J.R.R.Tolkien's childhood in Birmingham
This photo of J. R. R. Tolkien as a young man is reproduced by kind permission of Mr. Oliver Suffield.
This is the story of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien's childhood. From 1895 he lived in Birmingham - in Sarehole, Moseley and Kings Heath - until the family moved to Edgbaston in 1902. These suburbs were then all in north Worcestershire; prosperous businessmen would have their business in the centre of Birmingham, three to four miles distant, then return to their houses there on the edge of the countryside at the end of the day.
Tolkien's parents, Arthur Tolkien and Mabel Suffield, grew up in Birmingham. Arthur Tolkien's father, a music-seller and piano teacher, had moved from London to Birmingham in the early 1840s. The Suffield family had been in Birmingham since 1810. Mabel's father John ran the family drapery and hosiery store in central Birmingham. From 1826 until it was demolished as part of the Birmingham Improvement Scheme in 1886 the business was in Old Lamb House in Bull Street.
Old Lamb House, Bull Street, just before demolition in 1886.
Arthur Tolkien emigrated from Birmingham to South Africa in 1889 to gain promotion at work. He was already engaged to Mabel Suffield; when she reached the age of twenty-one in 1891 her father gave her permission to sail to South Africa to marry Arthur Tolkien.
A Christmas card sent by the Tolkiens in 1892. J. R. R. Tolkien is the baby. For a larger version click on the Christmas card.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, was born in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State, an Afrikaans-speaking area of South Africa, on 3 January 1892. In 1895, when Tolkien was three, his mother brought him and his younger brother Hilary back to visit their grandparents in King's Heath and Moseley, Birmingham. Arthur stayed in South Africa for a while to take care of the family's investments; the situation was tense because of growing antagonism between the Boers and the English settlers. He died before he was able to join his family in England, Tolkien's only memory of his father was of him closing the family's trunk and painting their name on it.
In the summer of 1896 Mabel Tolkien and her two young sons settled at 5 Gracewell, now 264 Wake Green Road, a cottage in the hamlet of Sarehole in the north Worcestershire countryside close to Moseley, Birmingham.
Wake Green Road, Sarehole, circa 1900
Most of the area was still farmland. Tolkien later said Sarehole was the model for the Shire, home of Bilbo in The Hobbit. He also said that hobbits were partly modelled on the people he knew there. He made the hobbits small in stature because the people were small in imagination; but he said they could be great in courage.
When Tolkien refers to a 'great mill' in The Hobbit he was probably remembering Sarehole Mill on the River Cole. From 5 Gracewell the boys and their mother could look across the water-meadow to the mill. Tolkien mentioned the miller and his son, George Andrew senior and junior, in the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings. It is perhaps understandable that the miller shouted at him and his younger brother when they played in the mill-yard, as they were very small and there was dangerous machinery there!
Tolkien was close to his brother Hilary who was two years younger than him. Hilary attended the same school, King Edward's in the centre of Birmingham. However he was not academic by inclination. He became a farmer, and ran a fruit-farm near Pershore for many years.
Hilary Tolkien as a young man, photo reproduced by kind permission of Oliver Suffield.
Up the road from the cottage they played in a deep sandpit lined with trees. This is on the edge of Moseley Bog, woodland through which streams run to feed the millpond and the River Cole.
Some rare plants grow there; it may be recalled in The Lord of the Rings as the 'Old Forest'; last of the primeval woods, where Tom Bombadil lived. And a mile along the River Cole is Trittiford - then Titterford - Mill Pool, perhaps a model for the Long Lake in The Hobbit.
Steam-tram at the Moseley stop, 1902.
As children Ronald and Hilary were taught at home by their mother, Mabel. Her sister Jane had gained a degree in science, and was a teacher. She also coached Ronald for the entrance exam for King Edward's School, Birmingham.
After Ronald started at King Edward's in September 1900 the family moved several times. First to 214 Alcester Road, Moseley, directly on the tram-route into the city so that Ronald could go to school by tram. The steam-tram was noisy and smelly, so after a few months the Tolkiens moved again, to a house in Westfield Road, on the new Grange Estate in King's Heath. They stayed there for about a year; then in 1902 they moved a couple of miles to a house in Edgbaston, to be near the Oratory church on the Hagley Road.
Next: Tolkien's youth in Birmingham
J. R. R. Tolkien