Category Archives: Our Collections

Where we showcase material from our excellent collections.

Windrush Pioneers: learning more about the experiences of Caribbean migrants

One Of Henry Gunter’s publications on racial inequality ‘A Man’s A Man’ 1954 (ref MS 2165/1/3)

2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in Essex in 1948. The ship brought around 500 people from Jamaica and Trinidad to the UK. Many of the new arrivals were employed in state services such as the NHS and public transport filling post-war employment gaps. An article from the Birmingham Mail from the day that the Windrush landed is available to view online.

The Windrush has come to represent the beginning of greater numbers of people from the Caribbean moving and settling in the UK. This is an important part of the history of Birmingham and we see this legacy today in the make-up of the city.

In our archive collections at the Library of Birmingham we hold material which sheds light on the experiences of those newly arrived in the UK between the 1940s and 1970s. In this blogpost I will focus on two collections but there is more to be explored in the archives.

Campaigning against the colour bar

Henry Gunter was born in Jamaica but moved to the UK in 1950 which was only two years after the Empire Windrush arrived. Gunter, as a campaigner against racism and injustice, was at the forefront of issues black people making a new life in Birmingham were facing. Fortunately for us his writings were a key part of his campaigning activity, so these issues are documented in his archive (MS 2165).

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Queen Victoria opens Aston Park, 15 June 1858

Illustration from the Illustrated Times in ‘Scrapbook of Queen Victoria’s visit to Warwickshire’, [ref MS 3441]. Caption reads: Arrival of Her Majesty at Aston Hall

Queen Victoria’s visit to Warwickshire in 1858 brought her to Birmingham to open Aston Hall and Park to the public.

The Hall had been the residence of James Watt jr. until his death in 1848. Afterwards it seemed under threat of encroachment by the town and there was a feeling that the Hall and Park should be ‘saved’. Birmingham town council had no funds to enable this, so a scheme was suggested by William Henry Reece, a solicitor, that the hall and park should be purchased by the people of Birmingham and area, by means of small shares, as a recreation ground for the public. The scheme was launched in 1857. The owners offered to sell hall and the 42 acres of land for £35,000; a prospectus was issued, and a company formed for raising the money by issuing 40,000 shares at a guinea each. At a public meeting presided over by George Dawson, a committee was appointed to aid the scheme, later joined by members from the town council, and a deposit of £3,500 was paid, the purchase to be completed by April 1860. The campaign was successful, and with some larger donations from richer citizens of Birmingham to assist, the purchase of hall and park was completed. Continue reading

The Birmingham Civic Society celebrates its 100th birthday today, 10 June 2018!

‘A Picture Map of the Park of Sutton Coldfield in the County of Warwick’ by Bernard Sleigh in Work of the Birmingham Civic Society from June 1918 – June 1946, by William Haywood, pp. 45-6 [Ref L20.053]

For 100 years, the members of Birmingham Civic Society have worked as volunteers to make Birmingham a better place for everyone, engaging with communities and schools to promote pride in the city.

The Society was started in 1918 with the aim of improving the appearance of the city, acting as an advisory body to the city council on issues of town planning and heritage.

From the beginning, it raised funds to buy land to create or add to parks and gardens in the city, to provide open spaces for recreation for all. The first was Daffodil Park in Northfield. The Society also published beautifully illustrated guides to, for example, the Lickey Hills and Sutton Park.

In 1923 and again in 1934, it helped to save the Birmingham Repertory Theatre from closure, by campaigns to boost audiences, and then by setting up the Barry Jackson Trust to preserve the theatre for the citizens of Birmingham.

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Board of Ordnance, Gun Barrel Proof House, The Tower, Bagot Street, Birmingham

Sandstone block which was part of a wall that once marked the extremity of the Tower site. Author’s image.

For most of the 18th century, muskets ordered from Birmingham contractors by the Ordnance Board were either proof tested to the Tower standard, within the grounds of the gun maker by an Ordnance Board inspector, or taken to London to be proved.1

In 1755, Board of Ordnance viewers were stationed at Birmingham to gauge and view barrels made by contractors for the Ordnance. Those that passed the test were then sent to London for proof. In 1777, with the increase in demand caused by the American War of Independence, the Ordnance in Birmingham established a warehouse to try to ease the selection process, but this caused the Ordnance viewers to become even more discriminating, which made the process even slower. Those barrels that passed selection faced a nine-day journey to London by road and canal and the contractor had to bear the cost of transportation as well as the expense of any rejected barrels.4

Soon after the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars this system was deemed unacceptable as more efficient and less time consuming processing methods were needed.

In 1796 the Board of Ordnance decided that the only way to overcome the situation was to build a proof house at Birmingham.4 The Government purchased land between the Birmingham-Fazeley canal, Walmer Lane (later Newtown Row) and Bagot Street, Birmingham. 2 A state-owned proofing establishment was erected on the site, with the main entrance in Bagot Street.4

While the Ordnance proof house was being built, an agreement was made with the gunmakers Galton, Ketland and Walker, Whately, Grice and Blair for their barrels to be proved at their own proof houses by the Ordnance viewers. 4

The Bagot Street Ordnance proof house opened in 1798 for the purpose of viewing and stamping all new government arms with a ‘Tower’ mark.5

The first Bagot Street proving house, ‘the explosions of which were very terrific to strangers’, 3 was replaced in 1808 by a larger one on the same plot but ‘at a greater distance from the view rooms’. A new View Room was built in 1811.4

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An Accident Waiting to Happen? The Whittall Street Explosion of 1859

Memorial Card to the victims of the Whittal Street Explosion, 1859 [Ephemera Collection LE/Cards/1]

Come and hear Liz Palmer share the account of the explosion at the Percussion Cap Manufactory, which tragically which took the lives of eighteen young women and one young man.

Birmingham has long been associated with the gun trade, with the gun quarter being focused on the area on the Weaman Estate around Whittall Street. Innovations in the industry in the early mid-19th Century saw the establishment of several percussion cap manufactories as percussion cap weapons replaced flintlocks. The manufactories employed mainly girls and young women whose nimble fingers were suited to the many processes involved in the production of these tiny items.  But the work was extremely dangerous involving several explosive substances including fulminating mercury. Explosions involving loss of life were not uncommon; one of the worst of these was in 1859 at the Pursall & Phillips  Manufactory on Whittall Street itself which resulted in the death of 20 young people – all but one of them female.

From the starting point of an intricate Victorian Memorial card to the victims, most of whom were interred at St Mary Whittall Street, Liz Palmer has used material in Archives, Heritage and Collections together with contemporary newspaper coverage to uncover the events surrounding the catastrophe, the lives of many of the individuals involved and to examine whether this really was ‘an accident waiting to happen’.

This free talk will take place on 19th May 2018, 2pm – 3pm in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Floor 4, Library of Birmingham.

Spaces are limited to 20 people. To make a reservation, please contact FOBAH by emailing fobah@outlook.com.

 

 

 

 

Aston Hall is 400 years old!

Aston Hall, published by T. Simpson and Darling & Thompson in 1798 [Ref. MS 3219/9/5/2/35]

An inscription above the main doorway of the Hall records that it was started in 1618, occupied in 1631 and completed in 1635, Aston Hall was built by Sir Thomas Holte (1571-1654), whose family owned large estates in the parish of Aston and elsewhere, but particularly the three manors of Aston, Duddeston and Nechells.

Thomas Holte was wealthy and well connected. He studied at Oxford and the Inns of Court and paid James I for a Baronetcy in 1611. The family remained Royalists, which proved expensive of both life and property during the Civil War. In a volume of documents relating to Aston Hall and its owners, an anonymous description states that ‘The Ancient deeds and writings of the family being destroyed when Aston House was plundered in the time of the Rebellion in 1641…’ [MS 3152/2 (259648)]

This may explain why there seems to be no real record of building the house surviving in Archives and Collections. There are, however, many other documents, especially title deeds and rentals relating to the Holtes. There is fascinating schedule of household goods and furnishings dating from 1654, part of a counterpart lease for 80 years from Dame Anne Holte, widow of Sir Thomas Holte, to Sir Robert Holte of Aston (her step-grandson), of the Advowson of Aston Parish Church, Aston Hall and Park and all other property of Dame Anne in Aston and Handsworth.

Schedule of household goods and furniture at Aston Hall, 1654 [Ref MS 21/2/2/7, Holte 17]

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Library of Birmingham’s Black History Collection

During the existence of Birmingham Libraries, the Library of Birmingham has, over the years amassed a large collection of books which has been given the designation of the Black History collection. As the name suggests this collection does indeed contain material relating to black history but it also includes other topics including Asian History, Culture, Arts, the Black and Asian experience in the UK, and other diverse topics such as the climate and topography of the Indian sub-continent. The collection currently contains over 9000 books.  The Black History collection has grown from previous collections held within past departments of the library including Central Lending, Information Services and Archives and Heritage, with the library continually adding material to the collection. The collection is currently housed within the Archives and Collections Department of the Library of Birmingham.

This collection covers diverse subject areas including the history of Black footballers, for example Colouring Over the White Line by Phil Vasili [796.33408900] and Pitch Black by Emy Onuora [A796.334089];

Colouring Over the White Line by Phil Vasili [796.33408900] and Pitch Black by Emy Onuora [A796.334089]

and the history of well-known Asian politicians such as Nehru and Ghandi.

India from Curzon to Nehru by Durga Das [964.035 DAS], and an extract showing Ghandi with Lord and Lady Mountbatten

The collection includes Gazetteers, articles on the religions and customs of indigenous peoples and geographical descriptions and illustrations from numerous countries such as Africa, the Caribbean, India and the Indian Sub-continent, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal etc. For example, this illustration from the book Tunis it’s land and people by Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg from 1882 [961.109] shows the harbour of Tunis.

Tunis it’s land and people by Ernst von Hesse-Wartegg from 1882 [961.109] showing Tunis harbour

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