After the visit to history society in February of the Warley Woods Trust I thought it was very appropriate to include passages from an article by Mary Bodfish entitled “Wanderings in Warley”. Also featured are a few photographs from my archives, which were gleaned from Birmingham Public Libraries, I hope you enjoy!
The history of the Warley area is a very different one from most of Smethwick, of which the Warley Woods district is now part. The Industrial Revolution, that turned Smethwick from a quiet and insignificant country hamlet into an industrial boom- town, didn’t mean very much to Warley people. For centuries they made their living through farming and through nail-making, and up until the late 1920s it was still a country district.
Warley today is entirely urbanised, but I have heard elderly residents recall it as a place of rural charm, where they played as children beside the Thimblemill Brook, where they called it the “The Boggies” and did their courting along the quiet paths of “The Glory Hills”. It was “a district of once-wonderful beauty”, according to a description in 1900.
So, where exactly do we mean when we say “Warley”? We tend to think of it today as just the district in which Warley Woods is situated. But the original, historic Warley actually covered a large area, stretching up as far as Londonderry in the north, Bristnall Fields in the west, and as far south as the brook that flows through the Woodgate Valley in the south: so it included at one time the district that we now think of as Ridgeacre and part of Quinton.
These woods were part of the 203-acre Warley Hall estate, which also included a substantial farm, which stood off Harborne Road, just down the hill. This may have been the original grange farm of Warley Abbey, and it was the original Warley Hall. I was very excited to discover, only recently, a property deed which refers to Ralph Warley, son of George Warley of Warley Hall dated 1563 - that is only 5 years after Queen Elizabeth I came to the throne, and which takes our knowledge of the estate further back that has been previously thought.
In 1792 the Birmingham Quaker gunmaker and banker Samuel Galton acquired the Warley Hall estate. He employed the noted landscape gardener Humphrey Repton to create an area of parkland to provide a setting in the best style for a new country residence. He produced a scheme to transform the area into a parkland: a new house was to be built halfway down the slope from the old hall, and the fields were to be replaced with open land, planted with new trees.
Repton’s intention was to create a landscape where the house would be approached by a carriage drive from the turnpike road (now Hagley Road West) near the “Cock and Magpies” (now the Harvester) through woodland to emerge in the open, where the house would be viewed across the valley. From the house, the view would be one of open land; the fences being just over the brow of the hill (the present Barclay Road). The idea being that the land, as far as the owner could see, would be his. Most of the mature trees on the golf course and around Abbey Road School date from this time.
The sign reads “ The above Society holds provisional control of the land on this side of Barclay Road with a view of its ultimate addition to the park. If not finally secured this gate will be closed and houses will be built.
WILL YOU HELP?”
A summer house, called Warley Tor, was built roughly where the water tower now stands - intended for summer gatherings, where the wonderful views over the landscape could be enjoyed. At first the idea was to extend this summer house to make a permanent residence, but Samuel Galton decided not to pursue it. It was his son, Hubert Galton, who had a new house built, in about 1820. He chose the fashionable neo-gothic style for the house and gave it the romantic-sounding name of “Warley Abbey”.
After Lightwoods House and parkland in Bearwood were saved from being built over in 1902 by the consortium led by Alexander Macomb Chance, the same people began to raise money for the extension to the park, and also to acquire the Warley Woods estate.
Money was raised by workplace collections and donations, and eventually The Lightwoods Park and Warley Woods Committee acquired and offered to the City the area of woodland and park, and it was opened to the public in 1906. It was opened for the first time on August Bank Holiday weekend, and, so many people crowded in from Ladywood and Smethwick that it was closed as being full to capacity!
What we see today, although much valued as an open space, cannot compare with the facilities that one could enjoy here in the 1920s and 30s:
“There were simple pleasures to be found in Warley. A Sunday out might be a ramble through its quiet country lanes; perhaps taking the path over the Glory Hills before stopping off at the Pheasant - then a quiet country pub; then on to the bandstand in Warley Park to listen to the band, or be entertained by Will Morris’s Pierrots, or the Bohemian concert party; and if the day was hot, the children could cool off in the pool by the park gates, while their parents enjoyed the show. The day might then be brought to a fitting end by a visit to the Abbey tea rooms before returning home”
For many years, stories have circulated in the district of a “Grey Lady” haunting Warley Woods. Numerous accounts have been given relating to the Grey Lady the earliest known of these dating back to 1822.
One evening in that year, not far from where the water tower now stands, an Oldbury man, Samuel Whitehouse, was found, dying of severe head injuries. He was on his way home after a day’s shooting wildfowl with his brother-in-law, Joseph Downing, a Rowley Regis farmer. They had spent the day on the Lightwoods estate, before going for a meal at the home in nearby Beech Lanes of a blacksmith, Thomas Fox. After a convivial evening they set out together before their ways parted. Not long afterwards Whitehouse’s horse was found, described as riderless and “in a state of eye-rolling terror” by a young lad, who raised the alarm at Fox’s. When he was discovered Whitehouse had apparently been robbed of his pocket-watch and several sovereigns. Downing offered a reward in the local press for information leading to the conviction of Whitehouse’s killer, but was himself arrested and charged with murdering him.
At the trial the defence suggested that Whitehouse’s horse had been startled “by the sudden appearance of the phantom form of a woman said to manifest itself close to the spot where the unfortunate man. was found”. It was claimed that the appearance of the Grey Lady was “utterly accepted and witnessed by numerous people in the district”. Other witnesses stated that the horse was of uncertain temperament, and although the two doctors who gave evidence disagreed as to whether or not Whitehouse’s injuries were consistent with being thrown from the saddle and his head then being crushed by a flailing hoof, these arguments were sufficient to sway the verdict and Downing was acquitted.
During the late 19th century, Warley Abbey was the residence of Sir Hugh Gilzean Reid. He was MP for Aston Manor, and there he entertained figures from the world of art and literature. On one occasion among his guests was Harry Furniss, a sports writer and cartoonist. Furniss claimed that he had sat alone in the smoking room and had seen the Grey Lady so clearly that he immediately drew a sketch of her. This sketch is believed to have been subsequently published in the magazine “Punch”. It does need to be borne in mind that Sir Hugh Gilzean Reid was also a newspaper proprietor, with both a romantic streak and an interest in self-publicity.
In the early years of the 20th century tales of the Grey Lady terrified the children of George Bretherick, who was employed as the Superintendent of the park and who lived at the Abbey from 1906 onwards. Naturally, these youngsters passed on stories about her to their schoolmates at Abbey Road School, producing a generation of local children with a firm belief in her existence. Among them was Robert Shaw, who regularly crossed the park in the evening to deliver milk from Slatchhouse Farm with his brother, and as an old man, he recalled a frightening encounter as follows
“Near the poolside, away from the beech trees, there were two big oak trees, and by these trees was the figure of a lady. Before we could stop him, our dog tore the lead from our hands and ran off we definitely saw the lady: she was wearing an old-fashioned dress that touched the ground, and she had a dignified manner. The light was not that bad, but we could not distinguish her features. She was looking straight towards us, and we began to feel very scared, so we bolted for home.”
It should be recorded that other members of the Shaw family have remarked of their brother Robert that “he was always romancing”. There are a number of theories to account for the Grey Lady. Some of speak of the murdered heiress, or the unhappy daughter of a former owner of Warley Abbey; another version refers to a woman whose husband, or, lover, was killed in the war (which one is not specified!), and who, crazed with grief, hanged herself from a tree in the woods. Another theory suggests that she was actually Lucy Galton, the wife of Samuel Galton, who purchased the estate in 1792. She was a Scotswoman, and, as a Quaker, would have habitually dressed in sober colours; she was also reputed to be a hypochondriac. Perhaps local memories of a sad-faced lady in grey gradually turned into stories of the Grey Lady. Samuel Galton did not, however, live at his Warley Estate, though he would have made visits there when the fields were being landscaped into parkland.
Another theory, and rather an attractive one, is that the Grey Lady is the phantom of Joan de Botetort of Weoley Castle. In 1325 she bequeathed her property, which included this part of Warley, to Halesowen Abbey. A condition of her bequest that the monks should pray eternally for her soul. The story goes that since the dissolution of the abbey in 1538, and the monks’ prayers ceased, Lady Joan’s restless soul has wandered the lands that belonged to her in life.
The children of Abbey Road School still scare each other with stories of the Grey Lady: One version says that if you use the toilets in the woods, she jumps up and bites your bum!
After the war, there were, course, great problems to be addressed by all local authorities, and Smethwick’s problems were pretty serious. Unfortunately, the pressing needs of housing and modernisation led to the demolition of a number of old and interesting building. Much that would be considered worthy of conservation today was irretrievably lost. Warley Abbey, for example, would certainly be a listed building today, but it was demolished in 1957, as then, the £18,000 needed to renovate it simply could not be justified.
There were no heritage or conservation groups around in those days to protest to say “The baby is being thrown out with the bathwater”! Today, thank goodness there are.
We now have the Warley Woods Community Trust. The aim is to reverse the way in which the woods have suffered so badly from many years of neglect. It has obtained a grant of three-quarters of a million pounds from the Heritage Lottery Fund to restore Humphrey Repton’s landscape planting, Birmingham has now handed ownership over to the trust. The scheme is virtually unique in this country.
I hope that in showing you some aspects of the Warley area, you will feel that urbanised areas like this, that may look so ordinary, do have stories to tell, if the people that love them do the work, do the research, and uncover those stories. And especially I hope that you will feel as I do that history is, indeed, all around us.
Ed’s comment-My thanks to Mary for her permission to reproduce the relevant parts of the talk “Wanderings in Warley” in the Oracle (the talk is on cassette and can still be purchased). Also thanks to Birmingham Public Library for the use of photographic material from the archive. Acknowledgement also given to the late Stella & Harry Trigg for allowing me to copy their photographic collection of the area in the very early days of the society.
Click here to go back to the Oracle page.