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 – 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 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

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

Early Fine Print Collection and 17th Century Occult Philosophy

It is really interesting what you can find when you’re not looking for it.

Whilst searching the library’s Early and Fine Print Collection for Sir Walter Raleigh’s The History of the World, 1614, for an enquiring customer, I came across the two volumes of Robert Fludd’s Utriusque Cosmi, 1614, [AQ094/1617/9A/B] a really beautiful book with over 60 wonderful and intricate engravings.

Frontispiece 1

Frontispiece 1

Frontispiece 2

Frontispiece 2









As well as the images, the text, though in Latin, was also fascinating.  Fludd wrote on a range of topics including music, mathematics, geometry, art, militia, mechanics, astrology, astronomy, alchemy, fortune-telling and the relationship of God and the natural world.


Images of some of Fudd's nasty looking military armaments

Images of some of Fludd’s nasty looking military armaments


He was employed at the court of King James I of England and travelled the continent widely. His beliefs and practices put him in direct conflict with the British medical profession as he prescribed remedies based solely on prayer derived from a theology based on the secret mystical teaching of the Kabbalah.


Fludd’s depiction of the mind


Fludd’s depiction of the mind (above image) placed God, the Son, the Father and the Holy Spirit at the pinnacle of consciousness with conscience, reflection, soul, motive, memory, science and imagination following after.

The writings of Robert Fludd led me to further explore occult practice within our Early and Fine Print collection and found the works of John Dee in ‘Relation of Dr Dee With Some Spirits’, Casaubon, 1659.  [AQ094/1659/3] The book comprised records of Dee’s communications with spirits.

Dee, 1527 – 1608/09 was a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and alchemist and an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.  He devoted much of his time to magic and philosophy and attempted to communicate with angels and learn the universal language of creation to establish a unity between God and man.

With his scryer, William Kelley, he worked on communicating with spirits through the use of Christian piety, fasting and prayer. He claimed that angels dictated several books to him in an unknown, yet structured angelic language.


The layout of the ‘Holy Table’ Dee and Kelley used to commune with spirits


Depiction of a communication between Kelley and a spirit

Depiction of a communication between Kelley and a spirit


The text above taken from ‘Relation of Dr Dee With Some Spirits’reads:

Kelley:    Tell me who you are?

Spirit:     I pray you let me play with you a little, and I will tell you who I  am

Kelley:    In the name of Jesus then tell me

Spirit:     I rejoice in the name of Jesus, and I am a poor little Maiden, Madini, I am the last but one of my Mother’s children, I have little Baby-children at home.

Kelley:    Where is your home?

Spirit:     I dare not tell you where I dwell, I shall be beaten

Kelley:   You shall not be beaten for telling the truth to them that love the truth, to the eternal truth all Creatures must be obedient

‘Relation of Dr Dee With Some Spirits’ is a compilation of communications with a range of spirits over several years and has been reprinted many times since.

Each of these volumes are available to be seen by appointment in the Library of Birmingham’s searchroom, The Wolfson Centre. For further details please contact

Phil Burns, Collections Curator



A lesson in good record-keeping from the Quakers

Letter from the Clerk of the Central Offices of the Society of Friends in London to the Clerks of Quarterly, Monthly and Preparative Meetings in Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting reports relating to minutes, 1904-1907, (2011/029).

Letter from the Clerk of the Central Offices of the Society of Friends in London to the Clerks of Quarterly, Monthly and Preparative Meetings in Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting reports relating to minutes, 1904-1907, (2011/029).


Last week, while looking through a volume of reports in one of the 158 boxes containing archives of the Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (1662-c.2000), I came across a 1904 letter from the Clerk of the Central Offices of the Society of Friends in London to the Clerks of Quarterly, Monthly and Preparative Meetings throughout the country about the preservation of their records, a matter deemed of ‘grave importance’. In particular, the Clerk wrote that the Library and Printing Committee had concerns about the durability of ink and paper used in type-written documents. The Clerk explained that having sought the advice from Professor Silvanus P. Thompson (1851-1916), a member of the Friends and ‘a well-known scientist’ (now known for his work in the fields of physics and electrical engineering), it was recommended that Meetings should carefully consider Thompson’s opinions:

‘The purple and green inks in vogue for type-writing are usually made from aniline dyes and are not permanent but will fade after a few years. But the type-written copies made by impressions from a carbon transfer paper are more permanent, and will not fade. Quite of equal importance in my opinion, is the quality of paper. The thick spongy papers so often used in type-writing, are not durable, being often made from wood-pulp, or containing wood pulp. They will go to dust in twenty or twenty-five years. Much to be preferred is a hard-surfaced, thin paper; and if possible it should be a paper guaranteed from linen rags. Cheap papers are almost always made of material that will not last.’

While I was aware that the Quakers are scrupulous record keepers, I had not appreciated that they would also have such forethought in terms of the preservation of their records. From an archivist’s point of view, if all organisations followed the Quaker approach to record-keeping, our work would be a lot easier! Evidence of planned recordkeeping and preservation by record creators is generally unusual in the archive collections we hold and it is particularly unusual to find evidence of this from over a century ago. However, as a result of the persecution they suffered in the 17th century, over time the Quakers developed a clearly defined organisational structure from national to local level and with it they became assiduous record creators, carefully recording the details of their lives because they did not have access to the formal institutions which did this for everyone else. As a result of their careful approach to record creation, recordkeeping and preservation, Quaker records are a rich resource for researchers, and those of the Central England Area Meeting are an important source for the religious, social, economic history of Birmingham and the surrounding areas as well as for anti-slavery campaigns and international humanitarian causes which the Quakers were involved in.


Map showing Quaker Meetings within Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire Quarterly Meeting, 1894. From MS 4039 (2008/087) The Lloyd Papers, roll 2, supplement to The Friend, 1894.

Map showing Quaker Meetings within Warwickshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire Quarterly Meeting, 1894. From MS 4039 (2008/087) The Lloyd Papers, roll 2, supplement to The Friend, 1894.


It seems particularly poignant to have found this document when the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers Cataloguing Project funded by a National Archives Cataloguing Grant, has just started. The project aims to catalogue the records of the Central England Area Meeting. The collection includes records of the Quarterly Meeting (the highest organisational level below the national Yearly Meeting) from 1675 onwards. It also includes records of the Warwickshire Monthly Meeting from 1662, which subsequently divides into Warwickshire North, Warwickshire South and Warwickshire Middle Meetings and the records of the local Preparative Meetings, which include among others Baddsley, Coventry, Dudley, Stourbridge, Shipston, Hartshill, Leamington, Warwick, Redditch, Walsall and the numerous Birmingham-based Meetings at Bull Street, George Road, Selly Oak, Bournville, and Moseley among others. In addition, there are records of a number of special committees established to deal with areas of particular concern such as the Anti-slavery, Education, Housing Conditions, and Peace Committees, and records of the Young Friends, the Friends Sunday School Union and the Friends Temperance Association. The records themselves mainly consist of minutes, but there are also reports, records of Sufferings, correspondence, financial records, property records, membership records, and birth and burial records.

Over the next year on the blog, I will be updating you on the project and writing about some of the fascinating records in the collection.

Eleanor Woodward, Project Archivist (Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)

With best wishes for the future….

Exterior view of Birmingham Town Hall, 1891 [MS 2724/2/B/816]

Exterior view of Birmingham Town Hall, Ernest Brasier, 1891            [MS 2724/2/B/816]

Our wonderful colleague, Alison Smith, retired last week, after nearly 20 years of working with Archives and Heritage. We couldn’t let this go unrecognised and so we asked Alison for a few fond memories…..

 I joined the archives in 1995 as a volunteer. I had been prompted by a visit to Soho House – then in the process of restoration. I seem to remember a stall manned by archives staff (possibly Nick Kingsley, a former colleague who went to work for the National Archives) with an invitation for volunteers….. and that’s how it all started.

For several years thereafter I worked as a volunteer and then as a member of the supply pool. I recall my first volunteer task, checking the contents of the Boulton &Watt portfolios (the engine drawings)  and then describing the contents – number, type, capacity, etc. Fairly early on in the process I found a misfiled drawing and this was a real thrill as it related to a steam engine housed at a nearby mill ( was it Pebble Mill?) and its emergence delighted a regular researcher!

 I’ve enjoyed working with colleagues in the public service team, not only with my experienced and knowledgeable colleagues but equally with many younger members of staff keen to learn and contribute to the service.

 There have been opportunities to assemble displays of archival material associated with particular events, for example the reopening of the Town Hall and the 200th commemoration of Matthew Boulton’s death, and I have enjoyed such opportunities to explore, choose and display such material.

 I feel fortunate to have spent this time working in this particular public service – the time has flown and the working experience has stimulated my own interest in Birmingham’s life and history.

We also asked colleagues the same question and Judy, one of our Archivists, had very fond memories!

My Friend Alison

We have been buddies for a long time and many of the projects that concerned us both were shared ones.

We both were happy to put together exhibitions on various topics of note in the life of the Archives. We produced the Town Hall Exhibition to mark the renovation of the building in 2010 and were very pleased with the result. A happy shared memory of that project was attending one of the first lunchtime organ recitals after the building was opened again to the public and marvelling at the restored grandeur of the beautiful space.

I also remember with fondness (this may be the wrong word!) the “Gloucester Move”, I don’t know whether Alison thinks the same! This involved a huge logistical movement of our archives back to Central Library from an out store in Gloucester Record Office. So, someone was at the Birmingham end making sure there was space to put the returning boxes, which were hopefully coming off the vans in the right order from the Gloucester end. I was the ‘Gloucester end’ with my team of heavies, (my two girlies!) And Alison was at the other end calmly and efficiently (waving and shouting madly), directing operations.

Well we did it right on schedule and even with time to spare. Who says Thunderbirds aren’t Go! Although I’m not sure who was Mr Tracy and who was Brains ….

Will miss my buddy but I’m sure we will be indulging in some shared mischief in the not too distant future.

Happy retirement Alison!

With Love, Judy


I am sure our regular researchers will join all of us in AH&P in thanking Alison for her dedication over the years and wishing her the very best for her retirement. We will certainly miss working with her, and expect to see her back on the other side of the counter!