On 15th November 1940, a new Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital opened at Totehill, Blossomfield Road, Solihull. The house was built during 1901/2 and was originally the home of Stephen William Challen (1842-1937) of the Birmingham engineering firm, Taylor and Challen. It became a Red Cross convalescent home during the Second World War and was subsequently known as Red Cross House.
The Challen family
Stephen William Challen was born to a farming family in Sussex but close contact with Hornsby steam engines and threshing machines apparently inspired him to turn his attention to engineering as a career. He came to Birmingham from Sussex, becoming a “premium pupil” in 1856 with Joseph Taylor, founder of Taylor & Co, Broad Street Works Birmingham.
The firm acquired premises in Constitution Hill in 1861, and the whole business relocated there to the Derwent Works in January 1862. In 1873, the founder and his son, Joseph Samuel Taylor (1849-1923), went into partnership with Stephen William Challen, trading as Taylor and Challen.
S. W. Challen married Mary Elizabeth Fidgin in Birmingham on 16th September 1865, and they set up home in Handsworth, living there until at least March 1901. They had moved to Totehill, Solihull by July 1902, when Mrs Challen, of “Tatehill” [sic], Solihull was listed in The Tatler as being one of more than 1000 successful competition entrants.
Mr Challen was born at Tote Hill, Midhurst, Sussex. This presumably explains the name of the house, which was variously written as Totehill and Tote Hill.
In Vanished Villas of Blossomfield Road, Solihull, author Ian Sinclair notes that a conveyance of the land on which Totehill was to be built was made by Richard Samuel Chattock to Edward Rowlands on 8th February 1901. The following month saw Edward Rowlands lease the land to Joseph Albert Wells by means of a document dated 25th March 1901.
A building plan (ref.: SOL/PS/1/2/423) was submitted to Solihull Council in April 1901 for the building of two detached houses in Blossomfield Road, owned by J. Wells. Although the houses were not named on the application, the block plan matches that of a later plan and would seem to indicate that the houses were Armadale (on the left) and Totehill (on the right).
The plan suggests that the two houses were of identical design, and were designed by Ernest Homer Wigley (1869-1947), architect and surveyor, whose practice was in Colmore Row, Birmingham. The architect himself lived with his parents in St Bernard’s Road, Olton from at least 1881 until his marriage in 1904. Planning approval for the two houses was given on 16th April 1901 and Totehill was occupied by the Challen family by July 1902.
A plan was submitted in 1910 for an extension to the drawing room at Totehill, designed by Edwin F. Reynolds, architect.
Mr & Mrs Challen had three daughters and one son:
- Walter Bernard Challen (1866-1958), known as Bernard. He had taken over as Managing Director of Taylor & Challen by 1907
- Ada Mary Challen (1869-1951)
- Katherine Isobel Challen (1871-1970)
- Edith Wilmshurst Challen (1878-1961)
The Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser, 21st September 1935, marked the couple’s 70th wedding anniversary and noted that they had seven great-grandchildren and that it was only in 1934 that Mr Challen ceased going to the Birmingham works every day!
Totehill for sale
In 1937, eighteen months after celebrating his milestone wedding anniversary, Stephen Challen died at Totehill, aged 94. His funeral took place at St Alphege Church and, following cremation at Perry Barr, his remains were interred at Robin Hood Cemetery, Solihull.
Mr Challen left Totehill to his Trustees, with his wife retaining a life interest. She died there, aged 95, three years after her husband, on 9th January 1940.
Following her death, it seems that the property was inherited equally by the Challens’ three daughters, the youngest of whom, Edith Wilmshurst Challen, had married Robert Bland Bird (later Sir Robert) in 1904. Sir Robert and Lady Bird lived at The White House, Blossomfield Road. The house, furniture and effects were advertised for sale by auction on 6th March 1940.
At the time of it was advertised for sale in 1940, the house was described as:
conveniently situated near station and shopping centre, and containing Hall, Cloakroom, three well-proportioned Reception-rooms, ample Domestic Accommodation, six good Bedrooms, Dressing-room, Bathroom, Billiard-room &c., usual Out-offices and garage.Birmingham Daily Post, 2nd March 1940
Very attractive and well-maintained Gardens.
AREA OF LAND 4,370 square yards, or thereabouts.
It seems that the house did not sell at auction as it opened as an auxiliary hospital in November 1940 and was subsequently conveyed to the Red Cross in 1945 by the three daughters of Mr & Mrs S. W. Challen – Ada Mary Ducker, Katherine Isobel Reynolds, and Edith Wilmshurst Bird (Lady Bird).
Totehill Auxilliary Hospital, 1940-45
Totehill opened on 15th November 1940 as a Red Cross convalescent home. Information from the British Red Cross is that it was one of two hospitals in Solihull that were situated in premises owned by the Bird family (the other property being Tudor Grange). In fact, Totehill was only one-third owned by Lady Bird, with the remaining two-thirds belonging to her sisters – Mrs Ducker and Mrs Reynolds.
Totehill provided 25 convalescent beds, which were mainly used by the Women’s Auxiliary Services before the hospital was allocated to male patients from 11th September 1944.
An admissions register is held with the archives of the British Red Cross.
Staff from Totehill Auxilliary Hospital were presented to H.R.H. The Princess Royal during her visit to the area on 18th June 1942, when she toured a number of hospitals in the region.
Tragically, a secretary at Totehill took her own life in 1944, using a shotgun she found at a friend’s house. 28-year-old Miss Dorothy Mary Boocock, whose parents lived at 303 Blossomfield Road, shot herself whilst at the home of Mr & Mrs W. E. Wright, in Lady Byron Lane, Copt Heath.
A coroner’s inquest into her death heard that she had recently suffered from influenza and was feeling “run down.” The inquest also heard that she was “a girl who took everything to heart” and the coroner, Mr G. F. Lodder, said that it was “one of those cases in which people were affected by the unnatural conditions of present-day life.” The inquest recorded a verdict of “Suicide while the balance of the mind was disturbed.”
In 1941, Lady Bird offered land adjacent to Totehill to Solihull Council for the duration of hostilities so that it could be turned into allotments. The area of approximately five acres was given rent-free and turned into 10 allotment plots. By January 1946, seven of the plots were still fully cultivated. The Council’s Parks, Allotments and Cemeteries Committee noted at its meeting on 28th January 1946 that notices had been issued to the allotment holders requesting termination of their occupation at as early a date as possible.
Red Cross House
The Warwick County News of 29th September 1945 announced that Totehill had been purchased by the Red Cross county headquarters and rented to Warwick 50 Detachment as a centre for Red Cross work in the district. It was to be known as “Red Cross House”.
In May 1998, the British Red Cross Society’s Solihull headquarters at Totehill, Blossomfield Road, were targeted by thieves twice within the space of a week. Radio and communications equipment, described in the Birmingham Mail of 27th May 1998 as “crucial to the ability of the Red Cross to respond to major incidents” was stolen in the attacks.
Totehill was sold by the Red Cross to Greswolde Homes Ltd in 1998 and an application for the redevelopment of the site was submitted to Solihull Council in December 1998. Totehill was demolished in 1999 and replaced by nine apartments, a penthouse residence and three further homes in the coach house.
The gated development was named Blossomfield Gardens, with an address of no. 34 Blossomfield Road. The first of the new-build apartments, designed by architects Armstrong Burton of Sutton Coldfield, were sold in May 2000 with leases of 150 years. According to Ian Sinclair in Vanished Villas of Blossomfield Road, Solihull, the freehold was transferred to Blossomfield Gardens Freehold Ltd in 2008 and the term of the leases was extended to 999 years.
If you have any further information, please let us know.
Library Specialist: Heritage & Local Studies
The Vanished Villas of Blossomfield Road, Solihull by Ian Sinclair is available for reference at The Core Library, Solihull. If you would like to view this book, Please book an appointment in advance if possible.
Totehill Auxiliary Hospital photograph album (ref: D27/2) – original available for Reference at The Core Library, Solihull. Please book an appointment in advance if you wish to see the original volume. A PDF version is attached below.
© Solihull Council, 2021.
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