Sparkhill and Greet, by John Morris Jones
This 1981 booklet is reproduced with permission of John Morris Jones's widow. He intended it to be largely superseded by parts of Acocks Green and all around, and Swanshurst Quarter, but for those interested primarily in Sparkhill and Greet alone it is very useful in its own right.
Sparkhill, known locally as 'The Hill', is bounded by the River Cole, the Spark Brook, and the 'Showell Green Brook' (no surviving name). It is thus a clearly defined geographical area; but because historically it has never had an existence separate in any respect from its immediate environs, the story of some of these must be included herein. They are the districts of Showell Green, Wake Green, Greet, and Tyseley, the last two of which are of greatest importance and antiquity, and the forgotten ones, Spark and Mawles Greens, Greet Common, and Shaftmoor.
For information about districts west of Stoney Lane, Belle Walk, and Billesley Lane, see my booklets 'Moseley' and 'Bygone Balsall Heath'. For districts north of Spark Brook see my 'Bordesley & Deritend' essay in the larger 'Manors of Aston Parish'. The area east and south of that covered herein is discussed in 'Acocks Green and all around' and the collection of articles called 'Hall Green and hereabout'. Various aspects of local historical geography are dealt with in 'The Manor of Yardley', development during the last century being comprehensively treated in 'The urbanisation of Yardley'.
Relief and drainage
The slight local relief, varying only between 480 feet at Wake Green and 370 feet at the Cole/Spark confluence, is the work of the natural drainage, which has shaped the surface. Former level plains, seen most clearly on Formans Road Recreation Ground and along the Stratford Road through Hall Green, have been sculptured into gentle undulations by watercourses: these were not always the trickles of today, and there were once many more of them. The main stream is the Cole, first documented in 972 as 'colle', known at other times as Greet Brook and Hay Mill Brook. It has a local gradient of about 15 feet in 1 mile, with break of slope near the Stratford Road. During this century the Cole has been somewhat straightened as a flood control measure.
The Spark Brook, taking its name from a family resident hereabout in the 13th century, was described as 'a torrent' in 1511, but its gentle gradient and shortness suggest that it would rarely have deserved that name. It was a definite obstacle to travel, however, like all streams in this clay country, because of the undrained bogs which bordered it. The source of the brook was in a close called 'Springfield' on Yardley Wood Road opposite Woodstock Road, and its course underlies Stoney Lane almost to the Stratford Road. Thence it flows still underground between Walford and Benton Roads to join the Cole just south of the Oxford Railway embankment. Today only the last half-mile of the brook is visible, in the former B. S. A. sports ground east of Golden Hillock Road. In the 18th century there was a lake on the brook, taking its name from Danford, the crossing point. What is now Golden Hillock Road goes across the site of the lake dam.
The 'Showell Green Brook' is a convenient name for the rill which used to rise near the junction of Wake Green and Yardley Wood Roads. Its course is east-northeast, parallel to Oakwood Road along the Park edge, thence in a culvert to the Cole. A tributary, the 'Park Brook', rose in Hazeldell, a little wooded hollow now vanished under new buildings of the Women's Hospital, and flowed south-east across the Park.
Several side-streams fan into the Cole: down Greet Mill Hill north of Shaftmoor Lane: from Greet Common north of College Road, its willowed course traceable until recently across the Yardley Poor Allotments; on the line of Fernley Road; and north of Warwick Road. There were doubtless others, including tributaries of the Spark. On the east Side of our districts, Tyseley Brook flowed north from its source near Hall Green Church to join the Cole close to the Spark confluence. It is culverted for much of its course, feeding the Hall Green Sewer.
The area's underlying rock is the reddish-brown clay now called Mercian Mudstone. It is several hundred feet thick, an impervious material which holds water on the surface and mixes readily with it to create a soft sticky mud. Across the clay plain ice sheets of the most recent glaciation advanced, pushing before and beneath great masses of earth and broken stone. In lakes pent by mile-high ice barriers, gales blew the water into mighty waves, which pounded the rocks into smooth gravel. As the ice melted this drift material was left in thick deposits upon the clay: torrents of melt-water washed it out of the valleys and scoured them into gorges. 12,000 years of wind and rain have rounded the valley sides, creating today's landscape. Only the inter-fluvial ridges are flat-topped and drift-covered, slopes are gentle and valleys silt-filled with mere trickles in their bottoms.
The natural landscape
Primeval vegetation was dictated by geology. The impervious clay’s moist surface favoured the growth of water-loving oaks, which tolerated thick undergrowth of brush and bramble. Forest on clay was so thick as to constitute an almost impenetrable deciduous jungle. The porous drift of sand and gravel was dry on top, but acted as a reservoir of water above the bedrock clay. It supported lighter woodland, or heath where it was stoniest. The undrained alluvium of the floodplains was too wet for all but willow and alder. Thus the natural landscape was an unattractive one of boggy valleys bordered by dense forest on the slopes, which thinned out to fairly clear plateaux. There were high bogs here and there, but firm going and open patches on the thickest drift areas, which were also the highest. The marshes of the Cole and lower Spark were 300 yards wide. Above these 'The Hill' was largely drift-covered and thus lightly-wooded, probably no more than ringed with oaks except on the north-facing slope and perhaps in an area north of Grove Farm, which may have been more densely timbered.
These features must be deduced largely from the O. S. Geology Map, since the natural vegetation has long since disappeared and much of the ground itself is hidden beneath brick, tarmac, and earthen bank. Certain old names provide confirmation. Thus 'Greet' (Old English 'greot' grit or gravel) may be the oldest name hereabout: it was the presence of gravel drift deposits which made both settlement and river crossings possible in this area. The precise location of 'Greet' presents problems which are dealt with below, but the descriptive name was applicable to The Hill and to the Common further south. 'The Grove' from which Fulford Hall took its name after rebuilding was perhaps a remnant of wood on clay, though the farm itself was sited on a drift patch. But the name could as well be that of a tenant farmer or of a later plantation ! 'Stoney Lane' was well-named, for it was only the presence of firm gravel which permitted the use of a track so close beside a brook. 'Greet Field, Gravelly Hill, and Gravel Pit' were the names of closes west of Percy Road, while 'Hazel Dell and Birch Leys' in what is now the Park tell of trees which prefer light dry soil.
Forested claylands east of Cole were commemorated centuries after their clearance by the 'Riddings' of Greet Farm and of 'Reddings Lane', which indicate land cleared of trees, while the 'Moors' of Greet Farm and 'Shaftmoor' (moor meaning bog) record wet meadows of Cole and Tyseley Brooks.
It should be noted that the O. S. Map is in error in showing a drift-free patch in the southern half of the Park, extending east of the Cole, since close-names listed above clearly indicate drift cover. The error has been corrected on the map herein. Similarly, none of the fords is shown to have gravel footings, yet drift can be seen in the river bed, and at the Stratford Road Bridge it collects to form an island as formerly it did at the Warwick Road.
During one warm period of prehistory the soaked landscape of post-glacial times dried out until it could not support tree growth. Tracks were perhaps trodden out then and crossing-places of dry river-beds were used which were maintained when wetter conditions and arboreal abundance returned. Certainly animals kept trails open from clear ridges to watering and fording places where stony patches provided firm going. Hunters of successive primitive cultures followed these tracks and used the fords. Nomads left no trace of their passing, and later prehistory has no tale to tell of Sparkhill and its environs. 'Arden', the Celtic name given to the great tract of forest and heath which covered the plateau within the Severn/Trent/Avon triangle, attracted few settlers; but we cannot say for certain that there were none, or that some clearance for agriculture had not been undertaken before the Saxons came.
Three miles due south of Sparkhill is the remnant of an 11-acres hillcamp, Berry Mound in Solihull Lodge, which must have been the permanent stronghold of a large tribe, whose territory could have included ours. Roman legionaries cut a road we call Ryknild Street across what is now west Birmingham, and built a fort at Metchley which became a civil settlement. But of Romano-British activity hereabout nothing is known. Two coins of the Empire have been found on Sparkhill, but no roads or buildings.
We have no certain information about settlement in our districts until the 7th century. Then West Saxons, who called themselves Hwicce, came from the south and Anglians from north and east in small colonising groups. In the Tame/Rea/Cole basin they met and ultimately settled. Following river terraces, ridgeways and Roman roads, they established themselves wherever the ground was clear and dry enough for ploughing. Such sites were of course on the sandy or gravelly patches: hereabout the earliest were Moseley, Bordesley, and Yardley, and Tyseley was later. The 'ley' ending indicates a clearing in wood, necessarily a natural one or one expanded by former inhabitants, where the soil was dry but water was obtainable from springs and shallow wells. Neither the valley floors nor the slopes made suitable sites, but the former were the source of summer grass and winter hay for stock, and the latter of fuel, timber, pannage for swine, and game. The streams could be ponded for fisheries.
The Manor of Yardley
Sparkhill and Greet's parent manor is dealt with fully elsewhere. The distance here from of Yardley village is such - three miles - that our district's connection with it is a matter for wonder, especially when the smallness of the early population is known. Whether originally so or not, by the 10th century the manor of Yardley covered 11½ square miles, from Castle Bromwich to Solihull Lodge, and from Spark Brook to Olton. Hereabout the boundary was established along Cole and Spark; to the north was Bordesley once part of Aston, and westward was Moseley in the even larger manor of (Kings) Norton. The common boundaries must have been fixed by negotiation. Watercourses were used whenever convenient, and elsewhere the boundaries were usually roughly straight lines marked by blazed trees, banks and ditches. Fences were not erected, because it was the custom in Arden for stock to be allowed to graze freely across borders as long as they were not driven. There were few tracks to provide recognisable limits, though the 'perambulation tracks' of later bounds-beating often became lanes if they went where there was need to go. Yardley's west-bounding tracks were examples of these.
The boundaries of Yardley
A Charter has survived which gives Yardley's boundaries in the year 972. In this as earlier grant of the manor is confirmed by King Edgar, the 'meres' given include colle, munds dean, great oak tree, and bull well, for this part of the manor. The dean was doubtless the boggy Spark vale, the oak may well have stood at the north end of Belle Walk, and the well or spring was possibly the source of the Showell Green Brook. Colle was the River Cole.
The importance of the Spark as a boundary is worth noting, especially since its virtual disappearance. In its time it has separated two people (Angles and Saxons), two kingdoms (Mercia and Hwiccia), two sees (Lichfield and Worcester), two shires (Warwick & Worcester), three Manors (Aston, Bromsgrove and Yardley - later Bordesley, Norton, and Greet), three Parishes (Bromsgrove, chapelry of St. Nicholas Kings Norton, later chapelry of St. Mary Moseley, Aston, later chapelry of St. John Deritend and St. Edburgha Yardley, later chapelry of St. John Sparkhill), three Civil Parishes (Aston, Kings Norton, Yardley), four administrative 'ends' within them (Bordesley End, Moseley Yield, Greet and Swanshurst Quarters), the two sides in the Civil War (Warwickshire for Parliament, Worcestershire for King), three Poor Law Unions (Aston, Kings Norton and Northfield, and Solihull), a Borough Ward (Bordesley of Birmingham) and two Local Boards (Balsall Heath and Kings Norton and Northfield), and two Wards of a Rural District (Sparkhill East and West of Yardley), five City Wards and three Constituencies, and three Postal Districts!
In 1495, a surviving Presentment tell us, twelve jurors of Yardley met and walked with a dozen from every neighbouring manor in turn along their common boundaries, and took their oaths upon the correctness of the 'Meares'. Local ones were listed as Spark Brook, Spark Green, Low Lane (Stoney Lane), the Gilden Corner (perhaps the corner of Moseley Tax Yield), the greenway (Belle Walk) and Bulley Lane (Billesley Lane, wrongly named, for the lane led to the ancient settlement site of Bulley, now occupied by Moseley Golf Clubhouse). The Yardleians took leave of the Bordesleians and greeted the Nortonians at Highgate Road's junction with Stoney Lane, going south with them as far as Highters Heath. These bounds remained unaltered, though the status of the territories on either side altered until they ceased to have other than City Ward significance in 1912. True, in 1896 the boundary was apparently moved from the east side of Stoney Lane to its centre, but this due to the widening of the lane to cover the stagnant Spark and provide a road surface fit for tramcar tracks.
The 'Manor' of Greet
Some land in 'Yardley and Greet' was sold in 1254 by William de Edricheston to the Prior and Convent of Studley, which held it until the Dissolution of Religious Houses about 1540. The implication of the two names in the sale is that Yardley and Greet were regarded as separate, and possibly the latter had, like Hay Hall nearby, some semi-independent status. As a church property, in different ownership from Yardley which was a possession of the Abbey of St. Mary at Pershore: it doubtless claimed such rights. Greet was certainly a communal settlement with its own open field system. The Lay Subsidy Rolls of 1280 listed four taxpayers 'de Greet' - Adam, Jordan, Ranulph, and Henry - who were presumably the richest of the tenants.
The great fields which they and others farmed in furlong strips were Heyne (High) Field west of the Stratford Road, Gravel Field east of it, and Berry Field north of the Warwick Road. Adam and Reginald Spark, perhaps living at the edge of the common pasture, Spark Green; William and Robert de Greethurst, south of Showell Green, and Henry de Tisseleye (Tyseley) were contemporaries of the Greet tenants. In addition to the fields and the greens, there were the water-meadows, which Greet had in abundance.
Where the Greeters lived is hard to discover. The known but now vanished hamlet near the 'manor house' (about the modern Greet Inn) may have been a later development. It would have been odd for farmers to live on the far side of a river subject to fierce and sudden floods from their fields and stock, even though the ford may have been an easy one at other times. It is likely that when the great fields were under cultivation, tenants lived at their edges with no nucleated settlement; this seems to have been so elsewhere in the manor, at Yardley itself and at Tenchley (Acocks Green/Stockfield). When later the fields were subject to piece-meal enclosure by exchange and purchase, farmers would acquire land about their dwellings, so that in time Greet would look like an area that had been settled individually rather than communally. Unfortunately such peripheral farm sites are few about The Hill: Greet Farm, Sparkhill and Shrubbery Farms, and perhaps a farm near the 'Mermaid', are the only ones likely to be ancient.
Greet was described as 'manerium de Grete' in 1547, and 'manerium vocatum La Gritte' in 1563. In Humphrey Greswold's will seven years later it was 'the manner of Greet'. He was a local magnate, lay Rector of Yardley, who had acquired the Studley Priory Estates among others. If Greet manor house was his home, it must have been a rebuilding of the Prior's steward's building - probably the original moated site was abandoned as at Blakesley and Moseley, the new house being built beside it. Until the Dissolution the land surrounding The Hill was owned by Maxstoke and Studley Priories; the Grevises of Moseley Hall, later to be lords of Yardley, and the Greswolds were the acquisitors. By 1570 those estates were wholly enclosed for pasture, and this was probably the case with Greet Fields. Eight years later Greethurst, a Holte property, was sold to Richard Grevis. It was used thereafter as a private hunting preserve.
Relief and drainage, geology, and the natural landscape
First footers and Anglo-Saxon settlement
The manor of Yardley, the boundaries of Yardley, and the 'Manor' of Greet
Ancient roads, ancient buildings, and watermills
Turnpike roads, bridges, and administration
Urbanisation, and amenities and services
Churches, schools, and commerce and industry
Between the Wars and since, and references