Messages from the Ocean Floor

A recent accession to the archives which has piqued interest amongst colleagues and public alike is the Trans – Atlantic Cable Chart  (MS 2680 Acc. 2017/079) from the records of Webster & Horsfall Ltd., now Webster, Horsfall, Latch and Batchelor, the oldest continuously running Birmingham company, manufacturers of spring steel wire who won the contract to supply the telegraph cable in the 1860s.

Background to the laying of the cable

Prior to the 1860s, communication between the UK and the USA was largely made by letter. The popularity of telegrams in the nineteenth century led to developments in laying underwater cables. In the 1850s, the Telegraph Construction & Maintenance  Company was formed by an American businessman, Cyrus Field and a Manchester cotton manufacturer, John Pender in an attempt to lay a cable across the Atlantic. In 1866 after several failed bids, a successful attempt was made with Horsfall & Webster supplying the cable.

Trans – Atlantic Cable Chart, ref MS 2689 (Acc 2017/079)

The Trans  – Atlantic Cable Chart

The chart was published by the Hydrographic Office of the British Admiralty of Deep Sounding and shows the bed of the Atlantic overlaid with daily written accounts of messages sent from the Great Eastern, the vessel responsible for laying the cable, back to Greenwich providing news of progress on completing this perilous task. The chart is believed to be the only one in the UK, the only other copy is held in the papers of Cyrus Field at the Smithsonian Institute in America.


The chart is representative of the technological work taking place in the nineteenth century and the part played by Birmingham and other British cities in engaging with pioneering techniques. The chart also contains a far more human quality in the record of daily messages from the vessel back to Greenwich. One can only imagine how arduous a task it was for those working on the laying of the cable, on work which today has burgeoned into a world of global inter-connectivity.

Continue reading “Messages from the Ocean Floor”

An Angel for the Coffin Works?

Some time ago I went along with some colleagues to the Newman Brothers Coffin Fitting Works on Fleet street for a candlelit tour of the factory. The company itself ceased trading in 1998 after over 100 years on the Fleet Street site, which was built specifically as a manufactory in 1884. The tour was fantastic, and the candlelit ambience made it all the more atmospheric.

Plating shop at Newman Brothers before restoration
Plating shop at Newman Brothers before restoration
Courtyard before restoration
Courtyard before restoration

The tours were a way of raising money to fund the restoration of the Coffin Works which, after some uncertainty over its future, was purchased by Birmingham Conservation Trust in 2010 and from there the project really took off.

Thanks to a lot of hard work the Coffin Works was opened up to the public in October 2014. As a recognition of this hard work, they have been short-listed for the English Heritage Angel Awards for the Best Rescue of a Historic Industrial Building or Site category.

Bring it back for Brum - outside the Coffin Works
Bring it back for Brum – outside the Coffin Works

The Historic England Followers’ and Telegraph reader’s Favourite award is open to the public to decide who wins and this is where Birmingham Conservation Trust needs your help. To vote for the Coffin Works, please visit the Historic England website at and follow the link to place your vote.

This is another example of the passion Birmingham has for its heritage and how important the work of organisations such as Birmingham Conservation Trust is. So why not show your support and vote today!!

Nicola Crews

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)

Library of Birmingham – The Power House of Research

Ironwork surrounding the Library of Birmingham, representing local industry
Ironwork surrounding the Library of Birmingham, representing local industry

Launched just ten weeks ago and already having welcomed half a million visitors, the Library of Birmingham is rightly proud of its services.  Much popular attention has focused on the distinctive architecture, the visitor experience offered by the terraces, Shakespeare Memorial Room and the ‘added value’ services: Gallery, Mediatheque and much, much more.

The Library (LoB) is also providing access to its world class collections for research.  Such research can take many forms and is available to our entire range of visitors, from first time users of all ages to experienced investigators following structured academic or professional research programmes.  I could highlight any number of collections which may be consulted, but taking my cue from LoB’s ‘Rings of Steel’, I will concentrate on our industrial collections.

Winfield Rolling Mills Ltd. Birmingham [MS 322/169]
Winfield Rolling Mills Ltd. Birmingham [MS 322/169]
The ‘Rings of Steel’ on the Library’s façade provide an iconic brand for LoB.  They derive from and represent Birmingham’s proud industrial heritage, which literally underpins the Library: it is built on the site of Winfield’s Brass-works, which was powered by a Boulton & Watt steam engine.  Today, the Library holds the records of the Winfield Company and Boulton & Watt, as well as very many other manufacturing concerns associated with Birmingham.  A selected list is provided below and this very rich resource supports diverse research agendas.  Historians of technology and economic, social and business historians find such resources invaluable, as do family and local historians.  Researchers of the ‘here and now’ also find inspiration in these collections for art, design and other creative subjects. Continue reading “Library of Birmingham – The Power House of Research”

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.

Trade catalogue collection

Three trade cataloge covers
Trade catalogue covers – Ensign Lamps, 1934 (Ref: LS 10/E/312/1), Butterfields Limited – Levis 1926 Motor Cycles (Ref: LS 10/B/634/1) and The Burman Sheep Shearer trade pamphlet, dated 1917 (Ref: LS 10/B/569/1)

This blog post is concerned with the trade catalogue collection held in the Archives & Heritage section of Birmingham Central Library. The collection reflects the wide and varied industrial heritage of the city and surrounding periphery.

 We have trade catalogues, brochures, pamphlets and ephemera spanning from the 19th – 21st century; early local patents from 1722 – 1866; local trade business cards from the 18th century and local company reports from the mid 20th century.

Our huge collection typically consists of material from well known established local companies such as B.S.A, G.K.N, G.E.C, W.T Avery, Cadburys, Chance Brothers, Dunlop, Webley and Scott, Lucas Clapshaw & Cleeve Limited, Tonks (Birmingham) Limited, Ingall, Parsons, Clive & Co, Robert Mansell & Son, Bullpitt & Son (Swan Houseware), Belliss & Morcom, Benton & Stone, British Resisting Heat Glass Company, Burman and Sons, Huxley Barton & Sons, Levis Motorcycles, Dale Forty & Co. W.T French & Son Ltd, Eley Brothers, Thomas Fattorini, Fisher & Ludlow, Lee Longlands, Austin Motors, Barrows Stores Limited, Jones & Willis, Clement Heeley, Hockley Chemical Company. Ltd, Hoskins, James Neale & Sons, Charles Obsorne, Parker Winder & Achurch, Rudge Cycle Co. Limited, William Cooper & Son, Samuel Booth plus many more.

Trade card from Edward Jones, chandelier manufacturer
Edward Jones – Manufacturer Of The Patent Safety Lamps & Lantern, etc, Trade Card no. 591

The Birmingham Collection, our principal printed bookstock collection providing an account of the cultural and historic development of the city, contains texts on specific local businesses plus histories of particular trades associated with the area.

The trade catalogue collection is a valuable cultural asset and to protect it from damage or loss, holdings are served via a controlled environment in our archival searchroom which adheres to conditions of access found at archival record offices.

Letters patent for Breech-lodaing Fire-arms, &c.
Early local patent from 1865 for Joseph Rock Cooper, Gun Manufacturer.

The trade catalogue collection still receives gifts and donations made chiefly by the public who contact us from far and wide across the globe, reinforcing Birmingham’s once proud status as ‘Workshop of the World’.

Staff are currently engaged in creating an online presence for the trade catalogue collection via our archival catalogue system, CalmView which can be located via the new Library of Birmingham website at and it is hoped some entries will be accessible in this format come the opening in September 2013.

page 17 from Yates and Sons, silver plate list of prices
Yates and Sons Silver Plate List of Prices trade catalogue, dated 1872

To accompany our trade catalogues , we retain local trade directories such as The Sketchley Birmingham Directory of 1767, which is one of the oldest surviving trade directories for the city. However, the Kelly’s trade directory series running from 1878 – 1974 is the most popular resource used by our service users. Other miscellaneous trade directories titles held in Archives & Heritage Service include: Pigot, Bisset, Grand National, Bailey Western And Midland, Holden’s  Triennial, Wrighton and Webb, Slater’s, Hulley’s, Morris and Co, Shadler’s, White’s, Post Office, Corporation, Harrison and Harrod and Co.

Thank you, Al Barrett.


Guest Blogger: Box Irons

Fletcher Hardware Trade Catalogue
Fletcher Hardware Trade Catalogue, c.1930 [LF62.65]
 My first visit to Birmingham Central Library was in August 1977. The first two visits I came out disappointed, the next visit I was pointed in the direction of the Science and Technology department where I was introduced to Mr. Ted Hunt, Head of Patents. I explained what my interest was; that I was a collector of old laundry irons and how to identify trade marks.

Mr. Hunt took me to the patent department, a small area cordoned off by a small gate, specially reserved to patent users. In this section on shelves were the Trade Mark journals starting from 1875 up to the present.

At this stage as a collector, I had not come across any other collector. A colleague I worked with said that there was a collection exhibition going on in London at the Daily Mirror, and laundry irons were the star attraction.

On the visit to London to see the exhibition were a couple of ladies who had formed an iron collectors club called the British Iron Collectors (B.I.C) where I became a member. My first meeting I attended was at a collectors home in London; many irons were on display and up for sale.

I purchased a Birmingham Gas Iron called the Beetall. At this meeting I came across Julia Morgan from Bath – Julia had also been collecting information. By this time I had gathered a lot of information on trade marks. The research done by Julia, on Birmingham and the Black Country, was passed to me. This introduced me to the local history department, then on the fifth floor, to go through the local trade directories and newspapers on microfilm.

Before long we had produced an iron collectors book called Trilogy of Cast Iron Facts. 100 copies were produced and a copy is held in Central Library.

Continue reading “Guest Blogger: Box Irons”