World War One affected everyone living in Birmingham whether at home or serving on the front line. Our new exhibition Voices of War looks at the impact the war had on the lives of people from all walks of life, age and background.
Birmingham in the early twentieth century was a booming industrial centre. It attracted people from many countries for the opportunities for work. Birmingham had a small but significant Black community which we can see glimpses of in the archives. We know that in there were groups of African American entertainers who would regularly tour the UK. Some entertainers made their permanent home in Birmingham where there were plenty of employment opportunities available.
Gaiety Theatre playbill for Monday 28th August 1916
More details about the black community can be frustratingly hard to discover however. Can you help us add any more information about lives of black people in Birmingham in the early twentieth century or before?
Frederick Johnson of the Small Heath Home Defence Corps, 1917
Men such as Frederick Johnson of Small Heath would be expected to “do their bit”. Frederick Johnson served in the Small Heath Home Defence Corps who would be the first line of defence in the event of a German invasion. Unfortunately we do not know anything else about Frederick other than his name and two photographs of him as part of the Corps.
The First World War brought about great changes in the lives of many women who lived in Birmingham. opportunities to for paid and voluntary employment opened up as many of the jobs previously held by men were taken on by women. The workforce of the industrial giants mushroomed: BSA employed around 3,000 workers in 1914 and by 1918 they had 13,000 on the books. The Austin works at Longbridge employed 2,000 at the outset of the war which went up to an astonishing 20,000 by 1918. Kynoch, another well-known Birmingham firm, also employed a large workforce – many of whom were women – to feed the demand for armaments.
Birmingham Win The War Day 1918
This image shows a black woman on a Kynoch carnival float taking part in victory celebrations. Perhaps she was one of the many women who did their bit making munitions for the soldiers at the front.
Birmingham Weekly Mercury 31st October 1914
The contribution of troops from all parts of the Empire was recognised by everyone and reported in the local press. Over a million Indian troops were involved in the First World War effort – many giving their lives for a country that was not their own.
Birmingham Weekly Mercury 23rd October 1915
The press often relied on stereotypes in their reporting of these contributions.
Children too were a key part of the war effort. Every child would probably know a family member or teacher who went to fight. Schools were at the forefront of campaigns to raise funds for the war effort and children were actively encouraged to think about how they could play their part.
This class at Nelson Street School in Ladywood, pictured here in 1913, would have been expected to play a part in raising funds.
Brick League Album, Nelson Street School (MS 2219/2)
These little girls, including the girl on the second to back row who was part of Birmingham’s small but growing black community, would have helped raise money and knit “comforts” (socks, scarves, balaclavas etc) for men at the front.
The Voices of War exhibition looks at a whole variety of experiences of Birmingham’s people in World War One – why not come to the Library of Birmingham Gallery to explore more. The exhibition runs until the end of December 2014.
Rachel MacGregor, Collections Curator