'Old Money' - Handsworth Wood Road - Poem by David Shoestring
Handsworth Wood Road was the chosen abode
Of ‘Old Money’ in Handsworth Wood.
Where Victorian, Edwardian
And a few mock-Georgian
Red brick town houses solidly stood.
After returning from Indian outposts,
Owners often had their gateposts
Surmounted by a carved-stone lion or two.
Echoing the old Dominions,
They looked down on the minions
Exactly as they were supposed to do.
Along here, house status equated
With wrought-iron gated
Entrances, in grandiose Victorian styles.
Walled gardens; privet hedged,
And neat driveways always edged,
Invariably with crenelated terra-cotta tiles.
‘Box’ hedges kept good military order
Of the damp, mildewed earth border,
And roses guarded by fat bumble bees.
Whilst old ‘Russian Vines’, crept, and entwined
The Lilacs, and the Monkey-Puzzle trees.
Heavy oak front doors and patterned Minton tiled floors
In the lobby, was ‘des rigeur’ in all but a few.
With art nouveau side panels of stained glass,
And large doorknobs in brass,
And a bell-pull that rang out,
Down the hall,
Out of view.
There were attics and cellars, and pantries of course,
With terracotta flags covering the floors.
Huge bay windows looked out over neatly kept grounds
From rooms heated by fires set in marble surrounds;
All needing to be cleaned, to be dusted and swept
Without any of the staff that had once been kept.
For as wages went up, and pensions declined,
Cheap everyday help became much harder to find.
As the batty coal fires spat and gas fires barely hissed,
Old wooden sash windows became drizzled in mist.
Damp seeped up the walls turning wallpaper moist;
Dry-rot and beetles connived to consume every joist:
Gale-force draughts blew with gusto through windows and doors,
Curling any linoleum remaining on the varnished pine floors
Out of favour and in decay,
'Old Money’ no longer held sway;
Houses became doomed as the occupants downsized.
As cash ran short, residents were forced to resort
To developments they truthfully despised.
Such as apartments, student flatlets and second rate hotels,
Ethnic Church Mission Halls,
(Thankfully without any bells)
Gone is the ‘Old Money’ - faded into the scenes;
And replaced by young couples with ambition,
But lacking the means
Of restoring the old houses to glories they once knew.
The past is the past,
Long since gone from view
© David Shoestring
Poet's Notes about The Poem
Handsworth was originally a village which became swallowed by the expanding city of Birmingham in England. This is the first of two poems written ‘back-to-back’ about Handsworth as I knew in the 1960’s.
In the 18th century Handsworth played a very important part in establishing the world-wide Industrial Revolution, and at the time it was established in 1762, Matthew Boulton’s ‘Soho Foundry’ became the largest factory in the world, and his association with steam power and the engineers James Watt and William Murdoch well documented.
‘Old Money’ refers to families whose wealth was long established over several generations, as opposed to the ‘New Money’ folk who had made it speedy riches in the booming years after the war.
In early married life we lived in an old three storey Victorian house on the Hamstead Road, which was the continuation of Hamstead Road en route to the deep coal mines of Hamstead village. Almost opposite the house was St. Mary’s Church, dating from the 11th Century and which contains the tombs of many of Handsworth’s more illustrious inhabitants, including the trio of Murdoch, Boulton and Watt.
Prosperity continued throughout the Victorian age, and many wealthy Industrialist families built large houses for themselves and their Managers in the rapidly expanding suburbs, which included Handsworth Wood, and the Handsworth Wood Road. The large houses survived two world wars but began to deteriorate as they became difficult to maintain, and were adapted for other uses.
In more recent times there has been a renaissance of interest and better appreciation of these fine houses, most of which remain in good health today.
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