Tag Archives: West Midlands

Genevieve Gwendoline Webb – a schoolgirl poet in the War Poetry Collection

Whilst researching local World War One poets whose works are held in the War Poetry Collection of the Library of Birmingham, one of my most unexpected discoveries was a slim volume entitled “Ten Short Poems”, written by Genevieve Gwendoline Webb. Female poets of World War One are far less well known than male ones, but what was particularly surprising about this booklet was that Genevieve had written these poems when she was a child. Her age, precisely recorded at the end of each poem in both years and months, ranges between 12 years 9 months and 14 years 9 months. Thus we can see that Genevieve was still a schoolgirl at the time the verses were written.

Using genealogical resources such as online local baptism records and the 1911 census, it is possible to establish that Genevieve Gwendoline Webb was born on 23rd July 1901. Her parents were Edward Joseph Webb, a sorting clerk at the Post Office and Annie Florence Webb. Interestingly Genevieve’s mother Annie was formerly Annie Le Brocq and she was born in St Helier, Jersey. Genevieve was baptised on 11th August 1901 at St Francis of Assisi Catholic church in Handsworth. The 1911 census shows Genevieve living with her parents at 17 George Street, Lozells. She had 4 siblings, Theresa Annie, Edward De Grunchy, Frances Helen and Josephine Mary. Her grandmother, Catherine Helen Webb, also appears on the census as living with the family.

The earlier verses in “Ten Short Poems” are written when Genevieve was 12 years old. War had not yet broken out, and Genevieve’s writing, whilst somewhat sombre in tone, reflects the usual concerns of a schoolchild with poetic leanings. In “The Lonely Willow” she celebrates the beauty of the natural world whilst at the same time recognising the cruelty that mankind can inflict upon it. In another poem “To a Favourite Teacher” she records her innocent attachment to one of her schoolmistresses and the sadness she feels at their approaching parting. This is because (and note her use of capital letters in the second line of the title!) her teacher is “ABOUT TO BE WED”. Nevertheless the poetess insists,

Though oceans part thee from mine eyes,
I’ll often think of you.

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Disability and the Great War

Wounded soldiers wearing their ‘convalescent blues’ on Victory Celebration Day at the 1st Southern General military hospital, Edgbaston, c. 1918-9 [Ref MS 4616]

This November, to mark the centenary of the armistice, Voices of War and Peace and the Library of Birmingham collaborated to organise an exhibition showcasing work about the First World War that has been carried out by local community organisations since 2014. Two of the projects displayed in the exhibition researched and presented information about injured and disabled soldiers. In honour of Disability History Month, and as Research Assistant for Voices of War and Peace, it seems appropriate to write about what I have learned about disability and the Great War.

The scale of the First World War was unprecedented and unexpected, putting a massive strain not only those on the front line but also on the home front. The injured soldiers returning home created a huge demand for hospital services. In Birmingham, Rubery Hill War Hospital opened in 1915, and then a second war hospital, Hollymoor, opened shortly after. As the war progressed, these hospitals were not enough to keep up with the need for medical services in the area. Large private houses across the Birmingham area were donated, such as Highbury in Moseley, to become treatment centres. The University of Birmingham buildings were also adapted for the uses of war, becoming the 1st Southern General in September 1914. Aston Webb was appropriated as a hospital, as well as ten other buildings on campus, and tents were also erected on the grounds. You can see archival images of the University and Highbury as treatment centres in the exhibition. By 1919, 125,000 patients from across the globe had been treated in Birmingham. These facts and statistics really give a sense of how many lives must have been completely changed by the war.

VAD nursing staff with wounded soldiers in the Great Hall main ward (Aston Webb building) of 1st Southern General military hospital, Edgbaston c. 1914-8 [MS 4616]

By the end of the war, about forty-thousand men had lost their arms or legs, leaving them permanently disabled. Many of them could no longer do the jobs that they had before the war, and some had to completely re-learn how to live independently. Immediately after the war, the war hospitals helped the men recover from their injuries. After serving the war, and literally giving part of themselves to the effort, the returning soldiers expected their country to now look after them in their time of need. Although there were schemes like the ‘Kings National Roll’ (1919) that were implemented by the state, they were mostly unsuccessful. It was charity organisations that provided ‘sheltered’ employment that helped the soldiers rehabilitate themselves. An example of ‘sheltered’ employment would be Thermega, teaching men how to make electric blankets. Another example is training men to be prosthetic fitters at Roehampton. It was charity organisations providing these services that gave these disabled servicemen a second chance after the war.

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Christabel Pankhurst and Smethwick

Less than a fortnight after the Armistice of the Great War, a Bill was rushed through Parliament which allowed women to stand for election to Parliament on equal terms with men, ‘ironically allowing those women aged between twenty-one and thirty years to stand for a parliament they could not elect’.[1] The previous year, after disbanding the Women’s Social & Political Union, Emmeline Pankhurst and her eldest daughter Christabel formed the Women’s Party. This new organisation represented their political views which now conflated the winning of the war with the women’s cause. Emmeline explained that women needed a party of their own because ‘men had grown so accustomed to managing the world in the past that it had become rather difficult for women in politics to hold their own if they were associated with men’.[2] Emmeline declined the chance to run for election in favour of her daughter and eventually it was decided that Christabel would attempt to become Member of Parliament for the new industrial working-class constituency of Smethwick. While the views of Emmeline and Christabel had become increasingly jingoistic as the war progressed, and their political tendencies leaned far more towards the right than before, the Women’s Party also ‘advocated equal pay for equal work, equal marriage and divorce laws, equality of parental rights, the raising of the age of consent, equal opportunity of employment, and equality of rights and responsibilities in regard to the social and political service of the nation’.[3]

Election Results from the Birmingham Evening Despatch, 4th December 1918

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Researching the women – local poets in the War Poetry Collection

Over 25 years ago, as part of the Birmingham Library “Meet the Decade” events, I put together an exhibition highlighting the work of several local war poets whose book or pamphlet formed part of the War Poetry Collection in the Central Library. Researching this exhibition had a lasting effect on me. Moved and enthralled by the words of these poets, I always hoped that one day I would have the chance to re-visit their work. Perhaps I might again have the opportunity to publicise the poems and to help the voices of these poets be heard once more.

As part of the World War One centenary events I have been given the opportunity to recreate an exhibition featuring these local poets as one of the community projects displayed in the Voices of the First World War exhibition at the Library of Birmingham. Whilst Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon are synonymous with World War One, others also sought to reflect the war through their verse. Many had written poems throughout their life. For others the events of the war, so unheralded and traumatic, meant searching for a way to come to terms with the experience. Writing poetry enabled them to do this.

Some of the works in the War Poetry Collection, such as “Poems and Drawings” by Henry Lionel Field and “Memoir and Poems of a Soldier” by Clifford Flower, have detailed introductions that provide an outline of the poet’s life. Biographical details are enhanced by quotes from the poets themselves and sometimes from their family, school friends and army colleagues.

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Women, War and Peace: a West Midlands perspective

The 3rd Chris Upton Memorial Lecture, 12th November 2018

The Speaker is Maggie Andrews, Professor of Cultural History, University of Worcester

The Nell Haynes children, 1917

November 2018 marks the centenary of First World War armistice, which brought to an end four years of conflict and the century of the start of the very first parliamentary election campaign in which at least some women participated as voters and candidates.

In this year’s lecture, inspired by Chris Upton’s commitment to explore the lives of the ordinary people of the West Midlands, Professor Maggie Andrews will look at how the four years of war and the peace that followed affected the women in the region. Life on the home front offered some women new working opportunities or public roles and the new women voters created much excitement on polling day in December 1918.

Worcester munitions workers

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‘A Union of Adult Schools in the Midland Counties’

William White (at the podium) and Class I Severn Street Men’s Adult School (MS 703 2/2)

On the evening of 14th February 1884, Alderman William White of Birmingham and John Blackham, of Hill Top, West Bromwich, welcomed representatives of the Adult Schools in Birmingham and the neighbouring towns to a meeting at the Friends Severn Street Adult School. These schools provided reading and writing classes based on the Bible to adults on Sundays, and were non-denominational. Present were 14 representatives from Severn Street School and its branch schools, 19 representatives from 11 other Adult Schools in Birmingham, and 33 representatives from schools in neighbouring towns including Bilston, Bloxwhich, Brierley Hill, Coventry, Oldbury, Smethwick, Tipton, Walsall, West Bromwich, Wednesbury, Willenhall and Wolverhampton. In total, these schools had 11, 000 scholars between them. The purpose of the meeting was to form ‘a Union of Adult Schools in the Midland Counties’ (MS 272/I/1).

William White (MS 703 box 2/2)

White (1820 – 1900), a Quaker book seller and publisher, had been a Birmingham town councillor since 1873. He chaired several of Birmingham Corporation’s committees and was chair of the Birmingham Coffee House Company. He was also a magistrate, and in 1893 became Lord Mayor of Birmingham.  Involved in the Adult School Movement since 1848, when he became teacher of Class I at Severn Street (the first Adult School in the city, established by the Quaker, Joseph Sturge in 1845), White remained teacher of this class until his death in 1900. You can read more about Severn Street Adult School here. White was instrumental in the expansion of the Adult School Movement amongst Quakers both in Birmingham and across the country, and his work inspired Methodist, Congregationalist and Church of England leaders to establish their own Adult Schools.

John Blackham (1834 – 1930), a draper, book seller and publisher was Senior Deacon of Ebenezer Congregational Church, West Bromwich, and in 1870 had established the first Adult School in the region outside Birmingham. In 1875, he founded the ‘Pleasant Sunday Afternoon Movement’ a non-denominational Sunday afternoon meeting of religious instruction for adults, accompanied by a more popular form of religious service for those were not attracted by the Adult School movement.

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Catalogue of the Central England Quakers archive now available

Bull Street Meeting House exterior (finding no. SF/1516)

Following completion of the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers cataloguing project, funded by a cataloguing grant from the National Archives and a bequest from a member of Bull Street Quaker Meeting, the catalogue of Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends is now available to view on our online catalogue and in hardcopy in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research.

Covering the establishment of Quakerism in the area in the mid-17th century to the present day, the collection includes records of the county’s umbrella organisation, Warwickshire Monthly Meeting and its predecessors, and the records of the regional Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Leicestershire Quarterly Meeting which reported to the head of the Quaker Church, the Yearly Meeting in London. It also includes records of local Quaker Meetings in Birmingham such as Bull Street, Bournville, Cotteridge, Edgbaston, Selly Oak and Kings Heath, as well as those further afield such as Warwick, Coventry, Barnt Green and Redditch, Stourbridge, Solihull, Sutton Coldfield and Walsall.  Records for meetings which no longer exist such as Gooch Street, Farm Street, Longbridge, Dudley, Stirchley, Shipston-on-Stour, Baddsley Ensor, Fulford Heath and Wigginshill are also in the archive.

Screenshot of the online catalogue for the Records of the Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (ref SF)

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