Tolkien’s Birmingham: Edgbaston and the Two Towers

Tolkien’s Birmingham:and the Two Towers

The featured illustration this time is a map. The Edgbaston portion of a “Bird’s-eye view” map of Birmingham, as published in the Birmingham Mail in 1904. I’ve taken the liberty of defacing a copy (OK, a virtual copy). I indicate where certain places in this next part of the story were in relation to one another. The street highlighted in green at the top of the map is Oliver Road. This is where Mabel and the boys found themselves in 1902. Technically part of Edgbaston, it was on the border of Ladywood, a rapidly growing working-class area, parts of which later became one of the worst slums in Birmingham.

EdgbastonBut Edgbaston was seen — and is still seen — as one of the best Birmingham suburbs.

Certainly almost all the houses had gardens and – if one went south a block from Oliver Road to Reservoir Road and then went three short blocks west – there was a large park around the Edgbaston Canal Reservoir. But the new accommodations were grim, a product of the family’s new-found hardship.

In the aftermath of being widowed, Mabel hadn’t found the spiritual solace she needed from her Baptist background, and apparently found the Methodism and Unitarianism of her Tolkien in-laws of no help, either.
She’d flirted with Anglo-Catholicism, a kind of halfway step between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, when one of her Sunday walks brought her to The Oratory, located on Hagley Road (outlined in deep purple at the bottom of the map).

There, she found Fr Francis Morgan, an Anglo-Spanish/Welsh priest who, while not particularly gifted intellectually, showed great pastoral solicitude, with an ebullient and practical generosity. She, Ronald and Hilary were received into the Catholic Church shortly thereafter, to the horror of the Suffields and the Tolkiens alike.. After their threats and protests went unheeded, both families finally broke with Mabel, cutting her and the boys off, financially.

Fr. Francis arranged to have the Oliver Road house let to Mabel for relatively little money and, since she could no longer afford the tuition to King Edward’s School, arranged a place for Ronald at St. Philip’s, a grammar school run by The Oratory, near Oliver Road.

It was here, going to school, walking to The Oratory, or simply looking out his back window, that Tolkien first caught sight of Perrrot’s Folly.

This was the tower of what had once been a hunting lodge (outlined in red on the map) and the tower of the Edgbaston Water Works (outlined in blue on the map). A few blocks away from his home, enroute to The Oratory and dominating the skyline at a time when buildings in the area were rarely over two-stories tall, imposing and elaborate in their design, they couldn’t fail to hold his attention, or command his imagination.

He must have invented scores of stories about them before using them as the models for Orthanc and Cirith Ungol in Lord of the Rings (not Minas Tirith, which we’ll get to in the next post, and not Barad-dûr; Tolkien – who never liked this title for the second volume to begin with, and was concerned that readers would be misled – went on to specify which were The Two Towers in a letter to his publisher on 22 January 1954. The author has spoken, enough said).

Never finding much to challenge him at St. Philip’s, Tolkien reapplied to King Edward School as a scholarship student and was accepted on that basis, returning in 1903.

But the damage was done as far as Mabel ‘s health was concerned. The constant financial stress had taken too much of a physical toll. Her 1903 Christmas letter (quoted in Tolkien’s biography) alludes to symptoms of diabetes. By April 1904 there was. no doubt, she was formally diagnosed. In those days, while the disease could be diagnosed, there was no insulin or other effective treatment. The diagnosis was effectively a death sentence.

The house on Oliver Road was abandoned, and the family was separated. Mabel spent time in hospital. Again with help from Fr. Francis, she rented a cottage called Woodside at Rednal in the nearby Lickey Hills. Hilary stayed with his maternal grandparents in King’s Heath. Ronald took sick himself and was sent to live in Brighton with his aunt’s fiancé, in an apparent hope the sea-air would do him some good.

It didn’t; Mabel described the boys as “weak white ghosts” when they rejoined her in June 1904. But they did recover in the hills, and Mabel recounted the “bilberry gathering – Tea in Hay –Kite flying with Fr. Francis – sketching – Tree Climbing . . .”. Mabel’s own health rallied that summer, but declined in the autumn. She went into a coma and died in November 1904.

In the last weeks of her life, she’d taken the precaution of making Fr. Francis the boys’ guardian. Apparently, she was concerned that if the Suffields or Tolkiens had charge of the boys they’d be lured, or even forced, away from Catholicism.

In Ronald’s case, she needn’t have worried. He considered his mother a martyr to the Catholic faith. He would revere her as such to the end of his days and would remain a devout Catholic for the rest of his life.

An aunt, Beatrice Suffield, the widow of one of Mabel’s brothers, lived nearby at 25 Stirling Road, Edgbaston (the part outlined on the map in yellow). Her hostility to the boys’ Catholicism was not so intense as to refuse her nephews board and lodging. She herself was not well off financially. The four pounds and sixteen shillings which Fr Francis paid her every month must have been convenient. However, Beatrice showed them little if any affection (her own recent widowhood may well have affected her temperament).

The house was gloomy, and Ronald and Hilary were unhappy there (though they declined for a long time to tell Fr. Francis as much). Even the time spent in the Lickey Hills had become a bittersweet experience. Perhaps Tolkien’s dark moods during this period account in part for the dark way he now regarded “The Two Towers.”. It was a ubiquitous presence in his life once again, seen easily every time he left the house or looked out the window. “Home”, increasingly became The Oratory, where the day began serving Fr Francis’ early Mass, followed by breakfast, and playing games before going to school.

But someone was about to come along who would brighten his outlook.  They would make the Lickey Hills a happy place again for him, and would inspire him like no one else. Go to my Facebook page for photographs of the real Two Towers and the Lickey Hills. We’ll talk more about the hills next time, and – since it isn’t one of the Two Towers – my own ideas about the inspiration for Minas Tirith.

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.