Update: I finally graduated in July, 2019. The final product centred around the changing face of Birmingham, structurally and politically, across the course of a period that was of high relevance to those changes. Titled ‘Governance and Locality in the Age of Reform: Birmingham, 1769-1852’. The first date in this title being the year in which the Commissioners of the Birmingham Street Act formed an administration, through to the amalgamation, and ultimately the demise,  of that body with Birmingham Corporation at the tail end of 1851, and the months following. The span of the period which I considered was one of much government policy reform, often referred to as ‘The Age of Reform’, in which there was a staunch move to bureaucracy. This was also reviewed within the context of the impact that it had on provincial,industrial districts.


I have just started researching for a PhD in Modern History at the University of Birmingham, under the supervision of Professor Carl Chinn and with financial support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

There is still only a working title for my thesis, but the proposal is a case study of Birmingham and its administration between 1838-1852. This time frame falls within a period of immense change in British politics and society as the impact of industrialisation and urban growth became starkly visible. This was an age of sweeping political reform and immense social upheaval. Life appears to have been running at an ever increasing pace. Birmingham was one of a small number of towns at the forefront of this dynamic change, bursting at the seams with a population that was technologically innovative, culturally motivated and politically radical.

The period under consideration for this research was chosen as one which really represents the frontier between old and new styles of approach to local administration. This is an area which I hope to explore in more detail in my thesis. I am particularly interested in the interface between the ‘public’ and local authorities. I want to understand the extent to which public demand influenced reform at a local level and how local demands might have impacted on changes to national policy as well as consideration of how these new approaches to social management impacted on real lives. Another ambition for the thesis is to move away from the traditional ‘grand narrative’ approach of class conflict, so often applied to nineteenth-century Birmingham,  considering instead the rather more ordinary interactions of daily life. I have discovered that the minute books of both the Town Council and the Street Commissioners reveal an incredibly vivid insight into how Birmingham developed materially during the first half of the nineteenth century. Not through any poetic description or fanciful musings, but through planning applications, petitions of complaint and bye-laws. Such a vibrant and real image of the town emerged from these ‘mundane’ interactions that I thought it would be useful to share them. Hence this blog on an occasional history of the mundane.

Birmingham’s early Victorian history has too often been overshadowed by the towering presence of the later administration of Joseph Chamberlain. It has been written off as a time of civic stagnation. I want to contest this perspective by bringing to the fore the dynamic and often bold actions taken by Birmingham’s early civic leadership.

The majority of evidence sourced for this blog can be found archived at the Library of Birmingham, which offers a HUGE quantity of archival material for anyone interested in the history of Birmingham – and it’s not at all mundane!

Blakesley Hall: Family Fortunes in Tudor Birmingham – support our museums!

Blakesley Hall

Blakesley Hall is another historic building set on a modest housing estate, this one in Yardley. It is one of the historic properties managed and maintained by the charity Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT) on behalf of the people of the city. This post, a shift from the usual 19th century notes, is intended to raise awareness of a fundraising drive by BMT as it faces the difficulties of the Covid crisis.

I have a confession – I have yet to visit Blakesley Hall, although I’m told by friends that it’s one of Birmingham’s best heritage sites, with lovely gardens. However, we can all have a peek inside, even during closure, thanks to BMTs innovative digital efforts:

The tour of the rooms with the addition of information on daily domestic life brings a really lovely insight into the day to day activities of a Tudor farm, including bread and perfume making, as well as the preparation of medicines. There are also signs of the family wealth in the size of rooms on ground and upper floors. and in the paintings that were uncovered by bomb damage in WW2. It’s well worth settling in with a cuppa and a biscuit to enjoy this virtual tour.

So, who were the wealthy farmers expending their wealth on grand designs in Tudor Birmingham? There’s a clue in the picture below:

smallbrook queensway

The family were the Smallbrokes – or Smallbrooks – a familiar name in Birmingham. The Smallbrokes have been traced to the mid-15th century in the Yardley area, and there is a substantial bundle of deeds relating to land purchases throughout the 16th century and beyond, telling of how they began to accumulate wealth and influence, alongside some smart marriages. Blakesley Hall, built by Richard Smallbroke,  was the epitome of these business moves, likely a rebuild of a former, less grand farmhouse on the same site. The fortunes of the family grew steadily over subsequent centuries; now clearly identifiable as country gentry, various children went on to university and into the clergy. A grandson, also Richard, was Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry in the 17th century.

There was a very famous local feud between the Smallbrokes and another of Birmingham’s stellar Early Modern families, the Colmores. This feud involved, sometimes startling, acts of violence and accusations of theft and corruption. The rivalry has been documented by Marie Fogg in her book The Smallbroke Family of Birmingham: 1550-1749 which is available on Amazon at a very reasonable price and is well worth a read.

I hope you enjoyed the virtual tour. My knowledge of this portion of Birmingham’s history is limited, but I hope, like me, your appetite has been whetted to find out more. There is a guidebook to Blakesley Hall available on BMTs online shop, just £3


If you are able to support Birmingham Museums Trust, donations small or large are being welcomed at the link below. And please share the news about the wonderful assets that we have here in our city, and the importance of making them accessible as well as preserving for future generations. Thanks bab.



Weoley Castle: a medieval monument in the middle of a housing estate


Weoley Castle

Weoley Castle Ruins

Birmingham Museums Trust will be closed across summer 2020 as a result of the impact of Covid-19. This is a critical time for the Trust and a fund raising drive has been launched. The next few Notes will be dedicated to the wonderful historical and cultural sites in Birmingham that we will be missing. At the bottom of the post is a link to the Trust’s fundraising page, please consider making a donation, small or large, to support the future of our city’s history. Ta.

At around 750 years old, Weoley Castle is one of the oldest structures that you can see in Birmingham and is a schedueled ancient monument. I used to live on the estate, just around the corner, for several years and enjoyed a tour in which I had the opportunity to stand underneath the ruined garderobe (that’s a loo, to you and me!) and saw the ancient masons marks carved into the brickwork. Much of the building is gone, but there’s enough of it left to get a sense of its history, and it has been well cared for by a team of volunteers.

Weoley Castle was not a castle in the sense of the term that we might understand – this was no Cardiff Castle – but was rather a fortified hunting lodge. It had a moat, battlements complete with arrow slits and of course, a great hall. The whole shabang was located within a huge deer park which stretched over a thousand acres. One of the earliest mentions comes from 1264, when Henry III granted Roger de Somery, Lord of Dudley, permission to fortify both Weoley and Dudley Castle. This grant was a reward for his support during the second Baron’s War, that was the civil war in which Simon de Montfort attempted to overthrow the monarchy. Roger’s grandson, who eventually inherited the estates, including presumably Weoley, was a seemingly unpleasant and unpopular man who was accused of murder and extortion by some of his tenants.

The site was caught up in all sorts of dodgy dealings over the course of the 15th century, but during the latter half it was home to Sir William Berkeley, who then had the property forcibly removed from his ownership because, unlike Roger de Somery, he had the misfortune of choosing the wrong side during the Wars of the Roses. There is one further intrigue around the ownership of Weoley Castle. Berkely had been what we might crudely call a squatter -his father had forcibly taken ownership of the building when it was empty and his son had remained until evicted. In 1531, a private investor, Richard Jervoise, purchased the building – although presumably not from the owners, as they brought a case (which failed) to reclaim the castle in around 1536.

Along with the ruins, there are some very lovely archaeological finds, some of which have been on display at BMAG, in the History of Birmingham galleries. You can download images of these from the BMAG asset bank, and I’m going to add some below now. They give a real insight into the domestic life of Weoley Castle.

1950A126 Weoley Castle - Mediaeval Floor Tile-1

Medieval floor tile Weoley Castle

Look closely at this fragment of floor tile – you can see a knight with his bow and arrow; and the decoration around the edge, a fleur de lis perhaps?

2000A2.13 Tin Communion Cruet

Pewter communion cruet

This well preserved piece of decorative pewter was likely used to pour the communion wine.

2000A2.9 Neck Fragment of Glass Urinal

Fragment of glass urinal

I’m always impressed at how glass survives in good condition for centuries – I’ve never been able to move house without smashing some of our glassware! This neck piece is from a glass urinal. In medieval times there was a great interest in bodily fluids, and these urinals would have been used like sample bottles for medics to investigate for any diseases, a process known as uroscopy.

2000A2.14 Terracotta Zoomorphic Roof Finial

Roof finial

This hollow terracotta piece is believed to have been a roof finial. It is clearly an animal of some sort, but with very human looking hands. Maybe shading its eyes from the sun, or looking out across the deer park. Or just having a bad hair day? This sort of zoomorphic presentation was popular in medieval times. What do you think it represents?

I hope you’ve enjoyed this Note from medieval Birmingham. If you want to ogle some more images, do check out Birmingham Museums Trust Asset Bank, where you can download the images for your own delight free of charge.


If you’re interested in finding more about Weoley Castle, there is a guidebook available in the online shop: https://shop.birminghammuseums.org.uk/collections/books/products/weoley-castle-guidebook

If you wish, you can make a donation to Birmingham Museums Trust here. Do consider leaving a message of support, having spoken with staff I know these mean a lot:


Who loves Birmingham Museum& Art Gallery?

Birmingham Museum _ Art Gallery

On Saturday November 28th 1885, HRH the Prince of Wales formally opened Birmingham Corporation’s ‘magnificent’ museum and art gallery. Designed by Yeoville Thomason as an extension to the Council House, this was truly a building for the people. In addition to the galleries, the entire building also consisted the offices of the municipal gas and water companies – thus, when people paid their utility bills, they could also benefit from the art gallery which was partially funded from the profits, but also with a great deal of philanthropic support from local industial families. And of course it was free to visit, for anyone.

BMAG Bridge under contruction 1910-11

BMAG Bridge under construction

The building evolved over the years. In 1912 and ambitious extension saw the museum expand from just four rooms to forty. The new extension joined the old with a bridge, which was styled on the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. This extension was made possible by the generous financial support of John Feeney. Born in Sparkbrook, Feeney was the founder and proprietor of a number of Birmingham’s newspapers. A generous man, he also contributed the Women’s Hospital, the university and he also left money for a trust fund which supports young people to this day. Many paintings enjoyed by visitors to the museum were also purchased by Feeney.

1909P1 Portrait Of John Feeney _1839-1905_

John Feeney

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is home to some of the world’s most important art and artefacts. One of the finest collections of Pre-Raphaelite art, which has recently been wowing audiences in the States and the Staffordshire Hoard attract big audiences. But this is a Birmingham museum, that also reflects Birmingham’s people and history. In recent years exhibitions have focussed on our city’s history, in all its beautiful diversity. We probably all have a favourite – I loved the ‘Knights of the Raj’ exhibition, which traced the history of Birmingham’s Bangladeshi community with a focus on my favourite food – curry!


There is much more to say about Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, but I have kept this blog short as I have written it to ask a favour. The museum is facing a crisis. An application for emergency funding was turned down this week and, which means that it will not be able to open over the summer. And not only BMAG – Thinktank, Sarehole Mill, Soho House, Weoley Castle, the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter and Blakesley Hall are all under the care of the same charitable trust. The trustees have issued a statement saying that survival now depends on support from the council and from the money announced by the Chancellor at the weekend. In the meantime, they have set up their own fundraising page. Could you spare a few coppers – the price of a pint or a cup of coffee shop coffee would be marvellous – to help out? The details are above, and how good will it feel when the doors reopen and you know you did your bit to save our history? Ta.

And please share your memories of the museum.

The statement from Birmingham Museums Trust is here:







100 bags of beans – more horses of Holliday Wharf

Holliday Wharf 20th century


In the previous post, I wrote about the horses that worked for Birmingham’s cleansing department, based at Holliday Wharf. This site had been established by the Commissioners of the Birmingham Street Act, towards the beginning of the century. The wharf also housed the road maintaining department; it was this department that watered the roads, rather than the cleansing department, as I previously thought. And the road maintaining department had its own horses, occupying two stables at Holliday Wharf.

These horses are named in the chattel list of the final arrangements committee, as the Street Commisssioners prepared to hand over the town’s assets to the corporation. Again, they have a high monetary value and, confusingly, a couple have the same names as the horses belonging to the cleansing department:

Stable no. 1: Merriman, Brown (£30), Sharper (£20), Merriman, Black (£15) and Madam (£30)

Stable no. 2: Short (£30) Boxer (£30), Dick (£10), Blossom (£15) and Jack (£15)

Again, I don’t know enough about horses to understand the significance of these valuations, but would love to find out if anyone knows.

In addition to the horses, and in contrast to the cleansing department chattel listing, the road maintaining department also contains a list of what looks like horse feed. These were kept in the store room, as listed below:

Hay (£7,10s worth), straw (£5), 100 bags of beans (£62,10s), 17 quarters of oats (£19,10s), a weighing machine (£2,10s), measures (£2), 50 bags (no specification what for, £5), a chaff, bean and kibbling machine (£100!!) and 20 pairs of driving reins (£4)

There are many more sundries, not quite horse related, included in the listing – all the shovels, buckets, brushes, wheelbarrows and carts that might be expected, along with 24 water carts (thanks to Justine Pick for mentioning these and leading me to have another browse through the document!) These were all kept in the yard

Also listed, not horse connected, but I think of interest, is the material that must have been used in maintaining the roads, so I shall list that here and then leave off. I like to see these materials, as it gives an inkling of an idea of how the highways and byways might have looked:

2000 cube yards of rag stone (Rowley ragstone was the most usual, a basalt stone often used as Victorian cobbles)
1100 square yards of flagging (possibly sandstone)
Urinal (valued at £8, and a relatively new feature of Birmingham’s street furniture)
16 stone posts
2 iron posts
445 yards of lineal kirb (sic.)

The Horses at Holliday Wharf

Holliday Wharf 20th century

Holliday Wharf is now the site of smart, modern flats. In the 19th century it had a very different function, serving for many years as the town’s cleansing department. In the first half of the century, the Street Commissioners (predecessors to the corporation) had two sites; in addition to the main premises at Holliday Street, there was another in Shadwell Street. The corporation moved to dispense with the Holliday Street site when the lease came up for renewal in 1858.

The site at Holliday Wharf was substantial. There were offices, storage for the mechanical cleansing machines and stables. A public works’ committee report of 1852 shows that the town employed 84 street cleansers, with an average total weekly wage of a little under £80 (around £6000 in today’s money). There was also a porter at the wharf, an inspector of the cleansing machines and someone to attend to the horses.

There is no information in the committee reports on what the horses were used for, but it is likely that they did heavy work, pulling carts, sweeping machines and the devices used for watering the streets. This latter was an important job, preventing drying out and fracturing of the road surfaces.

Streetwater horse

In 1851, the Commissioners of the Birmingham Street Act was dissolved, and their responsibilities and assets amalgamated with the corporation. As part of this change, a ‘Final Arrangements’ report was presented, listing the assets (and debts!) to be transferred. Amongst those assets, were the contents of Holliday Street, including the horses, who are named. And so, rather brilliantly, we know that the horses helping keep Birmingham’s streets clean and in condition during the first part of the 19th century, were the following:

In stable no. 4, there was Lion, Billy and Plumper – these horses were each valued at £45 (a considerable sum)

The residents of stable no. 5 were Dragon and Blackbird (£20 each), Short (£15, maybe a descriptive name), along with Boxer and Sorrel (£30 each)

Stable no. 6 was home to Punch and Bob (£40 each), Poppit (£30), Captain (£40) and Miller (£20)

Finally, in stable no. 7, a further 6 horses, making 19 in total for the cleansing department: Tinker, Peacock, Badger, Bonny and Turpin (£40 each) and Boxer (£30). Total value of the cleansing horses – £650!!

There were also 5 horses listed as belonging to the Ash Hole (careful how you say that!) department. These are not named and have a much lower, or more realistic, value, at a total of £63. The Ash Hole department also owned a boat, valued at £25.

Would be interested to know why such a high value was placed on those horses.

For this post, I used notes taken from the minutes of the Street Commissioners before lockdown. These original minute books are held by Birmingham Museum Archive, Heritage and Photography, series MS 2818. Obviously it is not possible to access these at the current time, but please show support for the archives where you can – they have a wonderful WP site: https://theironroom.wordpress.com/

I believe that the Final Arrangements document is also available in the archives, but I have my own copy which I used here. It’s a great document, and happy to answer any queries.


Supplying the Workhouse: 1849

1996V146.118 Birmingham Workhouse Birmingham Workhouse ©Birmingham Museums Trust

In a copy of Aris’s Birmingham Gazette dated September 10th, 1849, there appeared an advertisement for tenders to supply the parish of Birmingham workhouse,  posted by the Guardians. This is an interesting ad, because it reveals something of the social history of Birmingham’s workhouse, the day to day food and other goods which kept it running.

The advert opens with instructions on the process of application:
Persons wishing to CONTRACT for the supply of one or any of the under-mentioned         ARTICLES from the 22nd day of September inst. to the 22nd day of December next, are requested to send sealed TENDERS and SAMPLES addressed to ‘The Chairman of the Guardians’ marked “Tender for…..” by MONDAY NEXT the 17th day of September, not later than five o’clock in the afternoon

The inclusion of samples to test for quality suggests that the Guardians were not only interested in the cheapest produce, but in value for money. The list includes all the staples which might be expected, but it certainly wasn’t all gruel in the nineteenth-century workhouse. Beef, mutton, ‘good Dutch cheese’,  rice and potates are on the list, along with tea, coffee, sugar, beer, snuff and tobacco. Other items include shoe leather, varying types of material, socks, blankets and coal.

I have copied the below from a copy of the newspaper on the British Newspaper Archives. This is a subscription service offering access to lots of newspapers. If you are a member of Birmingham Libraries, and have a card number, you can access a free newspaper archive run by the British Library. It’s a very simple matter to log on, and if you don’t currently have a library card, you can order a temporary one to make use of the online resources. If you have any problems accessing, I recommend finding the Library of Birmingham on Twitter or Facebook, and they’ll help you out. Right – here’s that list!

100949 workhouse

I really like the mention of all the different types of material – Welsh and Lancashire flannels, which I thought might have been for bed sheets, but then on looking up Hurden linen  found that was a coarse, unbleached linen, which sounds a bit more like it. The grey grogram is what workhouse uniforms were made from. Fustian would have been for men’s and boy’s jackets, and I think the linsey was a petticoat material. Look at all that coal!

In addition to the workhouse, supplies were required for other sites that fell within the remit of the Guardians’ responsibilities, including the asylum. Relief stations, mentioned in the next section, below, were the place that people went to request assistance, and to be assessed. Occasionally they gave out relief, but this became increasingly rare as the 19th century moved on. It is useful to be able to see the locations of these stations, and there were quite a few really

Workhouse supplies 1849

Finally, if you are thinking of applying – read the small print!

final workhouse contract 1849






The Railways Are Coming!

1996V145.27 Vauxhall Station_ Grand Junction Railway_ Birmingham

When approaching Birmingham New Street by train, the last station that you will pass through is the small, somewhat shabby,  Duddeston. Originally known as Vauxhall Station, Birmingham, this was the location of Birmingham’s first railway arrival point, which opened in July, 1837. Always intended as a temporary stop until the completion of the far grander edifice which still stands on Curzon Street, it still has its moment in history as being the terminus of those early test runs.

The image shown above is downloaded from Birmingham Museums Trust asset bank. I really like this image as a snapshot of local social, as well as railway, history. It is a familiar scene of people on the platform, luggage in trunks and bundles, chatting and waiting, waiting, waiting. Someone has a barrel, perhaps light goods to be delivered to Wolverhampton, and carriages for hire waiting in the rear to transport visitors to the town centre or out to the suburbs.

This original station was a temporary terminus of the Grand Junction Railway that ran from Liverpool to Birmingham. There was much excitement around its opening, the following announcement from Aris’s of July 3rd, 1837:

The Grand Junction Railway between this town and Liverpool will be opened tomorrow, pursuant to announcement, and there is little doubt but that a large concourse of spectators will be attracted to the spot on the occasion. At five o’clock on Saturday the following train of carriages arrived at the company’s station at Vauxhall, direct from Liverpool. The Statesman, Patriot, Reformer, Dispatch, Ambassador, Swallow, Conservative, Barrister, Envoy, Expedition, the Liverpool Mail, the Protector, Unicorn, the Manchester Mail, the Umpire, Celerity, the Greyhound and the Triumph – followed by ten vehicles of the second class. At seven o’clock, a second train arrived, consisting of two engines, thirty carriages and other vehicles, making about one hundred in number.

This first arrival described here was part of a trial run, transporting directors of the railway company amongst many others. The train had departed Liverpool at 8am, and had ‘performed the journey with great facility and ease, inspecting the several works in their progress’. This was the first straight line to be opened all in one go, so the trial run and checks will have been important. How exciting it must have been, to be at the start of something. It had taken the best part of a decade to gain necessary permissions for the construction, with numerous objections having been presented by the Canal proprietors and also delays by a dissolution of parliament at exactly the wrong time.

The price list for journeys was printed in several newspapers local to the railway. This one is taken from the Liverpool Mail dated 13th of June, (copied from British Newsper Archives) but identical ads can be seen in the Birmingham press:

LiverpoolMail 130161837
I tried testing the prices out in the National Archives historic currency converter and it suggested that £2.00, the cost of a bed carriage in the mail coach, would be equivalent to £120 in 2017.

Vauxhall station was connected to the soon to be opened Curzon Street by an impressive viaduct, consisting of 28 arches. For anyone who grew up in inner city of Birmingham’s East Side, ‘the arches’ will be a familiar memory. I remember them as a bit dark and unnerving to pass under when walking down to Digbeth. In 1837, they ran across open land and were more likely to have represented a grand sight, an indicator of a rapidly changing world. A commemorative medal pressed to celebrate the opening of the Grand Junction Railway was advertised in the Birmingham Journal of July 1st, 1837, ‘containing a View of the Grand Station at Liverpool and the Viaduct at Duddeston of twenty-eight arches’. This is evidence of a sense of pride in its construction.

The Grand Junction Railway was not only a passenger train, but performed an important function of delivering mail. In this it was also innovative, establishing the first travelling post office in the world. Originally a converted horse box, the first journey took place in January 1838, and by the end of that year the mobile sorting office was a regular feature of most railways. The image below is downloaded from the Science Museum website, on a non-commercial, share-alike license. It shows a replica of the original Grand Junction post office van.

Creative Commons License Science Museum Group

If you want to read more details on the Grand Junction Railway, there is free, digital availability of the 1837 Osborne’s Guide to the Grand Junction Railway, a quick Google should find it easily; I find the Haithi Trust a good place to find free to download vintage books: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/008588853

Birmingham is at risk of becoming a city without a history in the face of council cuts and closures. Please continue to support our local archives, museums and art galleries in any way you can.

During these extraordinary times, many museums and archives are working hard to ensure that researchers still have access to records. Please check out the web pages of organisations that you would usually use to see what is available – Birmingham Library provides access to the British Library newspaper archive (though not this is not as extensive as the subscription British Newspaper Archive) and is offering some access to Ancestry, but do check out the site. If you do not have a library card, you can still apply for a temporary one online. Birmingham Museums Trust continues to expand the high quality and free to download images of the collections on its Asset Bank, and Cadbury Research Library has some great images on its Flickr pages.

In addition, you may be interested in couple of freebies set up just for the short term (check the websites for details) – National Archives Discovery is allowing up to 60 free downloads of its digitised materials (normally a charge of £3.50 per download) and for more academic material JSTOR is offering up to a very generous 100 read online journal articles for free – you do need to sign up, but that gives you a space to store your journal articles, which I have found really useful (journal articles can cost upwards of £20 each to download!)






The Bath Chair Nuisance

Bath chairs nuisance

There were many ways to get around nineteenth-century Birmingham. As the town expanded and those who could afford it moved out to the suburbs, there was increasing demand for public transport. The records of the Birmingham Street Commissioners contain many minutes dedicated to the management of vehicles, including those available for public hire. Throughout their administration, the Commissioners were responsible for the regulation of vehicles for hire, including registration, fare setting and regulations relating to maintenance and use of vehicles as well as the behaviour of the ‘car men’. The Bye-Law Committee also organised location of the car-stands, equivalent, I suppose,  to today’s taxi ranks. Reading across the minutes of the Street Commissioners, it is possible to see something of the changing face of the town through the relocation of these car stands. The man who advised on location and quantity was John Dester, a little known but vital employee of Birmingham’s early 19th century administration, who I shall get around to writing about eventually.

Around the mid- 1840s, there appears to have been a growing demand to increase the number of stands for Bath chairs. At a meeting of April, 1849, for example, the Bye-law Committee announced 14 new stands for Bath chairs, including 7 at Five Ways, perhaps intimating a demand amongst those who had moved out to Edgbaston.  Most of us have some idea of what a Bath chair is: a three-wheeled contraption somewhere between a wheelchair and a bicycle, often associated with the aged and infirm. The name came from their popularity, primarily amongst that demographic, in the city of Bath, as a means of transport for those ‘wishing to take the waters’. I also associate them with Victorian and Edwardian seaside images.

As you can see from the images, Bath chairs were pushed along, but there was a long steering handle at the front for the passenger to control direction. The picture on the left shows Bath chairs for hire in Bath, and so the passenger would be paying for someone to pull them along. Some chairs were drawn by pony, but I think in 1840s Birmingham they were more pedestrian. And their use also less sedate than the images one might associate with genteel sea-front excursions.

In early 1846, the Birmingham Journal published a number of complaints regarding ‘the Bath-Chair Nuisance’. This may have been because of a lack of regulation on their use, as they were being pushed about on the pavements, rather than the in the roads. This was the complaint of the Journal:

If a poor fellow, trembling under a load of goods in a hand-cart or wheelbarrow, ventures on the causeway to lighten his burden…and a policeman happens to see him, ten to one but he will get fined. If a nurse-maid is found drawing a baby-carriage on the foot-path, she is ordered into the horse-road, or to take the consequences. But with the utmost assurance and indifference to the annoyance they create, do a pack of broad-shouldered, long-legged fellows pull an epitome of a common car smack in your face on the flagstones, and either drive you into the gutter, or endanger the grinding of your shins against the wall.

Ouch! As the above images show, these Bath chairs were a fair size. The Journal suggested that they might be well suited to places such as Bath and Leamington, ‘where people could lounge in the middle of the road without much fear of being hurt’ but in Birmingham there was a good deal more traffic and forcing pedestrians into the road could potentially be lethal. The newspaper called upon the Commissioners to levy a fine against any using them on pavements, highlighting that they were becoming a growing nuisance and that ‘vehicles with wheels are intended to keep the middle of the road, no matter what they contain.’

The Commissioners, ever mindful of public opinion, appear to have taken heed and in early March of 1846, the town’s first Bath chair prosecution took place in the Public Office. A man by the name of Meuks was charged with conveying a Bath chair along the pavement on Broad Street, to the nuisance of the public, and forcing several people to have to step into the road. The defendant argued that the roads were too dangerous to pull Bath chairs along, because of the fast pace of horses, but the judge did not accept this because of the danger posed to pedestrians if they were forced into the road. At the trial, Superintendent Stephens stated that there had been a great increase complaints regarding Bath chairs, but there was confusion over the law regarding their use. The judge decided to waive a fine in this instance, and that of two others appearing for similar offences at the session, but added that ‘they would not hesitate a moment’ to impose punishment on any future cases.

The demand for Bath chair stands suggests that the public, and the authorities, must have come to some sort of peace with the awkward vehicle, however prosecutions for improper use continued and a small number of cases can be seen reported in the press. In1848, for example, Charles Hyde was fined fifteen shillings and sixpence (about £60) for ‘gross incivility and driving his chair against a gentleman in Broad-street’

For this post, I consulted the following:

Birmingham Archives, Heritage & Photography, MS2812/1/8

Birmingham Journal, February 28th, 1846
Birmingham Journal, March 28th, 1846
Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, March 6th, 1848

I use the British Newspaper Archive, which does charge a subscription. When archives are opened to the public again I would, as always, encourage everyone to use them. During lockdown, Birmingham City Council has secured free access  to the British Library digital collection for people who already have library membership. This collection is not as extensive as the BNA, but nevertheless useful. You can find the link on the following page – it will take  you to a site where you will be prompted to put in your library card number






A Birmingham Artist: Peter Hollins: 1800-1886


1885P2554 Portrait of Peter Hollins _1800-1886_

Peter Hollins by William Thomas Roden, 1868 ©BirminghamMuseumsTrust

Peter Hollins was born in Great Hampton Street, Birmingham, on May 1st, 1800. His father was William Hollins, also a sculptor, but primarily recognised for his architectural work in Birmingham. The striking adornments on the front of the Proof House (below) are attributed to William Hollins; depending on approach, it’s sometimes possible to see this from the train arriving into New Street station.

Proof house

Peter Hollins first learned his art in his father’s studio, but he also trained under Vincent Barber at Barber’s father’s academy on Great Charles Street. Vincent and his brother Charles, along with Samuel Lines, went on to establish their own Life Drawing Academy which, ultimately, evolved into the Birmingham Society of Artists.

In his early 20s, Peter moved to London where he secured a position with the eminent sculptor Francis Chantrey (this was the artist behind the statue of George IV in Trafalgar Square), assisting with Chantry’s James Watt memorial in St. Mary’s Church, Handsworth (below).

James Watt St Marys

Peter Hollins produced many significant pieces of work, including some that local people might be familiar with. The statue of Robert Peel, which used to stand in Congreve Street near the old library before being removed to the Pershore Road, is one of Hollins. He sculpted a bust of another great local artist, David Cox, on display at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, as well as that of Felix Mendelssohn, which he produced in 1850, two years after the composer performed his premier of Elijah at Birmingham Town Hall.

   Busts of David Cox and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy by Peter Hollins, ©Birmingham Museums Trust

Hollins’ never achieved the same sort of national recognition as his early mentor Francis Chantrey (who was knighted in 1835), and became somewhat disillusioned with the way in which he and his art was received in Birmingham, describing an ‘Egyptian darkness and ignorance’ of sculpture in the town. Nevertheless, in 1866 at the Midland Institute, the ‘friends of Mr Hollins’ established a subscription to commission his portrait, the painting to be undertaken by W. T. Roden and gifted to the new Art Gallery. Such a work was merited, the friends agreed, as ‘no man has worked harder for the advancement of art, and for the general good of the town, than Mr Peter Hollins.’

For this short piece, information was taken from the following sources:
Connie Wan, ‘Samuel Lines and Sons: Rediscovering Birmingham’s Artistic Dynasty, 1794-1898 through Works on Paper at the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists’ thesis, University of Birmingham, 2012

Joseph Hill, The History of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, 1929


Birmingham Daily Post, August 18th, 1886 (obituary)

London Gazette, July 3rd, 1835

Birmingham Daily Gazette, 12th October, 1866

There are some fab images to be found on Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery asset bank, free to use and share. That is where the curiosity for this little post started. BMAG is currently closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, but I would encourage people to support the museum in any way they can, whether by sharing images, positive experiences, purchasing from the online shop or making donations. We need to keep our museums and archives going, or risk becoming a city without a history. Thanks bab.


Managing the Poor: General Suppliers to the Workhouse

Running the workhouse in mid-nineteenth century Birmingham required numerous supplies of everyday items. Decisions on who and what were supplied were made by the Guardians of the Poor at regular meetings. The workhouse was a considerable customer for many small businesses, and it seems likely that connections across the local business community could play an important role in securing contracts. However, some supplies came from much further afield. Below is the list of suppliers for 1858, agreed at a meeting of the Board of Guardians in early March and published in Aris’s. Meetings of the Guardians were regularly reported in the press, to ensure that local tax payers could see exactly where their money was being spent. The list is interesting for what it reveals of workhouse necessities, from oatmeal for gruel, through to shoes and coffins.

Meat                          Mr Billingham, Congreve Street
Oatmeal                    Mr William Jeffcot, Weaman Street
Ale                             The Deritend Brewery
Wines & Spirits       E. Simpkinson, Jamaica Row
Leather                     Frier, Bull Street
Shoes                         M’Kinley & Walker, Paisley
Butter & Cheese      Knowles, Broad Street
Grocery                     J. Whilock, High Street
Hosiery, Draper      Atkinson & Co., London
& Clothing
Coals                         Weal, Broad Street
Coffins                      Grimley
Stationery                Mr Billing, Livery Street
Printing                    Mr Tonks
Drugs                        Mr Humphreys
Milk                          T. Saxelby

Birmingham’s local newspaper archive is available to view free of charge at the Library of Birmingham, level 4. It may be prudent to make an appointment to avoid disappointment. The papers are also available to view by subscription to the British Newspaper Archive. Please continue to support our local archives and libraries.