RADDLEBARN ROAD, SELLY OAK, BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND, EARTH, THE UNIVERSE
At the top of Umberslade Road where I lived as a boy there is a local shopping street called Raddlebarn Road. On this road were all the shops we needed. It ran along a ridge and every hundred yards or so was a crossroads where residential streets met. On one side were streets of terraced houses, descending the hill towards Selly Oak and the Bristol Road. On the other side were streets of newer houses, mostly semi-detached, descending towards Stirchley and the Pershore Road.
As well as providing for all our daily needs, a few steps from Raddlebarn Road could take you to either to St Wulstan’s church or the Roman Catholic St Edward’s church, my primary school, Muntz park, a football pitch (the rec’ or Selly Park Recreation Ground), a pub (Country Girl), a bowling green (in the rec’), a ‘community centre’ in the tin tabernacle, and a home for unmarried mothers. We even had a bus route that crossed Raddlebarn Road from Dawlish Road to Warwards Lane. We called it the ‘two-bee’ and I thought it was a mystery bus that had lost its way.
Raddlebarn Road, Selly Oak, Birmingham. Hubert Road is to the left and Gristhorpe Road to the right. The shops end in the distance at the junction with Warwards Lane. Raddlebarn Road continues past St Edward’s Catholic church toward Selly Park and St Stephen’s church further on in Selly Park. The last shop in the distance on the right (not visible) was F A Parkes, the butcher, where I worked when I was 13.
When walking through these unbroken rows of redbrick terraced houses it is difficult to imagine the contours of the land. The street may have a bottom, and a top as it sweeps higher upwards, but it has no sideways. Named after seaside towns, Dawlish, Teignmouth, Tiverton and Exeter Roads offered homes for the workers and their families who were attracted by the possibility of work in the metal industries of Selly Oak. The canal had arrived in 1795 and the railway in 1860, preparing this small hamlet for significant growth. At the time, this was the western boundary of the City of Birmingham. Selly Oak was part of the urban district of Kings Norton.
The roads were built on the farmland of Selly Manor. At the top of the hill, Raddlebarn Farm’s buildings stood until the 1970s. Before the streets on each side were laid out, Raddlebarn Lane stretched along the ridge between the Bourn Brook and the River Rea. I imagine it as open farmland in the mid 1800s, a quiet country lane with views across the valley to the smoking chimneys of industrial Birmingham.
I have never seen the name ‘Raddlebarn’ anywhere else. Reading Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy I was introduced to Diggory Venn who was described as a ‘reddle man’. Did this suggest a bucolic link with the past? A ‘reddle’ or ‘raddle’ man went round farms daubing rams with red ochre. This obscure occupation was essential for farmers to check if their rams (tups) were doing their job which was tupping. A tupped sheep would be marked with red ochre as the ram mounted her. Apparently it was important to separate the tupped from the untupped and ensure the untupped were tupped.
Thus, ‘raddle’ might show a link with sheep and red ones in particular. This is possible because nearby Stirchley and Kings Norton were formerly centres of the sheep-rearing industry. And local clay pits could have been a source of the red ochre.
More prosaically, ‘raddle’ also meant ‘wattle’, a fence or screen made from intertwined twigs. Many barns would have been built from such wattles or raddles, and Raddle Barn may have been built in such a way. But if it was so commonplace, why are there not more ‘Raddle Barns’? I prefer the red ochre theory.
Raddlebarn Road was my world as a boy in the 1950s. Follow the road in the picture above and you would end up among the big houses of Selly Park. Too posh for the likes of us. Go in the other direction and you would pass over the canal and railway bridge and find yourself following tall green wrought iron railings on the right and some rather pleasant houses with gardens to the left. This was the edge of Bournville; turning left down Elm Road would take you to an entrance for Cadbury’s chocolate factory. My school friend Brian lived on Laburnum Road. A little further and you reached Bournville village with its vision of urban living for the early twentieth century.
If you stayed on Raddlebarn Road and followed the railings you would reach Selly Oak Hospital. This was a massive red-brick Victorian edifice. This is where we were born, cared for when we were sick or injured, and died. It dominated our lives.
Selly Oak Hospital began as the Kings Norton Workhouse. We might think of workhouses as Dickensian, provided not so much to care for the poor but to make life so awful that they would avoid going there. But this workhouse was built in 1879 and had spaces for 200 people. That is quite a lot of poverty for a developing industrial suburb. There was illness and malnutrition too, so they built an infirmary which grew into Selly Oak Hospital.
Kings Norton Workhouse
Raddlebarn Road curved round the hospital grounds. Opposite there used to be a wilderness where we would catch tadpoles and frogs. There was also a Nurses’ Home which apparently promised delights which were rarely delivered but that did not mean much to me at age nine. The end of Raddlebarn Road joined Oak Tree Lane, not far from the Bristol Road, the trunk road (A38) to the south west. This seemed to provide a natural boundary for my childhood. I would rarely go further except to be taken to the dentist or to visit my Nan in Weoley Castle.
Fifty or sixty years ago, there were jobs to be had at Cadbury’s or the Austin at Longbridge. There were smaller factories making bicycles and motorcycles, others producing metal goods, electrical appliances and components. Things were being made from rubber, wood, brass, tinplate, all over Selly Oak. This must have made many working people relatively well off. The shopkeepers did well – I worked for several of them. There appeared to be little poverty, at least to my childish eyes. The environment was clean, the main pollutant was the smell of chocolate wafting over from Cadbury’s on warm days.
The 1950s was a time of increasing wealth, the boom after the deprivations of the war years. Families were very important, and they did multiply. It was the baby boom generation and it appeared that there were dozens of us nippers. I felt happy and secure and could hardly imagine anywhere better. I do not believe that I am looking back with rose tinted spectacles; living in Raddlebarn Road was untroubled. I have since found out that many other children grew up with abuse, fear, poverty and discrimination. Perhaps that is where my political idealism has come from; a wish that children be allowed to grow in the same security and happiness that I experienced.