Press Ganged! Birmingham Gangs in the Victorian Press.

Birmingham as a city has a colourful and exciting heritage. One aspect of this is its criminal underworld and activities. Ever since I first heard about the gangs of Birmingham past, especially the notorious ‘Peaky Blinders’, I have had an interest in this side of the city. Some books have been written about the gangs, many tales told about them and the newspapers had a field day in the late Victorian era documenting this savagery. The streets of Birmingham in the late Victorian period were a ruthless and intimidating place to be. With the increase in population, plenty of work due to the industrial boom and the availability of ‘disposable’ income, communities were finding a new way of defining themselves. From about the 1870s young men were forming groups, fraternities, or as the newspapers would sensationalise ‘gangs’.

The role of the media in this instance was to showcase the brutality and in true Victorian style, the drama and horrors of the streets. They used the reports of the gangs to bring to life the monsters of Birmingham’s streets. They also used it as an opportunity to showcase the police and magisterial services in the city. References were given of the sentences passed, quotes of magistrates putting their foot down and the example set by the police to the rest of the country. All this despite the honest police getting attacked themselves for breaking up the fights, and of course nothing to clarify the speculation that some police were in the pockets of these gangs!

The origins of the most notorious gangs in the Birmingham area stemmed from the ‘Sloggers’ of Aston. These were gangs of men, locally known by the streets or districts they came from, but were grouped under the term ‘Sloggers’. Sloggers got their name from the boxing and bare knuckle fighting they did as either a social past time or to settle old scores. As communities spread, the needs to define their areas lead to turf wars. The height of such gangs reached its peak in the 1890s. The Sloggers were known to police and the press for their brutal attacks, murders, vandalism and disturbances at the local fairs. They often exercised control over the local fairs – intimidating stall holders, taking a cut of the finances, running their protection rackets and seeing off rivals.

The Onion Fair at Hockley Brook, a common location to find 'gangs' [WK/B11/5260]

The Onion Fair at Hockley Brook, a common location to find ‘gangs’. c.1874 [WK/B11/5260]

From about the 1890s the Aston Sloggers encountered a high profile, stylish rival in the neighbouring area of Birmingham – the Peaky Blinders. These gangs started life fighting as sloggers and also extended their criminal arm to illegal gambling, protection rackets and trading in unlicensed goods. Between the two gangs the city of Birmingham was covered from the neighbouring district of Aston, the Jewellery Quarter and Gun Quarter in the centre, to Small Heath just outside of town.

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Remembering the Victims of Birmingham’s Pub Bombings

21st November 1974 is a date seared into the collective memory of Birmingham.  A double bombing killed twenty one, maimed or injured hundreds more, ruptured community relations and revealed judicial failings whose consequences are still felt.  The victims, their families, friends and relatives never forget that date and this fortieth anniversary will be a poignant time for many across the City.

Who are those victims?  Today, it is clear that all those affected by the bombings are victims.  They are the bereaved and those coping with injury or loss; the traumatised police, fire and medical crews and ordinary members of the public who brought aid and comfort to the dying and wounded that night; those members of the City’s Irish community ostracised and demonised because of their origin, politics or religion; the self-respect of Birmingham’s community relations.

In 1974, some people saw the situation in much simpler terms and unjustified recriminations against a whole community continued for many years, but slowly a general improvement in relations has occurred. Today a more realistic understanding exists about the events of forty years ago.

This passage of time has however had a consequence. A whole generation of Birmingham people now have no personal experience of, or knowledge about, the circumstances of 1974.  The pain and raw emotion that remains a reality for some does not directly affect others in the City. They may empathise with but cannot fully appreciate the human stories of this critical moment in Birmingham’s history.  This imbues the official Memorial to the Twenty One Victims with great significance.  Located in Saint Philip’s Churchyard, it provides a focal point to honour the deceased.  It also bears witness to the circumstances by which they lost their lives.  In common with all such memorials, it provides both a reminder of past tragedy and a prompt for those who want to understand more about what is being commemorated.

For those wishing to find out more about the historical context and circumstances of the Birmingham Pub Bombings, resources are available in the Library of Birmingham.  A range of newspapers and published works are complemented by personal testimonies from some of those who lived through the bombings and their aftermath.  The library also continues to seek records about what are [in archival terms] comparatively recent events and for which a comprehensive record does not yet exist.

The Pub Bombings formed part of a wider campaign in Birmingham, across Britain and Ireland which spanned decades.  People in many places remember victims and have significant anniversaries.  In all these locations, libraries and archives have a role in remembrance and in providing people with the opportunity to learn and understand.  The Library of Birmingham takes its responsibility seriously. All victims of the Pub Bombings are remembered.

 

Sources

BCC Birmingham Watch Committee (for references to pre 1974 bombings)

Birmingham Post, Birmingham Evening Mail, Sunday Mercury; Microfilm & cuttings albums

MS 1611 ‘Banner Theatre’ Research Notes

MS 4237 ‘Records relating to Birmingham Irish Association and Predecessor Bodies’

 

Further Reading

  1. Gibson ‘The Birmingham Bombs’ (1976) ISBN 0859920704
  2. Moran ‘Irish Birmingham. A History’ (2010) ISBN 9781846314742
  3. Mullin ‘Error of Judgement – The Truth about the Birmingham Bombings’ (1986)

ISBN 0905169921

  1. Reilly ‘An Account of 150 Years of Policing Birmingham’ (1989) ISBN 0951515209

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Curious Curate

Orange ExploredQuite some time ago, a regular researcher in the Wolfson Centre showed me a parish register with a curious name in it. It was a marriage register for St. John, Perry Barr, and the officiating minister in this particular entry was recorded as Harold J. Scott, St. Leonards Church, Barbados, B.W.I.

Marriage Register St. John, Perry Barr [EP 18/2/3/81]

I was intrigued by who this person was and I remember looking in the Diocesan Directory for any clues at the time, but nothing was forthcoming. Even a search of the parish magazines made no mention of a visiting clergyman from Barbados and as the trail went cold, I put it to one side with the intention of exploring further at some point.

Many months later, inspired by the Explore Your Archives campaign, and after a couple of gentle reminders from said researcher, I decided to try again. Remembering little of when the name appeared, I started at the beginning of the volume and worked through until I could establish the dates of when he was at St. John’s.

Over the space of 5 months from July 1939 to December 1939, the name appeared 7 times – sometimes officiating at ceremonies for just one day, sometimes for weeks on end.

The titular vicar of St. John’s was C. Harold Tye, who had been the vicar at Perry Barr since 1928. It didn’t take long to notice that he was not the only clergyman conducting services (other than Harold Scott) from as early as 1936, when this particular register started. Between 29 August 1936 and 26 December 1939 I counted a total of 17 different clergy conducting marriages, which even to me seemed like a large number! Even more interesting was where these visiting clergy came from. Many were local – curates from St. Luke’s Kingstanding featured frequently, but also from Aston, Handsworth, Great Barr, and St. Mary, Aston Brook. There were even two ministers from outside Birmingham – one coming from Lyonshall, and another from St. Mark’s Walthstow [sic].

The Diocesan Directories proved invaluable in identifying the local clergy who appeared in the register. It also recorded those given special licence to work in the City, along with ministers who were ordained at Birmingham Cathedral. In the end, only a handful of clergy still remained unidentified, other than their name as written. Sadly this included Harold J. Scott, but I can’t image that any of them were from further afield than Barbados!

This is, of course, from just one register and it would be fascinating to see if this was the normal state of affairs. The church minutes suggest there was a shortage of ministers across the whole Diocese, which could explain the presence of so many different visiting clergy if they travelled to neighbouring parishes as needed.

Returning to our vicar from Barbados, if anyone has come across this name and can shed any light on who he was, we would love to hear from you!

Nicola Crews, Archivist.

The Women Answer the Call

Green DiscoveredThe Great War was a pivotal time in history that changed the lives of many forever, not least the roles that women performed in society. The War catapulted women into the workplace to take on jobs in the public, commercial and industrial areas of life that were traditionally closed to them. Although women were ill prepared to take on these roles, they responded to the challenge and by doing so laid the foundations for the undreamt of freedoms of post war existence.

The women’s organisations that came into being were many and various, from nursing to army auxiliary to agricultural and land army. Here, we are focusing on the Women’s Volunteer Reserve.

Rules for the WVR [LF75.7-530975]

Rules for the WVR [LF75.7-530975]

The Women’s Volunteer Reserve was started soon after War was declared in August 1914 by Hon Evelina Haverfield, a committed and influential suffragette. Originally formed as the Women’s Emergency Corps, the opportunity was taken to forge a role for women in the crisis of war. The image here is taken from a small collection of Women’s Volunteer Reserve, Midland Battalion leaflets, 1915-1916 (ref 530975) and features the rules of the organisation.

The expectations of the organisation were for women to undertake the jobs that the men performed to release more manpower for the war effort.  The women were training to be signallers, despatch riders, telegraphists, motorists, as well as engaging in the more traditional roles of first aid and nursing.

The recruits were organised on military lines and expected to practice Swedish drill, fencing, study Morse code and semaphore and, if they were that way inclined, to practice on the rifle range.

The organisation tended to attract women from the higher classes and initially there was a heady mix of feminists and women who were not accustomed to associating with such types. The uniform of Norfolk coat, skirt, shirt, brown shoes and felt hat had to be purchased and at a price of £2 12s 6d for privates and £5 for officers, the organisation was expensive to join and beyond the means of the lower classes.

Ultimately, the work the women provided was mostly of a domestic and fund raising nature, although a sub group was formed, The Lady Instructors Signals Company, which trained army recruits in signalling to the end of the War in 1918.

Judy Dennison, November 2014

Celebrating minute books

Blue Celebrated

Central England Area Meeting Warkwickshire Quarterly Meeting 1695-1743, list of meetings 1718

Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (2011/029) Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting minute book 1660s-1743, list of meetings 1718.

Minute books often have the perception of being a bit dry, but I’m a big fan of them! Why? Because they contain a wealth of detailed information about all aspects of how an organisation is run which is not necessarily visible from a public standpoint, giving a fascinating behind the scenes glimpse of what issues organisations faced, why decisions were made and how solutions were implemented. This is fortunate as the majority of the records in the Central England Area Religious Society of Friends archives are minute books so I’m going to be working with them in some depth during the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers cataloguing project.

For this blog post I’ve selected one of the earliest volumes in the collection. It’s a vellum and leather bound minute book with metalwork, containing the minutes of the Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting, and according to the spine it covers the period 1695 – 1743. The Quarterly Meeting is the highest administrative level in the records we hold (though in recent years the structure of the Society of Friends has changed) and in the early days of the Meeting, it corresponded to the Warwickshire county boundary. Above that at national level is the Yearly Meeting. Below it, at regional level is the Monthly Meeting and under that, at local level is the Preparative Meeting.

Warks QM 1695 meeting hierarchy 2

Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (2011/029) Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting minute book 1660s-1743, list of meetings n.d. [17th century].

This hierarchy is nicely illustrated in the inside cover, where there is a list of the Monthly and Preparative Meetings within the Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting. At this time, Warwickshire had three Monthly Meetings: Brailes, Warwick and Wishaw; and fourteen Men’s Preparative Meetings: Long Compton, Brailes, Radway, Ettington, Warwick, Coventry, Stratford, Southam, Meriden, Birmingham, Baddsley Ensor, Wishaw, Henley-in-Arden and Fulford Heath. This structure, with a few more meetings, is also illustrated in the top image from 1718.

Turning to the first few pages of the minute book, it quickly becomes obvious that the minutes don’t actually start on the first page and the dates the volume covers are considerably earlier than those given on the front cover. First of all there is a list of individuals who in the early 1660s were sent to prison for variously, ‘keeping meeting’, ‘tithes’, ‘refuseing to sweare’. This is what the Quakers called Sufferings and referred to the religious persecution they suffered and of which they were careful to keep detailed records.

‘Edward corbitt & John corbitt & Thomas Walker of brales in t[he] Countie of Warwick where cast into prison for tithes th[e] 10th day of the 6th mongth 1666 & George Weyott was sent to prison upon th[e] sam acompt th[e] 7th day of th[e] 9th in th[e] yeare before mentioned’

Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (2011/029) Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting minute book 1660s-1743.

The above entry reads:

Edward corbitt & John corbitt & Thomas Walker of brales in t[he] Countie of Warwick where cast into prison for tithes th[e] 10th day of the 6th mongth 1660 & George Weyott was sent to prison upon th[e] sam acompt th[e] 7th day of th[e] 9th in th[e] yeare before mentioned

Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (2011/029) Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting minute book 1660s-1743, list of imprisoned Friends

Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (2011/029) Warwickshire Quarterly Meeting minute book 1660s-1743, list of imprisoned Friends.

At this time, the Church of England was the only religion allowed so the Friends were persecuted, not only for holding meetings for worship in their houses but also because they refused to pay church tithes which financed the maintenance of churches. They also refused to swear an oath on the Bible in court, justifying it by claiming that since telling the truth was integral to their way of life, swearing to tell the truth in court was unnecessary. Over the page there is a list of people who ‘suffered 26 weekes imprisonment for meeting together in th[e] worshipe of god’

Further details about Quaker sufferings records can be found on Quaker Strongrooms, the Library of the Society of Friends blog.

It isn’t until quite a few pages further on into the volume that a note in the margin tells us that the first regular meeting was held on 18th day of the 1st month 1695/6 and this indicates that it took a while before the Warwickshire Quakers formalised their business meetings on paper.

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Emma Heppingstall

Purple Unearthed

MS 244/1/5/2/1/10a Note of theft of books by Emma Heppingstall

MS 244/1/5/2/1/10a Note of theft of books by Emma Heppingstall

On 16th November 1855, Emma Heppingstall, aged 13, was sentenced to 3 weeks of hard labour in the House of Correction in Warwick for stealing fifty seven books worth 3d each from William Simmonds of Wheeler Street, Birmingham.

After her punishment, at the suggestion of Lord Calthorpe, Emma was sent to the Girls’ Reformatory School in Birmingham at 45 Camden Street, for a period of three years. The ‘Application for admission’ informs us that she was the daughter of Edward Heppingstall of Mary Street, Bordesley, brass founder, and that she was a servant at Mrs Hill’s, Great King Street. She had attended St. Thomas’s School and could read and write a little, but she left when she was six years old. She had been at Mrs Hill’s two years and seven months. She also attended the Sunday School belonging to the People’s Chapel, Great King Street.

MS 244/1/5/2/1/10h Application for admission for Emma Heppingstall

MS 244/1/5/2/1/10h Application for admission for Emma Heppingstall

There is a list of the clothing she had when she was at Warwick gaol: ‘1 Shift; 1 Black frock; 1 White Skirt; 1 Cloak; 1 Bonnett; 1 pair strong Boots; 1 pair of Stockings; 1 apron; 1 new Flannel petticoat’. The Application form for the Girls’ Reformatory School states that every girl was required to bring with her two complete suits of strong and good underclothing and also of shoes and stockings. The weekly payment required for each girl was 5 shillings.

The surviving papers give no further information about Emma’s time at the Reformatory School.

We know the details above from some papers recently purchased by Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography which appear to have been gathered by one William Morgan as a result of his position at the Reformatory and as Agent of the Secretary of State to take proceedings against the parents or step parents of juvenile offenders in order to obtain financial contributions for their children in the Reformatory schools. They cover 1851 – 1866.

MS 244/1/5/2/1/10c Letter from Harry Adkins

MS 244/1/5/2/1/10c Letter from Harry Adkins

William Morgan (1815 – 1899) was a solicitor practising in Birmingham. From an early age he was active in liberal and philanthropic causes. He was also Co-founder of the Birmingham Baptist Union and Secretary of the Birmingham Anti-Slavery society in the 1830s. From 1852 – 1854 he was Town Clerk of Birmingham. He was an Honorary Secretary of the Warwickshire and Birmingham Reformatory Institution from the first annual general meeting in 1854 until his death in 1899. He was also Treasurer for most of that period.

Warwickshire was pioneering in the development of reformatories to provide care for juvenile offenders. The first outside London was at Stretton under Dunsmore, the creation of John Eardley Wilmot in 1818. Boys there would learn a trade and girls would learn domestic skills.

A Reformatory School was started in Birmingham in 1852 by Joseph Sturge in a house at Ryland Road and the Birmingham Reformatory School Society was founded to manage the school. In 1853, Charles Adderley, M.P. (later Lord Norton) provided premises on his land at Saltley for a school. He was largely responsible for getting the Young Offenders Act passed in Parliament in 1854 and was a keen proponent of the ‘humanist’ approach to reforming young offenders. He remained associated with the School throughout his life.

The papers purchased by Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography  (Accession 2014/048) have been catalogued as MS 244/1/5/1-2 and include papers of William Morgan drafted for Acts of Parliament, Government returns for Reformatories, and papers about young offenders, male and female. The latter includes correspondence, applications for a place in the Reformatory, commitment forms, conviction papers etc.

Apart from a set of Rules for the Girls’ Reformatory School (11254 L43.94) Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography appears to have no other records specifically about the Girls’ Reformatory, so this new accession is a welcome addition to the other records of the Reformatory we hold [MS 244].

I just want to know what the 57 books Emma Heppingstall stole were!

Fiona Tait, Archivist

A Voice From the Past

Green Detected

A paperback book was brought into the AHP service counter by a couple who had bought the book from a charity shop in Castle Bromwich (from my memory). On inspecting the book, they found a couple of handwritten notes from a soldier and it seemed as though they were written to his children during the First World War. The soldier was identified as Sergeant Richard Greenfield, and the letters were addressed to Ellen and mentioned her siblings, Richard and William.

MS 4674/1 Letter from Richard Greenfield

MS 4674/1 Letter from Richard Greenfield

Prompted by the possibility that they might relate to a Birmingham family, I pursued a number of lines of enquiry, mainly on Ancestry.com.

First of all I searched military records for a Richard Greenfield and quickly found some records for a Birmingham born man who apparently joined the army twice. Firstly the Royal Warwickshire Regiment on 18 August 1899, aged 21, regimental number 6967. From these records he appeared to have served in Malta, South Africa and India between February 1901 and October 1907. He was promoted to corporal in December 1905. A second regimental number 373999 seems to relate to a further period of service with the Warwickshire’s and there is information relating to a re-engagement of service in August 1911. Richard Greenfield was then mobilised on the 5 August 1914 and promoted to sergeant on 18 January 1915. A military history sheet appears to confirm that he was sent to serve in France from March 1915, and after a brief period in the UK he was part of an expeditionary force bound for France in May 1916. The military records also confirm that he was discharged in June/July 1919. One of the military history sheets gives some details of Richard’s father, wife and children and thus I have been able to follow up other elements of his life via the census, parish records, trade directories and ultimately his death certificate.

The census of 1891 finds the Greenfield family, father and son, plus mother and a further eight children living at 104 Charles Arthur Street (parents – Painter and Button worker respectively). Richard (son) is 14. The census of 1901 and the family is now living at 17 Arley Street. Richard (father) is now described as a House Painter and Anne (mother) now not in employment but with nine children still at home. Richard (son) joined the army in 1899 and hence is missing from this entry.

Marriage entry from St. Gabriel, Deritend [EP 2/2/3/7]

Marriage entry from St. Gabriel, Deritend [EP 2/2/3/7]

The next formal record is of the banns of marriage of Richard Greenfield and Amy A Whitehead at St. Gabriel – they are married on 13 November 1910 [EP 2/2/3/7]. Richard is described as a porter and there is a suggestion that he returned to work as such at New St. Station after his discharge from the army – I haven’t been able to prove this although the 1911 census supports this theory. Richard was born in early 1878 and hence is 32 when he and Amy married.  The parish record describes Amy as a minor at this point in time. Like many others, the first child of Richard and Amy was born illegitimately on 21 October 1910 and this is Ellen, the child to whom the letters are addressed. A brother, Richard, was born on 14 October 1912 and he is also mentioned in the letters. The third child of Richard and Amy is William, born in early 1914 – the letter suggests he has been ill and indeed he died in January 1916. A further son is born in October 1916, named William also, and sadly dies in July 1918 before his second birthday.

The 1911 census finds Richard, Amy and Ellen living at 1 back, 13 Poole Street, Aston, with Richard’s occupation described as a Railway Porter. Richard Greenfield (the elder) and family remain at 17 Arley Street.

I did locate a death certificate for Richard Greenfield dated 13 June 1953, signed by a doctor from Dudley Road Hospital and registered by Amy A Greenfield. The couple had been living at 126 Norton Crescent, Birmingham 9. Although it is unlikely that Richard and Amy’s children are still alive, could there have been grandchildren? More detective work required……

Alison Smith