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Witton once had several drop forges that shook the land and the houses all around; Halladay’s, on Tame Road, being just one of these. Drop forging was a process of forming complex shapes in metal; a heavy hammer was dropped onto hot malleable metal to force it into a die. At the base of the die would be a small hole for air to escape, though a little metal would be forced through, that would then be trimmed and smoothed to produce the finished article. The hammer that comes down is called the ‘drop hammer’ with anything from 11,000 to 425,000 pounds of force, hence the incredible sound and vibration that reverberated around the forge.
Halladay’s closed in the early 2000s, and parts of it still stand. The images below give a sense of the drop forges working life.
After the GEC opened in 1902 it was not instantly successful, and struggled for the first few years; it was the outbreak of war in 1914 that helped to secure its future. During that time a very small part of the site was the Carbon Works, the only such works in Great Britain (so that carbon did not need to be imported from Germany), which supplied carbon for use in batteries and in searchlights. As well as this, it produced lamp-black as a by-product, which was sold on to tyre companies such as Dunlop to be used to help reinforce the tyres.
The furnaces of the Carbon Works burned day and night throughout the course of the war, and during that time the GEC produced 5,000,000 searchlight carbons for the army, as well as 7,000,000 for lighting in dockyards and other industries. From the first year of the war Jack Wood delivered the lamp black, by horse and cart, to Dunlop; Jack recalled, many years ago now, that the GEC was one of the “best guarded firm during the war, the numerable soldiers on guard making it seem a veritable fortress”.
As well as carbon from the Carbon Works the GEC also supported the war effort by producing shells (see images below), electrical gear for operating all kinds of machinery, explosion-proof motors, wireless sets and microphones for detecting submarines.
History claimed the old Carbon Works in 1956, when they were demolished, and although they were the part of the GEC that made it the industrial giant that it became, a writer of the Witton News expected that “the flowers at Witton will bloom much brighter and the grass will be greener, to say nothing of the paint remaining clean longer, once the demolition dust has completely settled”. A picture of the chimneys billowing dark smoke emerges, and it was a very dirty place to work. Anne Amison remembers that her father (who worked at Four Ashes*) used to leave the house clean, and return very dirty.
* The Carbon Works transferred to Four Ashes, Wolverhampton, after its removal from Witton.
Gallery (scroll down for information)
Today the River Tame seems to skirt past the Aston area; taking a sharp turn under Witton Bridge, and then creeping behind the houses and industries of Tame Road, only to emerge under the Aston Expressway at the other end of Witton. But the old village of Aston grew up along the river, its shape determined by it and especially a large meander, later called the Serpentine. The Tame and its meander formed the north-east border of what was called Aston Manor, a smaller administrative division in the huge parish of Aston, set out at least by the time of George III.* This watery boundary line stretched from Witton Bridge (where the Shire Brook once joined the Tame, forming itself the north-west boundary) to just past Salford Bridge, where the Hockley Brook comes in (which formed the south-east boundary).
The Manor of Aston contained the central hub of Aston Parish; the village, the parish church, and the great manor house called Aston Hall (with its historic deer park), but when the Grand Junction Railway was driven through the area, it drew a line separating the river from Aston Manor. The Serpentine, the meander which lurched too deeply into the village of Aston, was also cut away by the railroad, and left as a motionless arc shaped pool. More pools formed at its centre, and the nearby Aston Tavern utilised the picturesque ‘Old River Tame’ at the bottom of its sloping ornamental ‘tea gardens’ and platforms were erected for fishing (which was, apparently, excellent, and one of the favourite spots around Birmingham). Further from the Tavern, boathouses were built, and you can imagine summer afternoons with the paddles sweeping against the water, and Victorian ladies reclining with their parasols. It was described in 1838 that the Aston Tavern attracted “a great deal of company in fine weather, from the pleasantness of the situation and the taste displayed in the laying out of the ground”. Its situation during the nineteenth century was a fine one; it stood with a number of other buildings (some timber-built Tudor constructions) along what was called Aston Street (now Witton Lane), with the Holte Almshouses (completed 1656, see images below) standing opposite.
Moving the River Tame, in 1838, was not the easiest of tasks. The new course was dug out, but the railway line needed to be raised on an embankment to protect it from floods (where it still resides) which kept collapsing, as the riverside ground consisted of thousands of years of soft river deposit. It was the local gravel that saved the day, and was built up to form a firm foundation for the embankment that would support the heavy traffic on top. These setbacks caused a substantial delay, and the workmen worked “by sunlight and by moonlight” to get the line ready for its official opening.
There has been a settlement near the river here since at least Saxon times, with a moated manor house on the banks of the river just south of where Witton Bridge is today; this was early Aston, though the Saxon’s called it Enstone. Although the house had disappeared, the moat was still drawn into the ground in the days of Birmingham’s first historian, William Hutton (1782), who noted that the trenches were often flooded by the river. After the Saxon’s fell, the Domesday Book describes 44 inhabitants, one being a priest (suggesting that the church was already built), as well as a mill, which would have been water powered and situated along the Tame. Although probably older, evidence of the village on the banks of the Serpentine Tame can be traced back to the thirteenth century, with finds of pottery (such as cooking pots), a medieval stone wall, and what seem like drainage channels to the river discovered during archaeological digs. Traces of an orchard from the fifteenth and/or sixteenth centuries were also found. It is also possible that a predecessor to the Aston Tavern may have stood on the site in the eighteenth century, as drinking vessels and handled mugs from that period were found during excavations.
The Onion Fair
In more modern times, the great curve and pools of the Serpentine began to silt up and were eventually filled in. In the 20th century the ancient Onion Fair was moved out of the city centre to the suburbs, and by 1914 had moved to the ‘Serpentine Grounds’. The annual fair remained on this site till about the 1960s or early 1970s.
The areas around Witton are very watery with Salford Lake, the Upper and Lower Witton Lakes, as well as the lake at Brookvale Park. None of these are natural lakes, they were all formed to bring drinking water to Birmingham from the 1830s onwards, utilising the waters of the River Tame, and the lesser known Hawthorne brook, that comes into the Tame under Spaghetti Junction. Much of the Hawthorne Brook flows underground now, but you can find it here and there, including in Brookvale Park.