The past two weeks have seen the latest edition of Birmingham Heritage Week – both a celebration and reimagining of Birmingham’s varied past. So, what of Aston Villa’s heritage?
Words: Ivan McDouall | @Ivan_McDouall
The past two weeks have seen the latest edition of Birmingham Heritage Week – both a celebration and reimagining of Birmingham’s varied past. Two of Aston Villa’s neighbours threw open their doors as part of the festival – Aston Hall and Aston Parish Church.
Aston Hall, of course, was conceived by Sir Thomas Holte and completed in stages between 1631 and 1635. The Hall and grounds are a fascinating entity, even more so given that the owning family would give The Holte End at Villa Park its name. The Hall and surrounding areas also offer insight into the Aston Lower Grounds, the site where Villa Park now sits. These green spaces would have been part of the Hall’s grounds at one stage and give a nod to the grandeur and prestige of the area.
The almost Cathedral-like features of Aston Parish Church also give a nod to previous incarnations of Aston as a major rival to Birmingham itself. It can be argued that Aston was even the more important site of work and trade as the conurbation grew up, and almost certainly had aspirations of ‘city status’. Much has changed and the parish of Aston and Nechells is now ranked 118 out of 12382 (1 being the lowest) in the Church of England’s deprivation index. It says a lot that more people attend Villa Park every other week than live in the Parish (circa 40K versus 23,808) and much is to be made of the decline of industry and employers in the area (Kynochs, Ansells) which has led to a population drift away from Aston. Many people associated with the Parish Church will readily point at the irony of the parish’s biggest employer employing people from around the world on million-pound salaries, who don’t live and aren’t seen in the area apart from on a matchday.
On a more positive note, Villa fans are rewarded for a steep climb up the church tower with astounding views of the surrounding area, including Villa Park.
So, what of Villa’s own heritage? The stories are well known but what remains and how is that celebrated? Moreover, how do Aston Villa even fit into a narrative of Birmingham itself? Or has the multi billion global behemoth of Premier League football eclipsed that context? Maybe we are just not that important to the wider story – after all, Richard Viner’s recently published ‘Second City – Birmingham & The Forging of Modern Britain’ has just a single reference indexed for Aston Villa Football Club.
In May 1997 the long-forgotten Claret and Blue magazine celebrated 100 years at Villa Park – and part of the historical slanted content was a heritage trail that highlighted key locations in the local area that were integral to Villa’s past. Twenty something years on what better way to take part in Birmingham Heritage Week than to retrace those steps and get a sense of what clues to Villa history remain.
I followed the same route as Bernard Gallagher and Richard Whitehead did in 1997 and, as they wrote then, “the first stop had to be the Chapel itself”. They were referring to the Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel – the cricketing members of which formed the club in 1874. The original chapel, rooted in the busy Lozells High Street, remained in 1997 but has now been replaced with a modern building. Whilst one assumes this provides better and updated facility for worship, it’s a great shame this wonderful building and piece of Villa history is no more.
The updated Wesleyan Chapel is a far cry from the traditional settings of the 1800’s.
The site of the chapel is a stones throw from Heathfield Road, where legend would tell us was where a pivotal moment in Villa’s history took place, underneath a gaslit lamp. As you walk from the chapel site onto Heathfield Road you pass the now closed Villa Cross Employment and Advice Centre (which previously had been a pub bearing the same name).
Villa Cross – between the Heathfield and Lozells Roads.
Whilst you’d struggle to suggest Heathfield Road was an exciting experience in itself, the gaze of history as a Villa fan increases a sense of significance – and as Richard Whitehead wrote back in 1997 the modern lampposts are likely to be in a similar siting to their gas counterparts from yesteryear. There are various buildings that potentially remain from the time near to where the site of the lamppost is thought to be.
In 1997 this was known as ‘Ye Olde Shoppe’ and still stands near where Jack Hughes (one of the four under the lamp) lived.
Moving further down Heathfield Road you come to Westminster Road and where the early Villa side would have trained. Soon after that, a Church was built on the site and remains there today. Very little has changed in the years between my trail and the Claret and Blue magazine’s version.
The church and associated land on Westminster Road where Villa first trained.
It makes sense, knowing that the early side would have trained here that their first foray into playing was nearby – on the junction between Wilson Road and the aforementioned Heathfield Road. Now, like so much of the area, dominated by residential property, this was where an embryonic Villa side played Aston Brook St Mary’s in a half rugby – half football encounter soon after the lamppost meeting.
Looking up to Wilson Road, a starting point in Aston Villa’s playing history.
There are other clues and locations related to Aston Villa’s playing history as you head down Trinity Road. Off Fentham Road is the site of the Excelsior Cricket grounds where a nomadic early Villa played some games in 1873. Further down, within direct site of Villa Park is Nelson Road which would have marked the boundary of the Aston Lower Grounds and was known as ‘The Meadow’. Again, early incarnations of Aston Villa sides played, adjacent to the Victorian menagerie of the main Lower Grounds which hosted people as diverse as WG Grace and Buffalo Bill. Many Villa fans will remember the old aquarium sign on the Trinity Road offices, demolished around 1981, which points to the range of leisure activity that would have taken place here.
Nelson Road – site of the Lower Grounds meadow.
This early part of Villa’s history is clearly very nomadic, although the move to Perry Barr in 1876 presented some stability. The Wellington Road ground was an important staging post in establishing Aston Villa as a frontrunner in the football League. It is here though, in a modern sense, that you really need to use your imagination. Back in 1997 at least Claret and Blue had the Crown and Cushion pub for reference – a long established pub in the area and known for Villa meetings in those early days. That is now long gone and there really is little sense of any Aston Villa history here for the un-initiated – a shame perhaps, but inevitable with the passage of time.
An undated impression of the Wellington Riad ground in Perry Bar – no trace remains.
In many ways the Aston Villa specific sites here are for fans only, perhaps in contrast to the broader history of the area as channelled through the Parish Church or Aston Hall. But Villa remain a key part of that history and catalyst for change (better or worse) for the area moving forward. The club should see themselves as a custodian of this history whilst continuing to contribute to local communities which surround them. Achieving that balance for football clubs is often a conundrum. What place does heritage have for fans or the club? There has been mention of a museum in the North Stand development but the appetite remains to be seen. Personally, the history of the club and area is wrapped up in my current and ongoing support. UTV.