Suburbia eh? Leafy streets, Terry and June, mock tudor, bay windows – surely that all started in Surrey or Middlesex, and spread to the rest of the country? Well no, it all started in Birmingham, of course.
When George Cadbury moved his factory from central Birmingham to what was then rural Worcestershire he decided to create a model village. It was not just to house his workers, contrary to received wisdom, it was more ambitious than that. Open to all, it was designed as a model for how the lives of workers would be improved. The most important thing, reading his comments at the time, was to get them away from pubs and give them gardens – which proved a boon to both the local B&Q and the off license trade in Stirchley.
In a way though, Birmingham had already got there, with Edgbaston’s Calthorpe Estate, one of the first planned suburbs, and a remarkably green and spacious one. It was also home to Cadbury, and he appeared to be completely enamoured with it; but more importantly, he wanted to create one for the ordinary Brummies he met in his voluntary work as a committed Quaker.
At around the same time the Garden City Association, which had fairly similar objectives, was in the ascendant. It had its first conference at Bournville, and the whole place was taken as a model for the larger, later schemes at Letchworth and Welwyn.
The whole mock medieval aesthetic of Bournville was no geographic accident. Birmingham was a centre of the Arts and Crafts movement, indeed its founder William Morris was the first President of the municipal art school (the country’s first), no doubt due to being best mates with local boy Edward Burne-Jones.
Anyway, Bournville’s aesthetic was basically cloned and honed for the garden cities and the later, larger garden suburb at Hampstead. They didn’t seem to keep the purple signage or the pervasive smell of bitter chocolate.
Twenty years later, during the 1930s building boom, the mass builders produced a bastardised version of the whole thing and covered vast swathes of the country in the bay-windowed semis we now think of as typical suburbia. Appropriately, Birmingham then saw the biggest boom in suburb building outside the South East. So, next time you’re passing through Hall Green, listening to the Pet Shop Boys, blame it all on George Cadbury.
By Jon Neale
Image CC By: Robin Hodson