On a recent trip to Birmingham I asked for information on Bournville in a tourist information office, writes Julian Holder. The assistant looked blank and gave me leaflets for the Cadbury World theme park. There is, of course, a certain irony in this, as history is re-presented to us as heritage with inconvenient bits of the past left out. Hopefully, Michael Harrison's excellent new book will encourage more people to put down their creme eggs and see this golden one in Birmingham's suburbs more clearly.
In contrast to the somewhat contrived contemporary development at Port Sunlight, the housing at Bournville always seems more 'real' and less managed, for all its acres of well-maintained gardens. Only a few designers were responsible for it: chiefly W A Harvey, and his successor as architect to the trust in 1904, H Bedford Tylor. Half-timbered or Voysey-esque were the chief stylistic traits, combined with picturesque planning. The demolition and re-siting of a few genuine Tudor half-timbered houses fostered the impression of a pre-industrial community.
After 100 years Bournville is now fully developed and occupied by a largely elderly population. With excellent archive photographs, and a good bibliography and notes, Harrison tells its story, from its foundation by the Quaker businessman George Cadbury in 1897, via the handover to the Bournville Village Trust, to its current plans for a new garden suburb near Telford. It is a fascinating tale: for instance, in the policies which, unusually, included home purchase even before the First World War.
Beyond continuing to provide good quality homes, Bournville, like many subsequent developments of this type, is an important but fragile historic environment. If Harrison's book encourages people to see it as more than the adjunct to a theme park, it will have achieved a great deal.
Julian Holder is an architectural historian