Tragic Halloween tale from Glasgow

From the Hereford Journal, November 19th 1845

Boy Frightened to Death – On Sunday last a boy named James Forsyth, residing at 285, Argyle Street, Glasgow, died from the effects of a fright occasioned by another boy in the same court presenting suddenly before him a mask, or what is generally known as a ‘false face’ , two days previous. We believe the circumstances occurred in connexion with the accustomed recreations of children on Hallow’e’en on Friday evening. The poor child who sustained the fright was driven into such a state of mental insensibility that he did not recover the shock.”


‘The demoralising tendency of spirit shops’ and the case for impartial administration

Many of the material improvements undertaken in Birmingham during the first half of the nineteenth century came about as a result of public demand. This was particularly evident in the actions of the Street Commissioners: the markets, Town Hall and road improvements were all provoked by public complaint, evident in memorials and petitions to the Commissioners. Birmingham’s Street Commissioners often come across as a more conservative administrative body, in contrast to the town council.  They undertook the duties of public servants, raising the necessary funds and permissions to alter the town for the accommodation of a growing urban community. It is very rare to find disputes over broader social issues within the Commissioner’s minute books. Certainly not with the regularity or passion evident in those of the Town Council.

The neutral stance of the Commissioners was something that its board members placed a value on. This is evident in their response to a memorial presented in September, 1833 by the Temperance Society. Significant improvement projects, such as the expansion of the market area, would involve compulsory purchases of nearby land and properties. To recoup some of the expenditure, any land or properties not utilised would be sold by public auction once the works were completed. The 1833 memorial expressed grave concerns over a notice produced in Aris’s Gazette, in which the Commissioners advised of the upcoming sale of a property ‘lately erected by the Commissioners at the corner of the New Market’. The property was a public house ‘fully licensed for the sale of ardent spirits’. Whilst the memorialists (some of whom were Commissioners) expressed appreciation for the ‘laudably anxiety of the Commissioners to obtain for the public as much as possible’, they were nevertheless ‘apprehensive that they (the Commissioners) have not fully considered the demoralising tendency of spirit shops’.  In response the Commissioners resolved that they could not justify ‘so great a sacrifice as would be occasioned by the abandonment of the license…more especially when connected with the fact that, out of six public houses purchased by the Commissioners in preparing for the Market, two only, including that now under discussion, have been retained by them.’. The auction went ahead and, in this instance, fiscal prudence trumped public moral opinion.

The dispute rumbled on and in a letter to the editor of Aris’s Gazette of September 16th, 1833, an anonymous ‘Commissioner’ argued the corner of the board, finishing with a clear indication of the importance attached to their rational neutrality:

When the Commissioners entered into the duties imposed upon them by Act of Parliament, they did not flatter themselves with the hope of pleasing every body. They have been guided by a strict desire to perform their duty conscientiously and impartially; and on this principle they have acted…until they have nearly completed their arrangements for giving to the town of Birmingham a large and commodious Market Hall.

Extracts from the minutes of the Birmingham Street Commissioners can be found at the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Library of Birmingham: MS 2818/1/6  copies of Aris’s Birmingham Gazette are available in the Local Studies centre, also at the Library of Birmingham.

Why Peaky Blinders tells us all we need to know (and more) about the 1920s

Modern British Studies Birmingham

Matt Houlbrook Matt Houlbrook

Two episodes into the second season of the BBC television series Peaky Blinders and I’m already reminded of why the exploits of Thomas, Polly, and the rest of the Shelby family tell us all we need to know (and more) about 1920s Britain. Or, at least, give us all the questions we need to ask to understand the aftermath of the Great War.

Let’s get this straight: I know that the Birmingham gang the series riffs on were around in the 1890s rather than the 1920s. And sure, the story plays fast and loose with historical figures like Billy Kimber and Darby Sabini, two of the most notorious leaders of the violent race course gangs of the period. But (with all due respect to one of my colleagues here), if all you have to say about an imaginative and engaging piece of television is that it doesn’t…

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‘Comfort, amusement and healthy occupation’: report on Birmingham asylum, 1850

The following report presents the findings of a visit from two ‘lunatic commissioners’ and was presented to the town council at the quarterly meeting on August 6th, 1850. The report can be found in the archives held by the Library of Birmingham, BCC1/AA/1/1/2

Birmingham Borough Asylum, July 8th 1850

We have this day officially visited this asylum, have gone through its different wards, galleries and sleeping rooms and have seen all the patients and have particularly examined and conversed with many of them. There are at present 137 in all, viz. 72 males and 65 females all of them except one being paupers belonging to the Borough of Birmingham, with the exception of one also who came from the Northampton Asylum, all the patients have been recently brought from the asylums at Birmingham, Haydock, Duddeston and from the Borough Workhouse.

At the time of our visit the patients with scarcely an exception were tranquil and comfortable. No one was under mechanical restraint or in seclusion such restraint has not hitherto been used in a single instance, and seclusion is only used occasionally and for short periods.

Considering that the house was opened for the reception of patients so recently as the 3rd of June last, we think that its present condition reflects great credit on the care, activity and good sense of those to whom the conduct of the establishment is more immediately entrusted and justifies a well grounded expectation that this asylum will soon take a high rank among similar institutions. The arrangements appear to us to have been made on a very liberal scale; and much has been done and more is proposed, and is in progress with a view to contribute to the comfort, amusement and healthy occupation of the inmates.

We have made the various enquiries which the statute directs with respect to the management of the institution and its inmates and the information which we have received on these points has been very satisfactory.

We found different apartments and galleries perfectly clean and thoroughly ventilated. The dress and persons of the patients were clean and neat, their bedding also was very clean and comfortable and in all respects of excellent quality.

A very large proportion of the patients were employed in different ways; and a still larger proportion of the patients will be usefully and profitably employed as soon as the necessary tools and utensils can be procured for them.

The dietary appears to be very liberal and on all sides we found the patients strongly express their sense of satisfaction at the change they had experienced in their removal from private asylums and from the workhouse to their present residence.

W. Mylne       J. R. Hume

‘An asylum for pauper lunatics’

The town council began to consider corporate building programmes almost as soon as the charter was confirmed in 1842. These included two major projects on Birmingham Heath, the house of correction and the lunatic asylum. Both of these institutions became important features of the town, but while the prison was subjected to scandal soon after opening, the asylum would go on to become a model institution for the care of paupers with mental health issues. Indeed, it became so popular that after only a short while private patients were also admitted. The asylum, which later became known as All Saints, was a large and impressive structure, set in beautiful grounds, which I visited in the late 1980s. I can remember it had the appearance of a grand, stately home.  Although it was the care given to patients which attracted interest, the buildings also gave testimony to the aspirations of Birmingham’s early municipal men.

Notes presented below are taken from BCC1/AA/1/1/2  (Library of Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography)


On February 4th, 1846, the town council appointed a committee to superintend the construction and provisions  ‘of an asylum for pauper lunatics’. This first committee comprised of aldermen Samuel Beale, James James and Thomas Phillips, along with councillors Samuel Briggs, William Lucy, Robert Martineau, Robert Potter and  Thomas Wright.  The committee appointed architect D. R. Hill and advertised for contractors to undertake the construction work. The foundation stone was laid by the mayor, Robert Martineau, on September 29th, 1847. There was something of a ceremonial religious service, ‘suitable for the occasion’, conducted by the Reverend J. C. Miller, rector of St. Martin’s in the Bull Ring.

Some early difficulties with the building contractor led to delays and the asylum was not ready for patients  for a further three years after the laying of the foundation stone. At a meeting held on January 1st, 1850, the Asylum Committee reported that the buildings were now ready for the fixtures and fittings and that adverts had been placed in the local and London newspapers for key positions in the asylum:

Medical Superintendent: 38 applications were received and the post was given to Mr Thomas Green, surgeon of Newhall Street in Birmingham

Matron: 27 applications received, Charlotte W. Houghton, sub-matron of Hanwell lunatic asylum was duly appointed

Clerk-steward: 43 applications received, William Frederick Knight, resident house steward of Northampton asylum appointed

All were to commence their posts on March 1st, with the asylum expected to receive its first patients on March 25th. The committee recommended further appointments to be made:

9 male attendants at a salaries of between £20 – £30 p.a.
9 female attendants at salaries of between £15 – £20 p.a.
1 cook at a salary of £20 p.a.
1 baker at a salary of £20 p.a.
1 laundress, at a salary of £20 p.a.
1 house porter at a salary of £26 p.a.
non-specified number of domestic servants, salary of £8 – £15 p.a.

These staff to be resident and, in addition, non-resident staff, comprising

Engineer (30 shillings per week without board)
Lodge-keeper and head gardener ‘being a married man’ also 30 shillings per week

In fact, the first patients were not received until June 3rd, 1850. The committee reported to the town council’s quarterly meeting in August that 142 patients had, at that point, been received, 74 men and 68 women. They asylum had been completely fitted out and was able to accommodate 250 patients. At the advice of the medical officer, newspapers, books and gardening tools were being provided ‘as a means of occupation and amusement’ for both staff and patients and there were further plans for building a farm. The architect had, at this point, already been instructed to draw up plans for ‘the requisite outbuildings for pigs, cattle &c.’