John Smeaton was chief engineer during the construction of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, which opened in 1789. He has been called ‘the father of civil engineering’ and is credited with the development of concrete as a modern building material.
He was born and educated in Leeds and briefly joined his father’s law firm before leaving to become a mathematical instrument maker. His passion for engineering saw him elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1753.
During a long and distinguished career, he designed and built canals, bridges, harbours and the third Eddystone Lighthouse. The Birmingham and Fazeley Canal was one of his last projects.
Francis Willughby (or Willoughby) was a pioneering ornithologist who championed a scientific approach to the study of birds. Between 1663 and 1666, along with the naturalist John Ray, he travelled through Europe recording birds and organising species according to their physical characteristics.
He was born at Middleton Hall and educated at Bishop Vesey’s Grammar School in Sutton Coldfield and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he met John Ray. Sadly, on his return from Europe and before his ground breaking study could be published, he died from pleurisy at the age of 36.
Willughby is also famous for producing a scientific study of games, which includes one of the earliest accounts of football.
William Dugdale was an antiquarian scholar who was influential in the development of medieval history as an academic subject. He was a supporter of King Charles I during the English Civil War (1642 – 46) and witnessed the battle of Edge Hill, the first pitched battle of the war.
He was born in 1605 at Shustoke, near Coleshill, and educated at King Henry VIII school in Coventry. In 1625, he purchased the Blyth Hall estate and built a new mansion on the site. In 1656 he published Antiquities of Warwickshire, a model county history. In 1677, following the Restoration of the monarchy, he was knighted. He died at Blyth Hall in 1686.
The Dugdale family is still in residence at Blyth Hall.
Godiva (or Godgifu) was the wife of Leofric, the Anglo-Saxon Earl of Mercia, one of the most powerful men in England. Amongst many other holdings, Leofric and Godiva held the villages of Kingsbury and Coventry.
Legend has it that Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Coventry in protest at her husband’s heavy taxes on the people of that town. Her husband relented and lifted the taxes.
She is mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086 as one of the few Anglo-Saxons and the only woman to remain a major landholder after the Norman Conquest. Her granddaughter, Edith (or Ealdgyth), was married to King Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king.
Offa was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon king until Alfred the Great.
Offa became King of Mercia following the death of his cousin, King Aethelbald, in 757. From his royal capital at Tamworth, he ruled over much of the Midlands, and conquered Kent, Sussex and East Anglia.
Offa was often in conflict with the Welsh and fought a battle with them at Hereford in 760. He is best remembered today for the defensive earthen barrier, Offa’s Dyke, which runs along the border between England and Wales.
Charles Bowyer Adderley was a Conservative politician and wealthy philanthropist, who lived at Hams Hall, near Coleshill.
In 1848, he donated eight acres of land to Birmingham City Council to create Adderley Park in Saltley, Birmingham’s oldest public park. He also built a school, church and a housing estate for workers.
He was MP for North Staffordshire for 37 years and pioneered self-government for parts of the British Empire, drafting the New Zealand constitution.
In 1852, Charles Adderley successfully sued the City of Birmingham over the poor state of the River Tame, which was dreadfully polluted by sewage and industrial waste. Despite winning his case, it took almost 150 years for the river to recover.
Charles Adderley died in 1905 at the age of 91. The Hams Hall estate was sold to Birmingham City, which demolished the house and built the Hams Hall Power Station.
The site is now the Hams Hall Distribution Park and is home to many large companies, including E.ON, Sainsbury’s and BMW.