Birmingham Quakers and the Spanish Civil War


Promise of donation to the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee appeal for funds, n.d.[ c. 1936-9] [SF/2/1/1/3/12/2/1]

This month is the 80th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) when the right-wing Nationalists led by General Franco attempted to overthrow the left-wing democratically elected Republican government. The war caused much suffering and a million deaths, and resulted in the Nationalists taking power. General Franco’s dictatorship lasted until his death in 1975.

In Birmingham in November 1936, Horace G. Alexander, a member of staff at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre and a member of Cotteridge Preparative Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends drew Friends’ attention to the plight of children on both sides of the war in Spain, and the need for relief work. Work to establish what relief was needed had already been undertaken by the US born British Quaker, Alfred Jacob in Spain and an agreement had been made between the Friends Service Council (1919-1927), and the Save the Children Fund to launch an appeal for funding.

In response, on 10th November 1936, Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends established the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee to organise an appeal locally, but it was also to work with the London-based Friends Service Council. Initial members included Horace G. Alexander, Evelyn Sturge, John S. Hoyland, and Ethel M. Barrow, with other members such as George Cadbury, Florence M. Barrow, Margaret Backhouse, Helena Graham, Catharine Albright and Francesca Wilson and others being invited to join at a later date.


Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting copy minute 156, 10 November 1936, establishing the Spanish Children’s Relief Committee  [SF/2/1/1/3/12/1/1]

Over the next three years, the Committee took part in a variety of activities. They focused on raising awareness of the campaign amongst Friends as well as the wider public and they also appealed for people to go to Spain to help carry out relief work in the areas that most needed it. Appeals for funds were regularly made at local and monthly Quaker meetings, with updates on the situation in Spain. Ethel M. Barrow reported to the Monthly Meeting in March 1937 that £1600 had been collected for the Spanish Children’s Relief Fund and that more was needed. The Committee minutes record that,

‘The Committee feel that the dire need of the Spanish people is not sufficiently realised by Friends and it is hoped that a much greater effort be made to collect money and clothing for the relief of this great mass of suffering’

(SF/2/1/1/1/1/33 Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting, minute 223)

Continue reading

The Best of Friends


MS 3782_12_76_189 First page

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. William Small, 1775, page 1 [MS 3782/12/76/189]

It was reported by Fox News on 5 July 2016 that a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1815 had been found by a family in the U.S.A. among papers in their attic. It was put up for sale at a price of $325,000.

You do not, however, have to pay anything like that sum to see a letter from Jefferson, as one exists in Birmingham, within the Papers of Matthew Boulton [MS 3782/12/76/189] and it is free to view!

This letter, dated 7 May 1775, accompanied three dozen bottles of Madeira which Jefferson was sending by ship to Dr. William Small in Birmingham.

‘I hope you will find it fine as it came to me genuine from the island and has been kept in my own cellar eight years.’

Jefferson continues with news of continuing warfare between British troops and the fighters for American independence and with the failure of peace negotiations.

He finishes:

‘…but I am getting into politics tho’ I sat down only to ask your acceptance of the wine & express my constant wishes for your happiness…….I shall still hope that amidst public dissension private friendship may be preserved inviolate, and among the warmest you can ever possess is that of…..Th. Jefferson.’

MS 3782_12_76_189 Second page

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. William Small, 1775, page 2 [MS 3782/12/76/189]

Unfortunately, the letter and gift arrived after Small’s death, which had occurred on 25 February 1775, and of which Jefferson was unaware.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom (adopted 1785). He was the third President of the United States, 1801-1809. How did he know Dr Small? Continue reading

The Roundhouse

Aerial view of the Midland Flour Mill, Monument Lane Goods and Coal Depot and environs, Ladywood, July 1923. © Historic England Archive (Aerofilms Collection)

EPW008978 – Aerial view of the Midland Flour Mill, Monument Lane Goods and Coal Depot and environs, Ladywood, July 1923. © Historic England Archive (Aerofilms Collection) (The Roundhouse is visible in the bottom left corner.)

As part of a team, I am researching the history of Sheepcote Street Wharf, known locally as The Roundhouse, which is located on the canal-side by the recently re-opened Fiddle and Bone pub. Birmingham City Council built it in the 1870s to provide stabling for horses belonging to the Public Works Committee (PWC).

I have spent the past year trawling through the minutes of the PWC, looking for any mention of the Wharf, together with related items, e.g. the care and welfare of the horses.  This information is being used in the production of a history of The Roundhouse as part of its hoped-for development into a tourist hub, some time in the next few years.

location view from south west the roundhouse west midlands birmingham birmingham © Crown copyright. Historic England Archive

BB94_19225 – Canal and the Roundhouse, Sheepcote Street, Ladywood, 27th October 1994. © Crown copyright. Historic England Archive

I have reached the volumes, which are huge and heavy, relating to the early 1960s and I have been struck by a certain irony in their content.  Having walked from the recently re-developed New Street Station and across the newly laid tram lines up the hill to reach the year-old, or so, Library of Birmingham, of what do I read?  The re-construction of New Street Station, the problem of how to dispose of the tram rails taken up during the previous few years and the planned new Central Library.

Plus ça change . . .

Reference: BCC 1/AO/1/1/177-184

The Somme

Friday, 1st July marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. The battle lasted for a little over four months, finally coming to an end in November 1916. It was the largest, and bloodiest, battle on the Western Front, with over one million men on both sides killed, wounded or missing in action.

The events of the battle have been well documented but it is the personal experiences of those involved in the fighting that I was looking for when searching through our catalogues, to tell the story of the men from Birmingham who fought bravely for their country.

Portrait of Henry Field who was killed at the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. [L07.3 COR Poems and Drawings]

Portrait of Henry Field who was killed at the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916.
[L07.3 COR Poems and Drawings]

One of the first items I came across was from our Birmingham Collection – a small book with the simple title Poems and Drawings by H. L. Field. This is a collection of poems and drawings by Henry Field who was killed in action on 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Before the war he had studied at the Birmingham School of Art and his family arranged the poems and sketches for publication after his death.  The introduction to the volume tells us that the poems were written between 1912 and 1916, when he was aged 18 to 22. The introduction is signed R.F. and it is clear that it was a very personal decision to publish the poems. The ones that meant the most to R.F. (the ones they used to laugh over together) were omitted and one can only assume that while they wanted to do justice to the memory of Henry, some of the poems were too difficult and too personal to share. We believe R.F. was Henry’s brother, who died November 1918.

Biographical details of Henry Field, taken from Poems and Drawings [L07.3 COR]

Biographical details of Henry Field, taken from Poems and Drawings
[L07.3 COR]

Also to be found in our collections are two photograph albums relating to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment taken by Captain J.A. Wall in 1915/16.  He was at one time serving with the 16th Battalion (3rd Birmingham) of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, known as the Birmingham Pals.  The photographs are of soldiers at Arras and notably absent are any images of the Somme where he was wounded in 1916 but was fortunate to recover. Continue reading

Archives in the balance

Weighing scales, somewhat less sophisticated than the ones used in the Wolfson Centre. [MS 2628/4/4/2]

 Astute users of the Wolfson Centre may have noticed that we weigh items in the Wolfson Centre before serving them and when we receive them back at the desk.  I have been asked many times if that’s because we think people are inveterate thieves.  Of course we do – there will always be that one person who will nick anything.  But that’s not the only reason, there is also the fact that digital scales are cool.  What often surprises researchers though is that we don’t just weigh items to check that nothing has been taken out, but also to check that nothing has been put back in!  Why is this?  Well, I shall tell you, dear reader:

Theory lesson

Foremost early 20th century archival theorist, Sir Hilary Jenkinson wrote that the role of the archivist is the ‘physical and moral defence’ of archives.  So what have scales got to do with this?  Well firstly, we’re dealing with the physical defence by making sure that none of the material goes missing.  But perhaps more crucially, we’re charged with the moral defence of the material.  Now, we all know the archives are evidence of a transaction (you knew that, right?) but what makes them so important and useful to historians is their ‘impartiality’ and ‘authenticity’, i.e. the fact that we know the records haven’t been messed with and are the same today as they were when the transaction occurred.

Continue reading

Vegetarian Roots

Inspired by National Vegetarian Week in May, we wanted to introduce readers to the Pitman Vegetarian Restaurant and Hotel which was located on Corporation Street, Birmingham, and opened in the late 19th century. Unusually for the city, the building has not been demolished and its fine frieze of diners above the ground floor, designed by Benjamin Creswick, can still be admired.


Pitman Buildings. Home to the 19th century vegetarian restaurant. (C) Fiona Tait

The Hotel was opened in 1898 as an expansion of the vegetarian restaurant on the same site, which had opened in 1896. The building was named after Sir Isaac Pitman (of ‘shorthand’ fame), who was at that time vice-president of the Vegetarian Society.The proprietor of both restaurant and hotel was James Henry Cook.

Continue reading

Friendship, Abolition and Archives

Thursday 9th June marks International Archives Day. This year’s theme is ‘Archives, Harmony and Friendship’. With this in mind what better way to celebrate than by delving into a collection with friendship and campaigning for harmony, through the abolition of slavery, at its core.


Birmingham Ladies Negro’s Friend Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves Minutes, 1825-1852 [MS 3173/1/1]

The Birmingham Ladies Negro’s Friend Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves was established in 1825 and grew out of the friendship of Lucy Townsend and Mary Lloyd and their joint opposition to slavery. Both women were heavily involved in philanthropic work and committed to the anti-slavery cause. They met and became friends through meetings of the Bible Society. Lucy’s husband the Revd Charles Townsend was an anti-slavery campaigner and a clergyman in West Bromwich and Mary Lloyd’s husband Samuel Lloyd was from a prominent Quaker family and head of the firm Lloyd, Foster and Co., Wednesbury.

The first meeting of the society was held in Lucy Townsend’s home in West Bromwich on the 8th April 1825 and in the first minute book of the society (MS 3173/2/1) was described as ‘a very large and respectable meeting of ladies’. Lucy and Mary worked together as joint secretaries of the Society which was the first active anti-slavery campaign group in the city. The first report of the Society, 1825-1826 (MS 3173/2/1), held in the archive, states the group’s resolutions including a particular emphasis on female slaves.

‘That we form ourselves into a Society for the melioration of the unhappy children of Africa, and especially of female Negro slaves, who living under the British dominion, receive from British hands their lot of bitterness.’


First Report of the Birmingham Ladies Negro’s Friend Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves, 1825 – 1826 [MS 3173/2/1]

Continue reading