Macbeth and War

1 The Tragedie of Macbeth.  Illustrated by Moyr Smith. 1889. S334.1889

The Tragedie of Macbeth. Illustrated by Moyr Smith. 1889. S334.1889

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a bloodthirsty tale of ambition, treachery and aggression, one which resonates with the Library of Birmingham’s season of ‘Voices of War’.  To coincide with the library’s wonderful exhibition: ‘Voices of War: Birmingham People 1914 – 1918’, the Collection Curators at the Library of Birmingham are holding a public display of some of the art work from this great story to highlight the extensive Shakespeare collection, the second largest in the world behind the Folger Library in Washington.

This free event will be held on Saturday 1 November, 12.00 – 2.00 in the Heritage Learning Suite on Floor 4 of the Library of Birmingham.

‘Macbeth and War’

The play opens with three witches, described by Banquo, friend to Macbeth, as “So withered and so wild in attire, that look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ earth and yet are on ‘t? – Live you?”  (Act I, Scene II)

2 H. Fuseli.  Three Witches.  1783. The Forrest Collection.  Macbeth Vol. 1.  S790.1 F

H. Fuseli. Three Witches. 1783. The Forrest Collection.  Macbeth Vol. 1.  S790.1 F

The witches arrange to meet Macbeth, who is fighting a great and bloody battle against the allied forces of Norway and Ireland. When they meet the witches give them three predictions: that Macbeth will become Thane of Cawdor, that he will be the King of Scotland, and Banquo’s descendants will also become kings.

Macbeth relays these prophesies to his wife, Lady Macbeth, and between them they go on a spree of treachery and murder, invoking evil spirits to achieve their perceived covetous right.

3 Lady Macbeth played by the renowned Shakespearian actor Mrs Siddons who frequently acted for Royalty.

Lady Macbeth played by the renowned Shakespearian actor Mrs Siddons who frequently acted for Royalty. From the scrapbook: Illustrations of Shakespeare                    Vol. 2. S790.8 FL

Due to his war heroics Macbeth is proclaimed Thane of Cawdor by King Duncan but to enact the prophesies Macbeth and Lady Macbeth need to remove the King from his position.  Whilst Macbeth’s loyalty to the King causes him to deliberate with killing King Duncan, his masculinity is questioned by Lady Macbeth who goads him into action.  Macbeth states that “We will proceed no further in this business.  He hath honoured me of late and I have bought golden opinions from all sorts of people, which would be worn now in their newest gloss, not cast aside so soon” (Act I, Scene VII) to which Lady Macbeth responds: “What beast was’t, then, that made you break this enterprise to me, then you were a man; and to be more than what you were, you would be so much more than man” (Act I, Scene VII).  Helped on by this verbal onslaught Macbeth kills King Duncan via a plan hatched by his wife.

4 Illustrations Of Shakespeare. Heath, Hall, Rhodes, Fitler, etc. 1817.

Illustrations Of Shakespeare. Heath, Hall, Rhodes, Fitler, etc. 1817. S794 SL

Macbeth ascends to the throne but with the realisation that the second prediction from the witches has come true, he is now in fear of the third prediction, that Banquo’s descendants will also be kings. Macbeth therefore decides to kill Banquo and his son, Fleance, but the ghastly deed does not go as planned, Banquo is killed but Fleance escapes the murderers.

5 Illustrations Of The Plays Of Shakespeare.  H. Bunbury.  1793.  S792 FL

Illustrations Of The Plays Of Shakespeare. H. Bunbury. 1793. S792 FL

Attending a royal feast with tables laden with food, Macbeth goes to sit at the head of the royal table but finds Banquo’s ghost sitting in his chair.  With no-one else able to see the apparition Macbeth believes he is going mad.

6 Scenes From Shakespeare For The Young.  Illustrated by H. Sidney. 1885. S794.FL

Scenes From Shakespeare For The Young. Illustrated by H. Sidney. 1885. S794.FL

Macbeth again visits the witches to ask them to reveal the truth of their prophecies. The witches circle their bubbling cauldron, chanting spells and adding strange ingredients to their brew: “eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog, adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing, for a charm of powerful trouble, like a hell-broth boil and bubble” (Act IV Scene I).

7 From the Scrapbook Illustrations of Shakespeare Vol. 2. S790.8 FL

From the Scrapbook Illustrations of Shakespeare            Vol. 2. S790.8 FL

To answer his questions the witches reveal to Macbeth horrible apparitions. The first is a floating head warning him to beware of Macduff to which Macbeth responds that he has already guessed as much. The second is a bloody child which states that “none of woman born shall harm Macbeth” (Act IV Scene I). Next, a crowned child holding a tree tells him that he is safe until ‘Birnam Wood’ moves to Dunsinane Hill, the royal castle. The last apparition is of a procession of eight crowned kings, the last holding a mirror. Banquo’s ghost walks at the end of the line. Macbeth demands to know the meaning of this final vision, but the three witches perform a bizarre dance and vanish from view.

8 The Tragedie of Macbeth.  Illustrated by Moyr Smith. 1889. S334.1889

The Tragedie of Macbeth. Illustrated by Moyr Smith. 1889. S334.1889

Macbeth becomes more ruthless and blood thirsty, killing the family of Lord Macduff, whom he has been told has fled to England to amass troops to fight against him.  Lady Macbeth, wreaked with guilt about King Duncan, becomes deranged, having “thick-coming fancies” (Act 5, Scene 3) and news comes to Macbeth via a messenger that she is dead.

9 Lady Macbeth played by Violet Van… From the scrapbook Illustrations of Shakespeare Vol. 2. S790.8

Lady Macbeth played by Violet Van… From the scrapbook Illustrations of Shakespeare Vol. 2. S790.8

Near Birnam Wood a large army masses and Macbeth plans to defend the fortified castle. The soldiers each take a branch from trees in the wood and together they march to the castle, thereby disguising their numbers.

Macduff finds Macbeth and a spirit relates to him that Macduff was born by a caesarean, “Macduff was from his mother’s womb, untimely ripped. (Act 5, Scene 8)”. The final two predictions by the witches, that Birnam Wood’ moves to Dunsinane Hill and none of woman born shall harm Macbeth come to pass and Macbeth is slain by Macduff.

10 The Tragedie of Macbeth.  Illustrated by Moyr Smith. 1889. S334.1889

The Tragedie of Macbeth. Illustrated by Moyr Smith. 1889. S334.1889

The tale highlights that the manner of Macbeth’s kingship, one of tyranny and without legitimacy, as it is not based on loyalty to the state, is the worst possible and that true kingship can only be one motivated by love of the kingdom more than by pure self-interest.

The free event ‘Macbeth and War’ will be held on Saturday 1 November, 12.00 – 2.00 in the Heritage Learning Suite on Floor 4 of the Library of Birmingham.

All are welcome though queues may be possible.

Phil Burns, Collection Curator, Library of Birmingham

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

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 – 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