The lost arm of William James

Whilst trying to compile a short biography of Caroline Colmore (1766-1837), heiress of the Colmore estates in Birmingham, I searched Google Advanced Book Search for results with the exact phrase ‘Miss Colmore’ and came up with the following by Samuel Smiles:

‘In 1806 he contemplated the formation of a tramway from Birmingham towards Wedgebury [sic]…… He took a lease on Newhall Hill. Then an immense sandhill. The removal of the hill occupied several years labour but after the ground was cleared Miss Colmore refused to allow it to be used as a railway terminus: on which Mr. James arranged with the Birmingham Canal Co. to bring their canal there, and form their present wharfs. In this enterprise Mr. James lost a large sum of money.’ [1]

I already knew of sand extraction and canal wharves at Newhall Hill, but who was ‘Mr James’ and what were these plans for a ‘tramway/railway terminus’?

A little more reading [2] showed that the ‘Mr James’ in question was William James (1771-1837), the greatest visionary crusader in the modernisation of inland transport during Britain’s industrial revolution. The great engineering biographer L.T.C. Rolt said of him,

‘At a time when such a conception must have appeared to his contemporaries as fantastic as space travel, James had a clear vision of an England seamed with locomotive railways. Moreover he cried that vision in the wilderness with such fanatical persistence that willy-nilly he conditioned the minds of even the most sceptical Englishmen to accept the idea of railways. By doing so he undoubtedly paved the way for the railway revolution even though he played no part in that revolution when it came.’ [3]

Portrait of W. James (1771-1837), Civil Engineer Projector of the Liverpool to Manchester & other railways, engraved by W. Rolle from a miniature by A.E. Chalon [London], published 1839. From Science Museum Group, cropped & used under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
A short biography of James, published two years after his death, [4] adds to his many transport activities the role of mineowner. In partnership with Mr Vansittart [5] he owned Balls Hill and Golden Hill collieries at West Bromwich, and Old Field colliery at Wednesbury. He also bought Ocker hill, Lee Brook and New Contract collieries and Birchill colliery and iron works in Staffordshire, the Pitsalt colliery, Swadlincote, Derbyshire and the Wyken colliery, near Coventry.

Many mine-owners, when opening new collieries, insisted on their need for new canal branches to provide better transport links.[6] Dissatisfied with the response from the Old Birmingham Canal company James surveyed and brought into the House of Commons a Bill for a canal from his mines down the Tame valley to Birmingham. Fearing competition, the Birmingham Canal company agreed to take over and prosecute the Bill.  The Bill that they eventually brought before the House had been so emasculated that it contained no proposals regarding James’s canal route.[7]

Continue reading “The lost arm of William James”

Researching Birmingham Newspapers – your options

Archives & Collections retains an extensive range of newspapers published in Birmingham, typically going right back to the first edition. The majority of holdings are accessible on microfilm in the Heritage Research Area but other titles will only be available to view by appointment in our searchroom, the Wolfson Centre, due to factors such as age, condition and size. Please see our online catalogue for an account of our holdings (from the online catalogue, there’s a guide on how to use the catalogue on the menu board on the left hand side of the page, otherwise we’ve written a blog post on how to use our online catalogue). 

Why Use a Local Newspaper for Your Research 

Local newspapers are an invaluable source of information and contain the documentation of the everyday legal, business and social interactions which do not always reach the same level of universal attention as events and episodes deemed worthy of meriting national coverage. And yet, the real nuts and bolts of life can be found in the local press, it’s one of the few places where the lives of so many are so closely chronicled, from the photograph of a civic dignitary planting a tree in a local park, to the unfortunate record of a fatality in accounts of the Coroners’ court, through to responses by local communities to social and economic changes. 

For the family historian, local newspapers offer various jewels such as notices about births, deaths, and marriages; obituaries and legal notices, reports of court cases and wills. 

Extract page from Birmingham Daily Post, 1 January 1890, listing births, marriages and deaths
‘Births, Deaths, Marriages and Obituaries’, Birmingham Daily Post, 1 Jan. 1890. British Library Newspapers,

Continue reading “Researching Birmingham Newspapers – your options”

In Memory of Remembrance

This Remembrance Day blog is our opportunity to show you a sample of the types of records you can find in our collections concerning memorials, or past services of remembrance.


The below items feature the names of the people who raised funds for a memorial at Christ Church, Sparkbrook, and a list of the names which were to be included on the memorial and how they were to be remembered.

List of names for the War Memorial and Memorial Chapel. [EP 3/9/2/1/1]

This next item is a faculty for St. Luke’s, Birmingham, dated 17th November 1921, concerning the erection of a war memorial. Faculties are documents that must be submitted to the local diocese to ask for permission to make physical changes to a church.

This one reads ‘[…]by the Petition of you the said Vicar and Churchwardens that it is proposed to place at the West end of the Church of St. Luke, Birmingham aforesaid as a Memorial to all from the Parish who fell in the Great War a Tablet constructed of Brass with an inscription thereon already approved[..]

Francis Galton and the advancement of fingerprinting

Francis Galton was born on 16th February 1822 into an important, wealthy Quaker family who lived in Sparkbrook, Birmingham in the area between Priestly Road and Larches Street. He attended several Birmingham schools before entering King Edward’s School, Birmingham in 1836. His parents wished him to go into the medical profession, so he was apprenticed to several Birmingham doctors and trained at the Birmingham General Hospital and King’s College London. In 1840, he attended Trinity College, Cambridge where for a while he studied medicine before changing to mathematics. A man of many interests, he went on to write several books and hundreds of scientific papers, his research contributing to the furthering of knowledge in a wide range of scientific subjects. In this blog post, I will be focussing on his pioneering work in fingerprinting. 

Ordnance Survey 6 inch series, Warwickshire Sheet XIV SW, 1899, showing the area where Francis Galton was born. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland, used under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

Galton and others became convinced that fingerprints could be used to positively identify an individual, and realising how useful this could prove in the sphere of criminology and the identification of individuals in accidents and financial disputes, he began experiments to determine if fingerprints could positively identify a person. His experiments led him to consider how measurement could be used for identification of individuals, particularly in relation to policing and detection of crime.

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Welcome back!

One of our Duty Archivists behind our newly installed perspex screen at the Wolfson Centre customer service desk
One of our Duty Archivists behind our newly installed perspex screen at the Wolfson Centre customer service desk

We’re very happy to announce that the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research is re-opening to the public with a reduced service from November 2020. We have made a number of changes to the way we operate the Wolfson Centre so that it is Covid-secure, but we hope that some things are still familiar to our regular visitors so as not to be too overwhelming. So you know what to expect, this blog post outlines the changes we have made. 

Booking your appointment 

To open safely, the number of researchers we can accommodate is reduced so you’ll need to make an appointment via our online booking system and order your documents ahead of your visit. New dates will be added to the booking page every Monday at 11am, two weeks in advance.

Appointments are available on Wednesdays and Thursdays only, when we are open between 11:00 and 15:00. Your appointment is for all of this time. Anyone who has not booked in advance will not be allowed to enter the building, so please don’t travel if you have been unable to book. Each appointment is for one person only on a first come, first served basis. If you want to bring someone with you, they will need to book a visit for themselves. You can only book one appointment per week. Continue reading “Welcome back!”

New Skills for Lockdown

2020 has been a strange old year, filled with new challenges, new vocabularies and a completely new normal. We have all had to adapt to the ever-changing rules and regulations, however back in March we were all new to this. The idea of a Lockdown was completely alien to us then, we had no idea that we could work from home. That alien idea soon became a reality though and we had to find ways to continue to work and keep in touch with each other. The new technologies helped in this regard, and one of our team had the genius idea of running a training course, where we could ‘meet up’ using technology to learn something new.

This is how the Palaeography training began. Palaeography is the study of old writing systems and the deciphering of old documents. As we have many old documents in our Archives, we thought it would be a great idea to help each other learn to read them and, in the process, make them more accessible to the public. We began this training in early April, some of our number, myself included, had never done anything like this before, we were completely new to the writing styles and how to decipher them so having people within the group who had read these writing styles before was a huge bonus for us beginners.


Alphabet showing letter formation in 16th and 17th century handwriting.

We began by looking at a document written in a style of writing called secretary hand. Secretary hand is a form of writing that became popular during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, rising from a need for more legible script that was more universally recognised. To begin reading this script you need to first get your head around the alphabet, see the image to the right.

Some of the letters are completely different to what we’d be used to today and this recognition of certain letters made the document a challenge to read. Some letters are obvious, others can seem to be masquerading as other letters for instance the C’s often resemble R’s and the S’s quite often look to be F’s. W’s as well are almost unrecognisable often appearing as V’s with an o joined to them. There are also contractions to note in documents like this, for instance a P with a loop below often indicates a ‘Per’, ‘Pre’ or ‘Pro’ contraction where the E, the R or O are missing. You will be able to see some of these letter forms in the picture below. The E’s appear backwards a lot of the time and capital C’s resemble hot cross buns. To start with the document appeared overwhelmingly difficult, however picking out some words is still possible.

Continue reading “New Skills for Lockdown”

Following the trail of the Slave Trade

In the Spring, the professional archive sector reacted to the pandemic by encouraging the nation to document their own experiences of COVID-19. One of the suggestions was to archive web pages containing advice and guidance, services and so on. Unfortunately a project of the scale required was not something we could embark on but while investigating web archiving, we did re-discover  the database of the UK Web Archive run by the British Library and the National Archives’ UK Government Web Archive. The latter proved particularly interesting.

The death of George Floyd in May shocked the world. The Black Lives Matter movement brought the issue of equality to the forefront and asked the world to listen, to engage and to reflect on our history. Questions were asked about the role of the Slave Trade in the development of Britain – how far did it extend and to what extent have we as a nation looked the other way, choosing to forget this dark chapter in our nation’s past.

Image of the Achives & Heritage title page for the Slave Trade pack, archived in 2012 by the National Archives.
Archives & Heritage web pages archived in 2012 by the National Archives.

As individuals, we wanted to react and show support, but in our professional capacity, what would be the appropriate response? Archivists are here to protect the written heritage of our country, it is not our place to interpret the contents necessarily, we try and leave that to the researchers! What we can do is raise awareness of the documents that can be used to inform the debate. This is where the National Archives’ UK Government Web Archive inspired us.

Continue reading “Following the trail of the Slave Trade”