Category Archives: Our Collections

Where we showcase material from our excellent collections.

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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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

Greetings!

In Archives & Collections we hold several volumes of Victorian postcards. Some of the volumes are scrapbooks and include examples of Valentines and Easter greetings, plus general cuttings from printed material and magazines. A few of the volumes are dedicated to Christmas and New Year cards alone.

[Ref. A 741.68/674516]

The cards shown here come from a volume of mainly Christmas and New Year cards collected by a Gertrude Tomkinson. The album they’re housed in was a gift to her from her parents in August 1883. Inside she assembled the cards she received over the next few years. Gertrude recorded who they were from, and seems to have given a lot of thought as to how to arrange them as they are often grouped either by card series or by subject. This series here show a comical conductor:

[Ref. A 741.68/674516]

There are many cards in the volume which open in pretty and unusual ways.

[Ref. A 741.68/674516]

There are some which are in pretty shapes featuring the unusual.

[Ref. A 741.68/674516]

And then a few which are just unusual. (There’s not a Father Christmas in sight!)

[Ref. A 741.68/674516]

For more digitised cards, see here:

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Archives & Collections!

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

The Southern Cross – The Journal of the 1st Southern General Hospital R.A.M.C.T. Birmingham

The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham is now well-known as the home of the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine providing specialist care for wounded members of the armed forces. The treatment of war casualties in Birmingham has a long history dating back to the First World War when wounded servicemen from all over the world were treated here.

One of the largest war hospitals in the city, and the first to open, was the First Southern General Hospital which was housed in the buildings of the University of Birmingham in Edgbaston. Following the declaration of war on 4 August 1914, the Royal Army Medical Corps Territorial Unit received orders to mobilise and the following day beds and mattresses began to arrive at the University buildings. The first convoy of 120 sick and wounded men arrived on 1 September, and by the end of 1914 the First Southern General had 800 beds and had received 3,892 patients.

First cover of The Southern Cross, Issue No. 1. January 1916. [Ref. MS 2046 (1985/093)]

The Southern Cross was a monthly journal produced by patients of the hospital, with the first edition being published in 1916.  Through written articles, illustrations and anecdotal jokes, the journal proved to be a reflection of the day to day life in the hospital and to act as a ‘reference in years to come when it is wished to refresh memories – pleasant but possibly not untinged with sadness – of what the reader or his friends did for their country in the greatest war the world has ever seen’ (MS 2046 (1985/093)).

Caricature ‘Till the Boys Come Home’ from The Southern Cross, Issue No. 8 p. 173. [Ref. MS 2046 (1985/0930)]

Continue reading

Coughs and Colds

As it draws towards the season of the perpetual runny nose, here are some remedies from our Early & Fine Printing and Archives collections.

The New Family Herbal, by William Meyrick, 1790, is set out alphabetically by plant, provides visual description, and details their medical usage and preparation. There is also an index at the back by complaint, and closing the volume are some beautiful illustrations of a number of the plants covered.

The index page beginning with ‘C’, lists catarrhs, colds, and coughs. Highlighting the desire for remedies are the number of plants listed as useful treatments.

Index, The New Family Herbal [EFP 07.2 PEA]

Some of the suggestions are familiar, such as lemon and acacia. Looking to one of the first listed alphabetically, on page 7, for a cold I found the delightfully named ‘alehoof’ (it was used to flavour beer).

Entry for ‘alehoof’ in The New Family Herbal [EFP 07.2 PEA]

The page over suggests:

A conserve made of the young tops in the spring, or the juice made into a syrup, is excellent for colds, coughs, and shortness of breath : and a strong infusion drank in the manner of tea, is serviceable in all complaints of the breast and lungs.

Alehoof seems a good all-rounder then!

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.