The history of Christian worship in Handsworth dates from at least 1200, when a priest was recorded at St Mary’s Church. However, the Manor of Handsworth had existed since Saxon times, so it is possible that a timber church had existed previously.
Originally situated in Staffordshire (until it became part of Birmingham in 1911), Handsworth was a large parish with a population widely dispersed in farms and cottages. The turning point in its development was the creation of the Soho Manufactory by Matthew Boulton. More factories followed, and the population expanded continuously throughout the 19th century. Growth was further encouraged by the arrival of the railway, with stations opening at Handsworth in 1837 and Perry Barr in 1854.
The huge increases in population resulted in the creation of several new churches in the parish, including St John’s, Perry Barr (consecrated 1833); St James’, Handsworth (erected 1838-40); St Michael’s, Handsworth (consecrated 1855); Holy Trinity, Birchfield (consecrated 1864); St Paul’s Hamstead (consecrated 1892) and, finally, St Andrew’s Handsworth.
Until the 1880s the area which now forms the parish of St Andrew’s consisted mainly of countryside. Rookery Road had only one or two houses, was surrounded by fields and contained a rookery. Church Lane was a country lane with a few old cottages. However, the district was changing and the population was increasing rapidly. The nearest church was St Mary’s, but this was too long a journey for children attending Sunday School.
Two ladies, living in College Road and Somerset Road, gave up a room in each of their houses for Kindergarten Sunday School classes and spiritual life in the district began to grow. The first cottage service was held in the College Road house on Good Friday, 1892. It was then decided that something must be done to fulfil the spiritual needs of the district, and consequently the foundation stone of the Mission Church of the Good Shepherd was laid on 11 July 1893 by the Honourable Mrs Legge, wife of the Bishop of Lichfield (Handsworth was situated in the Diocese of Lichfield at that time and the Bishop was formerly a Curate at St Mary’s Church).
The Mission Church was built on the corner of Church Lane, Grove Road and College Road. The architect was Thomson Plevins of Waterloo Street, Birmingham, and the Church, which was built of brick in the early English style, included a chancel, entrance porch and vestry, and seated 260 people. It was heated with a hot water system. The builder was John Mallin of West Bromwich and the work was completed in 1894.
The first Priest-in-Charge was the Rev R S Genge, who was appointed to the Mission Church (which served the needs of those living in the western part of St Mary’s and the northern part of St James’ parishes) in February 1894. The population in the area rose rapidly, from around 1,500 in 1894 to 5,000 in 1904. The Church was therefore extended by means of a corrugated iron extension to act as an overflow, and in 1906 it was proposed that a Conventional District should be formed from these areas, which would eventually become the Parish of St Andrew.
As there was insufficient space for expansion on the site surrounding the Mission Church, land was purchased in Oxhill Road to build a new church. The foundation stone of St Andrew’s Church was lain on Saturday, 19 October 1907 by the Rt Hon the Earl of Dartmouth. The architect of the new church was William Henry Bidlake, and the church was consecrated on Saturday, 30 January 1909 by the Rt Rev Charles Gore, the first Bishop of the new Diocese of Birmingham.
The estimated cost of the new building had been £8,000, but the actual cost was £10,000. The Rev S J Selwyn, appointed in 1901 as second Priest-in-Charge of the Mission Church, had made tremendous efforts to raise the necessary money but £3,000 was still outstanding when the church was consecrated.
The Rev W M Salt was appointed as the first Priest-in-Charge of St Andrew’s Church in 108, remaining until 1910, when he was succeeded by the Rev S A King. At this time a change was made in Sunday services, with Sung Eucharist replacing Matins at 11.00 am.
In 1914 the Conventional District became the Parish of St Andrew’s and the Rev John Edwards Bowles was instituted as the first vicar. The use of vestments was introduced by the new vicar, who planned services on the dignified ceremonial known as the English Catholic use.
In 1923 a house known as “The Grange”, in Laurel Road, was purchased as St Andrew’s Vicarage and the Rev R J Harker became vicar. In 1924 a kitchen and supper-room were built at the Church Hall (the former Mission Church of the Good Shepherd). (The) Rev B M Dale succeeded Fr Harker in 1932 and became the first member of St Andrew’s clergy to be heard on the radio, in a programme broadcast from Birmingham Cathedral in 1933. Fr Dale left in 1936 and eventually became Bishop of Jamaica.
The Rev N N Kennaby was appointed vicar in 1936 and faced the most difficult task of any priest at St Andrew’s when the Second World War started in September 1939. Handsworth suffered numerous air-raids, with many inhabitants killed or injured. Fr Kennaby was always ready to attend the casualty post set up at Grove Road Baths to comfort the sick and dying. He arranged shelters for the children remaining in the area, but many children (including those in the choir) had been evacuated. There was much disruption in family life, and he had to combat apathy towards attending church. However, services continued as usual, using the Good Shepherd Chapel (which had been blacked out) and altering the time of Evensong to 3.30 pm because of blackout restrictions.
Many bombs and landmines fell in the area around St Andrew’s, including a bomb (“Satan”) reputed to be the largest dropped on Birmingham, which feel on Rookery Road in 1942. Eight parishioners were killed during the war. The church was damaged by blast – some of the tracery in the West Window was damaged but unfortunately the West Window was undamaged. However, the effects of the damage caused by landmines falling nearby was not apparent at the time and was to cause structural problems in later years. The Vicarage was also badly damaged, and the cost of repair was too great for the parish to bear. The house was therefore handed over to the government for use as the Home Guard’s district headquarters.
In 1942 Fr Kennaby was succeeded by the Rev E G H Hymas. During his sixteen year incumbency much work was done to the fabric of the church, including work to stop water leaking through the roof from the fleche – unfortunately this repair was not permanent and the problem was to return in later years. The old Vicarage was demolished and a new, smaller, house was built on half of the old site.
The population of the parish had been increasing throughout the 20th century and new estates had been built in Friary Road, Handsworth Wood and Hamstead Hall. “Home” Sunday Schools had been started in houses in 1943 and a new church was proposed, to cater for the needs of the new estates. When Fr Hymas died, in 1961, a Building Fund of £860 had been collected by residents of the estates. No site had been secured, although the Church of St Francis had been instituted, with services held in Grestone Avenue School.
In 1962 (the) Rev K E Fielding was appointed as vicar and, as the St Andrew’s Parish was now greatly expanded, St Francis’ Church became the responsibility of the curate. A priest’s house was established at 51, Vernon Avenue and successive curates lived here in the centre of the estate to which they ministered.
Although the original intention had been to build a church, there were many unforeseen changes – the Second World War caused much disruption, all churches experienced falling attendances in the post-war period and the population of the area was changing. Older people inhabitants, of different ethnic origins, arrived. In addition, Birmingham City Council announced a large increase in the rent for Grestone Avenue School, so in October 1982 it was decided that the congregations of St Francis and St Andrew should join together. The house in Vernon Avenue was eventually sold.
Fr Fielding retired in 1982 and was succeeded by the Rev John Herve (appointed as Priest-in-Charge), who had served as an army chaplain since 1976 and continued with the reserve of army officers, holding the rank of Major (Chaplain). This was a period of vigorous change in the parish, during which some restoration work was carried out on the church building with the help of the Manpower Services Commission. In 1986 Fr Herve left to become Director of Theological Studies at the Anglo-Catholic Theological College at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and was succeeded as vicar by the Rev David Collyer.
In recent years much has been carried out on St Andrew’s Church, strengthening its structure, repairing the roof, and upgrading the heating system. In addition, new parish rooms adjoining the church and named the Good Shepherd Hall have recently been completed. The architects of the new building were Temple Cox Nicolls of Edgbaston, and the work was carried out to the highest standards by Messrs Storr-River of Walsall.
Many dramatic changes have occurred in this area in the last hundred years, but throughout the century the congregation of St Andrew’s, and previously of its parent Church of the Good Shepherd, has continued to bear witness to the Christian faith in Handsworth. Now combined in a group ministry with the churches of St Michael and St James, and working in conjunction with churches of other denominations, it will continue to make its way forward in faith, serving God and the community.