Category Archives: Our Collections

Where we showcase material from our excellent collections.

Winter pastimes: The Ice Slide

The Ice Slide from A Picturesque Representation of the Manners, Customs and Amusements of the Russians, in one hundred coloured plates, with an accurate explanation of each plate in English and French in three volumes [AE 096/1803]

“Sliding down an artificial hill of ice is a favourite diversion of the Russians in the winter. Not a village or a hamlet is without them, particularly during the week of the Carnival. The ice hills at St. Petersburg are built upon a large scale. A scaffolding is made of balks about thirty-five feet high: a staircase of steps which leads to the top of it; on the parts opposite to the stairs, a slanting descent is managed, which forms an angle of about forty-five to fifty degrees with the surface of the ice. Two small doors lead to this descent: the ice is smoothed very carefully in a straight line about one hundred fathoms long and twenty feet wide. At the end of this sliding place another hill of the same size is built, from which the sliding place runs parallel again with the other. Guides are appointed at each hill, who sit upon small sledges of wood, about eighteen inches long, eight or ten inches broad, and a few inches high, with iron shoes or skates under them on each side. The person who wants to take a slide down the hill, sits upon the lap of the guide with his legs close together between those of the guide, who shoves himself forward with his hands to the brink of the precipice, from which he rushes down with great velocity to the end of the sliding place.”

This comes from ‘A Picturesque Representation of the Manners, Customs and Amusements of the Russians, in one hundred coloured plates, with an accurate explanation of each plate in English and French in three volumes’, by John Augustus Atkinson and James Walker. (London, 1803), part of our Early & Fine Printing Collection.

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Catalogues and curiosity

Paris quadrifolia. Illustration from Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885, Gera, Germany

There are many ways to explore Archives. Sometimes you set out with a destination in mind and a carefully planned research route. Sometimes that works well and the desired information is found; sometimes you meet with difficulties – missing records, indecipherable scripts, records too fragile or damaged to consult – so the route and destination have to change.

Then there are the ‘lucky dip’ explorations where you’re not quite sure what to expect! Here follow a few examples –

Using the Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham online catalogue, I tried some random words in the search box, just to see what appeared. In alphabetical order:

Campanile: 1 reference, to a will of Anna Brown of Campanile Cottage, Canonbury Road, London, 1872. [MS 857/11]

Duckling: 2 references to ‘Ugly Duckling’ in the John English Archive, a playscript and a theatre programme, 1958 [MS 2790/1/17/1 and MS 2790/2/2/14/1]

1 reference to ‘Duckling brand bedding brochure, 1948’ in Hoskins and Sewell records. [MS 1088/4/4/2]

Emerald: 2 references, both to jewellery of Mary Anne Boulton (Matthew Robinson Boulton’s wife), 1819 and 1826. The 1826 one was to ‘a gold serpent ring with emerald eyes’ [MS 3782/15/25/56]

Parrot: all references but one were to this as a surname. The one as a pet, owned by Fred Jordan of Shropshire, was in the Charles Parker Archive. [MS 4000/5/3/5/5/11]

Shell: 46 references, from spectacle frames to shell boilers in Boulton & Watt, chocolate shell eggs to ammunition shells, tortoise- shell and pearl shell – for buttons, boxes etc., and an advert for Babcock Power Ltd., Shell boiler division.

Whisky: 11 references appeared – all from the Charles Parker Archive [MS 4000]. Interesting to note the connection between whisky and folk song!

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Seals

The Conservation themed highlight for today is…seals!

Seals from the Elford Hall Collection. [MS 3878]

Seals were historically most often impressed in sealing wax (often simply described as “wax”). In the Middle Ages, this generally comprised a compound of about two-thirds beeswax to one-third of some type of resin, but in the post-medieval period the resin (and other ingredients) came to dominate. Typical damage you see to seals is bits that have broken off and are lost forever.

In the past, on some of our seals, beeswax has clearly been used to attach two broken pieces back together again. These days, practices have changed (not least because of the obvious risk of applying hot wax to wax seals!). Each piece of a broken seal would now be carefully packaged separately so as to protect it from further damage.

Letters Patent of Queen Elizabeth to John Bowes, knt., granting to him all rights pertaining to the office of Sheriff of co. Staff., to which he has been appointed. Great Seal. 25 November 1588. [Elford Hall 143]

Parchment

To continue the theme of Conservation for this year’s Explore Your Archive week, today’s blog is all about parchment and features some of our parchment documents.

The Guild Book of Knowle. An illuminated parchment manuscript dating from 1451 – 1541. [MS 3000]

Parchment is made from specially prepared, untanned skins of animals which are mostly sheep,  calves and goats. Vellum is a higher quality skin made from a young calf. Without scientific analysis, however, it is very difficult to determine what animal the membrane is from and how old it is.

To make parchment, the original animal pelt needs to be dehaired. The pelts are soaked in water for about a day to remove all blood and grime. It is then taken out and put into a dehairing bath to remove the hair. This usually lasts about 8 days but in winter this can last up to 2 weeks. The dehairing liquor was originally made of rotted, or fermented, vegetable matter but by the Middle Ages, this included lime. The pelt would be stirred with a wooden rod in a stone vat about 2 – 3 times a day.

Once it is removed from the dehairing solution, the skin is then soaked in clean water so the skin can be ‘worked’. The skin is then stretched on a frame, which would be as simple as a wooden frame with nails stretching the skin. This would be left open to the air so they could be scraped with a knife to remove the last bits of hair and get the skin to the right thickness. As the animal skin is made from collagen, this would form a natural glue whilst it was drying so the skin would keep its stretched form once removed from its frame.

To make the parchment more aesthetically pleasing or more suitable for the scribes, special treatments were used. One treatment included rubbing pumice powder into the flesh side of parchment while it was still wet on the frame was used to make it smooth and to modify the surface to enable inks to penetrate more deeply. Powders and pasted of calcium compounds were also used to help remove grease so the ink would not run. To make the parchment smooth and white, this pastes (starch grain) of lime, flour, egg whites and milk were rubbed into the skins. This is why parchment will have a rough and a smooth side.

Our oldest document in Archives Collections. [[DV 14d Outsize] 435324]

Unsurprisingly, the oldest document we hold in our archives is recorded on parchment. This is [DV 14d Outsize] 435324 – Agreement between Simon, Bishop of Worcester, and Waleran [de Beaumont], Earl of Worcester, settling various differences which had arisen between them. We believe the document dates from between 1139 and 1143, based on the names that appear in it, despite the date 1160 being recorded on the actual document!

Something a little macabre?

‘Records of the old families and meeting houses belonging to Birmingham Meeting’, compiled by Charles D. Sturge with drawings by William Moseley Baker
Finding no. SF/1038 (alt ref: BN 5K9)

When one of our archivists came across a curious description of a visit by Charles Dickenson Sturge to Monmouth Street (Bull Lane) graveyard, this just screamed Halloween at us! (You can find out more about the cemetery in our blog post The Old Meeting House)

In 1851 Charles Sturge observed…

I also saw a composition one Mary or Eliz, Whitehead the only one of this material legible [.] In the lowest of the three tiers of remains in the part of the graveyard only used before 1750 the skull of a young lady was found with the hair curled all round in a way that it was thought to have been curled after or just before death which in any case must have been sudden as it would have been cut off Tho’ from the position of the grave it must have been buried a century + a quarter the hair, except a little brittleness was just as if fresh cut.

A lock of hair was taken from the graveyard and attached to the page describing the visit to the cemetery.

Lock of hair found in the Burial Ground

 

Whatever activities await you this All Hallows’ Eve, do be careful in those graveyards in case the owner might come back to claim their hair….

If you dare, click here for some more scary graveyard characters you might encounter (but be warned, you do so at your own risk!).

New accession: Shades of Black Community Family Project

In September 2017 we were delighted to receive over 40 boxes of material in to the Library’s collections from the Shades of Black Community Project led by Mrs Eunice McGhie-Belgrave. This was to add to a smaller body of material already in the archive from Shades of Black.

Shades of Black began in February 1989 as a response to the Handsworth Riots when five local women met together to discuss what could be done to rebuild the community and take positive action. From this initial meeting to the present day, Shades of Black has carried out a range of successful projects at the grassroots level with the aim of bringing people together and helping community members develop new skills which in turn increases their self-esteem. The newly acquired material is a record of almost 30 years of dedicated community work.

One example of this is the H.E.L.P. Allotments project. Based in Handsworth and established in 1999. It enabled school pupils to get involved in gardening, donating some of their produce to the elderly to celebrate Harvest. The project gained coverage from BBC Gardener’s World and local radio stations as well as immersing many children in the pleasures of growing their own fruit and vegetables.

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O’Aargh me hearties!

Tuesday 19th September is officially Talk Like a Pirate Day!

Sadly as we have no actual pirates working in Archives & Collections that we can ask about pirating, we’ve done the next best thing and found some pirate themed treasures to give us some inspiration…

A History of the Lives and Exploits of the most remarkable Pirates, Highwaymen, Murderers, Street Robbers. 1742. [LS SA/2/39 224844]

The Life of Mary Read

Among our printed reference collection, we came across the perfect book to share with you  – A History of the Lives and Exploits of the most remarkable Pirates, Highwaymen, Murderers, Street Robbers etc. by Captain Charles Johnson, published in 1742. The volume contains biographies of many questionable characters, including Blackbeard himself! Also making the cut were women pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read, although as they didn’t command any ships, it seems being a female pirate was enough to warrant inclusion on the list of dastardly individuals.

Engine for H.M. Pluto. [MS 3147/5/1224]

Pirates were not just on the High Seas. We also found numerous references to pirates in the papers of Boulton & Watt, for trying to steal and pirate their patented engine technology! One of their engines was made for H. M. Navy and used for the defence against pirates. Two 50 horse power side lever boat engines were made for the Navy Steamer Pluto in the 1830s.  The engines were made in 1826 but not appropriated to the Pluto until 1830.  In March 1832, Pluto was about to proceed to the African coast, her first service.  According to the Catalogue of Old Engines she was armed with two long 18 pounder guns for the suppression of pirates on the Bahama Banks.  Pluto was broken up in 1861. Continue reading