The hidden histories of Selly Oak | Redbrick | University of Birmingham

The hidden histories of Selly Oak

There is more to our favourite Birmingham district than meets the eye, discovers Stephanie Harvey

THE mysteries of Selly Oak began over five thousand years ago when a small piece of Neolithic flint, an arrowhead from the last era of the Stone Age, was discovered at St Mary's Hospice on Raddlebarn Road by Selly Park. The trail continues on Dog Pool Lane near the River Rea, where the blackened pebbles of a burnt mound are evidence of a Bronze Age barbeque.

But its value as an intersection for many important routes – as it is today – was not neglected by the invaders, and in the hands of the Roman occupation three roads met, although the exact location is unknown. Evidence has led experts to consider the Selly Park Recreation ground as the meeting place for these roads – so next time you feel the urge to indulge the inner child and play on the swings, remember you are making something of a cultural trip to tread on ancient territory! But the only concrete evidence we have for 400 years of Roman occupation is a coin of Constantine I (who ruled 306-337) found on Frederick Road and a Roman spindle whorl found on Raddlebarn Road which is indicative of weaving.

A large leap to the eleventh century must be made to find the first record of Selly Oak as an actual place. It is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as 'Escalie', a typographical name from Ye Olde English 'scylf leah' meaning 'clearing on a shelf of land'. Consider this 'escalie' is formed from glacial deposits of a now dissolved lake and the hill we hike up regularly takes on a more exhilarating significance. But after the arrival of William the Conqueror, Selly Oak was in turbulence. The Anglo saxon Lords who had previously owned different parts of 'Escalie' were dramatically supplanted by his Norman supporters. The value of Selly Oak decreased in the upheaval and at just 75 shillings (around £7,500 in today's terms) in 1086 it was by no means expensive.

But how did Selly Oak earn its name? Officially the centre of the borough is the junction of Oak Tree Lane and the Bristol Road and this is where the original Selly 'Oak' stood, an oak tree planted to commemorate the coronation of William IV in 1830. The tree stood strong until 1909 when it had to be felled, its roots unfortunately but eternally damaged by the building of nearby houses. The original Oak can still be found in Selly Oak Park where it was ceremoniously placed with a plaque that reads 'Butt of Old Oak from which the name Selly Oak was derived'. For the new millennia a new Selly 'Oak' was planted on Oak Tree Lane as the original's replacement. However the derivations for the name 'Selly' are more uncertain. Legend has it that 'Selly' was actually 'Sally', a local witch who was either hanged from an oak tree or buried nearby with an oak stake through her heart that later grew into an oak tree.

It was the Industrial Revolution that transformed Selly Oak into an important road, canal and rail intersection. The canal enabled the rapid expansion of Birmingham as it imported grain and building materials, and later salt from the 1830s to flavour the Birmingham cuisine. Cadbury's also saw the advantage of using the canal to import masses of raw chocolate ingredients to its factory, enabling historic chocolate-making on a tremendous scale to commence from the early twentieth century.

Selly Oak has many hidden histories to be discovered in the places we frequent; the Country Girl pub was once a workhouse, as was Selly Oak Hospital until transformed in 1877; The Goose used to have a large lawn and in the 19th century a travelling Australian cricket team played there to a crowd of 12,000! And, once you start searching, you find an interesting story everywhere you look... even if it's just remembered whilst sipping on a pint.


22nd January 2010 at 6:22 am

Last Updated

21st January 2010 at 12:39 pm