Aston Hall was built in the early seventeenth century by Sir Thomas Holte. Two hundred years later, on the death of Dowager Lady Holte, the 1,530 acre estate was put up for auction and purchased by Warwick bankers, Greenaway, Greaves and Whitehead on July 10th, 1817. They subsequently parcelled up the land and sold it on in suitable lots. James Watt Jnr. bought the Hall, part of what was known as the Upper Grounds of the estate, while a Mr H.G. Quilter bought up the Lower Grounds.
The thirty-one acres bought by Quilter became known locally as the Aston Lower Grounds, and he used the land to establish a popular pleasure gardens with fishponds. Over time, these extended to include a hotel (now The Holte pub), a skating rink and sports ground. In 1879 a large aquarium was opened to the public, Showell’s described it:
The principal room has a length of 312 feet, the promenade being 24 feet wide by 20 feet high. The west end of this spacious apartment is fitted with a number of large show tanks, where many rare and choice specimens of marine animals and fishes may be exhibited.
This must have been quite a draw for hard-working Brummies to spend their leisure time. Visitor numbers after 1864 showed an average of 280,000 per annum! In 1887 Buffalo Bill came to Birmingham, with a troupe of some 800 showmen and women as well as several hundred animals, including horses and cattle. They set up a mock camp at the Hall, where visitors could learn about their way of life. Temporary seating was erected to accommodate the expected 4,000 visitors to the twice nightly shows which took place over the course of a month.
The sports ground was known as Lower Ground Meadow. There was a large field for playing cricket or football, ringed by a running track. The AAA Championships were held there, as were the FA Cup semi-finals of 1884 and 1886. Then in 1887, a small, local football team moved from their Wellington Road ground in Perry Barr to establish themselves at the Lower Ground Meadow. It wasn’t long before locals began referring to the ground as ‘Villa Park’ and, eventually, the name of the Lower Grounds was lost to history.