01 July 2023
Three buildings, three sculptures,
in the Bull Ring in Birmingham
I have regularly passed through Birmingham throughout my life, usually by train, usually on my way to or from Lichfield or Birmingham Airport. I have taken part in workshops there with USPG, and visited the two cathedrals and many of the city’s churches. I have stayed there a few times too, as well taking part in seminars and conferences in colleges in Selly Oak.
Yet, in all those years, it seems I have not taken enough time to appreciate Birmingham’s history, architectural legacy and sculptures. I seem to have taken Birmingham for granted on too many occasions.
I was in Birmingham again last week, on my way to and from Wednesbury, and to see the now-closed Holy Trinity Church in Bordesley. So I took a little extra time last week to appreciate three buildings and three sculptures in the Bull Ring and close to New Street Station.
The Bull Ring is the major shopping area in central Birmingham and its market was first held there dates back to the Middle Ages.
Two shopping centres were built in the Bull Ring area, in the 1960s, and then in 2003. Today, the Bullring and the linked Grand Central form Britain’s largest city centre shopping centre, known as Bullring & Grand Central.
The three buildings I looked at with a fresh pair of eyes last week are Saint Martin’s Church in the Bull Ring, the Rotunda and the Selfridges Building.
Saint Martin in the Bull Ring is the original parish church in the centre of Birmingham, and it stands between the Bull Ring Shopping Centre and the markets.
When the new town of Birmingham was developed at the time of the Market Charter of 1166, Peter de Birmingham may have moved his manor house to the Moat Lane site and built Saint Martin’s as a new church.
The present Victorian church was built on the site of a 13th century predecessor, which dated from 1263 or earlier. The church was enlarged in mediaeval times, with a lofty nave and chancel, north and south aisles and a north-west tower with a spire. By the mid-16th century, the church had a clock and chime maintained by the Guild of the Holy Cross at an annual cost of four shillings and four pence.
John Cheshire rebuilt 40 ft of the spire in 1781, which was strengthened by an iron spindle running up its centre for a length of 105 ft. It was secured to the sidewalls at every 10 ft by braces. Several metres from the top of the spire were replaced in 1801, when they were found to have decayed. The tops of the four pinnacles surrounding the main spire were also rebuilt. By 1808, the spire had been struck by lightning three times.
The brick casing was removed from the tower in 1853 by Philip Charles Hardwick, who added the open-air pulpit.
The church was demolished in 1873 and rebuilt by the Birmingham architect Julius Alfred Chatwin (1830-1907), who retained the earlier tower and spire. During the demolition, mediaeval wall paintings and decorations were found in the chancel, including one showing the charity of Saint Martin dividing his cloak with a beggar. Two painted beams were also found behind the plaster ceiling.
The exterior is built of rock-faced Grinshill stone. The interior is of sandstone with an open timber roof, which shows the influence of the great hammerbeam roof of Westminster Hall, where Chatwin had worked under Charles Barry and AWN Pugin. Chatwin also enlarged Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, in 1884-1888.
The beams are decorated with fine tracery and end in large carvings of angels. The roof weights 93 tons (94.5 tonnes), spans 6.7 metres over the 30.4 metre long nave and is 18.2 metres high.
The Victorian floor tiles are by Minton and display the quartered arms of the de Bermingham family.
From east to west, the length of the church is 47 metres (155 ft), including the chancel, the arch of which rises to 18 metres (60 ft).
The Pre-Raphaelite window in the South Transept by Sir Edward Burne-Jones was made by William Morris in 1875. The West window is a copy made in 1954 of the window made by Henry Hardman in 1875 and destroyed in the Blitz.
The mediaeval-style stone statues on the north and west fronts were designed by Chatwin and sculpted by Robert Bridgeman’s of Lichfield. They depict King Richard I in commemoration of his visit to Birmingham ca 1189 confirming the market charter, and Saint Martin of Tours giving his cloak to a beggar.
The Rotunda is a circular office block that is part of the first Bull Ring Shopping Centre in the 1960s. When James A Roberts revised his design, it was increased to 25 storeys and plans for a revolving rooftop restaurant and a cinema were dropped.
However, due to problems during construction, the building never reached the intended height. Although it was never used, the revolving section remains in place due to the late decision to drop the restaurant from the plans.
The Rotunda has been converted into apartments by the developers Urban Splash. Although located close to the development and built at the same time as the 1960s centre, it is not part of the development despite being included in the design.
A poem is engraved into one of the stones in the wall of the Bullring dedicated to the Rotunda. The public space to the front of both malls facing the High Street and New Street is named Rotunda Square after the building.
The Selfridges Building is an award-winning and dramatic landmark building, designed by the Future Systems architectural practice. The building is clad in 15,000 shiny aluminium discs and was inspired by a Paco Rabanne sequinned dress.
The designs for the Selfridges store were first unveiled in 1999, shortly before the demolition of the original shopping centre began. The Selfridges store covers an area of 25,000 square metres (270,000 sq ft) and cost £60 million to build. The contractor was Laing O’Rourke.
The Selfridges store has won eight awards including the RIBA Award for Architecture 2004 and Destination of the Year Retail Week Awards 2004.
The three sculptures I had another look at last week are ‘The Bull’ in the Bullring, the statue of Nelson looking over Saint Martin’ s Square, and the ‘Trees Sculpture’ or Birmingham Pub Bombings Memorial by Anuradha Patel outside New Street Station and Grand Central.
‘The Bull’ in the Bullring is a 2.2 metres (7 ft 3 in) tall and 4.5 metres long bronze sculpture of a running, turning bull, erected in 2003 at the Bull Ring. It was created by the sculptor Laurence Broderick.
But the statue was vandalised in 2005, and was removed for repairs. It returned to its spot again later that year, but was vandalised again in 2006.
The sculptor gave support to calls for the statue to be renamed ‘Brummie the Bull.’ However, it is more widely known as simply ‘The Bull’ and has become a popular photographic feature for visitors to Birmingham.
The bronze statue of Horatio Nelson looking over Saint Martin’s Square was the first public monument in Birmingham and the first figurative memorial to Lord Nelson in Britain – the first in the world was Montreal.The sculpture is by Sir Richard Westmacott, and was unveiled in 1809 as part of King George III’s Golden Jubilee celebrations.
The statue was originally located on the edge of the previous Bull Ring and stood on a marble base. But this was damaged when the statue was moved in 1958 and the present Portland stone plinth dates from 1960.
As part of the Bullring development, the developer agreed to restore the statue and railings, but when the Bullring opened in 2003, there was no sign of the railings. The Birmingham Civic Society campaigned to have the railings re-instated, but Bullring management argued they were a health and safety risk and would destroy the openness of the public space.
However, the railings were re-instated in September 2005 in time for the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar.
At first, a statue honouring Britain’s most famous admiral seemed out of place in Britain’s most inland city – and I made mental comparisons with the statue of Captain Smith, the captain of the Titanic, in Beacon Park, Lichfield. But Nelson visited Birmingham in 1802 and was fêted wherever he went. The £2,400 needed to pay for the monument was raised within six months, mainly in small donations from working-class people in Birmingham. The Trafalgar medal made by Matthew Boulton in Birmingham in 1805 at Boulton’s Soho Mint in Handsworth, was given to all sailors and marines who served in the Battle Trafalgar.
‘The Trees Sculpture’ or the Birmingham Pub Bombings Memorial by Anuradha Patel is outside New Street Station and Grand Central and recalls the Birmingham pub bombings almost half a century ago on 21 November 1974, when 21 people were killed and another 200 people injured.
This sculpture is the culmination of a project of peace and reconciliation that has worked for decades. The damage of the Birmingham bombs in 1974 was deep: in addition to the deaths and injuries, a miscarriage of justice saw the Birmingham Six jailed for 16 years while the real perpetrators remain at large; the trauma of the bombings and their aftermath left a lasting impact on Birmingham; and the bombings damaged Birmingham’s Irish communities.
After the explosions, Irish people and property were attacked, and Irish confidence in the city was knocked. Even Birmingham’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, one of the biggest among the Irish diaspora, disappeared from the city’s calendar and did not return until 1996.
A small memorial was placed belatedly in the grounds of Saint Philip’s Cathedral. But it was neither prominent nor close to the actual bomb sites. The Misneach Memorial Committee brought together a range of Irish organisations, Birmingham University, the city council and victims’ families to lobby for a prominent memorial in the city.
The project was funded by Network Rail and the concourse of New Street station was chosen because of it is central to life in the city and close to the bombsites.
The sculpture was unveiled on 21 November 2018, 44 years after the bombs. It offers an enduring testament to the lives of the victims, presenting the legacy of the bombings to thousands of people who walk by every day.
The sculpture was designed by the artist Anuradha Patel. It comprises three large metal trees with the names of the victims punched into their leaves, marking the city with the identities of those people who never came home that night.
On the base of the memorial, a sentence from the Book of Revelation stands out, ‘The Leaves of the Tree are for the Healing of the Nations.’
With this sculpture, Birmingham’s Irish leadership has put down a marker for peace that will stand for many generations and a reminder of the long-term damage done by terrorism and of the losses that changed people’s lives forever.