Bournville is special. And we like our specialness. We are proud of our connection with the Victorian chocolate manufacturers. The portrait of George Cadbury greets you at our boundaries, bearded and solemn. We love the fact that we live in a pretty place, with cottages, parks and gardens. George and Richard Cadbury loved the English countryside and they planned Bournville to capture that- even down to the traditional summer dance around the Maypole. George and Richard Cadbury loved sport too, and George Cadbury set aside 300 acres of land just for that, for his employees. In fact he planned a sports pavilion just before he died- Rowheath Pavilion.
We like to remind ourselves of this history- and it’s important to us to keep that sense of a rural English village. There are hanging baskets on the “village” green. We don’t have ordinary street lights here- we have “heritage” street lights. The Bournville Christmas tree- the tall tree by the Friend’s meeting house, is a thing of glory when covered with lights, and surrounded by two thousand carol singers. We carry traditional lanterns.
But there is another story to tell which is not so visible. Bournville was George Cadbury’s life work, and he poured much of his wealth into it. But why was this? I think it began in Birmingham’s 19th century slums, a grim expression of our industrial revolution,. You could almost say that something was called into being there.
George and his brother Richard belonged to a Quaker family. They followed Christ. For them that meant going where Christ was, following his invitation to walk with the people who suffer. And just then that was among the slums, the dark little “back to backs” in Birmingham, which were ever expanding, and supplying cheap labour to the new factories. Their father launched a campaign against boy chimney sweeps. Their mother led a mission among the publicans. Their home was in the countryside but their cocoa factory was by the slums and George and Richard were able to watch their town and people change as congested homes, courts and alleys spread.
Richard and George began to teach in the slums. They taught men through the Adult School movement but their aim was more fundamental than education. They taught literacy but their emphasis was on Christianity and about life in Christ, understanding that, for these men in this place, there was an issue of identity. George Cadbury taught class 14- he took up responsibility for his class as a young man, but he went to teach class 14 for fifty years, every Sunday morning, for 7.30 am. He personally taught about 4000 men, and according to his biographers, some of these became counted amongst his closest relationships. His class set up offshoots. They transformed “The Swan with Two Necks” and the “Coppersmith Arms” into places for community and learning. But George Cadbury came to realize that it was hard to follow Christ in a man made world without beauty, but plentiful gin. He took them, each man, a flower every Sunday morning, but it wasn’t enough.
So the grand scheme began. The chocolate factory was doing well. Could they get the factory out of the city? Could they build cottages for their workers instead of slum housing? Would gardens feed families who’d never seen earth, who were emaciated and weak? “I know let’s call it Bournville.” Schools, churches, parks. Bournville Village Trust established to preserve the vision. A hospital for “cripples” nearby called the Woodlands, malnourished children at the Beeches. Days out for the children, thousands of slum children, at the Cadbury home. And what difference would it make to grow a community in a setting with sunlight, trees and grass?
George Cadbury won awards for his philanthropy, but in Birmingham he became an unpopular man. He called for peace, when all other voices demanded war, the Boer War in South Africa. He worked hard with Birmingham’s divided church, seeking common cause with any who pursued human flourishing in faith, body and mind. He stood against powerful vested interests, exposing low wages, poor housing, and exploitation across the city and the country. All the time Bournville, and the Cadbury factory grew as a living challenge to commerce, councils and politicians.
But now much of that story has been forgotten. Cadbury’s is owned by Kraft. The Beeches is a conference centre. The Woodlands has been absorbed by the NHS. We have “heritage” street lights. But Pavilion Christian Community could tell the story, and with the wider Rowheath Community even inhabit it and let it shape us a little. Perhaps even Bournville could be helped to live in its history in greater fullness. Maybe the English country village can be allowed to recede a little. The Victorian paternalism can certainly be allowed to blow away. But we are in Birmingham and it is still suffering.
Our foundations, it turns out, are in generosity and justice, creativity and innovation- and in Christ. And we thought it was just gardens and cottages and chocolate.
A G Gardiner, Life of George Cadbury. London: Cassell, 1923.
Walter Stranz, George Cadbury. Shire Lifelines, 1973.
Michael Harrison, Bournville: Model Village to Garden Suburb. Chichester: Phillimore, 1999.