An Angel for the Coffin Works?

Some time ago I went along with some colleagues to the Newman Brothers Coffin Fitting Works on Fleet street for a candlelit tour of the factory. The company itself ceased trading in 1998 after over 100 years on the Fleet Street site, which was built specifically as a manufactory in 1884. The tour was fantastic, and the candlelit ambience made it all the more atmospheric.

Plating shop at Newman Brothers before restoration

Plating shop at Newman Brothers before restoration

Courtyard before restoration

Courtyard before restoration

The tours were a way of raising money to fund the restoration of the Coffin Works which, after some uncertainty over its future, was purchased by Birmingham Conservation Trust in 2010 and from there the project really took off.

Thanks to a lot of hard work the Coffin Works was opened up to the public in October 2014. As a recognition of this hard work, they have been short-listed for the English Heritage Angel Awards for the Best Rescue of a Historic Industrial Building or Site category.

Bring it back for Brum - outside the Coffin Works

Bring it back for Brum – outside the Coffin Works

The Historic England Followers’ and Telegraph reader’s Favourite award is open to the public to decide who wins and this is where Birmingham Conservation Trust needs your help. To vote for the Coffin Works, please visit the Historic England website at and follow the link to place your vote.

This is another example of the passion Birmingham has for its heritage and how important the work of organisations such as Birmingham Conservation Trust is. So why not show your support and vote today!!

Nicola Crews

Something Old, Something New: Birmingham Images

Many of you may be aware of Digital Ladywood, Digital Handsworth and Digital Balsall Heath – three websites that provided images and resources relating to the history of their respective areas. As with any digital platform, however, the servers were in need of upgrading and it was an ideal opportunity to combine all three into Birmingham Images which is a really easy to use site bringing all these fabulous resources into a single place.

It is broadly the same as the old sites, being able to access resources via Theme Explorer which now has easy quick links for people, places, subjects and time periods. We found the Map Explorer function particularly fantastic, being able to overlay modern maps with Ordnance Survey maps from the 1900s and 1940s.

Birmingham Images: Theme Explorer subject areas

Birmingham Images: Theme Explorer subject areas

Although it is a stand alone site, the links to it can be found on The Iron Room (note the tab at the top of the page). Over the coming months, we hope to add more content to our blog site with guides to collections and sources available within our department. These new pages will also appear as tabs across the top of the page so watch this space. (Or rather the space above!)

The Suburban Birmingham website which was a fantastic resource for studying the history of Birmingham’s south-western suburbs has a new home on the Connecting Histories website, which has also undergone a smart upgrade.

Suburban Birmingham on Connecting Histories

Suburban Birmingham on Connecting Histories

Inevitably you might find the odd link that doesn’t work, but overall thank you to the man from the Council that worked hard to keep the sites going, I’m sure you’ll agree they are a fantastic resource which came out of a lot of hard work and collaboration.

More New Additions

Part of the Birmingham Collection, Level 4

The following items have recently been added to AHP’s bookstock collections.Items in the Birmingham collection or located on level 4 or level 3 are available on the open shelves without an appointment. Any items whose reference is prefixed L, LF or LP need to be requested from staff at the customer service desk on level 4.


1.Albutt, Roy.
Stained Glass Window Makers of Birmingham School of Art.
L 54.1 ALB.

2.Clancy, John.
The Secret Wealth Garden : Re-writing Local Government Pension Funds back into Regional Economies.
L 41.71CLA

3.Collins, Fran & Martin.
Bridging The Gap. US Army Rehabilitation Centres in Warwickshire & Worcestershire during World War II.
75.9 Birmingham Collection

4.Collins, Fran & Martin.
Return to Duty. An Account of Brickbarns Farm, Merebrook and Wood Farm U.S. Army Hospitals in Malvern, 1943 – 45.
L 98 MAL

5.Dixon, James.
Out of Birmingham : George Dixon (1820 – 98). ‘Father of Free Education’.
78.1 DIX Birmingham Collection

6.Evans, Karen.
A Grim Almanac of Birmingham.
42.021 EVA Birmingham Collection

7.Grupas, Aldona.
Lithuanian Community in the West Midlands After the Second World War (1947 – 2012).
21.85 GRU Birmingham Collection

8.Harriman, Bill.
Cavendo Tutus – Safety Through Care. A Short History of the Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House, 1813 – 2013.
LP 65.56 HAR

9.(Ed.) Harrison, Michael.
Lander’s War: The War Diaries of Lt. Charles Herbery Lander, 10th Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment.
75.7 LAN Birmingham Collection

10.High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill, Explanatory Notes.
LF 47.34

11.(Ed) Jaffa, Richard.
A Letter from Oggi : The Letters of Olga Franklin.
L 78.1 FRA

12.(Ed.) Jones, Brian.
People, Pens & Production in Birmingham’s Steel Pen Trade.
67.24 Birmingham Collection

13.Lambert, David.
Westbourne Road Leisure Gardens. Report on the Historic Landscape. Vols. 1 & 2.
LP 44.51 LAM

14.Limbrick, Gudrun.
Unlocked. Hidden stories of the lives of Birmingham women 1900 to the present day.
LP22.7 LIM

15.(Ed.) Lockett, Alexandra.
Pigeon Talk : Tales From The Fancy, Birmingham Pigeon Archive. (2013).
L 25.45

16.Mitchell, Elaine.
Duddeston’s Shady Walks & Arbours, Vauxhall Gardens, c 1745 – 1850.
LP 91.4 DUD

17.National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies.
Record of church furnishings at St. Michael & All Angels, Cofton Hackett.
LF 14.44 STM

18.National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies.
Record of church furnishings at St. Peter, Harborne.
LF 14.22 STP

19.Norton, Mark.
Birmingham New Street Station Through Time.
47.35 NOR Birmingham Collection

20.Powell – Read, Finella.
The Shocking Fate of the Street Musician’s Daughter : Being the Untold Story of Selina Powell, Madame Geneive (Female Blondin). (2014).
L 78.1 POW

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British Chinese Heritage Project: Chinese Lives in Birmingham

Chinese Heritage Project

British Chinese Heritage Project

One of the wonderful things about Birmingham is its cultural diversity – a mix of so many communities, each with their own fascinating stories to tell.

Since the Library of Birmingham opened, one of the cultures we have been celebrating is the Chinese community. Exhibitions included Triple Exposure in spring 2014, highlighting the work of Felice Beato, one of the first photographers to produce images of China (from the 1860s), and in May 2015 we hosted the Guangzhou Library Exhibition where we had the opportunity to foster links with libraries around the world.

Closer to home, the Chinese community in Birmingham have also been making their voices heard through the British Chinese Heritage Project: Chinese Lives in Birmingham. The project, which was created to capture the hidden histories of Birmingham’s Chinese community, also looks at the lives of individual migrants and British-born Chinese. With funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the project has produced a wonderful booklet showing the development of the community in Birmingham and this is now available online through the project website. The Lion Dance Celebration was hosted at the Library of Birmingham in April this year to launch the project display, which was on show in the Library foyer over Easter, celebrating the 15 month project which saw its completion a few months earlier.

The value of projects such as these are priceless – capturing and preserving the living memory of communities for younger generations to explore. Records of the project have been deposited with Archives, Heritage and Photography as MS 4738 and include oral history recordings created during the project. If you would like further information about accessing the collection, please contact

Nicola Crews

The Wolfson at the door

Wolfson Centre for Archival Research

Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, level 4 of the Library of Birmingham

One of our researchers recently asked me a question –  who is Wolfson? As visitors to level 4 may know, the archive searchroom at the Library of Birmingham is officially known as the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research following the generous support of the Wolfson Foundation. This, I realised, was the extent of my knowledge on who Wolfson was.

Created in 1955, the records of the Wolfson Foundation are managed by the Royal Society in London. In a historical perspective produced for their 50th anniversary, the first Chairman Lord Nathan described it as  “….the public, legal expression of a family’s existing philanthropy”.

That philanthropic family was the Wolfson family, at its head was Sir Isaac Wolfson, the ‘son of a Jewish cabinet maker from Russia’. Born in the Gorbals, Glasgow, in 1897, Isaac showed a head for business, and following a chance encounter in an Exhibition Hall in Manchester, became Managing Director of Great Universal Stores in the early 1930s.

Wolfson turned the business around and created an extremely profitable company which allowed him, his wife Edith and son Leonard to become the Wolfson Foundation’s Founder Trustees. A letter in the Foundation Archives from Lord Nathan described this informal occasion:

It was a memorable occasion, that Friday afternoon on 1st July, just before you left for abroad, when the Trust Deed was executed and the Isaac Wolfson Foundation thereby brought into existence.

The Wolfson Foundation has given generous grants to education, research, particularly medical research, funding for heritage projects – helping museums and art galleries to obtain important artifacts and works, historical buildings, history fellowships and of course their support for libraries. The words of Lord Nathan shows their vision:

There now begin to open before you and your fellow-Trustees rare opportunities of pioneering with new ideas, filling in gaps as they become discernible, and making, at both short and long range, a worthwhile contribution of thought and work, as well as money, to the solution of some pretty intractable problems already poking their ugly heads.

To date, on their 60th anniversary, the Foundation has awarded over £800 million to more than 10,000 projects, showing its support for us as we protect the heritage of Birmingham.

Nicola Crews

‘A much esteemed Friend’

Come-to-good meeting house, Cornwall, August 2014

Come-to-good Friends meeting house, Cornwall, August 2014

While cataloguing the Central England Area Meeting archives, it has been fascinating to see how individuals referred to in the records pop up in other collections we hold (see Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers cataloguing project leaflet for a list of other Quaker collections). One such example relates to Catherine Payton Phillips (16 March 1727 – 16 August 1794), a Quaker minister and writer. She also campaigned for greater representation of women within the formal structure of the Religious Society of Friends, which eventually resulted in the establishment of Women’s Yearly Meeting in 1784.

Chadwick Monthly Meeting 1749 extract from minutes

Extract from Chadwick Monthly Meeting minutes 1749, recording Catherine Payton Phillips’ application for a certificate to travel as minister to Wales

Born in Dudley, Catherine first ministered at Dudley Preparative Meeting at the age of 22, and went on to preach throughout the country as well as in Ireland, Holland and America. Many of these journeys were recorded in the minute books of Chadwick Monthly Meeting when she applied for a liberation certificate to travel in ministry (see image above) and on her homecoming when she returned her certificate to the Monthly Meeting (see image below), with entries being made for several visits to Oxfordshire, Bedfordshire, London, Yorkshire, Westmoreland, the west of England, the northern counties, Wales, Ireland and Scotland.

Extract from Chadwick Monthly Meeting minutes 1749, recording the return of Catherine Payton Phillips' certificate to travel

Extract from Chadwick Monthly Meeting minutes 1749, recording the return of Catherine Payton Phillips’ certificate after coming back from Wales

The first time she travelled in ministry was in 1749 when she went to Wales, where she met her future husband William Phillips, a widower who worked in the Cornish copper mining industry as an agent. However, her sense of calling to ministry led her to reject any contact with him and it was not until 1772 that they married at Bewdley, Worcestershire. After their marriage, she moved to Redruth, where he lived and from where she continued to travel and minister.

The industrialist, Matthew Boulton (3 September 1728 – 17 August 1809), who spent a good deal of time in Cornwall as many of the Boulton and Watt steam engines were used in the copper mining industry, was friends with William and Catherine. After his wife’s death in 1783, Boulton wrote a number of letters to his daughter Anne when he was away on business, which are preserved in the Matthew Boulton and family papers (MS 3782). His letter of 17 August 1785 written in Chacewater describes a very large Quaker meeting at Truro, which he attended and where he heard Catherine preach:

Extract from MS 3782/14/76/8, letter from Matthew Boulton to his daughter Anne.

Extract from MS 3782/14/76/8, letter from Matthew Boulton to his daughter Anne, describing a Quaker meeting at Truro, 1785.

Thou mayst remember I told thee in my last [letter] that there was to be a great meeting of Quakers at Truro, and a great meeting it was. Our Neighbour Dearman & his Wife were there, & many others that I knew from London, Bristol & Worcester. I did not go to the meeting till third day, when I heard our friend Catherine Phillips Preach with great energy & good sence for one hour & a half: although so weak in Body that she was obliged to lye upon the Bed for several Preceeding days, except at those hours she came to the meeting. Her worthy & good humour[e]d Husband sat faceing her, & I presume admired her very much. Continue reading

Hidden Spaces Revealed

A couple of weeks ago I went along to one of the Hidden Spaces events – a behind the scenes tour of The Electric Cinema. It started with a fascinating talk by the Manager, and his enthusiasm not just for the Electric, but for the history of cinema, made for a really interesting look through the past 100 years of the theatre.

Over the years The Electric has been a silent movie theatre, a news theatre, even an adult theatre, moving through all these phases in the history of British cinema to its current revival showing a wide range of popular blockbusters which allows them to show foreign and art-house films alongside.

Birmingham Building Plan The Electric 1936 [66013]

Birmingham Building Plan: The Electric 1936 [BBP 66013] (The Tatler Theatre as it was then known)

The behind the scenes tour that followed was equally as unexpected, finding a hidden recording studio in the basement, and a huge projector sitting alongside state of the art digital projection equipment in, funnily enough, the projection room. (Which, by the way, was very tiny and very warm!) You can find a history of The Electric on their website.

The Electric is the oldest working cinema in the country but this got us thinking about other cinemas that have found a home in Birmingham over the years. For instance there was a cinema on the corner of Ethel Street; and one occupied the premises of the Piccadilly Arcade. When you take the time to look up at the buildings around you, it becomes obvious.

Closing of West End Cinema, New Street, Birmingham. Note the Picture House Sign over the doorway. [WK/B11/141]

 Note the Picture House Sign over the doorway.

Ordnance Survey, 1918 Edition. Note the Picture Theatre next to the Theatre Royal.

Ordnance Survey, 1918 Edition. Note the Picture Theatre next to the Theatre Royal.

The Ordnance Survey maps we hold for Birmingham give an indication as to just how many cinemas there were . On the 1918 map you can see The Picture House, located next to the Theatre Royal. Although it didn’t last long, The Picture House and Café appears in the 1919 trade directory with Ernest A. Plumpton as manager. It closed around 1926 and would become the Piccadilly Arcade. There were approximately 60 – 70 cinemas in Birmingham during the 1920s, going by how many were listed in the trade directories at this time.

A few years later, on the Ordnance Survey map for 1937-8 we find 4 cinemas alone within a fairly short distance of New Street Station. Initially I had only spotted 3 – the Electric of course, the Odeon on New Street, and a picture house on the corner of Ethel Street and Stephenson Street which was once the Forum, later an ABC theatre. It was only when a colleague remembered going to a cinema called the Futurist that I dug a little and realised there was a fourth cinema nearby  – in John Bright Street.

Ordnance Survey 1937/8 Edition. Note the fours cinemas around New Street Station.

Ordnance Survey 1937/8 Edition. Note the four cinemas around New Street Station.

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