To celebrate 30 years since the formation of Bells Farm Community Association members produced a brief history of Bells Farm for visitors and users of the centre. The main text of the document is reproduced below.
Ancient Building with modern purpose
Bells Farm House
Situated on the southern edge of Birmingham's urban fringe and surrounded by the council estate of Druids Heath, Bells Farm is probably the oldest and one of the least conventional sites owned by Birmingham City Council.
As they walk round or use the building many people have commented on the atmosphere of the building and sense of history that they experience. The Community Association that manage the building in partnership with the Council, are dedicated to maintaining the unique 'feel' of the building for community users, and look forward to the restoration of the East Wing
Political ideas rise and fall from favour and each generation reinvents the past to suit itself. Bells Farm is a part of the history, not only of Birmingham, but also the wider history of the region, whether it is called The West Midlands, Northern Worcestershire, Mercia or even the Roman Province of Britannia.
This work is dedicated to the volunteers, city staff and historical characters, who have helped to make Bells Farm what it is today.
The Farms Origins
The exact origins of the site are difficult to be sure of. The archaeology of Bells Farm has not been examined in any great detail, but there is a significant amount of evidence in the immediate area covering around 2000 years of human activity.
We know for example that Iknield Street, a major Roman road runs close to the farm at the top of Parsons Hill, with local evidence of Roman farming activity. There is also archaeological evidence found in 1951 of a Roman military camp having been set up at the top of Parsons Hill, where MacDonald's currently stands.
Further along the ridge there is evidence under the former Monyhull Hospital, of Iron Age Celtic occupation. The bank works on Druids Lane [not named after any druids but the local Drews family] dates from about 600 A.D. during the Saxon period.
Finally, a moated farmhouse is described in the Dooms Day Book of 1086. Bells Farm has been identified as the only building in the area with a moat, which fits the description.
What we find then is a defensive site that was already in use by 1086 on a road dating back at least another 400 years, which is only some 600 yards from a major Roman road in a known area of Romano Celtic activity. It's a fairly safe bet that a track-way ran along the ridge from Iknield Street to the site at Monyhull. It is equally likely that Bellsl/Druids lanes origins are also from that time.
Located on a defensive highpoint, the site enjoyed good views of the surrounding countryside largely covered in woodland. The hunting would have been good and the area is known to have held stocks of wild boar and deer. For those not hunting for food, there were also predators like wolves and bears, a far cry from today, when the sites largest regular feral visitors are a pair of foxes and the occasional badger.
The first name with a confirmed link to the estate is that of one Richard Bares, who makes his entrance to the historical record during the reign of King John sometime during the period 1190-1216.
Bares owned the estate [then called Blackgrove], but forfeited all lands, chattels and titles to the crown. Accused of theft, this nobleman was tried, and found guilty by his Baronic peers. He was then sent to the prison at Feckenham in Worcestershire, but instead of quietly serving his sentence and then rejoining life as a nobleman, he broke out of prison and then skipped the country.
The lands forfeited, had according to the records, been in Bares family "for generations". The buildings on site were described as a hall/hunting lodge and this may explain the "Royal hunting lodge" references found in some of the old records. Instead of the usual practice of simply parcelling out the land to one of is favourites, John, who had strong regional connections, chose to hold onto the estate, before it passed to his successor Henry 3rd, who in turn passed it onto his son Edward 1st.
Medieval Intrigue [Who was Hugh de Belne?]
The Bells Farm estate gets its name from one of the more shadowy figures of British History. According to the testimony of William Bell of 1587, one Hugh [or Hugo] de BeIne was granted land in Kings Norton about 1300 A.D. by Edward Ist for service done to him with the long bowe, he being a most excellent archer".
'" All of this begs the questions” Just who was Hugh de BeIne and what did he do with the long bow that earned the personal gratitude of the king?
Hugh de BeIne appears to have been a soldier of fortune from classical Norman stock. He doesn't appear to have been from a high born family, but like several other shadowy figures simply and suddenly appears at the court of King Edward Ist eating at the high table close to the king, but without any clear publicly stated role. Edwards' court was well organised, reflecting his obsession for order and control. So Hugh's presence could only be explained if he was fulfilling a necessary role, which was either unsavoury or, [at least] publicly deniable.
Apart from the persistent rebellion in Scotland, Edward is famous for ruling successfully so current thinking is that Hugh may have served as the king's assassin, weeding out and removing any individuals or groups who might pose potential threats to the crown. Hunting accidents were certainly a regular occurrence and would have been easy to engineer. For his services rendered, Hugh was well rewarded and upon his official retirement from court life sometime around 1287, his grateful king made him one of the most powerful men in Worcestershire.
The local package comprised Bells Farm, Blackgreves Farm, Wythall, as well as places like Bell Heath and Belbroughton, which today bear the family name. The "family Pile" became the castle at Bridgenorth in Shropshire and other considerable holdings of land were also gifted in both Shropshire and Staffordshire
Hugh retired from court life in his mid 40's and was well looked after. Records show him living into his mid 80's, a very rare event in an age without modern medicine. No artwork portraying Hugh de Belne survives, but from the few records left, we are left with a shadowy image of a medieval version of The Terminator, sighting along his bow upon yet another "enemy of The State.
A Tudor Success Storv
By the opening of the Tudor period, Bells and its lands was still in the ownership of the Bell family.
A tax return from the time of King Henry VIII lists area now covered by Birmingham submitting £100.00 to the Royal coffers. Of this princely sum £10 came from the Bells estate. Allowing for inflation, the estate must have been worth a great deal and in financial terms it must have been of equal value as an employer to a major company like the Rover Car company of the 20th century.
Interestingly the site is described in the tithe as a hall and not a farmhouse, the latter term only really starts to be used around 1880 although the immediate estate was clearly only a large farm.
By this time the de BeIne [later Bell] family had left the picture and the site had passed to the Middlemoore's, an up and coming name at court.
The Elizabethan Age
In 1566 George Middlemore of Hazelwell Hall, near Stirchley and Hawkesley Farm, Longbridge, bequeathed Bells to his second son Baruk.
It was occupied at the time by a tenant farmer, Thomas Baker the Elder and subject to an annuity of £3 per year to George's other son Abel. Thomas died on February 22nd 1581 and on the day of his death, four of his neighbours drew up an inventory for probate and described the rooms in the house. By this time the building consisted of a hall, kitchen, lobby, parlour, chamber over the parlour and the young mans chamber. The oldest surviving timbers are also described, consisting of moulded Bressumers to the rear and side gables which can be seen today in the remains of the East Wing.
Baruk Middlemore died in 1588 and the estate consisting of Bells and a toft with appurtenances called Drew's [after which Drew's Meadow Close is named] passed to Abel. Interestingly a year earlier William Bell the former owner had given testament to the families history and this record still survives with the reports of the Middlemore family in Worcestershire's County Records office. Abel died without children in 1608 and the estate passed to John Martyn, who paid an annual yearly rent of 10s 11d to the crown for the free tenement now identified as being in Moundsley Yield, one of the five taxable divisions of Kings Norton Parish. In 1638 the estate entered the ownership of the William Field, a member of the ancient and locally powerful Field family.
The start of the Civil War in 1642 marked the beginning of turbulent times not only for Bells Hall, but also most of England. Roving army militia some loyal to the Crown and others to Parliament criss-crossed the land raiding and skirmishing. Communities and families were divided, brother against brother and father against son. Political debate couldn't just lead to raised voices. Now it could lead to murder. Neither side cared much for the niceties of the rules of warfare and atrocities were commonplace
It was against this background, that Kings Norton had declared itself for the King and it wasn't long before the area attracted the attention of part of Cromwell's "new model army". Isolated, away from the main village and commanding the road to the East, William Field, expected trouble and added more defensive measures including [if rumour is true] an escape tunnel from the farm, out under the moat.
On Easter Monday 1643 Prince Rupert, the Kings nephew arrived in the area with 2000 men setting up camp in friendly territory, on a piece of open country called Kemps Hill [now known as Camp Hill, Kings Aston hall Heath]. His target was the Parliamentary stronghold of the township of Birmingham sited on a strategic route from Oxford to York.
Most annoyingly, the artisans of Birmingham were engaged in the manufacture of weapons for the forces of Cromwell. Rupert's army faced just 100 musketeers. By the time the royalist forces had finished, Birmingham hadn't quite been razed to the ground, but the town had plenty of scars. In December 1643, the tables were turned as Aston Hall got the siege treatment from Parliamentary forces, who swept triumphantly back into the town. For the royalists of Kings Norton the boot was now finally on the other foot.
When "Colonel" John Fox's Regiment of foot turned up no one was surprised. Outnumbered and outgunned facing the same heavy artillery used at Aston Hall William would have had little choice but to surrender, at which point events took a very nasty turn.
The accounts describe how the building was not put to the torch, but was used as a temporary field headquarters before being handed over to Edward Field, William's son. Edward clearly didn't share his father's loyalty to the king, which couldn't have endeared him to the rest of the family, though his allegiance to Cromwell and power within Fox's militia meant that they at least were spared.
William Field's fate is not recorded, but the absence of an identified body in the family crypt suggests that he may simply have been taken out, executed and the body dumped. It wasn't until 1646 that Charles finally surrendered and the dust of war started to settle. With the king executed the country slid into the dark shadow of the "Lord Protector". For most people it was to be a time of worse suffering than when the king had ruled. Only those useful or proven loyal to Parliament benefited from the new age.
Considering that this was the age of Puritan Austerity, Edward Field seems to have prospered greatly under Cromwell's rule, because in 1650 he embarked on a major rebuilding and extension programme.
The oldest surviving timbers date from this time. Whatever work he commissioned, evidently wasn't enough, because just a few years later the builders returned. The second phase improvement included, re- fronting part of the structure in brick and building ornate fluted chimneystacks, one of which bears the date 1661 carved near the top. A gateway with sandstone piers and finials was erected, as was a square brick dovecote just south of the main house.
Here was opulence. While most large country houses, which were recorded in the 1666 "Lady Day" return, were listed as having just 2 hearths, Bells Hall could boast 7. For the second time in its history, the prosperity of the estate and its owner seems to have owed more than a little to the darker side of National politics, so it is a fair assumption that Edwards services to the cause amounted to more than simply the betrayal of his father.
Edward Field, finally died in 1685 and although his inventory has not been traced, his will confirms that he left bequests worth over £1200 to his six children. Assets included estates in Alvechurch, Northfield, Solihull and Lapworth, as well as Cotteridge and Bleakhouse Farms in Kings Norton parish [some of these had been forfeited to parliament by their previous owners]. To his son John, he left his study of books and his watch.
The Birth of a City
The start of the industrial revolution seems to have missed Bells Hall. The Tithe map for 1840 shows a very clear boundary marked by hedge lines running in a semicircle to the north of the site and joining the Chinn Brook just below Monyhull Hall although the area of Calves Close which is known to have been part of the Bells Estate lies outside this boundary. To the South, the boundary was clearly defined by Druids Lane. The farm itself had by now passed to the ownership of the Monyhull Estate, which was soon to find a new role as a lunatic asylum or "colony" as it was referred to.
To the North the proto city of Birmingham was being wrought from the skills and labours of many small communities, each specialising in a particular product. As the "Workshop of the world" drew itself together the name Birmingham began to be heard far and wide. To the inhabitants of the farms around Kings Norton village Birmingham offered labour saving machinery and new opportunities for employment, but as village after village merged into Birmingham and the Black Country many must have seen the writing on the wall for the old village ways of life.
The 20th Century
The start of the 20th century found Bells Farm serving as the farm manager's house for the farming operation to support the Monyhull Colony. In 1900 the farm gets its first appearance in photographic records showing the decaying dovecote just before it was finally demolished. In 1903 the farm was the subject of a new painting, this time by Henry Pope. James Carter however, painted the farm's best- known portrait in 1915. This work is now owned by the Community Association and can be seen on permanent display in the Druid's Heath library.
The 1904 Ordinance Survey map still shows the outline of the south western half of the moat [now built on], though by this time, it is doubtful if the section actually contained much water.
In 1911 the ancient parish and royal manor of Kings Norton passed from the ownership of the county of Worcestershire to the keeping of the City of Birmingham. Interestingly the records associated with the area were never formally transferred with many remaining in the archives of Worcester County Council.
In the 1930's there was a considerable expansion of local housing as the suburbs advanced out Into the countryside. New homes were built along Broadmeadow lane and down Bells Lane as far as the turning for Druids Lane. Beyond that however it was still countryside with Bells Lane leading up to the main gates at the front of the farmhouse and farmyard, before diving downhill to the southeast side of the building, and on up to the Maypole pub on the Alcester Road.
1939 saw intensification of arable farming at Bells in order to feed the nation. Some of the old hedge lines were grubbed out to make larger fields and mechanisation bought in to supplement the more traditional horsepower and manpower of Monyhull Hospital's resident workforce.
The post war era marked the continued change from rural to urban as city advanced out into the countryside. Instead of arable farming, the tenants of Bell's concentrated on livestock cattle and pigs.
A 1971 aerial photograph, taken by a commercial operation shows the final decline of the farm as a going concern. By this time many of the outbuildings were derelict and the main farmhouse had been roughcast, concealing the timber frame structure. Many of the East wing timbers, up to first floor level had been replaced by brickwork. Contemporary accounts illustrate the worsening financial fortunes. But although the agricultural chapter of Bells Farm was drawing to a close, the surrounding landscape was set to change in a dramatic way!
The last tenants of the farm buildings finally moved out in 1976 and the building immediately became a target for vandalism and as a typical derelict building use by local children as an adventure playground. In 1978 the Bells Farm Community Association was formed with the specific aim to save the building from demolition. Interestingly at this time the city was already busy compiling a second report, which featured an appendix listing the inventory of items to be retained when the building was demolished! The extensive oak panelling was discreetly removed from the interior by the museums department for "safe keeping". Over the next four years the case was presented for refurbishment of the farms main building to create a badly needed community and resource centre to serve the western end of the Druids Heath estate.
Then in 1980, Birmingham City Council agreed to the Community Association's proposals. The local community celebrated and the city prepared to refurbish the buildings. Then the farmhouse was badly damaged by arson.
What had been a mood of celebration turned to despair, but contrary to expectations, the Council agreed to embark on a comprehensive rebuilding programme. Funding for the project came from central government through the Manpower Services Commission's Community Programme. A training scheme for local unemployed was established using the building as a teaching aid. As well as the more conventional skills of the building trade, the scheme majored in timber framed building construction and conservation. It seemed as if nothing could stop the progress of the project. A new modem Community Hall was built on the site of the dovecote for large meetings and functions, while work started on the main building in earnest.
The hall was opened in 1984 by the Duke of Gloucester. A luncheon club was started together with a cub/scout pack and a youth club. By the start of 1987 the front half of the main building was more or less structurally complete, [though not yet fitted out] and preparation work had been done on the footings for the rear [East] wing. Then unfortunately the Manpower Services Commission funding ceased.
The building was nominated for the prestigious Sunday Times National Country House Award, and in the spring of 1988 it was announced that Bells Farmhouse had won the top prize. The Community Association considered taking on a lease of the building but due to the possibility that members of any organisation taking on any lease could be personally liable for the cost of replacing the building if it did "for example" burn down the idea was not progressed. Community Association working parties cut the lawns, publicised the centre, and the first of several temporary floors were laid with donated carpet squares to enable usage. The Community Association let rooms to local user groups and the money from lettings was ploughed straight back into the building. Gradually, the completed shell was fitted out with City engineers using the main building as a teaching aid to train staff. Materials like wiring, lighting and heating equipment was funded by the Community Association.
Later working teams of offenders from the probation service took over some of the grunt work in the grounds.
Initially the hall bore the brunt of the usage, so early in 1992 the first major work was completed by the Community Association and the hall completely redecorated with donated paint, and re-carpeted using commercial grade carpets from one of the National exhibition Centre’s exhibitions.
Summary of the farms history
43 Roman army invades Britain under Emperor Claudius. Major road building programme begins including Icknield Street track ways lead off to Iron Age sites such as Moneyhall settlement.
61 Following the unsuccessful rebellion of Boadicia and the Icini the Roman road system is fortified and checkpoints established to control local non Roman traffic. This includes a checkpoint on top of Parsons Hill.
410 Roman armies called back to Rome
600 Druids Lane Saxon road believed formed at this time.
1066 William 1st invades Britain and commissions the Doomsday Book. Site described as a moated farmhouse
1190 About this time Richard Bares forfeits all lands properties and chattels to the Crown after fleeing the country following imprisonment.
1287 Farmhouse and lands given to Hugh de Belne by King Edward 1st “for services rendered with the longbow, he being an excellent archer.”
16th Century Tax return from King HenryVIII lists area now covered by Birmingham submitting £100 to the Royal coffers. £10.00 comes from the estate of Bells Farm, making it equal in importance to a major company like Rover of the late 20th Century.
1642 Civil war starts. Ethnic cleansing by both Royalists and Parliamentary armies ensues. The parish of Kings Norton declares itself a Royalist stronghold, tunnel defences rumoured to be dug. The site is captured, but rather than putting it to the torch the place is taken over by one of Cromwell’s generals as a temporary headquarters before being handed over to Edward Field, William Field’s son and declared staunch Parliamentarian. William Field dies possibly executed.
1646 Charles surrenders in May although some fighting continues until 1648
1650 Edward Field commences rebuilding work. Oldest current timbers dated. These are locate in the east wing.
1661 Date carved on chimney affixed to new front of building. Later extentions change the buildings shape from an L to almost a square shape.
1974 S.J.Price from City Museums and Art Gallery compiles an interim report on the history and architecture of the house.
1976 The last tenant farmers leave and the building is boarded up. The Council surveys the building and draws up a list of items to be retained when it is demolished.
1978 Bells farm Community Association forms to campaign to save the building from demolition and restore it for community use.
1980 The city agrees to refurbish the building as a community and educational resource centre. Then the building is almost totally gutted by fire. Instead of giving up the Council begins an ambitious programme to rebuild and restore the building to its original state using Central Government funding from the Community Programme of the Manpower Services Commission.
1983 The Community Association becomes a registered charity.
1984 The Hall is opened to the public by H.R.H. the Duke of Gloucester~ along with a kitchen/toilet block but the rest of the building remains a building site.
1987 The front half of the main building is opened. Work continues on the East Wing's foundations and timberwork but funding to complete the east Wing is then withdrawn due to National Government policy changes.
1988 The main part of the project wins the Sunday Times National Country House award.
1990 Volunteers from the Community Association and teams from the probation service begin a programme to bring the structurally complete part of the building to a usable standard following advice from the city engineers department and the fire service. The Community Association is tasked with trying to get as much of the main building into a useable condition while the hall is used to generate revenue. This is then ploughed back into the building to buy materials. A grounds maintenance programme is put into effect to enhance the site.
1991 The Living History Group formed by "The Vikings"
1993 Part time worker is appointed
2001 Spearhead Trust formed
2005 New floor laid in the hall
2006 Fire closed the Centre for nearly a year
2007 Sept 7th Spearhead Youth group restarts
Today in 2008, Bells farm is run jointly as a community and educational resource centre. It remains a Council owned building, managed in partnership with Bells Farm Community Association the centre caters for local and national activities and is host to a diverse range of users, including a variety of youth groups, faith and political groups, school visits, college courses, community support groups, and living history research from the Saxons through Tudor to the modem day.
More than thirty years after the formation of the Community Association, Bells Farm continues its role as an Ancient Building with a Modem purpose, it is visited by adults and schoolchildren studying history and is an active community resource centre. As for future, while the scaffolding stands it is still classed by English Heritage as a work in progress and the Community Association continues to strive for the rebuilding of the East Wing to give the Community Centre another five rooms for it's unique blend of activities, both ancient and modem.
Family Occupation At Bells Farm
Bares Richard Fugitive>forfeited to crown
King John 1190-1216
K John> K Henry 3> K Edward 1
K Edward 1 >de BeIne Hugh 1287
De BeIne William
Middlemore George (died) 1566 (Estate left to Baruk)
Baker Thomas [Crown tenant] (Died) 1581 Feb 22nd (list of rooms made) Middlemore Baruk (Died) 1588 (estate passes to Abel)
Middlemore Abel Dies without issue and estate passes to John Martyn
John Martyn (Tenant) 1608-1640 (approx)
Field William 1638
Field Edward 1644 -1685
Field Edward 1742
Grieves Alfred [tenant] census 1871
Summers [tenant] 1955 -1976
Goodyear H Kings Norton The Archive Series 1995 Brewin Books
Hopkins F Kings Norton Commons and Wastes 1984 K.N.H.S.
Melling JV. The Changing times in Kings Norton K.N.H.S.
Sanders John Birmingham 1969582/16325-0 Longman
County archives Worsester County Council
Contacts list June 2008
Bells Farm Community Association Office
0121 433 3532/4641
Sid Forster 0121 624 3680
Home of the Free Church
John Cole 0779 945 5145
Bells Farm Bookings
John Cole 0776 075 4534
Spearhead Youth Group
Sid Forster 0121 624 3680
BJV Be Creative Project
Roz Sheard 0121 784 6408
Living History and Birmingham Vikings
John Sheard 0121 784 6408