The Birmingham-Worcester canal was built in 1795, as an alternative route to the River Severn when it got too low in summer months, and in order to avoid the Turnpike fee on the road. Not long afterwards, the lime kilns were established on Goodman’s Yard (where you’re standing now!) and the industrialisation of Selly Oak had begun. The lime was used on farms, in tanneries and in chemical and gas industries. We shipped lime down to the Gas Works at Gas Street along the same canal route that lots of Selly-Oakers now use to get into the city centre for shopping or eating out today. Canal boats would have been drawn by horses which would walk along the canal path, towing the boat behind them. The lime kilns over in Kings Norton today are said to be the best in the world!
In industrial Selly Oak, there was one spot best suited to causing mischief and it was loved by children and streetfighters alike. Standing at the correct part of the Bournbrook river, you could be standing in three different counties. For children, this was an exciting game. For the men who drank at the Old Gun Barrel Inn, it was the perfect place for a fight. When the police from one county arrived, you could simply step into another county and continue your brawl out of their jurisdiction! You can bet that a lot of money was lost and won on fights that took place there.
By 1844, Selly Oak’s industry had developed to include Sturge and Allbright’s Chemical Works, where they produced citric acid and phosphorus. The production of white phosphorus became controversial later on in the 19th century, when it was discovered that phosphorus vapours caused jaw bones to rot when proper safety precautions weren’t taken! Allbright was later the first to produce phosphorus sesquisulfide which was instrumental in the creation of safety matches.
When Sturge and Allbright left Selly Oak in 1850, their factory was bought by Elliott’s Patent Sheathing Metal which contributed significantly to the growth of Selly Oak. Henry Elliott supported William Deakin in setting up technical classes for young people going into the metalwork industry. The legacy of the family can be seen in Katie, Winnie, Lottie and Gleave roads: named after Elliott children.
Meanwhile, another important family moved their Birmingham Battery and Metal Company to Selly Oak in 1871: Thomas Gibbins, married to Emma Cadbury who would become George Cadbury’s aunt. The Gibbins and Cadbury families’ impact on the locality started well before George Cadbury’s chocolate empire, and Thomas and Emma Gibbins donated both Selly Oak Park and the land for Selly Oak Library to the locality.
In hindsight, the industrialisation of Selly Oak feels like an inevitable expansion of the city of Birmingham but there were protests against the absorption of the formerly rural area as early as 1870. Can you imagine Selly Oak without the weight of its industrial history?