Birmingham’s First Coroner – Dr John Birt Davies

Portrait of Dr John Birt Davies (Ref: Edgbastonia Vol II No. 11. 15 March 1882)

Portrait of Dr John Birt Davies (Ref: Edgbastonia Vol II No. 11. 15 March 1882)

Whilst researching for an upcoming presentation on Coroners Records at Who Do You Think You Are? Live at the NEC in April I found myself being sidetracked  (a common occurrence!) by Dr John Birt Davies – the first Birmingham Coroner.

Born in the, improbably named, village of Nateley Scures, Hampshire in 1799, he studied medicine at Edinburgh graduating in 1822. He moved to Birmingham shortly afterwards and his first hospital role was that of physician to the General Dispensary (MS 1759/1/1/1 Birmingham General Dispensary Committee minutes 1794-1840). He became heavily involved in local politics as a Liberal and this may have been the reason behind his failure to secure a position at the General Hospital. He founded a Fever Hospital at the Bath House, Bath Row where he attended the only case of Asiatic cholera in Birmingham in 1832. In 1839 Aris’s Gazette reports on the presentation of silver plate to Dr Davies by a deputation led by Thomas Pemberton and John Cadbury in recognition of his public service over 14 years . The citation mentions his” zealous attention towards numerous poor patients who have sought and received his gratuitous aid” (Aris’s Birmingham Gazette – Monday 15 August 1836).

His appointment as the Borough’s first coroner was on 15 May 1839 shortly after the Liberals secured the city’s incorporation (BCC/1/AA/1/1/1 Birmingham Borough Council Minutes).

His election was not without controversy as John Welchman Whateley, a local solicitor, was also standing and he had served as County Coroner for Warwickshire covering the Birmingham Division for 20 years.   Birt Davies received 40 votes to Whateley’s mere four – a result which was greeted enthusiastically by the Lancet with the following headline:

Headline from Lancet

Mr Whateley challenged the appointment, although this was partly politically motivated and was intended to test the validity of the Charter of Incorporation. His challenge was ultimately unsuccessful – although he was given a compensation allowance of £117 per annum until his death in December 1874.

There were no specific requirements to be a Coroner other than being a man of some standing but by the early 19th Century it was customary for the office to be held by someone with legal expertise. John Birt Davies brought his medical expertise, some of it gained whilst physician at Queen’s Hospital to the role. He had been a strong supporter of William Sands Cox in his foundation of the Birmingham Royal School of Medicine and Surgery, which became in 1843 the Queen’s College, and he occupied its chair of forensic medicine for many years.

Coroners were required to submit annual reports to the Home Office and  Dr Davies produced detailed analysis of several different types of verdicts. The following table shows his analysis of suicides in 1840:

analysis of suicides in 1840 Birmingham Journal - Saturday 13 February 1841

Analysis of suicides in 1840, produced by Dr Davies (Birmingham Journal – Saturday 13 February 1841)

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Birmingham’s ‘temples of relief’

This blog piece is a companion piece of sorts to the blog post written by one of our regular researchers about the ‘public nuisance’, i.e. public urination, on her own blog “Notes from 19th Century Birmingham: An Occasional History of the Mundane” entitled “‘Indecent Usages': the nuisance of peeing in public” and also, to a lesser extent, the piece by fellow archivist, Michael Hunkin, on the Civic Centre.

The provision of toilets for public use is a perennial issue, and something to which the council have offered different solutions at different times.  You will find much that has been written about the ‘temples of relief’, the highly decorative ornate Gothic iron work of pissoirs in Birmingham.  You can still find a number of these knocking around the city centre (train stations are a good place to look with ones at Jewellery Quarter, Allison Street (under Birmingham Moor Street) and Snow Hill station.  And these have their own interesting stories.

There are plenty of photos of these Victorian toilets to be found on the internet: the Birmingham Mail’s “See the lost loos of Birmingham” is a particularly good one.  I would have gone and taken some photos myself but I didn’t fancy having to explain to curious onlookers why I was taking photos of toilets…

But the public toilets of the period just after the Second World War receive much less coverage.  Which brings me, circuitously to the crux of this piece: when cataloguing a collection of architectural plans deposited at Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography by the Council’s Planning Department (accession number: 2008/027) I discovered two tubes of plans of different post WWII public conveniences around the city.  The whole accession contains fascinating plans (including a number of plans for Civic Restaurants and the plans relating to the Civic Centre that fellow archivist Mike wrote about in his blog piece) but I was most interested to find the plans of the public conveniences.  In brief the accession contained the following plans relating to public conveniences:

(2008/027) Tube 3:

  • Stratford Road Fox Hollies public conveniences, 1953, 2 plans
  • Bartley Green public conveniences, 1947 – 1963, 3 plans
  • Colmore Row public conveniences, 1948, 4 plans
  • Gostar Green public conveniences, 1955, 1 plan
  • Kitts Green Road public conveniences, 1950, 3 plans
  • Quinton Estates, Faraday Avenue public conveniences, 1 plan
  • Spies Lane public conveniences, 1948 – 1958, 3 plans

(2008/027) Tube 6:

  • Bournbrook conveniences, 1955, 2 plans
  • Bartley Green conveniences, 1959 – 1960, 4 plans
  • Kingstanding Road conveniences, 1951, 3 plans
  • Navigation Street conveniences, 1952, 2 plans
  • Sandpitts on the corner of Summerhill Terrace, 1 plan
  • Hunters Road, 1951, 3 plans

While looking through the plans, I was particularly taken by the public conveniences planned for Colmore Row in 1948:

2008-027 Tube 3 Colmore Row 1

Part of the plan showing front elevation, plan and sections of the Colmore Row public convenience (ref: 2008/027 tube 3)

Colour front elevation showing the convenience

Colour front elevation showing the Colmore Row convenience (ref: 2008/027 tube 3)

Another front elevation showing the proposed building materials (ref 2008/027 tube 3)

Another front elevation showing the proposed building materials (ref: 2008/027 tube 3)

Location of the conveniences on Colmore Row, which was on the site of blitz damage to the Great Western Arcade.

Location of the conveniences on Colmore Row, which was on the site of blitz damage to the Great Western Arcade (ref: 2008/027 tube 3)

Whilst looking at the plans, a few things struck me about this particular public convenience:

  • For the 1940s/1950s and the rise of modernism, it is quite ornate, in an art deco kind of way. The other public conveniences in this accession, though attractive in their own way, are much plainer
  • Similarly to the Victorian pissoirs, it caters only for men
  • It is labelled on the plans as ‘temporary’ – it certainly isn’t there now but it does seem a lot of work for a convenience that was only planned to be there for 3 years, as the minutes in the Public Works Committee suggested.

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Roy Palmer (1930-2015)

Roy, Graham and Pam were all resident singers at the Grey Cock Folk Club in the 1960s.  This photograph shows Roy singing at the club, accompanied by Pam on the guitar.  Photograph: Bob Etheridge

Roy, Graham and Pam were all resident singers at the Grey Cock Folk Club in the 1960s. This photograph shows Roy singing at the club, accompanied by Pam on the guitar. Photograph: Bob Etheridge

A tribute from Graham Langley and Pam Bishop:

Graham first met Roy Palmer in 1965 at a performance of the anti-apartheid play Of One Blood directed by Charles Parker and performed by members of the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre.  Soon after they opened their first folk club and with Roy’s encouragement Graham took part in a young singers night.

Following this the Grey Cock Folk Club became the venue for a series of folk plays drawing on Roy’s growing collection of historical documents and the Folk Centre’s song collection.  Roy’s political interests were evident, especially in the unlikely titled The Funny Rigs of Good and Tender-hearted Masters about a carpet weavers’ strike in Kidderminster.  The line “Damn you James Male” will be seared into the hearts of all who took part as it toured Midlands venues.  These presentations later developed into Banner Theatre who are one of the few political theatre companies still in action.

The Folk Centre had for some time been collecting folk songs from the Midlands and, after a publishing deal with Pergamon fell through, Roy took up the baton and a revised version was published as Songs of the Midlands to be followed soon after by the Topic LP The Wide Midlands.

This is where Roy really began to show his strength, collecting material and publishing books with a genuine historical social comment and a love of folk song and custom.  More recently our paths have crossed again as the Folk Centre collection, in which he played such an important part, is being sifted once again to produce a Birmingham songbook and as always his extensive knowledge and advice has proved invaluable.

We will all miss Roy’s scholarship and enthusiasm for traditional song, music and lore, but his published work will stay with us and continue to inspire us.  The British Library has made many of his recordings available online at

Anyone can listen to these 140 hours of field recordings of soldiers’ songs and folk drama recorded for the most part in Birmingham, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire.

The heading to the collection states: “Roy Palmer has been involved from the 1960s in singing and seeking traditional songs.  This collection of field recordings includes performances of songs and tunes as well as discussion and reminiscences about repertoire.  Some of the recordings were given to Roy as he gathered information for his many anthologies of traditional songs and street ballads reflecting different aspects of social, military, maritime, industrial, agricultural and recreational history.”

This article and photograph appeared in the March edition of the Folk Monthly magazine.

As the tribute above suggests, Roy Palmer, who died in February 2015, amassed a wealth of information on midlands folklore, folk drama and folksongs and was a prolific author of books on these subjects.

There are several links to Roy in the archive collections at Library of Birmingham. Roy deposited two collections of material in the last few years. The first was his research papers and photographs for his book ‘The Folklore of Warwickshire’ (MS 4655/1  Acc. 2013/209) which includes  Birmingham childrens’ songs and rhymes of street and playground as well as songs relating to Birmingham from various periods. The second was his research on Birmingham street ballad printers (MS 4655/2  Acc. 2014/050). Continue reading

Faith and disunity: Samuel Galton and the Quakers

Samuel Galton junior (1753-1832) , portrait by Longastre in Karl Pearson, 'Life of Francis Galton', 1914, Uglow 2002

Samuel Galton junior (1753-1832) , portrait by Longastre reproduced in ‘Life of Francis Galton’, by Karl Pearson, 1914, from, accessed 23/03/2014

The exhibition ‘Faith and Action’ at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery about the Quakers and World War One focuses on the themes of peace, war, conscience, relief and faith, and examines the difficult moral dilemmas Friends belonging to a largely pacifist denomination faced. The theme of peace was not new to the Quakers, who took a stance against war and supported peace early on in their history. By the time of the French Revolution when there was considerable tension and political division in Britain, the Religious Society of Friends became concerned about any involvement of Quakers in the production of weapons, the provision of ships or the financing of war. In 1790, the Yearly Meeting Epistle stated,

‘If any be concerned in fabricating or selling Instruments of War, let them be treated with in love; and if by this unreclaimed, let them be further dealt with as those we cannot own. And we intreat that when warlike preparations are making, Friends be watchful lest any be drawn into loans, arming, or letting out their Ships, or Vessels, or otherwise promoting the destruction of the human Species.’

Yearly Meeting minute 1790 (ref MS 3101/B/16/2)

Yearly Meeting minute 1790 (ref MS 3101/B/16/2)

In Birmingham, this was to force one member of Birmingham Preparative Meeting, Samuel Galton junior (1753-1832), gun maker and member of the Lunar Society, to choose between his business interests and his membership of the Religious Society of Friends, as is shown by records in the Galton Papers (MS 3101) and the Central England Area Meeting  of the Religious Society of Friends (SF). In 1792, concerns were raised in the Birmingham Preparative Meeting about the ethics of accepting subscriptions from Friends whose wealth had been accumulated through the manufacture and trade of guns. The matter was further discussed at the Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting in Tamworth on 8th March 1795, where it was decided that representatives of the Meeting should visit the Galtons:

‘Mention having been made at this, and some former Sittings, respecting the Case of Samuel Galton and Samuel Galton, jun. Members of this Meeting, who are in the practice of fabricating, and selling Instruments of War, concerning which divers Opportunities have been had with the Parties, by several Friends, under the Nomination of Overseers, and others, to some Satisfaction; but thinking it proper that they should be further labored with, respecting the Inconsistency thereof, with our religious principles : We appoint the following Friends to visit them, on behalf of this Meeting, who are desired to make a Report thereof, at a future Monthly Meeting, viz. Sampson Lloyd, Joseph Gibbins, and James Baker together with any other Friends, who are inclined to join them in the Service.’

Following several meetings between the Galtons and Sampson Lloyd, Joseph Gibbins and James Baker, it was reported on the 8th July 1795 that Samuel Galton senior,

‘has relinquished the business & declined receiving any further emolument from it, the minute as far as respects his case is discontinued…’.

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Moony with a lot of cloud: eclipses in Birmingham

Hello bloggers! (Blog readers?)

This Eclipse Special comes not from one of your regular contributors, but from one of your ‘hide in the shadows’ assistants – get it? I’m a bit of a science geek and was hoping to discover something extra ordinary in offering to write this piece at the last minute.

That said, while I failed to find any arcane happenings in my trawl back through the local newspapers, I did find out that: a) British weather rarely fails to spoil what supposes to be a once in a lifetime experience; b) some people never listen to good advice (i.e., don’t look at the sun, it’s bad for your eyes); c) handmade gismos are awesome; and d) you can travel to the ends of the Earth (well, Cornwall), but never find the experience there has as much value as it does at home. Oh, and people love to speculate on folklore.

Simply, for those unaware, a solar eclipse is when the Moon comes between us (the Earth) and the Sun – the three meeting in a brief alignment. The resulting effect, on the land or water mass directly shadowed by the alignment here on Earth, is that the Sun is essentially blotted out. These events occur due to the near perfect positioning of Earth in relationship to the size and distance of the Moon and Sun. Amazing, is it not?

As regards solar eclipses witnessed here in Birmingham, there have been several nearly complete ones over the last century, the most recent on 11th August, 1999.

The Post and Mail did a wonderful Eclipse Special, which included details about what an eclipse is; the path of totality on that day; how to make a homemade eclipse viewer (very cool!), with a piece about what eclipses were understood to have been from the perspective of historic worldwide cultures. (There was also a reprinted article from the 30th June, 1927, about Edgbaston Observatory which I’ll mention below.) After the eclipse, the newspapers record how shoppers lined New Street for the approximately 95% coverage we had here. It also has reports of scores of people seeking medical advice, suffering dark spots in their eyesight. Sadly, for those Midlanders who’d travelled to Cornwall hoping to see a full corona, (the ring of light around a totally obscured sun) they ended up mainly being greeted by cloud.

From what I’ve gleaned, logged solar eclipses seen from Birmingham in the last century also fell in:  1961, 1954, 1927 and 1925. The Birmingham Evening Mail, 15th February, 1961 records how, ‘Low cloud blots out eclipse over Britain’, leaving the weather forecasters to explain how they got their predictions wrong. In 1954, on the 30th June, again The Birmingham Evening Mail reads, ‘Few see eclipse in the Midlands, but Leamington has a good view’, so it seems like some, at least, managed to get a glimpse that year.

In searching through 1927, I was amused by this advert from the 29th June:

Birmingham Evening Mail 29 June 1927

Birmingham Evening Mail 29 June 1927


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St Patrick’s Day in Birmingham: Devotion and Celebration

MS 4672 Clonmacnoise Crozier An Post

Clonmacnoise Crozier, 1993.Courtesy of An Post  [MS 4672]

Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and his feast day is the Seventeenth of March.  It is celebrated across the world, wherever Irish people gather:  from Dublin to Derby to Dubai and from Belfast to Barnsley to Brisbane – and all points in between.  Birmingham has a long history of celebrating this day, Thomas Finigan observing the practice amongst Irish immigrants in 1838 [MS 3255 Journal of the Rev. T.A. Finigan].

Birmingham Grand Theatre of Varieties. Monday March 20th 1916. Irish and Proud of It.

Birmingham Grand Theatre of Varieties. Irish and Proud of It. 1916.

These were informal, self-generated affairs, but from 1869, formal events were held at Birmingham Town Hall.  Music Halls also staged entertainments, such as the revue ‘Irish and Proud of It’, shown at the Grand Theatre of Varieties on Corporation Street, in 1916.  Populist entertainments like this chimed with some Irish but for others the simplistic portrayals of evictions and caricatures of drunken Irish strengthened their resolve to have their culture and experiences represented appropriately.  Such sentiments were perhaps strengthened, given the revue’s performance just weeks before the Easter Rising in Ireland ushered in momentous changes to Anglo-Irish relations.

In today’s generally tolerant atmosphere, there is less sensitivity over community representation, with self-parody now playing a part in the City’s St Patrick’s celebrations.  These last for up to two weeks, this year’s festival having been launched on the Sixth of March with a range of events (large and small) scheduled until beyond St Patrick’s Day.  The main feature of this programme is the St Patrick’s Parade, which has a proud history, being the first in Britain [in 1952, beating London’s event by 45 minutes!].  Despite an absence of over 20 years from 1974, it has developed from 1996 to be counted as the third largest in the world after those in Dublin and New York.

What makes 80,000 people stand for hours in dreary March weather in dreary Digbeth to watch a parade?  Why does a procession of [amongst many other things] vintage tractors and over-sized leprechauns excite so many and bring them back year after year?  There are no simple answers, but underpinning the complex reality is a combination of the long standing devotion of many Irish people to the memory of Saint Patrick with the urge to celebrate and promote their Irish identity, wherever they may find themselves.  The Parade showcases components of Irish culture, heritage and sport, giving snapshots of each which can be examined in more detail at various events throughout the Festival.

St Patrick’s Parade, Birmingham [2014] Courtesy of Jim Ranahan. [MS 4672]

St Patrick’s Parade, Birmingham [2014] Courtesy of Jim Ranahan. [MS 4672]

Cynics see St Patrick’s Day as just one more element in the phenomenon known as ‘Marketing March’ where the celebration is commercially exploited along with events including the Six Nations Rugby Championship, Cheltenham horse racing festival and [even] Red Nose Day.  Whilst Irish people are willing participants in all of these events, the more thoughtful recognise that the crux of St Patrick’s Day continues to be something worth nurturing.  Running in parallel with the public, organised celebrations are informal, often private gatherings of friends and family, at home or in small venues.

St Patrick’s Day remains at heart a religious festival and whilst contemporary society in Ireland and across the Irish Diaspora is no longer so overtly religious, many people still recognise this element of the celebrations.  The Parade’s opening Mass may not be as well attended now and the days of it ending at St Chad’s Cathedral are long gone, but many people still sing the hymn ‘Hail glorious Saint Patrick’ with a feeling of gratitude for his recorded decision to trust and minister to the Irish [Patrick was a Briton, kidnapped by Irish raiders, who escaped and subsequently returned to support Christianity amongst a mainly pagan Irish society].  The customary wearing of shamrock still reminds many people of Saint Patrick’s legendary use of the plant to explain the concept of the Holy Trinity.  For many years the ceremonial highlight of St Patrick’s Day was the arrival via Aer Lingus of a consignment of shamrock from Dublin, to be blessed at St Chad’s Cathedral for distribution amongst congregations.  Private devotions to the Patron Saint by their nature cannot be quantified, but are undoubtedly still observed in the City.
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Read All About It!

Birmingham Collection in the Heritage Research Area, floor 4, Library of Birmingham

Birmingham Collection in the Heritage Research Area, floor 4, Library of Birmingham

A sumptuous listing of choice cuts recently added to the various printed book collections stored in Archives, Heritage & Photography service. Please feel free to contact us for further details of how to view materials and make your own suggestions for future acquisitions. ( Birmingham Collection titles are available on the open shelves in the Heritage Research Area on floor 4 of the Library of Birmingham.)


1. Abbott, Colin J.
Seventh Heaven : Aston Villa’s Victorious ’57 Cup Campaign
Published 2012
Birmingham Collection 25.14

2. Ashu, Frederick Ebot
New African Leaders. Contributions of Africans in Birmingham from 1950
Published 2012
Birmingham Collection 21.85 ASH

3. Bartley Green District History Group
History of Brick & Tile Making. 18th – 20th Century
Published 2010
LP 92.5 WEO

4. Beauchampe, Steve
Pool of Memories. A History of Moseley Road Baths.
Published 2013
Birmingham Collection 25.2

5. Brookes, Paul
Church of Saint Patrick’s C of E, Frank Street, 1896 – 1964
Published 2013
LF 15.26

6. Capper, Mary
A Memoir of Mary Capper, late of Birmingham , England. A Minister of the Society of Friends
Published 2013
L 78.1 CAP

7. Chinn, Carl
In Accord. A History of the Accord Group
Published 2012
Birmingham Collection 41.8

8. Clark, Urszula & Asprey, Esther
West Midlands English : Birmingham and the Black Country. Dialects of English
Published 2013
Birmingham Collection 51.9

9. Clawley, Alan
Batsford’s Birmingham Then & Now
Published 2013
Birmingham Collection 85.4 CLA

10. Collins, Anthony
Alderman John Bowen J.P., ‘Honest John’
Published 2014
LP 78.1 BOW

11. Debney, Jean
Jewels of Our City. Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter
Published 2013
Birmingham Collection 67.1

12. Dickinson, H. W.
The Partnership of James Watt and Matthew Boulton
Published 2011
Birmingham Collection 65.225

13. Griffiths, Ann
A History of the Ellis Family. The Sorrento Connection
Published 2013
Birmingham Collection 77.2 ELL

14. Grimley, Terry
Symphony Hall. A Dream Realised
Published 2012
Birmingham Collection 55.51 GRI

15. Harris, Helen D.
Helen Hart. Founder of Women’s Suffrage in Australia
Published 2009
Birmingham Collection 78.1 HAR

16. Hodder, Michael
The Archaeology of Sutton Park
Published 2013
Birmingham Collection 27.3

17. Horton, Charles & Le Vack, Dale
Stretcher Bearer. Fighting for life in the trenches
Published 2013
Birmingham Collection 78.1 HOR

18. Jones, Ian
The Local Church and Generational Change in Birmingham, 1945 – 2000
Published in 2012
L 10 JON

19. Limbrick, Gudrun
The Children of the Homes. A Century of Erdington Cottage Homes.
Published 2012
Birmingham Collection 41.31 LIM

20. Limbrick, Gudrun
Deeds of Love. The Story of Sir Josiah Mason’s Orphanage & School
Published 2013
Birmingham Collection 41.31

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