Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

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.

Continue reading

‘Developing our own gifts and those of others’: the educational role of the Warwickshire North Women’s Conferences, 1895-1960

SF/2/1/1/2/1/8

Among the large collection of records of Central England Quakers are the minutes of the Warwickshire North Women’s Monthly Meeting beginning in 1729. They provide a fascinating insight into the mental and emotional worlds of Quaker women in Birmingham over several generations, and illustrate the concerns that were foremost in their minds.

The nature of the Women’s meetings and the records that relate to them changed in the late nineteenth century. In May 1889, a proposal from the men’s monthly meeting was put to the women, suggesting that they should hold joint monthly meetings in advance of their separate meetings. Women Friends agreed to trial this for twelve months. In October 1890, as most business was now done in the joint meeting they decided to hold women’s meetings four times a year, rather than monthly, and the role of the meeting changed. From 1897 three women’s Monthly Meeting ‘Conferences’ were held each year – in the spring to prepare for Yearly Meeting, in the summer to review and read papers from Yearly Meeting, and in November ‘to consider some General subject of interest to women’. In this piece I will be concentrating on this last conference in the period from the 1890s to the 1950s.

Notice of a Conference on 'The Child's Point of View', 1908 (ref SF/2/1/1/2/1/9)

Notice of a conference on ‘The Child’s Point of View’, 1908 (ref SF/2/1/1/2/1/9)

The subjects deemed to be of interest by the women ranged widely, from theological questions, women’s ministry and Quaker history, to the social and political issues of the day. Women Friends presented papers followed by a discussion, and external speakers were occasionally invited to present on particular subjects. The Conferences were well attended, and could attract anything from 50 to 150 women depending on the popularity of the theme. Many of the subjects, particularly in the early years, are those that we might consider to be traditional women’s subjects and we see the Conference functioning as a space of formal and informal education in very practical knowledge that was relevant to middle class wives and mothers.

There is a considerable interest, for example, in motherhood and the upbringing of children and in particular how children and young people should be nurtured in Quaker ways and beliefs. On 12 February 1895 when 70 women were present, the session focused on ‘Woman’s influence over Children and Young People in the Home’. Catharine Wilson spoke of the influence of Christian nurses and governesses working with the mother for the good of the children, a reflection of the class and socio-economic circumstances of many of the more prominent women in the meeting. Caroline Gibbins read ‘a valuable paper’ on the ‘Discipline of Younger Children’ which emphasised ‘moral suasion’ rather than ‘physical force’ and the wise mother’s role in avoiding conflict.

The People's Free Kindergarten, Greet, 1904 (ref MS 4095)

The People’s Free Kindergarten, Greet, 1904 (ref MS 4095)

Continue reading

Charles Reece Pemberton (1790-1840) ‘Poet, teacher and friend of the poor man; of the working man.’

This is one of those ‘Archives tales’ which shows the way something selected at random can lay trails for the curious; opening doors on, and raising questions about all sorts of subjects. I started with a volume titled ‘Charles Reece Pemberton. Lecturer on Poetry, Eloquence etc. 1790-1840’. I knew nothing about him. The word ‘poetry’ and his dates had drawn me in.

The volume in question, bought for 6 guineas by Birmingham Reference Library in 1888, contains letters, printed pamphlets and notices, newscuttings, an etched portrait and ‘A Sketch of the Life and a few of the Beauties of Pemberton’, written by George Jacob Holyoake of Birmingham, 1842. Holyoake had started work in a foundry in Birmingham aged 8 years. He had attended lectures at the Mechanics’ Institute from 18 years where he discovered the socialist writings of Robert Owen. He became an assistant lecturer and then an Owenite Social Missionary.

Title page of [MS 3022]

Title page of ‘A Sketch of the Life and a few of the Beauties of Pemberton’ [MS 3022]

Holyoake states that Pemberton was born in Pontypool, South Wales, in 1790, and that his father was a mechanic. He was brought to Birmingham and was educated at the Unitarian Charity School in Park Street. Apprenticed to a merchant uncle, he ran away to Liverpool where he was seized by the Press Gang and sent to sea. He spent several years at sea serving in various battles. During his wanderings he became proprietor and manager of several theatres in ‘the East’ and married a lady ‘of talent as extraordinary as his own’. After an ‘unlooked for occurrence’ separated them, he continued ‘a solitary wanderer’ through the world.

Portrait of Charles Reece Pemberton [MS 3022]

Portrait of Charles Reece Pemberton
[MS 3022]

The Dictionary of National Biography gives a little more information, sometimes contradicting Holyoake’s version. It states that Pemberton’s father was a Warwickshire man, his mother Welsh, and they came to Birmingham when he was about 4 years old. He studied under Daniel Wright at the Unitarian school and his uncle to whom he was apprenticed, is described as a brass founder. His naval service was apparently near Cadiz and after the war he became an actor and ran several theatres in the West Indies where he made an unhappy marriage to one Fanny Pritchard, and they soon separated. The DNB records that he returned to England in 1827.

Holyoake continues that Pemberton had acquired the skills of oratory as an actor. He first saw a play in Birmingham and was inspired to act. According to the DNB, on his return to England Pemberton acted the tragic characters of Shakespeare, such as Macbeth and Shylock, in Bath, Hereford, at Covent Garden and in Birmingham. Sergeant, later Sir Thomas Talfourd (1795-1854), judge, politician and author of several plays seems to have been very impressed by his performances; others less so. After a few years Pemberton seems to have abandoned acting and he became a lecturer on Shakespeare, and an author. He gave a lecture on Brutus at Birmingham Mechanics’ Institute and Holyoake said of him: ‘as a Lecturer on Oratory & Poetry he was equally great and instructive and was probably without a living equal. His illustrations, being gathered from the study of men and things in all climes, seldom failed to awaken new and elevated ideas.’  An obituary notice in the Sheffield ‘Iris’ says: ‘Many will remember the thrilling effect which his original and splendid lectures in illustrating the creation of the poet’s [i.e. Shakespeare’s] fancy produced.’

From 1833-1835 he wrote sketches of his life under the title ‘The autobiography of Pel Verjuice’ in the Monthly Repository, London.  In 1838 he fell ill, but thanks to the generosity of Talfourd and many other friends, he travelled to Egypt for two years in the hope of recovering his health. He published a series of letters in the Iris, describing Egypt and the Mediterranean. [If this is the Birmingham literary magazine, Isis, then, sadly, Archives & Collections holds only one volume, for 1830, at L08.2]. Continue reading

Christmas at the Asylum

 

L0000640 The twelth night entertainment Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The twelth night entertainment in Hanwell Lunatic Asylum. 1848 Illustrated London News Published: 1848 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

L0000640 The twelth night entertainment
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
The twelth night entertainment in Hanwell Lunatic Asylum.
1848 Illustrated London News
Published: 1848
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

One of the best parts of researching archives is discovering unusual accounts where they are least expected, and Christmas festivities are no exception. I recently came across this description of Christmas celebrations in All Saints Lunatic Asylum in the mid Victorian period, shortly after Dickens published ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843.

Birmingham Borough Lunatic Asylum, later known as Winson Green and All Saints Asylum, opened in June 1850. Within a year there were 263 occupants, and by 1870 this had grown to 599. Treatment at the Asylum in the mid nineteenth century was based on ‘moral management’, treating ‘lunatics’ humanely. The days of chaining lunatics were over. Occupation, work and recreation were important parts of treatment of patients, who were strictly segregated into male and female areas.

Patients enjoyed some entertainment from the opening of the asylum, including annual picnics. From 1851, some men and women were allowed to meet for music, singing and dancing, which Thomas Green, the medical superintendent, thought ‘really form a very interesting feature on the management of the institution’[1]. These were continued the following year;

‘The weekly concerts and ball have been kept up with the usual spirit, and these meetings have continued to form a valuable aid in the moral treatment. On Christmas Eve a party was given on a larger scale, and on this occasion, for the first time since the Asylum opened, the partitions of the hall were removed. It was tastefully decorated with flags, and festoons of shrubs interspersed with artificial flowers, whilst the walls were ornamented with a variety of fancy designs. Most of this was the work of Patients and executed in the short space of a fortnight. The ‘tout ensemble’ was striking, and displayed to great advantage the fine proportions of the noble room.

89 males and 106 females, more than three fourths of the whole number were present. To quote the language of a Patient who wrote a description of the entertainment, ‘nearly two hundred of God’s erring and deeply afflicted children, called lunatics, assembled clean, neat, quiet with at least a passing smile on their careworn and in some cases half conscious countenances; a decided cheerfulness, nay merriment on some, and on others an expression of pleasing astonishment’.

Tables being arranged all around the room they sat down to tea at 5 o’clock, and after tea, by way of grace, they rose in a body and sang ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow’. The conjoint effort of so many voices, from persons under such circumstances, uniting with ‘one mind and one mouth’, to thank the great creator for his gifts was most interesting and impressive.

Oranges were distributed in the course of the evening and supper was served at 8 o’clock. Music, singing, dancing and some Xmas games were kept up with great spirit and enjoyment until nine, when all departed quietly to bed’[2].

Christmas entertainments continued throughout the 1860’s, and the community contributed to these.  In 1868 eighty five patients were invited to the Christmas Pantomime by Mr Simpson, the lessee of one of the theatres[3], and in 1869 Mr Miller, the father of a patient, exhibited Fantoccini, Italian string puppets like Punch and Judy, and ‘performed feats of conjuring and leger de main’, with ‘customary music, songs and dancing’[4].

Attitudes to patients in asylums were at their most benevolent in this period. Conditions deteriorated from the 1870’s as asylums became overcrowded and attitudes to people with learning disabilities hardened, but this account of the enjoyment of the early patients in the asylum at Christmas in the early 1850’s, in the early optimistic period, appears genuine and demonstrates that, at the beginning at least, having fun at Christmas was part of asylum life

Alison Laitner

[1] HC/AS, Medical Superintendents’ Reports, 14 January 1852.

[2] HC/AS, Medical Superintendents’ Reports, January 12th 1853.

[3] HC/AS, MS 344/2/2, Medical Superintendents’ Reports, 21 February 1868.

[4] HC/AS, MS 344/2/2, Medical Superintendents’ Reports, 27 December 1869.

On This Day

 

‘On This Day’ is an online project currently being run by the Voices of War & Peace WW1 Engagement Centre, based at the Library of Birmingham. Since January 2016 the centre has periodically published extracts of news reports from local papers 100 years on. ‘On This Day’ focuses on how the Great War affected Birmingham citizens, from women left to look after their children single-handedly to conscientious objectors and to munitions workers, and the impact on their daily lives from food shortages to restrictions on lighting in the city and to infant welfare. All of the content has been sourced by University of Birmingham history students, who are undertaking the Professional Skills module in their second year of study. The material has been found by using the British Newspaper Archive. Maeve Scally worked on the entries from 1916, while Gemma Daw has been researching 1917. Here are a few sneak previews into what Gemma has found….

 Birmingham Daily Gazette

Wednesday 24th January 1917

BIRMINGHAM POLICEMEN PROTECTED AT NIGHT

Special precautions are taken in Birmingham to give protection to the policemen on duty at night. The men are provided with white coats, while electric globes, giving a red light, are fixed to the top of their helmets. These constables are shown adjusting their electrical headgear before going on duty.

policemen

Birmingham Daily Gazette. Wednesday 24th January 1917.

Continue reading

Explore Your Archive: Disability History Month 2016

Blue Celebrated

MS 4647 William Robert Mackenzie

William Robert Mackenzie (left) [MS 4647]

 One of the interesting accessions received at Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham, back in 2013 was papers and photographs about William Robert Mackenzie (b. 1920) and his working life at Parkinson Cowan, (formerly the Parkinson Stove Company), later Thorn Gas Appliances Ltd.   [Accession 2013/167  MS 4647]

The factory was on Flaxley Road, Stechford, Birmingham, and Mr Mackenzie worked there from 1935 – 1983, beginning as tea boy and finishing as Departmental Manager for the Spares Department and Sheltered Workshop.

Mr Mackenzie was an active member of the Association for Research into Restricted Growth, advising on employment, and he helped to develop a Sheltered Workshop for people at Thorn Gas Appliances Ltd. who became disabled after joining the firm.

newspaper-article

Article from the collection recognising the ‘Fit for Work’ award.  [MS 4647]

Continue reading

Explore Your Archive: Once Upon a Time…

Blue RevealedUntil last year, I worked with the Photographic Collections in the archives at the Library of Birmingham. I left promising to write a blog post at some point in the future. Over a year later, while meeting with former colleagues, I was reminded of this promise. It was suggested I could perhaps write about my favourite item as part of the ‘Explore your Archives’ week activities. My head was instantly full of potential candidates. You’ll have to be patient with me here, because I cannot help but mention a few of them, at least in passing, so you have some idea of the staggering wealth of choices I faced. For instance, perhaps I would write something about John Blakemore’s beautiful handmade books on the Zone System (MS 2372/C/1-23 and MS 2372 Acc. 2015/088), a system devised by Ansel Adams and used by Blakemore in his photography for many years. Or maybe a post showcasing a little-known collection of cyanotypes (MS 2652) – a stunning example of a very early photographic process.

Cyanotype [MS 2652]

Cyanotype
[MS 2652]

Then again, perhaps I could write about a collection of 37 photographs taken randomly by a BCC employee, which when arranged in sequence connects up to form a panoramic view from the top of the old (and now vanished) Birmingham Central Library. When last shown, this series of prints prompted a reminiscence from a retiring librarian, of how it used to snow upwards in the well of Paradise Forum, before the glass roof was put on.

Or indeed I could certainly write about the photograph of a Pickford’s heavy haulage vehicle with its crew standing proudly beside it (MS 2726 ). This photograph appeared in so many talks – each time as evidence of something different, each time an integral part of a different narrative – sometimes telling the story of the man who took it, at other times illustrating a wider history of heavy haulage and the vehicles used, now a part of the history of the development of transport systems, and then also part of the social narrative of that particular time.

How was I to choose between them?

Continue reading