Birmingham Heritage Week

Image of Birmingham Cathedral celebrating its 300th birthday in 2015. [WK/B11/792] 1731 Photographed by William A. Clark. Exterior view, south east.
Image of Birmingham Cathedral, celebrating its 300th birthday in 2015.  1931 Photographed by William A. Clark. Exterior view, south-east. [WK/B11/792]
Don’t forget……Thursday 10th September sees the start of the inaugural Birmingham Heritage Week 2015. Why not have a look at all the great events across the City and discover something amazing about Birmingham? Birmingham Heritage Week runs from 10th – 17th September and please show your support by visiting the website to see what’s on and then go along maybe to one of the tours, open house days, talks or to see the displays that are on show. It coincides with Heritage Open Days (10th – 13th September) which is the UKs biggest Heritage festival. You can search their website for what’s on in your area. Events include tours from Birmingham Cathedral (celebrating 300 years this year) to the Newman Brothers Coffin Works. It’s worth a look!

We would also recommend reading the article by the chairman of Birmingham Heritage Week, Waseem Zaffar, about the importance of Birmingham and its history. You can read it online on the Birmingham Mail website.

It’s All A Big Hoot

Big Hoot at the Library of Birmingham
Big Hoot at the Library of Birmingham

Birmingham has been invaded by owls! Artistic owls of course. As part of the Big Hoot, 89 owl sculptures have appeared across the City, decorated with many different wonderful designs, each representing a unique theme.

The owls were created by artists for a project run by Wild in Art to bring local schools, businesses and artists together, and form a trail inspired by Birmingham’s culture and heritage. The owls will be perched in the City until 27th September, at which point they will be auctioned to raise money for Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

As part of Big Hoot’s Little Hoot, school children have been creating their own little owlets (120 in all) and you can discover where the owls have nested by downloading the trail leaflet from the Big Hoot website.

See if you can discover where these owls are at the Library of Birmingham
See if you can discover where these owls are at the Library of Birmingham

Despite the Harris Hawk, owls have even taken up residence in the Library of Birmingham. See if you can discover where!

Real People, Real Archives: a crucial lesson from ‘Connecting Histories’

‘The Talking Tent’, Birmingham Citizens Day (2005) MS 4786
‘The Talking Tent’, Birmingham Citizens Day (2005) MS 4786

The Connecting Histories Project [CHP] is ten years old this month.  Whilst it formally lasted just two years, its legacy has continued through subsequent projects (Birmingham Stories, Suburban Birmingham) and crucially, through the people it touched.  These included the project team members, but importantly also those members of the public who were encouraged to engage with archives in many, varied ways.[i]

The CHP was a partnership between Birmingham Library & Archives Service and the universities of Birmingham and Warwick.  Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, it set out to engage with communities who were largely marginalised from the cultural / heritage mainstream.  A multi-disciplinary team was assembled, consisting of established and trainee archivists, academics, researchers, outreach officers and a web editor.  It strove to make existing archives more accessible through cataloguing and outreach exercises, whilst demonstrating their relevance to wide ranges of people.  It also sought to make the institution of ‘the archives’ more welcoming to diverse communities, by attracting new collections relevant to them and through greater participation in the archive profession by under-represented groups, as employees and as volunteers.  To this end, the project mentored two cultural / heritage graduates as they studied by distance learning to become archivists, whilst working directly as cataloguers and organising practical sessions with volunteers drawn from community groups.

The Somaliland Diaspora (2007) MS 4786
The Somaliland Diaspora (2007) MS 4786

A major lesson learned early on was the crucial role that archives have in validating peoples’ notion of self-worth – both as individuals and as members of communities (however defined).  Whilst many archivists recognise this at an intellectual level, the pressures and practicalities of daily duties sometimes dull this awareness.  The CHP was forcefully reminded of this key role as we encountered people for whom self-identity was a precious possession.  Migrants and especially refugees often had little to affirm their original cultural identity and they cherished those records, mementoes and memories that survived with them.  The CHP (and its successors) encountered Jewish and Polish refugees from World War Two and its aftermath, as well as refugees from more recent conflicts.

The example of Ahmed reflects this.  As a refugee from Somaliland, he is anxious that his personal story is recorded and understood, as well as that of his community.  As Twenty First Century arrivals in Birmingham, the traditional pattern of archival accruals would not normally reflect this aspect of City life for many years.  Through patient encouragement and dialogue with Ahmed and others, the CHP has addressed this and ensured that the issues relating to a distinctive Somaliland community are recorded.[ii]

One City – Many Stories (2006) MS 4786
One City – Many Stories (2006) MS 4786

Unfortunately, refugee experiences are not confined to any one group of people and Ahmed has worked with CHP to enable diverse communities to share experiences and celebrate their own identities.  A series of events was organised to facilitate community interaction, including ‘Citizens’ Day’ (October 2005); ‘One City – Many Stories’ (March 2006) and ‘Connecting Diasporas’ (November 2006). Overall a range of insights into other communities was provided, but for me personally the whole rationale of CHP was encapsulated at the end of the ‘Connecting Diasporas’ event.  Ahmed presented the delegates with a large, sumptuous cake, baked by members of his community and celebrating his pride in being empowered to record his presence in the City through the archives.  That one gesture confirmed for me that archives are truly rooted in reality, reflecting and affecting real people.

Connecting Diasporas Cake (2006) MS 4786
Connecting Diasporas Cake (2006) MS 4786

Continue reading “Real People, Real Archives: a crucial lesson from ‘Connecting Histories’”

Explore Your Archives


This week, here at Archives, Heritage and Photography we are embracing the Explore Your Archives Campaign. This a joint campaign run by the National Archives and the Archives and Records Association to raise awareness of archives and to encourage everyone to explore their history.

At AHP, we are getting involved by linking in with events which we hope will encourage visitors to take an interest in archives and history. Coming up…

There is still also plenty of time to visit the Gallery on floor 3 of the Library of Birmingham for the Voices of War exhibition which is running until the end of December.

As for the Iron Room? Each day this week we will have a new article showcasing collections we have discovered, detected, connected …….

There is a living memory out there, preserved in the form of vast archive collections housed around the country, waiting for us to learn the secrets of the past. So why not start your journey of discovery today and see what archive treasures you can find.

Nicola Crews, Archivist

Joseph Chamberlain and Sir Benjamin Stone

OXF/1: John Benjamin Stone at The Rollright Stones near Long Compton, Oxfordshire. Photographed by Stone for the Warwickshire Photographic Survey in February 1897
chamberlain joseph
Birmingham Portraits Series: Joseph Chamberlain

Today marks the centenary of the deaths of two prominent citizens and political figures from Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain and Sir Benjamin Stone.

Both were born around the same time, Chamberlain in 1836, Stone 1838. Both grew up in families that were successful in local business, taking positions in their families’ respective firms before branching into local and national politics once they had built up their fortunes.

Chamberlain was by far the most famous and controversial of the two. As a Liberal Councillor and Mayor of Birmingham, from 1873 ‘Radical Joe’, as he became known, instigated a number of important infrastructural reforms in the city including bringing the gas and water supply under municipal control and the Borough Improvement Scheme, 1875 (see Iron Room blog piece of 30 June 2014). His time in office saw the development of municipal infrastructure, parks and magnificent public buildings, much of which remains to this day.

Despite his radical domestic agenda Chamberlain was also a staunch Imperialist. Following his election as a Liberal Member of Parliament in the mid-1870s, he eventually took a leading role in resistance within the party that helped defeat the passage of Prime Minister Gladstone’s Irish Home Rule Bill in 1885, effectively splitting the party,putting it in the electoral wilderness for the best part of twenty years.

Chamberlain joined the Conservative Party, eventually landing his preferred job of Colonial Secretary. His career in his new party was even more controversial, his stewardship of the Colonies taking place at the exact same time as the notorious Jameson Raid that led to the brutal South African (Boer) War 1899-1902. Chamberlain remained an extremely popular figure in Birmingham however. The future Prime Minister David Lloyd George was almost lynched by a patriotic mob following an anti-war speech he made at Birmingham Town Hall on 18 December 1901, with Lloyd George having to be escorted out of the building in disguise by police!

WK/M6/47: Exterior of Highbury Hall, Moseley, the Chamberlain family residence. Photographed by Thomas Lewis for the Warwickshire Photographic Survey c1890s.

By the 1906 General Election, Chamberlain’s proposal of a policy of economic protectionism favouring Britain’s colonies split the party into free-trade and protectionist factions, leading to a Liberal landslide. Despite his reputation of being possibly the only political figure to effectively split two parties, his actions did nothing to harm the future political careers of his sons nor did it tarnish the reputation of the Chamberlain family brand in his home city. The energy he devoted to municipal politics and the great reforms and infrastructural improvements were amongst his greatest gifts to the city and the nation, hence the affection felt for him by many in the city. Not for nothing was he later referred to as ‘The Uncrowned King of Birmingham’.

WK/E2/114: The library in The Grange, Erdington, home of John Benjamin Stone. Photographed by Stone for the Warwickshire Photographic Survey in 1897.

By contrast, Stone’s political career was relatively quiet – it was in the arena of photography that Stone made his biggest impression. An avid collector of images as well as a keen amateur photographer, Stone built up a huge collection of negatives and photographic prints at his house at The Grange, Erdington, as well as a large library of books, journals and periodicals devoted to the hobby as well as his other myriad academic interests. His photographic work is well represented in the Library of Birmingham’s Photographic Collections.

His own personal archive (Collection MS 3196) comprising tens of thousands of photographic prints, negatives and other papers. The collection has a local, national and international interest, Stone having photographed all over the world. His work is also well represented in the Birmingham Photographic Society (MS 2507) and the Warwickshire Photographic Survey (MS 2724), having been appointed President of both groups. A selection of Stone’s work from his archive and the Warwickshire Photographic Survey is available on the Library of Birmingham Website.

His pioneering work alongside William Jerome Harrison in the Warwickshire Photographic Survey, effectively the first photographic record of the country, inspired him to set up the National Photographic Record Association in 1897. Digitised material from this short-lived organisation is now available on the V&A Website. He also took a series of Parliamentary Portraits of members of the Houses of Commons and Lords. Digitised content is available on the National Portrait Gallery on-line resources, as well as the Stone galleries on the Library of Birmingham Website.

Stone was exceptionally well-travelled, and he was keen to document ancient folk customs and ways of life of all peoples, particularly where rapid economic, social and technological change were transforming everyday life. His portraits of Native American tribes and their leaders were particularly powerful; by the end of the nineteenth century their resistance to the encroachments of white settlers moving west had practically been broken and many were forced to live on reservations.

Travelling could be dangerous, especially on his trip to Brazil in 1890, which he visited on behalf of the Royal Astronomical Society to photograph the solar eclipse. He visited the town of Cerea whilst the country was in the grip of a revolution. His obituary in the Birmingham Mail of 3 July 1914 recounted what happened next:

MS 3196 Box 376 Print 36: The Revolution at Ceara. Brazil 16th Feb. 1892. Prepared for Bombarding (firing out) of the Governor’s Palace. Photographed by John Benjamin Stone.

“It might also be said that the camera proved mightier than the sword. At one point in Cerea a barricade was constructed by the rebels, and cannon were posted that the Governor’s palace might be shelled.

When approached by the photographer the rebels readily agreed to postpone the bombardment for a few minutes that Sir Benjamin Stone might picture the revolution, and stood to their guns posing.”

MS 3196 Box 376 Print 38: Reception Room at the Palace of the Governor after the bombardment (firing out) of the 16th Feb. 1892. Photographed by John Benjamin Stone.

On the 8 July 1906, celebrations were held in Birmingham to mark Chamberlain’s seventieth birthday, who would be in the city to attend the various processions and visits to mark the big day. Photographers from the Warwickshire Photographic Survey, including Stone, were in attendance to capture the festivities for posterity. This print by Stone shows Chamberlain, his wife and other family members meeting locals and civic dignitaries at Ward End Park that day.

Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Chamberlain and Grandchild. His Birthday Celeb
MS 3196 Box 17 Print 16. Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Chamberlain and Grandchild. His Birthday Celebrations. Ward End Park. July 7th 1896. Photographed by John Benjamin Stone.

By 1910 Stone had retired from politics due to ill-health. Despite increasing health problems, Chamberlain continued to represent his constituency as a Conservative-Unionist until January 1914.

On 2 July 1914 Joseph Chamberlain suffered a heart attack and died in the arms of his wife Mary surrounded by his family. He was buried at Key Hill Cemetery following a Unitarian ceremony, in the heart of the town he grew up in, worked and represented as a Councillor, Mayor and Member of Parliament. His family had refused an official order for a burial at Westminster.

Stone died at his home the very same day, his wife tragically passed away just days later. The couple were eventually buried in the parish churchyard at Sutton Coldfield, the borough he too had once represented as Councillor and Mayor, and close to the city he served as an M.P. and the home that, at the time of his death, had become a repository of visual and written records dedicated to his extensive travels and his fascination with photography and other educational interests.

Michael Hunkin, Archivist

Some initial further reading:

1. Elizabeth Edwards, Peter James and Martin Barnes, A record of England: Sir Benjamin Stone & The National Photographic Record Association 1897-1910 (Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2006)

2. Peter T. Marsh, Joseph Chamberlain: Entrepreneur in Politics (London: Yale University Press, 1994)

Why Cultural Engagement, Participation and Outreach matters?!

Why Cultural Engagement, Participation and Outreach matters?!
Why Cultural Engagement, Participation and Outreach matters

Across a great many socially-conscious and welfare-orientated sectors, working with people and communities – towards social, cultural and economic betterment – is an integral element of the work; for example, the cultural sector, with Libraries, Archives and Museums; the Health Sector, whether in regards to sexual health or addressing causes of disease; working with young people, through youth facilities and various other methods of engagement.

Importantly, there is recognition that in order to make a difference, to improve lives, in an individual or collective/group context, work engaging the people who might benefit intervention or help – or who might simply enjoy participating or being involved – must be proactive rather than passive. What we mean is that we readily understand that the people who need the most help are the one’s usually least likely to engage directly with services, cultural organisations, health sectors, etc. And that respective sectors and organisations in the work of helping and supporting people and communities must be proactive in the engagement of respective groups rather than passive.

This area of work has grown substantially in recent years (though its beginnings would be hard to trace without concerted effort). The work is often described in terms ‘Outreach’ activities, widening ‘Participation’ programmes, and ‘Cultural Engagement’ (to name a few). In tandem, there has been a steady development of the practice involved – its professionalization, with significant expertise involved drawing upon a range of disciplines and skill sets. However, this has not always been acknowledged, including the value of these skills and the professionals that have developed them to their areas of interest.

Connected Histories - artwork produced during workshop session
Connected Histories – artwork produced during workshop session

Finally, in attempting to engage with community groups and people of all descriptions, there are perhaps two important things to think about:

  1. What does take to engage people (knowing that, for example, many of the groups ‘engagement practitioners’ seek to support or work with are often marginalised or disadvantaged, so called ‘hard-to-reach’)
  2. What do we do when we have engaged or reached people? How effective are we in our transmission of ideas and messages; in our activities. How transformational is our work?

The above two points are crucially related but are also distinct. Not all practitioners do both; some do one or the other, depending on the context, and on other occasions do both; there are practitioners, too, who might do both frequently. At all times, effective engagement, participation and outreach must be context driven; who are we seeking to engage and why? What are the techniques we are using? How effective are these likely to be?

Connected Histories - filming project group visit to Imperial War Museum
Connected Histories – filming project group visit to Imperial War Museum

We also need to be able to be courageous and resilient. The work isn’t easy and often requires stepping beyond comfort zones and accepting that we will make mistakes – but, as it is frequently said, it when things don’t work out that we learn the most.

For those that are involved in Cultural Engagement, Broadening/Widening Participation and Outreach work, we need to develop the language to support our field and continue to make the case; we need to establish communities of practice; and we need to better research and document what we do; we need to accord fellow practitioners with respect and respect and fundamentally believe in the work we all do.

Our work can only be transformative if we believe in it, work to our best ability and continue to engage people and communities directly.

It is because the Library of Birmingham is so passionate about this field of work that we have organised the Cultural Engagement Conference (Saturday 26th April), at the Library of Birmingham. This we expect to be an annual event, enabling this area of work to be developed further by colleagues and interested parties together and by acknowledging the change this work has already engendered.

For more information, please contact Izzy Mohammed on 0121 303 6691 / email or see the following link:


Izzy Mohammed

Stories from the Mill

I used to think I had the best job in the world, education & outreach officer at Birmingham Archives & Heritage; a sublime mix of delving into the past through archival documents and photos and working with young people and community groups to document their lives and our changing city.


Then in January I answered the call for volunteer millers at Sarehole Mill.  Suddenly every waking thought was about millstones and wheel revolutions, about chutes, tuns, hoppers and damsels and I found myself in a new world of the old.  Now of course it all makes sense; a seamless path from researching and recording stories about Birmingham’s history to real life hands on experience.

I am part of a team of volunteers learning how to operate the mill following it’s major  £450,000 restoration and refurbishment project.  Sarehole Mill is one of only two surviving working watermills in Birmingham ( the other is New Hall Mill) and there have probably been millers doing what we have started to learn to do since the Tudor period, although our existing building has only (!) been here since about 1750. 


Standing alongside the wheel pit, feeling the fineness of the flour as it descends the chute from the stones above, recording the highs and lows of the milling day, at the same desk that the miller recorded his own log, puts you in touch with millers of the past (though we can only look on in admiration at their production  in comparison to our paltry offerings).


I like to think that millers from the past had the same rush of excitement I feel, each time the inner sluice gate opened and the water flooded onto the wheel with a loud roar, to power the stones and the grain hoist and remind everyone that there is proper business at work in the mill.

But it is the stories in the mill that are my greatest joy: Standing by the flour chute or next to the hopper, watching the grain feed into the stones, you are an open invitation for people to chat to you about what they see and feel and remember.  This has been a powerful and fascinating experience.  Many people have recollections of the mill from long ago; stories of playing there, wading up the stream to it, and of the derelict building.  I have spoken to a woman visibly moved by the renovation and the actual working of the mill and heard stories of a man’s grandfather’s mill in India producing chapati flour.

Sarehole Mill is an immersive archive experience.  The archives have been essential in the mill restoration, in developing a team of millers who appreciate the history of this particular mill, and in inspiring and enthusing a new audience.