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.