Nicola Lisle discovers a new visitor centre in Birmingham in the latest in her museum series.
ONE of Birmingham’s newest visitor attractions, having opened in July 2021, the Roundhouse in Birmingham is a lovely canalside gem in the heart of the city’s Ladywood district.
The horseshoe-shaped building dates back to 1874 and was at the heart of Birmingham’s rapid industrial development – in which, of course, the city’s canal network played a major role.
Birmingham was already a major industrial centre by the time James Brindley’s canal opened in 1769, leading to writer Arthur Young (1741-1820) dubbing it ‘the first manufacturing town in the world’, and its prosperity was further boosted with the opening of Thomas Telford’s new canal in 1838. Raw materials were brought in from London and distributed to the city’s factories, with finished goods then being transported to the Midlands and beyond for shipping all over the world.
Despite the coming of the railways in the mid-19th century, Birmingham’s industrial might continued, and by the turn of the century several million tons of goods were being carried along the city’s canals.
Now Birmingham’s story has been brought to life in the Roundhouse’s new visitor centre, alongside the story of the Roundhouse itself.
The site on which the Roundhouse now stands was originally Corporation Wharf, established in Sheepcote Street by the Birmingham Corporation in 1864 as a stonebreakers’ yard. The influx of workers into Birmingham had created a demand for new housing and roads, so a hard stone known as Rowley Rag, quarried in the Black Country, was brought to Corporation Wharf by horse-drawn canal boats to be hammered into small pieces by the stonebreakers.
In 1873 local architect William Henry Ward (1844-1917) won a competition held by the Corporation’s Public Works Department to design a new depot at Sheepcote Street. Ward’s Roundhouse was completed a year later, becoming a notable landmark in the city.
For the next 80 years, the Roundhouse provided stabling for 50 horses, which carried stone, night soil and other heavy goods around Birmingham by cart or boat.
By the mid-20th century, though, it was the beginning of the end for the Roundhouse. Cars and vans took over from horses and carts, and the Roundhouse’s days as a city depot were numbered. It finally closed during the 1990s, and for a few years it served as a nursery and a space for businesses and exhibitions. As the 21st century dawned, though, the Roundhouse was in need of renovation and a new purpose.
Fortunately, the building had been given Grade II listed status by Historic England in 1976, so demolition wasn’t an option.
It wasn’t until 2013 that the Canal & River Trust, which now owns the building, formed a partnership with the National Trust with a view to restoring the Roundhouse and bringing it back to life.
Eight years later, with the help of National Lottery Heritage funding, the Roundhouse opened to the public as a visitor centre with a cafe, exhibition space and offices. Wall displays in the visitor centre tell the story of Birmingham and its canals, from its 19th century industrial heyday to an optimistic and ever-changing 21st century city, with a detailed history of the Roundhouse right up to its renovation and reopening.
There are also outdoor exhibitions, including Wander Water, which opened in September 2022 and is a series of sculptures reflecting the female experience of walking along the local canals.
But there is much more to the Roundhouse than just the building and its courtyard. At the heart of Roundhouse Birmingham, the charity responsible for running the Roundhouse, is a mission to get visitors exploring Birmingham and its canal heritage by foot, bike or boat, and this is the perfect base for doing just that.
There is a programme of events from spring to autumn, including a guided tour of the Roundhouse, kayak tours, paddleboarding experiences, heritage working boat trips, walking and cycling tours, and other activities.
You can also enjoy self-guided walking and cycling tours. These include Cocoa Canal, which explores the Cadbury connection and takes you from the Roundhouse to Bournville village; Towers, Teddy Bears and Trains, which takes you to Tolkien’s Towers at Edgbaston Reservoir and Chad Valley toys; and Local Look Around, an interactive tour taking in towpath wildlife, the historic Old Turn Junction and narrowboats.