Smethwick Local History Society

Brief History of Smethwick


Why Smethwick? 

The name "Smethwick" derives from Anglo-Saxon and, although it was once thought to mean "the smith's dwelling", modern place-name experts interpret it as "The settlement on the smooth land".  As neither iron ore nor evidence of early metal working has been found in the area, this is more likely to be accurate.



Smethwick is something of an historical phenomenon.  Before the late 18th century it was an outlying hamlet of the South Staffordshire village of Harborne;  a district of scattered cottages and small farms, country lanes, heaths and woodland.  There were nailmakers and blacksmiths from at least the mid 16th century with "metal-bashing" skills which were later to become a major feature of the area.



In the 1760s it was decided that a canal should be cut through Smethwick to carry coal more speedily from the Black Country to the booming industries of Birmingham.  Three eminent civil engineers contributed to this:  firstly James Brindley in 1769, whose design was improved upon by John Smeaton in 1790, and finally Thomas Telford in 1829.  The canal was spanned by the elegant Galton Bridge (Grade I Listed), then the longest single-span bridge in the world.  The coming of the railway in 1852 alongside the canal, together with the availability nearby of raw materials such as coal and iron, explains why Smethwick became of such importance as a manufacturing centre.


In the late 18th century Birmingham entrepreneur Matthew Boulton was looking for a site for his expanding business interests and, in partnership with James Watt, established the Soho Foundry.  The foundations of one of James Watt's beam engines "The Smethwick Engine" can be seen in Bridge Street, Smethwick, while the engine itself will soon be on display at The Think Tank, Digbeth.Boulton and Watt were both members of the famous Lunar Society which met at Boulton's house nearby.  William Murdock, the pioneer of gas lighting, was the Chief Engineer at the Soho Foundry.


Because of its ready access by canal, rail and road, many other industries were soon attracted to the area including Guest Keen & Nettlefold, W & T Avery, Tangyes, Chances Glasswork and The Birmingham Railway Carriage & Wagon Works.  Smethwick's reputation for engineering continued to grow, as did the size of its population which by 1901 had grown astonishingly, from 1,097 in 1801 to 54,539.


Smethwick also contributed, surprisingly, to the world of fine arts.  Stained glass windows were produced by the Camm family, which still adorn many of our churches, and this tradition is still carried on today by the Hardman Studios who now occupy Lightwoods House (see the illustration on the "Home" page).  In the late 19th century William Howson Taylor set up The Ruskin Art Pottery Studio in Oldbury Road where highly original and distinctively glazed pottery was produced.  When the studio closed in 1935, the unique formulae were deliberately destroyed so that the glazes could not be reproduced.  For this reason, their value as collectors' items is guaranteed and examples regularly appear on the Antiques Roadshow.


Actress and national treasure Julie Walters was born in Bearwood.  Another famous connection is that ex-Prime Minster John Major's parents were married in Smethwick and were living in South Road while they were on tour with a music hall variety act. Christine Perfect of Fleetwood Mac fame attended Abby Road School and comedian Frank Skinner was born in in the locality.


Sadly 1966 the coat of arms became redundant when Smethwick lost its status as a single County Borough and was was absorbed into the new County Borough of Warley in Worcestershire.  In 1974 it became part of the newly-created Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council in the West Midlands, leaving many Smethwickians with a sense of loss and the feeling that their town had somehow been robbed of its previous significance.