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A Very Short History of St Joseph's Church and School, Nechells by Richard Scott

"The present Mission of Nechells Green includes Aston, Ashted, Bloomsbury, Duddeston, Saltley, Witton and Ward End. All these in Catholic Times belonged to the parish of Aston, as also Deritend, Castle Bromwich, Park Hall, Water Orton and Erdington."

The above is the opening paragraph of a report on the St. Joseph's Mission, dated 1873. Over the forthcoming years, as we now know, other Catholic churches became established in many of the areas mentioned and are still present to this day.

Let us examine the area of Nechells a little further. There is no actual mention of Nechells in Doomsday Book. 

Nechells lies to the north east of Birmingham. It has seen many changes in the 800 years that people have lived here.

"The name of Nechells or Echels signifies a wood. The word ?echels? in German (of which Saxon is a branch) signifies what quercus does in Latin. One of the Barons of Dudley gave it to the family of Parles, along with some lands at Hannerworth, or Handsworth.

Osbert de Parle conferred all his lands here in Asselles, or Nechells, upon a natural son, called Raynald de Asselles. A descendant of his in 1330, for. ?42. He also gave the manor to Simon del Holte, of Birmingham, and his heirs, with whom it shared the fortunes of Aston. It was anciently a very pretty village, for in the 34th year of Edward III. Sir Thomas de Arden,a knight, built a mansion here, as appears by a license granted to him by Robert de Stretton, Bishop of the Diocese, to have a private oratory and a chaplain for himself and his family.

About the year 1730 Nechells consisted of four farms and one cottage." 

Birmingham had been a market town from the 12th century. The farmers in Nechells were able to sell their produce to the town dwellers. By 1760, all land in Nechells was "enclosed", except 10 acres at Nechells Green. There were three rivers bordering the area - the Tame to the north, the Rea to the east and Aston Brook to the west.
 Water was used to drive mills, initially to grind corn and later for industrial purposes. Thimble Mill used water from Aston Brook and was the first metal rolling mill in the city circa l740, but had been used for making blades since 1532. Edge tools were made at Benton's Mill. Another blade mill was Nechells Park Mill, started in 1693. Few traces of mills remain today, except in road names. Old Thimble Mill Lane 1881

In 1838, Nechells became part of the borough of Birmingham. With the rapid expansion of industries and higher wages these provided, people surged into the area (the Industrial Revolution)

Examples of the industries in the area were: brass foundries, button factories, the metal industry (guns, screws, tools, nails, etc) and jewellers. As well as large factories employing many people, there were workshops of various sizes, some being converted houses and only having a few workers.

The population of Birmingham as a whole was:

23,600 in 1750
73,670 in 1801
180,000+ in 1841
961,041 in 1991

The population of Nechells and Duddeston

9 farms and some cottages in 1758
30,000+ people by the 1850s
65,000 people in 1901
22,848 people in 1991 (Nechells only)

The most important local employer in the 19th century was the Gas industry; the new gas works being built at Nechells Green in the 1880s. Women made up a quarter of the work force. Children were also employed. In 1838 only a quarter of Birmingham children went to day school, as their wages were needed to help their families. In 1843, the average age of children starting work was 9 or 10 years, some being only 7 or 8 years.

The huge number of people coming to work in Nechells needed cheap accommodation. Many houses were quickly built close to the places of work. These were tightly packed streets of terraced, back-to-back houses, without bathrooms, indoor toilets, lighting and running water - all the things taken for granted today.
New industries that developed in the 20th century were of course, electricity, motorcar and bicycle manufacture, light engineering and machine tool manufacture. The Nechells area played host to factories involved in those industries.

By 1937, Nechells and Duddeston were the first areas in the city of Birmingham, to be identified as the subject of redevelopment. It was planned to remove housing environments from industrial areas. Building was started but delayed by the Second World War. The work finally began in 1950.


The type of toilet often shared by a number of families and found at the bottom of a communal courtyard. Communal toilet
Mangle and washing machine A mangle an a washing machine. Either of which would have been found at the rear of many houses. The mangle was still used by some families well into the 1950's
The slum dwellings were demolished and new tower blocks of flats were built, but as it is now realised, these were not the success first envisaged to be and are now slowly disappearing from the city. In 1989, Nechells, together with Duddeston and Bordesley again became a Redevelopment Zone - the area now called Heartlands. Once again, the area saw vast changes take place, changes which are still continuing today.

A typical doctors surgery


Doctors sugery

St Joseph's Church, 1850.

There is little doubt there were two main reasons for the emergence of St Joseph's. One being the need for a Catholic cemetery, the other being the population increase within the area, although it seems the cemetery may have been the initial aim.
The following is an extract from the Records of St Chad's Cathedral:

" The Burial Ground at St. Peter's Chapel, [Broad Street] which had been the sole place of interment for Catholics since 1826, had become so over used, that it became necessary to provide some new locality. Accordingly, a large piece of land, consisting of about 4 acres, was bought for ?1,000, in the parish of Aston, and dedicated for that purpose. 

Bishop Ullathorne

On Sept. 18th, 1850, the new Cemetery of St. Joseph, Nechells Green, was consecrated by Bishop Ullathorne, attended by twenty priests and the choir from St. Chad's, in surplices. All the Psalms were chanted. The service lasted two hours. There was a short sermon; and, fortunately, the weather was fine."

The chancel of St Joseph?s Church (where the altar is placed) was built as a chapel for the new cemetery in Thimble Mill Lane. It was in fact the first Catholic cemetery in Birmingham. 

The building was designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin,(1) who was involved in the planning of many fine churches, including St Chad?s Cathedral. Built in Bath stone, the total cost was ?800.00.

(1) (Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin 1812-1852)

Architect and Designer

Great Britain's foremost architect and designer of the nineteenth century. He was a man with extraordinary talent, verve and perspicacity. A man who believed in himself and harboured a passion for Gothic styles and the Catholic Church. )

The cemetery covered nearly 5 acres. It would seem that the site of the chancel had been criticised by some. It was thought it would have been better placed nearer Long Acre. However, on completion the view of it on all sides was unimpeded by surrounding buildings and Pugin's decision was justified. Pugin was to die two years later still a very young but already a famous architect.

On the 18th September 1850, the chapel and cemetery were consecrated by Dr W B Ullathorne (who was then Vicar Apostolic to the Midlands, but shortly afterwards to become the first Bishop of Birmingham).

The first burial was that of a Mary Caffrey, on the September 22nd, 1850. Rev. George Jeffries performed the service.

For 17 years, St Joseph's would be used as a mortuary chapel and for funerals for Catholics in the city. It also became a Mass centre, served by priests from the Cathedral.

During the early days the Gregorian chant, was revived by the Diocese. It was first used in a service at St Joseph's.

It is on record that the furniture for the church was barely sufficient for services. It consisted of a crucifix, 2 candlesticks, a missal, 3 altar cloths, a set of vestments, a chalice, a number of chairs and 2 benches.

The Industrial Revolution and the Irish immigration from the famine years of 1848/49 in Ireland had greatly increased the Catholic population in Birmingham, Nechells in particular. Italian immigrants also began settling in nearby St Bartholomew's ward from 1850 onwards.

Partially in consequence of the increasing population, early in 1867 it was decided to install a resident priest at St Joseph's. Other factors, which may have helped precipitate the move, were that the new cemetery at Witton, together with its Catholic chapel, was now complete. In addition, the burial area at St Joseph's was nearly full.

These factors, together with the already mentioned influx of Catholics into the area, prompted the experiment, (for that is what it was,) of posting the resident priest to St Joseph's, which, it must be remembered, was still only considered to be a chapel for the cemetery.

It is recorded, that on the "2nd March 1867 the temporary sacristy with its confessional, porch and sundry other conveniences, were completed at the cost of ?35.00. By Mr. McCarty, builder."

The following day the church formally opened with a children?s mass at 9.00am. There would appear to have been no night services as," The gas was not on."

On the 2nd April 1867, a set of "Stations of the Cross", were being raffled in Handsworth. Having been won by a Mr. Dunkley, he donated them to St Joseph's Church.

The church also received 17 benches by courtesy of several men who worked at the nearby Saltley Carriage Company. It would seem that working in their own time, they had made the benches from wood that had been purchased for the task.

A number of other people donated items to the church in the early days. Amongst the items were, Altar curtains, a set of large brass candlesticks, a Holy water vat and a statue of the Blessed Virgin. Parishioners made a tabernacle, safe and gas fittings.

On Easter Sunday the 21st April 1867, the sanctuary lamp was lit for the first time. The congregation was recorded as being 321 adults.200 children. Father (later Canon) William Greaney was the first resident priest. He performed the first marriage ceremony, on 13th July 1867.

The School, of which more will be said later, would be built at the side of the Church, and opened in 1868.
By 1870, the cemetery chapel was too small. Bishop Ullathorne gave his blessing for its extension. A Bazaar, lasting six days, was held in the Town Hall and raised ?656. The Pope, Pius IX, sent a cameo brooch to be raffled. The building of the nave was started in July 1871 and completed the following April. Bishop Ullathorne opened it on Friday 21st April 1872.

Edward W Pugin (Son of A W N Pugin) designed the church, in the early English style. The cost of the nave and adjoining presbytery was ?2658. There were two painted windows in the church, one by John Hardman, who had been involved with Pugin senior in the building of the chapel and St Chad?s Cathedral, the other by the Evans company of Smethwick.


The Victoria History of Warwick describes the church as follows.

Built in the style of the 14th Century, it is in two parts divided by two wide arches and is heavily buttressed on the North side, (The chancel)

The remainder of the church was designed by E W Pugin is also in Gothic style. The gabled west front built of brick with lavish stone dressing, has a projected porch above which is a Gothic opening containing a bell.

The 1877-78 census showed that there were approx. 2,200 Catholics in the parish. By 1885, the parish covered nearly 10 square miles.

In 1902, the reredos, (the paneling above the altar), was erected by the parishioners to commemorate the Silver Jubilee of Father (later Canon) Arthur L Chattaway, who was Parish Priest at St Joseph's from 1885 - 1922. This was to show the parishioners? high regard for their priest and their appreciation of his educational work in the Diocese.
The Centenary Celebrations were held on 21st April 1972, with a celebrated Mass led by the Most Rev George Patrick Dwyer, Archbishop of Birmingham.

During late 2000 and early2001 the interior of the Church has undergone considerable restoration. The formal ceremony to mark the restoration will take place in May 2002. 

Since its small beginnings, St Joseph's Church has served the people of Nechells well for 150 years.

chStJosephs.jpg (89540 bytes)

Parish Priests of St Joseph's Church

Father Rev Gerry McArdle

Father Gerry McArdle current Parish priest who has been at the Church since 1994.


Priests from St Chad's 1850-1867.
William Greaney 1867-1877
James Whanlon 1877-1885
Arthur L Chattaway 1885-1922
John Rowan 1922-1924
Walter Poulton 1924-1947
Reginald Slade 1947-1957
Anthony Timlin 1957-1968
John J Donnelly 1968-1973
Francis E Gwinnett 1973-1981
Patrick Joyce 1981- 1985
Samuel Frederick Penney 1985-1992
Geoffrey Hargreaves (priest in charge) 1992-1994
Francis Gerard McArdle 1994- Present

Father Reginald Slade
Father Reginald Slade
Parish priest at St Josephs 1947 - 1957

Assistant Priests
Hugh Taylor 1877-1888
John Nock 1878-1884
Francis McCarrick 1884-1885
Thomas Can 1885-1890
Thomas Hanley 1891-1898
George Mesher 1898-1900
Michael O'Hagen 1900-1908
John Budgen 1908-1912
Jeremiah Crowley 1912-1913
Charles Barnes 1913-1920
William Bebbington 1920-1922
Martin Power 1922-1923
Denis Murphy 1923-1931

William Matthews 1931-1933
Richard Roche 1933-1935
John Nolan 1935-1941
Patrick Smith 1941-1943
Henry Bouchier 1943-1948
George Smith 1947-1948
Edmund Motherway 1948-1954
John Kiley 1954-1957
Patrick Downey 1959-1960
James Walsh 1960-1961
Peter Gallagher 1963-1965
Alexander McGavin 1965-1967
Nicholas Folan 1969-1971

Priests Ordained from the Parish

Canon Wheatley
Father D McEvilly
Father S Carney, S C T
Father J Carney, S C T
Father C Rafferty

St Joseph's RC School, 1867 onwards

For several years, prior to 1867, a Mrs Jane Wheatley had kept a school at her house. On Sundays she would allow all the catholic children to meet there after mass. Mr Smallwood, Miss Wheatley and Miss Smallwood taught them. Mr Joseph Rigby would later join them. At this time, the visiting priest would also tutor the pupils with catechism instruction. An average attendance would consist of about 35 pupils.

Mrs Wheatley's son would eventually become the Very Rev Dean Wheatley. She died on 22nd January 1901, aged 85 years and is buried in the family vault in St Joseph's cemetery.

In the 19th century, schools were not given any money from the Government - all building work and teachers' wages had to be paid by the community or by sponsors.

It is clear that the need for a school within the area had been identified. On the 2nd April 1865 door to door collections began to raise funds in order that one could be established. By April 14th 1867 some ?115.7s.6p (?115.37 1/2p) had been raised.

On his arrival in the parish, Father Greaney was presented with this money, together with a plan for a school that would cost ?200.00 to build. Further support from senior diocesan clergy ensured that a school would be built.

The school was built at the side of the Church, with an entrance from Long Acre. The school opened on 7th July 1868 and consisted of two schoolrooms. Fifty pupils enrolled. The cost of the building, with accommodation for teachers, was ?1,000.Within a short time it was decided that the priest should in fact use the house that had been set-aside for the teachers. This, being for security reasons. It has to be remembered that a number of anti-Catholic riots did occur in Birmingham around this time. St Chad?s did receive damage to windows in one such attack.

It is clear that money was raised from many areas in an effort to fund requirements that the school needed. One story tells of Mr Rigby winning a grand piano in a raffle. It had previously belonged to an Amateur Harmonic Society. He gave the piano back to be re-raffled, the proceeds going towards the purchase of a harmonium for the church.

The Sisters of Charity of St Paul the Apostle founded and ran many Catholic schools in the Midlands. Their Mother House had been opened at Selly Park in 1864, at the request of Bishop Ullathorne.

The Sisters were asked to come to St Joseph's. They lived in the Convent at 143 Nechells Park Road from 13th July 1868 until it was closed on the 24th December 1953. The two sisters who were currently teaching at St Joseph?s continued to do so but now resided at St Chad?s Convent. the first Headmistress was Mother Regis and the Sisters would continue teaching in the School until 1966.
The Sisters of Charity of St. Paul the Apostle were established in France in 1710. Their Mother House being near to the Cathedral of Chartes.

Mademoiselle de Sully, a descendent of one of Henry IV Ministers, founded them. She never actually joined the order, as one of three sisters; she died soon after its commencement.

The order went through some difficult times seeing the loss of the motherhouse during the French revolution. They would never return to this property. Later however, Napoleon, then First Counsel provided them with an old monastery for their use.

After a slow beginning and very hard work and good support from other areas of the church, their numbers soon rose. 


Reverand Mother Genevieve Dupuis

The Order was introduced to England in 1847. One of two sisters who arrived was Sister Zoile (Genevieve) Dupuis, who, would be the Mother Superior at Selly Park, when the order took up their duties at St Joseph's School.
Over the forthcoming years supporters and staff at the school, like the church, resorted to all manner of fund raising to support the school and its necessary equipment. After one such bazaar it is recorded that the school made ?656.00 after expenses. 

In 1870, the school was extended, as there were many more pupils. The classrooms were level with Long Acre and built on arches, which provided a covered playground for the pupils. The arches were eventually utilised and made into classrooms. The fees in 1874 were ld - 4d (I/2p - 2p approx.) per week and over half the places were free.

In 1877, the school was divided into 3 separate departments - Infants, Girls and Boys, each with its own Head-teacher. The school's needs continued to expand, by 1896, Father Chattaway commissioned a single storey building to be built at the Thimble Mill Lane entrance to the Church. This was originally the Boys' School and remained there until demolished in May 1998 for road widening.  The Dentists chair
From 1902, Church schools were given financial help and so the Parish Priest was no longer responsible for teachers' salaries. 

The Headmistress of the Girls' School was Mother Dunstan, who was at the school from 1900 - 1930. Sister Marie was Head of the Infants for a similar period (1903 - 1936). Mr Andrew Kinsella was Headmaster of the Boys' school for 30 years until his untimely death in 1918.

Boys School Mr Meehan became Headmaster of the Boys' School after Mr Kinsella. During this time, 

Nechells was subject to slum clearance and people were moved away. The numbers of pupils dropped drastically. During the war years, pupils were evacuated out of the city. When Mr. Meehan retired the depleted Boys' and Girls' Schools were amalgamated under Sister Margaret, who had been Headmistress of the Girls' School since 1934. She retired in 1950, by which time there were only 111 pupils on roll. The Boys' School building was used as an annexe for the younger pupils.



Infant Class 1930. Only one pupil identified to date.Mary Lyden. 2nd from left.3rd row.

Infant Class

The Second World War, 1939 - 1945

When war was declared, St Joseph's parents had already been told of the Evacuation Plans for their children, a rehearsal for which was held on 28th August 1938. On Ist September, only 19 Infants arrived. The party set off to Hartshome village, near Burton-on-Trent, where they stayed with families.

Birmingham suffered many air raids. In August 1940, the raids were particularly heavy and attendance at school the next day was not always possible. On 26th August, bombs went off in the cemetery, but the school was not damaged.

In October 1940, the raids were very heavy in the district, and so school was closed for 2 weeks Autumn Holidays. School closed again in late November, during the Government Evacuation of children, this time to Wilnecote, near Tamworth. Those remaining were only to attend school for a short time, as there were water shortages, following severe raids. Other children were taught at houses in the district.

In January 1941, heavy snowfalls and a shortage of coke for the boiler caused School to be closed again. This occurred again the following January. More raids again threatened the city in July 1942. The school had its own air raid shelter, built in the Infants' playground, for use in daytime raids. 

Rocky Lane Methodist Chapel was bombed. This was on the corner of Rocky Lane and Cromwell Street, opposite the present St Joseph's School.

Despite all of these problems, there were still medical and dental inspections, inoculations given against diphtheria. The school was painted and decorated; Christmas parties and School concerts and sports afternoons were held as usual. The HM Inspectors visited the school in November 1941, January 1943 and April 1944. As one past pupil said of the time "St Joseph's School was always normal and stable whatever turmoil was happening in the outside world".

When school reopened in January 1944, attendance was much improved - 91 children were present out of 99 in the Infants.

In November 1944, the children who had school lunches provided would go to Charles Arthur Street Canteen together with a teacher, as St Joseph?s did not have any facilities. Most of the other children lived close enough to go home for lunch. 

Finally, peace came to Britain. On 8th and 9th May 1945, School was closed for VE Day Peace celebrations. School was again closed for the visits of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (now the Queen Mother) on 7th November 1945

In 1953 St Joseph's became an aided school. For many years the buildings were in poor condition - the Infants' School had no hot water supply; only an open fire for heating; inadequate lighting; 2 classrooms sub-standard in size; few, very old (outside) toilets shared by all the pupils. There were up to 50 children in a class.

The Birmingham Development Plan stated, ? The school is scheduled to be closed, but owing to a large number of children in the area it is possible it will remain open for some time." The HM Inspectors' Report 1955. commented that ?there were 167 pupils in 4 classes?.

By 1961, there were 9 classrooms. Senior pupils attended St Joseph's until LEA reforms took effect. Thereafter, from 1963 Leigh Road School, Washwood Heath took pupils from the age of 11. The Infants and juniors were amalgamated into one school in 1963.

In 1968, under Bishop Emery's direction, a new school was built in Rocky Lane. This was completed and the first pupils moved in on 27th April 1969. The Head-teacher was Mr Peter Whittle and joining the staff were 3 Marist sisters and a sister from the Holy Child Convent. The Blessing and formal opening of the school took place on 9th December 1970 in the presence of the Most Rev George Patrick Dwyer.

This modern, airy building, with lots of windows and space was very different to the original building, which was demolished in the 1970s. The school was enlarged in 1992 when a Library and more office space were created at the front of the school.

In 1998, St Joseph's passed both the Catholic and the OFSTED Inspections. The School has regularly been inspected and has always passed, even when the environment was very poor.

A past pupil says of St Joseph's "The single most enduring influence in my life: my school. We were poor, we were underprivileged, the school was ill-equipped, the classes were large but the teachers worked flat out to give us grounding for life. I developed a love of learning there. Above all, we were a Catholic School, with Catholic values".

The following are a few comments taken from the Head-teacher's diary from the period 1925 to 1983.

11.1.32. School re-opened.122 children present out of 156.Whooping cough mainly responsible for absences.

24.5.33. Empire Day celebrated. Longer play allowed in afternoon. Union Jack drawn, cut and mounted and taken home by pupils. National Anthem sung before dismissal.

27.9.39. A few parcels of clothing received from voluntary sources and distributed to needy cases.

19.8.40. Medical Inspection this morning by Doctor Wilson. Only 19 present on account of air raids on Saturday and Sunday. Number of air raids this week 5. Present this afternoon 34 absent 31.

23.1.46. Snowfall. 54 children absent. 55 present. Teachers still absent. Temperature 42 degrees am. 50 degrees dinnertime.

6.11.51. Nurse Dixon carried out routine inspection today. Only two children had to have notes. Standard of cleanliness is very high.

30.3.55. Attendance the last two weeks very low on account of, Measles and Mumps.

13.12.60. Thick fog today has affected school attendance, which dropped to 103.

4.2.74. Driver Higgs British Rail. Anti vandal talk.

2.11.77. Mr Webb's presentation- retiring on Nov. 7th after 34 years service as caretaker- presented with portable TV and licence. Class 5 & Infants performed vocally for him- thirty parents attended. Sister Margaret returned.

19.4.82. School looks in very poor condition. No sign of children's work displayed. No colour in school.

A copy of an education report on St Joseph's Infant school.

Dated 7.4.38.



Copy of Report of H.M. Inspector, Mr.J.A.Barrow, after visit paid on 9th November, 1937.


Head Mistress Sister A Deurst.

1. Slum clearance in the neighbourhood of this school has caused a fall 

in numbers from 124 to 78 in little over two years

2. The Head Mistress and her two assistants are whole-heartedly devoted to the welfare of the children, the happy. atmosphere and successful attention to social training, which was the subject of favourable comment in the last report, are still praise-worthy features of this pleasant little school. .The children apply themselves with noteworthy willingness to all their tasks and while the former satisfactory standard in fundamentals is fully maintained

3. It is pleasing to 'report that the emphasis on formal work is less marked and an adequate "balance with the lighter aspects has been established. Not only are the children enjoying increased opportunities of self-expression by means of dramatic work story telling and recitation, but the widening of the scope in Handwork and Art has also helped in this direction.

It is suggested that the furnishing of the reception room might be given consideration, 

Chief Education Office


I hope the foregoing has been of interest. I can be contacted for further information 
Email Richard Scott.



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