The area now known as Warley Woods was originally part of the township of Warley Salop, itself part of the manor of Halas/ Hales at the time of the Norman conquest in 1066. The manor passed to David ap Owen, Prince of Wales in 1177 and his name was added to the name of the manor Hales-owen. In 1214 King John gave the manor of Halesowen to the Bishop of Winchester to found a religious house. The area of land, which was to become Warley Woods Park, was administered by Halesowen Abbey. In the medieval period the area of Warley Woods probably consisted of enclosed fields and woodland. You can see eroded traces of the medieval ridge and furrow within the Park today and from vertical aerial photographs taken quite recently. The area was administered from Warley Hall farm, which lay to the west of present day Harborne Road.
Samuel Galton II, born in 1753, followed his father into the family gun-making business and was also a Quaker. He married Lucy Barclay in 1777, and they moved to Barr Hall, Great Barr in 1782. They purchased the Warley Hall estate in 1792 and called in the celebrated landscape architect Humphry Repton in 1794, to create a setting worthy of his new house to be built in his country estate at Warley. Repton set out his ideas for Warley in one of his famous Red Books, so called because he bound them in red leather. In his Red Book he showed clients his ideas for improving the landscape, illustrated by his own watercolours, with flaps lifted to reveal a landscape ‘before’ and ‘after’ his improvements had been made. We are very fortunate that the Red Book for Warley survives in the local studies archive, in the library in Smethwick High Street. We also have a copy of the Red Book which is available to be viewed at the Trust office.
Repton made good use of the lie of the land with its spectacular scenery and panoramic views, which he incorporated into his plan. He moved the line of the old Harborne Road to bring Warley Tor, an existing summer house/prospect house into the park. The main carriage drive was designed to pass through the existing woods, then reveal the house across the sweeping lawns.
Repton recommended creating a small pool to attract wildfowl from the intermittent stream in the bottom of the wide valley, and proposed a sheltered winter garden, with scented shrubs and gravel walks close to the house to the south. He created contrived views that slowly unfolded for guests, as they toured round the park, so that they could enjoy glimpses of the house from a series of constantly changing perspectives. They might stop at the Doric temple set in a bay cut into the woods, or take tea at Warley Tor (tower), whilst admiring the view to the family’s first home at Great Barr.
Repton’s design for the new house was not implemented, and it was eventually built in the fashionable gothic style, to a design by the Scottish architect Robert Lugar. Lugar also designed the three gate lodges, one on the turnpike at Beech Lane (now Hagley Road) and one at each entrance on Lightwoods Hill and what is now Abbey Road.
Lugar also made recommendations for the enlargement of Warley Tor as the main residence, but these were apparently never carried out. The site of the Tor today is a grass-covered quarry beside the golf course.
So, although it was never located in Birmingham Warley Woods was opened as a Birmingham public park in 1906. It quickly became a very popular place to visit and many thousands attended the opening ceremony by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham. At the opening ceremony Chance said: ‘I want it to be known as the People’s Park, for never was there a park in the Midlands before that was paid for directly by the money of the people’.
On summer bank holidays and at weekends, busloads of visitors travelled out from Birmingham to listen to the brass bands and picnic in the park. In July 1909 a Boy Scouts rally was held there, attended by General Baden Powell, with many thousands taking part or watching.
In 1914 the Abbey was used as a home for Belgian refugees. A number of features were added or donated to the park including an aviary, on the site of the car park by Abbey road, various drinking fountains, tennis courts and a bowling green. The Abbey was used as a popular tearoom for park users, and noted for its delicious cakes, which people would consume after a stroll around the rose garden. The Abbey also housed the golf professional who ran the public pay and play golf course established in 1921 on what had been the course of the private Edgbaston Golf Club.
The park superintendent from 1906-1935 was George Bretherick. He laid out a whole series of fashionable flowerbeds around the Abbey, with exotic plantings following an exhibition of ‘French Gardening’. He used the old walled kitchen garden for Warley Abbey as a plant nursery for the parks department and grew a number of exotic specimens in the glasshouses. This area was used for more than 60 years until the glasshouses were bulldozed in 1996
During the hey day of the Birmingham parks department the nursery employed 20 gardeners and apprentices growing a variety of plants and vegetables. William Powell was one of a group of invalided ex servicemen, who worked in the nursery and park after the First World War.
Just after the war it was used as a demonstration garden to show people how to grow different types of healthy and exotic vegetables including peppers and aubergines, and bags of tomatoes were sold at the back gate. The Nursery supplied cut flowers for the council house in Birmingham and put on a magnificent display of vegetables at the Handsworth Show each year. There was an orchard, a mushroom house and a fine series of steaming compost and leaf litter heaps, known as the brown hills.
Today, very few of the historic features have survived. The Abbey, Tor, gardens, ice house and glasshouses have all been demolished. In response to that lack of management by various councils, Warley Woods Community Trust has taken over management of the Park. The Trust, in keeping with the ideals of Alexander Macombe Chance and the people of 1906 Bearwood, are working to make Warley Woods, once again, the People’s Park.
For more historical information there are lots of books about Warley Woods, including three published by the Trust (two are still in print and available from the shop on this website).
Charity number: 1092754