From country estate to a place of learning, the Woodbrooke Centre in Selly Oak has a fascinating and varied history.
Built around 1830, Woodbrooke was originally the home of Sir Josiah Mason (1795 – 1881) and his wife Anne. Josiah Mason came from Kidderminster but made his fortune after he moved to Birmingham in 1816. He was involved in many different trades, but he became extremely successful in the steel pen nib manufacturing industry. At that time, Birmingham was an important centre of metal working and industry, producing three quarters of the world’s pen nibs amongst many other things. It was at this time that Birmingham became known as the ‘Workshop of the World’.
The original house was built within 70 acres of open countryside just south of Birmingham. The original building is within the part rendered and painted cream, where the main staircase and tiled floor is. This protective rendering was probably added because the brick was not of the highest quality. The custom at the time was to quarry the materials for bricks nearby and to produce one’s own bricks on-site. The likelihood is that the quarry was then landscaped to form the lake in the woodland area. Over the years, parts of the estate were sold off to leave the ten acres we have today.
In his later life, Josiah Mason became a great philanthropist with endowments to found an orphanage in Erdington and a new college in Birmingham, Mason Science College which opened in 1880. Mason Science College was originally situated next to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in Chamberlain Square and was later incorporated into the University of Birmingham in 1900. Neville Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin both studied at the college.
Josiah Mason went into a business partnership with George Elkington (1801-1865), a Birmingham-born manufacturer who patented the first commercial electroplating process. Through their partnership, Elkington, Mason, & Co. produced tableware, jewellery and beautiful writing pens to Victorian high society and royalty. Many of their items can be seen at the V&A Museum in London.
Josiah Mason sold Woodbrooke to George Elkington in 1839, who lived here with his wife Mary and seven children. They are recorded on the 1841 census as living here with three servants. Mary Elkington died in 1858 and was buried at St Mary’s in Selly Oak where stained-glass windows were later installed to her memory. George himself died in 1865, with his eldest son Frederick continuing to live at Woodbrooke and run his father’s successful silversmith business.
In 1881, Frederick Elkington sold Woodbrooke to another successful local businessman, George Cadbury. Before moving to Woodbrooke, George lived at 32 George Road in Edgbaston directly opposite the Edgbaston Quaker Meeting House. George had taken over his father’s chocolate business along with his brother Richard in 1861. At the time, the Cadbury’s had a factory on Bridge Street in the centre of Birmingham. Living conditions in the city were poor, with courtyard housing a common feature. The last remaining courtyard housing in Birmingham have been preserved by the National Trust as the ‘Back to Backs‘, so called because houses would either face the street or a rear courtyard and would back onto one another.
Perhaps influenced by the civic improvements of mayor Joseph Chamberlain in the 1870s, which saw swathes of slum clearances and improvements to living conditions, the Cadbury brothers made a decision to move their entire factory out of the city. Not only that, but they undertook the construction of new houses, schools and parks for its employees to enjoy. Construction of the new factory and village started in 1878, with the area eventually being called ‘Bournville’ after the small river Bourne that runs through it. Needing to be closer to the new factory, George moved to Woodbrooke in 1881 and lived here until 1894 when he moved to the Manor House nearby in Northfield.
The Woodbrooke Settlement
In the late nineteenth century, there was a growing sentiment to discuss traditional religious beliefs and how they may respond with the changing beliefs of younger generations within the Religious Society of Friends (known as Quakers). After the 1895 Manchester Conference, a movement within the Society began to organise summer schools that were to be both recreational and educational; the summer schools became opportunities where knowledge and experience could be shared through joint worship, creativity and relaxation.
John Wilhelm Rowntree (1868 – 1905) was a vocal proponent of having a more permanent home (‘settlement’) for the summer schools, convincing George Cadbury to allow Woodbrooke to be used as an initial experiment. The first students arrived in 1903.
Woodbrooke’s original trust deed specifies how it is to function and that its role is to allow Quakers and others:
- to receive instruction with regard to the Christian religion, especially as it bears upon the doctrines held by the members of the Society of Friends and in connection therewith receive and enjoy the benefit of practical training and experience in Christian work especially.
- study social and economic questions.
- study the classics and theological and philosophical and other branches of learning
- receive the benefit of spiritual and intellectual culture and intercourse or do any one or more of these things.
It was to a short course that Woodbrooke first opened its doors as a study centre for Friends. In the summer of 1903 six one-week courses were held in succession, attended by some 300 Friends altogether. Rufus Jones gave the opening lecture on ‘Present Day Ideas of God and the Spiritual Life’. The charge was 35/- per week. It was noted that ‘cycle accommodation for about 50 machines will be provided, and an attendant will be on duty to make small repairs at a moderate fee’.
Woodbrooke became an important part of the Quaker landscape in Birmingham, already well established with the Cadbury factory around the corner and several Friends Meeting Houses within walking distance. Woodbrooke built links with Birmingham University, offering a number of social work courses through the university, and forged even stronger connections through being the founder college in what became the Selly Oak Colleges Federation.Woodbrooke’s history is intertwined with the dynamic ecumenical spirit that pervaded the Selly Oak Colleges and made them such an attraction to progressive theologians and thinkers from across the denominations and around the world.
Because Woodbrooke was not formally affiliated to other Quaker organisations there was some suspicion that these young pioneers might turn into something of a liability. ‘I think we had a certain sense that Woodbrooke was somehow “on trial’’,’ recalls Ethel Heath, a student in the earliest years, ‘and that we were helping to create precedents and to make history, even though it might be on a very small scale.’
International and ecumenical links
Visitors from abroad were an important part of Woodbrooke’s history right from the start. Relationships were made with people from around the British Empire and these would become more and more meaningful as Quakers and those struggling for independence in India, Kenya and other colonies found much in common when they met at Woodbrooke.
Rendel Harris, the first Director of Studies, was resolved that Woodbrooke should not be an introverted Quaker institution. Neither the staff nor the students should be recruited exclusively from the Society of Friends. So long as they were sympathetic to Quaker beliefs, he would engage the best available scholars for the teaching posts at Woodbrooke, whatever their denomination.
First World War
Quakers have long upheld a testimony to peace, opposing all war. Many, however, experienced great inner conflict during the First World War, feeling that in this instance it was right to enlist and serve as soldiers. The variety of moral stances taken by Quakers was something Woodbrooke, as a community, had to contend with. It supported both conscientious objectors and uniformed men who visited or temporarily made their homes here. ‘It was strange how different avenues of service opened out for Woodbrooke year after year,’ remembers H. G.Wood of the war years. ‘It was part of a true catholicity, that we could shelter conscientious objectors, prepare men for alternative service and make a Christian gentleman like Arthur Bisseker, who felt it to be his duty to join up, feel welcome when he appeared amongst us in khaki. I like to discover in the same pigeonhole a letter from a conscientious objector under arrest and another from James Cunnison in training.’ Wood himself, whilst Director of Studies, spent four months with the Friends Ambulance Unit in France. Local eyebrows were sometimes raised at the assortment of people living here. The police maintained a close watch on the conscientious objectors whom they had to arrest from time to time. Wood remembers a not untypical kindness when ‘the Warden met a police officer coming down the drive about 10 am and said, “I suppose you are coming for one of my young men?” “Yes,” he answered and mentioned the name of the man he had come to arrest. “Oh,” said the Warden, “he left two hours ago in order to get married.” “Did he now,” said the officer, “let him enjoy himself, I’ll call again in a week’s time.”’
After the First World War
The return to civilian life was not always smooth for men and women who had been profoundly changed by their experience.William Wilson wrote wryly of the 1919 student intake remarking that ‘freedom was the watchword – freedom apparently from everything! These devotees of freedom, in their zeal to have something to be freed from, were driven to demand that even minor rules should be debated and that the student body decide what was to be taught and who was to teach it.’ A weekly student meeting (nicknamed the ‘Soviet’) resulted from this campaign. Later students did not always agree and eventually the older organisational structure prevailed, with the addition of a Woodbrooke house meeting.
Woodbrooke during the 1930s
Woodbrooke deepened its international connections throughout the 1930s, building on previous contacts abroad and making new ones. Horace Alexander, an expert in international relations as well as a forward thinking conservationist and ornithologist, was a lecturer at Woodbrooke. His international work brought him into contact with Mahatma Gandhi, of whom he became an admirer and friend. When Gandhi visited this country in 1931 he came to Woodbrooke where he was welcomed by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of the city, the Bishop of Birmingham and Midlands-based Indians alongside the entire Woodbrooke community. An eye witness recorded in the logbook ‘The common-room was crammed with people. Gandhi began his speech by telling why he had come to Woodbrooke. It was not a matter of business; it was a pilgrimage of gratitude. Last year, at a time when Gandhi and other principal leaders were in prison,Woodbrooke had spared Professor Alexander that he might go to India and study the situation. All news about the civil resistors was censored, and India needed more than ever a friend who would give the English people a true picture of their plight.’ That evening, in a more relaxed atmosphere, skills were shared when ‘Mr Alexander brought down his Indian spinning wheel, and tried to transmit his knowledge of this noble art to other Woodbrookers – but with little success. Mr Desai preferred an exchange lesson; he taught spinning, and in return was taught knitting.’
Second World War
Opinions amongst the Quaker community were again divided over the war. Amongst Quakers the horror of the Holocaust made Second World War a profound test of their pacifism. During these years Woodbrooke again welcomed refugees, conscientious objectors and others who were stranded unable to get home. Even so, harmony was maintained and unusual friendships were formed. ‘… a striking instance of the breaking down of barriers, was that of a French girl who came with a well founded detestation of Germans, for she had directly suffered from the invasion of France. She became abosom friend of a German girl. Many similar instances occurred. … scarcely anyone can have a term at Woodbrooke without coming to see that we all belong together and must be friends of one another.’
The police would arrive periodically about midnight to be sure that all the enemy aliens (who were not allowed to be away for a night without a permit) were on the premises. All had to be awakened and brought downstairs. ‘It was a little weird, in the half-lighted hall, to see the trim, uniformed, British police officers, checking on their list the circle of sleepy-eyed, slightly dishevelled aliens in their heterogeneous night clothes,’ recalls Edith Richards who lived here at the time. Around Christmas 1940 the chalet building became home to four evacuated Birmingham families who ‘settled in so well that they would like to have stayed “for the duration”!’ Woodbrooke suffered some bomb damage but none of the structure of the building was harmed. Air raids sent the Woodbrooke community into the cellars for safety, where knitting and other useful work was sometimes put aside to make time for parties, keeping up everyone’s spirits.
The aftermath of the Second World War
As Hugh Doncaster recalled, ‘some of the tensions of the war years reappeared after the close of the war. The emotional strain for some was great indeed and the searching and cleansing experience of reconciliation, slowly but surely achieved, was something in which the whole community shared. Many of our students came with spirits torn by
the ruthlessness of men: some who had lived for twelve years in Germany in opposition to Nazi ideals and practice and had suffered accordingly; some who had gone partly with the tide and been cruelly disillusioned; some who had undergone the horrors of concentration camps or lost their loved ones at the hands of brutal men. In the personal friendships of this community, in the search for enduring truth, and above all in the quiet of our daily worship, we were privileged to witness miracles of healing term by term.’