I’ve been meaning to write on the subject of Ravens court for probably more than a year now – but quite simply, I have nothing to constructively add about the derelict, decaying shopping precinct in the centre of Brownhills – the Council still press on in taking legal action against it’s owners, and we’re still left with a blot on our town.
Recent conversations, however, have led me to note that misconceptions about the former shopping precinct and the history of Brownhills as a retail centre still persist. To rectify this, and attempt to shed some light on the past, I returned to Gerald Reece’s wonderful work ‘Brownhills: A walk into history’ in which he writes of the history of the doomed shopping centre.
One person recently suggested to me that the development of Ravens Court – which they believed was by Tesco – destroyed the church that used to stand in the High Street. Whilst Ravens Court did involve the loss of Mount Zion, Tesco weren’t in Brownhills until long after Ravens Court was built, and the Silver Street church was born as a result of the loss.
Likewise, someone else recently expressed the view that a tenant in Ravens Court had prevented Tesco from evicting them, leaving the plan doomed. This is also totally untrue.
My views on the death of Brownhills as a main retail centre are fairly well known, but if not, you can read what I think here. They haven’t changed in the years since I wrote that. The comments, particularly those by planning expert Andy Dennis, are well worth reading too.
- The new Tesco store proposed for Brownhills in 2010 was granted planning permission without trouble, and the council were broadly supportive.
- Nothing in Brownhills stopped Tesco commencing their new store.
- There was a brief protest with the Senior Citizens Club which was resolved quickly.
- No ‘sitting tenants’ of any kind stopped the Tesco development.
- What stopped the new store being built was Tesco themselves decided not to undertake the plan. At that time, many similar plans for other Tesco straws were abandoned, some in various stages of construction, like the brand new, now abandoned store in Chatteris.
- Tesco didn’t even build their current store in Brownhills: a company called Hillards did, under whose name it operated until 1987 when Tesco took the Hillards Group over. Tesco ended up with a superstore in Brownhills effectively by accident.
- Ravens Court is not, and never was owned by Tesco, nor is it the property of Walsall Council.
- Ravens court is owned by a London-based property investment company called Lightquote.
- As private property, Walsall Council have very little legal power to force any kind of improvement on Ravens Court, but are doing what they can.
- When taking a long view of what ails brownhills, it’s easy to blame planners, the council, or whatever. But decisions taken should always be considered in the context of the time they were taken. Retail in the UK is dying for a number of reasons, and Brownhills isn’t unique: What has changed the most is our shopping habits, and we cannot divorce the fate of town centres from our own actions, by blaming others.
Here, I feature what Gerald Reece has to say about the grand plans, construction and historical timeline of Ravens Court, in which he points out that the place was fairly unsuccessful in the early days, and that prior to it’s development, the High Street was in a poor state.
There are some aspects of the timeline I can’t resolve. My impression was that the Tesco in Ravens Court didn’t close until the Hillards was converted, in 1987-8, and my impression is also that the Ravens Court Tesco started out as a Victor Value in the late 60s, before they were bought by Tesco. The name was indeed revived, in the late 80s/early 90s. The later venture was doomed, as Gerald notes.
Please, if you have any observations or comments, do share them: I remain indebted to Gerald, whose work in 1995 long before the internet came along, remains the best local history writing on Brownhills I’ve ever read. Gerald is a gentleman, and I am forever in his debt.
Please do comment here, or mail me: BrownhillsBob at Googlemail dot com
Gerald Reece wrote:
Work on the building of Ravenscourt Shopping Centre began in September 1964. For two years previous to this a large section of the High Street had been earmarked for redevelopment. Brownhills was overdue for the promised facelift. Developers and speculators came forward with imaginative and creative ideas that would transform the ‘Old High Street’ into a ‘Shoppers Paradise’. The first proposals for the building of the Precinct were indeed spectacular.
It was to be U shaped with 36 shop units with maisonettes above. A large modem bank in the centre. A block of offices would stand at the rear of the centre section. An advertising tower 30 ft high a Bus station, a place where mothers could leave their prams, a modem Hotel and Parking for 450 cars. An entertainments centre that would include a Bowling Alley, a Dance Hall and a Cinema. The site chosen for the new Precinct was to be an area that already contained shops, a Chapel, a Cinema and a large car park.
The Regent Cinema had opened in 1928, it closed on 29th September 1962 and was demolished in May 1964. A history of Cinemas of Aldridge and Brownhills has been written by Ned Williams, it was published in 1984. Copies can be found in most local libraries. The Regent Cinema stood at the rear of the site of an old William Robert’s public house, the Royal George. Built in the 1860’s the Royal George had a comparatively short life. Licensees include : Richard Owen, Edward Lydall, J.H. Harrington, B.C. Mills.
The first Mount Zion Primitive Methodist Chapel had been built upon the site in 1856. It was twice enlarged before it was completely rebuilt in 1895. The final service was held there on 18th October 1964.
Between 1962 and 1964 many old established shops and businesses in Brownhills High Street were closed down and in many cases they were compulsory purchased. Desolation set in, Brownhills became a ghost town, there were 24 empty shops in the High Street alone. With little choice the inhabitants took their custom elsewhere. ‘On a busy Saturday afternoon’, stated one of the rernaining shopkeepers, ‘you could fire a machine gun down High Street with little danger of hitting anyone’.
The Ravenscourt Precinct that was finally built was financed by Baratham Ltd. It was opened in March 1966. A branch of Boots the Chemist was the first shop to open. Many shops remained empty for the next five years.
Tesco opened a store in the Precinct in March 1971 but they closed it shortly after Hillards opened their Superstore in 1985. [I contest this – I think Tesco didn’t close until Tesco bought Hillards in 87 – I think Brownhills had two Tesco stores for a while – Bob]
The Boulevard Indoor Shopping Centre took over the empty Tesco Store in 1987, after a complete refurbishment and the partitioning into small units. It was opened for P & R Developments of Solihull in 1988 by Larry Grayson, a television personality with a fetish for cleanliness and a susceptibility to draughts.
With the amalgamation of Brownhills and Aldridge Councils in April 1966 all interest in the future of Brownhills seems to have disappeared. Today the community are still looking for the results of those early promises. Financial speculators still control the High Street and open and close businesses to suit themselves in their never ending game of Monopoly.
Tesco Supermarket and car park now occupy what was the site of Brownhills Open Market until May 1985. In November of that year Hillards, a supermarket business, got a foothold into the Midlands market by opening a store here. They quickly put the Ravenscourt branch of Tesco out of business. Tesco hit back and in a fierce battle they not only regained Brownhills but in one sweep they cleared Hillards from the board. Tesco’s banner was raised again in August 1987 Just one year after this dramatic rebound Victor Value tried their hand. They should have learnt from the lessons of others who had failed to make the site pay. Woolworths, Argos, Indoor Market, Carpet World, etc. Victor Value opened with a flourish on Tuesday 23 August 1988. Their initial extravagance of offering free doughnuts to the first 1,000 customers turned out to be little incentive. The store closed just over a year after opening on Saturday 9 September 1989.
I can find no record of just how many doughnuts they had left, these already have become sought after collectors items.
Along this part of the High Street had stood the Palace Picture House. Opened in 1912 it was closed in 1940. Nearby was No. 58 The Pawnshop, it had been opened as early as 1870 by Julia Howes a spinster from Bilston. It was known in its later days as Florrie Cox’s. On the comer of Pier Street stood the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel. Built in 1896, it closed in 1967, its congregation having joined with that from the Mount Zion Primitive Methodists to form the Brownhills Methodist Church in their new building in Silver Street.
Pier Street was originally a footway between Clayhanger and The Chester Turnpike Road. When the canal cut through in 1797 a wooden bridge was built to span the canal. A pier was built here where barges ‘are loaded and unloaded’. ‘Com and Coals can be loaded and a weighing scale balanced in a fixture on the ground gives accurate measure’. Near to the pier was an old licensed house known as ‘The Fortunes of War’. In 1870 the street and houses, including The Fortune belonged to Francis Baildon Oerton of Walsall. The landlady of The Fortune was Widow Budge of Longton. The premises came up for sale in April 1873. The landlord in 1880 was James Perry, a coal-engine driver, from Walsall. His wife had the odd name of Lettice. The Fortune of War was later changed to that of the Pier Inn. James Lamb was the landlord in 1914 and A. Perry in 1926. In 1920 Harry Smith was the licensee he was also a miner at the Grove Colliery. He was killed, alongside thirteen other miners, in an underground explosion on 1st October 1930.
The Pier Inn and the houses in the street were removed in the 1960’s as part of the redevelopment programme.
The Chemists Shop at the comer of Pier Street was built in 1874. Before becoming the Chemists it had been a Shoe Shop for almost 100 years. Next door at No, 76 High Street was Holmes, Fruiterer, a family business that had been there for 50 years. Before then it was Cecil Collis’s, House Furnisher. No. 78 was Croft’s, Electrical Engineers. No. 80 was Starbuck’s Butchers. No. 82 was Kingston’s, another boot and shoe dealer. No. 84 was the earlier premises of Frederick William Cater, Wireless Dealer. No. 86 High Street had for many years been a wallpaper, paint and builder’s merchants called George T. Roberts. With a lot of imagination and courage it became Chester’s Wine Bar and Bistro. It really didn’t have the Continental appeal and quickly became another watering hole. A change of name and a refurbishment in June 1987 saw Simply Blues emerge, sadly, it too just never caught on.