formerly in Warwickshire - one of the Domesday manors of Birmingham and an ancient parish
B6 - Grid reference SP082899
Estone: first record in the Domesday Book 1086
This is only one of many Astons across the country, including another close by: Little Aston near Great Barr. By the 17th century this one was being called Aston juxta (Latin 'near') Birmingham, presumably to distinguish it from other Astons.
This large Warwickshire manor stands on the Birmingham sandstone ridge. The soil here is generally not very fertile, but it is relatively light and was easy for the early settlers to plough.
The small medieval village settlement lay along Witton Lane by the parish church on a dry gravel terrace above the floodplain of the River Tame. The medieval open fields, Church Parke, Crosse Field and Farther Field lay west of Aston Hall, and Lozells Wood was the common waste where the local peasants had rights of pasture.
The first documentary evidence of this manor is found in the Domesday Book where it is listed as Estone, a name which derives from the Old English est tun, 'east farm'. This seems to indicate that Aston was a secondary settlement set up by an expanding mother-village to the west.
However, which settlement Aston was east of is not known: Wednesbury, perhaps, a fortified settlement, whose pre-Christian name derives from the Anglo-Saxon god Woden. A glance at the map suggests other alternatives: possibly Oldbury, whose name means 'the old (fortified) town.'
As well as being a settlement, Aston was an extensive pre-Conquest parish and a manor of some local importance. At Domesday it was one of the more valuable in the Birmingham area and included what were later the sub-manors of Bordesley, Castle Bromwich, Duddeston, Erdington, Little Bromwich (Ward End), Minworth, Saltley, Water Orton and Witton.
Aston Old Hall
Almost nothing is known about the original manor house, Aston Old Hall, which stood between Serpentine Road and Charles Road close to the River Tame, though its course has been altered here on more than one occasion. William Hutton described the site:
One hundred yards north of the church, in a perfect swamp, stood the hall; probably erected by Godmund [the Saxon lord of the manor at Domesday], or his family: the situation shews the extreme of bad taste - one would think, he endeavoured to lay his house under the water. The trenches are obliterated by the floods, so as to render the place unobserved by the stranger: it is difficult to chuse a worse, except he had put his house under the earth. I believe there never was more than one house erected on the spot, and that was one too much.
William Hutton 1783 An History of Birmingham
It is feasible that this was the original Anglo-Saxon site, the 'east farm', that had been settled as early as the 8th century. The site, which is known to have been moated, was out of use by 1367, but was not finally built over until the 19th century. The manorial mill, which is also mentioned in the Domesday Book, stood nearby on the Tame near Electric Avenue, though here too the course of the river has been changed.
Before the Norman Conquest of 1066 Aston had belonged to the Anglo-Saxon lord, Earl Edwin. In 1086 it was held of William FitzAnsculf by the Norman, Godmund. It is not known what, if any, was his relationship to Thomas, son of William de Erdington who is known to have been holding the manor c1200. Thomas was succeeded after his death c1218 by his son, Giles who was in turn succeeded by his nephew Henry de Erdington. The line subsequently died out and the manor was sold off in 1366 to the enterprising John atte Holte of Birmingham through whose family it descended to Sir Thomas Holte. He it was who enclosed the park and built the present Aston Hall. In 1611 he was created a baronet by King James I. On the death in 1782 of the sixth and last baronet, Sir Charles Holte, Aston passed to his daughter Mary, the wife of Abraham Bracebridge of Atherstone who still held the manor in 1811. On the death without issue of their grandson, Charles Holte Bracebridge, in 1872 the line extinguished and the manorial rights lapsed.
Well worth a visit - Aston Church
Aston's most famous buildings stand cheek by jowl and are well-known landmarks from the Aston Expressway. Noted at Domesday as one of only two local manors with a priest (Northfield was the other), Aston is one of the ancient parishes of Birmingham. Its church of St Peter and St Paul may well have been an Anglo-Saxon minster.
The 15th-century tower is now the only part of the medieval gothic church to survive; its tall octagonal spire was rebuilt in 1776. By the end of the Georgian period, the pointed gothic windows of the chancel and nave had been replaced with neo-classical round arches, the interior filled with high box pews, the roof ceiled and the whole was an unhappy mix of medieval gothic and 18th-century neo-classical.
By the middle of the 19th century, gothic had come into favour again and the majority of the church was demolished, rebuilt and enlarged in the 14th-century decorated gothic style by the accomplished Birmingham architect J A Chatwin to its present appearance.
Chatwin reset 14th-century stonework into in the south wall of south aisle and the piscina is from the original chapel of the Virgin Mary. Most of the work was done c1890, though the south aisle and porch date from 1908.
The church has many good monuments including an unknown knight of 1306 and a lady c1490, possibly brought here from Maxstoke Abbey. In the choir is the effigy of Ralph Arden d.1360, the great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of William Shakespeare. In the Erdington Chapel, originally a chantry built by their son in 1459, are effigies of Sir Thomas de Erdington d.1433 and of his wife Joan Harcourt d.1417.
Sir Thomas is shown in full armour and formerly wore a collar bearing the Lancastrian insignia of the red rose presented to him by King Henry V. This was removed by his son when Edward IV of the House of York came to power in 1461. Sir William Harcourt d.1482 wears the Yorkist collar awarded to him by Edward IV.
A number of the Holte family are also commemorated here, including William Holte d.1518 and his wife Joan. Their memorials in the north aisle are of poorer quality and were probably carved by a local mason copying other tombs. There is a memorial to Sir Thomas Holte 1571-1654, the builder of Aston Hall, one to Edward Holte d.1593 and wife, both depicted in Elizabethan dress, and a memorial to Sir Charles Holte 1722-1782, the last of the line. Sir Edward Devereux d.1622, the builder of the first Castle Bromwich Hall and his wife Katherine d.1627 are commemorated here with Sir Walter Devereux d 1632, five sons and four daughters. Here too a memorial to Sir John Bridgeman d.1710 also of Castle Bromwich Hall (Castle Bromwich lay in the parish of Aston).
Fragments of the carved 12th-century preaching cross have been placed in the south chapel (See Aston Cross). The north window of the north chapel 1793 has stained glass by Birmingham manufacturer, Francis Eginton; the brass eagle lectern was given by the Ansell family of brewery fame; and the pulpit, which was paid for by local families, is well carved with much marble and is dated New Year's Day 1885.
On the wall of the Meeting Room is the bust of John Rogers, born 1500 in Deritend, who was burnt at the stake in 1550 for his part in translating the Bible into English. The bust is clothed in Victorian style and was made in 1883 paid by public subscription. It was brought here from its original home at St John's in Deritend, a chapel-of-ease of Aston, when it was closed in 1940. In the churchyard west of the tower a slab marks the grave of Birmingham's first historian, William Hutton and his wife.
Aston is one of Birmingham's prime ringing towers. There were five bells here in 1552, which were augmented to a ring of eight in 1775 by Pack & Chapman of Whitehall. In 1814 two new trebles were added and the old fourth and the tenor were recast. All the bells were recast in 1935 and two more bells added by Taylor's of Loughborough making the present ring of twelve.
Between the church and Witton Lane is the tomb of bellringer Henry Johnson which was erected by 'the Ringers of England in grateful memory of Henry Johnson, to whose ability and perseverance the art of change-ringing is widely endebted.'
Johnson came from Lichfield to Birmingham as a youngster and learnt to ring the bells at Aston. He became an accomplished ringer, conductor and composer and was nationally known.
Such was Johnson's esteem that a celebration dinner held for his 80th birthday was attended by officials from societies all over the country as well as by the most prominent ringers.
As a result of this meeting of eminent ringers, the Central Council of Change Ringers was set up which still thrives. The Henry Johnson Memorial Dinner continues to be held annually in Birmingham. When Johnson died in 1890, his friend John Day said of him:
Whether as companion, friend, ringer, conductor, or composer it is doubtful whether the Exercise will ever again meet with his equal.
[The Exercise was a term used for 'bellringing'.]
Well worth a visit - Aston Hall
An extravagant Jacobean stately home built for Sir Thomas Holte, Aston Hall was the largest house built in Warwickshire at that time of great rebuilding and one of the last such to be built in England. Building started in 1618 and the hall was more or less compIeted by 1635. It is now a City museum and well worth a visit.
Sir Thomas stood for the royalist cause during the Civil War. In 1642 King Charles I and his army, en route for London, arrived at Aston to spend the night of 18 October at Sir Thomas's country house.
As Charles' army subsequently moved through Birmingham, some looting took place, so Charles hanged two captains as a gesture that he had no animosity towards the town. However, some of Birmingham's citizens were unconvinced and, as the King's baggage train approached the town along the Lichfield Road, it was attacked and the King's goods were stolen. The captured booty was sent to the parliamentary garrison at Warwick Castle and the royal guards were sent to Coventry, also a parliamentary stronghold.
On 26 December the following year Sir Thomas was also to suffer for his royalist allegiance. A force of 1200 parliamentary soldiers and Birmingham townsfolk besieged Aston Hall. Although bolstered by forty royalist musketeers sent from Dudley Castle, Sir Thomas was forced to surrender after three days in the face of overwhelming troops and artillery. Twelve defenders and sixty attackers were killed in the siege, most of whom lie buried in unmarked graves in Aston churchyard nearby. The hall was then held for Parliament until the end of the war. The damage caused by cannon shot and the guilty cannon ball may still be seen on the main staircase.
In 1794 the Holte line died out and the hall was sold; it was bought c1820 by James Watt Junior. After his death in 1848 a private company bought it to open to the public, but it was to be another ten years before it was officially opened by Queen Victoria. In 1864 Birmingham Corporation bought the parkland as a public park and set up the hall as a museum and art gallery.
Much of the hall's park and surrounding estate was sold off in 1818, thus releasing a large rural area for housing development. Aston was built up largely with working-class housing from the mid-19th century. Much of this older housing was demolished during the last quarter of the 20th century. However, some streets of good quality housing remain around Aston Park.
Well worth a visit - Villa Park
Aston Villa football ground originated as the Aston Lower Grounds. These had opened in 1872 in the parkland of Aston Hall, part of which was laid out as a public park, while travelling fairs and exhibitions used the rest of the site.
After 1879 permanent buildings were erected to house a theatre, ballroom, art gallery, aquarium, zoo and restaurants. Later a cycle track, sports ground, bowling greens and an indoor skating rink were added. Showell's 1888 Dictionary of Birmingham described the grounds as:
the most beautiful pleasure grounds in the Midland counties. . . . In 1878, a limited liability company was formed to take to the hotel and premises, building an aquarium 320 feet long by 54 feet wide, an assembly-room, 220 feet long, by 91 feet wide, and otherwise catering for the comfort of their visitors, 10,000 of whom can be now entertained and amused under shelter, in case of wet weather. The visitors to the Lower Grounds since 1864 have averaged 280,000 per annum.
Aston Villa Football Club has played here since 1896. The stands were extensively rebuilt in the last years of the 20th century with seated accommodation for 42 000 spectators, and now include restaurants and conference facilities. It is rated a 4-star UEFA stadium.
See also Villa Cross.
Despite extensive housing redevelopment on east side of Aston, a number of fine Victorian public houses survive. On the Lichfield Road opposite Grosvenor Road is the Grade II Listed Britannia public house built in 1898, a tall three-storey balustraded building designed by Wood & Kendrick for Mitchells & Butlers Brewery. It is built in brick and terracotta in a Jacobean style probably after Aston Hall and is topped by a statue of Britannia. Internally Victorian decoration survives: the original floor-to-ceiling screen divides the bar from the corridor with its glazed Minton tiles and mosaic floor and the Smoke Room features a glass-etched picture of Britannia.
Click to enlarge these images of Victorian public houses on the Lichfield Road.
Take a look at Aston Council House and Library.
Thanks for the use of this postcard to JKC on the Birmingham History Webring Forum. All Rights Reserved.
See also John Houghton & Rod Birch’s website Astonbrook through Aston Manor. See Acknowledgements for a direct link to these websites.
The focus of the area shifted westwards as housing development spread from the Birmingham boundary.
In 1869 the Aston Board was set up but it had no permanent office until the opening in 1882 of this purpose-built council house which was built in a neo-Jacobean style to reflect the design of Aston Hall.
The front room of the offices was used as Aston Public Library whose first librarian was Robert K Dent. He inaugurated free lectures for the public here, and is still well-known as a Birmingham historian. The Aston Board acquired Urban District Council status in 1903, but agreed to amalgamation with Birmingham in 1911. See Six Ways Aston.
The parish was described in 1868 in the National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland:
Aston, a parish in the Birmingham division of the hundred of Hemlingford, in the county of Warwick, 2 miles to the North of Birmingham. The parish is very extensive, comprising an area of
13,877 acres, and a population of above 60,000. A large part of the parish lies within the borough of Birmingham.
It is situated in the valley of the river Tame, across which the London and North Western railway is carried on a handsome viaduct of ten arches. There is a station at Aston. The Birmingham and Farsley [Fazeley] canal also runs along the valley. The population are employed in the various departments of the Birmingham trade and have largely shared in the material prosperity of that town.
The parish comprises the following chapelries: Ashted, Castle Bromwich, Bordesley, Deritend, Duddeston, Erdington, Water Orton, and Ward End, and the hamlets of Saltley and Witten. The church is dedicated to SS Peter and Paul. In addition to the parish church there are twelve district churches and chapels of ease in this extensive parish, named after their districts:- Ward End; Ashted, St. James; Castle Bromwich; Bordesley, Holy Trinity; Bordesley, St. Andrew; Deritend, St. John; Erdington; Duddeston, St. Matthew; St. Clement's Nechells; Lozells, St. Silas; Saltley; and Water Orton.
The Grand Junction Railway 1837
In 1837 George Stephenson's Grand Junction Railway from Liverpool came through Aston en route to Birmingham. A much admired ten-arched viaduct was built over two arms of the River Tame and the meadow north of Aston Church. The course of the river was later straightened. The railway's temporary terminus was at Vauxhall before the opening of Curzon Street station. James Watt Jnr, despite his objections, lost the end of the chestnut avenue leading from the front of Aston Hall.
Samuel Sidney on Rail Travel 1851:
What advantage does the railway hold out? Only one, - celerity of motion; and, after all, the ten miles an hour is absolutely slower than the coaches, some of which go as fast as eleven or twelve miles an hour; and, with the length of time that the engine and its cumbrous train requires ere it can stop, and the other contingencies, there would be little difference in the time of a twelve miles an hour coach and a fifteen miles an hour engine, supposing twenty or thirty stoppages, to pick up little parcels, between London and Birmingham. The conveyance is not so safe as by coach.
Text and image from Samuel Sidney 1851 Rides on Railways, a work now in the public domain.
The railway crossed the Lichfield Road at Holborn Hill over a series of arches. The bridge over the road was replaced by iron girder bridge in 1906 to allow for double-deck trams and was again replaced when the Lichfield Road was widened as a dual carriageway in 1998. Some of the arches of the stone-faced viaduct still survive where the line crosses Thimble Mill Lane and the Birmingham-Fazeley Canal and are Grade II Listed.
1846 saw the amalgamation of the Grand Junction railway and the London & Birmingham to create the London & North-Western Railway LNWR. In the early days railways were seen as long-distance routes and primarily for transporting freight. However, the new company soon began to see the potential of commuter travel and started to open urban and suburban stations on its Birmingham lines. Aston was a rapidly urbanising area and the station here was opened on the Lichfield Road in 1854. The station was revamped in the 1980s when it became part of Birmingham's Cross-City line.
Freer Road - Here most of the houses were owned by the Bournville Village Trust, but were later adopted by Birmingham Council at the request of many residents in the belief that conditions would improve. A horse pulling a Birmingham Co-operative Dairies' milk cart in Freer Road c1950.
Reproduced with the kind permission of the late Keith Berry from his on-line collection of photographs. All Rights Reserved.
See Acknowledgements for a direct link to his website.
During the late 19th the population of Aston grew to over 60 000. There were many decent well-built terraces of houses built for the artisan and lower-middle class. Some of these survive in good condition today. However, many of the working class and the poor lived in sub-standard back-to-back houses in dingy unhygienic courts.
A large swathe of the district was redeveloped during the second half of the 20th century, particularly when the Aston expressway A38M cut through the worst of the slum properties in the late 1960s. The widening of the Lichfield Road to a dual carriageway also had the effect of cutting the area in two.
See also Newtown.
The above image is courtesy of David Fisher - All Rights Reserved. Permission for reuse should be sought from the copyright holder. See Acknowledgements for a link to David Fisher's blog, Brummages.. (or What Is It Like Now?).
William Dargue 02.09.2008/ 30.07.2010
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For 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps of Birmingham go to British History Online.
Map below reproduced from Andrew Rowbottom’s website of Old Ordnance Survey maps Popular Edition, Birmingham 1921.
Click the map to link to that website.