A Grave Tale: Harry Parkes and Birchills Hall

Finding myself laid-up with a broken finger and a torn tendon, which slows down the typing somewhat, I thought I would turn-out a few shorter articles that have their origins in the interesting questions that have been submitted to the Blog Facebook page recently: questions that would perhaps have a wider interest but may not have enough of an answer for a full article, or a full article isn’t really required.

This first short article is in response to a question posed by long-term Wyrleyblog supporter, Tony Kulik: Tony is a regular poster on, and an administrator of, local history Facebook pages for Wyrley, Cheslyn and Bloxwich.

Top part of the grave slab of Harry Parkes. (Tony Kulik)

This one, written in social media short-hand, concerns a grave slab in Bloxwich All Saint’s Church (remember to click on photographs to enlarge them):
Hi Wyrleyblog. Just wondered if you could shed any light (when you get 5 mins !!!!) on the circumstances surrounding the inscription on a grave which lies nearby the preaching cross at All Saints Bloxwich it reads……. ‘Sacred To the memory of HARRY PARKES Of Birch Hill Hall Who was accidently Killed 3rd Aug 1833 (Aged?) 42 Also to that of Mary Ann his Wife who died 19th Sept 1832 (Aged?) 42 Leaving three Children to deplore their early loss. Watch therefore for ye knows not That hour our Lord doth come’ Many thanks in anticipation TK

The lower part of Harry Parkes’ grave slab. (Tony Kulik)

It seemed to me that the focus of the question was the accidental death of Harry Parkes – and yes, I could help with that – but I also picked out Birch Hill Hall (Birchills Hall) and so I thought I would do a few quick paragraphs on that too.

Harry Parkes: A Turn For the Worse
Harry Parkes, as the grave slab implies, was a man of substance, and yet, while he had a had a respectable start to life, he was really a self-made man.

Harry was born in Halesowen, around the August of 1792 (as this was when he was baptised); his father, John, had been a Curate at the parish church there. Harry’s mother was Mary Boraston. Harry’s father passed away in 1796, which must have caused some financial hardship for the family. Harry’s older brother, also called John, would end up going into the navy and rose to at least the rank of Lieutenant before he settled into retirement at Birmingham

Harry, less excitingly, would become a clerk at a Wolverhampton bank. Harry was described in Stanley Lane-Poole’s biography of his son, Harry Smith Parkes, as being an energetic and self-reliant man. This energy and self-reliance would see Harry take a risk: he turned his back on the banking career and entered into a series of partnerships in the iron business.

It isn’t clear as to when, but we do know that Harry Parkes signed at least two agreements or partnerships. He allied himself with Thomas Otway, forming Parkes, Otway & Co in the process, and they took control of the Caponfield Ironworks in Bilston some time after 1825, I believe. He also entered into a partnership with Otway and a Henry Wilkinson Wennington to take over control of the Goscote Ironworks.

Both of these partnerships were to be dissolved by Parkes – as shown in the pages of the London Gazette – on 1 March 1831. It isn’t clear what interests he had after these were dissolved, but he was still being described as an iron-master when he died. It seems, from the Staffordshire Advertiser account of the accident in 1833, that the iron trade had fallen on hard times around the time he broke-up the partnerships (and the local furnaces were changing hands fairly frequently), but he was full of optimism in 1833 that the trade would be picking-up again.

On a personal front, Harry married Mary Ann Gitton in 1821. Mary was the daughter of a Bridgnorth printer – indeed, that is where the couple were married – and it seems likely to me, considering he was 30 at this stage, that he had already become established in the iron business by then. Over the next few years the couple would have three children: Catherine, Isabella and Harry jnr. Harry was born in 1828 and, by this time, the family were residing at Birchills Hall.

The lives of the children would be thrown into turmoil in the course of just a single year. First, the children’s mother, Mary Ann, would pass away on 19 September 1832 – she was aged 42 years. There is nothing recorded in the parish register nor in the Staffordshire Advertiser as to any cause.

Then, on 3 August 1833, Harry Parkes headed for Hinckley, Leicestershire, in a four-wheeled horse-drawn carriage. He was accompanied by a Mr Arrowsmith, who was described as his clerk, and so we can assume that the trip was a business one. Around six miles from Hinckley their horse bolted, as it was both ‘feeling the pressure of the vehicle behind’ and on a downward slope. Harry gave the whip to Arrowsmith in order to try to control the reins while the carriage, at speed, approached a turn in the road that was partially blocked by a waggon – the waggoner being unable to hear their calls. The carriage managed to pass but was unable to negotiate the sharp turn and so overturned; Arrowsmith escaped with bruises, but Harry was tipped out head first and died near instantly. Harry, it was said in the Staffordshire Advertiser, was in his best health and spirits and looking forward to a resurgent iron-trade.

The report of the accident in the Staffordshire Advertiser, Aug 1833. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The children were sent to live with their uncle John, who had now left the navy, in Birmingham. Here they were educated – Harry jnr at King Edward’s Grammar School. The children were again thrown into turmoil when their uncle died in 1837. Catherine, the eldest, was around 15 years at this point. In 1839, both sisters went to China – where they would both end up marrying churchmen.

Harry Smith Parkes, born in Birch Hill Hall, from Lane-Poole’s biography.

Harry jnr’s career is very well known. He followed his sisters to China in 1841. Here he managed to get a position in translating for a government office. He slowly rose: by 1856 he was the Acting Consul in Canton and his actions were a contributing factor in the outbreak of the Second Opium War; he was appointed to the Order of the Bath in 1859 (and a full Knight in 1862); he also negotiated the Crown taking over part of Hong Kong (including several lucrative ports) in 1861; he became Consul in Shanghai in 1864; he left China in 1865, becoming Consul-General in Japan; finally he became the British Minister for Korea in 1884, where he died of malaria the following year.

Birchills Hall: Birch Hill Hall
Birchills Hall, or Birch Hill Hall, once stood between the two routes between Walsall and Bloxwich – that is Green Lane (the current A34) and Bloxwich Road. The house would have stood under what was formerly the site of Tube Investments and, before that, Talbot Stead, but is now an industrial estate just to the north of the TK Maxx store. Had you approached the hall from the Bloxwich Road, you would have skirted the edge of what was for many years the Birchills Bus Depot.

The heart of the grounds of Birchills Hall, now the industrial estate on Newfield Close. 2017.

It is difficult to trace historically: there is no mention of it on either the national or local Heritage Environment Record, no photographs of it at the Walsall Local History Centre or, indeed, anywhere that I can trace in the general public domain.

Neither Yates’ 1775 or 1798 maps of Staffs show Birchills Hall, in my opinion. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The hall’s origins are lost. The first evidence of its existence could be an appearance on the Yates’map of Staffordshire (1775). I say could be, as there is a problem: if it is on the map it is in the wrong place. The section of map below shows the Bloxwich Road and Green Lane from Leamore Lane (top) down to Hospital Street (bottom). The hall, as shown further below, is between the two main roads, and is considerably closer to Leamore Lane than Hospital Street. The only possibilities that the hall could be are in the middle of the section below: one possibility is located next to Green Lane, while the other, the only marking between the the two main roads, is too far south. Further, this marking does not appear on Yates’ 1798 revision – which has the newly cut canal running too far south too. Also, Yates makes a feature of halls and other substantial buildings (note Bentley Hall above), but this is clearly absent for Birchills Hall.

Green Lane and Bloxwich Road, from Leamore Lane down to the now Hospital Street, on Yates’ 1775 map. If Birchills Hall is marked it is somewhat diminutive and in the wrong place. (Walsall Local History Centre)

The house next appears on the larger-scaled Jacobs’ map of 1819/20 and it exposes the inaccuracy of the features on the Yates’ map – indeed, the two possible properties mentioned above are not even on this map. The house is not named or described as a ‘hall’ either on the map or in the accompanying schedule (click the photo below to enlarge, the house is number 898 on the map). According to the schedule, the property was owned by a John Clement Whateley and rented by a Peter Hacket.

The same view on the Jacob’s map of 1819. The hall is clearly seen above the new canal. (Walsall Local History Centre)

John Whateley was, like his father Henry, an bit of an entrepreneur. Henry was a solicitor, lawyer and seemingly accrued property when he could: in 1775 he took over some of the coal fields in the ‘Greater Bloxwich’ area for example. It appears that in 1784 he was listed in Bailey’s British Directory as an attorney at law, with his address given as Digbeth, Walsall; this may have been a purely business address rather than a private residence, but we know he was living in Birchills at the time of his death in 1802 as his will states the fact.

I have a theory about the hall, and it is just a theory. Henry was successful and, I believe, sought to show the world by building a substantial or enlarging an existing house in the north Birchills area and surrounding it by gardens. Although it may or may not be on the 1775 and 1798 Yates maps, I believe the building or enlarging took place sometime around 1785 to 1795: I think this firstly as I suspect Whateley was in Digbeth prior to this; secondly, I also suspect it was prior to the cutting of the canal in the mid- 1790s, as the canal skirted the boundary of the Whateley property (and looks like the family sold the land), which may suggest that the hall was already there; and finally, I think the Whateley’s knew that the canal would open up the Birchills area to further mineral exploitation (and they may have been in favour of this), and so I think it unlikely they would have constructed a house knowing that it was right by a canal that would act as a magnate for industry and so choke out the rural nature of the house.

The hall on a later copy of the 1845 tithe map (Walsall Local History Centre)

John Clements Whateley succeeded to the property. We know he was living in the house in 1813, as he is in the Pearce Directory for that year. By 1820 he had moved out and was renting to Hacket and then, later in the 1820s, he was renting the property to the Parkes family. At the same time, this one-time estate agent, now also listed as a coal-master in the trade directories, was still living in the Birchills area himself. In January 1837 he sold the house and the surrounding land at auction – the advert is in the Staffordshire Advertiser – he would then up-sticks and move to Shropshire, where he died in 1848.

The new owners were George Jones and Philip Williams. They were listed as holding the hall ‘themselves’ on the tithe schedule of 1845, although Jones, I believe, lived in Shropshire. The hall was named as such on the tithe map and, at that time, no industry seemed to be close by. Jones had interests in some local coal-mines and it seems that he started to mine around the hall soon after he acquired it – he also set-up the Birchills Hall Iron Company, with the fields to the south of the hall becoming the foundry site.

All of this destroyed not only the vista from the hall, but undermined the hall itself. In the November/December of 1850, Harry Smith Parkes returned to the hall for a visit and was saddened to see the decline of the house: ‘Birchills is sadly altered. Pits and iron-works of all descriptions almost touch the house, or rather the remains of it, two-thirds of it having been taken down… I did not at first recognize the place, but on close inspection I detected a few traces, such as the grassy sward in front of the dining room, still intersected by the ditch in which I was one day nearly drowned… All the trees and gardens are entirely removed, and the place is now desolate and melancholy.’

1886 OS Map showing the remains of the hall and the Birchills Hall Ironworks to the south of it. (BrownhillsBob)

The speed of decline was rapid – literally over a few years in the later 1840s in my opinion. George Jones and Philip Williams had no connection with the hall and simply saw a commercial mining and iron venture. The map above shows the industrialisation around the hall by 1886, although George Jones had been bankrupted by then – likely caused by the boiler explosion at the Hall Works in 1880.

OS Map 1902, the brickworks close in on the stubborn remains of the hall. (Walsall Local History Centre)

By 1900, the brick industry closed in on the site of the ‘desolate’ and stubborn remains of the hall. Finally, other than perhaps a garden feature, the remains were demolished to make way for the building of the Talbot Stead works.

OS Map 1938, showing the remains had been swept away under Talbot Stead, other than a garden boundary perhaps. (Walsall Local History Centre)

I hope Tony feels that his question has been answered to his satisfaction, in so much as the basics anyway, and that some may have found enough of an interest to have read it. And yes, my finger hurts!

My thanks to:
Tony Kulik
Walsall Local History Centre