Tag Archives: Library of Birmingham

The Clive Davies Postcard Collection

New Street, Birmingham; c.1910. A hand painted postcard from an original black and white photograph [MS 2703/B/2/1]. The hand coloured treatment adds a unique style and character to the cards.

On the 1st October 1869, the first postcard was issued in Austria – a plain card with a printed two-kreuzer stamp on one side and a space for a message on the other –  one year later in 1870 they were issued in Britain.  In 1884, British Post Office regulations introduced the half penny postage rate – previously a standard rate of a penny for letters – initiating in a rapid use and circulation of postcards.

Alongside the new reduced cost, the chief appeal lay in the suitability for communication.  Mass produced, postcards were cheap and easy to acquire – and prior to the telephone, they remained the most popular way of communication.  Deliveries took place several times a day, making it possible to send a card and get a card with a reply the same day.

During the 1890s, postcards advanced to featuring a picture on one side, with a divided space on the other to fit an address and message.   By the turn of the century, picture postcards were embraced by the nation, becoming a welcome commodity in everyday life.

A series of postcards taken from the Cannon Hill Park album, [MS 2703/B/2/4]. Donated to the people of Birmingham by Louisa Ryland, the park opened on 1 September, 1873. One of the City’s premier parks, it boasts many facilities, and over the years has been host to a wide variety of events, as illustrated in these cards. Popular attractions of the time included an Avery, bandstand, and fields for sports. A more unusual feature was a giant boulder; also known as ‘The Moon Rock’ or ‘The Meteor’, it was found while excavating the lake and believed to have been deposited by a glacier that ran from the Arenig mountains in Wales 18,000 years ago.

The Clive Davies postcard collection [MS 2703] consists of over 8000 postcards, and provides an illustrated history of Birmingham and surrounding suburbs, and of the production history of post cards, through a series spanning from the late 19th century, through to the 1990s. Continue reading


Watt 2019: July

Aston Hall, the seat of James Watt [MS 3219/9/5/2/39]

2019 marks the bicentenary of the death of James Watt, improver of the steam engine and partner of Matthew Boulton in the engine businesses at Soho, Handsworth. There will be many events commemorating this during the year, in Birmingham and Scotland, and information about these can be found on the James Watt 2019 website.

To help celebrate the richness of the archive of the James Watt and Family Papers [MS 3219], held in Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham, there will be a monthly blog on a Watt related subject.

The Adventures of James Watt jr.

I went to an excellent talk this morning (29/6/2019) at the Library of Birmingham by two young scholars who have been investigating the lives of two of James Watt’s children, Margaret (Peggy) Watt, his daughter by his first wife of the same name, and Gregory Watt, his son by his second wife Ann Watt, from diaries, correspondence etc. We were reminded that family relationships rarely run smoothly and that Watt’s life was punctuated by bereavement.  Of his five children by his first wife, two survived, two died in infancy, and one was stillborn, when she died in childbirth. His daughter by her who survived infancy also died in childbirth and her sons also died as young men. His daughter and his son by his second wife both died of consumption, one aged 15 and one aged 27. The only one of his children who survived him was James Watt jr.

Watt jr. himself died on 2 June 1848, aged 79, at Aston Hall, his residence since 1819. This property, he rented, but he also owned another house, an altered and improved farmhouse, at Doldowlod, Radnorshire, part of Watt’s Welsh estates. He resided there while dealing with the management of the Welsh properties.

There is no separate biography of James Watt jr. [an opportunity here!], but there is information about him in the various biographies of his father, for example by J.P. Muirhead, R.L. Hills, and, this year, a new one by David P. Miller.

This blog has three less common stories about James Watt jr. discovered from the Watt Family Papers [MS 3219].

In 1791 James Watt jr. had joined Thomas and Richard Walker, textile merchants in Manchester, as their European agent, being in France in 1792 and then proceeding to Naples and Leghorn (Livorno). When he came back to England in 1794, he entered the engine production business at Soho and was largely responsible for the creation of the Soho Foundry in 1795.

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Bernard Sleigh

End papers from A Faerie Pageant [A094/KYN/1924]

As we have just passed the Midsummer Solstice, I thought it an apt time to look at the work of the Birmingham artist Bernard Sleigh who was known as “the man who mapped fairyland”.

Woodcuts June and July from ‘A Faery Calendar’, c. 1924
[AF 09/1922 ]

Sleigh was born in Kings Norton in 1872. Following the death of his father he left school aged 14 to become an apprentice wood carver creating commercial prints for many of Birmingham’s manufacturers and businesses. During this time he also began visiting the recently established City art gallery and attending the municipal School of Art. Here he met and was inspired by artists from the Arts and Crafts movement and the Birmingham Group including Arthur Gaskin who he began working with after he broke his indenture.

Woodcut of Lickey Parish Church [AF 09/1922 ]

Sleigh became a teacher and an engraver and had several works published by small presses. As a young man Sleigh had a brain aneurysm and the resulting trepanning operation affected him permanently. He claims in his autobiography that half his brain remained aged 24 whilst the other half matured as normal giving him a temperament which separated him from his contemporaries and an inclination towards mystical subjects.  He produced many woodcuts illustrating poetry and tales inspired by folklore and mythology.

Woodcuts Frontispiece for ‘Gates of Horn’ [AF 09/1922 ]

Sleigh lived and worked for most of his life in Birmingham but enjoyed travelling throughout Britain and Europe, often by bicycle. He documented his trips with beautiful watercolour sketches of landscapes and architecture which can be seen to inform the landscapes of his fantastical engravings. The brutality of the First World War was a significant cause for his increased enthusiasm for fantasy. He recounts in his autobiography “[in 1916] the Peter Pan in me emerged in full strength… Chiefly I suppose as a mental refuge from the hideous militarism of the time”. It was during this time that he met his main collaborator Ivy Ellis and began work on his most famous creation An ancient mappe of Fairyland, newly discovered and set forth, a complex lithograph 5′ x 18″ which combines a plethora of fantasy characters on a bird’s eye topographical fictional island (www.bl.uk/collection-items/an-ancient-mappe-of-fairyland).

The Lizard
[MS 3650/2/1]

Although primarily known for his wood engraving, Sleigh was a champion of craftsmanship and worked in many other areas including designing stained glass windows for several churches, oil paintings and murals and produced a beautiful  book with nearly 500 botanical watercolour studies of British native plants. He was commissioned by the City Council to paint large canvas panels of local historical subjects for the Town Hall and worked with the Civic Society to produce a range of maps of the suburbs of Birmingham. He also wrote several books including an instruction handbook on wood engraving and a range of short stories and poems for both adults and children based on fairy tale legends.

Botanical images
[MS 3650/3/1]

Sleigh always felt a strong connection to the library. In his autobiography he states:

“the wisest thing my father had done was to interest me in the old Birmingham Library… and this sombre building then in Union Street, became a second home – a spiritual one, of which I made full and grateful use for more than 40 years.”

He used the historical sources held in the library when creating a map of Birmingham as seen in 1760 and in turn donated a collection of artist proofs of his wood cuts in 1922. He added to the volume throughout the rest of his life and also donated a collection of watercolour and botanical paintings. These complement the published works by him which are held in our Early and Fine Printing Collection.

Sleigh’s Birmingham Map


Kathryn Hall



Memoirs of a Human Peter Pan, Bernard Sleigh, 1944 (LF 78.1 Sle)

Birmingham Biography, Vol 45, p. 133 (BCOL )

Selected Source list related to Sleigh items from our collections

MS 3650
Drawings and sketches by Bernard Sleigh

 MS 3901
Drawings in pencil and colour by Bernard Sleigh

A 094/BIR/1936
The dryad’s child : [early & fine printing] being the further history of the lives of the Reverend James Manshull and his faery wife, as related in the ‘Gates of Horn’ / [with] a woodcut frontispiece engraved by the author.
Sleigh, Bernard
Birmingham : City of Birmingham School of Printing, 1936.

A F 096/KYN/1924
A picture map of the City of Birmingham in the year 1730 / [early & fine printing] / designed by Bernard Sleigh.
Sleigh, Bernard
Birmingham : Cornish Brothers Limited, 1924.

A 094/KYN/1924
A Faerie pageant / [early & fine printing] / with illustrations drawn by him, and engraved on wood by Ivy A. Ellis and the author ; and bound by Frank Garrett.
Sleigh, Bernard
Birmingham : Bernard Sleigh, 1924.

A F 096/1922
A Book of woodcuts / [early & fine printing] / engraved from original designs by Bernard Sleigh ; including eight drawn by A. Payne.
Sleigh, Bernard
Birmingham : [s.n.], 1922.

A E 096/1918
An Anciente mappe of Fairyland
Sleigh, Bernard
London : Sidgwick & Jackson, [1918]

A 094/BIR/1895
The Sea-King’s daughter and other poems / [early & fine printing] / with designs by Bernard Sleigh.
Mark, Amy
Birmingham : Press of the Birmingham Guild of Handicraft, 1895.

Attacking insects
[MS 3650/4/1]

Windrush Strikes Back

Selection of material from the collections consulted by Windrush Strikes Back Decolonial Detectives in the Wolfson Centre, Library of Birmingham, May 2019

The 22nd June marks the anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in Essex in 1948, bringing c. 500 people from Jamaica and Trinidad to the UK. Many went on to fill some of the post-war employment shortages, particularly in state-run services.

In the years following the arrival of Windrush, greater numbers of people travelled from the Caribbean and settled in the UK. This included in Birmingham and the surrounding areas, and their experiences, and those of their descendants, have become a significant part of the history of the post-war period. However, although there is some archival material documenting the experiences, many stories of the experiences of British African Caribbean people have yet to be discovered.

Last month we welcomed the Windrush Strikes Back: Decolonising Global Warwickshire project to Archives and Collections. This is a six-month community-engaged project aiming to uncover the hidden histories written by British African Caribbean people in Warwickshire, Coventry, Birmingham and the surrounding areas. Facilitated by the Global Warwickshire Collective, the project intends to,

…inspire community members to take more active ownership of and involvement in the production of our histories, and to challenge the exclusivity of historical scholarship in Britain.


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Surveying Posters from the Shakespeare Collection

Regular readers of the blog may recall a blog post I wrote earlier this year called ‘The Shakespeare Collection- Everything to Everybody’. If not, you can find it by clicking here.

Since then I have been busy assessing various objects within the collection of posters from the Shakespeare collection. The main aims of assessing these objects are to work out:

  1. The overall condition of the collection
  2. What % of the collection requires conservation treatment
  3. What % of the collection requires re-housing

The survey will also show whether there are any conservation issues which could be potentially hindering access to the Shakespeare collection and inform other aspects of potential future project work.

Surveying the poster collection

Whilst surveying and assessing the posters it became clear that this was a collection which started acquiring material from the 1930s until the 2000s. The collection gives us a snapshot of various techniques of graphic and commercial art from these periods. The earliest posters in the collection were usually drawn by hand but once you get to around the 1960s, silk screen printing really takes off. By the 1990s the bulk of the posters were created using some form of digital printing.

Cracks and losses on the paint layer of a hand drawn poster

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The Wonderful World of Building plans

The purpose of this blog is to give the briefest of overviews of our holdings of architectural drawings and to help researchers to ascertain whether we might hold a plan for a particular building.

Birmingham Archives and Collections hold an extensive range of architectural plans (something in the order of 200’000). These can be found spread over a number of different collections but by far the largest number of plans is contained in the collections we hold of building plans submitted to the local authority for planning permission (collection reference: BCC/1/GG/D/1/7/2).

A building plan, yesterday

When looking to see if we hold a building plan, the first question researchers need to ask themselves is: when was the building built? Planning permission legislation made the control of building works by local authorities compulsory in 1948; prior to then legislation was permissive, granting a local authority the power to control building works if they chose to enforce it. Birmingham Corporation adopted planning control in 1876 – and for fact fans, the first plan was submitted on 7 August 1876 for a house with shops situated on Angelina Street.

If the building in which you are interested pre-dates 1876, we will only hold plans if we hold any material relating to the architect. The following is a (non-exhaustive) list of the collections we hold relating to architects prominent in Birmingham, please do check on our online catalogue or with staff if you are interested in an architect not listed below:

MS 891 J.A. and P.B. Chatwin [whose work includes the Old Joint Stock Bank, a number of branches of Lloyd’s Bank, numerous churches and schools]
MS 1460 H R Yeoville Thomason [responsible for Birmingham Council House, Aston Union Workhouse amongst other]
MS 1542 Bateman & Bateman
MS 1703 Charles Edge [Birmingham Town Hall, Market Hall]
MS 1536 – Records of Bournville Village Trust, Including Harvey drawings for houses built in Bournville

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Watt 2019: May

2019 marks the bicentenary of the death of James Watt, improver of the steam engine and partner of Matthew Boulton in the engine businesses at Soho, Handsworth. There will be many events commemorating this during the year, in Birmingham and Scotland, and information about these can be found on the James Watt 2019 website.

To help celebrate the richness of the archive of the James Watt and Family Papers [MS 3219], held in Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham, there will be a monthly blog on a Watt related subject.

Glimpses into the life of Gregory Watt (1777-1804)

Hand coloured plate by the artist, Peter Fabris in Campi Phlegraei, Volcanoes of the 2 Sicilies vol. 2 by Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to the Spanish Court in Naples

Gregory Watt was the son of James Watt and Ann McGrigor, born in Birmingham in 1777. He is generally described as an extremely able scholar and was sent to university at Glasgow where he excelled in Latin and Greek and also studied mathematics and chemistry. He developed a serious interest in geology, following an interest of both his father’s and his older brother’s, James Watt jr. He was prone to fevers and respiratory troubles and regrettably, died of tuberculosis on 16 October 1804, aged 27.

Notes by Gregory Watt on Mineralogy 1799 – 1802 [MS 3219/7/30 p.40]

There is not always much information on the play activities of children in the past, but Samuel Galton’s daughter, Mary Anne, remembered her ‘friendship’ with Gregory and his sister, Jessy, when the Watt family were still living at Harper’s Hill House (in the Jewellery Quarter), c. 1788. She paints a quite different picture of him:

The son, about thirteen, named Gregory, was a youth of very precocious talents … but his high estimate of himself made him at this period anything but a pleasant, though often an informing companion. His sister Jenny he held, as he did all girls, in supreme contempt; and of this I, both a girl and his sister’s frequent companion was a large partaker. Nor did he trouble himself to conceal his feelings. … Gregory’s salutation to his sister and me often was, “Girls are insufferable bores; I wonder what use they are in creation; no woman ever yet had sense to tune a harpsichord”; yet notwithstanding this, he was very glad to get our help in his amusements.

Gregory Watt’s diary,1791 [MS 637]

In one particular part of a very pleasant garden behind the house was a clay pit, where he would send us to dig out the clay, and then get us to help him in making models of fortifications. I had read at my grandfather’s the volume of Rapin’s History of England, containing the wars of King William in the Low Countries, in which the plans of all the fortifications are given. These, at Gregory’s desire, I was to trace on silver paper, and numerous were the fortresses we formed from them, in various beds of the garden, to the gardener’s great annoyance. Continue reading