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.
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).
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.
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.
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.