Circling Ravens

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Ravens Court is a mess: not just physically, but historically and legally. Image by Pete Hummings.

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.

To recap:

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

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Peter Booth captured Hillards just as it opened, I think in 1985. Image kindly shared by Peter Booth.

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.

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Image from ‘Brownhills: a walk into history’ by Gerald Reece.

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Image from ‘Brownhills: a walk into history’ by Gerald Reece.

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.

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Image from ‘Brownhills: a walk into history’ by Gerald Reece.

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.

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Image from ‘Brownhills: a walk into history’ by Gerald Reece.

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.

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15 Responses to Circling Ravens

  1. I remember watching out of my boxroom bedroom window at 7 Church Rd the demolition and building of Ravens Court. Was great to watch as a child of 7 this building work and feel sad how it looks today. Victor Value was along the back of the precinct and went there many times for my mom. I also remember the Chemist on the left hand corner as you looked from church road. Each week they changed the colour of the water inside a large glass decanter type thing with a stopper top. REd, green and Pink I recal most vividly. I also remember taking the Lucazade and PLJ bottles back to get the refund back and mom let me have that as pocket money.

    I recall a washerette and a butchers there in the main part and the Downes news agent who supplied my weekly Dandy and Beano comics on the frontage where it still remains today.

  2. Just to add that Victor Value did indeed become Tesco as far as I recall.

  3. Steve cawley says:

    Number 31 was j.h dewhurst butchers manager was Alan worth,next door was parkers supermarket and on the other side was the central cafe a bit further up was and still is poxons butchers all opposite what is now wilko.
    The post office was on the corner of high street and church road opposite what is now card factory
    there was a NatWest bank where card factory/specsavers is now

  4. Andy Dennis says:

    I think you are right about Tesco in Ravenscourt.

    The Hillards planning permission included a new Post Office and a canalside pub, but these never happened.

    I left the Council before the 2010 planning permission, but was involved on the policy side. Even in 2009 it seemed obvious that Tesco generally was rowing back from the new generation of larger stores and focusing more attention on their smaller Tesco Metro stores. It is no surprise that they didn’t go ahead.

    As I understand it the Council had given commitment to Compulsory Purchase in support of Tesco should there be any obstinate occupiers.

    The decline of the centre in the 1960s is well-documented. Another challenge was the advent of large supermarkets at Minworth (Carrefour) and Bloxwich (Asda), which changed family shopping habits radically.

    I never understood why those units were built in Pier Street as it was obvious there were already too many shops for the demand.

    We always used Kingston for our shoes. It was a real old-fashioned place that had the feel of a house converted for retail, with dark wooden shelves piled high with shoe boxes.

  5. Adrian Bickley says:

    As I remember it, Victor Value was the end unit, and the first Tesco store opened nearby in a unit on the same side as Currys and Halfords. I think that when they took over Victor Value, both those units operated as Tesco for a while. Boots was on the opposite corner to Currys, and further up on that side were Preedy the newsagent, and, I think, a cake shop.

    • I worked in Currys in 1970’s, it was a thriving business, Boots was opposite corner, Taylors cake shop, a Discount store, a posh Clothes shop and a Butchers at the very bottom, Tesco was at the bottom, stretched across the entire area, then there was a Cafe a Laundry/Washerette can’t remember what else, Currys on the corner and the Bank on the front..don’t no what happened, it was thriving when I worked there, think when Brownhills Market closed it killed Brownhills.. we can probably blame the Internet and ebay for that.

      • Id forgotten about Curry’s being there. They were a rival to Collis’s (next to George Mason if memory serves me correct) on other side of high street. My mom had a black and White TV on “hire purchase” from there

  6. Tesco at the back, Tesco Home n Wear on the right – sort of forerunner of Asda Living. Currys front right, Boots front left; Hindleys, Taylors were bakers/cakes, the wool shop, sports and model shop, pick your own fruit and veg, Why Not cycles, the butchers on the left. On the right, Acropolis coffee house, bookies, launderette, a decorating shop, and a motor spares shop in the 80s.

    Dave is right about the coloured water in the flask at Boots.They are called Chemist’s Carboys and looked like this

    no idea of the significance

    Best wishes
    Bob

  7. David Evans says:

    Hi Bob
    this article , and the link with the investment company etc , are appreciated.
    Many thanks
    kind regards
    David

  8. Andy Dennis says:

    Great article and well-deserved responses.

    I think it is a common misconception that retail property is owned by retail interests. Most is owned by investment funds or estate management companies. A surprising amount is owned by local authorities.

    For example, Asda set up a development arm named Gazeley Ltd. Wal-Mart, the US supermarket chain, bought both and some years back sold Gazeley on to Economic Zones World (EZW), a Dubai World company. EZW develops and operates economic zones and technology, logistics, and industrial parks. It also develops, sells, and leases warehouses and provides management services, so its only real interest in retailing is collecting rent. Many industrial and office complexes operate in the same way.

  9. Sheila Hall says:

    I moved into a brand new maisonette above the supermarket in early 1967. We paid our rent to Victor Value…..who owned the supermarket at the time.

  10. aerreg says:

    well done brilliant memory walk down high sreet in its old grandure the photo of zion brought back memories of the sunday school days HAROLD BROOKES at the o
    rgan his prelude peace was always FINLANDIA a very special hymn for me and my late wife god bless you all for what you do oh for the days of white dresses short trousers and dads brylcreem

  11. aerreg says:

    sorry corection it was ARTHUR BROOKES harold was his brother had outfitters shop their mom and dad lived in lichfield road and are standing by the gate on the brownhills carnival film

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