The history of Castle Bromwich airfield is almost lost in the mists of Tame.
It was heads or tails, Castle Bromwich or Elmdon for Birmingham Airport in 1933. In the end Elmdon’s more open site and better atmospheric conditions gave it the edge over ‘Castle Fogwich’.
The airfield, which was incorrectly known as Castle Bromwich, was operational for some 40 years and lay north of the River Tame alongside the Chester Road. The site is now occupied by Castle Vale, a housing estate developed in the early 1960s.
Castle Bromwich Airfield – not in Castle Bromwich
That stretch of land was however never in Castle Bromwich whose ancient manor had the course of the River Tame as its northern boundary. The airfield lay in the medieval manor of Berwood, a sub-manor of Erdington which, like Castle Bromwich, was part of the extensive manor of Aston. However, the railway station which opened on the ‘wrong’ side of the river in 1842 was called Castle Bromwich station, the airfield was known as Castle Bromwich a hundred years ago and the Spitfire factory (now the Jaguar) and Fort Dunlop have always been described as being at Castle Bromwich. In placename terms, if you make a mistake often enough and long enough, it becomes de facto correct.
Berwood, a lost placename
The name of Berwood, like that of Castle Bromwich, is Anglo-Saxon and means open woodland where pigs were grazed. The manor house stood here from the 12th century off Farnborough Road and was for hundreds of years in the hands of the Arden family.
It is difficult to understand why the medieval manor house should have been built here (now Farnborough Road). Although this is fertile soil rich with alluvium, good for crops and livestock, it is part of the floodplain of the River Tame and must have known floods during the winter months. Sometime during the 13th century a moat was dug around the manor house, a symbol of status rather than a defensive measure.
Berwood was administered as part of Sutton Chase, although it did not lie within Sutton manor. A keeper of this part of the chase had a residence here where he would put up guests of the Earl of Warwick on expeditions hunting for deer.
By the 17th century moated halls had lost their status and Berwood Hall fell into ruins. It was replaced by a farmhouse which served as the airfield’s officers’ mess during the First World War. The building survived until the expansion of the area as Castle Bromwich airfield during the Second World War.
Berwood – Castle Bromwich’s dark side
The open area of flat land on which Castle Bromwich airfield was to be built was requisitioned for essential services before the First World War.
As Birmingham expanded rapidly during the 19th century, the disposal of sewage became increasingly problematic. Some sewage was run into the River Rea where it was carried off into the Tame, the Trent and ultimately the North Sea. The system for houses away from the river dated from the Middle Ages: so-called ‘night soil’ was collected by night men from privies and cesspits and taken in carts beyond the town boundary where it was spread on farm land to be decomposed by the elements. It was then sold to farmers and market gardeners as fertiliser.
Up until the middle of the 19th century, the system proved just about adequate. But the population in industrial towns such as Birmingham was growing apace and the quantity of night soil was outstripping the ability to dispose of it. Then in the 1850s there were catastrophic floods in Deritend and Digbeth caused by sewage backing up from the mill weirs along the River Rea downstream. So Birmingham began to construct a piped sewage system which carried waste to fields in Saltley and beyond, bought or rented by the town council where it was spread. The sediment was allowed to dry and sold as fertiliser and the water allowed back into the river.
But the problem was far from solved. Sewage farms took up large areas of land as the process was a slow one. In 1862 the Borough Surveyor, W. S. Till, estimated that at Salford Bridge, the Tyburn, Berwood (and later Minworth and Hams Hall) some 60 tons of solid matter produced by a population of 250,000 was produced every day.
And the heavily populated areas of Kings Norton which included Balsall Heath, Aston andHandsworth were still discharging 12,000,000 gallons a day directly into the rivers, most of which passed along the Tame at Castle Bromwich.
By 1877, under the leadership of Birmingham mayor, Joseph Chamberlain, the Birmingham Tame & Rea District Drainage Board was set up and given authority and finance to act across the various boroughs concerned.
The system of spreading sewage over the fields needed ever larger amounts of land. Starting from the initial farms at Saltley, land was bought from Salford Bridge out to Minworth. In 1881 William Bagot of Pype Hayes Hall sold some 350 acres of Berwood Farm’s land to the Drainage Board and about the same again in 1888; this was a large area of treeless flat land along the River Tame with Plants Brook running across it (now Castle Vale). The field hedges were removed and Plants Brook was diverted to the east of the site. This large area of level ground alongside the river was ideal. However, the method had its limitations.
As the population of Birmingham grew, ever greater areas of land were needed; suitable sites for sewage farms alongside the rivers were a finite resource. But by the end of the century Birmingham had devised a system of passing sewage through filtration tanks which separated the solid matter as sediment. The system needed much less land than the old method.
Filter beds were built alongside the Kingsbury Road near Plants Brook and continued up to the outbreak of the First World War. With the men recruited as soldiers the work was completed by women, conscientious objectors and German prisoners of war. The filtration system released large areas of land which the Drainage Board sold for largely for farming; this was good fertile soil.
Castle Bromwich Playing Fields
‘For the youths of Birmingham’
From 1909 a large part of the former sewage farm was rented from the Drainage Authority by the Birmingham Housing Reform & Open Spaces Association as a recreation ground. In 1913 Birmingham City Council rented additional land here. Much of the site was given over to football pitches, some 60 at its greatest extent. There was no access all the way to Castle Bromwich by bus and, although the railway station was very close to the playing fields, this was not a cheap option.
In 1914 the City Council widened the Kingsbury Road to the Tyburn House Inn in order to extend the tram line from the City Centre giving better access to the fields and so ‘encourage their greater use by the youths of Birmingham’. It was also planned to extend the line from the Tyburn along the Chester Road as far as the entrance to the playing fields.