Around one mile away from my house in Great Barr, Birmingham stands the derelict shell of Great Barr Hall. Hidden at the back of a new modern housing estate built directly onto the Halls once prolific grounds, the house stands empty, dilapidated and almost completely hidden up a lone dirt track. The house stands surrounded by thick trees and is eerily guarded by a lone white dog. The current condition of the property in no way reflects Great Barr Halls intriguing past, once a regular meeting place of the ‘Lunar Society’ and later to become a Mental Hospital. It is only when you look past the wired fences and scaffolding and start to see the detail of the once beautiful Strawberry Hill Gothic architecture that you notice the rich atmosphere of the place. It is at once magical and unnerving.
Brief History – Built in the 18th Century in the Strawberry Hill Gothic Revival style, the mansion was owned by the Scott family and then leased to Samuel Galton. It was during this period that the house was used regularly for Lunar Society Meetings. It was then reoccupied by Sir Francis Scott until 1863 when he died, although his widow Mildred lived on in the house until 1909. It was when she died that it became part of St Margaret’s Mental Hospital. The house was abandoned in 1978, with the other building used for the hospital also closing in the late 1980s. The land was later acquired by Bovis Homes who built the current housing estate, leaving the Grade II listed house to be left abandoned and decaying. I think the house is now owned by a consortium with plans to renovate, but there seems to be much controversy around this.
The Lunar Society – Operating for around 50 years, but with no formal membership, minutes or agendas, The Lunar Society would meet once a month on the night of the full moon and were a collection of Industrialists, Naturalists and Intellects including Erasmus Darwin (Grandfather of Charles), Josiah Wedgewood, Matthew Boulton, Thomas Day and James Watt (to name a few), other attendees though not regular included Benjamin Franklin and William Herschel. They would share and discuss the latest ideas in Science, Industry and Philosophy but were it seems in essence a social gathering. They met regularly at Great Barr Hall.
St Margaret’s Hospital – From 1918 onwards the site was used as a mental health hospital called the ‘colony for mental defectives’ at the time and later St Margarets Hospital. During this time much damage was done to the original buildings and surrounding site. In 1955 much of the old east wing was demolished, including the clock tower and stables block and in the 1960’s the beautiful gothic inspired oriel windows were ripped from the front of the hall and replaced by standard casement windows. By 1978 the building was abandoned for hospital use and vacated by staff. However, the building was not secured and as it lay deserted over the 1980’s, arson, vandalism and the elements caused much more extensive damage to the hall.
Currently – The site is still enclosed on one side by a portion of its grounds, including a lake surrounded by wood and not far from ‘Merrion’s Wood’ itself which contains ancient woodland and would have been part of the original site. Some of the grounds were also a designated Nature Reserve. An article appeared in the Birmingham Post on September 4th stating that the Hall is to be renovated and used as a ‘Museum of World Religions’.
Great Barr Hall contains an atmosphere all of its own, only a stones throw from the M6 Motorway, it is eerily quiet, and yet alive. It is one of those buildings that you feel are watching you, as you watch it, but not in a benevolent way. You can at once imagine the high society gatherings of the 18th Century, the patients of the St Margaret’s days and the later years of abandonment with nothing but its ghosts and a ferocious white dog for company. This is a building that should be preserved. Whatever lies in the future for this unique and enigmatic Hall, I hope they retain the magic and the mystery of the place, although I have a feeling the house will see to that part itself.