Using our online catalogue

In these difficult and very strange times, the Library of Birmingham is currently closed to visitors, however our Archives & Collections team are still working hard behind the scenes at home to improve online access to our catalogues and resources.

Here at the Iron Room, we will continue to bring you (hopefully!) interesting and useful blogs. You may see some disruption to our schedule over the coming weeks – we hope to bring you a blog a week, but this may not always be possible as we adapt to our new ways of working.

What still remains important to us is you, our researchers, and we hope you will continue to enjoy reading our articles and stay safe.

So what to do for our first blog working remotely? A guide to using our online catalogue! We have a lot of researchers contacting us who have struggled to use our online catalogue to identify what they need. If you’re not familiar with it, it can be tricky so this step by step guide will help you get the most from it.

When you visit you will see the following homepage:

Figure 1: Online catalogue homepage with search box highlighted

The search box I’ve highlighted above is for an any text search. I searched for steam engines and it returned the following: Continue reading “Using our online catalogue”

Our box-making machine is back in business!

In some exciting news here in Archives and Collections, we have been fortunate enough to be able to get our box-making machine back up and running and in working order. This means that we will be able to make custom made enclosures for our archives!

Our KASEMAKE box-making machine

If you have visited us, you may not have thought much about the box in which the documents you have requested come in, but as part of my role, it is my job to implement measures to protect and preserve the collections and items that are in storage and in use. We receive archives in various states, some in typical office stationery such as lever arch files, plastic wallets, cardboard boxes which are either too large or way too small and even books in black bin bags! With the box making machine working again, it will now be possible for items such as these to be re-housed sometime in the future.

Examples of some inappropriate packaging of archives!

What would you think is the biggest risk to our collections here at the Library of Birmingham? Fire? Flood? Theft?  Would it surprise you if I were to say that handling is probably the biggest risk to our collections here?

One of the interesting things about working with the collections is that almost all can be requested by members of the public and within a few days they can be consulted in our reading room. This happens nearly every week of the year (present circumstances excluded). As you can imagine with original and mostly one-off documents, some are in a more fragile state than others. Due to their age and fragility, if handled inappropriately, the documents will get damaged. One of the ways of preventing damage from handling is to make bespoke archival housing. This makes handling documents easier as well as supporting the documents whilst they are being moved from storage to the reading room.

Good archival housing will protect documents from:

  • Dust and handling grime
  • Abrasion
  • Distortion
  • Accidental damage

Bespoke archival housing will provide support for the document so it cannot move within its enclosure and can also improve access and handle-ability. Some more avid readers of the blog may remember a blog piece I wrote about ‘Plastics and their effects on archival documents’. In that piece I discussed about how materials which are not archival can cause damage to our archives. This is true of the boxes that they are contained within.

All the boxes that will be made on our box-making machine will be using a solid centre conservation boxboard. This boxboard is acid free and lignin free. The boxboard also has excellent folding strength and rigidity. By using this boxboard, it will protect the documents from:

  • Unnecessary exposure to light
  • Limit the effect of environmental changes such as higher temperatures or rising humidity
  • Act as a barrier from atmospheric pollutants
  • Help to protect in the event of a fire or flood

Continue reading “Our box-making machine is back in business!”

Mothering Sunday

Invitation to a Mothering Day service at All Souls’ Church, Witton [Ref. EP 76/139/2]
Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable describes Mothering Sunday as:

A Sunday in Mid-Lent, a great holiday, when the Pope blesses the golden rose, and children go home to their mothers to feast on “mothering cakes”.

I always learn something new when investigating a subject in Archives and Collections. I had no idea that these “mothering cakes” were simnel cakes, which I had always associated with Easter, until I found the illustrations below in the advertising literature of Barrows Stores Ltd., Corporation Street, in the 1930s [LS 10/B/40, 44 and 57].

Advertising literature for simnel cakes from Barrows store Ltd. [Ref. LS 10/B/40, 44 and 57]
By this time, simnel cake had been transformed from its origins as a cake made of fine flour, eggs, dried fruit and saffron, first boiled, then baked, to a cake with allspice instead of saffron, and a marzipan crust. The cake was cooked for the fourth Sunday in Lent, when the fast was temporarily broken, though as butter and cream were still forbidden, a recipe was needed which avoided these. There is a fascinating article on simnel cake by Alexander Lee which has much more information, in History Today, Vol. 69 Issue 4, April 2019.

Advertising literature for simnel cakes from Barrows store Ltd. [Ref. LS 10/B/40, 44 and 57]
I looked through several recipe books from 18th and 19th centuries in Archives and Collections, but sadly, found no simnel cakes there.

Invitation to a Mothering Day service at All Souls’ Church, Witton [Ref. EP 76/139/1]
The second thing I learned from the collections is that violets were associated with Mothering Sunday. I suppose that as one of the earliest spring wildflowers, children may have picked them for their mothers, though I have also seen the suggestion that they may have been candied to put on the cakes! There are some delightful invitation cards from the 1930s – 1940s in the records of All Souls Church, Witton, which include the ‘ancient proverb’:  “He who goes a-mothering finds violets in the lane” [EP 76/139/1-6]. The proverb is quoted in the Oxford Book of Carols, edited by Percy Dearmer, Martin Shaw and Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1928, where there is also another carol for Mothering Sunday.

Invitation to a Mothering Day service at All Souls' Church, Witton [Ref. EP 76/139/1]
Invitation to a Mothering Day service at All Souls’ Church, Witton [Ref. EP 76/139/3]
On a more ‘down-to-earth’ Brummie note, The Birmingham Daily Post on Monday 28 March, 1960, included this [page 17]:

Notice on a butcher’s shop window in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, on Saturday
“Mothering Sunday tomorrow, buy her a chicken or a joint, she can’t eat flowers.

Invitation to a Mothering Day service at All Souls’ Church, Witton [Ref. EP 76/139/4]
[“Mother’s Day” is apparently a 20th century American invention and was held in May].

Fiona Tait

‘A Worker in Birmingham’ by Oliver Reilly

A worker in Birmingham LP 21.7 [661832]
Cover of The Church and the Emigrant in which ‘A worker in Birmingham’ by Oliver Reilly, was published,1958 [Ref. LP 21.7 661832]
Birmingham has had a significant Irish presence dating back chiefly to the industrial revolution. Migration from Ireland along with that from the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent made a significant contribution to the redevelopment of Birmingham in the period after 1945 when a shortage of labour in factories and the necessity to reconstruct vital services and infrastructure created greater economic opportunities for many living in an environment which had not experienced the same levels of industrialisation and its related economic benefits. In the late 1950s, there were estimates of c. 800,000 Irish men and women migrating to the United Kingdom to seek gainful employment, chiefly to London but also in considerable numbers to Birmingham which is reflected by the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in Britain taking place in Birmingham in 1952 – launched by the Irish community as a means of cementing identify in the city and reaffirming connections to the old country. The parade is claimed to be the third largest in the world after New York and Dublin.

There has been considerable discourse regards Irish migration to the UK which has focused on the demographic change in certain communities along with the economic factors driving migration  – but what was being said regards the moral and spiritual consequences of leaving the protection of the church and most importantly, what did the Catholic Church in Ireland have to say on the matter. In the Local Studies Collection, our designated repository of printed materials chronicling the history of the city, I strayed across such an account  –  ‘A Worker in Birmingham’ by Oliver Reilly (LP 21.7) which is one of several essays included in the April 1958 special edition of The Furrow, a monthly journal of the Contemporary Church of Ireland launched in 1950  – so concerning was the debate, The Furrow published three special reports on the matter. The solution was to work towards greater cooperation between the Irish and the English, laymen and priests. The Pope spoke on the matter of migration and argued collaboration on religious lines via the Christian faith was the chief means of trying to lead those who may have lapsed back onto the righteous path. Members of the Irish clergy and their associates were encouraged to experience how migration felt for themselves, almost with a missionary zeal to offer salvation.

Continue reading “‘A Worker in Birmingham’ by Oliver Reilly”

The Horse Race

One of the less obvious joys of research in any Archives is that the strangest things turn up when you least expect them.

A chance find whilst looking at the layout and the ownership of water mills:

[Ref. MS 961]
Stamped on the cover of a small exercise book which lists the land holding of the principal landowners in Perry Barr c.1810 [Ref. MS 961] to accompany the 1794 survey plan [Ref. MAP/601705A) is a small picture [dated 1808].

It shows two horses racing flat-out past what appears to be an inn.  The scene is observed by a women in the upper window of the inn, a man in the inn yard and a man standing by the side of the road waving his hat at the riders. The rider of the leading horse has become unseated and is clinging on to the horse’s neck. His rival shouts from behind “Hallow Dick, youer off, I shall win.”

The primitive artwork of the horses owes nothing to George Stubbs.

Humour certainly struggles over some national borders. Perhaps humour does  not always  travel well over time. Wykes’s saucy seaside postcards of the thirties and forties do not sit well in today’s sense of humour.

Were exercise books sold routinely with ‘humorous’ images stamped on or did the owner do it himself?

Answers please in your exercise books, but send us a copy.

John Townley

Records of Women and Science in Archives & Collections

Contents page of the Women’s Engineering Society’s conference edition of the journal ‘The Woman Engineer’ 1923 [Ref. Birmingham History G/1 305875]
A recent book on women of note in Birmingham showed a number of women, mostly contemporary, prominent in scientific work, from mathematics to medicine, computing to engineering. [‘Once upon a time in Birmingham: Women who dared to dream’, ed. Philippa Barker. 2018]

Seeking older records of women in science in Archives & Collections proved, however, more difficult than I had anticipated, and reminded me of those pre ‘gender studies’ days when women’s history really had to be excavated from the records. So this was, in itself, an education, making me think harder about the definition of science [Latin Scientia = knowledge] and why women scientists seemed so ‘missing’ from the archives. This is partly, of course, that heady brew of male power and dominance in society, and (often lack of) wealth, encouragement, opportunity, independence, and especially, education and training. If science is considered as theory, experimentation, organised education and industry, then women were more likely to be on the fringes of this. Still, the wonderful records in Archives & Collections always have something!

Let’s start with the James Watt papers. I knew that Watt had helped his second wife’s father James MacGregor, a textile merchant in Glasgow, with new information and advice on bleaching processes for his cotton. In a letter to James Watt, 14 October 1787, James MacGregor says that the drawings and apparatus have arrived safely and Ann (MacGregor’s daughter, Watt’s second wife) has assisted with the manufacture of the bleaching liquid. [MS 3219/4/19/53]

Continue reading “Records of Women and Science in Archives & Collections”

Watt 2019: looking back at the bicentenary


Last year was the bicentenary of James Watt’s death. In Birmingham we celebrated his life and legacy with a busy programme of events and a major temporary exhibition. Commemorative events also took place in Scotland and many other places with links to James Watt. Activities in Birmingham were overseen by the modern-day Lunar Society and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and local trusts. With the bicentenary year now behind it seems a good time to look back at some of the highlights.

The central focus of the year-long bicentenary programme was the exhibition ‘Watt in the World’ at the Library of Birmingham (July -Nov). The city has several excellent James Watt related collections and ‘Watt in the World’ was able to combine loans from the Birmingham Assay Office, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Thinktank, Birmingham Archives as well as a large private collection of memorabilia. The result was a wide-ranging display with many unique, often valuable, and sometimes surprising objects. Together these objects and archives illustrated the life of James Watt; engineer, philosopher, inventor, Lunar Society member, but also husband, father and friend.

Watt in the World Exhibition at the Library of Birmingham

Continue reading “Watt 2019: looking back at the bicentenary”