Tag Archives: Christmas


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!


The Twelve Days of Christmas

We’ve run with this idea before using a few of our archival documents, but for the Twelve Days of Christmas this year, we bring you images from our Early and Fine Printing Collections.





On the first and second days of Christmas, we give to you partridges, minus any pear trees, and two turtle doves. These images are taken from Birds of Britain, Vol. IV, by John Gould. [598.2942 F 096/1873].

Gould published several series of works on birds, featuring species indigenous not just to Britain, but to places all across the globe. His expertise was intrinsic to the identification of ‘Darwin’s finches’, one of the sparks for Darwin’s Theory of Evolution [More information can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gould].

On the third, fourth, and fifth days of Christmas, we give you some hens (in French), a crow (a ‘calling’ bird, as far as I understand, comes from the word ‘colly’, and it meant blackbirds and perhaps birds that are black) plus some silver rings!


These images all come from a copy of Æsop’s Fables with His Life, which has the text in English, French and Latin [F 094/1687/6]. The volume was rebound in celebration of the move to The Library of Birmingham in 2013 and features the same pattern as the filigree on the outside of the building. More information about the binding can be discovered in this video.


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We Wish You a Merry Christmas!


Christmas design from the Tony Fisher collection. © Fisher Estate. [MS 4856 Acc 2016/053]

It’s been another busy year for the Iron Room blog. In 2016 we published 66 articles (this being number 67) and we have already begun planning for 2017! We would like to say thank you so much for your support and contributions – we really couldn’t (and wouldn’t want to) do it without you.

Archives and Collections at the Library of Birmingham has also been busy and amongst the new accessions taken in this year, the highlight, at least for me, has been the Tony Fisher archive (MS 4856).

Educated at the Moseley School of Arts & Crafts, Tony went on to become a print designer, a lecturer at the Bournville School of Art & Design and eventually Senior Graphic Designer at the BBC, Birmingham.


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A parcel for Christmas


Christmas letter sent by members of Moseley Road Men’s Early Morning School to absent class members at the front, December 1915 [MS 703 (2015/082) 247]

During the festive season, we often give a thought to those who are absent and it was no different in December 1915 when scholars of the Men’s Early Morning School and the Men’s Afternoon Bible Class at Moseley Road Friends’ Institute decided to send Christmas parcels to absent members who were contributing to the war effort in the armed forces or as munition workers.

In both the Early Morning School and the Afternoon Bible Class, several collections were made and a number of scholars who were to be awarded prizes for their class work, were asked to give these up in order that the money for the prizes could instead be allocated to providing a Christmas parcel to their fellow scholars at the front.

Barrow Cadbury,  President of the Early Morning School and Institute and teacher of Class XV of the Men’s Early Morning School, offered to contribute a small fellowship hymn book, a copy of the new edition of the adult school song book and a supply of chocolate for each parcel. Class XV decided to send cigarettes while other Early Morning School classes provided other useful items to be added to the parcels. In total, sixty-two parcels were sent to the front, and enclosed in each one was,

…a most unique greeting, consisting of a message from the school, followed by a reproduction of the signatures of practically all our regular attenders.

(Moseley Road Early Morning School minute book (MS 703 (2015/082) 247)

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Christmas at the Asylum


L0000640 The twelth night entertainment Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org The twelth night entertainment in Hanwell Lunatic Asylum. 1848 Illustrated London News Published: 1848 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

L0000640 The twelth night entertainment
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
The twelth night entertainment in Hanwell Lunatic Asylum.
1848 Illustrated London News
Published: 1848
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

One of the best parts of researching archives is discovering unusual accounts where they are least expected, and Christmas festivities are no exception. I recently came across this description of Christmas celebrations in All Saints Lunatic Asylum in the mid Victorian period, shortly after Dickens published ‘A Christmas Carol’ in 1843.

Birmingham Borough Lunatic Asylum, later known as Winson Green and All Saints Asylum, opened in June 1850. Within a year there were 263 occupants, and by 1870 this had grown to 599. Treatment at the Asylum in the mid nineteenth century was based on ‘moral management’, treating ‘lunatics’ humanely. The days of chaining lunatics were over. Occupation, work and recreation were important parts of treatment of patients, who were strictly segregated into male and female areas.

Patients enjoyed some entertainment from the opening of the asylum, including annual picnics. From 1851, some men and women were allowed to meet for music, singing and dancing, which Thomas Green, the medical superintendent, thought ‘really form a very interesting feature on the management of the institution’[1]. These were continued the following year;

‘The weekly concerts and ball have been kept up with the usual spirit, and these meetings have continued to form a valuable aid in the moral treatment. On Christmas Eve a party was given on a larger scale, and on this occasion, for the first time since the Asylum opened, the partitions of the hall were removed. It was tastefully decorated with flags, and festoons of shrubs interspersed with artificial flowers, whilst the walls were ornamented with a variety of fancy designs. Most of this was the work of Patients and executed in the short space of a fortnight. The ‘tout ensemble’ was striking, and displayed to great advantage the fine proportions of the noble room.

89 males and 106 females, more than three fourths of the whole number were present. To quote the language of a Patient who wrote a description of the entertainment, ‘nearly two hundred of God’s erring and deeply afflicted children, called lunatics, assembled clean, neat, quiet with at least a passing smile on their careworn and in some cases half conscious countenances; a decided cheerfulness, nay merriment on some, and on others an expression of pleasing astonishment’.

Tables being arranged all around the room they sat down to tea at 5 o’clock, and after tea, by way of grace, they rose in a body and sang ‘Praise God from whom all blessings flow’. The conjoint effort of so many voices, from persons under such circumstances, uniting with ‘one mind and one mouth’, to thank the great creator for his gifts was most interesting and impressive.

Oranges were distributed in the course of the evening and supper was served at 8 o’clock. Music, singing, dancing and some Xmas games were kept up with great spirit and enjoyment until nine, when all departed quietly to bed’[2].

Christmas entertainments continued throughout the 1860’s, and the community contributed to these.  In 1868 eighty five patients were invited to the Christmas Pantomime by Mr Simpson, the lessee of one of the theatres[3], and in 1869 Mr Miller, the father of a patient, exhibited Fantoccini, Italian string puppets like Punch and Judy, and ‘performed feats of conjuring and leger de main’, with ‘customary music, songs and dancing’[4].

Attitudes to patients in asylums were at their most benevolent in this period. Conditions deteriorated from the 1870’s as asylums became overcrowded and attitudes to people with learning disabilities hardened, but this account of the enjoyment of the early patients in the asylum at Christmas in the early 1850’s, in the early optimistic period, appears genuine and demonstrates that, at the beginning at least, having fun at Christmas was part of asylum life

Alison Laitner

[1] HC/AS, Medical Superintendents’ Reports, 14 January 1852.

[2] HC/AS, Medical Superintendents’ Reports, January 12th 1853.

[3] HC/AS, MS 344/2/2, Medical Superintendents’ Reports, 21 February 1868.

[4] HC/AS, MS 344/2/2, Medical Superintendents’ Reports, 27 December 1869.

Yo! Ho! Ho! Christmas Again! Oh! No It Isn’t!

Well I hope you can all see where this one is going…..

It’s Panto Season again and a really good opportunity to visit the Theatre Royal Prompt Book series we have here (MS 2899). The Theatre Royal was a venerable institution operating in New Street from 1774 to its final demolition in 1956. The special collection consists of play texts and prompt books dating from mid to late 19th century. The collection was formed by successive theatre managers and finally came to the library in 1935. There is a plethora of pantomime plays in the archive, some familiar, some not so.

Pantomime as a dramatic form dates back to classical theatre, well, doesn’t everything!

Oh, no it doesn’t! Oh, yes it does! …….. ermm, where was I?

The Greek word ‘panto’, meaning ‘all’ and ‘mimos’, meaning ‘imitator’ took on the meaning, first as a group who ‘ imitated all’ with song and music to eventually encompass the event itself. The Greeks and the Romans liked their pantos, lots of tragedy, comedy and sex, a bit like Eastenders if you cut out the comedy.

Pantomime as we know it today is a Christmas pudding mix of lots of different ingredients: the commedia dell’arte tradition from 16th century Italy, along with European and British traditions like 17th century masques, mummers plays from the English folk traditions of the Middle Ages, the giddy larks of the Lord of Misrule from the revels of Saturnalia up to the Tudor fancies of Twelve Days of Christmas when the natural order becomes reversed and, hence, the gender role reversal of ‘slappa my thigh, Dandini!’ becomes a tradition.

By the 19th century, the English traditional pantomime genre was based on European fairy tales and English literature and nursery rhymes, with a fast paced slapstick element of ‘Harlequinade’ thrown in for good measure. The ‘Harlequinade’ was the plot within the plot that featured the lovers, Harlequin and Columbine, chased by Pantaloon, the grumpy potential father –in –law.  No nodding off here please, you have to have your wits about you when watching the show! Continue reading

The 12 Days of Christmas

Hand-made paper soldiers

Hand-made cut-out soldiers from the Hutton Papers, c.1817 [MS 3597/106/15b]

Here is a little Christmas jollity from Birmingham Archives & Heritage to help us through the 12 Days of Christmas!

Please feel free to hum along as you view the offerings from the archives, so here we go, ‘On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me ….’

A Partridge in a Pear Tree
Valuation of fixtures, fruit trees, shrubs, kitchen garden and lawn at Holly Bank, Edgbaston, the site of the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, dated 1831. The 6 Standard Pears Trees are valued at 2d each. [MS 1520/34/3]

Kitchen Garden Inventory

Kitchen Garden Inventory, 1831 [MS 1520/34/3/2]

Two Turtle Doves
A note from Lucy Galton to her son John Howard Galton asking, ‘Do you know your old friend?’ with a cut out of the family pet tortoise (or Turtle?) dated c.1803. [MS 3101/C/D/10/6/151]

Sketch of a tortoise

Sketch of a tortoise, from the Galton Papers [MS3101/C/D/10/6/151]

Three French Hens
Definitely hens (maybe French) from a selection of Chocolate Box patterns from the firm of Cadbury Brothers Ltd of Bournville, dated c.1902.
[MS 466/785924]


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