How an old mill inspired Tolkien’s Middle Earth

on Sep 21 in Uncategorized by

“I took the idea of hobbits from the village people and children… it was a kind of lost paradise.” JRR Tolkien on Sarehole Mill, his Midland’s home, (from an interview given to the Guardian in 1966).

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was known as Ronald to his family and friends, but the world knows him Tolkien. He lived with his mother, Mabel, and his brother Hilary, at 5 Gracewell Cottages, (now 264 Wake Green Road), Birmingham.

Tolkien was born in South Africa in 1892, to Arthur and Mabel who had emigrated from Birmingham, England. When Arthur died in 1906, Mabel returned to Birmingham with her two sons, to be close to her family.

Mabel Tolkien, seated, with her baby son, Ronald (JRR Tolkien) in South Africa, 1892.

Tolkien spent his boyhood stomping around the English West Midlands… the Lickey Hills, Clent, the Malverns, and Wyre Forest; and he was always intrigued by the distant, brooding Welsh mountains.

Mabel taught her sons to recognise the wild plants in Moseley Bog, a wooded area dotted with Bronze Age mounds that surrounded their home. Tolkien constantly drew pictures of the local trees which he loved. Moseley Bog appears in The Lord of the Rings as The Old Forest. Farmer Maggot was based on a local farmer who regularly chased Tolkein and his brother, Hilary, off his fields.

Frodo’s companion in The Lord of the Rings is Sam Gamgee. The real Dr. Sampson (Sam) Gamgee (1828-86) was a well known Birmingham surgeon, who had shared lodgings with Joseph Lister. Dr. Gamgee invented a cotton wool surgical dressing, (and note in The Lord of the Rings Sam marries Rose Cotton).

The grave of J. Sam Gamgee, St Mary’s Church, Handsworth, Birmingham.

Tolkien attended the prestigious King Edward’s School located on New Street, Birmingham, which his father and uncle had also attended. The school was in a stunning Gothic Revival building by the architects Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, the same team that rebuilt the Palace of Westminster. Palace of Pugin

JRR Tolkien (back row, right end) at King Edward’s School; Hilary is on the back row, one in from the left.

Mabel Tolkien converted to Catholicism in 1900, to the disapproval of her family who withdrew their financial support her and the boys. Financial difficulties followed and Tolkien had to be taken out of King Edwards School and instead attended the Oratory School in Edgbaston, before returning to King Edward’s when he was awarded a charitable Scholarship.

In 1904, when Tolkien was twelve, his mother died. He and his brother were left under the guardianship of Father Morgan from the Oratory.

Tolkien fell in love with Edith Bratt when he was sixteen, but Father Morgan forbad the couple from seeing each other, until Tolkien was twenty-one.

After graduating from Exeter College, Oxford, with a First Class degree, Tolkien at last married Edith Bratt, but only after he convinced her to break off an engagement to another man, and he also convinced her to convert to his Catholic faith.

Tolkien was appointed as the professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford when he was 33, and here he befriended C.S.Lewis.

Tolkien began writing The Hobbit when he was 38, and The Lord of the Rings when he was 44. He used his childhood memories of the Midlands combined with his later knowledge of mythology to create Middle Earth.

In a letter dated 1958, when Tolkien was sixty, he wrote; “I am in fact a Hobbit, in all but size. I like gardens, trees, and unmechanised farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like, and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waist coats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.”

Sarehole Mill, Birmingham, where Tolkien would play with his brother, Hilary.

Sarehole Mill had fallen into dereliction by 1960, but a public appeal in 1965 saved it, with a donation from Tolkien. It has been open to the public since 1969.

The restored Sarehole Mill, Birmingham.

Moseley Bog with its remnant of the wild wood survives, together with its Bronze Age mounds, which still inspire young minds.

Moseley Bog, Birmingham.


Note: The Gothic Revival architecture of AWN Pugin inspired JRR Tolkien throughout his schooling at King Edward’s School; the school included stunning Pugin interiors. Pugin’s associations with Tolkien’s hometown of Birmingham are captured in the historically researched book, Palace of Pugin.

“A compelling historical novel about a remarkable man.” – Lady Wedgwood on Palace of Pugin.

Play Trailer: Palace of Pugin

Palace of Pugin audiobook















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