Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

Canada

MS 3219/4/277

On 1 July 2017 Canada celebrated the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation, when Canada became a self- governing dominion within the British Empire.    

Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham, holds records relating to Canada which are much older, to be found, perhaps surprisingly, in the papers of James Watt and Family (MS 3219).

Aside from the fact that Boulton & Watt provided steam engines for boats of the Hudson Bay Company, there are records more personal to Watt, those of his brother-in-law by marriage, Captain John Marr, military surveyor (d. 1787). He had married Agnes (Nancy)  Millar, sister of his first wife Margaret (Peggy).  Marr was also the son of Watt’s mathematics teacher in Greenock and accompanied Watt to London in 1769, as he was going to train as a naval instructor when Watt was seeking training in mathematical instrument making.

John Marr had served in Canada from 1761. A memorial (petition)to the principal officers of His Majesty’s Ordnance requesting an increased allowance, 20 April 1768, gives details of Marr’s career in Canada to that date [MS 3219/4/275/2]. Marr obviously returned to Scotland some time after that and married. He and Nancy sailed to New York in 1774. A letter from John and Nancy to Betty Millar, another sister, (Glasgow) dated 15 November 1774 informs her that they arrived on 21 October. Nancy had apparently suffered a miscarriage in September, but had recovered. They were laying in stores of vegetables and stocking up for the winter. Nancy wrote that there was only salt fish and rum to be had there. They would not be able to receive mail until they reached Canada. Marr had sent fish to James Watt in Glasgow and he would get caulkers [spikes] for Nancy’s feet to stop her falling on the ice.

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The Drum

The Drum Archive in the stores at the Library of Birmingham

Hi! I’m Davinia. I’m studying for a PhD in Sociology at Warwick University. I recently joined the archives in the new, voluntary position of research associate, and I’m working with the newly formed archive from The Drum arts centre, which sadly closed just over a year ago, at the end of June 2016. My project’s working title is called Learning from The Drum: Toward a decolonization of the arts in the UK.

The Drum

For any who may not know, The Drum was originally conceived in a series of conversations in 1986, then existed in a number of iterations in The Cave and The Big Peg until it was established in its Newtown building in 1995. The building was originally endorsed by the City Council as part of a series of ventures, intended to achieve social and economic gains for that part of the city. It was also created to provide an inclusive creative space for the city’s African, Caribbean and South Asian populations. In 2015 it celebrated 20 years of service to its local community and to the arts of the UK. But in March 2016, six months into this PhD and, incidentally, half way through Arts Council England’s creative case for diversity, The Drum closed its doors, and the consequences of this are yet to be fully comprehended.

The Drum closing its doors

Why Am I in the archive?

My project, now half way through, has changed a lot since it was proposed in 2015. Originally, it was to focus on how The Drum was working as an arts centre. I was to collaborate with Drum staff in using the archive of ephemera within the building to create an online platform that would help to connect the local population with The Drum’s history. I would then conduct interviews and workshops with staff, artists and audiences to discover whether and how engagement with that history served to connect people in the city to the place in which they live. Given the changes that have occurred, my project now aims to preserve the history of the organisation. I also want to understand what happened at the Drum, including its closure and the broader implications of this for the arts of Birmingham and the wider UK. This is where the Archive comes in.

Collating & Housing an Archive

When the Drum was closing, the staff, including me, were in constant contact with Corinna Rayner, Manager of Archives & Collections at the Library of Birmingham, and together we embarked on the project of boxing up and labelling the Drum’s ephemera for storage. It came to over 200 boxes! Archives & Collections thankfully agreed to house The Drum’s archive, and the boxes arrived into the loading bay; a time of incredible relief for me. The Drum’s loss would leave a huge gap for many people, myself included. Once the archive is catalogued and made public, hopefully there will be a way of remembering all of the great work that it created and showcased over the years.

Following storage of The Drum’s archival material, my project is now also concerned with how the collection could best be made accessible to the centre’s former local and national audiences, and with connecting the history of the organization to other local histories, as well as to wider national and international histories. Thinking through this process is part of my project’s analysis.

Stay tuned for future blog posts on what I find as I root through the archive!

Davinia.

Holdings: Words of the Archive

Definition of ‘record’ from 1696.
[A094/1696/21]

Words, words, words. Archives are packed with them – in record books, in documents, in deeds, in letters, in catalogues, on box labels, on captions, and plenty of other places. But what words do archivists themselves use to talk about what they do? As a lexicographer, I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the words associated with archives and archival practice. Like every other field of activity, archiving has its own specialist vocabulary. Sometimes a particular term will be completely unfamiliar to the lay person, though often, as we can see below, a familiar word is simply repurposed in a specific, extended sense.

The word archive itself dates from the mid seventeenth century, ultimately deriving from the Greek word arkheia meaning ‘public records’. Archivist is a slightly later word, coming into English in the eighteenth century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the word is this, from 1753: ‘Under the emperors the Archivist was an officer of great dignity.’ Happily, in my experience this continues to be the case.

An English Dictionary from 1696.
[A094/1696/21]

My understanding is that most archives, such as those held in the Library of Birmingham, are structured roughly on the following lines. A collection is a whole body of material (letters, documents, photographs, and so forth) held by an institution. The more technical term fonds (borrowed from French) is sometimes used by archivists to describe an entire collection originating from a single source. An accession is one of the individual bodies of material that form part of the collection and that arrived at a particular time, for example as a gift or purchase. A file is a group of documents that are related in some way. And an item is an individual document or other object held in a file.

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Rediscovering the Milton Collection at the Library of Birmingham

With the expert help of Corinna Rayner and the Archives & Collections team, and my research assistant Ellie Rowe, I have recently begun a project to reassess the contents and significance of the Library of Birmingham’s Milton Collection, an extensive but little-known collection of books relating to the English poet and polemicist, John Milton (1608-1672).

The Library’s Stock Book shows that the Milton Collection began in 1882 in the Gladstone era, when the Library was being rebuilt after the catastrophic fire of 1879. The core of the collection was a gift of about 160 volumes of editions of Milton’s works and Miltonian commentary and criticism. The books were given by Frank Wright (1853-1922), a Liberal politician and member of the Free Library Building Sub-Committee, son of the well-known nonconformist John Skirrow Wright (1822-1880), and partner in the firm of Smith & Wright, makers of buttons and tin-plate.

Free Library Committee Minutes 1882
[BCC/1/AT/1/1/5]

Wright donated the books in the hope that they might be made ‘the nucleus of a Milton Collection worthy of his name and that of our town’. Wright’s interest in Milton almost certainly stemmed from the family’s Liberal and nonconformist leanings. Over the century following Wright’s initial donation, the Milton Collection swelled to over eight times its initial size.

Today, the Milton Collection includes approximately eighty 17th century editions of Milton’s work, and more than 1,200 volumes of later editions and works of criticism. The oldest works in the collection are pamphlets written by Milton in the Civil War and Commonwealth periods, such as The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce (1643), Areopagitica: a speech for the liberty of unlicenced printing (1644), and Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio (Defence of the English People) (1651).

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Shipping issues

It’s amazing what a variety of goods were moved by sea in the 18th century.

John Watt (1739 – 1762) the younger brother of James Watt, studied book-keeping and helped in his father’s business of ships’ chandlery in Greenock. According to his father, James Watt of Greenock, his son was ‘ready in learning with a mahanicall [mechanical] turn and soon aplayed [applied] himself to trade and business and for completing his knolage [knowledge] in the cost [coast]’. In 1761 a ship, the Fortune, was built for him and he started a trading enterprise, as a partner with his father and others, shipping goods between Glasgow and Bristol. Between 1760 and 1761 his father records a least 32 harbours he visited, for cargoes such as coal, ballast, slate, timber, salt, herrings, tallow, tobacco, etc. [MS 3219/3/125]

Composite Account Book [MS 3219/5/1]

Composite Account Book, Bristol 1761
[MS 3219/5/1]

John Watt’s accounts reveal a wealth of items, most of which had been specifically ordered by individuals in the Glasgow area from Bristol. In no particular order, these included:

Strong sweet ‘sydar’ [cider]
Bristol beer
‘Holewell water’ [Holywell was a mineral spring area of Bristol]
White wine vinegar
Bottles
Lanterns
Lamp black ‘in pound papers’
Paint; vermilion, Prussian blue, French verdegris, stone umber, spruce ochre etc.
Paintbrushes
Turpentine
Barometers
Jugs of linseed oil
A chest of ‘Florence Oil’
Bunting: broad & narrow; red, white & blue
Gingerbread
Pewter spoons & metal ‘soop’ dishes
Double Gloucester cheese
Blue peas
White peas
Nutmeg graters
Ivory teeth
Watch glasses
Compasses
Writing slates
Paper
Red lead
White lead
Thin sheet lead
Silk handkerchiefs
Flour
Marling needles
‘Very fine cotton cards’
Musket bullets
Locks & hinges
Tools: saws, adzes, chisels, axes, shovels
Barrel hoops
Jugs of putty
Window glass
Decanters, tumblers, ‘Flowered glasses’
Paper

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An invitation

At the recent Annual General Meeting of the Friends of Birmingham Archives and Heritage, it was announced that a small purchase had been made and donated to Archives & Collections, Library of Birmingham and this blog is to inform people about the item.

MS 4869 (Acc 2017/007)

It is an invitation ticket to an exhibition of paintings at Everitt and Hill, art dealers, on New Street, on 18 August [c.1860], (reference number MS 4869     Accession 2017/ 007). The invitation was to James Baldwin and the paintings he was invited to view were:

James Watt and his First Steam Engine by Lauder R.S.A.
Shakespeare and Milton by John Faed
The Wanderer’s Return by Henry O’Neill
Broken Vows by Philip Calderon

It was, of course, the first item which attracted the attention of the FoBAH Committee.

James Eckford Lauder RSA (1811-1869) was a notable mid-Victorian Scottish artist, famous for both portraits and historical pictures.

A younger brother of artist Robert Scott Lauder, he was born at Silvermills, Edinburgh, the fifth and youngest son of John Lauder of Silvermills (proprietor of the great tannery there) by his spouse Helen Tait. Under the guidance and encouragement of his elder brother Robert, he rapidly developed an early love of art.

He attended Edinburgh Academy from 1824 to 1828. He joined Robert in Italy in 1834, and remained there nearly four years. Upon his return to Edinburgh he became an annual contributor to the Exhibitions of the Royal Scottish Academy, and exhibited occasionally at the Royal Academy in London, where his works attracted much attention.

In 1839 he was elected an associate, and in 1846 became full member, of the Royal Scottish Academy. The painting of James Watt and the Steam Engine: the Dawn of the Nineteenth Century, 1855, is said to be one of his principal works.

The painting is now held in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. Continue reading

St Mary’s Convent: A Historic Aspect of Irish Handsworth

St Patrick’s Day will be celebrated in Handsworth, as it is across Birmingham, on 17th March 2017.  Indeed, celebrations commenced last weekend and many Irish from Handsworth joined in or watched Birmingham’s St Patrick’s Parade in Digbeth on 12th March.  Amongst those enjoying the Parade were Religious Sisters from St Mary’s Convent, Handsworth and they represent an ongoing Irish connection with this part of north Birmingham.

Handsworth today is rightly famous for its diverse communities and rich religious mix and it has long had a strong Irish element, not least in the post-war period as represented by Clare Short, a daughter of Irish parents who grew up in Handsworth and became Member of Parliament for the adjacent Ladywood Constituency (1983-2010).  Clare Short also represents a connection with an older Irish tradition in Handsworth, centred on St Mary’s Convent, Hunter’s Road.  Like so many second generation Irish in the area, Clare attended St Mary’s Catholic School (later called St Francis’ School), which was next to and supported by St Mary’s Convent.  From 1841 this convent has served the local Catholic and wider communities and has always had an Irish dimension, even in its early days when Handsworth was a semi-rural location with no distinctly Irish presence.

Catherine McAuley. Taken from Commemorating the Past, Commitment to the Future. [MS 4627]

St Mary’s Convent was established from Dublin by the Sisters of Mercy, who had been invited to Birmingham by Thomas Walsh, Catholic Vicar Apostolic for the Midlands.  Walsh wanted to harness the devotion and energy of the Sisters of Mercy in order to alleviate the suffering of Birmingham’s burgeoning poor.  Many of these were Irish, crammed into slums in central Birmingham such as John Street, as described by Thomas Finigan in his journal, now kept at the Library of Birmingham [MS 3255].  Originally founded in 1831 by Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy were a new departure for female Religions.  They led an active life in service to the poor and needy and attracted women who wanted to serve God in a practical way. In just ten years, the Sisters of Mercy spread across Ireland, were introduced to England and had laid the foundations of what would become a global ministry.

Journal of Thomas Finigan: Missionary – Birmingham Town Mission 1837 – 1838 [MS 3255]

Whilst Bishop Walsh’s focus was on inner Birmingham, practical considerations resulted in the Sisters of Mercy being established some distance away in leafy Handsworth, then on the outskirts of the town.  Funds were tight and a site was provided in fields opposite the home of the principal benefactor John Hardman [whose business records are held at the Library of Birmingham at MS 175].  St Mary’s Convent was designed for this site by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, leading light in the Gothic Revival.  However, when the Sisters arrived from Dublin, they did not represent a Catholic return to medieval notions of service and worship.  From the outset, they visited the poor and destitute in their homes and places of work.  176 years later, it may be difficult to envisage how radical this was.  The sight of overtly religious women, robed in the distinctive habit of the Sisters of Mercy and walking the streets was both novel and a dramatic visual representation of solidarity with the poor.  The practical need to walk from outlying Handsworth to the slums, combined with the social shock of (in the language of the time) ‘respectable’ women working with marginalised people ensured that the Sisters of Mercy were noticed.  Their high visibility was also unsettling to many at a time when Catholics were still largely discreet about their religious affiliations.

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