Don’t be surprised if one day on Newhall Hill you meet a strange looking character with long straggly beard, tattered clothes, and a rusty old rifle! It will only be Rip Van Winkle returning to his birthplace after more than 200 years!
Washington Irving’s classic tale of a Dutch American huntsman asleep in the hills for 20 years was written in one inspired night here in Birmingham in 1818.
It was a real turning point for a writer who’d dried up following youthful success back home in New York. Irving was staying with his sister and her husband on what was then called Camden Hill.
Their house was probably on the corner where the Argent Centre stands today.
He was a regular visitor to Birmingham and stayed with the family at a succession of fine residences around the Castle Van Trump.
Van Winkle, Van Trump – where did he dream up all these funny names? It might help to know that his sister and her husband were Mr & Mrs Van Wart! Names aside, Henry Van Wart was no joke.
He too was an American, born in Tarrytown on the Hudson, near the real-life Sleepy Hollow. After working for and then marrying into the Irving family business he set up as a merchant in Birmingham. He overcame early financial problems due to Anglo-American trade disputes and even a short war.
He became a naturalised Briton – only necessary because his birth in 1783 was a mere three weeks after Americans had ceased to be British colonials – and served Birmingham as Alderman, J.P, Founder Member of the Exchange and even on one occasion as a Parliamentary candidate.
Van Wart’s success in business ran almost parallel to Washington Irving’s emergence as a famous writer. The first collection of stories and essays – including Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of the Sleepy Hollow – won international acclaim. The setting for Irving’s next work, Bracebridge Hall, was provided in part by visits to Aston Hall.
The only reminder is a blue plaque to Washington Irving on Forward Trust House in Calthorpe Road, Edgbaston. That’s where another of the Castles Van Trump once stood!
Source: Jewellery Quarter Heritage archives