Tag Archives: Explore Your Archives

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.


We are five years old!!!


By chance, we recently found an album of images of the old Reference Library including images of the Iron Room, the inspiration for our name.

On Monday, 24th October, The Iron Room turns 5 years old!!!

Our very first blog post on the Pageant of Birmingham was published on 24th October 2011 and to this day is still holding steady as the 4th most looked at post!


Image from the gallery of the Iron Room [L53.31 Photographs: Central Public and Commercial Libraries in Birmingham}


To celebrate our 200th blog, 200 and Counting! back in December 2014, we had a look back at some of our favourite articles and the weird and wonderful items that we found in our collections and wanted to share with you.

The Iron Room is celebrating Our Libraries week so we are posting this a little early but we thought you might be interested in a few statistics from a wonderful 5 years…


  • Number of posts: 316
  • Top blog post: Birmingham Burial Records with 2610 views
  • Number of comments: 334
  • Most active day for comments: 26th September 2013
  • Best views ever in a day: 643 on 31st December 2012
  • Number of visitors: 42,000

We are still going strong with a jam-packed line up of articles to see out the year, not forgetting our 2016 Explore Your Archives campaign which we are launching with an exhibition on Saturday 19th November, and would love you to get involved with!

Thank you for supporting our blog and we hope that you continue to share in our love of our collections and the history of the amazing City of Birmingham.

From all the team behind the Iron Room.

My favourite thing in Archives & Collections

Blue Revealed

As Project Archivist for the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers project, one set of records I’ve come across, originally deposited in 1959, is fast becoming one of my favourites because they are so delightfully written and illustrated, and give us a more personal view of the lives of some of Birmingham’s 19th century Quakers. These are the 16 volumes of essays of the Friends Essay Society. 

Sorting the Christmas essays, 1877

Sorting the Christmas essays, 1877, Friends Essay Society (LF18.6)

The Friends Essay Society was a group of members of the Religious Society of Friends who met at each other’s houses one evening a month to read out essays which they had previously written anonymously, either on a subject given to them, or more often, on a subject of their own choice. The evening started with tea, and after each member had read aloud someone else’s essay, they had supper.

LF 18.6 Friends Essay Society members 1852

Friends Essay Society members, 1852-3 (LF18.6)

The idea for the meeting came from Agatha Pearson, who suggested it to Arthur Albright in 1845 and the first meeting was held in the same year. Members came from the Lloyd, Barrow, Sturge, Glaisyer, Impey, Cudworth, Albright, Cadbury, and Southall families, among others. Agatha Pearson was the first secretary.

Grandmamma's essay meeting alphabet, showing some of the Essay Society's activities. B refers to the ballot box and C refers to the case used to carry the essays to the meetings

Grandmamma’s essay meeting alphabet, showing some of the Essay Society’s activities. ‘B’ refers to the ballot box and ‘C’ refers to the case used to carry the essays to the meetings (LF18.6)

The rules of the Society, drawn up by Arthur Albright, stipulated that 6 meetings were to be held during the winter each year, and members had to contribute one essay each session. Essays could be of an artistic or literary nature. Prior to 1852, any guests could be invited to the Society’s meeting on the condition that they contributed an essay which became the property of the Society. From 1852, the Society was re-organised and membership was by ballot.  In the early days of the Society’s meetings, men sat on one side of the room, and women on the other but this practice was later dropped. From 1872, a fine was charged to those who did not contribute an essay.


Title page of the Log of the Seagull, 1858 (LF18.6)

The Society met until 1905 and the mainly unsigned essays contributed by members from 1845 – 1905 provide an insight into the interests, opinions, creativity and humour of its members. The topics of the essays are diverse and include religion, history, architecture, language, literature, education, children, politics, housing, slavery, genealogy, fashion, gardening, accounts of holidays in the UK and abroad, boating, mountaineering, poetry, reminiscences about the Society of Friends, happiness, discontent, conversation, art, marriage, the pursuit of wealth and so on.  A number of entries are humorous in tone and many include beautiful sketches and photographs.


Log of the Seagull, 1858 (LF 18.6)

The most beautiful of the ‘essays’  has to be the ‘Log of the Seagull’ which is a charmingly written and illustrated account of a two week camping and boating trip undertaken by a group of young Friends in July 1858. Their itinerary was as follows:

July 12th-14th 1858 – Stratford upon Avon via the Avon, the Severn and the Berkley Canal

July 15th-21st 1858 – The river Wye

The crew of the Seagull at Symonds Yat (LF18.6)

The Seagull on the River Wye at Symonds Yat, 1858 (LF18.6)

July 21-22 1858 – By road: Hay, Builth, Llandrindod to Newtown (Powys) on Severn

July 23-27th 1858 – Down the river Severn from Newtown (Powys) via Welshpool to Shrewsbury, Ironbridge and Bewdley

Log of the Seagull (LF 18.6)

Log of the Seagull, 1858 (LF 18.6)

The ‘skipper’ was Wilson Sturge (1834-1899) and for varying amounts of time his crew was made up of John W. Shorthouse, Richard Cadbury (1835 – 1899), Joel Cadbury, Joseph W. Lloyd, Joseph A. Ellis, Wilson Lloyd (1835-1908), Edmund Shorthouse, Thomas Gibbins, and George J. Blakey. Wilson Sturge was the author of ‘The Log of the Seagull’ and it was illustrated by Richard Cadbury, Wilson Sturge, J. W. Shorthouse, H. J. Newman and J. Price.

Eleanor, Project Archivist (Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)

My favourite things in Archives & Collections, Jim Ranahan

Blue Connected

The theme that has (very) loosely guided our Explore Your Archive campaign this year has been to celebrate our favourite things in our wonderful collections. You would think it would have been a difficult task given how many documents we hold, but for Jim it was really easy to choose..!

Photographs of St. Patrick's Parade 2014. (C) James Ranahan. [MS 4672 ]

Photographs of St. Patrick’s Parade 2014. (C) James Ranahan.
[MS 4672 ]

“This photograph sat on the corner of my desk and has lifted my spirits for 18 months, every time I have glanced up. Its’ appeal for me is three-fold:

  • Uplifting – It reminds me of a very happy day, when otherwise responsible people don funny costumes and celebrate their Irish heritage in their own way, in their home city.
  • Reminiscence – The tractor is similar to my uncle’s tractor, which as a ten year old in rural Ireland I was able to steer across the fields, under his close but relaxed supervision.
  • Professional – this print reminds me of the importance of reaching out to all communities and ensuring that their individual and collective voices are represented in the archive.

Tramways Committee Minute Book. 1951 - 1952 [BCC/1/BE/1/1/25]

Tramways Committee Minute Book. 1951 – 1952

This is my other choice for three reasons – all related to my personal sense of identity: Continue reading

They came, they saw, we think they liked it!

Our pop-up exhibition was a great success! Having never attempted anything like this before, we were a little uncertain as to how it would go – whether we had enough items on display, whether it would be interesting enough, and whether anyone would come!

Visitor's to the Wolfson Centre for the Explore Your Archive Pop-Up Exhibition

Visitors to the Wolfson Centre for the Explore Your Archive Pop-Up Exhibition

We needn’t have worried. We had a fantastic turnout of people and some really lovely comments, here are just some of them:

Very much appreciated by ‘tentative’ researchers. Going to a “new” Archive can be quite scary. Thank you!

Great to see the Archive being “re-born”, such an important part of Birmingham’s Heritage. Good to see today’s display.

Interesting display. Very informative providing ideas for further research. Many thanks.

Elijah and transcripts of the Mendelssohn letters on display at the exhibition

Elijah and transcripts of the Mendelssohn letters on display at the exhibition

Continue reading

My favourite thing in Archives & Collections, Corinna Rayner

Poppy Red Remembered

There are so many things in the Archives & Collections at the Library of Birmingham that could be my “My favourite thing” that it was incredibly difficult to choose something. The collections are so varied, span such a length of time, touch on so many aspects of Birmingham’s history, culture, communities, events, and experiences, but, eventually I settled on the first collection I ever catalogued as a newly qualified archivist in my first professional job, which was here in Birmingham.

Collection of letters written by Private Smith letters [MS 2326/1/19]

Collection of letters written by Private Smith
[MS 2326/1/19]

I have chosen a set of letters written to Canning & Co. by Private R. Smith of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment (MS 2326/1/19).

In the 15 years since cataloguing the letters, I have never forgotten the reference number for the collection, I have remembered the names of the soldiers who wrote back to their employers describing so vividly their day-to-day lives and experiences on the frontline, their hopes, concerns, humours, and losses. I remember details with such clarity, because of the way they wrote. So many images from the letters play across my memory whenever WWI is mentioned, from lighting flashing off of bayonets to rats the size of kittens.

An extract from my favourite letter of all however, is transcribed here, and I think it speaks for itself as to why I chose it:

Continue reading

Our favourite things in Archives & Collections, Dawn Beaumont & David Potts

Orange Explored

Dawn and I decided to do a joint blog post, because we wanted to showcase all our collections – archives, local history printed collections, special collections, and photographic collections. We’re proud of our collections and believe they are relevant to so many people and appeal on many levels.

Dawn Beaumont and David Potts exploring their favourite things.

Dawn Beaumont and David Potts exploring their favourite things.

I’ve chosen a theme rather than a collection, ‘Football in the Archives’, because I am interested in how you can research a very specific subject in the Archives, but in so doing need to look at different (and unexpected) types of collections to get a fuller picture. Also, I really like football… I needed no excuse to go rooting around…

So I have chosen photographs, printed programmes, a scrap book from a hospital collection! I particularly like the photographs in the Warwickshire Photographic Survey Collection (MS 2474), in which there are various photos of the ground at Villa Park, the crowds, and the players. In them I can see the landmarks that I still pass when I go to the ground on match day (the gas towers, the church) and I remember standing at the Witton End when it was uncovered (as in many of the photos) although I didn’t attend my first game until around 1974, and, the photo was taken in 1952 (exactly thirty years before Villa won the European Cup in 1982!). There is also a great picture of the Birmingham City football team from 1931 when they were FA Cup finalists, plus programmes and news cuttings relating to various local teams, both professional and amateur. I really enjoyed looking at some of Birmingham & District Works Amateur Football Association match reports (MS 2658/3/3), particularly the report for the match played at the Latch & Bachelor ground at Hay Mills on the 14th December 1946 against Halesowen A&L, and which ended 15-1 to Birmingham & District Works… about which the report reads “Apart from just 20 mins when the Visitors showed speed & cleverness the Works side were as superior as the score suggest.”

Volume of miscellaneous papers and press cuttings relating to the establishment and immediate history of the Birmingham Children's Hospital, compiled by C. E. Matthews. [HC BCH/6/2/1 p250]

Volume of miscellaneous papers and press cuttings relating to the establishment and immediate history of the Birmingham Children’s Hospital, compiled by C. E. Matthews.
[HC BCH/6/2/1 p250]

The last collection I expected to find any information about football in was in one of the hospital collections… but I did, in the Children’s Hospital Archive, and in a ‘Volume of miscellaneous papers and press cuttings relating to the establishment and immediate history of the Birmingham Children’s Hospital, compiled by C. E. Matthews, Honorary Secretary 1862 – 1898’ no less! As you can see, on March the 10th 1890, the Villa first eleven played against “18 theatrical and equestrian gentlemen (in costume)”. Kick off was at 3pm, and the proceeds were going to the Queen’s and Children’s Hospitals. The team that made up the opposition included: a stout school boy, a policeman, a clown, and various military types amongst many others!

David Potts
Head of Library Resources


I have chosen one of the Special Collections as my favourite – The ‘Parker collection of games’, and it was very difficult to decide on which game to choose… so, like David, I chose several things! You can read more about the collection here: http://www.libraryofbirmingham.com/parkercollection

I chose this collection as a whole because it contains educational games, toys and puzzles including jigsaws, card games and writing games, and some of these wonderful things are so beautifully crafted and appealing, that I wanted to show them to you!

Riley's Historical Playing Cards c.1785 [087.1/070]

Riley’s Historical Playing Cards c.1785

So, to my choices, the toys and games are very various, with the earliest dating to c1750 and the most recent to 2001. To give you a flavour, I have selected four from across that date range, two of which are illustrated in this blog post. Firstly, Riley’s historical playing cards (c1785), which includes cards featuring historical figures from Roman history with something of a biography of each figure, designed to be instructive to children since “they cannot fail of becoming insensibly acquainted as it were with customs and characters of a people”! Cards include Tarquinius the Proud (whose associate in crime was Tullia, an “impious woman”), Lucretia who was “chaste and unfortunate”, and Camilla, whose tale you cannot read about without a “sympathising tear”, amongst many others! Each card is beautifully illustrated with small pen and ink portraits of all concerned.

Secondly I chose ‘Happy Families’, another card game, with this pack dating to 1900. In this game, players are dealt the shuffled cards (which feature family members based on an occupation such as Miss Chop the butcher’s daughter, and Mr Rolls the baker) and so end up with a mixture of characters from different families. The aim of the game is to reunite the families, which is achieved by players taking it in turns to ask other players for specific family members.

Happy Families [087.1/031]

Happy Families

I also chose An Alphabet History , (A 087.1/1978), and The Little Library (A P 087.1/1825) – well I had to choose this one, being in a big library!, and these will be on display at our pop-up exhibition – so please do come along.

Dawn Beaumont
Head of Library Services