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J. R. R. Tolkien's youth in Birmingham



 map Edgbaston 1904

Edgbaston, Birmingham, a Birds' Eye View in 1904.
For a larger version click here:

Tolkien's lodgings in Edgbaston


In 1902 the Tolkiens moved across Birmingham to a house in Edgbaston to be near the Oratory church. To save money Tolkien was removed from King Edward's, he and his brother Hilary were enrolled at the school attached to the Oratory, St. Philip's, in April 2002. Ronald was only there for one term. With coaching from his mother he gained a scholarship for free tuition at King Edward's, and returned there in January 1903. The Tolkiens had little money, Mabel had a small income from South African shares left to her by Arthur. Her brother-in-law Walter Incledon had given some help, but he stopped when she converted to Catholicism in 1900.

Perhaps because of stress caused by money worries Mabel developed diabetes late in 1903. There was no effective treatment in those days, and she died in November 1904.
She and the boys had been staying at the postman's cottage in Rednal, next to the Oratory Retreat in the Lickey Hills on the southern edge of Birmingham. Mabel had appointed Father Francis Xavier Morgan, a priest of the Oratory, to be the boys' guardian. In December the boys stayed with a Tolkien uncle and aunt in King's Norton, Birmingham. In January 1905 Hilary Tolkien started at King Edward's School. For the next three years the brothers lived in Stirling Road, Edgbaston, with their aunt Beatrice. She was the widow of William Suffield, Mabel's younger brother, he had also died in 1904.

 Perrotts Folly, Edgbaston, Birmingham

From early 1908 the brothers moved a short distance to lodge at the Faulkners, 37 Duchess Road, Edgbaston. Tolkien commented many years later that the duchess was rather decayed! They were close to Edgbaston Canal Reservoir, set in a large park where there were entertainments, and sailing on the lake. On the way from Duchess Road to the park there are two towers, the Waterworks Chimney, and Perrott's Folly.
Perrott's Folly, Edgbaston, 1994
Perrott's Folly was built in 1758, possibly as a hunting-lodge. It is 96 foot high, and offers an excellent view for miles, of Birmingham's hills and trees, and beyond. From 1884 until the 1970s it was used as a weather observatory, and the brothers could have seen the equipment on top. It has been suggested that Perrott's Folly and the Waterworks Chimney may have inspired the title of The Two Towers. For more about this see: The Two Towers

 Rednal Hill, Lickeys, Birmingham

In 1908 Tolkien met and fell in love with his future wife, Edith Bratt. She was also lodging with the Faulkners; like the Tolkien brothers she was an orphan. One afternoon late in 1909 they cycled out to the Lickeys and had tea in Rednal.
Rednal Hill from the south-west
Father Francis Morgan heard about this excursion. He disapproved of the relationship as he considered Tolkien should be devoting all his time to his studies; it was essential that he win a scholarship if he wished to go to university. Father Francis forbade Tolkien to see or contact Edith for the next three years, until he came of age. From January 1910 the brothers lived in new lodgings in Highfield Road, very close to the Oratory. Eventually Ronald and Edith got married in 1916, just before he left to fight in France.

 King Edward

King Edward's School in New Street, Birmingham, circa 1890
King Edward's School was of fundamental importance to Tolkien's future life and career. It was then in New Street in the centre of Birmingham. The school had been rebuilt in 1836, designed by Sir Charles Barry who would later design the Houses of Parliament. Eventually in December 1910 Tolkien gained an exhibition - a form of scholarship - to study classics at Exeter College, part of the University of Oxford. He stayed at school until July 1911, and left Birmingham for Oxford in October.

King Edward's School, Birmingham

 Sports day King Edward

King Edward's School Sports Day, July 1909 Tolkien was an enthusiastic participant in various activities organised by the School Club. He became captain of his house rugby team, and wrote an epic poem about one match in February 1911 for the school magazine. As Secretary of the School Debating Society he was described in the school magazine as 'ever-active' and 'ingenious', and accused of 'highwaymanism'. He also enjoyed acting. He was one of the school librarians, he and his friends would meet in the school library to have illicit picnics, brewing tea over a small stove. They then started to go to the cafe over Barrow's Stores in Corporation Street at lunchtime.

 Barrows cafe 1905

Barrows cafe circa 1905, from the Arts and Industries magazine
After Tolkien had left this was described jokingly by Christopher Wiseman, one of his friends, as the T.C.B.S. - Tea Club Barrovian Society. The friends would discuss language, literature, mythology as well as music, art and current affairs. To discover more about them select Tolkien and his Circle

Several of Tolkien's relatives attended King Edward's School; one younger cousin had a volume of poetry published after his death in the First World War. See
Thomas Ewart Mitton, cousin

J. R. R. Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien's childhood in Birmingham

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