Tag Archives: Council Records

Birmingham’s ‘temples of relief’

This blog piece is a companion piece of sorts to the blog post written by one of our regular researchers about the ‘public nuisance’, i.e. public urination, on her own blog “Notes from 19th Century Birmingham: An Occasional History of the Mundane” entitled “‘Indecent Usages’: the nuisance of peeing in public” and also, to a lesser extent, the piece by fellow archivist, Michael Hunkin, on the Civic Centre.

The provision of toilets for public use is a perennial issue, and something to which the council have offered different solutions at different times.  You will find much that has been written about the ‘temples of relief’, the highly decorative ornate Gothic iron work of pissoirs in Birmingham.  You can still find a number of these knocking around the city centre (train stations are a good place to look with ones at Jewellery Quarter, Allison Street (under Birmingham Moor Street) and Snow Hill station.  And these have their own interesting stories.

There are plenty of photos of these Victorian toilets to be found on the internet: the Birmingham Mail’s “See the lost loos of Birmingham” is a particularly good one.  I would have gone and taken some photos myself but I didn’t fancy having to explain to curious onlookers why I was taking photos of toilets…

But the public toilets of the period just after the Second World War receive much less coverage.  Which brings me, circuitously to the crux of this piece: when cataloguing a collection of architectural plans deposited at Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography by the Council’s Planning Department (accession number: 2008/027) I discovered two tubes of plans of different post WWII public conveniences around the city.  The whole accession contains fascinating plans (including a number of plans for Civic Restaurants and the plans relating to the Civic Centre that fellow archivist Mike wrote about in his blog piece) but I was most interested to find the plans of the public conveniences.  In brief the accession contained the following plans relating to public conveniences:

(2008/027) Tube 3:

  • Stratford Road Fox Hollies public conveniences, 1953, 2 plans
  • Bartley Green public conveniences, 1947 – 1963, 3 plans
  • Colmore Row public conveniences, 1948, 4 plans
  • Gostar Green public conveniences, 1955, 1 plan
  • Kitts Green Road public conveniences, 1950, 3 plans
  • Quinton Estates, Faraday Avenue public conveniences, 1 plan
  • Spies Lane public conveniences, 1948 – 1958, 3 plans

(2008/027) Tube 6:

  • Bournbrook conveniences, 1955, 2 plans
  • Bartley Green conveniences, 1959 – 1960, 4 plans
  • Kingstanding Road conveniences, 1951, 3 plans
  • Navigation Street conveniences, 1952, 2 plans
  • Sandpitts on the corner of Summerhill Terrace, 1 plan
  • Hunters Road, 1951, 3 plans

While looking through the plans, I was particularly taken by the public conveniences planned for Colmore Row in 1948:

2008-027 Tube 3 Colmore Row 1

Part of the plan showing front elevation, plan and sections of the Colmore Row public convenience (ref: 2008/027 tube 3)

Colour front elevation showing the convenience

Colour front elevation showing the Colmore Row convenience (ref: 2008/027 tube 3)

Another front elevation showing the proposed building materials (ref 2008/027 tube 3)

Another front elevation showing the proposed building materials (ref: 2008/027 tube 3)

Location of the conveniences on Colmore Row, which was on the site of blitz damage to the Great Western Arcade.

Location of the conveniences on Colmore Row, which was on the site of blitz damage to the Great Western Arcade (ref: 2008/027 tube 3)

Whilst looking at the plans, a few things struck me about this particular public convenience:

  • For the 1940s/1950s and the rise of modernism, it is quite ornate, in an art deco kind of way. The other public conveniences in this accession, though attractive in their own way, are much plainer
  • Similarly to the Victorian pissoirs, it caters only for men
  • It is labelled on the plans as ‘temporary’ – it certainly isn’t there now but it does seem a lot of work for a convenience that was only planned to be there for 3 years, as the minutes in the Public Works Committee suggested.

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Urban Renewal – Vision and Reality: The Birmingham Civic Centre Scheme 1926-1965

The following drawings form part of a large deposit of rolled plans of public buildings and urban planning schemes. They were transferred to our archives from the Birmingham City Council Urban Design Department in 2008.

BCC-Acc-2008-087-plan5

Image 1: View of equestrian statue & adjacent hall of marriages & same from Civic Court. Aerial view toward cathedral overlooking Civic Court City Hall & Museum group relating to existing plan for Civic Centre layout, Broad Street (Ref: BCC Additional Accession 2008/087 Tube roll 1)

This particular sheet shows amended versions of the layout of grounds and buildings of the proposed new Civic Centre at Centenary Square. The plans were created by a number of individuals, this one bearing the signature of Herbert Manzoni, City Engineer and Surveyor. He was to play a leading role in planning the redevelopment of Birmingham after 1945 following the devastation unleashed on the city during the Blitz. The drawings capture perfectly the utopian dreams and aspirations of the architects and city planners charged not simply with reconstruction but also rethinking how urban development should be planned and how urban spaces should be utilised, creating new cities from the ruins of the old.

The Civic Centre scheme had been in the pipeline since 1926, when the Council organised a competition to obtain the best plans. The competition received an international response from architects and planners, and several grand schemes were proposed, which were rejected by the General Purposes Committee on the grounds of being too ambitious for an English provincial city. The City Engineer was authorised to prepare a more modest scheme in partnership with James Swan, another competitor, and S.N. Cooke, who had designed the Hall of Memory.

Various new proposals and modifications were submitted to and discussed by the Council throughout the inter-war and post-war periods by architects and planners including Manzoni, John Madin, William Haywood, and Alwyn Sheppard-Fiddler, later City Architect for Birmingham. Progress of the scheme was interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939, though it was fully intended to continue with the project when hostilities ended, assuming Britain pulled through.

BCC-Acc-2008-087-plan7

Image 2: Aerial view of proposed traffic gyratory system & fly-over one way traffic bridge (Ref: BCC Additional Accession 2008/087 Tube roll 1)

In partnership with various Council committee and departmental officials, the architect William Haywood was requested to prepare a new scheme. He had already designed the Baskerville House complex of municipal offices, which opened in 1940 (visible on Image 2, top left, just to the north of the Hall of Memory). This comprised the first phase of a much larger Civic Centre area. A formal report was prepared by the General Purposes Committee to Council on 8 February 1944. Plans, together with a large scale model, were also submitted.

The report proposed a new Civic Centre Gardens, including a huge central square laid out as a parade ground, envisaged to accommodate large public meetings and civic events, built over an underground car park that could house 1200 cars. Additional new civic buildings were originally to be built in a large block on the north west corner of the gardens divided into three parts, comprising a 3000 capacity City Hall, two smaller halls (500-700 capacity), with the remaining sections to be used as a new central library, museum and art gallery. A Planetarium and Hall of Memory was also intended to be built by the Hall of Memory, including a circular lecture hall (600-700 capacity), and covered by a great dome. Externally, the Planetarium would be enclosed by a colonnade, upon which would be recorded, in accordance with more patriarchal attitudes still prevalent at the time, the names of the ‘great men’ of the city, and its history. The committee also proposed that the scheme would include a decorative column at the centre of the gardens intended to symbolise the traditional energy and dynamism of the city. Some of the proposed buildings are shown in Image 1, above, and Image 3, below, namely the Hall of Marriages, City Hall and Museum buildings.

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Employment of Disabled Ex-Servicemen

As a result of the effects of combat during the First World War, the lack of available employment for disabled ex-servicemen led to Henry Rothband (d. 1940) proposing, in 1917, a scheme named the King’s National Roll Scheme (KNRS), whereby, ‘every company in England and Wales with over ten employees (had) to ensure that no less than 5 per cent of their workforce comprised disabled ex-servicemen’.

The government was initially reluctant to implement the KNRS, but towards the end of 1918 they realized that employment problems were worsening, and a large number of disabled ex-servicemen were set to remain unemployed. This encouraged the state to establish the scheme in September 1919.  The scheme was voluntary, but employers were encouraged to take part by its advertisement as a way of honouring those who had served for their country. It became very successful, with around 89,000 men finding employment through it within a year and continued to be a success until 1944, when the compulsory Disabled Persons’ Employment Act took over.

Attempts to make the scheme compulsory, thus leading to greater employment of disabled ex-servicemen, were always overruled by the War Cabinet. It was, nevertheless, a beneficial way of encouraging employment and enabling disabled ex-servicemen to become more integrated into society.

Birmingham Corporation set up a Sub Committee of the General Purposes Committee  to consider  action on the employment of disabled ex- servicemen. At a meeting of the Sub Committee held on Friday 15 October 1920, consisting of the Rt. Hon. The Lord Mayor (Alderman W.A. Cadbury), Alderman Lloyd and Councillor Lancaster, a return from the General Purposes Committee was examined which showed the percentage of disabled men employed by the various Corporation departments in relation to the total number of male and female employees.

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Minutes of the General Purposes Committee, Special Sub-Committees. October 1920. [BCC/1/AG/38/1/7]

Where departments had a very low percentage, as in the Asylums, Markets and Fairs, and Health departments, the Mayor felt that they should be asked to engage a sufficient number of disabled men to bring the proportion up to the 5% minimum.

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