New Street was once dominated by the Gothic stylings of Barry and Pugin. Chris Upton looks at one of the finest buildings we ever had.
The history of Birmingham is littered with lost buildings. Even the most cursory of lists would encompass the Church of the Messiah, the Old Reference Library, the Exchange and the original New Street Station.
But one building stands head and shoulders above them all, if not in height, then in the reputation of its architect and beauty of its interior. The former King Edward’s School building dominated the lower part of New Street for 100 years, and still lives in the memory of Old Edwardians even today.
A new exhibition currently running at King Edward’s in Edgbaston draws on all those fond memories, together with photographs and documents from the rich archives of the school, to present the story of the New Street premises and the move out to the leafy suburbs in the 1930s.
Although the exhibition is temporary, the school hopes to keep many of the elements of it for the longer term.
King Edward’s had been a fixture on New Street from the time the school was first founded in the middle of the 16th century, changing its overcoat from a Tudor hall to an early 18th-century one as the years passed.
By the 1820s, however, even that most recent rebuilding was showing its age, and the ravages of Birmingham’s industrial air. A local architect declared its life expectancy to be about seven years. It was time to rebuild yet again.
The governors of King Edward’s had rather more to spend on school building than the councillors of Sandwell. They considered even a move to a new site, but resistance from the town put a stop to that idea, at least in the 19th century. The Birmingham Free Grammar School Act, squeezed through Parliament, sanctioned borrowing and expenditure of £30,000 on a new school on the ancient site, and so the planning began in 1833.
The architect selected for the new building was Charles Barry, who had recently competed for, and lost, the commission for Birmingham Town Hall. At one end of New Street, then, Barry was able to demonstrate what the town had turned down at the other end. It was to be, not the tried-and-trusted classical temple, but a building in the new Neo-Gothic style.
And in choosing something in the late Gothic idiom, Barry was cleverly pointing backwards to the school’s Tudor origins, when Perpendicular Gothic ruled the roost.
Barry’s design organised King Edward’s around two inner courtyards. At one end of the frontage stood the headmaster’s house, and at the other the house of the second master, their bay windows affording lofty views over New Street. Between the two, on the first floor, lay the schoolroom itself (known as Big School) and the library, linked by a traceried “upper corridor”.