Category Archives: Guest Bloggers

James Watt 2019: January

2019 marks the bicentenary of the death of James Watt, improver of the steam engine and partner of Matthew Boulton in the engine businesses at Soho, Handsworth. There will be many events commemorating this during the year, in Birmingham and Scotland, and information about these can be found on the James Watt 2019 website.

To help celebrate the richness of the archive of the James Watt and Family Papers [MS 3219], held in Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham, there will be a monthly blog on a Watt related subject.

January

James Watt was born in Greenock on 19 January 1736 to James Watt senior (1698-1782) and Agnes Muirhead (c. 1701-1753). He was their fourth child, but the three before him had all died before the age of two years.

‘A view of Greenock 1768’ lithographed for the Watt Club 1856 by Schenk & McFarlane, Edinburgh, from the original by Robert Paul, Academy Glasgow, 1768, in ‘Memorials of James Watt by George Williamson, 1856’ [MS 3004/6].

Some correspondence relating to James Watt’s mother and father survives, and the following is from a letter to his mother, Agnes, from her mother, also Agnes Muirhead, written 2 April 1730, giving advice on how to cope with the difficulties of breast feeding. Her son Robert had been born on 13 February 1730.

Dear Nanie,

I Recived yours [letter] with the goose last Week for which I Return you many thanks and your letter by Mrs Fork yesterday forenoon and another last night[.] I am sorry to hear that your breast has turned so bad, I consulted with Mrs Muirhead & your Grand Mother and they know nothing so proper as bathing it with Strong master as hott as ye can endure and dip a flannel Cloth in it[.] If this dos not doe try a little Green Cornmill and Green wormwood fryed with a little Sweet oyl and layd to the breast[.] If none of those things doe I recommend the plaister to you of which you gott a Coppy[,] but least you may have lost it[,] I send you another Coppy of it as follows[:]

Take half a pint of ale[,] a Spoonfull of Sweet oyl[,] a ounce of Castile Soap[,] one handfull of Sage[,] half ounce bees wax[,] two Spoonfulls of white wine venigar[,] a little deers Grease[,] a little red lead[,] a spoonfull of flour[.] boyl it haff an hour[.]  I have sent the deers Grease along with the letter least ye should gett none of it with you[.] You know how to apply this plaister your Self and the Child may easilysuck [.] don’t wear your Stays too much Till once you get either a pair fitter for you or your breasts be better for you have certainly got cold with them which has stopped some of the vessels. Cause it suck your breast as much as possible and shake often. As for the Nipples if the skin be of[f] them Gett walnut oyl or a little fine Candle grease or the dripping of pork I know nothing better[.] If they be hacked Gett the Balsom of Peru and stroke it in the hacks with a feather……..

……….from your affectionate Mother, Agnes Muirhead.

[MS 3219/3/124/10]

Unfortunately, we don’t know if she tried this, or if it worked! Robert died aged two and a half months. Continue reading

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Lady well

The heart of the eighteenth century Town of Birmingham lay on a north-east to south-west geological fault line, known as the Birmingham fault (see Fig. 1)[1]. To the south-east the bedrock consists of the red–brown marl called Mercian mudstone. To the north-west the bedrock was Helsby sandstone.

Fig. 1 Bedrock Geology. The black circle marks the approximate position of Lady well

The impermeable marl of the Rea valley led to rapid drainage with consequent violent fluctuations in the run-off to the river. Just beyond the fault line, bands of marl within the sandstone prevented deep seepage of rain water and except during unusually dry periods offered a copious supply from natural springs and shallow wells.[2] Water from these surface springs and shallow wells tended to be clear and soft.[3]

 This regular flow provided by Birmingham’s springs and wells provided a sufficient water supply for both domestic and industrial purposes until the mid-nineteenth century.[4] The main public wells were one at the north end of Digbeth, very near St. Martin’s churchyard believed to have been called Holy Well, and another near the old parsonage between Smallbrook Street and Bromsgrove Street, at Ladywell, [5] probably formerly dedicated to the Virgin Mary and fed by two springs. [6] Together they were said to be

‘…. ..so extensive and powerful, that it is stated to be sufficient for the supplying the city of London with water.’ [7]

In 1815 it was said that

‘… numerous people find their advantage in conveying that useful article [soft water] in carts, and innumerable others in carrying it with a yoke and two buckets, to those who want it, which they sell at the rate of from ten to twelve gallons for one penny, according to the distance.’ [8]

Fig 2. Conjectural maps A – 1344-45, Demidowicz,; B – 1553, Hill, [9]

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Genevieve Gwendoline Webb – a schoolgirl poet in the War Poetry Collection

Whilst researching local World War One poets whose works are held in the War Poetry Collection of the Library of Birmingham, one of my most unexpected discoveries was a slim volume entitled “Ten Short Poems”, written by Genevieve Gwendoline Webb. Female poets of World War One are far less well known than male ones, but what was particularly surprising about this booklet was that Genevieve had written these poems when she was a child. Her age, precisely recorded at the end of each poem in both years and months, ranges between 12 years 9 months and 14 years 9 months. Thus we can see that Genevieve was still a schoolgirl at the time the verses were written.

Using genealogical resources such as online local baptism records and the 1911 census, it is possible to establish that Genevieve Gwendoline Webb was born on 23rd July 1901. Her parents were Edward Joseph Webb, a sorting clerk at the Post Office and Annie Florence Webb. Interestingly Genevieve’s mother Annie was formerly Annie Le Brocq and she was born in St Helier, Jersey. Genevieve was baptised on 11th August 1901 at St Francis of Assisi Catholic church in Handsworth. The 1911 census shows Genevieve living with her parents at 17 George Street, Lozells. She had 4 siblings, Theresa Annie, Edward De Grunchy, Frances Helen and Josephine Mary. Her grandmother, Catherine Helen Webb, also appears on the census as living with the family.

The earlier verses in “Ten Short Poems” are written when Genevieve was 12 years old. War had not yet broken out, and Genevieve’s writing, whilst somewhat sombre in tone, reflects the usual concerns of a schoolchild with poetic leanings. In “The Lonely Willow” she celebrates the beauty of the natural world whilst at the same time recognising the cruelty that mankind can inflict upon it. In another poem “To a Favourite Teacher” she records her innocent attachment to one of her schoolmistresses and the sadness she feels at their approaching parting. This is because (and note her use of capital letters in the second line of the title!) her teacher is “ABOUT TO BE WED”. Nevertheless the poetess insists,

Though oceans part thee from mine eyes,
I’ll often think of you.

Continue reading

Disability and the Great War

Wounded soldiers wearing their ‘convalescent blues’ on Victory Celebration Day at the 1st Southern General military hospital, Edgbaston, c. 1918-9 [Ref MS 4616]

This November, to mark the centenary of the armistice, Voices of War and Peace and the Library of Birmingham collaborated to organise an exhibition showcasing work about the First World War that has been carried out by local community organisations since 2014. Two of the projects displayed in the exhibition researched and presented information about injured and disabled soldiers. In honour of Disability History Month, and as Research Assistant for Voices of War and Peace, it seems appropriate to write about what I have learned about disability and the Great War.

The scale of the First World War was unprecedented and unexpected, putting a massive strain not only those on the front line but also on the home front. The injured soldiers returning home created a huge demand for hospital services. In Birmingham, Rubery Hill War Hospital opened in 1915, and then a second war hospital, Hollymoor, opened shortly after. As the war progressed, these hospitals were not enough to keep up with the need for medical services in the area. Large private houses across the Birmingham area were donated, such as Highbury in Moseley, to become treatment centres. The University of Birmingham buildings were also adapted for the uses of war, becoming the 1st Southern General in September 1914. Aston Webb was appropriated as a hospital, as well as ten other buildings on campus, and tents were also erected on the grounds. You can see archival images of the University and Highbury as treatment centres in the exhibition. By 1919, 125,000 patients from across the globe had been treated in Birmingham. These facts and statistics really give a sense of how many lives must have been completely changed by the war.

VAD nursing staff with wounded soldiers in the Great Hall main ward (Aston Webb building) of 1st Southern General military hospital, Edgbaston c. 1914-8 [MS 4616]

By the end of the war, about forty-thousand men had lost their arms or legs, leaving them permanently disabled. Many of them could no longer do the jobs that they had before the war, and some had to completely re-learn how to live independently. Immediately after the war, the war hospitals helped the men recover from their injuries. After serving the war, and literally giving part of themselves to the effort, the returning soldiers expected their country to now look after them in their time of need. Although there were schemes like the ‘Kings National Roll’ (1919) that were implemented by the state, they were mostly unsuccessful. It was charity organisations that provided ‘sheltered’ employment that helped the soldiers rehabilitate themselves. An example of ‘sheltered’ employment would be Thermega, teaching men how to make electric blankets. Another example is training men to be prosthetic fitters at Roehampton. It was charity organisations providing these services that gave these disabled servicemen a second chance after the war.

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Christabel Pankhurst and Smethwick

Less than a fortnight after the Armistice of the Great War, a Bill was rushed through Parliament which allowed women to stand for election to Parliament on equal terms with men, ‘ironically allowing those women aged between twenty-one and thirty years to stand for a parliament they could not elect’.[1] The previous year, after disbanding the Women’s Social & Political Union, Emmeline Pankhurst and her eldest daughter Christabel formed the Women’s Party. This new organisation represented their political views which now conflated the winning of the war with the women’s cause. Emmeline explained that women needed a party of their own because ‘men had grown so accustomed to managing the world in the past that it had become rather difficult for women in politics to hold their own if they were associated with men’.[2] Emmeline declined the chance to run for election in favour of her daughter and eventually it was decided that Christabel would attempt to become Member of Parliament for the new industrial working-class constituency of Smethwick. While the views of Emmeline and Christabel had become increasingly jingoistic as the war progressed, and their political tendencies leaned far more towards the right than before, the Women’s Party also ‘advocated equal pay for equal work, equal marriage and divorce laws, equality of parental rights, the raising of the age of consent, equal opportunity of employment, and equality of rights and responsibilities in regard to the social and political service of the nation’.[3]

Election Results from the Birmingham Evening Despatch, 4th December 1918

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Charles Rennie Mackintosh

This blog is to remember the 90th anniversary of the death of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, who died 10 December 1928.

There’s a wonderful illustrated letter [1] in Archives & Collections in the Gaskin collection, MS 2945, from Joseph Southall about a visit he and Arthur Gaskin made to Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald in about 1905.

Dearies, [2] both of you

Tis so pleasant to get your letters in the morning & to hear that you feel better. Well I am having a busy time here but very interesting & of course it is flattering to hear that one is well thought of including you my dear — all this in fact we seem looked upon as one.

We went for a game this morning such pretty links I did not shine with borrowed clothes & club tho’ I put my man 5 down.

Well last night we went to call on the Mackintoshs. Now Mackintosh & his wife are the inventors of the Glasgow School. She that is Mrs Mac is a most charming young lady – I was quite gone. I assure you. I also think that you would like her. Let me see if I can draw you the room.

Letter illustrated with a drawing of two women either side of a fireplace [Ref MS 2945/1/2/79]

Mrs Mac (rather early 60s. beautiful hair)           Mrs Newby (aesthetic, intense)

The room is tones of white.

Two pipe racks in fender. Smoked and signed by more or less notable people. Your’s ‘umbly for instance.

Drawing of two men smoking pipes, in a room with stained glass and a chandelier [Ref MS 2945/1/2/79]

They are interested in your work & she is to my mind especially charming. He is rather stout and jovial but their art has such a queer mad look though they are both extremely able.

Ta ta lots of love to you both

[Joseph Southall]

This archive collection is a joy to look at, with many illustrations in Southall’s letters to Gaskin. Many of these illustrate Gaskin playing golf – obviously a hobby he enjoyed, and was teased about.

Continue reading

Creative responses to First World War archives: For King and Country

 

Our last in the series celebrating Explore Your Archives week again is a creative response from the Creative Writing workshop held in the Wolfson Centre in September. Written by Margaret Lyons, it is inspired by letters received from employees of W. Canning Materials Ltd. who were serving in the Forces during World War One (ref MS 2326/1/19).

 

 

Those pills came yesterday with a note from his mother.

“Dear Kathleen, please find enclosed”- (she’s very proper is Tom’s mother) – “Dear Kathleen, please find enclosed a month’s supply of the tablets I mentioned last week.  He’s to take two a day and I’m happy to send for more- if he finds them agreeable.  Mrs Dawson at church bought some for their Jack and she said he was like a new man after 2 months.”

I looked at the leaflet in the packet; “Out of Sorts? More dead than alive?  Cassell’s tablets for the nervous and wasted – can cure stomach troubles, loss of appetite, loss of flesh, trembling and nervous debilitation, restores strength and fitness.”

I’ve told his mother, it’ll take more than pills to sort Tom out, but she can’t see it, or doesn’t want to.  It makes me that mad; she comes over once a month, sits in the front parlour in her Sunday furs, sipping tea from our best china.  Tom wouldn’t sit down with us last week, made some excuse to keep busy.  She saw my face; “well he always was a restless boy Kathleen… a proper fidget… did I ever tell you about the time…” and she rattled on with some story.  Tom’s a story teller too, stories for his mother, stories for our friends, for the neighbours, about the food, the lice, the rats as big as kittens, how he and the lads used them as target practice.

The truth is, he won’t sit down with the china because he can’t trust his hands not to shake. You never know when it’ll start.  A sudden sound that catches him off guard, the whistle of a train, the hooter for knock off at the cotton mill, even the kids screaming, and they’re only playing…

What did she say to me at the door?  “We’ve got to give him time Kathleen, Tom’s done his duty for King and Country and now we must do right by him.”

We?  She doesn’t see him when he’s raging at the kids or the nights when the terrible dreams come, drenching our bed with his sweat, moaning into his pillow.  He’s only really at peace these days when he’s out the back, digging over the veg patch.

I watch him from the kitchen window but he never sees me.  Sometimes his spade hits the soil so hard, as if he’s giving it all the rage he can muster and then the tears come, for the misery of it all, and I’m glad of that.