A thousand trades, a thousand stories

William Westley, 1731

William Westley, 1731

Birmingham is well known as a city of 1,000 trades but it might also be a city of 1,000 nations.  Trade has brought people from far and wide to live and work in the city and a look at the censuses from the nineteenth century reveal people coming from across Europe and the “East Indies” (South Asia) and the “West Indies” (the Caribbean).  In 1871 we find Paul Paulson and his wife Eliza, both singers, living in Coleshill Street near Dale End.  Paul was born in the East Indies – we can only guess as to his heritage.  Meanwhile over in Lichfield Street at the same time John Patnapally, a hawker and his wife Mary Ann,  was born in Mumbai and we can suppose his heritage was probably in part at least  South Asian.  There are equally large numbers of people from the West Indies – sometimes the census gives us a place, as in the case of Matthew, a clerk, and Matilda Hyman who were living with their daughter Lizzie, a teacher, in Albion Street.   He and his family were born in Kingston, Jamaica, part of a large Jewish community in Jamaica where they had settled, felling persecution in Europe from the 1530’s onwards.

The Hyman family shared the house with a boarder, Julius Scott, who was from Prussia, probably part of the Scottish Prussian Community established through trading links in the Middle Ages.  We know that Matthew Hyman was Jewish, as his burial at Balls Pond Road Jewish Cemetery in London is recorded in 1882.

Birmingham has always been a city of vibrant diversity with thousands of stories waiting to be told.

Rachel MacGregor

Clara and Corneille Quested: Victorian Photographers [Slowly] Discovered

MS 4256 vol 8 Portrait by Clara Quested

MS 4256 vol 8 Portrait by Clara Quested

This double portrait is by the Quested Studio of 44 Graham Street, in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. Unfortunately, the sitters are not identified but the photographer is believed to be Clara Quested, active in Birmingham between 1890 and 1906, initially at 263 Icknield Street and from 1895 at Graham Street.

Clara Quested (nee Clifton) was born around 1861 in Walworth, Surrey (now Greater London) and by 1881 had a photographic practice in Finsbury, London. In about 1887 Clara married and moved to Birmingham. Not only did Clara establish a photographic studio here, but her daughter Corneille also became a photographer at Graham Street, prompting the thought as to which C. Quested actually took the photograph. By 1911 Clara had moved to Valley Road, Lye near Stourbridge.

This is the sum total of my knowledge of Clara and Corneille Quested and it has been gleaned from three main sources: the carte de visite from which this image is taken, a typescript list of Birmingham’s photographers and various on-line records. Six weeks ago I knew absolutely nothing about the Questeds and my learning experience has prompted some thoughts about ‘archival discovery’: a term which is currently fashionable and which can at its best indicate fresh new research but which more commonly becomes an inaccurate label for a new personal experience of the research and effort previously undertaken by others. Such experience in itself can also be positive by giving a new lease of life to earlier collecting, recording and researching activities and I hope that my showcasing of Clara will be judged in this way. However, such activity should not be promoted as equivalent to true discovery of new, unrecognised or previously lost records; nor the formulation of genuinely new insights based on archives. The process by which I learned about Clara Quested is outlined below to illustrate my point.

I have recently listed the photographers represented in a collection of cartes de visite produced in Victorian and Edwardian Birmingham. These are contained in eleven folders and reflect many years’ collecting by Harry Wills, a noted photo-historian. Just one card exists for C. Quested (in Volume 8) which gives no indication of the photographer’s gender. This key fact emerged when I checked the spelling of the elaborately printed surname ‘Quested’.

MS 4256 vol 8 studio name for Clara Quested

MS 4256 vol 8 studio name for Clara Quested

Joe McKenna’s list ‘Birmingham’s Professional Photographers 1842-1914’ shows C. Quested as Clara and provides her studio addresses and dates of operation. This additional information spurred me to check census information, to understand more about Clara and led me to learn about Clara’s previous photographic career and the female photographic ‘dynasty’ which emerged in Birmingham. I will incorporate such learning into the archive catalogue where appropriate and I hope to learn more about the Questeds as time allows.

Extract from joe Mckenna's 1977 list

Extract from Joe Mckenna’s 1977 list

Professional Photographers in Bham

Professional Photographers in Birmingham

However, in no way have I discovered anything that was not known before. The most I can claim is that I have re-appraised previously identified information and presented it in a contemporary manner which might reach a wider community of interest than previous researchers may have been able to. I have benefitted from the hard work done in the last fifty years or so, by Harry Wills researching Birmingham’s photographers and painstakingly seeking out examples of their work and later by Joe McKenna, a former librarian at Birmingham Central Library. In 1977 he produced the typescript list referred to above, which was compiled from trade directories, magazines and newspapers. Ten years later he collaborated with C.E. John Aston and Michael Hallett to publish ‘Professional Photographers in Birmingham 1842-1914’ which incorporated further research into the subject. Twenty seven years after that, I have been able to publicise their work and offer a further glimpse of women’s role in the City’s photographic heritage.

If you wish to undertake your own ‘archival discovery’ in its pure form, I offer two suggestions, which are not mutually exclusive.

Firstly, Birmingham’s women photographers deserve more consideration. Out of 34 listed in McKenna’s 1977 survey, details and photographic output of only a few are currently known of in Library collections. Secondly, strengthening the representation of all Birmingham photographers in the collections is important. Even with Harry Wills’ prodigious effort, his collection only reflects the work of a fifth of the photographers (male and female) listed by McKenna. The Library of Birmingham will welcome the product of your work in seeking out examples of such work.

Finally, I would be delighted to receive more information about the Questeds or about the sitters in the photograph.

Jim Ranahan 09/10/2014
MS 4256 The Harry Wills Collection
LP25.69 ‘Professional Photographers in Birmingham 1842-1914’
C.E. J. Aston, M. Hallett & J. McKenna (1987)
Handlist ‘Birmingham’s Professional Photographers 1842-1914’
J. McKenna (1977)

Further Reading
‘Coming to Light: Birmingham’s Photographic Collections’ P. James (1998)
ISBN 0-7093-0228-2
‘Camfield Harry Wills, Photographic Historian 10th June 1921 – 13th August 2011’
Obituary in The PhotoHistorian 164 (Autumn 2012) ISSN 0956-1455






Voices of War Exhibition


Our brand new exhibition is now open in the Gallery on Floor 3 of the Library of Birmingham and runs until 31st December.  The Voices of War exhibition commemorates the First World War and the part the people of Birmingham played.  It presents a unique opportunity to see letters, photographs and documents exploring the experiences of Birmingham people in wartime.

The voices of men, women and children are taken from contemporary letters describing life in the trenches, life at home and the wishes and hopes for the future.  There are letters from men at the front and postcards, medals and souvenirs from life in the trenches.  Women joined them as VAD’s and nurses in field hospitals at home and abroad.  In Birmingham the wheels of industry supported the war effort as thousands of munitions were produced in Birmingham’s factories by the men and women of the City.  Children did their bit by raising money for the war effort – many schools were very active in fund raising.  Thousands of teachers had already signed up to “do their bit” and schools worked hard to support them.

The exhibition explores what we know about Birmingham’s black and Asian communities and their contributions, as well as the support given by millions of soldiers from across the Empire.

Birmingham Weekly Mercury

Birmingham Weekly Mercury 23rd October 1915

The Voices of War were many and varied; there were different opinions on the morality of the war and of the government’s responses.  Conscientious objectors and opponents of conscription can be heard discussing their reasons for taking a different viewpoint.  Political, religious and moral arguments all had their part to play in the debate.  We tell the story of Alan, Eric, Ronald and Gerald Lloyd, four brothers from Birmingham whose convictions led them down different paths during the course of the war.

"Birmingham Remembering 1914-18"

“Birmingham Remembering 1914-18″








To complement the exhibition a brand new book “Birmingham Remembering 1914-18″ is now available price £12.99 which explores the story in greater depth.

There is also a whole series of events to accompany the exhibitions, details of which can be found on the library website.

Guided Tours of the Voices of War exhibition in the company of one of our expert Curators are taking place throughout the season:

18 October 2pm – 3pm
4 November 6pm – 7pm
18 November 2pm – 3pm
3 December 2pm – 3pm
Tickets available from The Box Tel: 0121 245 4455 or online http://www.birmingham-box.co.uk

Rachel MacGregor

Birmingham Responds

Nearly two months after the declaration, news of the war dominated the newspapers. Fighting had broken out across Europe and while recruits were still joining up and being mobilised, the first reports of casualties were appearing in not only the local papers, but in local Council records.

Reports of the ‘European War’ appear regularly in Council minutes in late 1914, often being reported in a matter of fact way along with other committee business. The amount of detail varies – from the Libraries Committee that reported 7 men had been called up, to the Public Works Committee that listed individual men who joined the forces, even detailing their rank and which arm of the forces they joined.

List of officials who have joined the colours [BCC 1/AO/1/1/32]

List of officials from the Public Works Department who joined the colours.                       [BCC 1/AO/1/1/32]

The call to arms was answered by all offices within the Council. The Council Proceedings for 8 September 1914 noted receiving the letter of resignation from the Lord Mayor, Alderman Ernest Martineau, who was taking up his rank as Lieutenant-Colonel of the 6th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment. His resignation was duly accepted.

Proceedings of the Council 2.9.2014 L34.31

Proceedings of the Council, 8 September 1914 [L34.31]

From the series of Birmingham Biography News Cuttings (available on floor 4) a report from the Birmingham Post in September 1914 shows the respect the Lord Mayor had for the men serving under him.

 The Lord Mayor (Lieutenant-Colonel Martineau) returned to Birmingham on Saturday and is staying until Wednesday, when he will return to the command of the 6th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment. In the course of an interview, the Lord Mayor said the men under him had made extraordinary progress since they had been mobilised. Wherever they had been billeted they had been spoken of most highly….. The Lord Mayor said the response which Birmingham had made to the call for recruits was really splendid, and he believed the men obtained were very good material.

The Gazette published figures of the number of men who had joined as of 23 September 1914.

Call to Arms - no. of recruits

Call to Arms – number of Birmingham recruits

Sadly, there were also reports of the first losses of Council employees. On 8th October 1914, the Public Works Department Committee Minutes recorded the recent loss of Private H. Tredwell [sic] who worked as a steam-roller flagman for the City. An article appeared in the Birmingham Gazette on 23 September 1914 mentioning a letter found amongst the personal effects of Private Treadwell when he died of wounds. The letter was addressed to his wife, hoping that her and his daughter Lily were in good health, before writing I am in the very best of health. If it is my luck to come back we won’t half have a time of it. The minutes show the War Office granted a pension of 5/- per week for his widow, and 1/6 for his daughter.

Birmingham Gazette, 23 September 1914

Birmingham Gazette, 23 September 1914

While reports of British casualties would prove to be fairly common placed in the local press, it was surprising to find so early in the war a letter written by a German soldier, portraying a vivid picture of war.

Birmingham Gazette 23rd September 1914

Birmingham Gazette, 23 September 1914

His name is not given, and we have no way of knowing whether he survived the war, however it does show that on both sides, there were ordinary men responding to the call to do their duty for their country.

Nicola Crews, Archivist


Birmingham Rate Books – now available on Ancestry

Example of Entry from 1881 Kings Norton Rate Book (CP KN/2/1/31 April 1881 Poor Rate Assessment)

Example of Entry from 1881 Kings Norton Rate Book (CP KN/2/1/31 April 1881 Poor Rate Assessment)

More Birmingham records have now been digitised and made available on Ancestry.com – free to access within Birmingham libraries.  The latest collection consists of 340 Rate Books with coverage dates from 1787 to 1913 although most date from the late 19th and early 20th century. They should prove a useful source of information for both family and local historians as they provide name and address details which complements those found in other sources such as decennial censuses and Street Directories. And one can use them to establish whether their ancestors were tenants or property owners whilst the rateable value of the property can be used to gauge the status of the occupant.

If an extended run of rate books has survived, they can potentially provide useful genealogical information where a number of generations have been recorded.

Rate books contain lists of owners and/or tenants with an assessment of the value of their property and the amount of the ‘rate’ set for a particular period of time. Rates were a tax or levy collected at a local level for a variety of purposes. The 1601 Act for the Relief of the Poor established the principle of compulsory rating and its use was gradually extended to cover other local purposes such as highways, sewers, lighting, and gaols. Later in the 19th Century various Acts of Parliament were passed to enable rates to be imposed for works which would benefit the community such as the 1845 Museum Act, the 1847 Baths and Wash-houses Act and the 1850 Public Libraries Acts.

The early books in the collection relate to individual parishes who were responsible for both the collection and distribution of the poor rate but following The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 it united parishes into unions and it became the responsibility of the Union to collect the revenue even though the individual parishes still administered the distribution to their resident paupers.

The collection can be searched by name of either the occupier or owner of the property or you can opt to browse through the rate books for a particular year and location. The first page in the rate book will help to identify the type and purpose of the rate in each book.

It should be noted that the current release on Ancestry does not comprise our entire collection of rate and levy books which are still available to view (mainly on microfilm) by prior appointment in the Wolfson Centre. These include many early rate and levy books for the Parish of Birmingham dating back to 1736.

Title Page from 1887 Rate Book for Saltley

Title Page from 1887 Rate Book for Saltley

The Coroner

The role of coroner has existed from around the 12th century.  The position of Birmingham Coroner is a relatively new one, having been in existence from around 1838, when the newly created Birmingham Corporation sought to establish their own quarter sessions and as a result of this, the position of Coroner.  Note that prior to around 1838, inquests for deaths in Birmingham would have been held in Warwickshire, as Birmingham reported to the Warwickshire Quarter Sessions.  The role of the coroner’s court is:

  • to investigate sudden or suspicious deaths which are reported to him/her,
  •  to deal with applications to transport a body to another country for burial or cremation
  • to investigate cases of Treasure Trove (the discovery of buried coin or other valuables)

It is the coroner’s work relating to deaths that we will investigate in this post.

What records do we have?

Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography are lucky in having an almost complete holding of the inquests held in Birmingham over the whole period there has been a Birmingham Coroner.  We hold a microfilm of the “roll of the inquests” in the Heritage Research Area.  The roll records very little detail on the cases, giving names, address cause of death and verdict.  There are no further details relating to the death and on the whole, the entries do not tell you any more than you would find on a death certificate.

A scan from the microfilm of “roll of the inquests” available in the Heritage Research Area on Floor 4 of Library of Birmingham.

A scan from the microfilm of “roll of the inquests” available in the Heritage Research Area on Floor 4 of Library of Birmingham.

As you can see, the microfilm isn’t the best quality (this isn’t just an excuse for my poor photography).

The eagle-eyed amongst you may have spotted the verdict ‘visitation of God’ for some of the deaths on the coroner’s roll.  This verdict applies to deaths that would now be labelled ‘natural causes’.

From 1875, we hold the individual files relating to deaths investigated by the Coroner.  Unlike the earlier Coroner’s roll, the files are very rich in detail and content.  These files contain all manner of statements from witnesses alongside the medical information about the autopsy.  The information in the file can allow the researcher to not only build up a very vivid picture of the person and the circumstances relating to their death but also their life and conditions in the period prior to their death.  See the following parts of a typical file below:

An inquest file picked at random from 1907. Note that the verdict is “N[atural] C[auses]” but the “V” on the top still marks it as being ‘visitation of God’.

An inquest file picked at random from 1907. Note that the verdict is “N[atural] C[auses]” but the “V” on the top still marks it as being ‘visitation of God’.

[part of witness statement from stepdaughter of the deceased]

Part of witness statement from stepdaughter of the deceased

[part of the post mortem report on the body of the deceased]

Part of the post mortem report on the body of the deceased

How do I view an inquest file?

First, establish if an inquest was held – this will be on the death certificate of the deceased.  If the death and subsequent inquest occurred pre July 1875, then you will need to consult the Coroner’s Roll on microfilm in the Heritage Research Area.

For any deaths post July 1875, the inquests are stored in our archival strong rooms in chronological order, so we need to be given the exact date of inquest in order to find the file.  As the files are original archival material, the inquests can only be seen by making an appointment to view them in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research (e-mail archives.appointments@birmingham.gov.uk to make an appointment).

A card index for inquests between 1875 – 1877 can be found in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research.  We also hold volumes of news cuttings for coroner’s court cases from 1876 onwards.  These are indexed alphabetically.  Viewing these can be useful if you know a rough year of death but not an exact date. Note we only have inquests for the Birmingham Coroner, not for the Warwickshire Coroner.

Some things to note

Researchers should keep in mind that, by their nature, inquest files can be very graphic and distressing: photographs of the deceased and the scene of death are often present (even in some of the late Victorian inquests); inquest files for suicides frequently contain the actual suicide note of the deceased; all descriptions of deaths will be graphic.

Note that any inquest held more than 75 years ago is open to the public (i.e. 1939 and earlier at the time of writing).  For inquests more recent than 75 years ago, researchers will need to visit or contact the coroner’s office and request the file.

Contact the coroner:

Mrs Louise Hunt

Senior Coroner for the City of Birmingham and the Borough of Solihull
Coroner’s Court
50 Newton Street
B4 6NE

Tel No: 0121 303 3228 or 0121 303 3920
Email: coroner@birmingham.gov.uk

The coroner will then decide what information can be released from the file to the researcher.

Peter Doré, Archivist

Observations: Sir Benjamin Stone in Brazil 1893

In recent months the 2014 World Cup provided people in the UK with a televisual view of modern-day Brazil and a fleeting insight into the country’s history.  For many their first visual encounter with the country was provided by Sir Benjamin Stone, a wealthy Birmingham industrialist, Member of Parliament, obsessive collector and amateur scientist, who made a series of over 250 photographs of Brazil a little over 120 years ago.  Working in partnership with the Brazilian Embassy and Lucid-ly, the Library of Birmingham is now presenting a selection of 50 of these extraordinary images which record a journey into Brazil at a critical and fascinating moment in its history.

Sir Benjamin Stone, Solar Eclipse Station, Paracuru, Brazil, 1893

Sir Benjamin Stone Collection MS 3196, Solar Eclipse Station, Paracuru, Brazil, 1893

Stone’s journey to Brazil was undertaken as part of one of two Royal Astronomical Society expeditions to observe and photograph the total eclipse of the sun predicted for 16th April 1893. Before sending their team to South America, the Society made applications to the Brazilian Government ‘for land to put up their instruments and for other facilities’. This ‘was most kindly accorded.’

Sir Benjamin Stone, Visitors to the Eclipse Station, The Day of the Eclipse, Parra Curu, Brazil, 1893

Sir Benjamin Stone Collection MS 3196, Visitors to the Eclipse Station, The Day of the Eclipse, Parra Curu, Brazil, 1893

Following a two-week sea voyage the advance party –  Mr. A. J. Taylor and his fellow astronomer Mr Shakeleton –  arrived on the Brazilian coast in late March 1893, where they were subsequently joined by Sir Benjamin Stone.  During the days before and after photographing the actual eclipse, Stone made a very different series of observations. Using his trusty whole-plate camera he documented life on the beaches and ports along the coast and in the streets and market places of towns such as Ceará, Maranham, Pernambuco, and Paracuru. Adventuring further afield Stone took a series of images recording life in the forests that lay on the margins of these urban centres and completed his travels by documenting an extraordinary journey by steam boat up the mighty Amazon River.

Sir Benjamin Stone, On board the River Amazon steam boat Brazil, Brazil 1893

Sir Benjamin Stone Collection MS 3196, On board the River Amazon steam boat Brazil, Brazil 1893

Stone’s conspicuous whole-plate camera often attracted large crowds in these locations. He exposed a large number of negatives recording groups clustered around key members of the local community and others in which representatives of foreign governments took centre stage. In the streets and market places his camera had a particularly magnetic effect on children from the migrant and indigenous populations who both knowingly and innocently presented themselves before his lens.  He also seems to have shown a particular interest in recording the key buildings and infrastructure in the towns, contrasting these with a series showing the homes of former slaves located on their margins.  After photographing the eclipse, Stone undertook a 1,450 km journey on the river boat S.S. Carnetta to Manaus in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. During the long voyage he recorded the flora and fauna along the riverbanks, the small settlements set up as supply stations, the homes and families of British citizens living in more established urban centres, and the industries, including distilling and rubber making, which had drawn them  to these remote locations.

Sir Benjamin Stone, In the Market, Caera, Brazil, 1893.

Sir Benjamin Stone Collection MS 3196, In the Market, Caera, Brazil, 1893

Sir Benjamin Stone, Portuguese emigrant children, S.S Trent, for Brazil, 1893.

Sir Benjamin Stone Collection MS 3196, Portuguese emigrant children, S.S Trent, for Brazil, 1893

In common with all the other members of the expedition, Stone did not limit his collecting activity to photographic work. He purchased samples of fabrics, fishing equipment and cultural artefacts made by the indigenous communities.  He also purchased photographs made by local commercial photographers, including scenes of a revolution, forest houses, and studio portraits of tribesmen and women.  All these objects eventually found a place in his vast collection of objects, images and documents at his home, the Grange, in Birmingham.  A keen observer of people and customs in England, his images convey the different stories of Brazil, from recently freed African slaves and indigenous tribes of the Amazon to the European settlers, both the wealthy and the dispossessed, who ventured to this land in search of a promising future.

ir Benjamin Stone, Women Lacemakers, Forest Dwelling, Brazil, 1893web

Sir Benjamin Stone Collection MS 3196, Women Lacemakers, Forest Dwelling, Brazil, 1893

The exhibition is an invitation to travel back in time and see Brazil on the eve of modernisation.  In 1893 Brazil was a marked by a unique contrast between the untouched wilderness of the Amazon, and the relentless pace of industrialisation, flourishing in cities like Manaus – where England played their first game during their ill-fated World Cup campaign – capital of the rubber trade at the start of the twentieth century.

This exhibition, produced with the generous support of Jaguar Land Rover, shows Brazil at a critical moment in its history and reveals Stone’s interests – mirrored in his other photographic activity – in people, places, architecture, customs, social, political and economic structures and natural phenomena.  At the same time, while showing us Brazil from an outsider’s perspective, in looking at these pictures it is clear that during his encounters in Brazil Sir Benjamin Stone was both simultaneously the observer and the observed.

Sir Benjamin Stone in Brazil, 1893: Observations is at

Sala Brasil, Embassy of Brazil, 14-16 Cockspur Street, London SW1Y 5BL.

September 11 – November 7, 2014

11am – 5.00pm

Free admission.


The Photographic Team, Library of Birmingham