Dispute over a parrot – Polly asked to give evidence


This report from the Birmingham police court appeared in the Daily Post on May 27th, 1871. Other cases before the magistrates that day included a charge of embezzlement, the theft of coal and a robbery of a gentleman as he lay asleep in a ‘house of ill repute’. The case of Polly stands out as it does not appear as a criminal issue, but rather the JPs were being requested to decide who should have custody of a pet parrot. I’m afraid I cannot find what happened to Polly! As always, local newspapers can be viewed free of charge at the Library of Birmingham, on the 4th floor, Local Studies department. They are also available by subscription through the British Newspaper Archives.

Frederic Schweiss, foreign bird dealer, Market Hall, was summoned by Mrs. Whitehouse, Graham Street, for detaining a parrot which, she alleged, belonged to her. Mrs. Whitehouse lost a bird some time ago and, passing the defendant’s stalls, she saw a bird which she believed to be her ‘pretty Polly’. The defendant denied that the parrot belonged to the complainant and called the person from whom he obtained it for £3. 10s.  The bird was brought into court and, as Mrs. Whitehouse had stated that Polly could imitate the barking of a dog, the mewing of a cat, and do many other wonderful little tricks, she was requested to put the parrot through these various performances with a view to strengthen her claim. The complainant appealed very coaxingly to Polly, but the bird made no response. Mrs. Whitehouse explained this circumstance by saying that Polly, being in a strange place, and surrounded by a number of persons, was shy. The defendant said the parrot could only say ‘Holyoak’ in English. It could speak in Spanish (Laughter). – Mr. Gem (a magistrate) to Mrs. Whitehouse ‘perhaps you can get it to talk a bit of Spanish, or say Holyoak’!  Mrs. Whitehouse replied that the bird never spoke a word of Spanish. The defendant: ‘It can whistle the Blue Bells of Scotland’ (Laughter). Mr. Kynnersley (Magistrate) ‘the better plan will be to leave the parrot here until Monday, and in the meantime if it barks like a dog and does all you, Mrs. Whitehouse, credits it with, that will be strong proof in your favour. If it speaks Spanish, the presumption that it belongs to the defendant will be equally conclusive. – Adjourned.


Cleaning up the act: Kent St. public baths, plans and accounts


Kent St. Bath & Washhouses c. 1855 ©BirminghamCityCouncil

Birmingham Corporation opened its first public baths at Kent Street on May 12th, 1851. It was among the first major civic building projects undertaken by the town’s earliest elected council, along with the prison and asylum at Winson Green. There were other public baths in the town from very early in the nineteenth century, but Kent Street was the first paid for from the local public purse. At a meeting of the town council in October 1848, the ‘Gaol and Building Committee’ presented the first plans for the building:

The plans now submitted will if carried out afford the following accommodation viz. one swimming bath 84 feet by 36 feet – two plunging baths 15 feet by 17 feet and 13 feet by 18 feet – one for males and one for females – 51 private baths 5 feet 9 inches square, being 36 for males and 15 for females with vapour and shower baths – 25 stalls each 3 feet 6 inches wide for washing – room for centrifugal drying machine, drying closet, laundry with mangles – 6 private drying closets with water closets for each division. Residences for superintendents and matron, committee and waiting rooms. The Police House will be placed under the drying closet and the shaft from the boiler flue will also serve as an extraction shaft to assist in ventilating the whole of the buildings, but will economise fuel. The arrangement of the plans is such as to admit of future extension should it be required.’

There was clearly a good deal of thought put into ensuring that the building could offer the best value to the rate payer as well as allowing for future extension if the baths proved popular. By January 1852 the council had appointed a dedicated ‘Baths and Washhouses Committee’, who reported that there had been a decrease in the number of people using the swimming baths, suggesting that this was a seasonal drop and that some of the attendants had been ‘dispensed with’. The baths had been closed for several days during December for maintenance, including repairs to the boilers and flues. The committee also presented the following accounts. The list shows the name of tradesman, goods/services procured and the cost in pounds, shillings and pence:

John Wilson & Co. –  check books – £10,,19,, 4

Harriman – thermometers –  £  1,,14,, 4

H. Bishop –  chairs – £  3,, 6,, 0

Mr Hutchins – baskets – £  0  ,, 7,,

Rawlings, – brushes – £ 5,,17,, 5

Edward Simons – soap – £24,,19,, 8

Allen & Son –  printing –  £  2,,15,, 6

Stokes – coals –  £93,, 5,, 3

Holliday – cocoa nut matting –  £15,,18,, 9

C. Aston –  ironmongery –  £  1,, 7,, 4

Brassington – tubs etc. –  £10,,17,, 3

Holliday – flannel – £   0 ,,11,, 5

John Hanks – coals –  £  0  ,,18,, 8

Superintendents  – incidental expenses  – £  1,,15,, 5

the information here is taken from the minutes of Birmingham Town Council, BCC 1/AA/1/1/2 , Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography, at the Library of Birmingham Please support our local archives


‘Fit and proper persons’: the Birmingham election, 1832

The Great Reform Act of 1832 enabled Birmingham to return, for the first time, two Members of Parliament. The elections were organised somewhat differently then, taking place over several weeks, in this case between December 1832 and January 1833. Nominations of ‘fit and proper persons’ were made and polling would take place a few days later. Although the Great Reform Act had also extended the franchise, there were still very few people who qualified to vote. This new legislation is sometimes called ‘the £10 franchise’, because only those householders who paid an annual rent of at least £10 qualified. And of course, women were not allowed to vote however wealthy they might be. It is estimated that around 7% of the population were allowed to take part in this election. Of far greater importance were the changes introduced that gave growing, industrialised towns the opportunity to Parliamentary representation for the first time.


Lithograph 1832 ‘ The Meeting of the Unions on Newhall Hill’

Thomas Attwood and Joshua Scholefield had both been part of the movement for extending the franchise. Attwood had founded the Birmingham Political Union, the first political union in Britain. Other towns and cities quickly followed suit and soon a movement became established. The ‘monster meetings’ held at Newhall Hill in Birmingham captured the public imagination and tensions began to escalate. From 1831, serious rioting broke out across the country (Bristol and Nottingham were amongst the worst) and fears of revolution began to spread. There is some debate about whether these protests prompted the move for Parliamentary reform. It seems to me very likely that there was a necessity to try and placate the people and that the Great Reform Act was a (fairly tame) attempt to do just that. Nevertheless, this was a move to a sort of democracy.


On  Wednesday December 12th, 1832  Schofield and Attwood were nominated, unopposed, as ‘fit and proper persons’ to represent the borough of Birmingham. The following account is taken from the Birmingham Journal of December 15th, 1832:

Birmingham Election

On Wednesday last the election of two burgesses to serve in Parliament for this borough took place at the Public Office. Temporary Hustings were erected in the front of the building for the accommodation of the candidates and their immediate friends. By nine o’clock, the hour fixed for the nomination, Moor-street was completely filled, from the Bull Ring to Carrs-lane, with a dense mass of people. At the hour named, the High Bailiff and the Low Bailiff, with Thomas Asquith Esq. and Joshua Scholefield Esq., accompanied by their separate committees, appeared in the hustings, and immediately commenced the preparatory proceedings. The precept and the bribery acts having been read, and the customary oaths administered, John Simcox Esq., the High Bailiff, called upon the electors to nominate two burgesses as fit and proper persons to represent them in Parliament. The call of the High Bailiff was received with waving of hats and cheering, which lasted for a considerable time. 

There were then some long speeches from various people in the hustings. These were grand declarations, perhaps fitting for the occasion of a first election; references were made to Sampson and the Philistines, to ‘Liberty’ and to the ‘great United Britannic Nation’ of which Birmingham was now decidedly a part. The formal nominations were made – Mr. T. W. Hill nominated Attwood, John Betts seconded the motion. George Muntz – who would also go on to be an MP – nominated Scholefield, seconded by Thomas Clarke. All through the speeches and nominations, great cheers from the crowd were reported.  Thomas Attwood concluded by thanking his fellow townsmen for the friendly and generous confidence they had reposed in him; and he retired from the hustings wishing all manner of liberty and prosperity, and happiness, to them and their children forever. After which, Attwood left immediately for Walsall, to support his son, De Bosco Attwood, who was standing for election there. The scene in Walsall had been altogether less cordial in the run up to the election; the military had been called in and several people were shot and wounded. Although is father had mustered a huge support from followers of the Birmingham Political Union, Attwood jnr. lost out to the Tory candidate, Charles Smith Forster.

Note: there are numerous books on the Great Reform Act, if you want to read more I would recommend Linda Colley’s ‘Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837’. There are fewer generally available books on the Birmingham Political Union, but if you can find it David Moss’s biography of Thomas Attwood has a lot of information and also Carlos Flick’s ‘Birmingham Political Union and the Movements for Reform in Britain, 1830-1839’ is quite informative. Local newspapers, including the one this article was taken from, are available to view free of charge at the Library of Birmingham, Local Studies as well as by subscription through the British Newspaper Archive.