13 June 2015

Birmingham Skyline: 1731

Birmingham nearly three hundred years ago.

The vista of Birmingham, above, is a copy of one first produced in 1731, as the town was growing and beginning to achieve fame and prominence as a centre for industry and ingenuity. In the distance the landscape is one of rolling green fields, and from the vantage point taken, you can see the spire of Yardley Church (on the right), Whitacre, Curdworth, as well as Charlbury Forest in Leicestershire.

The inscription written at the bottom is added below:

"BIRMINGHAM (anciently written BIRMYNCHAM also BRYMYNCHAM) is neither Borough nor Corporation; but remains, what it was before the Norman Conquest, only a Lordship: nevertheless, by the Industry & Ingenuity of its Inhabitants & the Advantage of its being an open free place of Trade, it is become famous for the vast Quantities of Iron & Brass, besides, Thread and Leather &c. manufactured there, and risen to A Competition with any of the most flourishing Towns in England being adorn’d with several beautiful Structures, such as a New Church: a Charity School, wherein are maintain’d and taught upwards of 50 Boys & Girls and a Free Grammar School founded and endow’d with a large revenue by King Edward teh sixth now rebuilt in a stately and commodious form. The Town is govern’d only by two Constables & holds a large Weekly market on Thursday, with two Annual Fairs, one on Ascension day, & the other on the feast of St. Michael. ____________ 1. New Hall. 2. St. Philip’s Church. 3. The Road to Worcester. 4. The Free School. 5. The Market House. 6. The Parsonage. 7. Charlbury Forest in Leicestershire. 8. St. Martin’s Church. 9. Curdworth. 10. Whitacre. 11. Lady’s Well. 12. The Manor House. 13. Digbeth. 14. The Bridge. 15. The River Rea. 16. St. John’s Chappel in Deritend. 17. Collshal. 18. Yardley."

The landmarks listed have been numbered more clearly below.

13 March 2015

Paradise Lost

'Red Brick Paradise'- Paradise Street, c. 1850, with the Town Hall, Christ Church and Queen's College.

The title of John Milton's epic poem from 1667, 'Paradise Lost', seems perfect in name, if not in theme, for the changes that will occur around Birmingham's Paradise Forum over the next few years. The controversial, but undeniably iconic Central Library will be demolished, along with the atrium of Paradise Forum inside, and the hidden concrete cave of Paradise Place will disappear as well. The developers are calling the proposed plans for the dramatic transformation of the area simply 'Paradise'; which makes me think of all the lost Paradise's, since the name was first used in the 1760s.

Trade card for Brown and Hardman of Paradise Street.


The first of Birmingham's 'Paradise's' was one of red brick Georgian refinement and "the residence [...] of several highly respectable professional gentlemen, as well as the establishments of some eminent merchants and manufacturers".* As with elsewhere in Birmingham, even some of the finest streets contained manufactories and workshops; Birmingham's own idea of 'paradise' being a hive of industry, but with a face of refinement. In the 1820s the top of Paradise Street (now part of Victoria Square) was described as "one of the most pleasing and lively spots in the town [...] there is a continual succession of objects; and being the centre of a busy manufacturing district, the throng of artisans leaving their several workshops, at the hour of One, and hurrying to their meal,has a particularly animated and cheerful effect, especially in this time of plentiful employment".* Sounds quite a bit like the area today!

This (image below) is that area at the top of Paradise Street in about 1848, with the 'throng of artisans', as well as all manner of others.

The Town Hall and Queen's College by Samuel Lines, c. 1848.
Find out more about this painting here.


Birmingham's Victorian library, which faced the Town Hall

The Victorian 'Paradise' replaced the red brick one with grand Gothic, Italiante and neo-Classical buildings, one of the most prominent being the complex of the Birmingham and Midland Institute and the Public Library*. The Paradise the Victorian's produced here was one of free (or at least affordable) learning for all, with the BMI providing education and evening classes for Birmingham's working people, and the library next door offering over 50,000 (by 1879) books to be lent. This was a period of civic pride, of creating buildings of cultural significance for more than just the town's elite. This is perhaps an idea that should be reverted to, in this time of massive cuts to Birmingham's libraries and other cultural institutions.


In the 1960s Paradise spread round the corner; the old Victorian library was knocked down and John Madin's new Central Library built nearby with a concrete garden behind called Paradise Place. This Paradise of the late 20th century is the one that I remember growing up in Birmingham, one of grey lines and rugged angles. And this Paradise is truly 'lost'; it leads nowhere and entices no-one, so nobody ever finds it except by accident or if they know it's there. There is a lot written about this development and the general failure of the Brutalist vision of the 1960s, including here.

Paradise Place by Chris Whippet
The word 'ironic' is often used when describing the name of
Paradise Place.


The new development encompasses more of the original Georgian Paradise Street than the Central Library complex did, so is a truer 'Paradise' in the spatial sense than ever before. But is it the right way to go? It is probably a daft question to ask, because the area is on the verge of being demolished, but I cant help agreeing with many others that the space could be something amazing.

Paradise Place at the back of Central Library, Birmingham.
Taken May 2012.

* designed by Edward Middleton Barry in the 1850s (though completed by other architects) and rebuilt after fire by Joseph Henry Chamberlain in the 1880s

24 January 2015

The East Prospect of 1732

It seems apt that the first post for the new look should be about the East Prospect of Birmingham which has been used for the top image of the blog. It was made by William Westley in 1732, who also produced the 1731 map of Birmingham, so the two relate to each other nicely.

The prospect shows a thoroughly modern town, filled with brick (and they would have been red brick) buildings; a brand new church in the fashionable Baroque style (St. Philip's) on the highest point; and neat, uniformed streets in the 'new' town right of the church, including the new 'Square' built for the wealthy, and a modern innovation in early Georgian urban planning. It was Westley that produced this image as it was a view that his family's fingerprints were all over. His father, William Westley Senior, had worked on St. Philip's (the architect was Thomas Archer) and had built some of the surrounding streets (one was called Westley's Row); he was probably the man behind the 'Square' too. The Westley's had designed refinement and modernity into the fabric of the town, and were now promoting it in the beautiful East Prospect, and the map produced the previous year.

In a central engraving Westley dedicates the prospect to his 'Worthy Patrons' Thomas Archer and Henry Archer, Thomas of course being the architect of St. Philip's. The engraved stone is flanked by symbols of Birmingham's industry and refinement; a palette and mechanical devices on the left, and musical instruments on the right. The town is also described:
“BIRMINGHAM, a Market Town in the County of WARWICK, which by the art and industry of its Inhabitants has for some years past been render’d famous all over the World, for the rare choice and invention of all sorts of Wares and Curiositys [sic] in Iron, Steel, Brass &c. admir’d as well for their cheapness, as their peculiar beauty of Workmanship [...]”
The description of Birmingham's wares as 'curiosities' was the spark of my PhD thesis at the University of Birmingham and BCU,* and is referring to Birmingham 'toys' (small metal items NOT children's toys) and trinkets that were highly desirable commodities of the time. The poet William Shenstone, who lived at Leasowes in Handsworth near Birmingham, was a great lover of these toys, and noted 'I have often viewed my watch, standish (inkstand), snuff-box, with this kind of tender regard; allotting them a degree of friendship, which there are some men, that do not deserve'. Birmingham was already renowned for these items, and became even more so over the next century, becoming known as the 'Toy-shop of Europe'. Birmingham was supplying everything modern and fashionable, and Westley is showing the actual space of the town as the same.


Below you can see Digbeth, a street that shot out south-east from Birmingham, and led to the neighbouring village of Aston, over the River Rea. To the left is St. John's chapel which served the community that huddled along the river, using the waters for tanning leather and powering mills and forges. St. Martin's is the church with the tall spire, still standing today, but rebuilt completely. To the left of St. Martin's is the moated manor house, which was the seat of the old 'de Birmingham' family, a remnant of the town's mediaeval history. The old Birmingham estate can be seen rolling towards the horizon, with Edgbaston Church a dot in the distance (far left).

Digbeth 300 years ago. 1732 Prospect & 1731 Map of Birmingham, by William Westley

Below St. Philip's can be seen on the hill, and the area around was being slowly filled with brand new houses for the Birmingham elite, whose wealth was growing rapidly as the town's trade in luxury wares expanded. One of these was Westley's Row which was near the Square (see pointing finger), which was frequented by Samuel Johnson, among other notable persons of the time. In the foreground is a stretch of the River Rea not on the map, and it is nice to see a party fishing on its banks, especially as the Rea here today flows morosely under the streets along brick culverts.

St. Philip's and the Square. 1732 Prospect & 1731 Map of Birmingham, by William Westley

* PhD thesis title is 'A Cabinet of Curiosities: The Production, Promotion and Consumption of Birmingham's Luxury Wares, 1730 to 1830'.

17 November 2014

The Northfield Map of 1714.....What Remains?

The central part of Northfield parish around the church, as drawn in 1714. Northfield is now a heavily urbanised suburb of Birmingham, six miles south of the centre, but at this time was a village surrounded by farmland. The area around the church is still a reminder of Northfield's Georgian, and even more distant part; with a Norman arch set into the wall of the church, this site has hundreds of years of history. So, what still remains from the time of the map?

The Village Pound, Northfield, 1953. Phyllis Nicklin.

The pound, which can be seen on the centre-left of the map, was used to tether animals that had escaped their owners, who would have to pay a small fee to have them returned.

The Great Stone Inn, next to the pound, 1953. Phyllis Nicklin.

The Great Stone public house can seen just beneath the village pound on the map, but in reality the two are joined. The name derives from the 'great stone' that was situated at the corner of the pub, which has now been moved (the reason being pretty self explanatory from the image below) and placed inside the Village Pound for safe keeping.

The 'great stone' outside the Great Stone

At the top of the map, the road leading off to the right states that it leads 'to Middleton Hall'. This road remains as Middleton Hall Road, the remnant of a long demolished smart dwelling house.

The scene including the church by Arthur Lockwood, 1958. 

The parish church can be seen at the bottom of the map, with a path cutting across to the vicarage. The scene that Arthur Lockwood depicted in 1958 is the same as today's, except devoid of cars.

26 August 2014

Birmingham Objects #3: Catherine Hutton's Purse

Purse made by Catherine Hutton in the early 1800s.

Catherine Hutton was the daughter of the Birmingham's first historian William Hutton; she never married, and after the family home was burnt down in the riots of 1791, she took to company less and less. Two years after the riots she wrote to a friend: "Last Monday I broke the spell by visiting the Miss Mainwarings, and I was found so rusticated, so antiquaited, that the first thing they did was to take my cap to pieces and make it up in a different form. Now, mark my resolution. I visited three families on the three following days, and I have engaged myself for two evenings next week. Be so good when you write to say something about fashion, that I, who used to be an example, may not be quite a scare-crow".

Like her father, she was a prolific writer, and was putting pen to paper right up to her death at the ripe old age of 91. She was a particular fan of Jane Austen, as she explains "I have been going through a course of novels by lady authors, beginning with Mrs Brooke and ending with Miss Austen, who is my especial favourite. I had always wished, not daring to hope, that I might be something like Miss Austen; and, having finished her works, I took to my own, to see if I could find any resemblance". In 1813 she published her first novel, The Miser Married (view here), and other fiction was published in magazines, as well as articles and letters she wrote surrounding everyday matters.

The purse, above, is part of the Hutton collection at the Library of Birmingham.

Catherine Hutton at ages 43 and 83, she was born 11 February 1756 and died 13 March 1846.

20 June 2014

The Gun Quarter

It is uncertain exactly when gun making began in Birmingham and its surrounding areas in the West Midlands. When William III came to the throne in 1689 there were gun makers in the town, who benefited from the King keeping the country at near permanent war with France throughout his reign. Technological developments of the gun had led it to be used more reliably in warfare over the previous centuries, and demand was increasing. The gun makers of Birmingham were noted by the government in the late 1600s and several trial orders were made for weapons, eventually leading to contracts being placed with a number of local manufacturers.

The trade expanded over the next fifty years, and like Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, which still survives to this day, the gun trade also developed in a distinct 'quarter' etched into the landscape of the town. The term 'gun quarter' seems to be a much more modern term than the quarter itself, the district evolved over time through amenity; there were many processes in the making of a single weapon, and each process would be conducted by different skilled workers in separate premises. The making of the guns was divided into two main areas; the component parts were produced by the 'makers' who were breechers, borers, stock makers, barrel welders, bayonet forgers, socket and ring stampers etc, these parts were then assembled by the 'setters up' who assembled to parts to produce the finished article. These were polishers, engravers, browner's, sighters etc. Each finished gun would have gone through about fifty different hands. This method of making guns, due to the complexity of the article, changed little over the years; it was the longest surviving traditional industry in Birmingham.

The 'gun quarter' was concentrated within St. Mary's parish, and many gun makers converted the smart houses that had been built around and near St. Mary's church into manufactories. These have all gone, but in the early 1960s they were beginning to be taken down; Phyllis Nicklin took her camera and recorded some of the area....

But these empty streets lined with cars do little to describe the area at its height; with people and gun parts moving from workshop to workshop the area would have been filled with hustle and bustle, the noise leaking out into the streets from the craftsmen working busily inside at their workbenches. Weaving through the street gunsmiths would be seen:
"one with half a dozen stocked guns on his shoulder, conveying them from the stocker to the screwer, another with a tray full of locks for the polisher, a third on his way with a few barrels to the Proof House, and so on".*

These Georgian frontages also tell us little about the reality of the 'gun quarter' behind the facades, as much of its life was behind the streets. This is 9 to 11 St. Mary's Row, opposite the church, but the two images below are taken behind the same building, and a description from Albert Fenton (below) helps to bring the images to life.

"Some rooms you walked up to from outside on wooden staircases and each had a name-plate on the door. Inside the rooms were very cramped, with the work benches all along the walls [....] The men were working on polishing the gun barrels or carving wood-stocks for handles. There were tools everywhere, hanging on nails and straps all over the walls and lying on benches, you gradually became aware of it all in the dim shafts of light from the small windows. The men were very skilled at their trades which were handed down from father to son"**

* Goodman from Skipp
** Albert Fenton from Carl Chinn's, The Great Working City.
1) Partridge Works on Price Street (off Loveday Street), 1960. 2) No. 3 Whittal Street, 1963. 3) Sand Street near Whittal Street, 1960. 4) St. Mary's Row, 1960. 5) Nos. 9-11 St. Mary's Row, 1960. 6) Behind 9-11 St. Mary's Row, 1960. 7) Behind 10-11 St. Mary's Row, 1963.

17 June 2014

The Beginings of a New Age: Curzon Street Station

With the new plans for a 21st century Curzon Street Station unveiled (here) I thought I'd take a look at its first incarnation, about 180 years ago.

The era that I cover on this blog comes to an end with the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign in 1837. The beginning of this new age coincides neatly with the beginnings of the railway age, at least in Birmingham, as it was the next year, 1838, that the London and Birmingham railway opened in the town. The new trains arrived and departed from the parade of 'iron sheds' off Curzon Street where the new station had been erected. Of course, it was then called just 'Birmingham Station' as it was the town's only one. The grand building adorned with ionic columns (above & still standing) contained the board room of the directors, offices for the secretary, financial and correspondence departments, as well as a ‘refreshment saloon’. Tickets would be bought to the left of this building before catching your train.

In Osbourne's guide to the railway published in 1838 there is a lovely envisioning of what it was like to travel from the station:

'Porters with ladders are mounting and placing luggage on the tops, passengers are taking their seats, and arranging themselves for the journey; young ladies [...] who are going on a visit, accompanied by their mammas on one side, and lovers on the other, the servant man or maid following with band-box, are saluted and tended until they are safely packed in their places, and all the paraphernalia of veil, boa, cloak, muff, and reticule containing biscuits and oranges, scent bottle and purse, with change ready for use- are properly ordered. Old travellers, who have been most of their lives on stage coaches, take their places, and being accustomed to prepare at a moment’s notice, seat themselves, and quietly look on.

 Anon come some young gentlemen, whose lips are employed to smoke cigars, and let a few syllables drop by accident! Dressed as if for the saloon of a theatre, and bestowing a few glances of admiration on the affair, [...] they exclaim with a peculiar mark of sagacity, “Very fine, by Jove!” “Just the thing egad,” or “Know how to do the thing, damme”. Meanwhile the passengers increase, and you hear the conductor responding to the various questions – “Stafford, Ma’am?—in this carriage. – Wolverhampton, Sir? – in that [...]” The bustle increases, and you hear the parting salutations of friends. “Well, good bye—you’ll be sure to write directly”. “Oh, aye”. [...] If you wish to see and hear all about the matter, take your place outside. You will want an extra great coat, and a pair of gauze spectacles to keep the dust and smoke out of your eyes; but, in all other respects, you will enjoy ten times more than your fellow travellers.

 I shall suppose that you mounted on the box seat. You look round, and see several engines with red-hot fires in their bodies, and volumes of steam issuing from their tall chimnies. One of them move slowly towards you. The huge creature bellows, at first, like an elephant. Deep, slow, and terrific are the hoarse heavings that it makes. It passes by your train of carriages [...] there it is, roaring, groaning, and grunting, like a sea-horse, and spouting up steam like a whale. You feel a deep, strong, tremulous motion throughout the train, and a loud jingling rattle is heard, analogous to what is experienced in a cotton mill. The conductor has done his part and is seated; the guard is in his box at the back of the first carriage; a bell is rung as a signal for starting—and you are off.'

Snippet from an 1840s map showing trains coming into the station over the canal as they still do.

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 #1: 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