I know very little about the early part of Birmingham’s history. I probably know more about Leicestershire’s local history than I do about my home city – which is a shame, but as part of Birmingham Heritage Week, the Birmingham and Warwickshire Archaeological Society hosted a lecture about their excavations and what they have discovered and then followed this by a walk, which pinpointed the sites then talked about.
Before we get into the archaeology I have to talk about Birmingham and Midland Institute, where the talk took place…their lecture theatre has to be the best one I have ever been too. Look at the fabulous historic lecture theatre – I love the colour of the seats which I can only describe as puke green! The seats were so comfortable too, unlike most university ones.
The talk was given by Dr. Mike Hodder and Dr. Stephanie Ratkai. Dr. Mike Hodder was Birmingham Council’s planning Archeologist for twenty years and together with Dr. Stephanie Ratkai has worked on excavations of numerous sights in Birmingham, including the Bullring, Library of Birmingham and Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
The talk itself centred on the archaeological work in Digbeth, which was a historic industrial site, that was prone to flooding. The fact that it was such a damp site has undermined the legend that Beorma and his followers settled here and that is why the city is called Birmingham. If Beorma did exist, he probably didn’t settle in Digbeth.
Modern Digbeth today is actually compromised of two separate parishes, with Deritend being in the parish of Aston, which was separated by the River Rea. I have walked past the River Rea many times and always thought it was a later canal…but it turns out it was a river! Deritend was home to a pottery industry, which importantly gave it’s name to Deritend ware, which was manufactured in Deritend and in the Bullring area. The pots themselves were made by a orange local Merican mudstone and detailed with a V pattern with a white clay which came from further afield. The busy trade of other industries drew people to the Bull ring to trade, and probably either bought cookware while they were here or bought products within Deritend ware – which made for the successful distribution of Deritend ware throughout the Midlands, and it is found regularly in digs sites. During digs as well pieces of flint were found which indicate that the site was in use in the Stone Age as well. It is also home to the Old Crown Pub with a very impressive sign which claims the pub dates back to 1368, however excavations by Dr. Hodder in the beer garden have suggested that there is no evidence to support the claim that the pub is that old.
Residents in Digbeth who were actually in the parish of Aston campaigned that the needed their own church because flooding often prevented them from travelling across the river to get to their Parish church in Deritend. It is dubious whether this was true of whether villagers wanted a closer church instead of walking several miles to get to their one in Aston. Whatever the case may be the church was the site of the burning of John Rogers during the reign of Queen Mary I. He is recorded as a Martyr to the protestant faith and was involved in helping to translate the bible into English.
Just up from the Old Crown on the same side, excavations also found evidence of a man-made pool built within the medieval period, the reason behind the creation of the pool was unclear but the area was home to a significantly sized tanning industry which was probably connected in some way to the pool.
Finally, the bit of archaeology I did know about was located on the site of the Bullring, which was the site of the old manor house with had a moat (this is reflected in street signage with Moat Lane). During excavations they found that the medieval manor’s walls were remarkably well preserved. Just up was the corner of Moat Lane is a very tired looking building, which use to be a music hall and was frequented by the Peaky Blinders, this building is scheduled for demolition and area to be rejuvenated.