History

What’s in a name?

‘Barr’ is Celtic for ‘prominent hill’ or Old English for ‘top’ or ‘summit’. ‘Beacon’ is Old English for either ‘commanding hill’; ‘sign’; ‘signal’ or ‘fire beacon’. It is likely that ‘Barr Beacon’ means ‘a prominent hill used for signals’.

Early settlers
 

A Neolithic mace head and Neolithic or Bronze Age stone hammers suggest that there was human activity on or near Barr Beacon anything up to 4,000 years ago. Some rare Roman coins have been found too.

Picture of Barr Beacon 1962
 

It is even thought ‘Barr Beacon’ means ‘a hill used for fire signals, because ‘Barr’ is Celtic for ‘hill’ or Old English for ‘‘summit’. ‘Beacon’ is Old English for ‘signal’ or ‘fire beacon’.

Battleground
 

After the Romans left in AD 410, the ‘Barr’ district became part of the West Saxon kingdom. For the next 500 years almost continual conflict ensued between the Saxons and Danes.

The 1086 Domesday survey of landownership recorded it as part of the Royal Forest of Cannock.

In the 15th century, during the struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster – the Wars of the Roses – Barr Beacon was occupied by a group of Yorkists.
 

Unearthing the past
 

Recent archaeological surveys revealed evidence of ridge and furrow ploughing, possibly medieval, along with some post-medieval pottery.

Ridge and furrow often dates from the 12th to early 13th centuries, when farming increased due to a rapid population growth. By the post-medieval period much of this area was farmland. By the late 19th century, only Barr Beacon’s summit was unsettled, remaining in a wild and natural state.


A beacon of light
 

Throughout the centuries fires were lit on hills to announce significant events. During Elizabeth I’s reign, beacons warned of the Spanish Armada’s attack. In June 1988, 400 years later, here and across England, fires commemorated the event.

Between 1803 and 1815, Barr Beacon was equipped to be a link in a ‘chain of fires’ ready to announce the Napoleonic invasion.

Later, in 1887, a huge fire was part of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee celebrations, and again in 1897 for her diamond jubilee, when nearly 100 other fires could be seen from Barr Beacon.

At this time, Barr Beacon’s owners, the Scott family of Great Barr Hall, refused permission for the fire. It went ahead on the reservoir construction site, after the organiser, Colonel J. H. Wilkinson of the Staffordshire Volunteer Infantry Brigade, approached South Staffordshire Waterworks Company.

Further events followed – a bonfire for 1951’s Festival of Britain – the national exhibition held to aid Britain’s post-war recovery; in 1953, floodlights for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and a beacon fire for her 1977 silver jubilee, and most recently 2012’s golden jubilee celebrations.


A trusted heritage
 

The Scott’s ownership of the Beacon may have begun in the 1500s. However, it’s more likely that Joseph Scott bought it sometime between the late 1700s and early 1800s. Ownership ended with Lady Mildred Scott’s death in 1909. Eventually, in 1918, the estate was auctioned off.

Barr Beacon’s sale led to a public outcry and Birmingham’s Lord Mayor making a plea to secure it as a public park or open space. Colonel J. H. Wilkinson responded by purchasing the site, transferring it to a trust and opening it to the public on Easter Monday, April 1919.


Lest we Forget
 

Today’s war memorial dates from 1933. It covered a pedestal-mounted ‘direction-finder’ or topographic disk, originally installed in 1920.

This disk was removed for ‘safe keeping’ early in World War II. Unfortunately, the building where it was stored in Birmingham’s Cannon Hill Park, was bombed. Between 1954 and 1982, various copies of the disk were installed to replace the original.

Today you’ll find a new disk which makes it easier for you to spot landmarks across eleven counties on a clear day.

March 1970 saw extensive repairs to prevent the memorial’s collapse. Wide stone steps and sagging terraces were replaced with grassed earthwork banks. Bronze railings were removed and sold along with surplus stonework.

In 1972, the trusteeship of Barr Beacon passed to Walsall Council. Local councillors and representatives of interest groups now make up a management committee.


Raising The Barr
 

Barr Beacon and its war memorial have recently benefitted from a Heritage Lottery Fund grant. The project, called ‘Raising The Barr’, has seen the memorial’s copper roof replaced with one made from specially coated sheets of zinc. Before the restoration, the roof had been damaged by thieves attempting to steal the copper to sell on for its scrap value. The zinc has a much lower scrap value and is also protected by video cameras and a special security coating called SmartWater.

The grant also paid for the reinstatement of the balustrade, repairs to the stonework and the refurbishment of the nearby flagpole which is a rare hundred year old design.

In 2014 the memorial was rededicated to all service personnel who have lost their lives since the First World War. The ceremony was one of a number of large public events that have taken place as a result of ‘Raising The Barr’. These have included an archaeological dig, live music festivals and astronomy events. These star gazing nights helped to get Barr Beacon designated as Britain’s first urban Dark Sky Discovery Site. This means it’s one of the best places to view the night sky in the region.

You can discover more about the history of the site when you download the Barr Beacon App or get a copy of the Nature Trial leaflet.

To find out more about the history of Barr Beacon, why not download the mobile app?

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