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J. R. R. Tolkien

You will find more information about J.R. R. Tolkien on the Library of Birmingham website.


 J R R Tolkien as a young man

Tolkien himself said there was a danger in too much interest in the life of an author, as it distracted attention from the author's work. He then went on to say he was a hobbit in all but size; liked gardens, trees and unmechanised farmland; smoked a pipe and liked good plain food!

This is a brief account of his early life in Birmingham, from 1895 to 1911. Some of the houses and places mentioned on these pages can still be seen.
There are more images and further information on
J. R. R. Tolkien's childhood in Birmingham
J. R. R. Tolkien's youth in Birmingham

Bloemfontein in 1888

 Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1888

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, was born in Bloemfontein, an Afrikaans-speaking area of South Africa, on 3 January 1892. His parents, Arthur Tolkien and Mabel Suffield, were from Birmingham. Arthur Tolkien had become a bank-manager there. His fiancee Mabel sailed out to join him in 1891. In 1895, when Tolkien was three, his mother brought him and his younger brother Hilary back to visit their grandparents at Ashfield Road, Kings Heath, Birmingham. They never saw their father again, he died of typhoid fever in February 1896.

 5 Gracewell at Sarehole, Tolkien house 1896-1900

Gracewell cottages, May 2007
In 1896 Mabel Tolkien and her two young sons settled at 5 Gracewell, now 264 Wake Green Road, a cottage in Sarehole village. Though only four miles from the centre of Birmingham Sarehole was then in the north Worcestershire countryside. Coming from the hot dry veld of South Africa, the green fields and woods made a deep impression on Tolkien.


 Sarehole Mill cafe spring 2007

Cafe at Sarehole Mill, April 2007
The most exciting thing for a young boy to see in the village of Sarehole was Sarehole Mill, which he refers to as 'the great mill' in The Hobbit. It stands on the River Cole, which rises near King's Norton and runs close by. It is said that Tolkien based the bad-tempered miller in The Lord of the Rings on the miller there. The Mill is now run as a museum by Birmingham City Council.

 Sarehole mill and millpool circa 1905

Sarehole in 1905
When Tolkien visited Sarehole with his family in 1933 he lamented the loss of farmland, and the presence of new houses. The valley of the Cole is now in the Shire Country Park. There are many old trees, willows by the river and the millpond; oak, ash, rowans, beech trees in the neighbourhood. Trees were dear to Tolkien's heart, he could have seen some of these. However there are more trees now than in his time. Then Sarehole Mill was surrounded by water-meadows, now trees are all around.

86, Westfield Road, Kings Heath

Westfield Road
The family moved several times in the next few years. After Ronald started school in 1900 they moved to Moseley to be closer to a tram route into the city. They were not in Moseley for long; by March 1901 they were living in Westfield Road, Kings Heath, a new house. The plan shows that originally it was one of the larger houses on the estate like number 88 next door, but at some point lost the second floor.

For more images, and further information on this part of Tolkien's life
J. R. R. Tolkien's childhood in Birmingham

 view from top of Perrotts Folly to the Oratory

View from Perrotts Folly to the Oratory, February 2007
The family moved again in 1902, to a house in Oliver Road, Edgbaston. This was near the two towers in Edgbaston; Perrotts Folly and the Waterworks Chimney. Mabel had converted to Catholicism in 1900. Some of the family disapproved strongly and withdrew financial support to her and the children. To save money the brothers were enrolled in the Oratory School, St Philips. However with coaching from his mother Ronald won a scholarship to King Edward's and returned there in 1903.

 Oratory Church, Birmingham, interior

Visit to the Oratory, 2006
Perhaps because of financial stress Mabel developed diabetes in spring 1904. There was no effective treatment in those days, and in November 1904 she died at Rednal in the Lickey Hills. She had appointed Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a priest of the Birmingham Oratory, to be the boys' guardian.

 Barrows stores with delivery carriages 1895

Barrows stores and cafe circa 1900
In Duchess Road Tolkien met his future wife, Edith Bratt, who was also lodging there. They became fond of each other. Sometimes they would go and have tea and cakes in Birmingham cafes. One afternoon in late 1909 they cycled out to the Lickeys and had tea in Rednal village. Father Francis Morgan heard of this meeting. He disapproved as he considered that Tolkien should be devoting all his attention to his studies and forbade him to contact Edith before he had come of age. Ronald and Hilary Tolkien were moved to different lodgings in Highfield Road. Eventually Ronald and Edith got married in 1916.

 King Edward

King Edward's School masters, late 1890s
Tolkien studied at King Edward's School, then in New Street in the centre of Birmingham. There he gained a scholarship at Exeter College, Oxford, to study Classics. He played rugby for the school, and was also an enthusiastic member of the school Debating Society. With friends he had a club that met to talk about literature and current affairs after school in the school library, or over lunch in the new cafe at Barrow's Stores in Corporation Street.
For more images and further information about this part of his life see:
J. R. R. Tolkien's youth in Birmingham

Tolkien left Birmingham for Oxford in October 1911; he returned often to visit family and friends. He enlisted in 1915 and fought in France. After the war he worked in Oxford, and then Leeds. In 1925 he returned to Oxford with his young family to become the Professor of Anglo-Saxon. He transformed the view of Middle English and Anglo-Saxon epic poems such as Beowulf. He lived in Oxford for most of the rest of his life, and died in 1973.

Tolkien's writing

Although he was the author of academic work on Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, it is for his novels that Tolkien is best known. The Hobbit was published in 1937, and the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, in 1954/55. These are the best selling fiction books of the 20th Century. The Hobbit has sold over 40 million copies, and The Lord of the Rings over 50 million copies. Tolkien's novels are described as fantasy, but much of his writing reflects his own experiences and observations.