Half an hour in James Watt’s Workshop

25th August marks the date of the death of James Watt in 1819, aged 84, at Heathfield, his home in Handsworth. It seemed appropriate to mark this with a transcript of a visit to Watt’s workshop which has recently come to light. The workshop, now at the Science Museum in London, was re-displayed in 2011.

James Watt’s workshop at Heathfield, Handsworth, near Birmingham c. 1902 [MS 2724/2/B/4327]

The following description of a visit to James Watt’s Workshop in 1876 can be found in a volume of the Friends’ Essay Society. This organisation appears to have been formed about 1845. The earliest members were Mary and Sarah Lloyd, Thomas and Sarah Scott, John and William Heath, Elizabeth and A.J. Brady, Arthur Albright, Agatha Pearson (Secretary) A.M. Southall, Joseph Clark, William Nutter, Herbert Waldwick, H. Hargrave, G.B. Kenway. The Society was reorganised about 1852 and the earliest surviving essays are from that date. There are in all 16 volumes, stretching through until 1959. Essays are about 500-600 words each and on a variety of topics: travel, mountaineering, sailing, humorous or facetious subjects, religion, art, poetry, the history of the organisation, and include photographs, watercolours etc.

On 15 December 1876 an unknown author submitted this essay:

Half an hour in James Watt’s Workshop

In proximity, and yet sufficiently far away from the clamour of the hardware metropolis is Heathfield, surrounded by its acres of meadowland and shrubberies.

Here James Watt passed the last years of his useful life; his history is already penned, – the present is but a glance around the little spot in which he spent so many hours in correspondence and social intercourse with some of the brightest intellects of the day.

Here the “Lunar Society” met, including such men as Dr Priestley, Dr Withering, Mr Keir, Mr Galton, and his intelligent partner, Mr Boulton, to discuss philosophy, chemistry, and every branch of technical industry. Here the great engineer contrived and invented, adding thereby so much to the glory and honour of his country. Continue reading

Drawing connections

Drawing by Gregory Watt of a painting of a man's head by Van Dyck, nd. c. 1793 [MS 3219/7/Part 3/48]

Drawing by Gregory Watt of a painting of a man’s head by Van Dyck, nd. c. 1793
[MS 3219/7/Part 3/48]

I recently visited Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to see the free exhibition ‘Turning to See: From Van Dyck to Lucian Freud. Curated by John Stezaker’, which I thoroughly enjoyed. On display were an array of portraits by a variety of famous names in art history.

The exhibition’s centrepiece is Anthony van Dyck’s masterly last self-portrait purchased for the nation in 2014. Inspired by what I had seen, I wanted to find out whether Archives and Collections at the Library of Birmingham holds any material relating to the artists featured in the exhibition.

Anthony van Dyck via Gregory Watt

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Making an Exhibition out of our Researchers




We are thinking ahead this year to the 2016 Explore Your Archive Campaign in November. It’s a little early but you will soon understand why…

Last year we showcased some of our favourite things from Archives & Collections and this year we would love for you all to get involved by telling us what your favourite item is!


This can be an archive document, a map, a book from the Birmingham Collection – absolutely anything from Archives & Collections! All we ask is that you tell us what it is (reference numbers would be fantastic) and why it’s your favourite item.

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Voices of War & Peace: the Great War and its legacy

The Voices of War & Peace WW1 Engagement Centre, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and led by the University of Birmingham, was set up in January 2014 and its Coordinator, Dr Nicola Gauld, is based in the Library of Birmingham. There are 4 other Engagement Centres in the UK, established to provide UK-wide support for community groups funded through a range of Heritage Lottery Fund programmes, particularly its £6m ‘First World War: Then and Now’ community grants scheme.

Image showing 'Tank Week' to raise money towards the war effore. (1918)

Image showing ‘Tank Week’ to raise money towards the war effort. (1918)

Since it began in 2014 the Voices Centre has run a number of events exploring different aspects of the Great War, focusing on its research themes of Belief and the Great War, Cities at War, Childhood, Commemoration, Gender & the Home Front. Events included a training day for teachers in which staff from the city archives and art gallery explained ways of engaging young people using archives and objects, creative writing workshops in partnership with the Birmingham Literature Festival, a Wikipedia ‘editathon’ that aimed to increase the number of Wikipedia articles on pacifism and dissent and a series of study days exploring a range of topics. Since the Centre was established we have added over 40 articles to the website, topics range from Joseph Southall and Pacifism, to Caring for the Wounded in Local Communities, and The Fighting Warwicks and the South Staffs to Labour Unrest amongst Female  Workers.

Mills munition workers [WK/B11/6700]

Mills munition workers

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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)

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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