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The Birmingham canal network is one of the most intricate networks of its type in the world, comprising over 35 miles of waterways - a fact from which the somewhat overused expression 'more canals than Venice' has resulted.

In recent times the focus of the canal network has shifted from industry to leisure and amenity. So too has that of the buildings that are associated with it, meaning very little of the industrial heritage that was served by the canals remains intact in its original form.

One building that has held on to its industrial heritage is The Roundhouse. Hidden away in Sheepcote Street, the building is virtually unchanged; a surviving piece of the city's industrial and civic heritage and is Grade II* listed in recognition of its architectural and historic significance.

The Roundhouse was built by the Corporation of Birmingham as a mineral and coal wharf for the railway. The site is a small triangular parcel of land, which sits directly between the Birmingham Canal and the former London & North Western Railway.

It was the subject of an architectural competition in the early 1870s and the winning design was by William Henry Ward, a local architect based in Paradise Street. Ward was responsible for many of Birmingham's great buildings such as Great Western Arcade and the Parish Offices in Newhall Street, also known as Louisa Ryland House.

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The Birmingham Canal was the first canal to be brought into the city under the supervision of James Brindley between 1768 and 1772. From here the canal network grew to form the commercial backbone of Victorian Birmingham, shipping in coal and raw materials to the thriving factories and distributing manufactured goods across the country.

That was until the advent of the railways from 1838, when canal use began to decline nationally.

The design of The Roundhouse took advantage of its strategic location as a canal-rail interchange, with the railway to the north and canal to the south. Its iconic horseshoe-plan makes it a waterside landmark, its design far beyond what would usually be expected for a local authority depot of its time, reflecting a sense of civic pride in the corporation.

The building's main aspect, towards the railway, formed the entrance to a central courtyard, with each end of the horseshoe terminating on a two-storey gatehouse, used as living quarters for a storekeeper and office space. Around the south-facing façade large brick barrel-vaulted chambers formed storage for coal and minerals, with the central arch forming a tunnel, which allowed horse-drawn carts to pass from the lower canal-side level yard through to the secure internal yard.

In contrast to the relatively plain exterior, the facade inside the cobbled courtyard is rhythmically fenestrated with one and two storey bays of arched windows and green stable doors. External hoists project at eaves level, which would have served haylofts at the first floor.

The stables housed around 40 horses and, combined with the external outbuildings, would have provided overnight accommodation for a total of 200 horses. As sounds echo around the courtyard you can get a sense of the vibrancy and intense activity that would have taken place there.

In recent years, various temporary uses have been found for the spaces, such as artists workshops and vintage boutiques, but until now no viable long-term use has been found. The building is now owned by the Canal & River Trust and, in partnership with The National Trust, plans are afoot to give the building a new lease of life.

Renovation works at the adjacent Fiddle & Bone pub have kick-started the process, turning it once again into a vibrant canalside destination.

Plans are now being drawn up to find new uses for The Roundhouse. Some of the ideas that are being explored include a hub for local businesses, a cycle workshop and store, catering facilities and facilities for commuters. Whilst respecting the building's rich heritage, the plans will bring the building back to life, transforming it from a former industrial centre to a vibrant community hub.

Article by Matthew Goer, Director, Associated Architects
Published in the Birmingham Post, 23 December 2014

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