Tag Archives: Literature

George Henry Bonner – so much more than a casualty of War

I first came across George Henry Bonner several years ago as a result of an enquiry at the Library – someone had requested a copy of the inquest into his death on 2nd March 1929.  George had served in WWI but was discharged with shell shock in 1919 and had suffered for the next 10 years till he ended his own life by hanging himself from his bedroom window. A shocking and distressing story and I tried to find out more about him and his background. I didn’t get very far beyond discovering from standard genealogical sources that he was born on 26 May 1895, the son of Rev Henry Bonner – Minister of Hamstead Road Baptist Church – and his wife Margaret Elizabeth.  He had married an Eleanor Ford in 1921 and they had one son Augustine (known as Austin) born in 1925. His inquest described him as a journalist but I could find no clue as to which newspaper or journal he had written for – or any of his writings.

Extract from Inquest on George Henry Bonner, April 1929

Extract from Inquest on George Henry Bonner,          April 1929

There was one intriguing lead in the inquest though – one of the witnesses, described as a friend of Bonner’s, was Alvin Langdon Coburn. Coburn (1882-1966) was an American born photographer active in England in the early 20th Century and noted for both symbolist photography and portraiture. His “Men of Mark”(1913) and “More Men of Mark” (1922) featured portraits of the leading American & European literary and artistic figures of the time including Rodin, Henri Matisse, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, WB Yeats and George Bernard Shaw had described him as “the greatest photographer in the world”. But I couldn’t find any connection between him and the Handsworth born journalist Bonner despite an inkling that it may have had something to do with Coburns interests in mysticism and freemasonry.

My interest in George Bonner was rekindled when the inquest was featured in the recent Voices of War Exhibition and I used it as an example in my recent talk at Who Do You Think You Are? Live at the NEC last month as a tribute to those sometimes forgotten victims of WWI who died as a result of their experiences many years after the conflict ended. This time I made a breakthrough – thanks to a tangential line of enquiry by a Tolkien scholar, John Garth. His research into the war experiences of JRR Tolkien had uncovered a link between Bonner (who turns out to have been a near contemporary of Tolkien at both King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Magdalen College, Oxford) Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen via the Craiglockhart Hospital in Scotland. The fascinating story of how Garth happened to make connections with George Bonner’s son and in so doing uncovered “lost” editions of The Hydra, Craiglockhart’s in-house magazine can be seen here.

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“Banned! Censoring Sexuality” LGBT History Month


Birmingham Pride Parade 2004 reproduced with the kind permission of Brigitte Winsor.

Banned! Censoring Sexuality is a talk by Rachel MacGregor as part of LGBT History Month.

Tuesday 10th February 2015

Join Collections Curator Rachel MacGregor to explore the history of censorship in Birmingham Libraries and in particular the case of the book described as “unadulterated filth” by Jean Genet, the celebrated French novelist, poet and playwright which became a national scandal when the Birmingham Library tried to buy it.  Discover more about censorship in the years before the Lady Chatterley trial and the role that Birmingham played in this.

Tickets available from The Box Tel: 0121 245 4455

Part of the Origins Season January – April 2015

Library of Cultures

Library of Cultures

Library of Cultures Exhibition 27 January – 27 April

The Library of Birmingham has a wealth of collections waiting to be uncovered and the Library of Cultures is our chance to showcase some of the highlights.  We invite you to come and find out more for yourselves.  In books, photographs, music, documents, illustrations, the Library of Birmingham is a treasure trove of information, telling stories from across the world past and the present.  There are stories of discovery, stories of struggle, stories of hope and stories of freedom.

J.J. Audubon's Birds of America

J.J. Audubon’s Birds of America 


There will be a rare opportunity to see one of the library’s biggest and most expensive books, Audubon’s Birds of America. Published in 1827, only 120 are known to survive.


Amongst many other treasures, there’s also a chance to see our earliest English printed book, dating from 1479, and find out how it came to be a part of the library’s collections.

Discover more about Shakespeare, the master of English story telling, and Birmingham’s unparalleled Shakespeare collections.  There are texts and posters of plays from across the world in many different languages.

We’ll be telling stories about the struggles for freedom both at home and abroad, about the fight for the right to vote, to live as we want and to follow our convictions.

The exhibition will take you on journeys, exploring different countries and cultures with photographs, artefacts and documents revealing lives and cultures around the world.

The Library of Cultures exhibition will be in the Discovery Gallery, Level 3 of the Library of Birmingham,  27 January – 27 April 2014 and you can visit the website to find out more about exclusive viewings and tours with the exhibition Curators. Admission Free


From Azad Kashmir to Small Heath

Mahmood Hashmi

Birmingham Archives and Heritage holds a collection of papers of noted Urdu writer and educator Mahmood Hashmi (ref MS 2579).  He was born in a village in Azad Kashmir and was from the 1940s a well-known name on the literary scene, with short stories and articles of literary criticism appearing in reputable journals such as Saqi and Adabi Dunya. He graduated from Punjab University and went on to gain an M.A. and L.L.B. from the University of Aligarh in 1943. In 1950, at the time of independence and partition he wrote a book of reportage, Kashmir Udas Hai, which was very popular in Pakistan, which was reprinted in 1995. He emigrated to England in 1953. He gained a postgraduate certificate in education from Leeds University and became the first black teacher in Birmingham in 1956 at Loxton School, Duddeston, Birmingham. He also turned to journalism and in April 1961, he became the founder editor of the London based ‘Mashriq’ (The East), Britain’s first Urdu language weekly newspaper and also the first South Asian newspaper. The paper was initially financed by Pakistani and Kashmiri factory workers from Birmingham who could see the significant impact it would have on their lives.

When he left the Mashriq in 1972, he returned to Birmingham and set up an Urdu interpreting and translating service, edited a bilingual newspaper (Saltley News) and continued to teach.  In the 1980’s as Urdu began to be introduced into British schools, he moved to Peterborough, where he undertook research into the needs of young pupils interested in learning Urdu in schools and devised teaching methods and materials.   This research resulted in him creating his Qaida (Primer) which was published by Bradford Metropolitan Council, in 1986. An entirely original approach in the teaching of Urdu, the Qaida was highly praised in the Times Educational Supplement.  Since retirement in 1983, he has reviewed bilingual books for the Times Educational Supplement, acted as a language consultant for the BBC School Magazine and as an examiner for the Royal Society of Arts Certificate in the teaching of community languages.  Today he lives in Small Heath, Birmingham, and is regarded as a leading light in the world of Urdu literature and is consulted by writers from across the globe.

‘Tolkien in Love’ on Radio 4 this Friday and Saturday

Map of Edgbaston from 1904 Birmingham Gazette

Tolkien met Edith when they were living in a lodging house in Duchess Road in 1908. Extract from Bird’s Eye View of Birmingham (Birmingham Gazette & Express, 1904)

In our times J.R.R. Tolkien is famous as the author of the books The Lord of the Rings, and The Hobbit on which epic fantasy films have been based. The film of The Hobbit, starring Martin Freeman as the hobbit Bilbo, is due to be released in December. The Birmingham of a hundred years ago, with its respectable middle-class suburbs and workers in factories and workshops, may seem a strange background for epic fantasy. But both The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings begin and end in the pleasant village of Hobbiton, which Tolkien based on Sarehole, next to the prosperous suburb of Moseley where his relatives lived. The heroes of Tolkien’s stories leave their safe homes to go off on epic adventures. They return and settle down at the end, but they have been transformed by their experiences.

On Friday 3rd August, 11.00-11.30am, there will be a documentary on Radio 4; Tolkien in Love. It tells the story of how Tolkien first met and fell in love with Edith Bratt in Edgbaston; of their separation and adventures before they could get married, and of how their love inspired the story of Beren and Luthien in The Silmarillion. David Warner and Ed Sear read some of Tolkien’s writings; the novelist Helen Cross is the presenter; the interviewees include John Garth, me (Maggie Burns) and other Brummies you may recognise – including a musical performance by birds in the woodland of Moseley Bog! 

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