The Caretakers (Matrons) House
Rod Ling reveals a little known part of Spring Hill College
In the summer of 1869 a young theological student from Spring Hill College in Wake Green, in the county of Worcestershire, was returning from an evening spent in the company of friends. Perhaps because they lived locally, he had been delayed by their hospitality and now hurried in the dark towards the college. Only narrowly avoiding a fresh mound of horse-dung in the road, he quietly entered the college grounds through a wooden gate at the junction of College and Wake Green Roads. He was careful not to make a noise as the gate swung open; he did not want to disturb the occupants of the adjacent lodge. Swiftly, he made his way down the long gravel path that wound beneath an avenue of trees until the solid, black shape of the college building loomed above him. He passed the turreted end of the west wing and tried the door in the scholars’ entrance half way along its length. The door was locked and there was no light showing, either from the bedroom windows on the first floor or from the study windows at ground level. James Sibree Junior, son of Reverend James Sibree, a congregationalist minister, uttered a soft but not profane imprecation and circled the building, searching for a way in. Eventually he found himself in the far south-east corner of the building where the matron’s house stood forward from the main façade to match that of the principal’s house to the south-west. He descended the steps that would take him along the wall of the east wing and here he found what he was looking for; a window not fully closed. He knew that if he could gain entry he would be in the kitchen or larder area beneath the matron’s quarters. He reasoned that from here there must be some way of entering the wing that contained his first-floor bedroom. He worked his hand through theopening, found the metal stay, lifted it and opened the window. A slight, agile man he had no difficulty in hoisting himself through the window and down into the space below. What he had not anticipated was the positioning of a table on which stood a number of glass bottles…………….
In March, 2012, a few of us, Moseleians all, entered the same ‘matron’s house’, though, on this oc casion, with the aid of a key. For those reading this article, the premises will be better known as the caretaker’s house in the ‘old building’ at Moseley School. After a wait of many years and following the departure of the last ‘head caretaker’, we had finally been allowed into this previously unexplored part of the building. Our access was through the elevated walkway constructed in the 1920s when the original building underwent major modifications to make it suitable for use as a school. Previously, the door had been located almost immediately below this point, at lower ground level. Knowing that the architects for the changes, Buckland and Haywood, had a good reputation for work on historic buildings, we wondered whether the bricks used for the sealing of the original door came from making the opening for the new one.
We entered onto what would have been a turning point on the stairwell which is still, essentially, intact. Turning to the left we could descend the stairs to the lower ground level. The space here has been much altered over the years and only some of the original design remains. It provides access to all the areas in the east wing. At this ‘basement’ level, removed from the scholars’ rooms and the teaching areas along the front of the building, the services of food storage and preparation, laundry and cleaning for the college, were once located.
Returning to the stairwell we climbed to the ground floor level. At this point there is a common floor plan for this and the two floors above. To the left is a room that overlooks the playing fields, to the right is a room overlooking the 1920s ‘science block’, with a narrow corridor adjacent to it. At ground floor level this corridor leads out into the main corridor for the college, emerging almost opposite the door leading to the gymnasium.
On the first floor the equivalent mini- corridor is now blocked off but would once have given the matron access to the scholars’ bedrooms. This floor level in the east wing no longer exists because of its removal to create the gym. The two larger rooms would presumably have been bedrooms but the one to the right has now been divided to provide a modern bathroom with a smaller room beyond.
On the second floor, the mini-corridor leads, as it has always led, only to a cupboard as we are now above the roof of the east wing. The rooms to the right and left, bedrooms 3 and 4, are unchanged and strikingly high-ceilinged.
This ‘matron’s/caretaker’s house’ obviously invites comparison with the ‘principal’s/head’s house’ at the other end of the building. The former, as might be expected, enjoys little of the ‘finer’ features of the latter. The rooms have no ornate moulded coving of vines and oak leaf or grand Caen-stone fire surrounds. Where fireplaces remain on the first and second floors they are cast iron and simple in design. There is, also, of course, no equivalent to the entrance porch to the head’s house with its Minton-style tiles and decorative, welcoming fireplace. There are some similarities, however. Both areas evidently share the same carpentry, where it survives. The staircase looks to be identical in design with the distinctive conical tops and bottoms to the newel posts and spindles/balusters cleverly turned through 45 degrees. Unfortunately the original wood has been painted, probably many times and the same is true of the solid, characteristically-fashioned doors.
There are also some ‘plus points’ to the matron’s house, most notably the great amount of light on the stairwell on the first and second floors, entering through two large, traceried windows in the east-facing wall, though these single-glazed areas may have been a dubious advantage during the winter months. Two further large gothic windows, also with ornate tracery, help to explain the greater height and more spacious feel in the bedrooms on the top floor when compared to the head’s house.
I’m sure that further spaces in the college remain unexplored but they are now likely to be in areas with severely-restricted access. Even if a window was left conveniently ajar I doubt that this particular group of Moseleians would be equipped to take advantage.
As for James Sibree, he kept a journal of his time as a student at Spring Hill College in the late 1860s. After ordination, he returned to Madagascar with the London Missionary Society. When he died some of his personal possessions were given to the LMS archive and these eventually found their way to the library at the School of Oriental and African Studies, part of University College, London, where I had the pleasure of reading details of his nocturnal adventures.