Over the years, apart from two black-and-white half-timbered mansions, the 13th century moated Manor House and the Tudor Oak House, very few historical buildings have been preserved in my home town of West Bromwich. There is also a humble brick cottage that was the childhood home of the American Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury. This cottage was scheduled for demolition in the 1950’s but the fact that it was attracting American tourists enabled local Methodists to rescue it. Other places with historical associations have been left to go to rack and ruin, such as the Tudor house that was home to one of Nelson’s captains at the Battle of Trafalgar, and where Charles Dickens stayed while writing The Old Curiosity Shop, or have been completely erased from the landscape. I sometimes wonder about the criteria for listed houses: many that clearly deserved to be preserved weren’t.
This particular building was well over two hundred years old when it was flattened to make way for a couple of modern semi-detached homes in the nineteen-sixties, and although its aesthetic values may be debatable, it certainly held plenty of historical interest locally.
It stood slightly behind and to the left of the house where I was born and grew up. At that time, it was divided into two residences (hence the two front doors) one inhabited by an elderly couple whose family had flown the nest, the other by a family with three daughters who kept a fish and chip shop in their front room.
When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I used to play with Kathleen, the youngest of these daughters, so I got to see inside the house, with its lofty moulded ceilings and finely proportioned rooms. Some of the windows had been bricked up, and it was explained to me that this was because of the window tax in the eighteenth century. Another friend of mine was the granddaughter of the elderly couple who lived in the other half, and she spent many happy hours rummaging through the attics.
Kathleen’s parents’ business was called The Academy Fish Shop, in memory of its more auspicious past when it had housed West Bromwich Academy. (An academy in those days was a very different establishment from the modern sense of the word in England.) Dr Witton is commemorated in the name of the lane where his house stood, but he himself is forgotten in the town. I was curious about this man and the history of the old house, and after some online research was able to find out a few basic facts.
The Rev Dr Richard Witton was the Presbyterian minister of the Old Meeting House (later Ebenezer Chapel, now a Hindu temple) from 1722 to 1762, and established one of the first schools in the town in his house around 1725. He was born in 1683, probably in West Bromwich. His second marriage was to Hannah Savage in 1731, and they had 2 sons and a daughter: Matthew, Philip Henry, and Sarah. The names are significant, since Hannah was the granddaughter of Philip Henry and niece of Matthew Henry, both highly distinguished theologians. Her mother, Sarah Savage, was also a noted diarist of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Quite a bit of literary Presbyterian name-dropping there, then, and a lot for the children to live up to!
Richard Witton died aged 82 on 28 Dec 1765 and was followed by the Rev Philemon Parkes, also the Presbyterian minister of the Old Meeting House, who took over the school in 1763, and died on 7 November 1786. I haven’t been able to discover who ran the school from 1787 to 1803, but it became known as Marshall’s School when it passed to John Marshall in 1803. He was followed by his son, John William Marshall, who took over the Witton Lane school, probably when his father retired or on the death of his mother, some time between 1836 and 1851.
The 1851 census entry for the household of John William Marshall, “Schoolmaster, Witton Lane” and his wife Sarah née Salt occupies a full page, including 7 children (Ellen, John William, James, Francis, Jane Elizabeth, Sarah Joyce and Thomas) and widowed father (John Marshall, b. ca 1785 in Newport Pagnell, “iron master”) with governess, housemaid, cook, assistant and nurse plus 7 pupils aged 8-12.
In 1852 Marshall’s Academy moved to new premises, and John William Marshall died on 28 May 1877 in Wednesbury. His son Rev Francis Marshall, born in the Witton Lane house in 1845, graduated from St John’s College Cambridge, and had a career as a grammar school headmaster and rugby administrator. He devoted his spare time to producing textbooks on the Bible and mathematics, and also wrote a history of rugby football. Perhaps, with West Bromwich’s links to soccer, this counted against him when it came to amassing points in favour of preserving his birthplace?
Who lived in the house over the next eighty years or so, until the two families I knew moved in? From the census records after 1851 it is very difficult to tell which families might have been tenants, or even how many of them were housed there. It must have been a solidly built house; maintenance work carried out on it was minimal, but there was little structurally wrong with it and it survived the bombing raids of the Second World War unscathed.
However, fifty years ago nobody in authority was interested in wasting good money on restoring ancient dwellings; the survival of Bishop Asbury’s Cottage and the Manor House (also due for demolition!) was pure good luck. The Academy was not so fortunate. The land was sold to a private developer, the house demolished and, as far as I can ascertain, forgotten together with its history.
Today, I nominate Counting Ducks, who has created a whole world of fascinating characters in his blog posts and novels.