I have, I confess, become a little obsessed with local history. It all started with the discovery of this Strawberry Hill Gothic Hall (Strawberry Hill Gothic a style of architecture popular in the nineteenth-century Gothic revival) lying in ruins behind a new housing estate, just a mile or so from my house in Great Barr. Great Barr Hall is truly remarkable and has an atmosphere that is genuinely haunting, I have blogged about it before as it really got under my skin. Here is the link to more information….Great Barr Hall. This would be the most wonderful setting for a gothic novel, if only I had the imagination for such a thing (any authors get in touch – maybe we could collaborate?!). It was a grand Hall and then in later years became part of a notorious mental hospital, it is the setting of many a local ghost story, including the extensive grounds and woodland surrounding. It has recently had a planning application refused by Historic England, as the application ‘will cause serious harm to the registered landscape and serious harm to the listed building’ This is good news, as when the Hall is restored it needs to be restored sensitively and with respect for the Halls heritage, as well as its grounds. I believe the Hall was purchased around 8 years ago by the developers that built the housing estate, and part of this sale included the renovation of the hall, however in the interim period it suffered further neglect, several fires and vandalism and somehow was ignored becoming more and more derelict and unsafe.
The hall has an illustrious history connected with the Lunar Society and also a wider reference to the Hamstead Mining disaster and the links the region then made in the industrialisation of America based on the skills of the Colliery. At one point the mine was the deepest in the world. The experience gained by the mining engineers was put to good use in the English mining industry and their expertise was so world renown that the American Government requested assistance from the engineers that had solved many of Hamstead Colliery’s problems, to establish deep coal mining in America, this enhancing the growing co-operation in science and technology between the two countries. Again, if you were a novelist, I am sure you could create a wonderful series of linked stories that capture the history of the gothic hall, the lunar society and the mining disaster. I know there was some talk recently of Peeky Blinders creator Steven Knight perhaps looking at something relating to the Lunar Society, and he should, hopefully interest like that may help to save the Hall from ruin.
The Lunar Society, or Lunar Circle as it was first called, met in and around Birmingham, England between 1765 and 1813. The Lunar Society was very particular about who was allowed to become a member. An exclusive club, it never had more than fourteen core members, and each member was noted for their special area of expertise including the greatest engineers, scientists and thinkers of the day. The society met regularly at Great Barr Hall, whose owner at the time, Samuel Galton was a member. They also met in other Birmingham venues such as Soho House in Handsworth.
The lunar society gained its name as its monthly meetings were always scheduled for the Monday nearest to the full moon, the better light helping to ensure the members a safer journey home along the dangerous, unlit streets.
The ranks of the dozen or so regular members of the Lunar Society were often swelled by visits and correspondents from more peripheral members including the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Sir Richard Arkwright, Thomas Bedoes, Anna Seward, John Smeaton, etc.
The pioneers that together would bring about the ultimate fusion of science and social change that would fuel the fires and ignite the Industrial Revolution:
Mathew Boulton (1728 – 1809), of Boulton and Watt. The leading industrialist of his day, he developed modern-day industrial practice and introduced the first workers’ insurance schemes and sick pay.
James Watt (1736 – 1819), of Boulton and Watt, developed the world beating steam engines that provided the power for the new factories that were springing up across the country.
Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802), poet, inventor and botanist. He published a theory of evolution 60 years before his grandson Charles. He developed a steering system that was used by Henry Ford and a mechanical copying machine. A visionary, who predicted the use of steam powered propulsion.
Josiah Wedgwood (1730 – 93), the father of English pottery, who was also Charles Darwin’s other grandfather. As an industrialist, he was dedicated to improving everyday life and brought affordable tableware to the masses.
Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804), the rebellious cleric and scientist, famous for isolating oxygen, discovering carbon dioxide and carbonated (fizzy) drinks.
James Keir (1735 – 1820), the chemist responsible for making soap affordable to the great unwashed.
Richards Lovell Edgeworth (1744 – 1817), an inventor who also published books on educational theory.
William Murdoch (1731 – 1802), worked for Boulton and Watt and was the inventor of the gas light. He ended his days living at the court of the Shah of Persia, where he was believed to be an incarnation of Marduk, the ancient god of light.
William Small (1734 – 75), a mathematician, philosopher and mentor of Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States of America. The Society was shocked when Small died at the early age of 40, he was replaced by …
William Withering (1741 – 99), a doctor and botanist, responsible for discovering the treatment of heart disease with the extract from the foxglove plant, digitalis.
Great Barr Hall has a rich and valuable history. I drove up to it again a few weeks back, and sadly it is now fenced off completely so you can’t even get to see the front of the house anymore. It feels like whoever owns it wants us to forget it is there, but it is there and it is crying out to be restored, it needs the love and attention of a National Trust or an English Heritage to give the hall back to the community before it and its wonderful history is lost forever.