The "Norasearch" Diary - by Andrew Conway

Wednesday 6 May 1999 (Part Two)

Danny is now interested enough to suggest we immediately look the place up on the old Ordnance Survey maps in the library, so we walk back over there and catch the lift up to Floor Six.

Because Alcester (pronounced 'Olster') Road is so very long, stretching from inner city Balsall Heath, through Moseley, and out through Kings Heath to the suburbs, it’s important to find out exactly where no. 12 is. We get out the old maps and discover that it is, in fact, well within what we now regard as Moseley, which is really nowhere near Kings Norton.

12 Alcester Rd (1889)I take photocopies of the 1889, 1916 and 1956 maps (the latter of which has the advantage of showing house numbers). The maps show that number 12 is quite a big house with a very long back garden. It's on the main road that goes right through Moseley, running southwards away from the city centre. At the time Honorah was born, a tram line ran along it, but it has disappeared by 1956. (The local history books later tell me that it was a steam tram until the year Honorah was born, when it went electric). The rows of houses along Alcester Road were given names en bloc, which seems common all over Birmingham with houses from the C19th, the name plaques often still visible. The row of nine houses we're dealing with were called St Leonard's Place but, as the birth certificate shows, it’s unlikely that people ever referred to this.

Number 10 is the first house in the St Leonard's Place row (the northernmost); number 26 is the southernmost and a very narrow side lane runs along it. It isn't named on the 1891 map, but it is now known as Louise Lorne Road (and is so named on the 1956 map). Immediately behind 'St Leonard's Place' the 1891 map shows what appears to be a tree-lined square. On the 1916 map it is labelled 'Nursery'. By 1956 it has been converted to garages.

Danny has some time to kill and his curiosity is sufficiently piqued to suggest we drive straight over to Moseley to see if the house is still there. This surprises me, but I was always taught to never look a gift horse in the mouth, so I say yes. We approach the place from the rear, down Louise Lorne Road, and pull in behind the houses in what used to be the square. It is no longer garages - there are some very modern houses there now. The back gardens of 'St Leonard's Place' are all backed by high wooden gates but, as we pull up, we’re confronted by number 12 with the gate wide open showing the very long garden and the rear of the house.

12 Alcester Rd (Rear)It’s very impressive and, if the Parkers occupied the whole premises, must have been pretty prestigious at the time. It’s a perfect chance to get a photo without resorting to one day climbing the fence and risking arrest, but, alas, neither of us have a camera with us!

12 Alcester Rd (Front)We drive out onto Alcester Road and pull up across the road from the house. It’s right on the cusp of where run-down Balsall Heath becomes more upmarket Moseley and is facing a row of shops and an Indian restaurant (the area is renowned for its Kashmiri cuisine, which is something of a tourist attraction). We don't attempt to knock. I'd rather write to the occupants and see if they’d be interested in letting me see the place. I've no idea yet if it’s still a complete house or whether it has been divided into flats.


The old boundaries of the urban district of Kings Norton were quite large and, apparently, included a huge chunk of what everyone now regards as Birmingham, perhaps even inner-city Birmingham. Moseley neighbours Balsall Heath, which is a run-down inner-city neighbourhood that has long had a reputation as something of a red light district. Where 12 Alcester Road stands is just inside what we might now consider to be Moseley rather than Balsall Heath - but only just.

Moseley once had the reputation of being quite exclusive and would certainly have been a prosperous suburb at the turn of the century. In 1987 I used to work for the West Midlands Council for Disabled People further down Alcester Road, which involved visiting elderly people in the area every week and really just listening to their stories, so I can confirm, from personal testimony, that it was once a 'respectable' suburb.

JRR Tolkien lived at 124 Alcester Road as a schoolboy between 1900-1, and used nearby Sarehole Mill and Moseley Bog in his later literature.

If Honora grew up there, it is possible she attended the Moseley and Balsall Heath Institute not more than 100 yards up the road, which would have held dances. It’s now called the Moseley Dance Centre and hosts dance classes and becomes a night club at weekends.

I also know that dances were held at Balsall Heath Public Baths further up the road, because several of my former clients talked fondly of them. This would have been in the 1920s, when Honora was a teenager. Of course, I'm jumping the gun here, because we don't know if the family stayed in Moseley after Honora's birth. Incidentally, Balsall Heath defected to Birmingham in 1891 and was given the library and public baths as reward, housed in a flamboyant glazed brick and terracotta building that is still standing. It took Moseley another 20 years to give into the temptation to become part of Birmingham; which is a good indication of the psychological barrier between the two neighbourhoods. The baths didn't actually open until 30 October 1907 (due to problems in finding a sufficient water supply) just 50 days before Honorah was born.

As for Moseley now, it is quite a unique area. It’s long been Birmingham's bohemian quarter, or as close as Birmingham could ever get to such a thing (the city has had a reputation for lagging ten years behind the other major cities in terms of youth culture, but not anymore). The population is a colourful mix of students, artists, media people, old hippies, drop outs and unemployed people in bands. Anyone who was ever in a band that came from Birmingham was from Moseley (UB40 and Ocean Colour Scene for instance). The place has that kind of reputation now. No doubt the current residents of 12 Alcester Road can hear the sound of Indie bands at weekends playing at the Jug of Ale pub just down the road, which has hosted not only local bands but unknowns from other parts of Britain: Oasis and Blur played there when they were still unknown.

It’s a very lively area; there's a buzz about the place. Unlike most neighbourhoods in Birmingham it feels self-contained: you don't have to head for the city centre for entertainment. It hosts penniless students as well as high-paid TV people who buy up huge town houses (my ex-Editor at the BBC lives there, on an obscene salary). There's a sense with many media people that, yes, they could afford more expensive houses elsewhere in Birmingham in far more prestigious areas, but it would be away from the action. I’ve long wanted to live there (when I wasn’t living in Hungary and Germany) and have been on the verge of getting a flat there for ages.

Whilst Moseley, perhaps at the time of Honorah's birth, would have been called a 'village', the reason the epithet still survives is, I think, this image that Moseley now has of itself as an artistic centre. 'The Village', though, now refers to the main crossroads of Moseley about three hundred yards down the road (and just over the hill) from number 12, where all the key pubs and shops are located, rather than the neighbourhood as a whole.

I can now consult some historical guides to the area and try to get a better idea of what it was like in 1907. But, mostly, need to find out how long the family lived there.

Copyright © 1999 Andrew Conway. All Rights Reserved.