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Somerville Primary School, Birmingham

Description: Somerville Primary School

Grade: II
Date Listed: 9 February 2012
English Heritage Building ID: 1404428

OS Grid Reference: SP0987085918
OS Grid Coordinates: 409870, 285918
Latitude/Longitude: 52.4711, -1.8561

Locality: Birmingham
County: Birmingham
Country: England
Postcode: B10 9EN

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Listing Text


Somerville Primary School, built by Martin and Chamberlain for the Birmingham School Board, and opened in 1894. Infant classrooms were added in 1899. Additions and alterations in the C20 and C21.

Reason for Listing

Somerville Primary School is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* Architectural interest: a handsome school by Martin and Chamberlain, one of the leading architectural practices in late-Victorian Birmingham with a decorative scheme which makes restrained use of brick and terracotta;
* Historical interest: one of twenty-six surviving schools built by the Birmingham School Board, which together form one of the most important groups of board schools in the country;
* Intactness: as a notably complete example of a school of this type, in which the overall external appearance and internal plan are largely preserved and which retains features of note including the pierced cast-iron trusses to the two halls and the plenum tower;
* Design: for its thoughtful planning, characteristic of the later Birmingham board schools, with classrooms clustered around two central halls;
* Group value: with the caretaker’s house, boundary walls and gate piers which complete the setting. The C21 extension to the north-west is not of interest.


The Birmingham School Board was brought into being by the Elementary Education Act of 1870; the Act, which empowered school boards to create new schools and pay the fees of the poorest children, was largely the result of campaigning by the Birmingham-centred National Education League. By 1902, when the Education Act abolished school boards and passed the responsibility for education to local authorities, the Birmingham School Board had built fifty-one new schools, as well as the Board's offices. All but four of these schools were designed by the architectural practice Martin and Chamberlain - from 1900 Martin and Martin - appointed Architect to the Board in 1870.

John Henry Chamberlain (1831-83) and William Martin (1828-1900) formed the practice Martin and Chamberlain in 1864. Following the death of Chamberlain, Martin was joined by his son, Frederick William Martin (1859-1917), and the practice continued under the same name until the death of William Martin when the practice was renamed Martin and Martin. The board schools became focal points within each district, serving as symbols of municipal pride and civic achievement; Martin and Chamberlain created a house style for their schools, which were characterised by their red-brick construction, tall ventilation towers, proliferation of gables, and decorative use of tiles and terracotta, sometimes displaying naturalistic forms. Chamberlain believed that beautiful and well-planned school architecture might offer children some compensation for drab, cramped homes, and in 1894 the Pall Mall Gazette commented that, `In Birmingham you may generally recognise a Board School by its being the best building in the neighbourhood… with lofty towers which serve the utilitarian purpose of giving excellent ventilation, gabled windows, warm red bricks and stained glass, the best of the Birmingham Board Schools have quite an artistic finish'.

J. H. Chamberlain, the leading creative force within Martin and Chamberlain, was profoundly influenced by Ruskin and his promotion of Venetian Gothic; Chamberlain played a unique role in defining Birmingham's civic architecture during the 1860s and 1870s, helping shape the city's celebrated movement of social and artistic improvement. He designed a number of other important public buildings, including libraries, baths, and hospitals, but in setting the style for the board schools he made an especially significant and lasting contribution to Birmingham's built environment.

Frederick Martin, who took over much of the practice's design after Chamberlain's death, was responsible for a variety of public and commercial buildings, and housing, as well as the Board Schools. Martin developed the established mode of the schools' design, introducing a greater freedom in referencing historical styles and, as a leading practitioner of Birmingham's 'terracotta school', an increased use of terracotta.

Somerville Road School, now known as Somerville Primary School, opened in 1894. It was designed in 1892 for a total of 1035 children. Whilst under construction the design was altered from two storey to single storey. In 1899 two more infant classrooms, designed by the same architects, were added. These included tiered benches, which were heated by warm air from under floor ducts. These have now been removed.

Historic map evidence suggests that the footprint of the original school, together with the caretaker's house to the north of the site, which is first depicted on the Ordnance Survey map published in 1904, survives largely unaltered. The large extension to the north-west occupies the location of former terraced housing, and was erected in 2005-6.

In May 1929, an organ was installed to the large assembly hall in memorial of the past pupils who had died in the First World War. This was removed in 2000.


Materials: Built of red brick laid in English bond, with terracotta and rubbed brick dressings. Late-C20 plain tile roof. Brick chimney stacks, bell turret and ventilation tower.

Plan: It is a mainly single-storey school with two central assembly halls. There is a two-storey extension to the north-west, attached to the caretaker’s house, and forming a courtyard between the extension and the north-west elevation of the original school.

Exterior: The north-east elevation on Somerville Road consists of three gables, the central gable being lower and narrower. Set back from this central gable is an octagonal ventilation tower, which has been capped, with broached buttresses - designed to serve the 'plenum' system of forced air circulation. To the right is a set back bay with a doorway beneath a gable and single light to the right. To the left is a single-bay flat roof extension, containing the current entrance. The south-east elevation consists of three pairs of gables. Between the first and second pair is a flat-roof projection with pairs of round-headed windows, a pilaster to the corner with conical finial, and a double door with fanlight above. Between, and crossing the first bay of the second and third pair of gables, is a C20 single-storey, flat-roof extension. The south-west elevation includes two gables, with a single-storey range with slight gabled projection, in front. The north-west elevation also has three pairs of gables, with two flat-roof porch projections. The windows have largely been replaced but their arrangement of two tall lancet windows, flanked by two similar but shorter windows, each opening being set beneath a rubbed brick ogee arch, with finial, and terracotta sills, is original. The building also retains its dentilled eaves cornice, brick chimney stacks with decorative moulded brick, and bell-turret with swept pyramidal spire.

Interior: The school has two central halls: the small and large, around which the full-height classrooms are grouped. The assembly halls have cast iron trusses with cut-out patterns to the blades. There are five such trusses to the large hall and three to the small hall. The floors to the halls are of wood block, and some pitch-pine flooring survives to the classrooms. There is boarded dado panelling to the halls and corridors. The panelled doors largely survive, some with glazed upper panels.

Caretaker’s House: A two-storey caretaker’s house is linked to the north-west corner of the school via a C20 glazed link. The house has an L-shaped plan. It has a hipped roof with plain tiles and decorative terracotta ridge tiles. The first-floor windows break through the roof line with gabled roofs. The windows themselves have been replaced. There are two chimney stacks with decorative moulded brick. There is a moulded brick cill band and dentilled eaves cornice. The interior retains much of its internal joinery including its staircase with curved handrail.

Subsidiary features: The school retains its brick boundary wall with gate piers surmounted with terracotta conical finials.

Source: English Heritage

Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.