Smethwick Grove

House no 5 – Smethwick Grove

(the following is a historical presentation by Mary Bodfish, Chairperson – Smethwick Local History Society.)

It is not known exactly when this house was built, or by whom, but it was in existence by the late 1790s. The house called Smethwick Grove stood near the eastern boundary of Smethwick on the east side of what is now Grove Lane. I am sure that many of you are familiar with the Lunar Society; that group of friends and associates, centred on Matthew Boulton and Soho House, with interests in science and commerce. Many of the most distinguished men of the day were among its numbers – and one of them, James Keir, lived for a time at Smethwick Grove. The Harborne parish rates list of 1797 shows Mr. Keir being charged rates on his property in Smethwick. James Keir was a Scotsman and a noted scientist, inventor and man of letters. He was held in high regard by the great engineer, James Watt, who considered him to be”a mighty chemist and a very agreeable man”.

One day in the 1790s a young Swiss man named Jean-Louis Moilliet, who came from near Geneva turned up at Soho House. He was equipped with credit of £10,000, and what was arguably even more valuable, a letter of introduction to Matthew Boulton. In his usual friendly and hospitable way, Matthew Boulton introduced the young man to his circle of friends, and so Jean-Louis Moilliet met James Keir – and more importantly still, James Keir’s only child, his daughter Amelia. In 1801 Amelia Keir married Jean-Louis Moilliet at All Saint’s Church, West Bromwich. He became a naturalised Briton, changed his name to John Lewis Moilliet and the young couple made their home for many years at Smethwick Grove.

In 1813 John Lewis Moilliet bought Smethwick Grove and its sixteen-acre estate. This house was in a very pleasant setting, backed by woodland, but with lawns in front leading towards the waters of the Birmingham canal. During the next few years he greatly increased the size of the estate and by 1828 owned 59 acres. When this part of the canal system was cut off by Telford’s improvements in 1824-27, Moilliet bought the short stretch of the old line of the Canal and created an attractive pool. An engraving of the house that can be dated to the late 1820s shows swans on the water and cattle grazing in the grounds.

Another member of the Lunar Society was an Irishman named Richard Lovell Edgeworth, and before her marriage, Amelia Moilliet became a friend of his daughter Maria Edgeworth, who was a celebrated novelist. The ladies kept up their friendship through correspondence. In 1819 Miss Edgeworth, accompanied by two of her numerous younger half-sisters, Fanny and Honora, visited the Moilliets at Smethwick Grove. When on her travels Miss Edgeworth wrote lively, gossipy letters to her family in Ireland, and details of the Moillet’s home life are recorded in them. She was favourably impressed by John Moilliet, describing him as “intelligent without pretension” , and she thought the Moilliet household an excellent example for her younger sisters, writing that “When I saw the way of going on in this family – mode of life – mercantile and literary and domestic – I determined that if it could be managed we would stay a day more . . . that Fanny might see it . . . I rejoice that we stayed”.

Miss Edgeworth made another brief visit to Smethwick Grove in the same year, when she wrote that Amelia Moilliet “was most affectionate in her whole manner and conduct to us”, but added “Mrs. M . . . herself is fatter even than when you saw her – quite a heavy mass in person – much older in appearance than her age” (which was still under 40). The young Moilliets, of whom there were five, were described as “fine, fat, chubby, slow creatures”. The eldest daughter, Emily, won some praise as “although slow, is very pretty and interesting and genteel and simple and classical in appearance – like an antique figure on a vase”.

Two more visits were made during 1821. Miss Edgeworth described being “once more at the dear hospitable Moilliets, in the same room where we sat together in 1819 on the same sofa with the little table before me – the furniture as clean and bright as if just new . . . Emily making tea at the same well-furnished tea board with her slow motions and careful nearsighted beautiful eyes picking her way amongst the cups and saucers and getting through the arduous task of tea maker at her snail’s pace in a miraculous manner. . . not a cup or saucer different”. What a charming picture Maria Edgeworth gives us of genteel family life in Smethwick in the early 19th century.

Returning to the Moilliets, they were close friends of the very wealthy Quaker family of Samuel Tertius Galton, and in 1832 John’s son James Moilliet married Lucy Harriot Galton. The Galton family records describe this “an engagement that gave great pleasure . . . the two families having been intimate for three generations”.

By this time Jean Louis Moilliet had moved to Hamstead Hall in Handsworth and the Grove was let to George Bacchus, a partner in a Birmingham firm of flint-glass manufacturers. However Bacchus left in 1830 and James and Lucy moved into the Grove when they married. It has been recorded of young Mrs. Moilliet that she “took a great interest in the cottagers and their children, and had them to her house to teach them to read”. In 1836 a school for infants was opened in Hill Street in Smethwick, due to the good offices of James and Lucy Moilliet.

James Moilliet sold the mansion to a Thomas Adkins of Handsworth who built a soap factory in the area. This house was then named The Grove.