Working as a Library and Archives Assistant for the past five years I have handled thousands of documents, maps, photographs, books, newspapers, microfiche and microfilms. But apart from fleeting glimpses as I handed them over to eager researchers, it had been rare to find the opportunities to study many of them in more depth. I am more familiar with our catalogues and finding aids than I am with the actual content of our vast resources. Embarking two years ago on Postgraduate study in Genealogical, Palaeographic and Heraldic Studies finally gave me the opportunity – and motive – to get up close and personal with a variety of our collections.
Although much of the course involved material located online there have been several Etudes where we could choose our own subject matter. Where possible I have rooted all of these firmly within Birmingham so that I could make use of our material.
Over the course of 2-3 blog articles I’ll be sharing some brief (ish) extracts from some of these.
Area Study – Thomas Street
My final Project is based on the records of the Middlemore Children’s Emigration Homes and it was whilst doing some preparatory reading for this that I came across references to Thomas Street and chose the road as the topic for an Area Study.
The application books of the Emigration Homes sum up some potential candidates simply as a “Thomas Street child”. [MS 517/A/8/1/1] Such an epithet was obviously sufficient in the 1870’s that no other description was needed.
Thomas Street was just one of many streets in the centre of Birmingham that were cleared in Joseph Chamberlain’s Improvement Scheme. The chairman of the Improvement Committee was William White who described his own ward, St Mary’s, thus:
“In passing through such streets as Thomas Street, …little else is to be seen but bowing roofs, tottering chimneys, tumbledown and often disused shopping, heaps of bricks, broken windows, rough pavements damp and sloppy. It is not easy to describe or imagine the dreary desolation which acre after acre of the very heart of the town presents to anyone who will take the trouble to visit it”.[Quoted in: Bunce, John Thackray. History of the Corporation of Birmingham. Vol II. Cornish Brothers, Birmingham. 1885 p. 461]
James Burgoyne’s photographs of the Improvement Scheme provide a visual record which matches William White’s verbal description.
Early history and location
The earliest written references to Thomas Street are a lease and conveyance from John Pemberton and wife to Thomas Lane of land in a street to be called “St. Thomas his Street” dating from 1725.[MS 3033/Acc 1914-020/252519 9 December, 1725] Further surviving deeds indicate that the street was being laid out in 1725 and messuages were being built in 1727. [MS 3/Box 7/bdl 5 1725-1731].
John Pemberton was a Quaker ironmonger who purchased the lands of the former Priory of St. Thomas the Apostle around 1697. At the heart of his planned estate, completed by 1707, was “The Square” – sixteen houses laid out around landscaped gardens. The surrounding streets, including Thomas Street, were built to house a growing population of artisans, and labourers.
Thomas Street shows on Birmingham’s first recognised map of 1731 by William Westley (above). It was already built up on both sides complete with courts and alleys running behind. But there was still both arable and grazing land within a few hundred metres – not to mention the cherry orchards only a few streets away.
Census data for Thomas Street
In 1841 there were 66 census schedules completed for Old Thomas Street. The entries detail some 581 inhabitants: 235 born within the county of Warwickshire, 256 originating from other English/Welsh counties, 20 from Scotland, 64 from Ireland and 6 were described as foreign including one Traveller described as a “Man of Colour”. Occupations were given for 257 residents. The most numerous group were the 52 labourers but there was a wide range of other trades represented including 4 lodging-house keepers; 3 publicans; 6 tailors, numerous shoe makers, silk weavers, musicians, gun makers, servants, button makers, brass workers, butcher, baker (but no candlestick maker!), fishmonger, glass blowers, hawkers, a mariner (in land-locked Birmingham), a coal miner, a schoolmaster and a doctor.
Later censuses show a similar picture with a large number of lodging-houses, a large number of general labourers, hawkers and other low-paid and often temporary occupations and a large proportion of occupants originating from outside Birmingham, including a relatively high population of immigrants from Ireland.
The first report of the “Gutter Children’s Homes” (later Middlemore Emigration Homes) in 1873 reveals plans to establish a Lodging House near to Thomas Street because there were “many infamous lodging houses, but no respectable ones”. These were described as being “frequented by the vagrants and thieves of the town” and as “the worst schools of immorality”. The second report states that only “children of the Street Arab class” are taken into the Homes and describes their principal haunts as being Thomas Street, and the neighbouring streets. [MS 517/A/1/1/1]
The above extracts and images highlight just some of the variety of both primary and secondary resources available in Archives and Heritage.