Creative responses to First World War archives: Men Beat the Walnut Trees

On Friday 14th September 2018, here in Archives & Collections at the Library of Birmingham, we held a Creative Writing workshop using First World War archives.

This was a free hands-on Creative Writing session hosted by Birmingham historical novelist and biographer, Fiona Joseph, and Corinna Rayner, the Archives & Collections Manager. Archive material at the Library of Birmingham had been specially selected by Fiona and Corinna to inspire the writers, and it provided a unique opportunity to explore some of the many archival treasures themed around Women at War (Home Front, Industry) and Conscience at War (Quakers, patriotism and pacifism). We had so much material out, including family letters, photographs, posters, postcards, news items and memorabilia from the period which participants could use as a springboard for their own creative responses. Writers at any level, including beginners, were welcomed. For this year’s Explore Your Archives week we thought we’d share some of the wonderful creative responses to the archives which were produced as a result of this session.

First up is Men Beat the Walnut Trees by Lindsay Martin, inspired by a photograph of women working in a munitions factory from MS 4616 War Collection (Local Studies) and a collection of letters in the Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends archive (SF) from Birmingham Quakers about their varied experiences during the First World War. You can listen to a recording of Lindsay’s piece here and the transcript is available here.

We’ll share another contribution with you on Wednesday!


Living with Buildings – Preparing for an exhibition

One of the joys of living and working in a city like Birmingham is being able to look at all the different architectural styles and buildings found side-by-side throughout the city. Examples range from the Neo-Classical Town Hall, to more contemporary buildings such as The Cube and the Library of Birmingham. Buildings play such a role in our daily lives that they can contribute to our physical and mental health in positive and negative ways. A great example of a location where buildings have contributed positively to the health of the community in Birmingham is Bournville.

Earlier on in the year, a request for a loan came through from the Wellcome Collection to borrow some of our Bournville Village Trust documents. As a conservator, this is one of the parts of my job that I enjoy the most as it is an opportunity for these documents to be seen by a wider audience. It also allows people to learn about the history of Bournville and see how revolutionary this model village was and still is.

Once the initial request had come through specifying which documents the Wellcome wanted to borrow, I assessed each item on whether it needed conservation treatment, what environmental conditions it needed to be displayed at, what the lighting level should be, whether it was to be in a display case or framed and making sure that the Wellcome’s exhibition space was secure and would meet our standards for Exhibition and Loan. Once this had been agreed with the Wellcome, I was then able to commence conservation treatment and prepare the documents for display.

Before and after conservation treatment and mounting [MS 1536/ Box 5/Correspondence of George Cadbury- Letter to Lloyd George, February 17th 1916, Page 2]

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The Legacy of War

The First World War signified a change in the conduct of war. War was now waged on an unprecedented scale against both military forces and civilian populations. The mass mobilisation of military firepower led to untold devastation on the battlefields, campaigns which left millions dead.

Emerging from this ‘total war’ were cases of shell shock, soldiers psychologically affected by the harsh reality of 20th century warfare. Still a relatively new diagnosis, the first use of the term shell shock was believed to have been recorded in the Lancet in 1915 when Charles Myers, Captain in the Royal Army medical Corps, published his article ‘A Contribution to the Study of Shell Shock. Being an Account of Three Cases of Loss of Memory, Vision, Smell and Taste, Admitted into the Duchess of Westminster’s War Hospital, Le Touquet.’

Order for the Reception of a Dangerous Lunatic Soldier. [HC AS]

There are only a handful of surviving records from the psychiatric hospitals in Birmingham dating from the First World War. In the records of All Saints Hospital are reception orders for those admitted to the hospital. These include ‘Service’ patients who were members of the armed forces who had experienced attacks of a psychological kind that had left them with symptoms including those of hallucinations, apathy, loss of memory or understanding, restlessness and the inability to answer simple questions.  In some cases, these men already had pre-existing conditions. In 1917 one soldier, whose cause of attack was unknown, was described as ‘… deluded imagining his food is poisoned. He told me that he was surrounded by enemies who wished to take his life.’ [MS 344/15/14]. We don’t know the full details of this soldier’s condition, however the effects of war seem to be obvious.

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Researching the women – local poets in the War Poetry Collection

Over 25 years ago, as part of the Birmingham Library “Meet the Decade” events, I put together an exhibition highlighting the work of several local war poets whose book or pamphlet formed part of the War Poetry Collection in the Central Library. Researching this exhibition had a lasting effect on me. Moved and enthralled by the words of these poets, I always hoped that one day I would have the chance to re-visit their work. Perhaps I might again have the opportunity to publicise the poems and to help the voices of these poets be heard once more.

As part of the World War One centenary events I have been given the opportunity to recreate an exhibition featuring these local poets as one of the community projects displayed in the Voices of the First World War exhibition at the Library of Birmingham. Whilst Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are synonymous with World War One, others also sought to reflect the war through their verse. Many had written poems throughout their life. For others the events of the war, so unheralded and traumatic, meant searching for a way to come to terms with the experience. Writing poetry enabled them to do this.

Some of the works in the War Poetry Collection, such as “Poems and Drawings” by Henry Lionel Field and “Memoir and Poems of a Soldier” by Clifford Flower, have detailed introductions that provide an outline of the poet’s life. Biographical details are enhanced by quotes from the poets themselves and sometimes from their family, school friends and army colleagues.

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Spring Gardens

Spring Gardens, opened by Samuel Fallows on the corner of Floodgate Street and Ann Street, appeared in Birmingham Trade directories1 from 1785 until 1801.

From Bisset 1800

(Left) John Snape’s Plan of the Parish of Birmingham taken in the Year 1779 [Ref MAP/45209] and (Right) Thomas Hanson’s Plan of Birmingham, 1785 [Ref MAP/72831]

Occupying the eastern corner of plot 723 on John Snape’s Plan of the Parish of Birmingham, 1777,2 the  gardens were still not shown on the Plan of Birmingham survey’d by Thomas Hanson, 1785.3 Although several later authors 4 & 5 mistakenly describe the house as backing onto the river it is apparent from both John Kempson’s Town of Birmingham, 1808 and from John Piggot-Smith’s more detailed survey of 1824-1825 7 that the property was on the opposite side of Floodgate Street.

(Left) John Kempson’s Town of Birmingham, January 1st 1808 [Ref MAP/384604] and (Right) John Piggot-Smith’s Map of Birmingham engraved from a minute trigonometrical survey made in the years 1824 & 1825, 1828 [Ref MS 3700/13/1/1/1]. 

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Stukeley, William. Stonehenge, a temple restor’d to the British druids, 1740. London: Printed for W. Innys and R. Manby, at the West End of St. Paul’s, 1740. Widener Library, Harvard University.

A centenary to celebrate! Sir Cecil Chubb (1876 – 1934) and his wife Mary donated Stonehenge to the nation on 26 October 1918. The monument is now cared for by English Heritage and their excellent website illustrates the events, exhibitions and activities there are to mark the centenary.

Cecil Chubb was born at Shrewton, a few miles from Stonehenge, and became a barrister, Justice of the Peace, Chairman of Fisherton House, Salisbury (one of the largest private psychiatric hospitals in Europe during the 1920s), a racehorse owner and breeder of shorthorn cattle. He had purchased the monument for £6,600 at auction in 1915, from the Antrobus family, after their last male heir was killed during the First World War.

So what has this to do with Birmingham?

According to his son, William Withering jr., Dr. William Withering (1741-1799) of Edgbaston Hall, botanist, chemist, geologist and physician, had visited Stonehenge on his return from his second visit to Lisbon in 1794. His lung health was poor and he had hoped the warmer winter temperatures in Portugal would alleviate his illness. His return journey from Cornwall to Birmingham took in Devon, Dorset, the Isle of Wight and the Stonehenge monument. In the Memoir of his father’s life, Withering jr. writes:

Stonehenge was viewed with no ordinary interest. The mysterious origin, and surprising magnitude of the masses which constitute this edifice, not less than their peculiar arrangement, engaged more than a momentary attention. This monument had long been deemed by Dr Withering, to Great Britain, what the Pyramids are to Egypt, – the antiquarian wonder of the land.

Stukeley, William. Stonehenge, a temple restor’d to the British druids. London: Printed for W. Innys and R. Manby, at the West End of St. Paul’s, 1740. Widener Library, Harvard University.

On 3 January 1797, two of the trilithons at Stonehenge and their lintel – the stones of the inner horseshoe – collapsed. Dr William Withering, corresponded in detail with one James Norris of Nonsuch House, Wiltshire, asking, among other things, if there were any unusual lichens on the upper stones, ‘which have been out of the ordinary reach of man for so many thousand years’.  The third edition of Withering’s work titled ‘An Arrangement of British Plants’ had been published in 1796, so his curiosity in such matters is obvious. Norris attributed the collapse of the stones to a colony of rabbits burrowing in the area.  Withering went further in his interest in the stones:

William Withering to James Norris, 30 July 1797

On conversing with my friend Mr. Watt respecting the late downfall at Stonehenge, he thinks that the three stones might be replaced at an expense not exceeding one hundred pounds. His extensive practical knowledge as an engineer, and his great abilities, are probably not unknown to you. He proposes to employ workmen from Portland island, who are much in the practice of moving large masses of stone, and have the requisite implements. He supposes that the large stones were originally raised up an inclined plane, made of a bank of earth, and should it be necessary he would again raise them in the same way. If I lived in your part of the country I would endeavour to obtain a subscription for the purpose. Surely fifty or a hundred persons might be found to subscribe such a sum. You may rely on my mite towards its accomplishment. Should you ultimately not find an engineer to your mind, I would try to engage Mr. Warltire to undertake the execution of the work, with more particular directions from Mr. Watt.

This may refer to John Warltire (c. 1725 – 1810), an itinerant lecturer on natural philosophy and chemistry at this time.

Stukeley, William. Stonehenge, a temple restor’d to the British druids. London: Printed for W. Innys and R. Manby, at the West End of St. Paul’s, 1740. Widener Library, Harvard University.

Regrettably, it has not proved possible to find any correspondence between Withering and Watt at this period, so I have to assume that their conversation was indeed only verbal.

Those three stones were eventually re-erected in 1958.  By then the cost had risen to £8,500.

The Norris/Withering correspondence can be found in: The Miscellaneous Tracts of the late William Withering M.D. F.R.S. to which is prefixed a Memoir of his life, Character and Writings by William Withering jr. 2 vols. London. 1822.

I thank the late Chris Upton for his introduction to this Norris/Withering/Watt connection.

If you would like to find out more about William Withering, you can find the following in the Birmingham Collection in the Heritage Research Area on level 4 of the library:

The life and times of William Withering: his work, his legacy by Peter Sheldon (2004), ref 78.1

William Withering of Birmingham: M.D., F.R.S., F.L.S by T. Whitmore Peck [and] K. Douglas Wilkinson (1950), ref 78.1

Fiona Tait

All images from Stukeley, William. Stonehenge, a temple restor’d to the British druids. London : Printed for W. Innys and R. Manby, at the West End of St. Paul’s, 1740, held by Widener Library, Harvard University, are available at

Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution by Priya Satia

For Black History Month, this week’s blog post is a review of a recent addition to our holdings:  Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution by Priya Satia published this year by Duckworth Overlook.

At the heart of this studious discourse rests an argument which provides a new appraisal of the forces which drove Britain’s place at the forefront of the industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The central premise of the tome is that the real cause of economic and imperial expansion was due to an exceedingly lucrative military contracting the production of guns and other weaponry which kept the nation in an almost constant state of production and warfare. This revisionist view of the genesis of the industrial revolution places conflict and Britain’s global expansionist desires very much at the forefront of the country’s change to an industrialised nation.

The book is thoroughly researched as evidenced by the extensive footnotes and bibliography, but it also contains an emotional core – in the preface the author describes how a family conflict over a bequeathment heightened to a standoff which involved a gun and the ease with which the trigger can easily be pulled. From this episode the author expands upon and explores further some of the legacy issues brought about by British colonial expansion in the Indian Sub  – Continent which may have contributed as factors in the family turmoil.

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