Tolkien himself said there was a danger in too much interest in the life
of an author, as it distracted attention from the author's work. He then
went on to say he was a hobbit in all but size; liked gardens, trees and
unmechanised farmland; smoked a pipe and liked good plain food!
|Photo kindly loaned by Mr. Oliver Suffield|
This is a brief account of his early life in Birmingham, from 1895 to
1911. Some of the houses and places mentioned on this page can still be
visited. Two Tolkien Trail leaflets have been produced, in 1992, and in
2001. Photocopies of these can be obtained from the
Local Studies and History section on Floor 6 of
Birmingham Central Library, or go to
Tolkien's Birmingham on the Virtual Brum website, which is based on
the 1992 leaflet.
Select the images to view a larger version.
Most of the illustrations are taken from material held in Local Studies
. . . and why not try our
Tolkien Quiz ?
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of
the Rings, was born in Bloemfontein, an Afrikaans-speaking area of
South Africa, on 3 January 1892. His parents, Arthur Tolkien and Mabel
Suffield, were from Birmingham. Arthur Tolkien had moved to South Africa
for promotion, he was bank-manager there. His fiance Mabel sailed out to
join him in 1891. In 1895, when Tolkien was three, his mother brought him
and his younger brother Hilary back to visit their grandparents at 9
Ashfield Road, Kings Heath. They never saw their father again, he died of
rheumatic fever shortly after their departure. Tolkien's only memory of
his father was of him closing the family's trunk, and painting their name
There is a photo of Tolkien's Suffield grandparents, and of the
family shop in Bull Street just before it was demolished in 1886, on the
Birmingham Names page
In 1896 Mabel Tolkien and her two young sons settled at 5 Gracewell, now
264 Wake Green Road, a cottage in Sarehole village. Though only four
miles from the centre of Birmingham Sarehole was then in the north
Worcestershire countryside. Coming from the hot dry veld of South
Africa, the green fields and woods made a deep impression on him.
Tolkien said that Sarehole was the model for the Shire, home of Bilbo in The
Hobbit. When Tolkien visited Birmingham with his family in 1933 he
lamented the changes in Sarehole. Although much of the area was still farmland, there were many more houses and gardens, and one old farmhouse had become a garage selling petrol. The change from
countryside to city was already happening when he was there as a child -
Countryside to city
The most exciting thing for a young boy to see in the village of Sarehole
was Sarehole Mill, which he refers to as 'the great mill' in The Hobbit
. It stands on the River Cole, which rises near King's Norton and runs close
by. It is said that Tolkien based the bad-tempered miller in The Lord
of the Rings on the miller there, who perhaps understandably shouted
at him and his younger brother when they were playing in the mill yard.
The millers, George Andrew senior and junior, appear on one of the Tolkien
postcards, a photo from 1890. See
Tolkien Postcards The Mill is now run as a museum by Birmingham City
Council. A Local Studies map page shows maps of Sarehole for 1904, and
Birmingham historical maps
A few yards up the road from the cottage Ronald and Hilary could play in
a deep sandpit lined with trees. This lies on the edge of Moseley Bog,
woodland through which streams ran to feed the millpond and the River
Cole. Rare plants grow there, and it is now a site of special scientific
interest. Moseley Bog is recalled in The Lord of the Rings as the
'Old Forest', last of the primeval woods in which Tom Bombadil lived.
A mile to the south along the River Cole lies Trittiford Mill Pool,
which may have suggested the Long Lake in The Hobbit.
The family moved several times in the next few years. After Ronald entered King Edward's School in September 1900, they moved to 214 Alcester Road, Moseley to be closer to a tram route into the city. They were not in Moseley for long; by March 1901 they were living in 86 Westfield Road, Kings Heath. This house was new. The plan shows that originally it was one of the larger houses on the estate like number 88 next door, but at some point lost the second floor. In 1902 they moved again, to a house in Oliver Road, near the Oratory. To save money, the brothers were removed from King Edward's and enrolled in the Oratory School, St Philips. Ronald was only there for a short time. With coaching from his mother he won a scholarship to King Edward's and returned there in 1903.
Mabel had converted to Catholicism in 1900. Some of the family disapproved
strongly and withdrew financial support to her and the children. They had
little money; perhaps because of the stress she developed diabetes in
spring 1904. There was no effective treatment in those days, and in
November 1904 she died at the postman's cottage,
Fern Cottage, at Rednal in the Lickey Hills next to the Oratory Retreat,
shown on the map.
The Oratory Retreat, Rednal, 1904 Mabel had appointed Father Francis
Xavier Morgan, a priest of the Birmingham Oratory, to be the boys'
guardian. The brothers first lived with Beatrice, the widow of Mabel's
brother William, at 25 Stirling Road, Edgbaston. From early 1908 they
lodged with the Faulkners at 37, Duchess Road, also near the Oratory.
Life in Ladywood lacked the excitement of rural Sarehole, but the one
building that did leave an impression was the 96ft tower known as
Perrott's Folly. It was built in 1758, possibly as a hunting-lodge, and is one of Birmingham's oddest
architectural features. From 1884 it had been used as a weather observatory. Near it stands the Waterworks tower and the pair
are said to have suggested the title of the second
volume of The Lord of the Rings; The Two Towers. But which are the two
towers - there is more than one possibility, as discussed in
The Two Towers
In Duchess Road Tolkien met his future wife, Edith Bratt, who was
lodging there. They would spend time together in Birmingham teashops,
and the story is that they also met in the Prince of Wales pub in
Moseley. One afternoon in late 1909 they cycled out to the Lickeys and
had tea in Rednal village -
Rednal Four Ways, Lickey Hills. Father Francis Morgan heard of this
meeting. He disapproved of the relationship as he considered that
Tolkien ahould be devoting all his attention on his studies and forbade
him to contact Edith before he had come of age. Ronald and Hilary
Tolkien were moved to different lodgings in Highfield Road. Eventually
Ronald and Edith got married in 1916, just before he left to fight in
Many ideas originating from Tolkien's time in Birmingham surfaced in
The Lord of the Rings, including the name Sam Gamgee who in the book
was Frodo's faithful friend. Dr Joseph Sampson Gamgee was a Birmingham
surgeon who invented a kind of cotton wool, known as the "Gamgee tissue".
He also created a charity called The Birmingham Hospital Saturday Fund. His widow still
lived in Stirling Road when the Tolkien brothers lodged there. A blue
plaque on the Repertory Theatre in Centenary Square commemorates his
former home on the site.
Tolkien studied at King Edward's School, then in New Street in the
centre of Birmingham. He enjoyed sport, being captain of the rugby team; and was also a leading member of the school Debating Society.
He was passionately interested in languages, and founded a club that met
most days after school in the school library, or in the cafe over
Barrow's Stores in Corporation Street. It became known as the Tea Club
Barrovian Society - T.C.B.S. Over tea they would discuss ancient
languages, literature and mythology, as well as music, current affairs
Tolkien and his circle
In 1910 Ronald Tolkien was living at 4 Highfield Road, Edgbaston. It was here that he learned that he had been awarded an Exhibition - a form of scholarship - at Exeter College, Oxford, to study classics. In 1925 he returned to Oxford with his young family to become the Professor of Anglo-Saxon. He was appointed Merton Professor of English Language and Literature in 1945. He gave inspiring lectures, and transformed the view of Middle English and Anglo-Saxon epic poems such as Beowulf. He lived in Oxford for the rest of his life, dying in 1973.
Although he was the author of academic work on Anglo-Saxon and Middle
English, it is for his novels that Tolkien is best known. The Hobbit
was published in 1937, and the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, in
1954/55. These are the best selling fiction books of the 20th Century.
The Hobbit has sold over 40 million copies, and The Lord of the
Rings over 50 million copies. Tolkien's novels are described as
fantasy, but much of his writing is based on his own experiences. See
Realism or Fantasy?
The Lord of the Rings has recently been filmed,
the three parts being filmed back-to-back. It was filmed in director
Peter Jackson's home country of New Zealand. The Fellowship of the
Ring was released in 2001 and The Two Towers in December
2002; The Return of the King was released in 2003. See the
website below - Lord of the Rings - The Film.