Focus on ... Old Square

The second of my Focus On posts looks at Old Square. The current square celebrates ten years since a plaque was unveiled on September 21 1998 celebrating the removal of the old underpass area, part paid for by The European Regional Development Fund, and the infilling of the pedestrian subways.

The square itself stands on the former site of the Augstinian Friars' Priory of St Thomas the Apostle. This stood on the site until being dissolved in 1538 and demolished in 1547 (A Walk In The Park: Old Square, Priory Queensway.)

The square dates from 1697, being created as a centrepiece to John Pemberton's Priory Estate in 1713 when it was recorded as having 16 uniform two-storied houses with five-bayed fronts having angle pilasters, pedimented doorways, and dormer windows.

The square saw major demolition work in 1882 to make way for Chamberlain's Corporation Street. Grand architectural buildings were built with the Grand Theatre to the South and Lewis's department store constructed at the western end to replace Berlin House and to build over the Minories in 1885 following personal persuasion from Joseph Chamberlain.

'Birmingham - Warwickshire: 014/05', Ordnance Survey 1:2,500 - Epoch 1 (1890). URL: Date accessed: 10 November 2008.

Major redevelopment of the site took place in the 1960s with Lower Priory to the south converted into the Priory Queensway. This required the road to be widened and elevated which saw the demolition of the Grand Theatre and the construction of an underground car park beneath. The Priory Queensway allowed the construction of Priory Square by Sir Frederick Gibberd in the southwestern corner of the square. These developments converged to relegate pedestrians to subterranean subways, converging on Old Square as an uncovered area below road level.

Phyllis Nicklin 1969, Copyright Keith Berry, reproduced from

Today Old Square is a relaxing square containing eight festival column lamp-standards, moved from Colmore Row and two sculptures. The first sculpture is Kenneth Budd's relief panel of scenes from the history of Old Square in cast brass and iron which was restored and repositioned by the artist in 1998. The second is a 10ft high sheet of bronze with the famous image of Tony Hancock made in glass rods set into the metal by Bruce Williams in 1996.


D'log said…
From "Showell's Dictionary of Birmingham" by Thomas T. Harman and Walter Showell...

Priory. History gives us very little information respecting the Hospital or Priory of St. Thomas the Apostle [See “Old Square”] and still less as the Church or Chapel of St. Thomas the Martyr. The site of the Priory was most probably where the Old Square was laid out, though during the many alterations that have latterly been made not a single stone has been discovered to prove it so. A few bones were found during the months of Aug. and Sept., 1884, and it is said that many years back a quantity of similar remains were discovered while cellars were being made under some of the houses in Ball Street, and one late writer speaks of cellars or crypts, which were hastily built up again. From these few traces it is not unlikely that the Chapel existed somewhere between the Minories and Steelhouse Lane, monkish chants probably resounding where now the members of the Society of Friends sit in silent prayer. Ancient records tell us that in 1285 three persons (William of Birmingham, Thomas of Maidenhacche, and Ranulph of Rugby) gave 23 acres of land at Aston and Saltley (then spelt Saluteleye) for the “endowment” of the Hospital of St. Thomas the Apostle, but that rather goes to prove the previous existence of a religious edifice instead of dating its foundation. In 1310 the Lord of Birmingham gave an additional 22 acres, and many others added largely at the time, a full list of these donors being given in Toulmin Smith’s “Memorials of old Birmingham.” In 1350, 70 acres in Birmingham parish and 30 acres in Aston were added to the possessions of the Priory, which by 1547, when all were confiscated, must have become of great value. The principal portions of the Priory lands in Aston and Saltley went to enrich the Holte family, one (if not the chief) recipient being the brother-in-law of Sir Thomas Holte; but the grounds and land surrounding the Priory and Chapel appear to have been gradually sold to others, the Smallbroke family acquiring the chief part. The ruins of the old buildings doubtless formed a public stonequarry for the builders of the 17th century, as even Hutton can speak of but few relics being left in his time, and those he carefully made use of himself! From the mention in an old deed of an ancient well called the “Scitewell” (probably “Saints’ Well'), the Priory grounds seem to have extended along Dale End to the Butts (Stafford Street), where the water was sufficiently abundant to require a bridge. It was originally intended to have a highly-respectable street in the neighbourhood named St. Thomas Street, after the name of the old Priory, a like proviso being made when John Street was laid out for building.

Old Square. ­There are grounds for believing that this was the site of the Hospital or Priory of St. Thomas the Apostle; the reason of no foundations or relics of that building having been come across arising from its having been erected on a knoll or mount there, and which would be the highest bit of land in Birmingham. This opinion is borne out by the fact that the Square was originally called The Priory, and doubtless the Upper and Lower Priories and the Minories of later years were at first but the entrance roads to the old Hospital, as it was most frequently styled in deeds and documents. Mr. John Pemberton, who purchased this portion of the Priory lands in 1697, and laid it out for building, would naturally have it levelled, and, not unlikely from a reverent feeling, so planned that the old site of the religious houses should remain clear and undesecrated. From old conveyances we find that 20s. per yard frontage was paid for the site of some of the houses in the square, and up to 40s. in Bull Street; the back plots, including the Friends’ burial ground (once gardens to the front houses) being valued at 1s. to 2s. per yard. Some of the covenants between the vendor and the purchasers are very curious, such as that the latter “shall and will for ever hereafter putt and keep good bars of iron or wood, or otherwise secure all the lights and windows that are or shall be, that soe any children or others may not or cannot creep through, gett, or come through such lights or windows into or upon the same piece of land.” Here appears the motive for the erection of the iron railings so closely placed in front of the old houses. Another covenant was against “putting there any muckhill or dunghill places, pigstyes or workhouses, shopps or places that shall he noysome or stink, or be nautionse or troublesome,” and also to have there “no butcher’s or smith’s slaughter house or smithey harth.” One of the corner houses, originally called “the Angle House,” was sold in 1791 for L420; in 1805 it realised L970; in 1843, L1,330? and in 1853, L2,515. The centre of the Square was enclosed and neatly kept as a garden with walks across, for the use of the inhabitants there, but (possibly it was “nobody’s business”) in course of time it became neglected, and we have at least one instance, in 1832, of its being the scene of a public demonstration. About the time of the Parliamentary election in that year, the carriageway round the Square had been newly macadamised, and on the polling day, when Dempster Heming opposed William Stratford Dugdale, the stones were found very handy, and were made liberal use of, as per the usual order of the day at that time on such occasions. The trees and railings were removed in 1836 or 1837 in consequence of many accidents occurring there, the roadways being narrow and very dangerous from the numerous angles, the Street Commissioners undertaking to give the inhabitants a wide and handsome flagging as a footpath on all sides of the square, conditionally with the freeholders of the property giving up their rights to and share in the enclosure.
Hancock memorial at Old Square. The articles on Old Square state there are two pieces of sculpture which is incorrect. There are 3 including the Hancock and Old Square Bas relief, but don't forget the Justice Brick Mosaic designed by Chartered Landscape Architect Richard Greenway (Worcester) stylised from Purcell's depiction of Justice on the Old Bailey, London with the face being carved by sculptress Marilyn Johns RA (Tutor at Telford Art College) paying homage to the legal scribes offices around the Georgian Square prior to its redevelopment in the 1960's.

Popular Posts