William Dargue A History of BIRMINGHAM Places & Placenames from A to Y
Newtown, Aston New Town, New Town, New Town Row,
B6 - Grid reference SP073889
First record c1790
By 1790 urban Birmingham was spilling over its northern boundary into Aston in the area around Newtown Middleway. The district was bounded on its east side by Walmer Lane, later known as Lancaster Street and now known as Corporation Street/ Aston Road - this was the ancient road to Lichfield. A new road was cut on the west side of the development and called New Town Row. It was from this road that the small district took its name.
On Newtown Row St Stephen's Church was built in 1844 and the street alongside it was later named after the church. At the time it was still surrounded by fields, though they were not to be there for long. The church was designed by the nationally known gothic architect, R C Carpenter in an early English style and faced with stone. In 1896 the building was extensively rebuilt and then again in 1910. Prior to the almost total demolition of the area the church closed in 1950 and was subsequently demolished.
Building continued outwards. The name Aston New Town dates perhaps from the 1850s as the housing developments continued in Aston well beyond the Birmingham boundary, housing aimed at the artisan working class and the lower middle class. By the 1860s the district was built up around Park Lane.
And building up around Aston Cross was Aston Brook, a district built up with rows and rows of small working-class terraces. This small district took its name from the brook which further west was known as Hockley Brook. The brook flows from west to east close to Aston Brook Street (it was culverted in 1917) and then headed towards Salford Bridge where it joins the River Tame.
In 1863 St Mary's Church was consecrated to serve an expanding population. Standing on Aston Road North at Avenue Road, it was designed by J Murray in the decorated gothic style and built in red brick. A square tower with a steep pyramidal roof was added in 1882. The church was demolished c1969 as part of the preparations for the Aston Expressway, its crucifix by W H Bidlake transferred to St Alban's Church in Highgate.
By the 1880s these districts had become one with Birmingham. New Town Row as far as Six Ways Aston became a linear shopping street and remained as such until the 1970s when redevelopment centred shopping facilitites in a new purpose-built shopping centre between Alma Street and High Street. Extensive road widening severely cut the district in two and reduced Aston Six Ways to an unsatisfactorily placed row of shops east of Birchfield Road.
Photograph: A court off Hanley Street, an area now zoned for industry. Photograph 'All Rights Reserved' from the BirminghamLives website used with the kind permission of Carl Chinn.
The quality of housing in the area deteriorated rapidly from the end of the Victorian period until the 1960s when some of the worst slum conditions in the city were to be found here. (Ken Loach (director) and Jeremy Sandford's (author) ground-breaking docu-drama about homeless families, 'Cathy Come Home' was made in this area in 1968.)
By 1939 the piecemeal rebuilding in areas of poor housing was replaced by the concept of total clearance and complete redevelopment, and Duddeston & Nechells (See also Nechells Green) were designated as the first Redevelopment Area.
Bomb damage was particularly severe in the densely built inner-city districts where housing and industry were side by side, so after the war the so-called 'Blitz & Blight' Act of 1944 was passed to permit councils to compulsorily purchase and rebuild both bombed and slum areas. From 1947 the whole city was made subject to the council's planning powers and four more new towns were designated: Highgate, Lee Bank and Ladywood and this one, Newtown, the largest of them all.
A new dual-carriageway, the Middleway was planned to circle the city and link the five areas designated as new towns. From the late-1950s to the late-1970s clearance of the redevelopment areas was almost total. Only some churches, public houses and the few Listed buildings survived. Many streets became cul-de-sacs and street plans were sometimes completely changed.
Districts were rebuilt with local shopping centres which were planned to include all necessary amenities and services, and were separated from industry and each other by green open spaces with play areas. Estates were ringed by collector roads and there was limited vehicular access to prevent through-traffic.
Only half the former population was to be rehoused here. The dwellings included many tower blocks, some 400 in the city by 1970, after which no more were built.
From the 1960s the whole area of Newtown was redeveloped as Birmingham's biggest municipal housing development. The present district, which was so-named by the City Council at that time, focuses now on the Newtown shopping centre off the High Street/ New Town Row. By the 1980s the centre, damaged by vandalism and graffitti had declined with many shops boarded up, but it was extensively refurbished at the end of the 20th century.
The Barton Arms is one of the few surviving older buildings here and stands as a local landmark among the late 20th-century buildings that surround it. Built in 1901 by James & Lister Lea for M&B Breweries it is a grand Victorian building in Jacobean style. Clearly influenced by Aston Hall, this red-brick and stone building has Dutch-style gables and is topped by a great square clock tower. Internally many of its original features survive: mahogany fittings, stained and etched glass and a wealth of Minton tiles.
During the first half of the 20th century it served as a lodging house for the variety artistes who worked the nearby Aston Hippodrome. Caruso, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy and Marie Lloyd and are all known to have stayed here.
The Hippodrome was demolished in 1980. The pub, too, was nearly demolished in 1969 during the great rebuilding of Newtown. However, in 1976 it was listed as Grade II*, an unusually high listing for a Victorian public house of which there are many good examples. After falling into disrepair and being closed for a time, the pub was extensively refurbished in 2002 and is now well worth a visit.
The names Aston New Town and Aston Brook are no longer in use as a district names. However, the name New Town Row is still used of the shopping centre and its immediate environs. And the whole area is now generally known as Newtown.
William Dargue 02.09.2008/ 15.12.2020
For 19th-century Ordnance Survey maps of Birmingham go to British History Online.