150 not out in Beech Lanes

By Graham Downing

The 1841 Census found my great-great-great-grandfather Paul Downing, his wife Elizabeth and two sons, William and George living in Hagley Road, Smethwick. Paul was a blacksmith and at that time his forge appears to have been located in Harborne Road, possibly opposite the cottage where the family lived.

The Marriage Registers for Christ Church, The Quinton record in Volume One, Page One, and Entry One that on 17 May 1842, Paulís son William married Sarah, daughter of Benjamin Hill, a Crank Forger living in Ridgacre. According to the Census taken the previous year Sarah, called Salley [sic] within the family (this being a common diminutive of Sarah) was then living in Ridgacre with her parents, Benjamin and Hannah, and most, if not all, of their other children. With this marriage William began a long family connection with Christ Church for weddings, baptisms and burials, which only ended in 1978 with the reading of the banns for my own marriage.

The 1851 Census found the Downing family on the west side of Beech Lane, with William and family living next door to his parents and brother George. Both William and Paul were recorded as being blacksmiths. William had named his eldest son William; a tradition, which was continued and later, caused family historians many problems in determining which William was which.

By 1861 William the firstís address was Beach [sic] Lane Public House in Warley Salop, where he was not only a blacksmith but also a retailer of cider. Son William (the second) had also, surprise, surprise, become a blacksmith. Paul, then 68, was still a blacksmith but brother George had struck out on his own and was a publican, being landlord of the nearby Holly Bush. George eventually married Mary Ann Bashford, his significantly younger housekeeper.

By 1871 the family address was still officially the Warley Salop part of Beech Lanes. Paul had died and George had reverted to the traditional, family occupation of blacksmith, living nearby, in the Harborne part of Beech Lanes with his wife and mother. William the first not only had a son William, but also a grandson named William. All the men of working age were, naturally enough, blacksmiths. Interestingly, William the firstís wife, Sarah, was to die of Continued Fever in 1877 at the age of 61 and was apparently buried at St. Peters, Harborne on the same day that she died. Is it possible that this apparently indecent haste was indeed very necessary for reasons of public health?

The 1881 Census saw little change except for a significant increase in William the secondís family, seven children with one just three weeks old and as yet unnamed. By the 1891 Census William and his wife, Sarah Jane, had three more children with one more on the way, to be born after the Census date in 1891. With two parents and eleven children in the household more space was obviously needed.

In 1896 a number of new properties were completed in Beech Lane and the family moved a couple of hundred yards, a momentous distance for the Downings, into one of the new properties. The house at Lickey View in Warley Salop, later to be 248 Hagley Road West, had an adjacent blacksmithís shop in the space where another house could have been built. This later caused a gap in the house numbering, there being no 246, 248 followed 244. The postal address of Quinton, Birmingham 32 was a source of considerable pride and was jealously guarded, none of this Oldbury, Warley nonsense.

A notebook, which lay unnoticed for decades in a battered old trunk in the equally battered old outhouse records. "Came into new house and shop March 25/96. First horse in Shop G Thornecroft. Harry put first shoe on in new Shop Mar 25/96." The Harry referred to was my grandfather Henry Thomas Downing. An interesting second note records "Started Shop at Bearwood Road November 16/96." Henry Thomas was recorded as being a blacksmith at the back of 354 Bearwood Road in a 1905 Trade Directory. The location was between Waterloo Road and Rutland Road.

By now most of the adult male members of the family were working as blacksmiths. However, at some stage during the early 1900s family problems resulted in the eldest of all the brothers, William (the third), decamping under a cloud with his Londoner wife to Walsall, with a brief sojourn in Bearwood on the way. This unsettled period also saw three of the other brothers immigrating to America, where two of them continued to work as blacksmiths, at least for a while. The third of the emigrating brothers was killed in 1918 while serving in the American Army, as a memorial inscription on his parentís headstone in the graveyard at Christ Church records. The end result of all this was the return of Henry Thomas from Bearwood to run the Beech Lanes forge following the death of his father.

As time went on and the century progressed it became obvious to Henry Thomas that, with the decline in all forms of horse powered machinery, the future was looking bleak for blacksmiths. Consequently he did not want his only son, imaginatively also named Henry Thomas, to follow the family trade. After a spell as a gardener at Moorfield, a large house in Beech Lanes on the way to Bearwood, my father Henry Thomas the second became a machine tool fitter (still working with metal, but not horses, only horsepower) for a firm in Selly Oak, while continuing to live at the ancestral address where eventually I was born, the last of an unbroken line to be born there. The forge building was, for a time, leased out to a firm of builders and plumbers as a workshop and store. Then, when I was old enough, and foolishly thought I was rich enough, to buy a car, the building became a garage. By now there were few clues that the building had ever been a forge. The original stable buildings at the rear of the forge served a variety of other purposes over the years, including pig-sty, chicken coop, pigeon loft and even rabbit hutch. This latter duty was shared with the Anderson shelter!

Finally, following the death of Henry Thomas the second in 1993, the property was sold and the last link between Beech Lanes and the Downing family was broken. The shell of the old forge has now been mostly demolished and that most enduring symbol of the family trade, the large circular stone used in putting iron tyres on cart wheels, has also gone. Although I know much about the end and middle of the story, I have yet to find out exactly when the family first arrived in Beech Lanes, so the link could yet turn out to be even longer than 150 years.

© Graham Downing/ QLHS 2000

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