During my lifetime (I was born in 1841) there lived an American who visited the town of Birmingham a number of times. This man was Washington Irving who became famous for the novels he wrote whilst visiting his sister and her husband in their houses in Birmingham. Here follows his story.
The American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) spent many years in Birmingham, first visiting at the end of the Napoleonic War, in 1815. He stayed with his sister Sarah, her husband, Henry van Wart, and their two sons and two daughters, one of whom was his god-child. They later told of how he would invent stories to entertain them and their friends.
van Wart, an American who became British by special act of parliament, was a businessman and politician, founder of the Birmingham Exchange, one of Birmingham’s first Aldermen and a director of the Birmingham Banking Company.
Irving lived with the van Warts first in Icknield Street West (formerly Ladywood Lane), then Camden Hill (now called Newhall Hill). Although neither house still stands, the former was half way between the Monument Lane Canal and Spring Hill Library, the latter on the corner of Legge Lane and Frederick Street. Irving christened each of these buildings “Castle van Tromp”. Irving later stayed with the van Warts at their subsequent homes, at 13 Calthorpe Street, Edgbaston, and “The Shrubbery” on Hagley Road. He is also known to have worshipped at St Paul’s Church in St Paul’s Square.
The Church of The Redeemer, Hagley Road, Edgbaston, was a Baptist church, built on land on the corner of Wyndham Road donated by local benefactor William Middleton. It was designed by James Cubitt and built in 1881/2, and opened on 24th May 1882, having cost £17,340 2s 8d to build. According to local tradition one of the chestnut trees in front of the church was planted by novelist Washington Irving, whose brother-in-law’s house “The Shrubbery” was formerly on the site. The Church of the Redeemer was demolished in the 1970s.
It is worth remembering that, when Irving was here, most of what we now know as Birmingham was countryside, with no railways and only the beginnings of the industrialisation that was to follow – Camden Hill would have been on the country edge of what we now know as the Jewellery Quarter, with many small workshops, but Icknield Street West was in countryside – Irving would probably have been aware of nearby Perrot’s Folly, although Edgbaston Reservoir, beside which it stands, was not made until 1825. Perhaps Irving also visited Boulton and Watt’s works a mile or so away, at Soho, or Boulton’s home, Soho House?
Irving toured England, Scotland and Wales during his stay here, meeting Coleridge and Walter Scott, and working on his collection of essays, “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.” (1819-20), including the famous story of Rip van Winkle, a story which he wrote through the night at the house in Camden Hill, reading it to his hosts over breakfast the next day, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which has recently been filmed.
His next book, “Bracebridge Hall, or, The Humorists, A Medley ” (1822), was inspired by his visits to Aston Hall. The hall was then occupied by James Watt Junior, whom Irving visited, but was previously owned by members of the Holte Family (the last Holte to own, but not live at, Aston, Charles Holte, had only one child, Mary, who married Abraham Bracebridge, who in turn became Charles’ tenant at Aston). There is also a Bracebridge Pool in Sutton Park. Irving’s notebook of 1818 includes such jottings as:
“Aston Hall. Gateway to the park. Lion Head Knocker. Studded nails, squirrel on top of gateway – gateway and porters lodge sheltered under trees… church spire rising above… Old oak gallery of great extent… figures of knights in armour with banners“.
An epitaph used in the book was “borrowed” from a gravestone in Handsworth parish churchyard.
Other works, including “Alhambra” (1832) and “Mahomet and his Successors” (published 1850, although finished much earlier) were drafted on his travels, and completed in Birmingham, which he continued to visit for many years.
To this day, Birmingham has an Irving Street, west of Bristol Street and parallel with Holloway Head, in the City Centre. About 250 yards away to the north is Washington Street.
Much of the material on this page was found in The Life of Washington Irving, by Stanley T. Williams, 1935, which is available, along with many other reference works about, and writing by, Irving, in The Library of Birmingham.