In 1874, a large horseshoe-shaped building emerged on Sheepcote Street between the London North Western Railway line and the Birmingham Canal. It became known as ‘the Roundhouse’ and up until the 1960s it operated as a hub of activity in the city. Now Grade II* listed it stands virtually unchanged as an example of Birmingham’s industrial heritage and is about to undergo serious conservation and repair to be transformed into an urban recreation centre.
The building’s current owners (the Canal & River Trust and the National Trust) invited IGers Birmingham to capture it as it currently stands ahead of its transformation by Burrell, Foley, Fischer LLP. As only a few places were available the opportunity was offered to the photographers featured in the exhibition with all interested parties having their names put in a hat. The lucky four were @matt_beach_photography, @jo.round, @mr.kalpeshpatel, and @faylouiseloewy.
Interspersed with the photos they took, this blogpost shares some of the information that a group of dedicated volunteers have gathered for the Canal & River Trust and the National Trust from dusty council minute books, building plans, directories, and newspapers to provide context to this great piece of architecture.
Commissioned by the Corporation of Birmingham as part of a massive city improvement act, ‘The Roundhouse’ was designed by local architect W.H. Ward (who also designed the Great Western Arcade) as part of an architectural competition.
The distinctive horseshoe-shaped building became a base for the working horses that powered Birmingham’s canal network; as well as Birmingham’s lamplighters, public works department, and a range of craftsmen.
How was the site used pre-Roundhouse?
In 1864, the Corporation of Birmingham leased a site at the junction of St. Vincent and Sheepcote Streets from the King Edward Free Grammar School on a 99-year lease for the purposes of building a ‘wharf for corporation purposes’. Ten years later, this plot of land would become the site of the Roundhouse.
Before the Roundhouse was built, the land functioned as a wharf with stone deliveries, including Rowley Rag, Powke Hill, and Hartshill, and possibly coal and other materials. It would continue to function as a wharf and depot into the mid-20th century.
In 1872, the Lamp and Paving sub-committee suggested that Sheepcote Street Wharf be the principal depot for the Public Works committee. It was recommended that plans be obtained from 2 or 3 architects for a complete set of stabling and storerooms. Shortly thereafter, the public works department issued adverts for architects to submit plans. W.H. Ward’s plans were selected by the Public Works Committee as the winning designs.
In 1874 the building was finished and started to be used.
Who lived and worked in the Roundhouse during its heyday?
A great deal went into the care and keeping of Corporation horses at Sheepcote Street Wharf and of the buildings themselves. The wharf was also the workplace of many corporation employees critical to Birmingham’s industrial development.
As part of the Birmingham Improvement Act, gas lights were put up in Birmingham and many lamplighters were based at the roundhouse. Their job was to light and extinguish lamps around the city to keep the streets lit at night.
Storekeepers were responsible for maintaining and keeping track of everything stored within the stable, from horse feed to machinery to vehicles. Storekeepers lived on site, and two families were found to have lived in the Storekeepers house between 1874 and 1920 – the Dance family and the Chenoweth Family.
Aside from the day-to-day responsibilities of feeding, grooming, and shoeing the horses, the corporation and its employ undertook long and short term projects including regular repairs and upgrades to stabling, prevention and cure of disease, and management of food and supplies. Birmingham’s Veterinary Legacy One of the more influential Veterinary Superintendents in Birmingham was John Malcolm. He was responsible for experiments substituting barley for grain as horse feed in order to reduce costs, and successfully introduced barley as an effective form of feed. His methods for the management of horses were adopted worldwide.
Corporation surveyors were responsible for checking up on and reporting on the conditions of city property. Surveyors would make requests for improvements and changes to the buildings based on their findings. Much of the valuable information found by the Roundhouse research team was written in surveyor reports.
The sewage department owned many of the horses at Sheepcote Street Wharf in the 1800s for use by the ‘Interception’ sub-committee. In a time before flushing toilets, the horses were primarily used to collect night soil, which was then distributed by canal to outlying farms and depots.
Blacksmiths, Carpenters, and Wheelwrights:
The mechanical department employed blacksmiths, carpenters, and wheelwrights to build and repair anything necessary to the functioning of the wharf and stables, including horse carriages and maintaining the building itself.
In 1954, the last horses owned by the Public Works Department were sold, and by 1960 the Roundhouse ceased much functional use for the city and served primarily as a depot. In its use as a depot, the Roundhouse most notably housed the Shakespeare Library in the early 1980s.
Since the building began primary use as a depot, it has been (and still is) the subject of much discussion, and several attempts to resurrect the building have been reported in newspapers throughout the years. In 1976, just after the Roundhouse obtained special listed status, the West Midlands mounted police branch expressed interest in repurposing the stables to house police horses. In 1986, the Birmingham Harness Horse Society submitted a proposal to transform the Roundhouse into a working horse museum. Neither came to any fruition.
On 8 August 1983, 27,000 bricks purchased by the Birmingham City Planning Department were carried by canal from Ibstock Brick Co. Ltd of Boatman’s lane, Aldridge to The Roundhouse to build a wall between the depot and the canal towpath. Maximum publicity was arranged to benefit the City, Ibstock Brick and to publicise the value of canals for freight use. However during the delivery, Cassius Clay (now Mohamed Ali) landed at Birmingham Airport, and the Press ignored the carriage of bricks and flocked to the Airport to cover his arrival!
The Roundhouse today
The Roundhouse still stands as a grand reminder of Birmingham’s working and industrial heritage, but it is in much need of repair. Most of the building is vacant, with only one of the old gate houses recently occupied by a nursery.
The project to regenerate the Roundhouse led by the Canal & River Trust and the National Trust aims to bring an important Birmingham landmark back to life through an innovative blend of heritage and enterprise. In doing so they will ensure its future and inspire people to care about and help protect the heritage of Birmingham.
They will restore the building and provide a hub from which to explore the city and its green spaces by foot, by bike and on water. The Roundhouse will offer stimulating opportunities to volunteer and develop skills as well as exciting ways for local people to connect with their heritage and natural environment in new and surprising ways.
There are also plans for a cafe.
You can follow their progress on social media:
We look forward to visiting once the transformation is complete!
With thanks to Roundhouse Birmingham (in particular Chris), Matt, Kalpesh, Fay and Jo.