Metchley, Metchley Park

B15 - Grid reference SP037839

Michelhaye: first record 1350

Metchley Lane, photographed by Phyllis Nicklin in 1966, the boundary between Harborne and Edgbaston and formerly between Staffordshire and Warwickshire. See Acknowledgements Keith Berry.
Metchley Lane, photographed by Phyllis Nicklin in 1966, the boundary between Harborne and Edgbaston and formerly between Staffordshire and Warwickshire. See Acknowledgements Keith Berry.

 

Old English micel gehaeg, 'great enclosed field', is documented as Michelhaye in 1350. At a time when very large open fields were divided into long strips marked by earth banks, a large field enclosed by a hedge probably of hawthorn would have been a noticeable feature. Metchley Lane is an old route running from the Harborne Lane crossing of the Bournbrook up to Harborne village.


Metchley Park lay east of Metchley Lane and was a medieval deer park belonging to the de Birmingham family. This may be the site of the original enclosure. However, this placename is now only used with reference to Metchley fort.

 

 
Metchley Fort.

Directly in front of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital is the site of a Roman marching fort. Now known as Metchley, its Roman name is unknown. The earthworks of the fort were visible until the 1930s, having been protected from disturbance by virtue of their location within the deer park. The fort was first excavated in 1934 and there have been several archaeological digs since then. After the Romans left eighteen centuries ago, the Worcester & Birmingham Canal 1815, the Birmingham West Suburban Railway 1876, Birmingham University 1900, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital 1933 and various roads have all been built across the site.

 

In the 1950s the north-west corner of the fort was rebuilt in earth and wood and some evidence of the reconstructed ditches and banks still survives behind Birmingham University School of Computer Science off Metchley Park Road. Further excavations of this Scheduled Ancient Monument took place from 1996 ahead of proposed building work.

Excavations at Metchley Roman fort photographed in 1969 by Phyllis Nicklin. See Acknowledgements Keith Berry.
Excavations at Metchley Roman fort photographed in 1969 by Phyllis Nicklin. See Acknowledgements Keith Berry.

 

Metchley Fort was built in the late 40s AD as part of the drive to extend the northern frontier to a line between the Rivers Trent and Severn on the orders of Publius Ostorius Scapula, the Roman governor of Britain. It was built either by the XIV or the XX Legion who led the Roman advance through the Midlands.

 

Constructed on a plateau overlooking the surrounding area, near to a good water supply and close to the junction of roads to Droitwich, Alcester and Wall, the fort was laid out in the traditional playing-card shape. Measuring 200m in length and covering 4 hectares, it was surrounded by a double-ditch and earth bank topped by a fence with look-out towers at the corners and along the sides.


Inside the fort wooden barracks were built to initially accommodate one thousand soldiers. A granary, storehouse and workshop have been excavated. It is reckoned that 18 000 logs two metres long would have been needed to build the palisades of a legionary fortress; internal buildings would have doubled that number.


Outside the fort's west gate developed a vicus, a civilian settlement occupied by camp followers and traders. Evidence of hearths and ovens and timber-framed buildings with gravel paths between has been found during excavations here.


During the late 50s AD the fort was extended, perhaps at the time of Queen Boudicca's rebellion, and was occupied for a further ten to twenty years. On the north, east and south sides, new annexes were built protected by double-ditched ramparts. These annexes were used for industrial activity, and for stabling and exercising horses. Some of the barracks inside the fort were converted to storage. Although there were fewer troops here at this time, the fort seems to have maintained a strategic importance. There is evidence that the internal buildings were destroyed by fire and then replaced by buildings of less regular construction.


During the 60s, perhaps when the Roman army moved into Wales and the North, the defences were maintained, but many of the previous buildings seem to have been dismantled and replaced by less substantial buildings. The fort may then have been used for storage, keeping livestock, stabling horses and for light industry. Evidence of iron-working has been found.


About 90 AD a fort half the size of the original was built inside the old fort's ramparts and the old ditches redug. Although excavation has identified a granary and a cookhouse, no evidence of barracks has been found suggesting that the garrison was accommodated in tents. This would have been unusual and suggests only a short-term occupation. It is not known why the fort was rebuilt in this way. Were the Birmingham Celts causing trouble? Or was the fort used as a supply base for the army in Wales where rebellion was afoot? Had the army been brought back from the north because of problems further south? Perhaps the army was being withdrawn from Scotland; perhaps soldiers were being brought back from the northern front to be resettled elsewhere as civilians?


The fort continued to be sporadically occupied until as late as c200 AD. During this last phase it may have been used on occasions as a training camp; it may have served as lodging for military and government travellers with stables to change horses. The site was then abandoned.


Although in national terms, even at its greatest extent, Metchley was only ever a minor fort., nonetheless its impact locally must always have been significant. 

The rebuilt north-west corner of Metchley fort opened by the Lord Mayor in 1953
The rebuilt north-west corner of Metchley fort opened by the Lord Mayor in 1953

The fort continued to be sporadically occupied until as late as c200 AD. During this last phase it may have been used on occasions as a training camp; it may have served as lodging for military and government travellers with stables to change horses. The site was then abandoned.

 

Although in national terms, even at its greatest extent, Metchley was only ever a minor fort., nonetheless its impact locally must always have been significant.

 

The fort was excavated by archaeologists in the 1930s and 1950s. In 1953 the north-west corner of the fort was rebuilt in wood and opened by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, G H W Griffith. Unfortunately it was burnt down by vandals in about 1960. There were extensive excavations in the 1960s and again 2003-2005 in advance of the rebuilding of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.


Part of the fort is now the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Plaza, a public area which has been designed to protect archaeological remains below the ground while above ground banks representing the ramparts of the fort and the line of the north-south road through the fort is been indicated. Interpretation panels have been set up to explain the fort. 

 

 

Metchley Abbey has no religious associations - the name is a romantic fabrication. It was built c1800 in gothick style and has mid-19th-century additions in the same style. Divided into two dwellings c1860, the house is now sheltered accommodation for old people.

 

This was the home of Sir Granville Bantock 1868-1946, professor of music at the University of Birmingham and a noted and influentual composer of his time. A Birmingham Civic Society blue plaque records the fact.

 

 

Right: Metchley Abbey photographed by kate&drew 'All Rights Reserved' and used with their kind permission. See Acknowledgements for a link to flickr with more of their work.

 

William Dargue 21.03.09/ 13.09.2012

 

 

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For 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps of Birmingham go to British History Online.

See http://www.british-history.ac.uk/mapsheet.aspx?compid=55193&sheetid=10093&ox=650&oy=1421&zm=2&czm=2&x=46&y=-35

 

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.