Why can’t I see this object?! Transparent paper

When I see a collection reference number starting with BBP (Birmingham Building Plans), I look at the retrieval slip and shudder, knowing that the requested item has a high chance of being in a poor condition. Transparent paper has poor ageing qualities so when I open the envelope to look at the document it sometimes looks like this:

Fig. 1 A damaged and brittle building plan
Fig. 1 A damaged and brittle building plan

This is an example of one of the many building plans that we hold which has become damaged. As you can see from fig 1, the paper has yellowed considerably and become extremely brittle. If handled, the paper would break and shatter further. We obviously cannot serve plans which are in this state as there is a real danger of pieces becoming lost forever.

Transparent papers are some of the most challenging papers within our collections to look after. They began gaining in popularity and use in the mid-19th century and include paper types such as tracing paper and vegetable parchment. As the commercial production of these papers increased, it meant that for the first time the production of multiple copies of maps, plans and decorative designs was cheap, easy and could be achieved in both small and larger sizes. These papers were favoured by architects, engineers and designers for these reasons and feature heavily in the BBP collection. Unfortunately, their preservation is not the most straightforward.

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Historic Birmingham Patents

Patents can appear to be very dry and technical documents with their use of esoteric terminology and geometric diagrams which wouldn’t seem out of place in a draftsman’s handbook. Due to their specialised content, they can often receive scant attention as documents in the research of local industrial heritage. The official recording and publication of new technological innovations was significant in encouraging greater technical investigations and may have been a contributory factor in firing Britain’s role as the first industrialised nation and the part Birmingham played in this historic process. 

In this blog, we will take a look at the following points surrounding the subject of patents:

What a patent is, how they can play a role in researching Birmingham’s industrial heritage, what’s available to view at the Library of Birmingham, what you can access online to assist your research?

Birmingham’s Industrial Heritage 

Birmingham has a prestigious history of industrial and technological innovation. It’s manufactory identity was never defined by one particular trade although it does have close associations with the production of jewellery, steam power, engineering, pens and metal ware amongst others.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, descriptions such as ‘city of a thousand trades’ and ‘workshop of the world’ were in common use when branding the identify of Birmingham. Its reputation was built upon its primacy as an industrial urban town which offered varied economic opportunities unregulated by the control of guilds. The town was instrumental in firing the wheels of industrialisation across the globe aided amongst other things by the profits procured from colonialism. 

A couple of years ago I remember reading a book on Birmingham’s industrial heritage which stated – and don’t quote me on this one as it may be apocryphal   – that in the nineteenth century, a third of all patents issued in Britain arose in Birmingham. I’ve tried tracking the source but failed miserably but wanted to include the statement in this blog as I think it sounds plausible and I hope helps colour the role Birmingham played as a seat of technological innovation. It seems to ring true considering the vast array of trades which were able to coexist and flourish in the town. 

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Early maps in the Heritage Research Area

For this week’s blog I thought I’d take a look at some of the early maps that we hold in our collections. Maps are interesting in that they give us an insight into how areas looked and were lived in centuries ago. They can give us a better understanding of life at the time they were drawn, in a more visual way than most books can.

I’ve picked three of the earliest maps we hold in the Heritage Research Area; they are all available as copies on open access so you will be able to view them at your leisure. So let’s take a look.

The Gough Map of Great Britain. [Image of the original map held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gough_Kaart_(hoge_resolutie).jpg, accessed 27/08/2020]
The first map I’d like to draw attention to is a facsimile copy of the Gough Map. The Gough Map is an ancient map of Great Britain and the original is held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It appears to be one of the earliest depictions of Great Britain in a form that we would recognise today. There are still many questions surrounding the map and its origins, including who made it and why. However the Linguistic Geographies project, undertaken by the Bodleian Library in 2011, has concluded that it is highly likely that the Gough Map was produced in the latter part of the reign of Edward III, they suggest a date of around 1370. They based their findings on the style of handwriting and spelling used in the place names found on the map. The map does not seem to preserve the Old English place names nor does it reflect their 11th or 12th century forms. For example in the case of Peterborough, at the time of Bede in the 7th – 8th century the original monastery at Peterborough was known as Medeshamstedi, and later during the Viking Invasions of the 9th century the area first became a ‘burgh’, a fortified town. The modern form of Peterborough came after the dedication of the Abbey of St Peter and is first recorded in the Calendar of Close Rolls in 1333, which does suggest a later 14th century date for the production of the map.

Detail from the Gough Map of Great Britain, 1325 – 1350 [Library of Birmingham Heritage Research Area copy]
Birmingham appears on the Gough Map as ‘Bermyngham’, and is shown as one building. This presumably implies that Birmingham was, at this time, a smaller settlement than we know today. It was likely a growing settlement, however at the time of the Gough Map, Birmingham was a small market town focussed around the area of the Bullring. We can also see it was not a city at this time, as cities are depicted with large cathedrals, as in the example of Worcester. You can search the map online here.

The second map I’d like to talk about is actually a conjectural map that was created in the 1890s. It was created using various old plans and private surveys completed during the reigns of Henry VIII and his eldest daughter Mary I. The map is dated to the first year of Mary’s reign, 1553, and this may suggest that this was the date of the last survey completed. This map is a hypothesised depiction of what Birmingham may have looked like in the late 16th century. It was created by local historian Joseph Hill and local antiquarian William Bickley. As you look through this map, you may be able to recognise some of the areas depicted, for instance New Street is visible along with Bennetts Hill, although these areas are much different to their appearance today. We can also gain evidence as to where some of the names for roads in Birmingham have come from, for instance the area around Colmore Row is shown as being owned by William Colmore, and the area which has become Smallbrook Queensway was owned by Richard Smallbrook at the time the survey was taken.

Another major landowner depicted in this conjectural map is the Priory. The Priory was dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, and was likely situated in the area where The Square Peg and Priory Shopping Centre is today. The first mention of the Priory comes in gifts of property from local landowners to the priory in 1286, by 1344 it was thriving however in the same year there were serious criticisms raised about its management and so the priory was extensively reformed by the Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry, at the time this was Roger De Northburgh. Again Birmingham is depicted as a small settlement, although larger than it is in the Gough Map, but still nowhere near the size it is today, it is almost unrecognisable.

Conjectural plan of Birmingham 1553, created in the 1890s [Library of Birmingham Heritage Research Area copy]
Finally I’d like to look at a copy of a map that was created during the reign of Elizabeth I. This map is called Saxton’s map of Warwickshire and Leicestershire. It was produced by Christopher Saxton in the year 1576, and was part of a wider atlas of maps that covered England and Wales.

Saxton’s map of Warwickshire and Leicestershire, 1576 [Library of Birmingham Heritage Research Area copy]
The Atlas, including this map, was commissioned by William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s Secretary of State. Lord Burghley commissioned cartographer Christopher Saxton to produce detailed and accurate maps of the Counties of England in the 1550s, the financier of the project was Thomas Bedford, Master of Requests, and we know this as his arms appear with the Royal Crest on every map of the Atlas. These maps were produced at a time when maps were becoming more widely used at court and in government matters, and as such accurate depictions of the Counties and towns contained within were becoming more and more important. The atlas was engraved by Leonardus Terwoordus, one of a team of seven English and Flemish engravers employed to produce the copper plates used in the making of the Atlas. It was first published in its entirety in the year 1579, and contains 35 coloured maps of all the counties of England and Wales. It seems to have set the standard for cartography for almost the next 200 years, and remained the basis of England’s County mapping until at least the 1750s.

Saxton’s map detail, 1579

If you are interested in viewing any of the maps mentioned in this blog post, or any more in our collection, they are available on open access in the Map Cabinets in the Heritage Research Area on Level 4 of the Library of Birmingham. Although currently closed, please visit our website here for information and updates on opening times for the Heritage Research Area.

Helen Glenn, Archives & Collections Senior Assistant

Pests in Houses Great and Small- Identification, Prevention, Eradication- An English Heritage Guide by David Pinniger and Dee Lauder- A review

Cover image of 'Pests in Houses Great & Small' by David Pinniger and Dee Lauder

One of the nicer aspects of being a conservator is that you never stop learning and that this is encouraged. During lockdown I have had the chance to read various articles and books that previously I had less time for. A book that I now wouldn’t be without is ‘Pests in Houses Great and Small’ by David Pinnger and Dee Lauder. What makes this an unusual book in conservation is that it is an accessible (and an affordable!) guide for anyone interested in pests in houses, not just conservators.

Pests are unfortunately a part of our lives and have evolved to live alongside us. Pests can be damaging, from causing holes in jumpers to weakening wooden structures to blocking drainage systems, causing damp in buildings. These things can be extremely annoying and can even become dangerous. By understanding which pests cause damage and having an integrated pest management scheme in place we can avoid such instances. Regular readers of the Iron Room may remember a blog post I wrote about pest management in our storage areas, if not you can find it here.

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Divorce records

Extract from a report of a ‘Local Divorce Case’ in the Birmingham Daily Post, 9 March 1887

One of the questions we are often asked in relation to family history research is do we hold divorce records. In the first instance, our reply to such a query is to regretfully report we hold no divorce case files. The only other option to suggest and it’s a very slim one, would be to scan local newspapers for reports of what took place in court. The researcher would need to have a firm idea of a date when considering this option as many newspapers are not indexed.

Researchers often try to uncover as much evidence relating to their ancestors to assist corroborating what they already know and identify new sources of information to help extend the family tree.

This is a concise guide to divorce records outlining the following relevant points:

a) Significant dates in the history of divorce legislation.
b) What information a divorce case file will provide.
c) Where records are located – National Archives (1858 – 1937).
d) Where you can obtain legal proof of a divorce in England & Wales.
e) What is available to view online.
f) What is available locally.

Let’s get started!!

Significant Dates in Divorce Legislation

Prior to 1858, access to obtaining a divorce in the modern understanding of both parties being able to remarry was extremely rare. Church Courts made the majority of decisions on cases but people also found other means by which to separate – custom, common law courts and Parliament.

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Birmingham Rate Books on Ancestry

Family history research throws up many mysteries! There are many instances where we have great grandfathers, great-great grandmothers or ancestral aunts and uncles who we only know existed because they have been mentioned in a census or a living grandparent told us about them in a conversation where a mental note was made but the classic mistake of not having a pen and paper to hand was made. Or worse still, having a pen that did not work has now put us in despair!

We keep asking ourselves why can I not find them? Well, the reasons can be many as to why they once appeared and then they simply disappeared from radar. They could have gone abroad, they might have changed their name or possibly there was a spelling error on the one record that they featured in. An error in a name can make a difficult search even more arduous, even when using the likes of a powerful search engine.

The family historian can struggle to let it go and wonders, what happened and why? Could the missing ancestor have had a family dispute or even a feud? Were they adopted? Did they end up in jail or a workhouse? Or maybe they had found a “new” partner and had decided to pack up and sail away into the sunset without a worry for you and me! Well despair no more! If you are certain that your ancestor lived in Birmingham even for a period of one year, then there is a set of records for you to explore and this route may possibly solve the mystery. This wonderful set of records are called the Birmingham, England, Rate Books and the period from 1831 to 1913 is available via Ancestry, which you can access for free through Birmingham Libraries.

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Everything to Everybody

The ‘Everything to Everybody’ Project is an ambitious three-year celebration of one of the UK’s most important cultural assets: the vast Shakespeare Memorial Library housed within the Library of Birmingham. ‘Everything to Everybody’ seeks to work with different communities across Birmingham to revive and extend the city’s unique Shakespeare heritage. It celebrates the fact that Birmingham’s internationally significant Shakespeare collection was founded for the citizens of Birmingham and it will explore with communities how to make it accessible, relevant, and engaging today.

Founded in 1864, the Shakespeare Memorial Library was the first great Shakespeare Library in the world. Expressly established for all the citizens of the town, it helped win 19th century Birmingham a reputation as a trailblazing modern city. ‘Everything to Everybody’ – a collaboration between the University of Birmingham and Birmingham City Council with funding contributed by National Lottery Heritage Fund and History West Midlands – will recover this precious heritage for today.

Production photographs from Max Reinhardt’s 1935 film A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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