A truly Birmingham Meeting: Radical supper at the Town Hall, 1836

On January 30th, 1836, the Birmingham Journal published an enthusiastic report of a dinner held in the Town Hall in the previous week. Although there were many ‘distinguished guests’, the paper declared this had been a ‘truly Birmingham meeting‘ with ‘no false glare thrown about it by any specious show of aristocratical influence or sanction‘. The Hall had been decorated ‘appropriately’ and the galleries were adorned ‘with a galaxy of  beauty and fashion’. It was customary at Town Hall dinner meetings for the ladies to sit in the galleries, while the gentlemen drank and feasted in the main hall below. This ‘respectable assemblage’ of gentlemen included Birmingham MPs Thomas Attwood and Joshua Scholefield, along with the Irish MP and ‘Liberator’, Daniel O’Connell.

Many toasts were drunk during the course of the evening: ‘to the Mayors of the Liberal Corporations’; ‘to the Spirited and Judicious conduct of the Mayor of Leicester’; ‘to Poland, may England and France speedily vindicate the rights of humanity by the restoration of Poland’. (Polish exiles were among the distinguished guests). Speeches were political and Radical. They called for ‘Justice for Ireland’ and  spoke of the great hopes held for the reform of municipal corporations (the 1st Municipal Corporations reform Act having recently been passed).

Musical entertainment was provided by the Town Hall organ, played by Mr. Hollins, whose performance ‘and his performance on that noble instrument delighted the company’. He was accompanied by Mr. Pearsall, ‘in excellent voice’ led the singing of ‘Here’s health to all good lasses’ and ‘Roast beef of Old England’ (see video above). The evening, claimed the report, was ‘magical’.


Diseases prevalent in Birmingham’s back-to-back courts, 1849: the Rawlinson Report

by Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn, albumen cabinet card, 1882-1887

by Hayman Seleg Mendelssohn, albumen cabinet card, 1882-1887, National Portrait Gallery

In 1849, Robert Rawlinson visited Birmingham to assess the public health of the town. Rawlinson was one of the first inspectors employed by the government under the Public Health Act of the same year.  Whilst in Birmingham, Rawlinson received reports from local doctors and listened to complaints about substandard housing conditions and the limitations of the fresh water supply. The resultant report would ultimately lead to the amalgamation of Birmingham’s many administrative bodies under a single authority of the town council.

The report, available to view at the Local Studies Centre, Library of Birmingham, is comprehensive and includes details of the town’s geographic features and a brief history before revealing some of the serious public health issues facing the local community. Public health had not really been a great national issue before the 1842 publication of Edwin Chadwick’s ‘The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population in Great Britain’. Below is an extract from the Report showing the information that local doctors provided in response to a request from Rawlinson. For the purpose of the investigation, the town was divided into districts and local doctors appointed to report on each.

Birmingham was, perhaps rightly, proud of its successful deflection of ‘King Cholera’ during the devastating outbreaks in the 1830s. However, as the report below reveals, this shouldn’t be taken to mean that Birmingham was any healthier than other industrial centres at that time. Many of the outbreaks were attributed to poor sanitation and lack of fresh water. The majority of Birmingham’s houses had been built in the early part of the nineteenth century, generally without any sort of planning control. As a result, they quickly deteriorated and became unfit for purpose.

n.b. ‘varicella’ is chicken pox

District A: – Dr. Hinds

  • In August 1848, there were 5 or 6 cases of typhus in Court No. 3, Sheepcote Street, resulting in several deaths.
  • Court No. 1, Cottage Lane – Smallpox and Varicella
  • Steward St the whole of Spring Hill; Eyre St; Edmund St – especially courts 9 & 4,Nelson St.,  Union Court in Mill St., Brasshouse Passage, Baskerville Place,  Lower Camden St., Barrack yard and others in its vicinity – reports of typhus and scarlet fever, rubeola (sic.) and dysentery

District C: – Mr. Clarkson

  • Henrietta St., Water St., Fleet St. and Little Charles St. – typhus, scarletina (sic) diarrhoea

Mr Clarkson further reported that, ‘when these diseases again prevail, I have no doubt they will fall upon these spots severely unless in the mean time they are much improved in their sanitary condition’

District D:- Mr. Roden

  • Hospital St; Upper Hospital St; Upper Tower St; Farm St; George St; Hampton St; Hockley St; Harford St; Howard St; and William St. North – incidents of fever, measles, erysipelas (a sort of cellulitis caused by streptococcus), smallpox and diarrhoea

District E:- Mr. Jones

Bagot Street: the dwelling house of 4 court, 5 house occupied by Ingrams is in filthy and unwholesome condition, having been the nucleus of typhus fever since the beginning of August, 1848, and requires first the removal of its inmates; second the fumigation of the house by chlorine (this was Mr. Jones full report)

District F – Mr Field

Instances during the quarter ending December 30th, 1848:

  • Influenza  – Princess St., Stainforth St., Snow Hill, Loveday St., Slaney St., Lench St., Weaman St., Price St., Brickiln St., and  Steelhouse Lane
  • Diarrhoea – Steelhouse Lane almshouses, Lancaster St., Staniforth St., Slaney St., Snow Hill, Weaman St., Loveday St., Princess St., Price St., Whittall St., Shadwell St.,  and Balloon (sic) St.
  • Measles – Stainforth St., Cotterills
  • Scarlet Fever – Lench St., Lancaster St.
  • Dysentery – Stainforth St.

District H – Mr Hill

No epidemics reported,  but ‘scattered cases’ of typhus, measles, scarlet fever and hooping-cough (sic) at Old Inkley’s, New Inkley’s, Myrtle Row, Green’s Village, Tonk St. and Hill St.

District I – Mr Badger

  • Cheapside – diarrhoea, scarlet fever and measles all ‘very prevalent’
  • Essex St. – fever
  • Barford St. – diarrhoea and fever
  • Nelson St. south – Scarlet fever
  • Edgbaston St. – fever, measles and diarrhoea ‘prevalent’ – ‘Court 15 is scarcely ever free from fever’

District K – Mr Sproston

There has been no disease in my district since the 1st November last, of either an epidemic or endemic nature’ – Mr Sproston suggests this was surprising given ‘locality and class of people living in it, consisting as it does of the low Irish, whose habits generally are of the most filthy kind’. He goes on to reveal that the district had ‘a very bad and insufficient supply of water’ with no water at all available in some parts and the sewerage and drainage ‘defective’. He expresses that an inspection of this part of town would be beneficial.

The remarks on the local Irish community appear shocking to us today, but I have come across similar attitudes in other literature of the time, including Friedrich Engels Condition of the Working Class in England, written in 1844.

District L – Mr Simons

Mr. Simons called attention to state of drainage in several courts on Duke Street and Sheep Street ‘in consequence of their being below the level of the streets in which there is no main sewer’. Suggests that many of the courts were covered with pools of water and ‘stagnated filth’ which in some parts was a foot deep ‘this all runs into a cistern from which it is pumped into a well as occasion may require’.

Simons also states that, when visiting patients in Masshouse Lane, bricks had to be placed down to form an elevated footpath above the pools of water – again because of no drainage. He stated ‘the state of things unless removed may tend to produce fever and other contagious diseases’.

‘A pawnbroker heavily fined’: July 16th 1885

Birmingham Police Court

Thursday July 16th, 1885
Before Messrs. Kynnersley (stipendiary), Cook and Harris

A pawnbroker heavily fined:- John Taylor (8), schoolboy, was charged with stealing three shirts. On the 28th ult., prisoner went to Mrs. Murcott, who keeps a mangle, and asked for three shirts belonging to his mother. The shirts were given to him in the belief that they belonged to his mother. Prisoner pawned the shirts the same day with Mrs. Mary Hall, pawnbroker, Farm Street. Prisoner was discharged with a caution. – The pawnbroker was charged with receiving the shirts from Taylor, he being under the age of 12. Taylor was put in the witness box and stated that he took the shirts to Mrs. Hall’s shop and the assistant named Mary Leighton took them in pledge. Witness added that he regularly pledged goods with Mrs. Hall. – A fine of £5 with costs was imposed (on Hall)

This item was taken from The Birmingham Daily Post dated July 17th, 1885. Local newspapers are available to view online by subscription to the British Newspaper Archive and on microfilm, free of charge, at the Local Studies Centre, 4th floor, Library of Birmingham. Birmingham Archives are currently under threat from council cutbacks – please support our local public resources – updates on Twitter via @FoLoB_ (Friends of the Library of Birmingham)

‘Improving Men’ and their occupations

For part of my thesis I’ve been finding out about some of Birmingham’s early 19th century administrators, the Street Commissioners. Last year I spent a wonderful summer in the Wolfson Centre at the Library of Birmingham, reading through fifty years of the commissioners’ minute books. This year I’ve spent a lot of time analysing the information from the notes and this has formed the basis of a chapter. One of the things I wanted to get across was that the body of commissioners were representatives of the local community and not some shadowy elites confined to the county seat over in Warwick. So, using my notes, I carried out a survey of commissioners’ occupations over the period 1812-1832. This proved quite time consuming work and I also discovered I’m not very good at counting! I ended up with a list of 255 street commissioners, who had held office during the time scale surveyed. I was able to find the occupation of most of them: sometimes the minute books included their occupation along with their place of business, sometimes it was only their place of business. Sometimes there was only a name.

Where name and place of business were provided, it was possible to trace many of the men through trades’ directories; I also paid another, recent, visit to the Wolfson and traced many more through the minute books of the Guardians of the Poor, those minute books appear far more carefully and rationally presented. Sometimes names proved ambiguous, even with a place of business – how to know if this was Thomas Jones the wire maker or Thomas Jones the grocer? In all, the occupations of 29 commissioners proved too elusive to trace (though I shall keep looking)

The next thing was to decide how to categorize them all. I decided to divide them up fairly simply as manufacturers, jewellers/toymakers, professionals, merchants/factors, gentlemen and an even more ambiguous ‘other’. I’m still unsure if I’ve got the categories quite right. For instance I included japanners in the manufacturing group, but button makers in the jewellers’ group. With hindsight I think this is wrong and will probably change it before the whole thesis is finished. But with those issues still to wrestle, these are the numbers/rough percentages  (apologies for rubbish maths and wonky figures) that I found:

Birmingham Street Commissioners by Occupation, 1812-1832

Manufacturers                    80    =  31.4%
Merchants/factors              63     =  24.7%
Jewellers/toymakers          23     =      9%
Professionals                       19      =   7.45%
Gentlemen                           19      =   7.45%
Other                                     20     =   7.84%
Unknown                              31       =12.15 %

The figures have made a lovely pie chart for my chapter (thanks to my brilliant friend Hema!) but they don’t really reveal the immense diversity of the commissioners’ occupations. I’ve had some fun experiment with word clouds. If you’re not familiar with these, I’d suggest you have a go. There’s one called Wordle, but that isn’t compatible with my Chrome book, so I downloaded an app called ‘Drive Word Cloud’. I simply typed in the occupation for each commissioner, including all repeats. What the word cloud generator then does is create a lovely graphic; the words that are repeated most often appear larger and bolder than those that are less frequent. So you get an instant visual of which occupations were most prominent. I have found a few problems in using this, and would be very glad if anyone could advise on how to get over these; for example, where occupations were longer than one word (such as glass manufacturer) I had to include them as one whole word with no spaces. Also, at least one of the occupations I typed in does not seem to have appeared in the cloud (tea dealer and coffee roaster – I wonder if any Brummies can guess the name of that commissioner?) Still, it was good fun, if not very academic, and I’ve included a screen shot of the word cloud here. It does at least give some idea of the occupational range of Birmingham’s ‘Improving Men’

Wordcloud commissioners by occupation


‘Scorchio’ 1868

Sunny sky

It looks as though July 2015 is going to bring something of a heatwave, with temperatures recorded on Wimbledon’s Centre Court reaching 40 degrees, while someone on the BBC labelled it ‘scorchio’. There were similar high temperatures in July, 1868, including at Wimbledon, although the sport was a rifle shooting tournament rather than tennis. The Birmingham Daily Post stated that the weather, according to the thermometer, is something astounding’. The formality of uniform had been abandoned, the clothing is something astonishing – a pair of trousers, a flannel shirt and a straw hat constitute the luxuries of the day. 

 At a weekly meeting of Birmingham’s ironmasters, the tropical heat of the weather was blamed for a shortage of iron arriving from the Staffordshire iron works, having made labour at the mills and furnaces for the time almost impossible.[Birmingham Daily Gazette, July 24th 1868] In London the cheese trade was also revealed to have suffered, and on July 31st an advert in the Coventry Herald declared that as soon as the temperature moderates we look for a fair enquiry for really prime cheese. 

The 1868 heatwave had tragic consequences for some. On July 24th, Lutterworth labourer George Lilliey, aged 65, was found dead in a field of peas that he had been gathering. The local coroner returned a verdict of died from apoplexy, caused by the excessive heat of the weather. The same article reported that two days earlier, 26 year old labourer Joseph Webb collapsed with the effects of sun stroke while pitching a load of oats in Cotesbach field, about a mile from Lutterworth. His colleagues had to carry him home. [Coventry Standard, July 31st 1868]

The following  is taken from an article in Aris’s dated July 18th, 1868

Extraordinary Heat Birmingham 1868

Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, July 16th 1868 ©BritishNewspaperArchive

The article goes on to say that the heatwave had already lasted seven weeks, during which time it had only rained on four days, and that only a total of 0.68 inches. Statistics were also used in the same item to dispel the St. Swithin’s day myth

St Swithins myth 1865

Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, July 16th 1868 ©BritishNewspaperArchive

Thank goodness that we now have access to cold beer and ice lollies! Keep cool and enjoy the sunshine!

Birmingham’s nineteenth-century newspapers are available to read online by subscription to British Newspaper Archives, and FREE OF CHARGE at Library of Birmingham, Local Studies Centre, located on the fourth floor. Public libraries and archives are currently at risk as because of local government cuts; please support our local libraries and archives; lobby your MP, sign petitions, look out for protests. Once they’re gone, they’re gone!