surrounding the park was almost fully developed as well planned housing estate. George had donated the land on which St Marys Church was erected before he died. In 1899 the church was built and a foundation stone was laid by Anne and son in law Rev. Henry Timothy Tilley.

Anne and her daughters were integral to rising Bearwood Society and the Leaders of Bearwood and led ‘Ladies of Consequence’ doing charity work to support the church, the party field was made a venue for Sunday school outings.

The original Lightwoods House had 16 acres of parkland that remained mostly unaltered while the available building land became scarce. Following the death of Anne 13th March 1902 the family left Bearwood and the remaining 14 acres of parkland were put up for sale and purchased by developers in June 1902.

1902-1914

The catalyst for saving Lightwoods was John Weatherhead (founder of the Bearwood Early Morning Adult School). He made enquiries for the school to use the bowling green and discovered it had been sold to developers. Members of the adult school agreed to save the park but required some to head this up. Alexander Macombe Chance, a member of the Chance family who owned the famous Smethwick Glass Manufacturing Co; Chance Brothers & Co. The syndicate of developers generously agreed to sell the land back at the original auction price plus expenses.

A public meeting recorded in the ‘Smethwick Telephone’ 3 October 1902 was “well attended by high minded and generous citizens”. By 24th October 1902 the committee had raised the purchase price in excess of £11,000 recorded in a letter from AM Chance to the Lord Mayor of Birmingham. There was much enthusiasm for the scheme evident from newspaper articles and numerous letters from AM Chance as plans were made for the park. The park was handed to Birmingham City Council as a gift in November 1902 recorded in the Smethwick Telephone.

The council undertook improvements such as gates, fences, rustic bridge and added seats. The committee minute books follow progress of works to improve the park for visitors and further plans were put forward for playgrounds, tennis courts, pathways and for part of the house to provide refreshments. In January 1903 Frank Jones was appointed Keeper of the Park.

The bandstand was donated from Mr Rowland Mason of Birmingham Saddlers, Daniel Mason & Sons and was installed in 1903.

The bandstand and below the Birmingham coat of arms

and ceremonial plaque

Julia Tilley (nee Adkins) donated a sum of money for drinking fountains with a further (larger) sum if a drinking trough for dogs was provided.

An inscription on the fountain commemorates the Adkins family dogs and explains the particular requirement from Mrs Julia to provide a dog trough.

The park officially opened in June 1903 but already plans were in place for the extension and donations continued to flow until 14 October 1904 when a copy of a letter states the portion had been secured and expressed hope that with assistance of interested friends to be able to preserve the annex and extend the area to around 12 acres. Subsequently the area of the park increased by donation and purchase to reach the final size of 12.36ha and was developed for recreation with a pavilion, pathways and a secondary drinking fountain.

1914-present day

A map from 1914 shows the turret clock was donated by Messer’s Swindon and Sons and inserted into the apex of the mansion’s front elevation.

The workings (shown above) are housed in a cupboard to the rear of the clock. They are the original workings of the clock. Controlled electronically and connected to Greenwich; this means that no-one has to touch or adjust the mechanism or time.

In 1915 improvements continued and a suggestion by G. Johnson Chairman of the City of Birmingham Parks Committee said a location should be found for a Shakespeare Garden; this was a popular idea and the walled garden at Lightwoods was chosen. The Chief Superintendent was given the task to lay out the garden with an Elizabethan theme using box hedges, a herb garden, fruit trees, a fish pond, sundial, rustic trellising and seating.

It was opened 22 July 1915 and improved continuously using a booklet which was produced listing plants from Shakespeare texts that would ideally be grown.

View of the rear of the house from Shakespeare Gardens

During the First World War the house was converted to a Red Cross Military Hospital from March 1916. What used to be the refreshment area was converted into accommodation for 40 to 50 wounded soldiers. As they recovered they worked in Warley Park which had been turned over for agriculture during the war effort and maintained the Shakespeare garden. In 1919 the hospital closed and then due to the changing social circumstances the park never regained its pre war popularity.

In 1921 a report gives a description of the park and Mr Bennett has care of the Shakespeare Garden and stated it was a “constant source of delight” and mentioned the parrots in the aviary and this with the Bowling Green and footpaths were maintained.

In 1935 William Victor Price became superintendent and moved into the former servant’s quarters, the cafe had by then been reinstated and the Sons of Rest were also residing in the building. The tennis courts were installed by 1938.

Lightwoods House was first listed on 21 March 1949 for architectural and historic interest of Grade II. The house, terrace, bandstand and drinking fountain form a coherent group of heritage features in the park. The House and park were included in a register of Parks and gardens with special historic interest.

In the 1950’s the pool was drained and a piano shaped paddling pool built in its place, part of the park was taken to build Bearwood Bus Station. In 1956 a second Bowling Green the ‘ladies green’ was installed along with a shelter next to the tennis courts.

In 1971 the tea and reading room was closed and the building leased to a stained glass company John Hardman & Co as a workshop with studios and offices, some restoration work was undertaken. During the 1980’s vandalism increased and the Sons of Rest building and bowling pavilion were burnt down and the bowling club relocated and the greens became disused. The aviary was also removed around this time and the bandstand was listed in September 1987 and renovated by Birmingham City Council in 1991.

During the 1990’s the paddling pool became a skate park and the play area was revamped by BBC’s ‘Challenge Anneka’ TV series.

By the end of the 20th Century the park was under threat with minimal maintenance and iron work was stolen from the restored band stand and the tennis courts were decorative removed. The Shakespeare Garden was cared for and looked after but often locked.

In 2007 John Hardman & Co left premises leaving the building empty and a target for vandalism. In 2010 the local community started to seek transfer of ownership to Sandwell Council and this finally occurred in November 2010 to the delight of the local people.

Lightwoods Park is one of the few sites in Sandwell that has remained undeveloped from housing, retail or industrial use since its agricultural origins and has been a constant through three centuries providing a connection with the past. It was the open, rural aspect that motivated local people to protect the land from the housing developments engulfing the area at that time. Lightwoods Park and House is amongst the oldest surviving man made features in Bearwood and predates the time when Bearwood transformed from a hamlet to a town. It is a nationally significant example of a community facility purchased by public subscription and also for its association with AM Chance and Hardman’s stained glass manufacture. A high status residence of the 18th and 19th Century period and a now through HLF, Sandwell Council and local community will return to its former glory as the most prestigious building in town.

Work began on the £5.2 million restoration of Lightwoods House and Park in Smethwick. The scheme has been funded partially by the Sandwell authority putting £1.6 million towards the restoration scheme, with the remaining £3.6 million coming from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Big Lottery Fund.

Specialist restoration company Fairhurst Ward Abbots were awarded the contract but sadly the company went into administartion and were unable to complete the work. New contractors were found and the work continued. However, the original proposed opening of July 2016 had to be put back and it is now expected to be late July 2017.

The work on the interior and exterior of the house is complete. Work still has to be done on the car park and surrounding gardens. The interior has been transformed to its original state and many features have been kept. The photos that follow show the tasteful work completed on the project and some of the features that remain from its previous existence.

The original beams in the top roof ceiling of the upper floor

The long gallery on the first floor

William Morris wallpaper found in one of the cupboards in the long gallery and an original gas light fitting upstairs

An original restored fireplace

Part of the cornice in one of the rooms, the original

Is the corner section and the remainder was copied exactly

And the remainder of the ceiling cornice matched perfectly

I am extremely grateful to Julia for the history and together with the photos I trust it has made an article that you have all enjoyed. But please visit Lightwoods House when you have a chance to do so you will be very impressed.

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