A View from the Tower
This concrete edifice was just nine years old when this photo was taken, not from the usual vantage points available to the public but from the Post Office Telecommunication’s car park off Lionel Street.
“How did I manage that?” You may ask.
Five years before this photograph was taken I’d started work as an Instructor at the Post Office Engineering Training School in Shirley. A couple of years later the boss of the training school retired and the post was taken by John Tipple who had been the boss at the tower (Tipple of The Tower!!)
Mr Tipple was persuaded by my colleagues to use his contacts to organise a trip so that a coach-load of us could visit the tower.
The trip was arranged for July 1974 and unfortunately none of us realised that if we’d taken our hard hats we would have been allowed out onto the aerial galleries – that’s the platforms at the top with the spikey bits on!
But fortune was on my side because I had the presence of mind to take a camera with me. We tend to forget now in this age of digital photography that film & processing cost a lot, especially for someone with a new mortgage and two very young children.
So I just took photos from the four windows on the highest floor that we could reach that day and two extra that, as it happened, were of locations that I came to know quite well years later.
During a recent house de-cluttering session that included scanning in over 2000 family photos taken as slides in the 60s & 70s I found these.
There have been some dramatic changes to Birmingham’s landscape over the last forty years and it can take a moment to work out what you are looking at. See if you can work out what is there now!
On the left we can see the back of Madin’s 103 Colmore Row which became known as the Natwest Tower. This is still under construction in 1974 as it was completed in 1975. If you want to see this building you’ll have to be quick as demolition was due to start in July 2015 – the building has been empty since 2003!
In front of 103 Colmore row in the photograph is Edmund House in Newhall Street and we can see the elevation facing onto Edmund Street. This is an office block which has recently been refurbished and it now houses Asha’s Indian Restaurant on the ground floor. It looks as if this same building standing on this site that we see in the photograph.
To the left of this in Edmund Street is a building that was replaced (it seems) around 2003 by 125 Colmore Row which now houses Lloyds Bank. The new building runs right through from Colmore Row to Edmund Street.
Just visible below the Edmund Street buildings in the photograph and the concrete window sill of the PO Tower are the roofs of the buildings that constituted the original Louisa Ryland House. This was originally three separate buildings – The Medical Institute 96 Edmund Street built in 1879, the Broad School offices at 98 Edmund Street, built in 1881, and the Parish Offices building, at 100-102 Edmund Street and built in 1883.
In the 1980s, after this photograph was taken the building underwent major conversion with the façade retained and supported by a modern steel frame structure behind, with reinforced concrete floors.
To the left of the bulk of 103 Colmore Row and above the Colmore Row buildings is a building with a stepped brick wall – I’m sure that this was the building that housed Woolworths in New Street back in the 60s & 70s. Can anyone confirm this? It’s still there and has Bella Italia on the ground floor. The Address is 102 New Street and is now a nine-storey office block called The Charters.
Just to the right of what I think was Woolworths are the horizontal walls of New Street Station car park and then just beyond this is Stephenson Tower. This was a 20 storey residential block that was demolished in 2011 prior to the redevelopment of New Street Station.
To the right of Stephenson Tower is a dark building with a yellow crane in front of it. This is the back of the Albany Hotel (now the Holiday Inn), which was completed around 1962.
Just beyond Stephenson Tower and to the left you can see Centre City Tower (with a crane on it) that was under construction at the time. It was opened in 1975 and is 21 storeys high. It is interesting to note that as a condition of planning permission, the Centre City project originally had a theatre on the ground level but this was entirely unused from 1975 until 1990 when the decision was finally taken for it to be converted into offices.
If we turn our attention to the centre of the photograph we needn’t be reminded that the domed tower and to the right of it the clock tower are part of the Council House. The juxtaposition of the two towers seems at odds with what we expect, but we are looking at the Council House from the back. The Council House was Built between 1874 and 1879 on what was once Ann Street, and designed by Yeoville Thomason. The Council House is now a Grade II listed building. Nearer to the camera and tucked under sill of the PO Tower is the Museum and Art Gallery, built by the same architect in 1881-5. Just to the right of the clock tower (Big Brum) is the rear of the Town Hall.
If you look just to the right of the domed tower of the Council House you can see a building under construction. This appears to be the apartment block called Westside One on the corner of Lower Severn Street & Beak Street next to Suffolk Street. I’d be grateful if anyone could confirm this.
Looking further to the right of Big Brum is the roof of the 1882 built Central Library. The original Library was opened in 1865 and was destroyed by fire during work to extend the building in 1879. The original & rebuilt libraries were designed by J. H. Chamberlain. Out of sight to the right of the camera is the roof of the newly built Madin designed Central Library. The old library was demolished later in 1974. Just between the old library and the Town Hall you can see the spire of the Chamberlain Memorial.
To the right of the photograph just above the roof of the 1882 library is the Birmingham Conservatoire building, which was new at the time and is now about to be demolished as part of the “Paradise” redevelopment.
Just across Paradise Street beyond the old library is a row of buildings, all but one of these still stand there today. The largest seen on this row, to the right, was an office block known as the Beneficial Building (the main tenant was Beneficial Bank) which is now in the throes of being converted to a hotel. The well known Birmingham nightclub Snobs occupied the ground floor until 2014.
Beyond these buildings is what appears to be a long white structure to the extreme right of the photograph. This is in fact two buildings, which are quite a distance from each other – the distance from the camera has played a trick with the perspective. To the right at the edge of the photograph is Alpha Tower which is the tallest office building in Birmingham with 28 floors. It was completed in 1973 and was headquarters of the television company ATV. Since ATV closed in 1982 and the building has changed hands a number of times. According to English Heritage it is one of the most aesthetically successful office buildings in Birmingham. Alpha Tower is Grade A listed (local listing) and featured in the 1973 Cliff Richard film Take Me High for both exterior and interior shots.
Behind Alpha tower is the 11 storey Stanier House (as it was known then) which was built for British Rail in the 1970s – as it appears in my photograph with a crane adjacent to it one must assume it was completed around this time. At privatisation of the railways it became occupied by a number of private rail companies including Railtrack and Adtrans. WS Atkins acquired Adtrans in 2000 and are now the most significant tenant. The name of the building was changed to AXIS around this time.
The dark building to the left of Stanier House (AXIS) is the Royal Mail sorting office which was opened in 1970. At the time it was the largest mechanised sorting office in the UK. It had a floor area of 20 acres and was the largest building in Birmingham. A tunnel was constructed between the site and New Street railway station allowing electric tractors hauling carts carrying sacks of mail to be driven directly to the office. In 1997 the sorting office was closed and the building sold to become “The Mailbox”. The Mailbox is now one of the UK’s largest mixed-use buildings incorporating retail, leisure, offices and residential businesses and is the Midlands HQ of the BBC.
Prominent in the centre of the photograph are the Sentinels, Cleveland Tower and Clydesdale Tower. They are two 90 metre tall residential tower blocks on Holloway Head. The two towers each have 31 stories and were part of a major regeneration scheme following World War II which consisted of the construction of hundreds of tower blocks. They are the tallest residential tower blocks in the city. Cleveland Tower was completed in 1970 and Clydesdale Tower in 1971.
These are probably the most significant buildings in this photograph. Beyond the edge of the city centre the definition is too poor and the air pollution too great to clearly identify any landmarks – however you are welcome to have a go yourself and see what you can find.
My photographs from the Post Office Tower in 1974 were intended to form the basis of a single BrumPic article, however when I started looking closely there was more of interest than I anticipated.
You can look forward to another photograph of the 1974 Birmingham skyline from the Post Office Tower next month in BrumPic.
About the author The author of the Outer Circle tour is David Humphries. David was bought up in Hall Green and now lives in Solihull. He, and his wife Pam, started their OuterCircleBus.com tours of the No 11 bus route and have run them every year beteween 2011 and 2014. Visit www.OuterCircleBus.com to find photographs of the tours and to find out how much money was raised for charities from the tours. David now conducts guided tours of the Birmingham Back to Backs and Newman Brothers at the Coffin Works in Fleet Street.