One a Penny, Two a Penny…Easter at Purus Bakeries!

Purus Bakeries logo from a cake box, n.d. [MS 2645/4/6]

Collection reference MS 2645 is comprised of two boxes of material from the Purus Bakeries Ltd., which was a bakery located in Handsworth, founded in 1899, and which ran for over fifty years in the hands of the Innes family.

Photograph of an Easter window display, 1930s [MS 2645/4/4]

Items of particular interest in the collection are the two bakery journals, which note details on the periods of high production for the bakeries at Christmas and Easter.

In 1939, it seems they had an issue with sales, when ‘the catalogue’ (of egg designs, I presume) was taken out of the premises, and this prompted a series of odd orders. (I wouldn’t have wanted to be ‘No. 12’ that year.) They also investigated Easter novelties—a chicken pen? (I can’t make up my mind if they mean ink pens with chickens on them, chicken-pen shaped treats, or a pen of chickens at the shop—the line about Cadbury’s and Rowntree leaves me to wonder still.)

Bakery Journal no. 2 [MS 2645/3/1/2]

On a more sombre note, the Easter of 1940 marks how rationing and the lack of extra labour available began to really impact upon the production of Easter treats.

Bakery Journal no. 2 [MS 2645/3/1/2]

By Easter 1951, they seem to be on to better times as they are producing Easter Cakes—a rather wily example of remarketing their ‘Xmas Mix’ for Easter. And for those wishing to splash out, Easter Gateaux—very fancy.

Bakery Journal no. 2 [MS 2645/3/1/2]

They did suffer some snags though as they didn’t have enough ‘fancies’.

Bakery Journal no. 2 [MS 2645/3/1/2]

I hope any Easter plans you have go off (no egg pun intended) without a hitch (hatch?).

Happy Easter from Archives & Collections.

Rachel Clare, Senior Archives & Collections Assistant


Forgotten Stories: a Birmingham burial register

The book I’ve chosen to write about this week is titled “SS. Peter and Paul, Aston: Burials 1790 – 1793”, and is located with the parish registers in the Heritage Research Area. It is a facsimile copy of the original register. The original register (Ref: EP 41/2/1/2/5) is held in our stores; however, due to its condition, it cannot be served. Contained within this register is an insight into Birmingham life in the 18th century. This register is special because, uniquely, the cause of death is recorded. This addition allows researchers an insight into the difficulties of 18th century life for the people of Birmingham.

Surrogates of parish registers in the Heritage Research Area, floor 4, Library of Birmingham

Parishes would record information on burials in various ways. By the 1780s, however, there was an attempt to try and make recording more standardised with the production of the ‘Proposed Form of Register for Burials’ which was printed in the year 1781.

Proposed Form of Register for Burials in ‘SS. Peter and Paul, Aston: Burials 1790 – 1793’

The format is a proposed one which seems to have been one of many trial formats. Despite this standardisation attempt, it seems that other parishes in Birmingham did not use this new system during this period, for instance St. Mary’s, Whittall Street. SS Peter and Paul began using the proposed format by about 1784, as seen in the registers.

The proposed format recorded date of burial, name of the deceased, names of parents, age of deceased, supposed cause of death and where buried. This burial register covers the first three years of the 1790s and during that time 550 burials took place within the parish of SS Peter and Paul. Of those 550, 329 were children, equating to 59 – 60% of the register. Of these 329 children (aged between 1 day and 17 years), 49% (163) were under the age of 12 months.

Burial entries of children in ‘SS. Peter and Paul, Aston: Burials 1790 – 1793’

We can clearly see that the infant mortality rate was extremely high during this period, which must have had a significant effect on families.  The causes of death for children ranged from measles to Chincough (whooping cough), and from small pox to consumption. Probably the most unusual cause of death among this group is that of ‘teeth’ or ‘cutting teeth’; it seems unusual to us in the modern world as one would never think of teeth being a cause of death. However it seems that during the 18th century, ‘teeth’ was used as a term for ailments that were seemingly unknown, and which came at a time when new teeth were growing, but also could have been related to the processes by which pain was relieved. It should be noted all 10 entries of ‘teeth’ as cause of death are children between the ages of 7 and 18 months.

There are other types of entry which invite more questions than answers. For example, an entry dated 15th June 1790 for a Mary Bishop.

Burial entry for Mary Bishop, 17 June 1790 in ‘SS. Peter and Paul, Aston: Burials 1790 – 1793’

Her parents’ names are not entered and her cause of death is recorded as ‘Evil’. When I saw this my first thought was why evil? What had she done? I did some further research and discovered information on a disease called Scrofula, a type of tuberculosis affecting the glands. Scrofula was known as the King’s Evil and it was given this name because people believed it could be cured by the King’s touch. A case could be made for Mary Bishop having had Scrofula, and the death was simply recorded as Evil.

Another interesting case is that of Jacob, son of John and Mary Field who died at the age of 5 years and 3 months and was buried on January 4th 1791. His cause of death reads ‘Burned’.

Burial entry for Jacob aged 5, 4 January 1791 in ‘SS. Peter and Paul, Aston: Burials 1790 – 1793’

This is curious. What happened to him? How was he burned? Was there a fire? Was it an accident? Given that no other family members were interred around the same time, does it suggest that there wasn’t a fire or that the rest of his family managed to survive.

There are many others I could mention, for instance on 19 July 1791, Samuel Jones was ‘Killed at Doctor Priestly’s’, aged 24 years old!

Burial entry for Samuel Jones, 19 July 1791 in ‘SS. Peter and Paul, Aston: Burials 1790 – 1793’

It is possible that this gentleman was a victim of the Priestley Riots which took place in Birmingham between the 14th and 17th July 1791. The riots, it seems began as a protest to a dinner that was taking place at the Royal Hotel, to celebrate the 2nd Anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. Prominent dissenters, (protestants who did not conform to the Church of England) were targeted due to their support of the French Revolution and were seen as a direct threat. Violent acts of looting and burning of dissenter property were seen all over the city. There is a record of one man being killed during the looting of Baskerville House, however it may not be Samuel Jones. More research would be needed to connect this entry definitively to the Priestly Riots, although it would be interesting to do so. Also there is an entry for an unknown man who was found in a cowshed near Vauxhall and died whilst being conveyed to his lodgings. What happened to this man? Who was he?

Burial entry for a travelling man, 23 August 1791 in ‘SS. Peter and Paul, Aston: Burials 1790 – 1793’

To still have access to these stories almost 230 years on is incredible. From records like this we are able to catch a glimpse of what life was like for the people of Birmingham in the 18th century. If you would like to come and view for yourself these stories, and more about the forgotten people of Birmingham, please come to Level 4 of the Library of Birmingham and speak to a member of staff.

Helen Glenn, Senior Archives & Collections Assistant

Turner’s Brass House, Coleshill Street

We know that by 1750 the site  on the corner of Coleshill Street and Leek Street was occupied by ‘Turner’s Brass House.’1

In 1753 it can be seen  to the right of St Bartholomew’s chapel on the East Prospect of Birmingham.2

Samuel Bradford’s Plan of Birmingham 1750

Samuel Buck and Nathaniel Buck. East prospect of Birmingham, 1753.

 In 1754 it was visited by Reinhold Angerstein, who noted:

The brass-works … belongs to Mr Turner and consists of nine furnaces with three built together in each of three separate buildings. The furnaces are heated with mineral coal, of which 15 tons is used for each furnace, and melting lasting ten hours. Each furnace holds nine pots, 14 inches high and nine inches diameter at the top. Each pot is charged with 41 pounds of copper and 50 pounds of calamine. Mixed with [char]coal. Duiring charging I observed that a handful of coal and calamine was first placed on the bottom of the pot, then came the mixture, which was packed in tightly, followed by about a pound of copper in small pieces, and finally again coal and calamine without copper, covering the top. This procedure was said to lengthen the life of the pot both at the top and the bottom. The result of one charge was 75 pounds of brass, with a value of £4.10s per cwt. The calamine comes from Derbyshire,… , but the copper is brought from Wales. The foremans wages were 14 shillings and those of the labourers 9 shillings per week. There are six workers for the nine furnaces and casting takes place twice every 24 hours. The yearly production amounts to 300 tons. The price of the copper is 12d per pound and of the brass 10d per pound. 3 Continue reading

The Kingsway Cinema, Kings Heath

Detail from the building plan of ‘The Kingsway’, showing the front of the building [Ref. BBP 36328]

The Kingsway façade as it stands today [Author’s own photograph, March 2019]

The Kingsway Cinema, described as Super-Cinema of its time, stood as landmark on the High Street of Kings Heath village.  The initial planning of the Kingsway was scheduled in 1913, but due to the intervening World War 1, the completion could not take place till 10 years later.  Premiering with Down to the Sea in Ships, on Monday 2nd March 1925, the Kingsway was publicized as a state of the art cinema of the time, providing ‘high-class amusement tastefully presented’, for the rapidly growing district of Kings Heath, described as ‘one of the finest suburbs of England’s second city’.

Opening night listing, The Kings Heath Observer, Monday 2nd March 1925 [Microfilm 18/7]

‘Grand Opening Night’ programme, Monday 2nd March 1925 [Ref. Birmingham Scrapbook Vol.10]

Residents were assured of ‘a cinema of excellence of design, with the architectural design by Horace G. Bradley, who was also credited for many respected Birmingham cinemas, including the Broadway, Coronet and Lozells. Continue reading

Watt 2019: March

2019 marks the bicentenary of the death of James Watt, improver of the steam engine and partner of Matthew Boulton in the engine businesses at Soho, Handsworth. There will be many events commemorating this during the year, in Birmingham and Scotland, and information about these can be found on the James Watt 2019 website.

To help celebrate the richness of the archive of the James Watt and Family Papers [MS 3219], held in Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham, there will be a monthly blog on a Watt related subject.

The Watt Family and the Sea

The relatives of James Watt had strong connections with the sea. Both his grandfather Thomas (1639 or 1642-1734) and his uncle, John senior (1694-1737), were teachers of navigation and mathematics in Crawfordsdyke, Ayr, and Glasgow, Scotland.

An agreement was made between John Watt senior and one Samuel McGun, on 12 May 1715 for teaching him navigation skills. The document lists twenty subjects including: to find the prime or golden number for any year; to find the moon’s age; to find the leap year and when any of the fixed stars come on the meridian; to keep a plain reckoning; to work a mercator’s journal; to find how many miles sailing on any point of the compass makes a degree of latitude; to find how many miles sailing directly east or west in any latitude makes a degree of longitude; to work middle latitude sailing; to find the variation of the compass.

For this, John Watt was to receive, a fee, paper, a pair of gloves, and a new hat when McGun first became master. [MS 3219/2/10]

John Watt moved to Glasgow in 1719. He was also a land surveyor and his best known survey was one of the Firth of Clyde, made about 1734, and published, with additions and alterations, by his brother and nephews in 1759.

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Fighting For Our Heritage

In December 2018, we received a deposit of material from the Fighting for our Heritage project, which was run from the Pat Benson Boxing Academy (MS 4948, Acc 2018/067). The project was funded by the National Lottery to document the history of amateur boxing in Birmingham and the collection includes some wonderful photographs of boxers in the 1940s and 1950s, along with promotional material and programmes.

Photograph of Billy Biddles c.1940s (MS 4948, Acc 2018/067)

The Pat Benson Boxing Academy has had many changes of name and locations over the years. Its origins date back to 1931 when it was founded by Stephen Hayden from Kilkenny as the Irish Foresters and operated from The Hen and Chickens, Custard House and Sydenham pubs. Stephen built the foundation of a community club that would retain its Irish roots and identity and over the decades, the club has grown and ‘nurtured talent from the black and minority ethnic communities, mirroring and celebrating Birmingham’s ever more diverse cultural make up’.

On the death of Stephen, his son, Steve, took over the club and moved it to the Hobsmoor pub. When Steve died suddenly in the 1960s, Pat Benson took over as coach, ensuring the future success of the club. In 1967, Pat moved the club to the Harp in Moseley Street and it was around this time that they joined with the Kyrle Hall Boxing Club, becoming the Small Heath Golden Gloves.

For a while, the club was run out of Small Heath Leisure Centre, changing its name to the Small Heath Boxing Club. The club temporarily returned to Small Heath Leisure Centre in 1983 after a fire at their Fazeley Street premises. By this time, the club had many successful boxers and Pat was forced to move them out to other clubs so they could continue to compete. It was also around this time that the Chelmsley Wood Boxing Club and St. Francis Boxing Club were established, with ‘a helping hand and sound advice from Pat’.

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Pete James: Birmingham’s Mr Photography

Pete James and Jim Ranahan on their last day together at the Library of Birmingham, September 2015. Copyright: the Estate of Pete James

Pete James was an accomplished photographic historian and Head of Photographs at the Library of Birmingham (formerly the Central Library) until 2015.  Pete sadly died in March 2018, but his legacy continues:

Through Pete James’ work, the photographic collections became part of the very pulse of the Library of Birmingham

Professor Elizabeth Edwards [1]

Pete arrived in Birmingham in 1984 to study ‘The History of Art and Design’.  He was guided to Birmingham Central Library, where he discovered a fantastic array of photographic collections.  After gaining an M.A. from Birmingham Polytechnic (now Birmingham City University) Pete chose to follow a career in photography and fortunately for us all, Pete decided to stay in Birmingham.  He immersed himself in the City’s photographic culture, not least with the photography magazine ‘TEN.8’, published in Birmingham through the 1980s and early 1990s.  This grounding in contemporary campaigning and documentary photography provided Pete with invaluable experience for his later success as a photographic curator, where he would champion emerging and established photographers alike.

However, Pete’s passion for historic studies remained and he formed the ‘Birmingham Photographic Heritage Project’ to enable him to pursue research begun during his M.A.  Pete returned to the Central Library’s collections, initially focusing on the survey photographers William Jerome Harrison and Sir Benjamin Stone.  As his understanding of the collections increased, Pete realised just how significant they were for the history of photography, locally and nationally.  He also realised that this significance was masked by their dispersal across library departments and that researchers less tenacious than he, would not uncover their riches.  Pete successfully demonstrated to Patricia Coleman, City Librarian, the potential for raising their profile and research applications and he was appointed as the Central Library’s first specialist photographic researcher.

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