Category Archives: Our Collections

Where we showcase material from our excellent collections.

Birmingham boundaries

Birmingham GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

While watching the recent Tolkien biopic, I was confused by a scene in which a young Tolkien is distraught at being told by his mother that they are moving, from their home near Sarehole mill, “to Birmingham”. I later worked out that, while the mill is now in Birmingham, it didn’t become that way until roughly ten years after the scene in question, and would have been part of Yardley Rural District Council at the time.

Birmingham’s borders have expanded a great deal over the years. In the early 1800’s the boundary of the Town of Birmingham didn’t even reach as far as Deritend.

Map of the town and parish of Birmingham shewing the boundaries as perambulated by [the Commissioners of the Street Acts] in the year 1810. [Ref. MAP/14009]

After the 1832 Reform Act Birmingham became a parliamentary constituency, represented by two MPs. As well as the original town the new constituency included Edgbaston, Bordesley, Deritend, Duddeston and Nechells.

In 1891 Saltley, Harborne and Balsall Heath became part of Birmingham. They also became part of Warwickshire, Harborne having previously been part of Staffordshire, and Balsall Heath of Worcestershire. Quinton was added in 1909.

Map of the City of Birmingham, published by order of the Council. W.S. Till, city surveyor, 1892. [Ref. 114544]

The most dramatic expansion of Birmingham came in 1911 thanks to the ‘Greater Birmingham Scheme’. Yardley, Acocks Green, Hall Green, Sparkhill, Moseley, Kings Heath, Bournville, King’s Norton, Selly Oak, Northfield, Handsworth, Aston Manor, all became part of Birmingham (and of Warwickshire).

Map of Greater Birmingham. c.1911. [Ref. MAP/456336]

Perry Barr was ceded to Birmingham in 1928, and Sheldon and Shard End were added in 1931.

The final expansion came in 1974 when Sutton Coldfield joined Birmingham as part of the creation of the West Midlands.

Ward boundary revisions. 1973.

Geoff Burns, Archives & Collections Assistant


Lighting the Watt in the World Exhibition

From late 2018 I have been preparing objects from the archives to be displayed in the exhibition ‘Watt in the World’. This has involved many hours of assessing each object as to whether it would need conservation repair, deciding what temperature and relative humidity (RH) the objects should be displayed at and if the objects require framing. I also have to be mindful of the light levels the objects will be exposed to over the exhibition’s run of just over 3 months. Although lighting can create the atmosphere of the gallery space and highlight our archives, it can also cause irreversible damage to our objects by fading certain pigments, as well as causing a reduction in mechanical strength of the object itself. Light damage can also cause discolouration and darkening of objects too.

The amount of damage light can cause is determined by many factors such as the material the object is made from, the type of light used in the exhibition space, how bright the light is and how long the object is exposed to light for. Objects that feature in the exhibition that are particularly sensitive include papers which contain lignin, some historic pigments, dyes and iron gall ink. See Fig 1. Due to the historic importance of the objects relating to James Watt, I have to therefore work out how many hours these objects will be displayed for and what level the lights should be set at.

Fig 1. One of the objects that I have assessed for the exhibition is MS 3219/7/49/1. This object is a rag paper with iron gall ink

If these objects were to go on to permanent display they would suffer irreversible damage as light damage is cumulative. We therefore have a policy of archives only being on display for an average of 3 months at a time to limit the risk of light damage. To balance the preservation needs of the object as well as ensuring visitors to the exhibition can see the objects, the light levels in the gallery are set to 50 lux throughout the exhibition’s run. This is so we can reduce the level of light intensity that an object is exposed to. All lights are switched off when the gallery is closed and whilst this limits the amount of visible light objects are exposed to, we also save on energy too!

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Watt 2019: August

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.

The last sad tribute…..

In 1840, William Wordsworth told J.P Muirhead whose biography of James Watt was published in 1858:

I look upon him [Watt] considering both the magnitude and the universality of his genius, as perhaps the most extraordinary man this country ever produced; he never sought display, but was content to work in that quietness and humility, both of spirit and outward circumstances in which alone all that is truly great and good was ever done.

Muirhead (1858) p. 381

James Watt died peacefully at his home, Heathfield, in Handsworth, on 25 August 1819, aged 83.

During his last illness, Watt had been treated by Dr Richard Barr (who submitted his bill for the whole of 1819 in the following year, MS 3219/6/71). The remedies prescribed for August 1819 were: Draughts, Pills, Diluted sulphuric acid, Sal volatile, and Ether. In July there had been Colocynth pills, Antimonial wine, Sulphuric acid, and Caoutchouc in washed ether, had been prescribed.

Bill for medical attendance during 1819 [FN MS 3219/6/71]

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Contentious Cursing

As many of you may know, part of our job here in the archives is listing collections. This involves making a record of every item (or group of items) within a collection and making these records easily accessible. Often during this process surprising items appear. Whether it be a transcript of a 14th century confirmation of a writ from the 13th century, or a register that gives an insight into the lives of Birmingham people of the 18th century, there is always something interesting to discover.

I have been working on cataloguing Ecclesiastical parish records from the parishes around Birmingham, and whilst cataloguing the parish records of St Giles, Sheldon I came across an incredible document which is, I think, quite illuminating.

An Act more effectually to prevent profane cursing and swearing (1745). Reprinted 1795.
[EP 42/5/7/1]

It is a wonderful, unassuming booklet. It is a copy of the  ‘Act more effectually to prevent profane Cursing and Swearing’ and is dated to the Parliament held between 1st December 1741 and 17th October 1745.

Title page of the Act.

The document records that swearing is an ‘execrable vice’ and calls it ‘highly displeasing to God and loathsome to Christians’. It states that incidences are becoming more frequent and that unless effectively punished the vice and those indulging in it may ‘…justly provoke the Divine Vengeance to increase the many calamities these Nations now labour under.’

The Act states that from the 1st June 1746 those caught uttering profanities will be punished. If a person got caught a second time the fine would be doubled, if a third time trebled and so on. If you were caught swearing by a Justice of the Peace or a Bailiff or other such authority figure, however, you could be facing time in the stocks. The document goes into a lot of detail about how offenders should be reprimanded and held until such time as they can be brought before the relevant authority. It stressed the importance of the Oaths of at least one witness to the swearing event. There is even an example of the form to be used if someone has been convicted (notice the use of the regnal year of the King rather than the AD year).

Blank record of conviction for cursing.

This little booklet is interesting in itself, aside from the contents. The fact that the document was printed using the moveable type technique of individual moveable components (letters). The ink was applied to the letters and the ink transferred to the paper using the press. These letters, due to them being embossed, would leave shallow recesses in the paper. The letters appear in relief on the other side of the page. Which can be seen below:

Embossed relief of letters on the reverse.


What is also fascinating about this document is the year the act was passed, 1745. During this year the Jacobite rebellion was gaining ground, and in December of that year Jacobite forces reached Derby which caused alarm in London, and presumably the rest of the country too. So why in a year of rebellion and chaos did the British Government feel the need to pass an Act curbing language? Had the use of profanities reached an all-time high? Or with the chaos going on around them did the British government merely focus on things it could control?

These documents are interesting on their own, but together they highlight a changing world, with new technologies making information more easily accessible. But there is also a continuity – even in times of stress and ‘conquest’ or rebellion things carry on as normal, deeds need to be drawn up and acts need to be passed. These are amazing discoveries within a parish collection! If you would like to view these documents (or others) please email us on to make an appointment. Enjoy!

Helen Glenn
Senior Archives & Collections Assistant

Joseph Chamberlain  –  A Reflection in Postcards

Joseph Chamberlain, MS 4067 (2011/118)

For some time now I’ve been intrigued by the substantial collection of Joseph Chamberlain postcards  – portraits and cartoons we retain in the archive (MS 4067/ Acc 2011/118) which I first stumbled upon nearly twenty years ago when I was a callow youth of a library assistant in the Local Studies & History department in the Central Library. The collection has stayed with me ever since – nothing is known of the provenance of the postcards or who may have made the decision to assemble the postcards into a collection.

Joseph Chamberlain (8 July 1836  – 2 July 1914) is one of Birmingham’s most enigmatic historical figures  –  a man of many guises and epithets : Old Joe, the august champion of tertiary education and the soubriquet under which the Chamberlain Memorial Clock at Birmingham University is sentimentally referred to celebrating his position as the first chancellor at the university. This is in sharp contrast to the firebrand title of Radical Joe, the social reformer mayor and visionary striving to improve the living conditions of the labouring classes in Birmingham. He spearheaded large scale slum clearance of the town centre through the powers of the Improvement Scheme Act in the early 1870s which endeavoured to create a Parisian style boulevard running from New Street to Aston Road which was latterly named Corporation Street. And let’s not forget the Chamberlain Clock in the Jewellery Quarter which was erected by his constituents to commemorate Chamberlain’s visit to South Africa as Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1903. This is an often overlooked part of his political career.

MS 4067 (2011/118)

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The Russian Mint Volumes

As the bicentenary of James Watt’s death in August 2019 steadily approaches, you will have noticed the number of events devoted to the antics of the renowned 18th century engineer, and his business partner and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton. But an important part of understanding the dynamic duo is to move away from the two great men and look closer at the hidden histories of Soho, which my research with West Midlands History Ltd. has aimed to do in its exploration of the workers behind the Boulton & Watt Co. engine business. Now as a volunteer for the Library of Birmingham Wolfson Centre, I’ve had the chance to explore another underrepresented area in Matthew Boulton’s business endeavours – the establishment of a new Mint in St Petersburg, Russia.

While much has been written of the Soho Mint in Handsworth, England, less attention has been devoted to the creation of a new St Petersburg Mint in collaboration between Boulton and the Russian government. To celebrate the completion of the catalogue for the Russian Mint Volumes (available to view under these reference numbers: MS 3782/13/107, MS 3782/13/108 and MS 3782/13/109), I thought I would delve into what might be uncovered in this hidden part of the Matthew Boulton & Family Papers [MS 3782], and what research value it may hold.

The material is found within the Correspondence and Papers of Matthew Robinson Boulton [MS 3782/13], and divided into three distinct volumes: official correspondence; estimates, proposals, contracts, and legal documents; and the workmen’s correspondence, correspondence with Zaccheus Walker Jr., and miscellanies.

In 1773, Boulton joined forces with the silversmiths of Birmingham and Sheffield to petition Parliament for the establishment of Assay Offices in their respective cities, and just one month later an Act was passed for the right to assay silver. By 1775 Boulton was again able to successfully lobby for an Act to extend Watt’s steam engine patent until 1800. His sway over Parliament had not faded by 1799, when it was realised that an Act of Parliament would be necessary for the right to export the necessary materials to construct a new Mint in St Petersburg.

But the fight for an Act was not without opposition. A group of merchants and manufacturers who called themselves the ‘Birmingham Memorialists’ met repeatedly in The Shakespeare to discuss the actions of Boulton, eventually resolving unanimously that any agreement to the exportation of tools and machinery for the Russian Mint, would be ‘injurious to this place’ [MS 3782/13/108/86]. Despite a counter-petition signed by over 45 Birmingham manufacturers, the Act still passed on 12 July 1799, and an official address to the manufacturers of hardware was issued to dismiss their complaints [MS 3782/13/108/89b; MS 3782/13/108/127; MS 3782/13/108/79].

From left to right: An Act to enable Matthew Boulton, Engineer, to export the Machinery necessary for erecting a Mint in the Dominions of His Imperial Majesty, the Emporer of all the Russias, 12 July 1799 [MS 3782/13/108/80]; Copy of The Merchants of Birmingham Memorial to His Majesty’s Principal Secretaries of State, 20 June 1800 [MS 3782/13/108/89b].

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The Clive Davies Postcard Collection

New Street, Birmingham; c.1910. A hand painted postcard from an original black and white photograph [MS 2703/B/2/1]. The hand coloured treatment adds a unique style and character to the cards.

On the 1st October 1869, the first postcard was issued in Austria – a plain card with a printed two-kreuzer stamp on one side and a space for a message on the other –  one year later in 1870 they were issued in Britain.  In 1884, British Post Office regulations introduced the half penny postage rate – previously a standard rate of a penny for letters – initiating in a rapid use and circulation of postcards.

Alongside the new reduced cost, the chief appeal lay in the suitability for communication.  Mass produced, postcards were cheap and easy to acquire – and prior to the telephone, they remained the most popular way of communication.  Deliveries took place several times a day, making it possible to send a card and get a card with a reply the same day.

During the 1890s, postcards advanced to featuring a picture on one side, with a divided space on the other to fit an address and message.   By the turn of the century, picture postcards were embraced by the nation, becoming a welcome commodity in everyday life.

A series of postcards taken from the Cannon Hill Park album, [MS 2703/B/2/4]. Donated to the people of Birmingham by Louisa Ryland, the park opened on 1 September, 1873. One of the City’s premier parks, it boasts many facilities, and over the years has been host to a wide variety of events, as illustrated in these cards. Popular attractions of the time included an Avery, bandstand, and fields for sports. A more unusual feature was a giant boulder; also known as ‘The Moon Rock’ or ‘The Meteor’, it was found while excavating the lake and believed to have been deposited by a glacier that ran from the Arenig mountains in Wales 18,000 years ago.

The Clive Davies postcard collection [MS 2703] consists of over 8000 postcards, and provides an illustrated history of Birmingham and surrounding suburbs, and of the production history of post cards, through a series spanning from the late 19th century, through to the 1990s. Continue reading