25 March 2014

The Blue Coat Children

Last year I wrote about the early years of the Blue Coat School that stood near St. Philip's church from 1724. In 1769 a local stonemason and sculptor was commissioned to produce two figures to adorn the exterior of the school; one each of a boy and a girl in school uniform, modeled on two real pupils. The sculptor, according to Blue Coat records, was Samuel Grubb, perhaps working with his more well known brother Edward. The statues were originally unpainted; William Hutton noting that they had been executed with a 'degree of excellence that a Roman statuary would not blush to own'.* It was in 1881 that someone thought they needed a lick of paint, just in case you couldn't guess the colour of the uniforms from the name of the school. Underneath the girl was written 'We cannot recompense you, but ye shall be recompensed at the at the resurrection of the just', and beneath the boy was 'Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it'.*

It is a rather sweet insight into Georgian school life to see the children in their uniforms, and brings the children in the Blue Coat School post to life a little.

Postcard of the Blue Coat School, not long before demolition,
with the statues just in view.

6 March 2014

A Trip to Thomason's Show Rooms

When Sir Edward Thomason retired in 1835 he had built up a business that was one of the jewels of Birmingham's manufacturing crown. It had been visited by Princes, Dukes and Emperors from all the corners of Europe; and considering this global renown of Thomason in his time, I thought that you might like to take a tour as well.

The manufactory that you see before you (see image above) was composed from a number of dwelling houses that had lined the top end of Church Street, built in the 1700s. But from 1793, after an apprenticeship with Matthew Boulton, Edward Thomason began trading, utilising his father's buckle manufactory that had been left for him on the same site. Thomason's apprenticeship with Boulton had showed him what ambition could achieve and whetted his appetite for science and mechanics. His 'mind became restless to produce some novelty or invention worthy to be patented'.* He began making gilt and plated buttons, but soon branched into jewellery, coins, tokens and medals, continually expanding the business, so that by 1796 sixty to seventy rooms were utilised for his manufactures, as well as having twelve show rooms. The use of show rooms was an excellent tactic as it included Thomason's manufactory as part of the Birmingham tour where the town's articles could be examined and the the ingenuity of their maker wondered at.

Throughout this time Thomason was also working to achieve his ambitions of invention, and after several years of being generally unsuccessful he finally patented a new design for a corkscrew in 1802 that helped to make his name, as well as a good fortune. His ingenuity was aided by unflinching self promotion; he would send examples of new articles to whomever he thought best to promote himself and his wares, whether that be scientific medals to the most eminent scientists if the day, or commemorative medals to the Prince Regent himself. He also made the town and himself known to all Europe by sending religious medals to all of Europe's monarchs, and over the nineteenth century he received many honours and gifts from these; honours that he actively sought, and sometimes asked for.* He included illustrations of many of these gifts in his memoirs, as well as a portrait of himself wearing his honours (see below), and the many letters of praise received from esteemed persons. He was obviously very proud of his achievements, but one commentator (who called Thomason 'pleasant, chatty, spirited, yet egotistical') gave vanity as one of the main drivers in Thomason's memoirs.**

Thomason with his honours, from his Memoirs.

But, less about the man, let us take a look inside, where you can explore within one space a great range of the metallic arts; the 'show-rooms [...] profusely supplied with all that can be conceived of elegance and magnificence',*** and 'considered to be the most complete of the kind in Birmingham, and not to be equalled by many in England. He has a splendid exhibition of costly ornamental productions, in gold, silver, brass, and bronze, with a great variety of medals of the finest workmanship', as well as mechanical items.**** In 1832 Charles Stewart visited Birmingham. During his short stay (he found Birmingham too modern) he visited the ‘ingenious manufactories’ of both Thomason and Jones and found them both ‘rich in specimens of the most beautiful workmanship' and containing several items of special interest, including the Warwick Vase, of which Thomason's establishment was particularly noted for.

Over the next few weeks there will be some more posts about the Warwick Vase and other items that you might have been able to see in Thomason's show rooms. 

By this time (1832) the manufactory Thomason had inherited and built up was a very large affair and Thomason himself had made a name for himself through his ambition, innovation and clever promotion. It was three weeks after Stewart visited that Thomason was knighted, the first Brummie to be so. Shortly afterwards his friend, James Bisset, sent him the following verse:

            I congratulate you on the honor
So lately conferr'd by our Monarch (the donor).
Who, judging most wisely where merit is due,
The badge of true Knighthood bestowed upon you;
And feeling as all other amateurs felt,
Rewards you with title, gilt spurs, sword, and belt!
    I remember the time (fifty years since, when boys)
Your name at SOHO 'gan to make a great noise;
And when to the 'toy shop of Europe' you came,
Each season exalted a THOMASON'S fame.
As an Artist whose works o'er the globe have been whirl'd,
Your renown has extended all over the world!
No wonder HIS MAJESTY then thought it right
(High-talented Edward) to make you a KNIGHT!
                       I am Sir, Yours very faithfully,
                                        JAMES BISSET,
                                                 A Septuagenarian."'

Edward Thomason attributed to Sir William Beechey.
Date unknown but probably late 1700s.

* Thomason's Memoirs
** The Worthies of Warwick
*** A Picture of Birmingham
**** A History of Birmingham

Scientific and Philosophical Medals

24 February 2014

Birmingham in Miniature: Richards's Toy-Shop

Plate from Bisset's Directory, 1808. An advert for Richards's toy-shop.

Welcome to Richards's toy-shop, run by Theophilus Richards; a toy at the turn of the century being a luxury, adornment item. In 1767 toy-makers were described:
"these Artists are divided into several branches, as the Gold and Silver Toy Makers, who make Trinkets, Seals, Tweezer and Toothpick cases, Smelling Bottles, Snuff Boxes, and Filigree Work, such as Toilets, Tea Chests, Ink Stands &c &c. The Tortoiseshell Toy Maker, makes a beautiful variety of the above and other Articles; as does the Steel; who makes Cork Screws, Buckles, Draw and other Boxes: Snuffers, Watches, Stay Hooks, Sugar knippers &c. and almost all these are likewise made in various metals."
The advert above is tantalising; it is a mixture of graphic depiction, with urns and motifs, and reality, with the shop front and open door captured. Inside, as was prevalent in adverts of this time, can be seen refined middle class customers perusing Richards's wares. Richards sold the jewellery, cutlery and silverware that he most likely made himself, but considering that he termed his shop 'Birmingham in Miniature', it seems likely that he also sold items from many other manufacturers so that the premises became almost like a museum of Birmingham wares. This is asserted by the fact his shop was promoted as part of a tour of Birmingham's manufacturing 'curiosities', and that it was included in Admiral Nelson's tour of Birmingham in 1802, and was also visited in 1805 by HRH Prince William of Gloucester. Richards would have sold luxury consumer goods and novelties made by the innovative Birmingham manufacturers to adorn the home and person of the rising middle classes. A small example can be seen in one of the shop's bills:

From Birmingham Archive: A Bill for Richards's

As well as making items, it can be seen, from the bill below, that shops also made repairs; something we struggle to find today in our throw-away society.
The advert at the top left is for a commemorative coin/medal of George III, these coins were highly popular and widely collected at the time; Richards, as had many others, had obviously tapped into this lucrative market. The patent bronzed corkscrew is likely to be a Thomason corkscrew, made locally by another manufacturer- Edward Thomason.

The Rev. W. Fenwick
                                              To Theo. Richards & Son
April 17th   Repairing Candlestick                                               2. 0.
Oct 13       1 Patent Bronzed Corkscrew                                     7. 0.
Dec 29       taking to pieces old urn & repairing it
                  with new cock mouth & new chimney                         6. 0.
Jan 17        Rep Corkscrew                                                          1. 0.
                                         For Theo. Richards & Son
                                        Thos. Day [Thomas Day]

The Richards family were silversmiths, cutlers and gun makers, and the gun making branch of their business still trades today on Birmingham's Pritchett Street (see their website here). It is also due to Theophilus Richards that we have a copy of the 1731 map of Birmingham, as reprints were made of an original copy that was in his possession in 1789. Theophilus Richards (born 1748) was nephew to William Westley, the man who drew up the map. Theophilus's father, Thomas, had been making guns in Birmingham since at least the 1740s, but Theophilus himself branched into the toy trade.

11 February 2014

Life Back to Back: An Ann Street Court

Close-up of court 6 behind Ann Street, 1860s. The court was probably
built around the turn of the nineteenth century. 

The lives of the working people of Birmingham were rarely recorded in the same detail as those of the middling groups, and when they were recorded it was often to note the charity or benevolence of an institution such as the Blue Coat School. It was not until the Victorian era working people's housing began to be described, and then, with the invention of the camera, visually recorded. But in 1786 3,738 of Birmingham's 9,773 dwelling houses were backwards facing,* so this kind of housing is a sizable slice of the town's social and cultural built heritage. The close-up, above, is a wonderful insight into life behind Birmingham's streets, with the chickens in the court and washing on the line.

Back to back housing was one of the dominant answers to the urban overcrowding caused by rapid growth in many towns from the late 1700s, and Birmingham particularly took on the design. They were literally what they sound like, houses laid out back to back, so that the only entrance and windows were on the front; the houses arranged around an open court. These were sometimes built in the gardens of older housing, but new streets were also being laid out all around the outskirts of the town. Although the living conditions in such housing is generally thought of as poor, these houses could be a huge improvement to many run-down rural cottages, and Birmingham's housing was better than other cities. In 1828, John Darwall, a doctor at Birmingham's General Hospital, noted that in Birmingham
'the streets are, for the most part, wide and spacious, and the courts have, generally, large yards. Unlike Liverpool and Manchester, excepting the part of the town which is occupied by the Irish, it is rare to find more than one family in one house, and I know not any situation where cellars are occupied by dwellings.'**
Regardless of this, housing could often be poorly built making it quickly run down, so with poor drainage, poor diet and poverty, illness was particularly quick to spread through these closely built dwellings.  

Full image of court 6, Ann Street, 1860s. The area is being prepared for demolition for the new Council House;
the rubble in the foreground had previously been further housing.
The church in the background is the now demolished Christ Church. 

* JAL (301)
** Quoted in Chris Upton's Living Back to Back

10 February 2014

How to Advertise- Regency Style

Frontispiece from Allin's 1803 advert,
copied by Catherine Hutton Beale. 

From about the 1780s till 1813 there stood an eccentric looking shop at the top of New Street, not far from where Queen Victoria stands gazing across the modern Birmingham landscape (see here). The little shop, named Multum in Parvo, or, 'much in a small place', was run by an equally eccentric proprietor, Mr. John Allin. Allin was a tailor (taylor), but also dabbled in all manner of other lines of business, including pulling your rotten teeth. In 1803 he produced a sixteen page booklet promoting his business, but being John Allin this was not your everyday kind of advert; pictures were rarely used as promotion during this period, but Allin used an alternative method to make the pages come to life. He wrote the entire article in verse. 

He was not alone in using verse to promote either an individual establishment, or the town as a whole; James Bisset was particularly keen on a poem or two, but Allin's lines connect with the seemingly mundane everyday articles that he sold and give a wonderful insight into the retail culture of the time. When describing the tailoring aspect of his business he addresses women, children and men in turn, and the articles described build a fragrant picture of the fashions of the time. He also notes his range for farmers, servants and coachmen, the latter particularly needing good quality coats that could withstand the elements they would have been daily exposed to. His list of children's toys is also fascinating and reveals how their entertainments and home education was not so different. His list of stationary brings the Regency writing desk to life, and the prolific letter writing that marked the time. What is particularly fascinating though is the description of his exhibition, which housed curiosities and novelties galore. The poem has been transcribed below, and has links to find out more about particular articles for sale or on display. 

Hatter, Haberdasher, Hosier, Linen and 
Woollen Draper, Grocer &c. 
Cheap Clothes and York Shoe Warehouse, 

Opposite the TOP of NEW-STREET, 

For the Accommodation of all Sorts of Customers, 
who may be provided with every Necessary of 
 Life; suited Top to Bottom, from Inside 
 to Outside, from right-side to left-side, yes, 
and on ALL SIDES, with every Wearable and 
Tearable, from the Giant of ten Feet high to 
the Infant just popp'd into the World: Sold 

At little more than HALF their VALUE, 
Ready Money only.

PERMIT me, with respect to greet
All those who tread thro' New-street,
And humbly beg they'll deign to stop,
And choose some goods at ALLIN'S Shop:
Enough I know, you're sure to find.
To charm the sight, delight the mind;
Great choice for luxury or use,
Such goods few others can produce. 
YE fair, to you my first respects
I'll pay, as gratitude directs.
Cloaks, bonnets, shawls, of highest taste,
With gowns and stays to fit your waist, 
Caps and ribbons, gloves and rings,
With many other pretty things
In mantua-millinery way,
My goods with pleasure I'll display,
Muffs and tippets, fans and feathers,
Parasols, para[pluit], to suit all weathers. 
Velvet collars, edgings, lace,
To improve each pretty face.
Quilts and skirts of [stuff] and silk,
Dimity* coats as white as milk.                                    [*a kind of fabric]
Stockings, black or white, quite fine,
Or some more coarse if you incline,
Seal skin and morocco shoes,
Coarse or fine, just as you choose,
Home-made, false-made, very neat,
To suit the make of all your feet:
And shifts, I make them every day,
And drive a mighty trade that way.
Pockets, purses, too, I sell, 
Both these I finger mighty well.
Do pray walk in, and let me try,
Something you cannot fail to buy;
I love to gain by good behaviour,
The ladies interest and their favour.
And now to clothe the young creation,
I've child-bed things for every station;
Shoes to curious here are sold, 
The infant walks at ten months old;
And then to make the teeth cut easy,
I have a thing I know will please ye.
Corals and necklaces abound,
In which much virtue has been found;
A ribbon there to tie them on,
And now for these I think I've done.
A while I'll leave the female fair,
And make the other sex my care,
To suit you all doth please me well,
And much I wish my goods to sell.
Indulge me, gentle sirs, in this, my pride,
By your consent to let me now provide
And suit you, one & all, with coats and breeches, 
They shall be strong & very neat the stitches.
Waistcoats and drawers, wigs and cravats, 
And pantaloons, and every sort of hats.
Shirts plain or frill'd, fine, good and neat,
Sew'd with strong thread & stitch'd complete.
Handkerchiefs for your neck or nose,
And every sort of curious hose.
Shoes, buckles, garters, boots,
All your mind or wishes suits.
Close coats, top coats, smart and strong,
To fit you now I sadly long.
The prince, the porter and the peasant,
If they but bring the cash so pleasant,
May suited be to admiration,
And fitted to their approbation,
For all's alike to I you know,
If they but leave the ready rhino.
And then for black I have beside,
Enough to clothe old Israel's tribe;
From the bishop to the sexton,
Every man without exception;
From life's first dawning the end,
My services I will extend.
With hatband, favors, gloves, and [pall],
Most cheerfully I'll serve you all
And then to prove myself your friend,
As mourning days will have their end,
I'll buy the very things I sold,
And sell them all again for old.
The farmer, too, I can complete,
With good smock-frock, both strong and neat,
Doe-skin breeches, home-made shoes,
Or boots, if he would rather choose.
Strong shirts for them I too provide,
And every article beside.
And next the gammon of the whip,
Who oft to London take a trip,
Good cheap box-coats of every size,
For those who do their health much prize,
To keep them dry in time of need,
A useful article indeed!
'Twill serve sometimes to lend a friend,
And oft-times gain a private end,
For in the wet I think indeed,
All those you serve should freely bleed,
For then the tapster* will take care,                          [*bartender]
And something warm for you prepare.
Does a good servant want a place?
Or is a master in distress?
If to my office they'll repair,
I'll serve them all with speed and care.
A taylor too I am by trade,
I cut to measure, or fit ready made.
From home I have no time to lose,
And this your goodness will excuse,
But at my shop whoe'er attends,
The price shall make him full amends.
Now to amuse the children's mind,
I have toys of all sorts, and kinds,
Formed of pewter and wooden ware,
And long will last with prudent care.
I've puzzling cards of various rules,
Collected for the use of schools;
Dissected maps and travelling charts,
T'improve the mind, engage the hearts.
Teaching geography while you play,
And learning kingdoms all the way;
Cards framed on purpose to amuse,
T'enforce instruction in the use:
A curious map with plain direction,
Suited to juvenile inspection,
Describing all the English towns,
Their limits, situations, bounds, 
Places held in highest note,
Castles, rivers, lake, or moat,
This map 'tis worth your while to try,
Step in and look, I'm sure you'll buy.
Charming little books for spelling,
Such as children may read well in:
Primes, horn books, little pictures,
Curious toys for infant lectures:
Every work that gains applause,
On literature, state, or laws,
Shall be procured, on application,
That I may gain your approbation,
Thus my address to those who read,
To those who write I now proceed:
And to obtain their kind attention,
There's paper of the first invention:
Marble from the French and Dutch,
Soft and pleasant to the touch;
Brown for packing, purple, green,
Royal, [muslium], magazine,
[Lawn], and music, quite inviting,
Gilt [post], and [foolreap] fit for writing;
Whited brown, and common blue,
Elephant, and cartridge too;
Vellum for the bond and deed,
Postcards when you stand in need;
Fine glaz'd paper for the fair,
The ladies still demand my care;
A beauteous show of quills and pens,
From geese and turkeys, [...], and hens,
Cut to suit the various hands,
Us'd in this or foreign lands.
Ink, like jet 'twill shine to bright,
Sure I am 'twill please the sight,
Ink of glowing ruby red,
And the very best that's made;
Powder ink or made in cake,
Or the genuine Indian make.
Wafers*, every kind and hue                                       [*sealing part of envelope]
Black or white, or red, or blue;
Wax to bear the clear impression,
Which conceals the fond expression.
Seals much used by all descriptions,
Poets, lawyers, and physicians;
Rulers, pounce, and silver sand,
Pen knives fullest to your hand;
Drawing pencils red and black,
Cards, to invite, sold by the pack,;
Indian rubber, and pencil tops,
Shells and cups, and paint in drops;
The best lead pencils clothed in reed,
Or in cedar if you need;
Slates and pencils smooth and clear,
Brushes made with camels hair;
Balls to keep the shoes from cracking,
Curious cakes for liquid blacking.
Music divine has charms to case,
And make despair and madness please.
Would you the marbling plate inspire,
To set the love-sick soul on fire,
Or melancholy fits assivage;
To furnish you I now engage;
Or would you charm with notes now strong,
My clarinet assists your song;
At summer's eve, or wintry morn,
Vow here may find the mellow horn,
And make each valley, hill, and plain,
Re-echo the enchanting strain,
Violins, tenors, violincellos,
To suit all honest fiddling fellows;
Cat-calls, jews-harps, port-boys horns,
Drums and trumpets -- wars alarms!
And every instrument beside,
That is of harmony the pride;
And then a choice of songs you see,
Collected with great nicety;
Solos, symphonies, quartettos,
Trios, overtures, duettos;
Favourite marches for the army,
New concertos for to charm ye;
Country dances, and cotillions*,                                        [*type of dance]
Jigs and minuets by millions.
Glees and catches, merry airs,
Books to guide unpractic'd players;
Cat-gut strings, and strings of wire,
All that music can require;
All to aid soft music's power,
And to cheer the lonesome hour.
Have you need of physic's aid,
Med'cine, too, I make my trade:
Warm-cakes, sure to give you ease,
Sov'reign balm* for all disease;                                         [*a kind of cure-all balm]
For corns, that troublesome disaster,
Why, I have got a certain plaster;
Then soak your feet, and come to me,
Your toes from corns I'll quickly free!
All this and more, I'll undertake,
And draw your teeth if they should ache.


And now, my friends, with gratitude I own
The num'rous favours you've so kindly shown;
Poor, my expressions, I would [again] convey
My hearty thanks your goodness to repay,
And aiming still to please, with due submission,
I've now prepared a beauteous exhibition.
Multum in Parvo! much compriz'd in little,
Curious, tho' small, 'twill please you to a tittle.
Birds of all kinds, and beasts of rare creation,
Shells, medals, foreign coins from every nation.
India, America, Greenland, Iceland too,
And something of the mines of rich Peru.
The Bird of Paradise, the Ruff, the Gull,
The Flying Rat, the Mouse, the Horned Owl.
From Botany Bay, of birds a good collection;
Worthy the coinnoisseur's[sic] minute inspection.
A panorama,* too, I can display,   [*this would have been a miniature panorama]
With different prospects every other day,
And then my little painter wont refuse,
To sketch you any little thing you choose.
Again [...] changes you may see,
By peeping through my Palagree.
And you this moral may receive,
That men each other oft deceive;
Strong facts are over[...] it by fiction,
And reason oft a contradiction:
This fact is true I now relate,
A crooked telescope views straight.
I have a glass too will erase,
The beauties of your neck and face,
And magnify to such a size,
That your own figure you'll despise.
Globes derived to represent,
Bodies celestial, fully bent
In chaos not to keep their station,
But venture on the new creation.
A thousand things I have to show,
Every day I've something new;
At present I no more will mention,
But only crave your kind attention,
And sign myself, as is expedient,
Your humble servant, most obedient.


Birmingham Objects #2: William Hutton's Handkerchief

Tucked in the archive I found this handkerchief that once belonged to Birmingham's first historian, William Hutton. It would have probably been made in the mid 1700s, and he passed it down to his son, Thomas. I was surprised by the size of the handkerchief, it was about 1 1/2 metres square, and made from a very fine material, which I presume to be silk. It is lovely that these objects were handed through the generations, although, I personally wouldn't want to be given one of my dad's old hankies! Of course, the Georgian handkerchief could also be worn around the neck, which is probably why it is the size that it is.

William Hutton was very active in Birmingham life during his lifetime, he had moved to the town in 1750 and opened a book, stationary and paper shop on High Street, and was one of Birmingham's many examples of individuals who came to the town with little and did very well for themselves.

You can find out more about him here, he was also a 'commissioner' passing judgement at the Court of Requests, where the fate of debtors was decided.

William Hutton with books, dog, and his home at Bennetts Hill
in the background.

Birmingham Objects #1: Teething

Teething rattles made in Birmingham, 1844. The one on the right
has a coral teether.

It was predominant throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for coral, and other hard substances such as bone and ivory, to be used for teething babies. The teether was often combined with a rattle, as can be seen here with these silver rattles, made in Birmingham.

11 July 2013

A Seditious Hand-Bill Hits the Streets of Birmingham


On the 11th July 1791 the hand-bill above was printed and distributed around Birmingham. These were strong words for the time; with lines like 'The Peace of Slavery is worse than the War of Freedom' it was almost a call to arms. Some believed that it was published by enemies to these ideas, to deliberately inflame anger, though it could also have been someone without the sense to forsee the consequeces. After all, Revolution is not everyone's cup of tea. Whoever printed it, it definitely had an effect!

10 July 2013

The Tippet & Muff

The tippet was basically a scarf worn around the neck, and the material used depended on the occassion. The lady above is wearing a fur tippet to match her muff, for the cold weather, but they could also be composed of lace, silk, worsted, velvet, wool or feathers. In 1806 a 'white satin tippet, underlined with wadding, and edged all round with white swansdown' was described. They were generally long, at times nearly to the feet, and sometimes so thin that they could have only been worn for decorative purposes.

The muff was generally an article for cold weather, keeping the hands warm, and often could match the tippet. ....


'The Test ____' published 20th February 1790. Depicting the percieved
threat of Dissenters to 'Church and King'. This cartoon helps to depict
some of the tensions leading up to the Priestley or 'Church and King'
riots in Birmingham on 14th July 1791.
Joseph Priestley is depicted in the bottom right corner.
'The Flame of Liberty' is about to burn down the building represented
by the symbols of Church (to the left) and King (to the right).

The cartoon above (published February 1790) is fictional, but depicts the perceived threat of the religious Dissenters by the mainstream Anglican church. Joseph Priestley (second image), a Dissenter, is shown as part of a mob bent on the destruction of Church and King (third image). The following post will explore this backdrop to the Priestley riots (also called the Church and King riots, as the mob were for "Church and King") that began on 14th July 1791, and were directed at the Dissenters.

After the Revolution in France there was a rising feeling in England that political change could occur here as well, both from those who desired it and those who feared it. But unlike France, the desire for political change here was greatly tied up with religion, as many fighting for political reform were religious Dissenters who questioned the Anglican church. Dissenters were not allowed to become Members of Parliament, nor study at university, due to the Test Acts that had been written during the Restoration to prevent Catholics gaining power. They wished to change this so that they could have more say, but Parliamnet seemed rooted in opposition to this. As well as this though, Dissenters, and others, fought for universal suffrage, the removal of Rotton Boroughs (boroughs with only a handful of residents where MP's could buy their way in) and to allow growing towns like Birmingham to send members to Parliament (as at this time Birmingham's thousands of residents had no representation in Parliament).

Dissenters attack the Church

Due to the restraint on education many ambitious Dissenters entered trade and manufacturing, which is why there was a strong base of Dissenting groups in Birmingham. By far the largest group were the Unitarians, of which Joseph Priestley was a part, as well as being preacher at the New Meeting House on Moor Street. Priestley was highly outspoken in matters of religion and politics, which worried many; Samuel Johnson stated that Priestley's 'work unsettles everything'.* After the French Revolution Priestley's fervour stepped up a notch, at one point comparing free enquiry to 'laying gunpowder, grain by grain'.* Although he later declared that the allusion to the Gunpowder Plot was unintentional, he became set in the eyes of his critics as a dangerous man, and was nicknamed Gunpowder Joe. Perhaps if Priestley's and the other Dissenters ideas on political reform had not been tied up with religion the story of this country may have been a different one.

Since the commencement of the French Revolution the friction between groups and ideas was heightened, there was fear of the air of revolution and at the beginning of 1790 Samuel Parr wrote that a 'storm is gathering, depend upon it [...] and if the church does not exert itself it will fall'.** The church certainly did exert itself as in 1790 George Croft preached at St. Martin's against the Dissenters and warned that 'while their meeting-houses are open they are weakening and almost demolishing the whole fabric of Christianity'.** The reply from Unitarian minister John Hobson was that Croft was 'viciously prejudiced [...] persecuting and abusive'. And Joseph Priestley himself was a prolific writer and published many pamphlets and leaflets addressing his opponents head-on. Within Birmingham a specific committee was formed to oppose the Dissenter groups, and by the end of 1790 troops were ordered as rioting or similar disorder seemed highly possible. This died down but in July 1791, after the the French Revolution Dinner was announced, trouble began to stir again.**

Over the next few days I will post some of the pamphlets, the replies that were published and other events leading to the riots.

* References on request
** This paragraph written using research from: R. B. Rose, The Priestley Riots of 1791

8 July 2013

Your Invitation to the French Revolution Dinner

Dear Reader,

We would like to invite you to a Grand Dinner being held at Dadley's Hotel on Temple Row on July 14th to celebrate the second anniversary of Revolution in France. We aim to promote 'equal government' and a 'free intercourse' in promoting the 'Rights of Mankind'. If you are 'disposed to join the intended temperate festivity, [it] is desired [that you] leave [your] name at the bar of the Hotel, where tickets may be had at five shillings each, including a bottle of wine'. The dinner will commence at three o'clock and we expect near 100 gentlemen to attend, including, we have been advised, Dr. Priestley.

Yesterday Aris's Birmingham Gazette, printed, as advised, the announcement of our plans to dine (see below). There has been a little concern that attached to this advertisement the paper have stated that they will publish the names of the diners, seemingly to stir up animosity towards our gathering. If you are 'any friend of freedom' be not moved by this act, but although this will not subvert our celebration we propose to make our first toasts to 'The King and Constitution' and 'The Prince of Wales'. We are certain that the dinner will pass with no trouble.

Your sincerely,
J. D.

This is part of a series of posts leading up to the anniversary of the Priestley Riots from 14th to 17th July 1791; and this dinner was a significant spark. Dr. Priestley, after advise from friends, did not attend the dinner in the end, but this did not quash the angry mobs. More posts will be added leading up to the riots, during, and the reaction afterwards. Click here to see all posts about the riots and Joseph Priestley.

7 July 2013

The Birmingham Library: A Ticket to Knowledge

Leading up to the anniversary of the Priestley Riots, which occurred in Birmingham from 14th July to 17th July 1791, an exploration of the Birmingham Library in which Dr. Joseph Priestley was involved.

The Birmingham Library was not the first in the town, but was the first of importance, opening up the world of knowledge to a wider section of society. The establishment was set up in 1779 by 19 men, all but one of whom were religious Dissenters, already open to inquiry. To join the library members paid a guinea (21 shillings), and then, from 1781, paid a further eight shillings per year, so this was by no means learning for all, but it paved the way for the advancement of learning through the classes.**

When Joseph Priestley came to Birmingham in 1780 the library found an enthusiastic supporter, one who had competently helped build other such institutions already, and so its management was entrusted to him. The institution had great hopes for a freedom of learning, the initial principal put forward by Priestley being that 'this institution can never answer the purpose of party, civil or religious, but, on the contrary, may be expected to promote a spirit of liberality and friendship among all classes of men without distinction'.* He believed that controversial literature, even his own, should not be included among the books. By 1786 the library committee contained a mix of the original Dissenter groups, as well as a higher proportion from the Anglican church, but surprisingly it was the latter who pushed to have Priestley's books included in the library. John Money believes this to be a purposeful 'manoeuvre' which 'produced predictable results. The acquisition of Priestley’s work was attributed not to the cabal on the committee but to the Doctor [Priestley] himself and his friends, and it was followed by a series of ostentatious Anglican protests and resignations'.*** After this Priestley promoted that all books, including both his own and those that contradicted them, should be included. But differing opinions caused tension, and eventually rupture within the organisation; in 1794, the library split into two groups becoming the Old Library, which eventually moved to Union Street, and the New Library, which became located in Cannon Street.*

In 1796 it was decided that the library needed a purpose built building for its expanding collection, and William Hollins was chosen to design and build the structure, left (I will explore the architecture of the building in a separate post). The building opened late in 1797, and the rent of the land was paid for by a Tontine Deed drawn up at the beginning of 1798. Tontine meant that a number of subscribers would pay a subscription out of which the rent would be taken out and the excess reserved. Each subscriber could nominate either themselves or another individual to the Tontine and whoever survived the rest received the lump accumulated sum; this is why it was often very young children who were nominated. Nearly 180 individuals were nominated (with about 150 doing the nominating) for the library Tontine Deed (details and names of these can be seen here).

Above the library was carved 'AD MERCATURAM BONARTUM ARTIUM PROFECTUS, ET TIBI ET OMNIBUS DITESCES' translated as 'resorting to the mart of sciences, you will grow rich, both for yourself and others'. The library itself definitely grew and flourished; in 1784 it had owned about 900 books but in its new home in Union Street this rose to more like 7,000 by 1799.* The libraries that were established across many of the towns were a step towards providing education and learning to a wider section of the population. Among all the names nominated for the Tontine Deed, of people who lived in or near Birmingham, nearly a third were manufacturers, especially those in the button and metal trades, another third were merchants, one sixth were gentlemen and the other sixth were predominantly,what were deemed as, higher professions such as doctors, attorneys, bankers, artists and churchmen.* This was a move in the right direction in supplying learning to those who had been excluded from it previously.

ABOVE: Late Victorian Union Street, but still retaining its Georgian and Regency architecture. In 1845 the library had been extended to the left, as can be seen in the photograph.

* References on request.
Other sources are this article and **British History Online.
*** John Money, Experience and Identity: Birmingham and the West Midlands 1760 - 1800

Seal from library card, above.

6 July 2013

Joseph Priestley in Birmingham: Religious Dissent and Political Change

Produced 1790 by William Dent, this charicatured representation of Joseph Priestley depicts him in a barrel with the word FANATICISM written on the side. The group in front ask if there is such a thing as a Devil, to which Priestley replies NO, but behind him is the Devil in flames about to skewer him. Priestley was progressive; he promoted free inquiry in religion, made prominent discoveries in science (he discovered oxygen) and dealt in radical politics including promoting the ideals of the French Revolution which had erupted a year previously. The cartoon is actually quite threatening, with the Devil stating that if Priestley 'had eyes behind [he'd] know better'. Just over a year later Priestley was taught his lesson for talking so candidly, as the rioters of 1791 burnt his home and the meeting house that he preached in to the ground. This was more than just questioning doctrine; Priestley shook the very core of established order. This spirit of questioning remained in Birmingham though, after Priestley abondoned the town following the riots, and it was one of the leading lights in political, and consequently social reform over the next few decades.

10 June 2013

Birmingham's Oldest Structure: The Zigzag Bridge

I have been part of a project in Witton and Perry Barr over the last month, exploring the history of these areas along the River Tame. Tame, I'm told, means a 'dark' river, and relates to the fact that it flowed slowly. Perry Bridge, or the Zigzag bridge as it is affectionately known, has been a constant across the River Tame since 1711, and even before then a bridge crossed at this point. The bridge is thought to be the oldest non-building structure in Birmingham. The drawing of the zigzag bridge, above, was produced in 1798; the shape is so that pedestrians could get out of the way of the carts and carriages. It was usurped in 1931/2 when the larger Art Deco Perry Bridge was built next to it (see below), but the 300 year old structure can still be used by pedestrians (and to play Pooh Sticks).

This point is said to be where King Charles I crossed the Tame on his way to Aston Hall when that building was attacked during the Civil War.

The area used to be very rural (it was not part of Birmingham till 1928) as can be seen from the drawing below from 1801, showing a small cottage with the River Tame running by. Standing here today are some industrial buildings, and a green spot where herons like to sit and rest; I've been watching them whilst visiting the area. If you are interested in the history of the Witton and Perry Barr areas, especially along the River Tame, you can visit the project blog: http://tamedproject.blogspot.co.uk , or if you have any stories to tell about your memories of the area please email me jenni.colesharris@gmail.com

Images from a selection held at BMAG, the full collection can be viewed here.

8 June 2013

Children in the Work Place

Birmingham Buttons

Disposition of John Turner, sworn to before Leonard Horner and John Spencer, Esquires, 1st May 1833.
Will you state the trade in which you are engaged? —Button manufacture.
Have you any mechanical moving power? —No steam-engine or water-wheels.
What number of workmen do you employ on your premises? —From one hundred and thirty to one hundred and fifty. We employ besides about three hundred and fifty out-workers; either working for us entirely or partially.
Will you state what number of children in the manufactory under fourteen years of age?—From twenty-five to thirty.
What is the earliest age? —I think nine.
What are the hours of work? —From seven till seven, with two hours for meals.
Do you leave off sooner on a Saturday? —We pay our wages on Friday, and have done so for many years. The work-people generally leave a little earlier on a Saturday.
What is your impression of the state of education of the children, in your employment? —They generally can read, and frequently write, and they in general attend Sunday-schools.
Have you any work in the night? —No.
Is there anything in the nature of your work calculated to injure the health of the children? —None, nor other persons, except gilding, and that under the improved system with little inconvenience.
In the course of your long experience, would you say that the health of the children in your employ was generally good? —Yes.
What is your impression of the moral character of the children, male and female, in your employ? —Good; it has been my invariable practice to attend to the morals of the people in our employ, discountenancing vice by every means in my power.
Are you acquainted with the nature of the dwellings of your work-people, both as to healthiness as well as comfort? —These are in exact proportion to the moral conduct of the parties. Where they are religious, they are clean; where they are drunken, dirty.
From your local knowledge of Birmingham, do you consider that the work-people live in health and comfort? —Yes; arising from the general custom, of each family having a separate house and access to good pump-water.
Has this proposed Ten Hours Labour Bill excited any attention among manufacturers or workmen, with reference to the town of Birmingham? —None whatever, as being inapplicable to the place.
Have you ever heard of a factory of any description in Birmingham where it is alleged that the children employed are over worked? —Never.
Do you believe the operatives are generally well off at present, taking into account the rate of wages, and the prices of the necessaries of life? —I have known them many times during the last forty years much worse off than at present, and I believe that a part of the proportion of the present distress arises from their improvidence.
Does the distress to which you allude extend generally to all classes of trades in Birmingham? —I think not.
Have you ever known in the course of your experience Birmingham without distress existing among some descriptions of employment? —Uninterrupted prosperity must have been very partial, and of short duration.

17 April 2013

Graffiti on Aston Church

The church of St.Peter and St. Paul in Aston is one of only two Birmingham churches mentioned in the Domesday Book; the other being St. Laurence's in Northfield. Although the majority of the edifice was rebuilt in the Gothic style by J. A. Chatwin between 1879 and 1890 some of the spire dates back to the fourteenth century, and carries with it some traces of people who wanted to leave their mark. Were W. M. and M. B. in love, perhaps they were about to be married; on 12th April 1836 a William Millets married a Mary Ann Bates at the church.*

The base of the spire is covered with old graffiti, which I'm sure the council wont be painting over any time soon; some nearly 250 years old. Click on the images to enlarge them.

* There is also a marriage at the church of William Matthews and Mary Bamfield on 17 February 1837, this couple could have engraved their initials as they came to have the banns read out late in 1836.

Aston churchyard with Aston Hall in the distance. Taken 12 March 2010.

Aston history by Bill Dargue

28 March 2013

The Meanings of Charity: Blue Coat School

The Blue Coat School and the railed graveyard of St. Philip's, circa 1845.
The school had originally been built in 1724, but altered and enlarged
by John Rawstorne between 1792 and 1794.

The Blue Coat school was founded by the Rector of St. Philip's church at the time; the Reverend William Higgs. In 1722 it was decided to open an establishment for the education of poor children due to the 'profaneness and debauchery [...] greatly owing to a gross ignorance of the Christian religion, especially among the poorer sort; and that nothing is more likely to promote the practice of Christianity than an early and pious education of youth'.* The school, as well as giving religious guidance, would teach the children reading and writing, arithmetic, geography, science, needlework, and housework, some of these were gendered. It opened in the July of 1724 and took on 22 boys and 10 girls to be 'clothed, maintained and educated', and another 10 of each sex to be clothed and educated only, but the latter method was short-lived.***

The children remained at the school full time, being allowed to visit their parents five times in the year, varying from a couple of days to a couple of weeks; at Mid-Lent, Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide and for the Michaelmas Fair. On Sundays though, apart from one at Mid-Lent, the children were always to be at school so as to attend church. Parents were not allowed to see their children apart from in these holidays, as in September 1760 it was decreed that 'no child after they are admitted into the Charity School shall be suffered to speak to their parents or next friends',** and parents had no say in the treatment of the children. Punishments for the severest disobedience could be a week's imprisonment or being 'severely whipt, stript and expelled from the school'.** These were, of course, harsh and sometimes humiliating, but acceptable punishments for the time.

In 1831 those involved in the school looked back at how the establishment had been 'an asylum for [the children] in those years which most require superintendence and protection, a careful discipline in their minds in a system of virtuous and obedient habits, and daily instruction in the principals and duties of the religion of the Church of England'.* Once education was complete at fourteen, the children were placed in apprenticeships, the boys with manufacturers as so to learn 'some useful trade', and the girls as domestic servants. With regards to the girls education, they were trained in all manner of domestic duties throughout their school life, which included making the boys beds and sweeping and mopping the boys rooms, and even after this changed in 1815, the girls still received a lesser academic education.** The children were basically handed over by their parents 'to the sole management of the subscribers [...] and the disposal of him (or her) to such masters or mistresses';* if the parent(s) wanted their children back or did not wish their child to be sent into the roles that were laid out for them they had to pay £10, which for the very poorest could be six months wages.* So this was not wholly an education that was meant to serve the children in their chosen paths in life, but generally to serve those that gave money to the charity (by subscription), by producing obedient and well mannered servants.

Those that subscribed to the school were often those who received apprentices, such as Matthew Boulton, who was a subscriber, and was treasurer at one point, and who received a number of apprentices including a George Craven in 1766. The school did not abandon their children when they were sent out as apprentices though, if they had a complaint about how their master or mistress was treating them they could ask the school for assistance. The school would often threaten legal action if the claims seemed to be founded, though most employers would promise to amend their ways and the charges would be dropped. They took this part of their role in the children's lives after they left the school very seriously.

The charity of the Blue Coat School was of a very different kind to charity as we understand it today; it was money for something, that something being, hopefully, an obedient and diligent apprentice or servant. Many of the children, though, would have had a better quality of life than if they had not attended the school, and many showed their gratitude. A group of former pupils came together and formed the Grateful Society (which later became the True Blue Society) and helped to raise money for the school. Many former pupils did well in business too, and, after subscribing to the charity, took on apprentices in their turn.** Children tried to run away as well though, and there are several instances of runaways being fetched back to the school; once returned punishment would be severe and three such boys were not only lashed, they were made to lash each other.** Although of benefit to many of the children attending, the school was a subtle form of ownership, parents literally handed over their children, perhaps in the hope of a better life for them, but for many parents the relief of the burden of feeding and clothing one of probably several children would have been a strong driving force.

ALSO SEE: The Blue Coat Children

* References on request
** John D. Myhill, Blue Coat: A History of the Blue Coat School, Birmingham, 1722-1990. Meridian Books, 1991.
*** In 1829 the school educated 181 boys and 72 girls.*
There was actually, a small group of nineteen children who wore green uniforms, these children were supported by donations from Fentham's Charity.

A Walk Round Regency Brum: 1819 Map

This map was published in 1819 and was included in the book A Description of Modern Birmingham by Charles Pye. The book also includes observations of the town which fit nicely with the map, and can be found online here. The angle is slightly skewed, with north towards the right.

Below: The buildings in the map have been colour co-ordinated and have an index underneath so that you can find out more about them. Not all the buildings have posts written about them, but they will slowly be added. West is at the top of the map.

BIRMINGHAM in the Year 1819
Click on the orange links below to find out more about each of the buildings on the 1819 map.

Around St. Philip's Church
1. St. Philip's Church
2. Royal Hotel- Temple Row
3. Rectory of St. Philip's
4. Blue Coat School

New Street and area behind
top to bottom
1. Christ Church- New Street
2. Panorama- New Street
3. Post Office- New Street
4. Theatre- New Street
5. National School- Pinfold Street
6. Meeting House- King Street
7. Free Grammar School- New Street
8. Meeting House- Old Meeting Street
9. Hen and Chickens Hotel- New Street

Area of Cannon Street and Union Street
1. Meeting House- Cannon Street
2. Meeting House- near Cannon Street
3. Union Insurance- Union Street
4. Library- Union Street
5. Fire Office- Union Street
6. Dispensary- Union Street

High Street, Bull Ring, Markets and area
along route from...
1. Smithfield Market- Moat Row
2. White Hart Pub- High Street (Digbeth)
3. George Pub- High Street (Digbeth)
4. St. Martin's Church- Bull Ring
5. Bull Ring Market Place & Nelson Statue- Bull Ring
6. Nelson Inn- Bull Ring
7. Public Office- Moor Street
8. Swan Inn- High Street
9. Court of Requests- High Street
10. Castle Inn- High Street/Castle Street
11. Meeting House- Carrs Lane
12. Meeting House- New Meeting Street

Area around Old Square
1. Saracen's Head- Bull Street
2. Stork- Old Square
3. Old Square
4. Quaker's Meeting- Bull Street
5. Meeting House- Steelhouse Lane
6. Poor House- Lichfield Street

to be numbered
Misc buildings: clockwise from top
Crescent- back of Cambridge Street
Albion Mill- Summer Row
Hospital- Summer Lane
Asylum- out of the town
Baths- Blews Street
Nail Manufactory- Blews Street / Brewery Street
Union Mill- Holte Street
Barracks- Windsor Street
Mills- near canal
Spring Gardens- Floodgate Street
[Deritend] Brewery- Bradley Street
Deritend House- Bradley Street
Lady Well Baths- near Hurst Street
St. Martin's Rectory- Edgbaston Street
Unmarked building- Suffolk Street
Lancaster School- Severn Street
Worcester Canal Office
Canal Office- Paradise Street
Gas Works- Gas Street
Brass House- Broad Street

to be numbered
Misc religious buildings: clockwise from top
Roman Chapel- near King Edward's Place
Meeting House- Newhall Street
St. Paul's Chapel- St. Paul's Square
Meeting House- Bond Street
Roman Chapel- Shadwell Street
St. Mary's Chapel- Whittal Street
Meeting House- Belmont Row
Ashted Chapel- Barlock Street
St. Bartholemew's Chapel- Masshouse Lane
St. John's Chapel- Deritend
Synagogue- near Gough Street
Meeting House- Paradise Street
Jewish Burial Ground- near Worcester Canal

26 February 2013

Taking Some Time Out #1

 An illustration sheet of Juvenile Sports. C.1819 - 1825.

I will be taking some time, over the next few weeks, to work on some other projects, so I'm taking a break from writing posts for this blog. But so not to leave the blog completely unattended I will be adding some different ephemera that I have come across in my travels......all to do with leisure and taking time out....though in reality I'm busy working. Here is the first: Juvenile Sports.

16 February 2013

Ephemera #2: Curtius's Grand Cabinet of Curiosities

Handbill for Curtius' Grand Cabinet of
Curiosities on New Street. 1796.
For a full size image see below.
Curtius's Grand Cabinet of Curiosities' had begun showing in London in 1795, but began touring the country from the beginning of 1796, arriving in Birmingham in the September. The Cabinet contained items from the collection of Phillippe Curtius, who had died in 1794. Curtius had been a physician who began producing anatomical models, before setting up in business making wax portraits. From the 1770s Curtius began training Marie Grosholtz (later to become Madame Tussaud), and on his death left his collection of waxworks to Marie. During the French Revolution, after a close encounter with the guillotine herself, Marie was employed to make death masks of the beheaded, including the King and Marie Antoinette. Amongst the collection shown at Birmingham was the head of the Governor of the Bastille as well as a model of the guillotine; all taking advantage of a morbid fascination in the events of the Revolution.