Monday, July 2, 2012

Family Home to Museum : Family History #2

Charles James and Florence Beatrice Simmons 
My husband’s grandparents were both English politicians.  Jim’s grandfather, Charles James Simmons represented various constituencies in the Birmingham area, and his grandmother  Florence Beatrice Simmons was an alderman in Birmingham City Council  in the 1940’s to 1950’s.( they were known as Jim and Beatrice). Their individual stories take more than a blog entry to cover – in fact, Jim’s (Charles James)  autobiography, The Soap Box Evangelist, tells his story while  he was a member of the  House of Commons  and a conscientious objector in khaki during World War 1. So, this blog post focuses on the fascinating story of their house at 20 Slack Lane ( corner of Slack Lane and College Road, Handsworth)  which we visited recently.
20 Slack Lane ( corner of Slack Lane and College Road, Handsworth, Birmingham 
 Known as the Handsworth Town Hall, the former  home of the Simmons family  is now a museum operated by the Handsworth Historical Society  It was once the Constable’s House, which also acted as an assize court ( periodic criminal court ). The house has been maintained not only because of its age and history  but especially because of its medieval architectural feature –  a cruck  oak timber frame construction.  What is a cruck frame? Basically, the frame is made of naturally curved timbers, but here is a better description of 20 Slack Lane ….
Cruck Timber Construction. 
 There is no better description of the building itself as that of Mr. Bernard A. Porter,  who says in his notes for the Birmingham Architectural Association Survey in 1932:( from Handsworth Historical Society) 
"This building is one of the very best early examples of the rare "CRUCKS" method of timber frame construction to be found in this country. 
The writer had never read a description of a better one, nor has he seen one quite so good in drawings, or photographs, or by personal observation.  The curved oak timbers, forming the crucks, have never been cut to shape, the bend being perfectly natural, as the grain clearly shows, and the grain at the base is practically upright. The natural bend for so large a timber must be considered as very great, especially when it is remembered that the trunks of oak trees grow almost vertical. 
The whole structure is known to have been originally one house - or Hall - and was erected about AD.1460. Much of the brickwork along the two sides is of more modern repair work, especially on the north side, which was the main front. The original brick filling was put in about 1625, when the structure is known to have undergone repairs, and the chimney against the east gable added. 
The building is completely timber framed in every way, and walls and such like served no other purpose than as a filling to keep out the wind and the rain, or to screen one apartment from another. 
Jim Simmons, grandson of Charles James Simmons
with Handsworth Historical Society Secretary, Pat. 
It would appear to have always been a two storied building, Massive oak beams, eight, nine and eleven inches square, with moulded angles, span from timber frame to timber frame, and support the exposed and chamferred joists of the upper floor, and the ridge piece is of special interest as it is formed of an eight inch oak beam turned at an angle and lodged in a shallow notch at the meeting of the crucks which serve the purpose of principal rafters".
Jim and cousin Mark Simmons, in upstairs bedroom. 
More interestingly perhaps are the stories about the house – Oliver Cromwell is said to have slept once in the front bedroom. There was supposed to have been a resident ghost, and a secret passage which none of Jim’s family remember. There of course,  Jim Simmons wrote his book and many a constituent came to to plead a housing cause with the Chairman of the Housing Committee, Beatrice Simmons. 
Staircase , 20 Slack Lane 
What the Simmons’ cousins do remember is having to help their grandmother polish the horse brasses, and after school being allowed up to their grandfather’s office and lying on the chaise lounge falling asleep to the sound of him tapping on his typewriter keys. 
Charles James ( Jim) Simmons, MP, Minister for Pensions at work in his home office. 
My husband, Jim  was only three when his family left England, so while he has few memories, the last photo of them all in England was taken alongside the fireplace where his sisters were remembered for entertaining the family with little concerts on Boxing Day, for the traditional Simmons family get together.
Fireplace in front room, 20 Slack Lane 
Simmons Family, before Don and Rosie and children Pat, Chris and Jim leave for Australia. 
We spent a really interesting, educational, uplifting and emotional day visiting Jim's grandparents' home, seeing the garden Jim's dad and uncles built, reliving special times with cousin Mark and his parents, Pete and Marie Simmons, learning more about family and social   history and  reconnecting with family. 
Mark in the back garden , 20 Slack Lane 
Simmons Family at front door, 20 Slack Lane 

Mark and Jim Simmons, cousins and family historians. 

PS : I would be happy to hear from anyone who has a story related to this house, or has some recollection of the Simmons family who lived in Handsworth Brimingham. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Wilma, just popping in to say, I lost my old blog!!AhhEeek!!
    Your bloglist may have to be amended to NEW BLOG
    It is almost the same as the other one.I lost my followers, bloglist.Trying to remember all those I had as followers to let them know.


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