‘My whole time is given to the service of my fellow citizens’ – the first women elected to Birmingham City Council

As we look towards International Women’s Day and the forthcoming national and local elections, it seemed a timely moment to revisit the Library’s wonderful, but surprisingly little-used, collection of election literature for evidence of the first women elected to the City Council. Although limited parliamentary suffrage was not granted to women until 1918, they had been able to vote and stand for election in local political contests for some time as members of School Boards, Poor Law Guardians and local councillors.

Birmingham Municipal Elections Literature, 1909 - 1911.  Municipal Election 1911, Edgbaston Ward, Mrs Ellen F Pinsent and two other Unionist Candidates.  [LFF35.2]

Birmingham Municipal Elections Literature, 1909 – 1911. Municipal Election 1911, Edgbaston Ward, Mrs Ellen F Pinsent and two other Unionist Candidates.

In 1911 two women were elected to serve on Birmingham City Council for the first time. Before this, a few women had served on City Council committees as co-opted, unelected members, particularly committees concerned with education, and the health and welfare of women and children. This had been the case with the first elected female councillor Ellen Pinsent, also known as Mrs Hume Pinsent and later Dame Ellen. Elected as a Liberal Unionist for the Edgbaston Ward on 1 November 1911 she had previously served for some years as a co-opted member of the Education Committee and Chairman of the Special School Sub-Committee. Well known nationally for her work with children who had special educational needs (or in the parlance of the time ‘feeble-minded’), she had served on the national Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded from 1904 to 1908. Her stint as an elected councillor was cut short in October 1913 when she was appointed as an unpaid Commissioner for the Board of Control.

Ellen was rapidly followed by Margaret Frances Pugh, elected in North Erdington on 22 November 1911 and nominated by the Birmingham Women’s Local Government Association who campaigned for the election of women to local councils. Educated at King Edward’s High School for Girls, Margaret was a keen supporter of women’s suffrage and a teacher in an adult education school for women. Defeated at her first attempt by 59 votes she stood again when the successful candidate was made an alderman and this time, in the words of the Women Workers magazine, ‘was returned by the triumphant majority of 790.’ As a result two of Birmingham City Council’s 120 elected councillors were women, with a further eight serving as co-opted members of committees.

Like Ellen, Margaret served only a short time as a councillor, resigning her seat in November 1913.  The third woman elected however spent over 19 years on the Council. Clara Martineau represented Edgbaston from 14 October 1913 until her death in 1932 at the age of 57. Like Ellen she benefitted from family connections among the City’s elite families.  For the daughter of former Mayor Sir Thomas Martineau, sister of wartime Lord Mayor Ernest Martineau, and niece of Alderman Sir George Kenrick, civic service was a family tradition. Like all the early women councillors, Clara had a long track record of working in philanthropic and social causes in the city, including the Women’s Settlement and the Charity Organisation Society, and had served as a co-opted committee member before being finally elected in her own right.

Birmingham Municipal Elections Literature, 1920 - 1924.  Municipal Election 1920, Selly Oak Ward, Mrs Cottrell, Co-operative and Labour Candidate.  [LFF35.2]

Birmingham Municipal Elections Literature, 1920 – 1924. Municipal Election 1920, Selly Oak Ward, Mrs Cottrell, Co-operative and Labour Candidate.

As local government dealt with social issues that affected people’s daily lives, standing for election was a natural extension for women who had been involved in local political and social activism. The first woman Labour Councillor, Mary E. Cottrell, who was elected unopposed in Selly Oak in February 1917 had been a long standing activist in the Women’s Co-operative Guild and had formerly stood for election as a Poor Law Guardian.

Mary’s election leaflet from 1920 illustrates the breadth of her interests. She advocated a number of policies – change to the rating system, capital expenditure to ease the housing shortage, indoor water supply in more homes, making local hospitals part of ‘an efficient State Health Service’, free secondary education with more schools, playing fields and smaller classes, a ‘good and cheap’ tramway system for the suburbs, more allotments, a municipal milk supply, and City Council labour schemes  for the unemployed. She concluded by stressing the need for women councillors.

Mary also went on to play a national role.  In 1921 she became the first woman to be elected to the board of the Co-operative Wholesale Society and consequently resigned her City Council seat in 1922 due to pressure of work. During the Second World War she was a government advisor on rationing.

Continue reading

Urban Renewal – Vision and Reality: The Birmingham Civic Centre Scheme 1926-1965

The following drawings form part of a large deposit of rolled plans of public buildings and urban planning schemes. They were transferred to our archives from the Birmingham City Council Urban Design Department in 2008.


Image 1: View of equestrian statue & adjacent hall of marriages & same from Civic Court. Aerial view toward cathedral overlooking Civic Court City Hall & Museum group relating to existing plan for Civic Centre layout, Broad Street (Ref: BCC Additional Accession 2008/087 Tube roll 1)

This particular sheet shows amended versions of the layout of grounds and buildings of the proposed new Civic Centre at Centenary Square. The plans were created by a number of individuals, this one bearing the signature of Herbert Manzoni, City Engineer and Surveyor. He was to play a leading role in planning the redevelopment of Birmingham after 1945 following the devastation unleashed on the city during the Blitz. The drawings capture perfectly the utopian dreams and aspirations of the architects and city planners charged not simply with reconstruction but also rethinking how urban development should be planned and how urban spaces should be utilised, creating new cities from the ruins of the old.

The Civic Centre scheme had been in the pipeline since 1926, when the Council organised a competition to obtain the best plans. The competition received an international response from architects and planners, and several grand schemes were proposed, which were rejected by the General Purposes Committee on the grounds of being too ambitious for an English provincial city. The City Engineer was authorised to prepare a more modest scheme in partnership with James Swan, another competitor, and S.N. Cooke, who had designed the Hall of Memory.

Various new proposals and modifications were submitted to and discussed by the Council throughout the inter-war and post-war periods by architects and planners including Manzoni, John Madin, William Haywood, and Alwyn Sheppard-Fiddler, later City Architect for Birmingham. Progress of the scheme was interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939, though it was fully intended to continue with the project when hostilities ended, assuming Britain pulled through.


Image 2: Aerial view of proposed traffic gyratory system & fly-over one way traffic bridge (Ref: BCC Additional Accession 2008/087 Tube roll 1)

In partnership with various Council committee and departmental officials, the architect William Haywood was requested to prepare a new scheme. He had already designed the Baskerville House complex of municipal offices, which opened in 1940 (visible on Image 2, top left, just to the north of the Hall of Memory). This comprised the first phase of a much larger Civic Centre area. A formal report was prepared by the General Purposes Committee to Council on 8 February 1944. Plans, together with a large scale model, were also submitted.

The report proposed a new Civic Centre Gardens, including a huge central square laid out as a parade ground, envisaged to accommodate large public meetings and civic events, built over an underground car park that could house 1200 cars. Additional new civic buildings were originally to be built in a large block on the north west corner of the gardens divided into three parts, comprising a 3000 capacity City Hall, two smaller halls (500-700 capacity), with the remaining sections to be used as a new central library, museum and art gallery. A Planetarium and Hall of Memory was also intended to be built by the Hall of Memory, including a circular lecture hall (600-700 capacity), and covered by a great dome. Externally, the Planetarium would be enclosed by a colonnade, upon which would be recorded, in accordance with more patriarchal attitudes still prevalent at the time, the names of the ‘great men’ of the city, and its history. The committee also proposed that the scheme would include a decorative column at the centre of the gardens intended to symbolise the traditional energy and dynamism of the city. Some of the proposed buildings are shown in Image 1, above, and Image 3, below, namely the Hall of Marriages, City Hall and Museum buildings.

Continue reading

1821 Census of Sheldon

EP 42

EP 42 Sheldon Parish Box 6/3

Delving into the parish chest records for St Giles Sheldon in search of material to use in a family history workshop I came across a rather bland looking reference: EP 42 Box 6. Item 3.  Sheldon Population 1821. I was almost more taken by Item 1: An Act more effectually to prevent profane cursing and swearing (1745) – and wondered whether it was still on the statute books!

But knowing that there was a civil census taken in 1821, for which nationally there are only statistical returns available, I was interested enough to take a look. And I was rewarded by discovering that it is indeed the local parish listing compiled for the purposes of the census and listing the names of 79 heads of household.

I was really excited by the find as the most up-to-date guide to early Census schedules and listings available here:  http://www.essex.ac.uk/history/documents/research/RT2_Wall_2012.pdf recognises its existence but describes its location as unknown.  So I thought I had made a truly valuable find. However the earlier 1992 3rd edition of Gibson & Medlycott’s Local Census Listings 1522-1930 does list it and even correctly identifies it as being Item 3 in Box 6 of the St Giles Parish collection.  So I was a little deflated but still fascinated by seeing a relatively rare survivor of early census records. There are known to be surviving household lists from just 231 parishes out of a total of over 10,000 parishes in existence in 1821.

Sadly it doesn’t name all the inhabitants but it does give the age and gender breakdown for each household which could be used with the parish registers and other data from the rich collection of records from the parish chest to allow some family reconstitution. The listing is dated 2nd July 1821 and signed by the compiler Charles Curtis JP.  The Overseers or other local officials were required to undertake a survey by going from house to house on 28th May 1821 to gather data to furnish the statistical returns required of them.

Continue reading

Celebrating LGBT History

Allies network jpegThis time last year the Library of Birmingham was showing its support not only for LGBT History Month, but also for our own City Council LGBT Allies Network by proudly wearing our rainbow lanyards. This year, to mark the 10th anniversary of LGBT History Month, we have been looking back through our archives to see how members of the LGBT community have been represented in our collections.

Between 2005 and 2007, the Connecting Histories project was making great strides into revealing the history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people in Birmingham. A wealth of resources were made available online showing the prejudice many faced and included oral history interviews recorded as part of the Millenibrum Project in 2000, such as the following which was testament to how difficult it was to find any information in the City….

“I was a lesbian in Birmingham and nationally there was a ban on the sale, the selling of gay and lesbian papers, so the only information you could get, as far as I can remember, was from the Pink Paper which was free and it was only free at selected outlets…you had to know where the outlets were to be able to get the Pink Paper to find out what was going on which was quite difficult and confusing because you needed the Pink Paper to be able to find the outlets, so you had to know somebody who knew something before you could find out where to go”. [MS 2255/2/67]

The interviews given show how difficult it was to socialise and meet other lesbian and gay people in the City. You can understand why, given the overwhelming sense from any press overage that popular opinion at the time saw homosexuality as seedy and unnatural, not something to be celebrated.

Going further back, in the 19th century, for some, homosexuality was treated as if it were a disease. Connecting Histories tells the story of Charles Record who was committed to All Saints Hospital on 18 May 1861 “the reason for his committal was that he was talking incoherently and that he was “affected with unnatural desires” and had been seen “in the act of sodomy”.

 Reception Order for Charles Record  [HC AS/15/1]

Reception Order for Charles Record
[HC AS/15/1]

It was also categorised as a felony. Since the 16th century, the act of ‘buggerie’ (often interchangeable with the term ‘sodomy’  meaning any form of sexual intercourse considered to be unnatural) had carried the death penalty, but was repealed by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 to a sentence of ‘Penal Servitude for Life or for any Term not less than Ten Years’.

Section 11 of the Criminal Amendment Act 1885, made “gross indecency” between males a crime but did not go as far as to define the term.

Cases of gross indecency were brought before the Assize Courts in Birmingham, now the Crown Court, which shows how serious the crime was taken. For instance, on 21 March 1889, Arthur Cornelius Ridding, aged 42, pleaded guilty to committing an act of gross indecency with another male person  and was sentenced to 2 calendar months of hard labour at Birmingham Prison. On 3rd August 1891 Edward Verner received a sentence of 12 calendar months hard labour for the same crime.

Continue reading

How do we teach our children?

The Young Naturalist, Parker Collection [087.1/098]

The Young Naturalist, Parker Collection [087.1/098]

 The Parker collection of books and games  was an obvious place to start when exploring our collections for references to geology and nature that might appeal to young people.

The collection tells us much about the education of children during the Victorian period; what was seen as suitable for children to study and access for entertainment.  Much of the collection is dominated by religious texts which were designed to teach children how to behave. This was reflective of what was generally available for children at this time.  However, there are games and texts that tell a different story of education for children, ideas that are reflected in other archive collections from the Victorian period.

The Young Naturalist is a  game which was produced in 1860 and introduces children to subjects  about the natural world.   It is a beautifully illustrated card game with a set of 5 subject cards: ‘Entomology’ ( study of butterflies);  ‘Ornithology’ (study of birds);  ‘Ichthyology'(study of fish); ‘Conchology’ (study of shells); ‘Zoology’ (study of animals).   The box also includes a large set of picture cards with coloured illustrations relating to these subjects and a set of small picture cards printed with illustrations that relate to the main subject categories. These include subjects like Malacology (study of molluscs including snails and octopus), Geology and Mineralogy as well as Meteorology, Astronomy and even Phrenology (the study of the brain by measuring parts of the skull).

2. Ichthyology 3. Conchology 4. Meteorology

Continue reading

“Banned! Censoring Sexuality” LGBT History Month


Birmingham Pride Parade 2004 reproduced with the kind permission of Brigitte Winsor.

Banned! Censoring Sexuality is a talk by Rachel MacGregor as part of LGBT History Month.

Tuesday 10th February 2015

Join Collections Curator Rachel MacGregor to explore the history of censorship in Birmingham Libraries and in particular the case of the book described as “unadulterated filth” by Jean Genet, the celebrated French novelist, poet and playwright which became a national scandal when the Birmingham Library tried to buy it.  Discover more about censorship in the years before the Lady Chatterley trial and the role that Birmingham played in this.

Tickets available from The Box Tel: 0121 245 4455

Part of the Origins Season January – April 2015

Quakers and the Kindertransport

Holocaust Memorial Day 2015_logo_high_res

10, 000 children, the majority of whom were Jewish, were brought to Britain from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland to escape persecution by the Nazis between 1 December 1938 and 1 September 1939. What came to be known as the Kindertransport was the result of the combined efforts of Jewish and Quaker organisations in successfully persuading the British government, in the days after Kristallnacht in November 1938, to ease its immigration restrictions for refugee children. The children were permitted to enter Britain on temporary visas without their parents if a guarantee of £50 per child were provided to cover the costs of care, education and re-emigration from Britain once the war was over. If the children were over 14, they were to be found work in agriculture or domestic service. The first group of children arrived at Harwich on 2 December 1938 and was accommodated at Dovercourt Camp for Refugee Children until suitable accommodation could be arranged with a host family or in a hostel.

Led by Bertha Bracey, Secretary of the Friends Germany Emergency Committee (later Friends Committee on Refugees and Aliens) in London, the Religious Society of Friends, working with Jewish and other Christian organisations, was involved in all aspects of the Kindertransport.  In Birmingham on 13 December 1938, the Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends agreed that a committee should be set up locally to coordinate relief work for Jewish refugees.

Religious Society of Friends Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute book, 13 December 1938.

Religious Society of Friends, Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting minute book 1936-1939, 13 December 1938, minute 581.

The Committee worked with the Friends Germany Emergency Committee and the Birmingham Council for Refugees. Some of its objectives included setting up a clearing house for children from Dovercourt Camp and for other refugees, finding homes for refugees, seeking agricultural and industrial training, raising money to support relief work, and helping Friends House, London by undertaking some of the advisory work it carried out.

Religious Society of Friends Warwickshire North Monthly Meeting Refugees and Aliens Emergency Committee report: list of members, 1939.

By 10 January 1939, the Committee had already been offered the use of Allendale Cottage, Wast Hills by William and Emiline Cadbury which was to be used to accommodate 6 refugee children prior to finding them more permanent housing. An advice bureau was set up at the Library in Bull Street Meeting House and each Thursday 8 volunteer Friends and 6 volunteer refugees provided advice both for refugees in need of aid, and for Friends wanting to offer their services in the relief effort. The principle objective of the bureau was to,

‘penetrate the maze of Refugees organisation and disorganisation, and to master the intricacies of  case preparation for successful approach through the Refugee Committees to the Home Office’ (Warwickshire Monthly Meeting reports relating to minutes, 1939-1943, extract from Refugee and Aliens Emergency Committee annual report, 1939).

Continue reading