Birch Road: Baskets and Brassicas

by Peter Charles Turner

In the beginning was the Widow and the Widow was without means.

Great with child she left her native town and walked to the big city with her only daughter and seven sons . Selling vegetables around the streets of the city she eked out a miserable existence until her sons eased her burden by gainful employ. Her eldest , Charles, became very wealthy by dint of his mastery of Brass. Other sons consolidated the greengrocery business and yet others became builders and decorators.

They come of age.

Twenty years from Nuneaton and her elder daughter has married a wicker worker, three other sons are married one with the beginnings of what will prove to be a very large family, and it is time for the move to greener pastures on the western outskirts of the city; four sons and both daughters follow the Widow to Birch Road. Only Isaac remains in the city.

Time passes, the business prospers and the children thrive. Among these colonisers was James Morley Turner and his bride, Maria Johnson. Like his father and grandfather before him, he was a Basket Maker, a wicker worker; he was my great grandfather. James and Maria would be the first tenants of The Outdoor.

The Johnsons
The outdoor in Birch Road c.1908. Charles Henry Johnson (centre)
with niece May Johnson and housekeeper, Elizabeth Graziour

Copyright © QLHS/C.Turner 2000

The Outdoor was the ‘licensed’ shop facing Birch Road, the end of a terrace of cottages bought by Charles Henry Johnson in preparation for the move from Ladywood to Quinton.

The block of back-to-back cottages previously housed brickworkers and their families. Another son, William Harvey, built a terrace of cottages; another terrace soon followed.

The Widow left the greengrocery businesses to her sons and retired to Birch Road. Worn out by a lifetime of toil she passed away three years later.

Such was the Oral Family History as received by the Turner family of Birch Road; it does not chime in perfect harmony with that of some of the Johnsons but neither did it with historical facts as the tale was uncovered.

Our story begins at the first half of the nineteenth century; in Oakthorpe, Derbyshire where James Turner, the fourth son of William and Elizabeth, is born into a family of basket makers; and in Nuneaton, Warwickshire, where Joseph Johnson and Maria Sands are married in St Nicholas’ Parish Church. Joseph was in the printing business and Maria’s family were Builders, carpenters and joiners for several generations. Maria and Joseph settled in overcrowded Abbey Street and produced a large family of eight children; remarkably for the time it appears all of their children reached their majority.

James Turner, after his father had taught him all he knew and he had mastered his craft, left his rural heritage and headed for the big city – he was not out of his teen years yet within a month of his twenty-first birthday was married and had set up home in a courtyard house off Summer Row in Birmingham. James and his new wife, Mary Ann Morley, were not as fortunate as Joseph and Maria in Nuneaton, three years after they were wed, in one tragic period of less than four weeks the couple witnessed the death of their secondborn daughter and of neonatal twin girls, within the year their firstborn daughter would also be dead. Despite this awful beginning Mary Ann went on to another ten confinements, all but one of her offspring surviving into adulthood. Four of their sons became basket makers.

Just before the time that James Morley Turner, the eighth child of James and Mary Ann, and my great grandfather, was born, in 1868, Joseph and Maria with their eight children made the move from Nuneaton to Ladywood in Birmingham. By 1871 the Johnsons were enumerated in Sherborne Street and the Turners, half a mile away, in Irving Street.

Sadly, also by this time, Maria had been a widow for two years; within months of the momentous move Joseph had succumbed to Phthisis – almost certainly TB. Maria, at his bedside when he died, was pregnant with her ninth child.

Maria had been nursing or pregnant all her married life, she is now a widow at 43 years old with five children still at school. This remarkable woman did not sit around and bemoan her lot, she began a greengrocery business. No doubt, even with two sons working in the Brass Industry and bringing in some money, times must have been desperately hard for the family. Trade Directories of the time, however, bear witness to her success – her last entry in Kelly’s of 1888, Maria has two business premises in Holloway Head and Bishopsgate Street and her son, Isaac, is running the original business in Ryland Street. The greengrocers would trade for very nearly a century.

From ageing cousins I have heard tales of how their grandfathers remembered the treat of ‘helping’ Mum push the vegetable trolley down to the wholesale markets at Digbeth and Horsefair!

By 1888 Maria had 15 grandchildren and daughter, Maria, was courting a young basket maker; it was time to retire and she had surely earned her retirement. Her two eldest sons, bachelor Charles Henry and Joseph Walker, the latter now with eight children of his own, prospected suitable locations and found Birch Road. In particular a block of several back to back houses originally constructed for labourers in the now defunct Brickworks – the Brickle, as it was known. In the Electoral Register one year, the block is Airey’s Building, in the next, Johnson’s Building – the take-over of Birch Road had begun. A further block of four cottages were acquired at the Castle Road end. This curious rowii was half of the back to back design, the rear becoming, on three levels, the Basket Works.

In October 1889 Maria Johnson married James Morley Turner in Christ Church, New Street; most of James’ brothers and sisters were baptised and subsequently married in this church, the church where James’ father was organist for many years. Architecturally the building was undistinguished and was demolished at the turn of the century, it is remembered today in a flight of stairs from New Street to Waterloo Street called Christ Church Passage.

Maria gives her address as Birch Road on her marriage certificate and although she and James set up home in Ladywood Road they too soon moved to Birch Road.

Exactly when the widow, Maria, my great great grandmother, retired is uncertain; what is not, however, is the brevity of her rest, she died in October 1891 just before her 14th grandchild, James Turner, my grandfather, was born. When she died Birch Road was home to four sons, two daughters and thirteen grandchildren. Four further grandchildren remained with another son in the city.

When James Turner and Maria left the city for Birch Road they leased ‘The Outdoor’ from Charles Henry Johnson. The Outdoor was a licensed general store on the street end of the block of cottages bought by Charles.

At least three of the widow’s sons were builders, carpenters and decorators; very soon a terrace of a half a dozen or so houses would be built by the Johnsons, shortly followed by another of similar proportions. I think they also built the house which was soon occupied by the Turners who were keen to leave the rented property, The Outdoor.

The layout of Birch Road at the turn of the century in which one can see most of these properties, including the beginnings of the terraced houses built by the Johnsons, can be seen on the widely available Godfrey Edition of the 1902 Quinton map in the Old Ordnance Survey Maps series; the front cover of this edition is illustrated by a wonderful photograph of the basket makers of Birch Road.

My great grandfather, James Morley Turner is second from the right, grandfather, James Charles, is the teenager third from the right standing in front of the rick of withies. The chimney stack on the left of the photo of the Basket Makers is the chimney for the boiling tank used to boil the osiers prior to being made into baskets, my father and later his younger brother, John, spent many hours pumping water from the well to fill the very large tank before the boiler was lighted, this was done at least once a week.

Basket Makers
The basket makers of Birch Road
James Morley Turner - 2nd right and James Charles Turner - 3rd right

Copyright © QLHS/C.Turner 2000

Described in Trade Directories of 1897 as a Grocer and Beer Retailer, it was not until 1901 that James Turner becomes Basket maker. I have an old exercise/ledger book from the period and from notes and accounts within I can see that the Basket Works was in operation from early 1897 if not before. It seems that Maria was running the shop while James established the Works.

James and Maria had four daughters and one son, James Charles; the occupation of wicker worker was scheduled and great grandfather did not see service in the Great War. Ironically he died in the influenza pandemic in 1918. The Basket Works was inherited by the only son, who at that time was shelling the Hun in France.

It is interesting at this juncture to pause and compare the widows Maria Johnson and Maria Turner. The former seems to have toiled all her life; it was said of the widow Turner, that she had never been known to have done any work (housework). All manner of little subtleties in the historical record of this time witness the importance of status.

We can also compare the quiet residential street that Birch Road is now with the hive of economic activity half a century ago; Bache’s dairy and Turner’s Basket Works, The Outdoor and Hadley’s small bakery. The old brick works became a Johnson smallholding as did the land to the rear of Turners’ houses, one of them becoming a Farm Shop; produce from locally established orchards was sold in the Five Ways grocery.

As a lad in the 1950s I can remember the Works still employing several craftsmen as well as grandfather, James Charles. Charl, as he was known, continued his craft until the late 1970s when he himself was in his late eighties. When he ceased work so did the craft die in the local area – he was at least the fourth generation to follow the calling of the willow.

To follow the widow’s sons and other daughter in the same detail would make this article far too long but as I am so indebted to their descendants for anecdotes, family history and dates and, in particular, photographs, mention must briefly be made of their subsequent stories.

In order of seniority Charles Henry comes first; brass founder, builder and property owner. I have found no evidence to support our oral family history regarding a fortune being amassed from church lectern fabrication, nor is this corroborated in any of the Johnson’s oral history, but Charles owned houses in Nuneaton, Ladywood and Quinton and with the proceeds from the tenancies enjoyed a full life with many continental holidays.

James Turner
James Charles Turner, ‘Charl’, basketmaker of Birch Road
Taken in 1974 when Charl was 82

Copyright © QLHS/C.Turner 2000

Joseph Walker Johnson, brass founder, grocer – fruiterer, as he preferred – and property owner. Nine children; Ellen who married James Hayes and had successful butchers shops in both Bearwood and Quinton; Annie who married Walter Frederick Bache and established the well-known dairy and milk delivery business; Amy married George Bellamy who ran a greengrocery again in Bearwood. Little is known of the other children except that several of them worked in the Five Ways grocery business.

Charles Henry and Joseph Walker disposed of more than 20 houses in their Wills.

Maria’s next two sons, Frederick and Harry, remain unknown. Frederick is said to have emigrated to America where he died of dysentery. Harry sole existence is based on a single census return of 1871.

William Harvey Johnson was primarily responsible for the new buildings following the colonisation of Birch Road.

Isaac Johnson, the only son to remain domiciled in the City following the exodus to Birch Road, carried on in the grocery trade until the 1890s when ill-health forced early retirement and a move to the Johnson heartland in Quinton. He died of Bright’s disease following an infection said to have been contracted in the Thames while swimming with Matthew Webb – the Captain Webb of the first successful Channel crossing. Isaac, son of Isaac, continued with the greengrocery in the City with his widowed mother until about 1907. Intriguingly there are trade references to Fried Fish Dealer from 1894 from a premises in Granville st. There is no mention of chips but could this have been the ‘fast food’ as long ago as the turn of the century? From 1903 Isaac appears on the Electoral register for Birch road so it would seem he commuted to the City until 1907.

From that time Isaac was a house painter and decorator enjoying a very long life, he died shy of his royal telegram by just six months.

Ernest, the only son to remain in the Brass business, was a fine craftsman. It is from the descendants of his daughter, Lucy Beatrice, that much of the oral family history of the Johnsons is here recorded.

Helen Johnson, the only Birmingham-born child, is remembered as Great Aunt Nell of the Outdoor. Many were the Johnsons who did service in the Outdoor, but Great Aunt Nell seems the most ‘venerated’ – even I remember Great Aunt Nell and she died five years before I was born!

The ‘fearsome Mrs Tuffley’ as she has been described – she inherited the livelihood The Outdoor when her elder brother Charles Henry died - had another side, she could not have been unaware that the pop bottles, on which a deposit was repayable, had oft made more than one passage over the counter!

Nell had a single child, Daisy. Daisyiv was among those very singular individuals whose life spanned three centuries; she was born in 1897 and died at the beginning of the new millennium.

Of grandfather Turner’s descendants only I remain in the neighbourhood, still living above my father’s shop as was, and no doubt known to many of you as Turner, Chemist, Quinton at the Stag.

© P.Turner and QLHS 2002

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