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Great Barr Park Colony

The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 joined parishes into unions with their neighbours and required those in need to enter purpose-built residential workhouses. These were managed by elected Guardians of the Poor. By the turn of the century these institutions were increasingly becoming homes for the aged and infirm, abandoned and orphaned children, the mentally handicapped, the consumptive and other disadvantaged classes.

In 1909 a Royal Commission report strongly favoured the removal of all children from workhouses. The Poor Law institutions were looking at ways of segregating the various classes according to individual needs.

The West Bromwich Guardians were becoming increasingly concerned with the overcrowding in their infirmary, nursery and mental handicap departments. There was also a need for accommodation for consumptive (tuberculosis) patients in advanced stages of the disease

The Great Barr Hall Estate came upon the market in 1911 after the death of Lady Bateman-Scott. Mr A L Wells, Chairman of the West Bromwich Guardians, put forward a proposal that its purchase would enable the Guardians to fully carry out the suggestions embodied in the Royal Commission report. In October 1911, the major part of the Scott estates was advertised for sale by auction. A Lichfield estate agent acting for the Guardians was successful in buying the principal lot of 557 acres, comprising Great Barr Hall and Park (including Merrions Wood, all six lodges and Park Farm) for the sum of £28,000.

The formal order setting up a Joint Committee was issued by the Local Government Board in October 1912, just a few days before the official opening of the Hall for the reception of its first pauper residents.

The utmost priority was given to the removal of children from the nurseries in the two workhouses and the Hall quickly filled up its accommodation for 100 children and 20 mothers.

Plans for the estate envisaged that the Great Barr scheme would make provisions for certain priority classes, these being;

  1.   ‘Normal’ children under the age of five years, ‘and so long as advisable’, their mothers also.
  2.   Consumptive patients, principally in the advanced stages.
  3.  ’Mental defectives, imbeciles and epileptics’.

The plans were to build about 20 inexpensive small homes ‘in such positions as to allow for each class being dealt with in an area distinct and separate from the others’.

In 1918, “mental defectives” were moved into the first homes on a site set aside for their accommodation. The scheme had been started in 1914 but the First World War brought building to a halt—materials and men could not be found. It was a sloping southerly site, facing Birmingham, and the homes were ranged in a horseshoe shape—females to the left limb, males to the right. A considerable estate was gradually built up over the next ten years. Photographs and a map can be found elsewhere on this site.

Because of overcrowding it was soon necessary to increase the accommodation. A further eleven homes, in a ‘dignified phase of Georgian architecture,’ were erected on land several hundred yards to the north-west of the established colony. It more effectively segregated the sexes and soon became known simply as the ‘Male Side’. The extension was formally opened by the Earl of Harrowby in 1938.

The local architect Gerald McMichael was responsible for most of the scheme.


Information provided by Peter Allen, chair of Aston and Barr LHS

A note. While nowadays it is not acceptable the terms idiot, moron, imbecile had a definite technical meaning in the early days of the hospital . The term IQ was not used at this time but to give an idea of the anture of these terms Moron was a mental age in adulthood of between 8 and 12 on the Binet scale. It was once applied to people with an IQ of 51-70, being superior in one degree to “imbecile” (IQ of 26-50) and superior in two degrees to “idiot” (IQ of 0-25)

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