A school, designed for the Birmingham School Board by HR Yeoville Thomason and Cooper Whitwell and opened in 1888.
Reason for Listing
Benson Road School is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Architectural: an impressive school building by Thomason and Whitwell, one of the leading architectural practices in late-Victorian Birmingham. The building is well lit, clearly planned and seems intended to appeal to children.
* Historical: 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: although the building has undergone some changes, notably to the fenestration, structural alterations are relatively minor and additions have been carefully managed so that the central structure of the school is largely as originally built.
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-two 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 it 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.
Benson Road Junior School, which was originally known as Soho Road School, shows a clear debt to the style and practice of design outlined by Martin and Chamberlain. However, it is one of only four designs within the catchment of the Birmingham School Board which was not designed by them. This, the earliest of the four, was opened in 1888 and designed by Thomason and Whitwell to accommodate 962 pupils. Their partnership was formed in 1867 and the practice was one of the best known in Birmingham by the time of this commission. Earlier work had included the Singer's Hill Synagogue of 1854 (Thomason, alone); the Council House, Victoria Square, 1874-79; and several prominent buildings along Colmore Row.
The school building is not shown on the First Edition of the Ordnance Survey map of 1890, but is on the OS map of 1904, by which time the name of the street had changed to Benson Road. Both maps show a Wesleyan Methodist chapel and its Sunday School to the east of the Board School site. The surrounding area, bounded by Park Road and Bacchus Road, was covered with dense housing which has now been mostly demolished, including the area to the immediate west of the school, which forms its playing fields.
MATERIALS: the building is of red brick, laid in English bond, with yellow, terracotta dressings and a plain tile roof. The spire above the plenum tower is of timber with a tiled roof and a lead cap.
PLAN: the original school building is roughly rectangular on plan and of one and two-storeys with classrooms set around the sides of two rectangular assembly halls which are placed at the centre.
EXTERIOR: the Benson Road front has four large gables, of which the three at left are flush and the one to right projects slightly. Each gable denotes a classroom inside the building and each has a tripartite window with yellow terracotta surround with cusped mouldings (the gables are a leitmotif of the building). At the centre, and rising into the gable, is a large window with four-centred head. This has three-lights, with mullions and two transoms of moulded terracotta. At either side are lower lancets with Tudor-arched heads. Recessed and set between the second and third gables is a further gable with three-light window placed at first floor level which forms one gable end of the southern, central hall. Each gable has plain bargeboards with a terracotta finial.
The south-west front has four gables of the type seen on the Benson Road front. Here they are stepped, at either side of the centre. This central bay originally had a projecting wing or porch, according to the Ordnance Survey map of 1904, but it has been rebuilt in the C20 and has a late-C20, single-storey projection at ground floor level of plum-coloured brick, and mid-C20 brickwork to the first floor, recessed above this. Further recessed, and rising above this, is the tower which has a square body to its lower stages, but which dies back by broaches to an octagonal upper body. The spire has louvered timber vents to its lower body and a miniature arcade to the top, below the cap which carries a weather vane. At far-left is a two-storey, projecting wing.
The north-east front has five gabled bays of which the pairs at right and left are configured as before. The central bay is lower and now connects to a later-C20, T-shaped wing, of which there are three attached to this front.
The north-west front has four-bays which are narrower than those seen elsewhere on the building. These have a central light with a generous central transom, which is otherwise undivided. The two lateral, gabled bays project. A projecting gabled wing, which is connected to the original school building by a narrow link corridor, was added to the north-western corner in the early-C21. Many windows, across the building, have had uPVC windows inserted into the original openings.
INTERIOR: the central halls are similar in size. Both have cross-axial iron trusses with cut-out patterns to the sides of their blades. The floors have wood blocks flooring with metal grilles for heating. At either side are doors and windows which lead to classrooms and have segmental heads. The lower walls of each hall have vertical boarding with a moulded rail to the top. Classrooms have similar dado panelling and metal or wood trusses, with suspended ceilings, or insulation boarding fitted to some rooms.
The three, T-shaped extensions on the north-east front and the addition to the north-western corner, all of which were added in the C20 and C21, are not of special interest.
Source: English Heritage
Listed building text is © Crown Copyright. Reproduced under licence.