Roland Bevington Gibbins (1885 – 1917)

Roland B. Gibbins [SF/1516, 2 of 2]

During the First World War, Bull Street Quaker Meeting’s Social Union asked absent members of Bull Street Meeting to provide accounts of their war-time experiences which were then typed up by members of the Union and read out at its meetings as a way of sharing the experience with those who remained in Birmingham. Some Friends served in the armed forces, some, as conscientious objectors, were members of the Friends Ambulance Unit (an alternative to military service while still contributing to the war effort), others worked in hospitals, and some were imprisoned for their pacifist beliefs. Some letters were from wives about their husbands, some from mothers about their sons. Today, all of the letters provide us with a valuable insight into the varied experiences of those living during this period. 

Roland Bevington Gibbins, partner in J.E. Sturge Ltd. was one of the Friends who responded to the Social Union’s request for an account of his war-time experiences. He joined the Artists Rifles C.T.C. in October 1915 and became 2nd. Lt. of Royal Warwickshire Regiment in July 1916. In August 1915 he went to France to the 8/8th Battalion and within a week he was in the trenches. These extracts were written in the period October – December 1916, although he continued writing in 1917.

16 October 1916

[…] We are reserve this tour so get considerably more peace. There is also the advantage that there are xxxxxx practically no rats – partly owing to the fact that there is a family of a cat & six grown kittens, all capable of tackling an ordinary rat. In the front line the rats are the very dickens. They go everywhere and eat everything. They trip you up at night and walk over you while you sleep. The men have an awful job with food, especially extra food, for if they put it up on a shelf the rats eat it and if they hang it up, ditto, and if they put it in their haversack or kit-bag as well, – which reminds me that in one of the letters I was censoring this afternoon the man said he’d pack up all his trouble in his old kit bag (as per song you know) but that the rats had eaten a hole in it, so that by the time he had got home to Blighty he wouldn’t have any [sic] trouble’s left. Not bad was it.

29 October 1916

We are back from the trenches in the town where I first joined the battalion. We shall probably be here for a day or two and it is very pleasant to be away from things for a bit.[…] I have got a very good billet with nice people and am looking forward to sleeping between sheets tonight. This afternoon I went across to the hospital and had a jolly good bath. My word it was good, for we had a particularly dirty and trying time in the trenches this last tour. As soon as we arrived we went to the hotel and had a very good dejeuner.

4 November

We are miles behind the firing line and are doing – ‘trek’. It is very good for us to have the marching and I, personally, am enjoying it – and one begins to know how to get settled in one’s new quarters every night after a day or two.

11 November 1916

We are in a pretty little village and the country is beautiful. We are looking forward to proper sort of Sunday – that is – Church Parade and no other Parades. I hope it will be fine so that everyone may enjoy themselves a little.

Later. Church Parade was rather a farce this morning as the Padre never turned up. However, the C.C. to took it more or less and we sang some hymns. Afterwards two or three of us went a jolly little walk across the valley and up on to the hills on the other side. It was awfully pretty especially through the lanes and woods and the views the whole time were fine.

29 November 1916

We are now all in tents pitched in a mud heap. The mud is beastly in itself, of course, as one is always covered with it, but far away the worst is the wet mud on ones’s boots keeps one’s feet so cold and of course fires are not very possible – still we get along very well considering and can find enough clothes to keep warm in bed. I am still keeping very fit and well and have not even a cold. The squelchy mud keeps on squelching. We were all out yesterday as a working party making and loading material for the front line. This is quite a jolly spot or it would be in peace time – now wherever you look are camps, huts, tents, wagons etc, and guns which keep on booming all day and night.

7 December 1916

We are out of line again and in a little wooded valley. We manage to keep a wood fire going, though as the chimney is a makeshift it is sometimes on the smoky side – but after all – what is a little smoke. Behind here we don’t do much in the way of training or parades as being in reserve and fresh we are used for all sorts of odd jobs – sometimes it is unloading trains of stores, sometimes wood cutting and sometimes road-making or cleaning. What we all say is, the great question of the future will not be ”Daddy what did you do in the great war?” but “what did you not do in the great war?”[…]

13 December 1916

Here there is no need or chance to speak French, as there are absolutely no French inhabitants whatsoever – they have all fled and the villages are all smashed up – but on the march I had to do a quite a fair amount settling into billets every night.

22 December 1916

We have had a pretty stiff time in the line, general conditions as much as fighting. All the water had to be carried up a couple of miles so you can imagine there wasn’t any spare for washing. You should have seen me after 5 days without a shave or a wash. my goodness I was a sight and my hands and clothes have not discovered yet – we were very fortunate and had no [sic] casualities and all managed to keep fit and well.

Roland Gibbins was killed in action in 1917. He and his wife, Edith Grace Ritchie (b. 1887), had married in 1916 and had 2 adopted daughters.

Further letters collected by the Bull Street Social Union can be viewed by appointment in the Wolfson Centre and are catalogued under the reference SF/3/4/5/3/5/2.

Eleanor Woodward, Archivist



New Accession Spotlight: Dunlop Dramatic Society

Programme for Dunlop Dramatic Society’s 1953 production of “1066 and All That” [MS 4976 (Bundle 1)]

One of the less visible activities we undertake in Archives and Collections is our regular acquisition of new collections that help record and tell stories about life in Birmingham. This week I thought it would be nice to share a recent donation which has made its way in to our safekeeping.

Earlier this year, we were fortunate to be given a set of records relating to the Dunlop Dramatic Society.  The records were collected by Albert Round who worked for Dunlop for over 30 years, firstly in the Cure section, later in the Latex Development Section and was Technical Manager in the post-war period, retiring in 1961.

Production photograph showing Albert Round in ‘She Passed Through Lorraine’, April 1957 [MS 4976 (Bundle 2)]

Albert was a founding member of the Dunlop Dramatic Society (DDS) and heavily involved in it throughout his time at Dunlop. He produced over 60 productions for the society as well as acting in many more, and eventually became Chair of the society. The DDS was founded in 1933 and was initially a play reading group. It was one of several projects Dunlop organised to promote healthy and creative leisure pursuits as well as develop a sense of community within its workforce.  These were regularly reported on in the ‘Dunlop Gazette’, the in-house magazine for the company.

Review of first public performance “Pygmalion” Evening Despatch April 1934 MS 4976 (Bundle 1)

The first public performance for the society was at Abbey Hall, Erdington in 1934 with a production of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’ which gained favourable reviews in the local press. Following this, the society continued to produce many plays to the general public. They marked their 50th production in 1953 with an ambitious production of ‘1066 and All That’ involving 27 scene changes and a large cast of players. During this time Dunlop Hall had been built at Fort Dunlop. Originally it had been designed to provide a space for dance bands but following requests from Mr Round and his fellow players the company were persuaded to fund a fully equipped stage. By 1970, the society was celebrating their 100th production.

Cast photograph for the 1953 production of ‘1066 and All That’ printed in The Dunlop Gazette February 1970 [MS 4976 (Bundle 1)]

When Albert retired, he was presented with an album depicting the winners of the H. L. Kenward Trophy. Sir Harold Kenward was Sales Director at Dunlop and also President of the Motor Trade Association. He had attended the society’s first production in 1933 and was a champion of the society. The trophy awarded was in his honour at an annual competition of one act plays in which different divisions within Fort Dunlop competed. The winning play was recorded with a beautiful hand painted image commemorating the victors along with a cast list. Unsurprisingly, Albert features as either actor or producer on many of these posters. Following the success of this competition it expanded to become an inter-factory festival.

Images from the Commemorative Album presented to Albert Round, 1965 [MS 4967]

The commemorative album, along with a large collection of production photographs, programmes and news clippings have now been passed to the Archives and Collections team by Albert’s daughter. This small collection offers us a glimpse into a more domestic and personal side of a famous industrial company. These records are now available for anyone with an interest in the subject to view by appointment in the Wolfson Centre under the reference MS 4976.

Two Newspaper cuttings from an unknown newspaper, reporting on the DDS production of ‘The Fourth Wall’, April 1935 [MS 4976 (Bundle 1)]

Other related collections in our holdings include:

  • Album presented to Dunlop Dramatic Society, when winner of the W. W. Foster Trophy for the promotion of Dramatic Art  (MS 4683)
  • The Dunlop Gazette 1919-1971 (LF 67.6)
  • The Dunlop Art Society exhibition catalogues (L54.6)
  • Records of the Dunlop Rubber Co. (MS 2424)

Kathryn Hall, Archivist

James Watt 2019: October

2019 marks the bicentenary of the death of James Watt, improver of the steam engine and partner of Matthew Boulton in the engine businesses at Soho, Handsworth. There will be many events commemorating this during the year, in Birmingham and Scotland, and information about these can be found on the James Watt 2019 website.

To help celebrate the richness of the archive of the James Watt and Family Papers [MS 3219], held in Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham, there will be a monthly blog on a Watt related subject.

‘A Chasseur of Chamois’ : Gregory Watt’s excursion to the Alps in 1801.

This blog gives some further information about Gregory Watt, the son of James Watt and Ann McGregor (1777 – 1804). For an introduction to him, see the May 2019 James Watt 2019 blog.

In 1801, Gregory spent some time in Scotland examining the geology and he decided to request permission to travel to Europe to continue his mineralogical investigations.

Watercolour of Mount Eiger in Gregory Watt’s 1801 travel journal [MS 3219/7/35]

On 1 August 1801, Gregory sailed from Yarmouth in the Express Packet Captain Dell, for Cuxhaven and a year of travel in Europe. He wrote to James Watt from Cuxhaven on 5 August, 1801:

I sailed the day after I wrote to Mother and we have reached here in four days & a half, 36 hours of which were absolutely calm. At present we have a very brisk gale and are within two or three miles of the Harbour. By keeping very close in my cabin & rigid abstinence I have suffered something less from sickness than I expected — the vessel rocks — my head swims…

[MS 3219/7/50/14]

Continue reading

My Name is Why : A Memoir by Lemn Sissay

For Black History Month, this blog post is a review of a recently published and new addition to the Black History Collection housed in Archives & Collections service – My Name is Why, A Memoir by Lemn Sissay published by Canongate.

My attention was initially drawn to Lemn’s memoir by the recent serialisation of the book as BBC Radio 4’s Book of The Week. I was familiar with Lemn’s work as a poet and playwright but I knew practically next to nothing about his upbringing. What struck so vividly and pertinently about the broadcast and equally the book was the determination and perseverance exhibited by Lemn. Here is an individual striving to unearth details regards his birth in the face of an indifferent bureaucratic system which robbed him of information surrounding his racial identity – a boy of Ethiopian descent raised in Wigan in the 1960s and 70s in a white household unable to provide a nurturing of his black identity, and one overwhelming governed by a fire and brimstone form of authoritarian rubric.

Lemn was the name given to him by his birth mother, a young student of the Amhara people of Ethiopia. He latterly discovered Lemn means Why in the tradition of the Amhara people who leave messages when naming the new born. Lemn was renamed Norman Greenwood after being processed by the fostering system.  Access to information surrounding his birth and origins was denied by a system which appeared only to protect itself and the perpetrators of an uncaring apathy, and at worst,  a systematic form of racist aggression, rather than care for the children under its protection.

The memoir is written from the standpoint of Lemn finally gaining access to his case file in 2015 after a 34 year campaign to retrieve records from Wigan Council. It details his birth in an establishment for what was described then as a home for unmarried women in 1967. The memoir charts his long term fostering by a white family just south of Wigan and subsequent entry to the youth care system at the age of 12 via a series of homes run more like a prison rather than an establishment for nurturing the identity of those needing support most.

Continue reading

The Birmingham Parish Workhouse – A history with a difference

The Birmingham Parish Workhouse by Chris Upton [BCol 41.11UPT]

Having worked in Archives & Collections for over 10 years, I’m always amazed at how much more there is to learn about the history of Birmingham, and in particular the workhouse. We all know the effect the ‘New’ Poor Law of 1834 had on provision for the poor, and the desperately sad stories to emerge from the ‘modern’ workhouses, but it was not until I began reading The Birmingham Parish Workhouse by Chris Upton that I realised how little I knew of the workhouse in Birmingham before that date.


The Workhouse from An History of Birmingham by William Hutton [L 71 BCol]

What was evident from the first chapter was the devotion Chris (who had worked at Central Library many moons ago) had for local history. The amount of detail he conveys about the ordinary person in the workhouse showed a clear understanding that the history of Birmingham is not just that of the rich, the political or the religious, but it includes the poor and those in Birmingham who were committed to helping them. It details the origins of the buildings used for the workhouse, the annual figures showing the trends in numbers of people admitted, the staff employed in the workhouse and perhaps surprisingly, discovers it had the first hospital which ‘had actually been open for close to forty years [by 1779]… tucked away at the rear of the workhouse’. (P134)

The workhouse and infirmary, 1750. {MAL 14002 Samuel Bradford.]

Continue reading

The Colossus of Bordesley Green

Bletchley Park and Codebreaking

GPO (General Post Office) and BT (British Telecom) factory on Fordrough Lane, Bordesley Green. Front entrance to block A (eastern end). [(C) BT Archives.]

This September marks the eightieth anniversary of the outbreak of World War Two in Europe. There is already considerable documentation about the impact of the conflict on Birmingham, in particular its key role in the production of armaments and the City being one of the most heavily bombed locations in the country.

What is understandably less well known is Birmingham’s participation in the clandestine world of code breaking via the creation of Colossus  – a set of computers, arguably the world’s first programmable model, the design of which is credited to the research telephone engineer, Tommy Flowers. Colossus was pivotal in the process of deciphering the cryptic codes produced by the German enigma machine which daily relayed encrypted strategic messages to all German service personnel. Breaking the code was an insurmountable challenge as no two variations were ever repeated  – the ability to store each variation for analysis required an increasingly larger storage capacity which is where Colossus stepped in.

Colossus was operated from Bletchley Park which was the home of the Government Code & Cypher School in World War Two. The prototype was operational by December 1943 and in place at Bletchley by June 1944. Ten Colossi were in use by the end of the war. More is now widely known about the contribution to the war effort made at Bletchley Park, most famously associated with the pioneering work of Alan Turing who employed the Bombe decryption device rather than Colossus in his work. Two popular films  – Enigma (2001) and The Imitation Game (2014) have brought this story to wider public attention – events which well into the latter half of the twentieth century remained highly classified government information. The existence of the machines was kept secret until the 1970s with design plans disposed of in the 1960s.

GPO (General Post Office) and BT (British Telecom) factory on Fordrough Lane, Bordesley Green, Block A & B at the front with gate 2 at the rear. [(C) BT Archives.]

Birmingham Connection

My interest in Colossus and the role Birmingham played in its construction was initially whetted by an article I strayed across many moons ago now on the Birmingham Live website which was first published in 2008. The piece focused on the GPO (General Post Office) and BT (British Telecom) factory on Fordrough Lane, Bordesley Green. The GPO was a major employer in Birmingham having three plants in operation and employing well over 2,000 people by the 1930s. The plants were at the Jubilee Works in Sherlock Street, Garrison Lane and Fordrough Lane. An act of 1912 gave the GPO a near complete monopoly on the provision of telephone services which meant the business required warehousing and transport sites throughout the country and Bordesley Green was selected as one of the three national sites due to its close proximity to the railway network.

A local researcher and author, Ken Govier had uncovered documentation relating to the contribution made by workers at the Fordrough Lane factory to creating parts for Colossus. Ken was on the brink of publishing a book on the history of the Post Office/ BT factories in the UK –  I’m not entirely sure if the book was published although the library does retain copies of other texts written by Ken. The claim was made that security on the work carried out at the factory was so top secret that many of the workers had no idea they were making parts for Colossus.

Related Materials

Gate 2 with Block B behind, GPO (General Post Office) and BT (British Telecom) factory on Fordrough Lane, Bordesley Green. [(C) BT Archives.]

In amongst the archival collections we hold here at the library is MS 2615, a collection chiefly of photographs of the General Post Office and BT PLC site at Fordrough Lane, Bordesley Green which has been with us for well over fifteen years now. The contents of the collection primarily consist of photographs of staff and the premises taken between 1927 – 1997 although nothing for the war period is included which may be due in part to the covert nature of the work taking place. The collection also contains a report of an air raid on the factory on 22 November 1940 and a typed history of the GPO including details of work which took place at the factory.

Interestingly, the Fordrough Lane factory had a test site and chemical laboratory in operation from around 1925. The initial purpose of the lab was to provide expert testing facilities to assist with the purchasing of engineering goods. Who knows –  these labs could have been employed to test parts made for the Colossus but that may be mere conjecture and speculation on my part. By 1939, 25 personnel were working in the laboratory so quite a sizeable operation.

Please contact if you are interested in viewing the contents of MS 2615 as your request will be passed to a third party for permission to view the collection.

Paul Taylor, Coordinator


Birmingham Heritage Week 2019 – a Retrospective!

This year we hosted two events here in the Archives & Collections Department at the Library of Birmingham. The first was a workshop on ‘How to research your Birmingham ancestors’, and was fully booked before August was out! In this beginners’ session, experienced members of the Archives team introduced a variety of our sources including maps, electoral and parish registers along with digital resources accessible via Ancestry Institution and software for accessing historic Birmingham newspapers online.

Focussing on these sources to begin with enabled those attending to make a start on building up their family tree!  If you are interested in starting your Family History we have a variety of sources to help you, and there is guidance online to get you started here:

We had some great feedback from those attending the session who said they would also like workshops focussing on one type of source like maps or parish registers – so we’ll see what we can do next year!

If you’d like an introduction to the maps of Birmingham however, why not come along to the, back by popular demand, Friends of Birmingham Archives ‘Workshop on the maps of Birmingham’, where local map specialist John Townley explores the growth of Birmingham through the first century of its town maps! You’ll have the opportunity to see a wide selection of our earliest maps and find out why they were made, when they were made, how they were made, and… can they be trusted?! Booking is essential, £3 per person on the door (but Free for FoBAH members!) via:

Our second event in heritage week was another Friends of Birmingham Archives activity – the ‘Born in Birmingham’ Project launch which included a wonderful pop-up exhibition in the archives reading room (the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research) at the Library of Birmingham.

The pop-up marked the launch of the ‘Born in Birmingham: Maternity, Midwives & Infant Welfare 1914-24’ project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and on display was a fascinating selection of archival documents, period publications, photographs, maps and some film footage which illustrated aspects of the birth journey, from conception to infancy, as it was 100 years ago.

From Papers relating to the Sparkhill and Greet Infant Welfare Centre [MS 4101], and Stirchley and Cotteridge School for Mothers collection [MS 2032]

Those who attended learnt about some of the first registered midwives in the city and had the opportunity to look at unique and irreplaceable archives such as health visitors’ wages book together with advice from the School for Mothercraft and National Baby Week!

If you want to find out more about this project and how to get involved, why not come along to an event on the 1st of October where you can learn more about this exciting new research project and help to lift the lid on the untold stories of childbirth and infancy during and after WW1! This informal opportunity to find out more takes place in the Library Café (mezzanine floor) between 2pm and 4pm. You can email for more details!

We’re already looking forward to BHW 2020!

Corinna Rayner, Archives & Collections Manager