Robert Elson

Robert Elson is proving a little more mysterious and confusing. It seems he was born in Staffordshire in 1821. In 1841 a twenty-year-old bricklayer called Robert Elson is living on Duke Street in the Duddeston area of Birmingham. Like James Moffat, Elson then appears on the Birmingham radar in the beer trade as, in 1851, he is living with his wife Matilda at 183 Lawley Street in Aston parish and describes himself to the census taker as a ‘beer seller’. Is this the same Robert Elson?

He seems to lead a double life. A cursory look at the 1861 census finds no Robert Elson in Birmingham but by 1871 he is in Church Road, Saltley and describes himself as a ‘retired victualler’. He is living with his coal dealer sister Ann Small (b.1808 in Market Drayton) and his thirteen-year-old niece Emma Elson.

The 1881 census finds Elson at Clifton Place, Church Road, Saltley and he has a housekeeper and two adopted children (John and Jane Parkes). Finally he again describes himself in the brick trade but only as a ‘Brickwork Manager’. Maybe the move up was just round the corner and he and Moffat raised their aims to become leasees the following January. His life in the top league of the brick industry wasn’t to last long though…

‘Brick Manufacturer’ Robert Elson died at his home in Church Road, Saltley on the 26th November 1887 – he would not see out the sixteen year life of the land lease – he left a reasonable estate of £2,369. Elson’s nephew John Small is described as works manager in the probate notice. Robert Elson was buried (567.W) near to his home and the brickworks at St. Saviour’s church, Church Road, Saltley.

James Moffat

I can’t be 100% certain at the moment but it seems highly likely that James Moffat, signatory of the 1882 lease of land for brickmaking, was the Staffordshire-born builder whose family William Sapcote would later marry into.

James Moffat was born in High Offley, Staffordshire in 1833 and was baptised on the 4th June that same year. His parents were the Fife-born Benjamin Moffat and his wife Ann Wright from Staffordshire. James was one of 10 children of Benjamin and Ann. James spent his early years in Staffordshire before a brief sojourn in Ireland (where two of his siblings were born). On the family’s return to England they lived in Cheshire. By the time of the 1861 census James Moffat was married and living in Birmingham. His wife is Birmingham-born Emma Corbett. Initially the couple are found living at the Acorn Inn on Cheapside (and James is a ‘retail brewer’) but by 1871 James has moved into the building trade and the couple are living at the Moffat Building on South Road, Sparkbrook with the first four of their five children.

The couple remain on South Road until the 1880s when they move to Cressingham House a mile to the south on Anderton or Grantham Road, Sparkbrook. I imagine that this must have been a large house in its own grounds like the neighbouring Abbotsford – possibly buying the land from the other neighbours at Hind’s Farm – and was very much at the limit of Birmingham when it was built. However, by the early 1900s the bricks that builder James knew so well in terrace and semi- form were filling in all available land in this part of town. Despite his wife’s death in 1899 and the suburbanization of Sparkbrook James saw out his days in Cressingham and died at Cressingham on the 12th September 1914.

James seems to have done better out of the brick business than Elson as ‘gentleman’ James left an estate of £26,932 to his sons John James and William, his daughter Emma and to Ellen Leather. It was likely that James’ fifth child, William was the one that would continue the family’s interest in the brickmaking industry and it could have been he or his own son who oversaw the firm’s liquidation in 1946.

Getting and Working

Lease of land and herediments together with certain powers and privileges situate at Saltley in the parish of Aston near Birmingham in the county of Warwickshire-for the purpose of brickmaking-

[permission is given] to get and work the clay, sand and other materials used in the manufacture of bricks in or under the said three several pieces or parcels of land and to convert and Manufacture the said clay, sand and other materials into bricks, tiles, pipes, quarries[?] and other articles and to sell and dispose of the bricks, tiles, pipes, quarries[?] and other materials so manufactured and to build, erect, set up and maintain on the said three several pieces or parcels of land such engines, machines, kilns, huts and other erections as may be necessary or expedient for the more efficient getting and working the said brick, pipes, tiles, quarries[?] and other articles when manufactured.

Extract from the lease of land from the Right Honorable Charles Bowyer Baron Norton of Norton in the Moors, Staffordshire to the Adderley Park Brick Company Limited dated 24th January 1882 for a term of 16 years. (MS No. Norton 1133 2612 & 2613 in Birmingham City Archives).

Despite the workaday subject of this lease it is a beautiful object to behold – carefully illustrated with a plan and sealed with the brick company’s official wax seal. The Archives actually hold both copies of the agreement (one of them carries more contemporary pencilled notes in the margin). I have photos but need to negotiate permissions before posting them here.

The three ‘pieces and parcels of land’ are to the south-west, north-west and north of Adderley Park Station and were colored pink on the lease’s accompanying plan – they totalled about 24 acres. There is a fourth parcel of land (blue) of four acres mentioned in the lease which is to the north of Church Road. The lease stipulates that it may only be accessed via a tunnel under Church Road and is not for ‘working’ only ‘getting’ the ‘upper clay, sand and other materials’.

The annual rent was £79 11s 0d for the ‘pink’ land and £3 3s 0d per acre for the ‘blue’ land. There were also payments for every 1,000 bricks, tiles, etc. manufactured (2s 0d) and royalties to be paid if production was too low.

The lease had a host of strict clauses, many of which were financial. They include a requirement to keep the land ‘well and sufficiently fenced’, ‘not make less than Three million’ articles per year, ‘get the said clay in a regular and workmanlike manner’, erect no buildings within 30 yards of the public highway, ‘use all the most improved methods of consuming the smoke caused by the manufacture’, and at the end of the lease to return the land in as good a condition as a ‘Brickfield will admit’.

If the three million articles were not manufactured financial penalties were applied although the leasees could prove that the business was unprofitable and give up the lease. It must have been a well-judged business decision to accept that these areas of land would keep a profitable business going for sixteen years.

This lease almost certainly covers the period when bricks for the School of Art were manufactured given that the foundation stone was laid on the 31st May 1884. But who signed the lease? There are three names associated with the Adderley Park Brick Company Limited and none of them are Burkes. Have I been chasing the wrong person? The two directors named are Robert Elson and James Moffat and the secretary is Joseph James Edwards. I need to go back to my notes but it seems that George Burke was ‘just’ the manager of the works and it was Elson and Moffat who owned the concern. The Moffat family were certainly a key part of the company’s life as it was a William Moffat who was listed as chairman on the company’s liquidation in October 1946. Let’s take a look at Elson and Moffat…

Sapping and Admixing

MainEntrance_detailI’ve been attending the School of Art on Margaret Street once or twice a week, most weeks for the last eighteen months. Every time I visit I notice something different or something new in or around the building. I watch the Asplenium scolopendrium thriving in a crevice by a downpipe above one of the basement voids near the main entrance. I see the smokers mass and disperse around the entrance depending upon the weather. I enjoy the variety of light effects across the building through the different seasons, in different weathers and at different times of day. It’s always changing. Breathing.

Just yesterday, a little early for a seminar, I took a walk around the building comparing the three façades. I hadn’t quite appreciated the detailed riches of the Edmund Street face. Andy Foster in his Pevsner entry on the building describes it as an ‘eyecatcher’. It doesn’t have the immediate impact of the Margaret Street face perhaps but it pays closer contemplation (especially if you have a pair of binoculars to hand). What riches! What fun! Is that really eight owls carved to the sides of the first floor windows? And moths or butterflies on the buttresses? All carved from Horsley castle stone? Perhaps I can start a fund-raising campaign to hire a cherry-picker and take tours of the façades? [Mum’s the word.]

With the warmer spring weather all the flowers of the Margaret Street façade are flowering beautifully. I almost find too much to look at there and perhaps haven’t given it enough time. This thought occurred to me too when I was looking at the Cornwall Street elevation. Much simpler in many ways, three-quarters of this face is Martin’s 1890s extension so perhaps it typifies his more restrained style or perhaps it is a result of value-engineering.

On Cornwall Street I like the way the blue glazes used in the tile band have aged differently – the manufacturer obviously changing their recipe between the manufacture of the original 1880s tiles and those of the extension less than ten years later. I also noticed that the terracotta scenes above the main windows on this façade vary between the 1880s building and the extension. The format remains the same yet the earlier examples are all floral in their subject matter whilst the extension examples are all scenes of human activity or celebration. [As an aside, what a pleasant exercise it would be to undertake a botanising field trip through the petrified gardens of Margaret Street.]

As I mentioned above, I was concerned a little that I hadn’t paid enough attention to the building’s exterior and had got hung up on the written history, yet I think that background adds extra richness to the experience and now when I look a good dose of social narrative is found enfolded into the design and enhances my experience. A further concern is that my approach to the building’s story is one of understanding through division and definition – a theoretical dissection that is founded in the ‘is’ as I attempt to break the building down into its constituent parts. Partially I do hold my hands up to this and am keen to see how far I can push the research towards those infinite details (an impossibility obviously). It’s a game though and entertains me. Pointless perhaps but it doesn’t hurt anybody… I hope. Like the fact that I’m keen to run 10k in under 40 minutes – it takes hard work but doesn’t really serve any purpose. And when/if I manage it then what?

It’s especially when the less obviously material things are considered that the above dilemma begins to be addressed. The materiality of the building provides access points, weaknesses even to the life stories and little coincidences that riddle the place. Like a miner I identify a likely seam and mine through it and in my minings I combine materials from different seams to offer uncanny possibilities. It is an art of benevolent sapping and admixing.There’s something reparative in there too.

Stand well back and take a close look.

‘Grey Stone’

I’ve pretty much reached the quarry limits at Horsley Castle. Mr. Foulk of Belper has offered a few additional insights that colour in a bit more of the outline for which I am very grateful.

Formerly the Coxbench part of Horsley was called Tanton Cross (a corruption of St. Anthony’s Cross). In pre-Norman times the hamlet was called Herdby / Herdebi and with the coming of the Normans it changed to Harstan which means ‘grey stone’. I think if they had taken a closer look the Normans may have noticed a much more nuanced colouring to the stone – maybe everything was in black and white before the 1960s.

An 1895 Bulmers trade directory lists the quarries at Coxbench and Horsley Castle as WH & J Slater. I wonder if they supplied stone for the Cornwall Street extension to the School of Art to match that on the Midlands Institute opposite? There was certainly stone coming into Birmingham from there as I’ve recently discovered that the ‘face’ of Henry Tanner’s 1890 Post Office on Victoria Square (now Victoria Square House) is of Horsley Castle stone.

It is believed that the quarry at Horsley Castle finally closed in 1926 and may have been under the ownership of a Mr. Ogles from Ripley towards the end of its life.

Mr Foulk has sent me this tantalising and undated copy of a photograph of the quarry looking west from what must be almost the worked limit of the east side of the quarry:

HorsleyCastleQuarryDespite the dead-ends something still draws me to this quarry and its stone. Maybe there is one more worthwhile dig here.