Observatory Mansions – a history of a bedsit

Alexandra House, Stourbridge
Alexandra House, Stourbridge

As a geography student at Kings College London, it’s difficult to get very far without studying gentrification. It’s a huge topic, worthy of a post in itself, but suffice to say the economic drivers that push social change like gentrification are not often present in the unusual landscapes of decline found in the Black Country. One of the exceptions and examples of true, natural gentrification (without municipal promotion) is Stourbridge’s old quarter, but even that has its physical limits. The question of why and how somewhere particular will gentrify is a fraught one. I was musing about this after looking at a building I pass almost every day – beautiful, striking even, but affected so completely by modernisation round about it that it has no chance of being snapped up by an enthusiastic young couple and gentrified.

What is now 24 Enville Street is found on the earliest OS town plan of Stourbridge in 1884, but not on the the previous town centre plan from 1837. A lot happened in those years, of course, and Stourbridge swelled, particularly to the green and pleasant West. Land once owned by the ironmaster James Foster and a Robert Scott was parceled off and all the gaps in the ribbon of houses along Beauty Bank (later renamed Enville Street) were filled in. Judging by the heavy architectural style, my guess is that Enville Villas were completed during the 1860s, sandwiched between an older row of 5 small terraces to the West, and another set of villas, Union Terrace, to the East.

24 Enville Street, Stourbridge © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. 1884.
24 Enville Street, Stourbridge © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. 1884.

With the Friend’s Meeting House and some large gardens to its rear, and Scott’s school close by, Enville Villas sat proud in their surroundings for many years. The tall building is situated higher than the town centre and its view would have had changed considerably. Although the road layout remained similar, the large gardens to the South were swallowed up by rows of terraced housing and factories; to the North, the open land between the Quakers and the canal was filled in by classic council semi-detached houses, including one on Turney Road with a plaque to commemorate the Borough’s 10,000th.

As befits its imposing size but limited grounds, Enville Villas were typically occupied by upper-middle class professionals. 1881 found one Henry James living there – not the author, but a Stourbridge born, bred and married bank manager with a frankly huge household of six daughters, four sons and two local servant girls. That was in no.1; no.2 was unoccupied. In 1891 we find William Goddard, a schoolmaster born in King’s Somborne, a rather beautiful Hampshire village on the river Test, which I know well since my parents lived there until recently. By 1901 they too had been replaced, this time by Rev George Gatlin, an Anglican clergyman of Kentish origin, along with a wife, cook and 4 year-old son George, later Sir George Catlin: political scientist and philosopher, Cornell professor, Fabian, husband to feminist and pacifist Vera Brittain, father of ‘Gang of Four‘-er Baroness Shirley Williams (topical, as this week has seen the successor party of the SDP hold its conference).

Enville Villas, 1881 census enumerator's book (c) The National Archives
Enville Villas, 1881 census enumerator’s book (c) The National Archives
Enville Villas, 1891 census enumerator's book (c) The National Archives
Enville Villas, 1891 census enumerator’s book (c) The National Archives
Enville Villas, 1901 census enumerator's book (c) The National Archives
Enville Villas, 1901 census enumerator’s book (c) The National Archives

At some point around the 1920s the house was converted into the private Alexandra House School For Girls – the name Alexandra can still be found on the building. Mr and Mrs Brady ran the school and taught French; Miss Simkis and Miss Granger taught the infants; Mrs Forest taught English; and Miss Tissington of Stourbridge’s Queen’s College taught the invaluable Country Dancing. It remained in use as a school at least to the 1950s, when the bottom left flat was also used by Dr Martin as a surgery – it features as such on OS maps of the time.

Alexandra House School for Girls, c1930s. Photo from Stourbridge.com
Alexandra House School for Girls, c1930s.
Photo from Stourbridge.com

As with the death of the hippy ideal, the big change came in 1969. By this time the cottages to the West had gone and the house overlooked two new tower blocks, so the Modern world was approaching, but in that year the Stourbridge ring road destroyed the terraces alongside, leaving the house isolated.

1972Enville Street
Alexandra House, Enville Street, Stourbridge © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2015). All rights reserved. 1972.
Alexandra House, c. late 1970s. Photo via Black Country Bugle.
Alexandra House, c. late 1970s.
Photo via Black Country Bugle.

Since then, times have gone from tough to worse for this once-magnificent residence. A new section of Enville Street was built behind Alexandra House (rather than to the fron, where the white car is in the photo above), surrounding it with multi-lane roads. It’s turrets still loom, but the brickwork has seen better days; the paintwork is crumbling, the side doors are boarded up, a private communal garden is surrounded by thickets of brambles. It’s now 15 bedsits, at about £235pcm – the building sold in 2012 for £545k. I can’t help but think it must not be the most joyful place to live.

The title of this post comes from a rather wonderful novel by Edward Carey, about a house built in isolation and gradually boxed in then cut off until it was isolated as a last bastion of the old world standing, in rags and tatters, against the forces of modernisation. It’s a beautiful and eery book, and I always think of it when I see Alexandra House/Enville Villas/24 Enville Street now. Here’s a house that will never be gentrified, never make sick people well again, never hear the shouts of an infant class running Miss Simkiss ragged. I find its persistence from, if not a pre-modern, then a pre-Modern era, fascinating but a little sad too.

Alexandra House School for Girls on the Stourbridge Ring Road

Stourbridge - Back Of The Alexandra House School for Girls Building on the ring road

14 thoughts on “Observatory Mansions – a history of a bedsit

  1. I have an interest in gentrification in the Black Country in terms of family names. Industrialists working their way up on the backs of the working poor.

    The building name of Alexandra House was in use before 1911, as an advert appears for a Boarding and Day School for Girls, Principal Miss F Burford…

    “Sound general education for moderate terms…preparation for Cambridge Local and other examinations….Weekly and Daily Boarders received.”

    Perhaps it was around this point that the building became named as Alexandra House?

    I have a little confusion concerning the term “Beauty Bank”.

    Enville Street appears as an address in Stourbridge as early as 1864, as does Beauty Bank.


    1. Thanks for that as always! That definitely sounds like a starting point for the School – will dig into the 1911 census and see what I can find.
      Re Beauty Bank, good point – I think I phrased it badly. It’s definitely Beauty Bank in this map in 1837: http://www.oldstourbridgemaps.kjdocs.co.uk/. It’s definitely Enville Street by the time of the OS plan. When it changed officially I have no idea; I would guess that it took time for people to get used to so there would have been a lot of overlap between say postal use and oral use.


  2. The Licensing Meeting in 1859 shows applications by John Lavender, Beauty Bank and Thomas Haslock Richards, Enville Street.

    In 1863 there was a Beauty Bank House owned by Joel Maurice, and in 1917 the same named house is address for Captain GG Lowndes.

    In 1894 the Bridge Inn was down as Beauty Bank.

    As it seemed that both address were viable I have looked into the 1871 census and indeed Enville Street is listed and running into Beauty Bank. It seems that the names change at some point.


    1. This is great stuff, thanks Pedro. There’s still a Beauty Bank Crescent off Enville Street, but also a Beauty Bank in Cradley – I’ve no idea what the name refers to? Enville Street is hardly a beautiful hill these days…


  3. There may be a chap here who is in the process of gentrification.

    A certain Joel Maurice gets several mentions in the Press, a manager and agent for the Ironworks.
    In the 1861 census he is at 45 Enfield Street, but in 1871 he is at Beauty Bank House!

    I will check if anything else can be found. In 1863 he is a director in the new Staffs Rolling Stock Co!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dr Greenwood was my doctor in the 1940s/1950s. He lived in the left hand side of the house and had his surgery in the basement. He was a lovely man. I think that he brought his family over from Germany and anglicised their name from Gruenbaum. (My spelling may be wrong). His son Max was also a doctor.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a theory concerning Beauty Bank.

    Although it is difficult at times to follow the routes of the enumerators in the censuses, as they sometimes knocked off for dinner and started somewhere else, I think the present Beauty Bank Crescent may give a clue. Also there is a sale of desirable property in 1845 at Beauty Bank…

    …All those 8 well-built and substantial Dwelling Houses with Brewhouse, Nailshops, gardens and other appurtenances thereto belonging, situate at Beauty Bank in the township of Stourbridge and very near the Iron Works of James Foster…

    If you take the OS Map for 1884 I believe that Beauty Bank was the lane that wound its way from Enville Street northwards from near the Bridge Inn towards the Iron Works and then parallel to Enville Street to emerge back near High Street. Most of it would not have property until you were approaching the town. There is also a mention of a school in Beauty Bank.

    Above this area there is Park House that was owned a chap called Amery, a banker and Magistrate. This house is not referred to as Beauty Bank.

    I may be quite wrong, but it is there to be shot at!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Your (collective) history is interesting and informative. I have a technical interest (energy assessment to meet recently introduced regulations) and have assumed that Nos 24 and 26 Enville Street (Enville Villas/Alexandra House) were originally built as a pair of semi-detached ‘gentleman’s residences’. Their history as a school and in parts a doctors surgery suggests to me that it is possible that their original design was as apartments rather than two complete family houses. Are you able to offer any additional insight?

    I also find it a little odd that this structure remains unlisted.


    1. Hi Grahame. Difficult to say for sure – each of the census returns has only the one family living in each, so I had assumed single residences that were later converted to school/surgery use. But the uses may well have been concurrent, so I wouldn’t like to say for sure.

      Re the listing, I agree. Perhaps I ought to petition for a blue plaque for George Catlin…


  7. I can see Alexandra House from my kitchen window I notice it now has two sky lights recently added and to my mind spoil the look of the building Should this have been allowed? I’m aware they are apartments


      1. I lived there for a few years in the early noughties. I recall being told that the building also used to be an auction house at some point in its history. The landlord at the time attempted to get the building listed in order to preserve it after he had sold it, such was his respect for it!


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