‘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



6 thoughts on “‘Improving Men’ and their occupations

  1. I am impressed with your research and how you’ve used it to create a really interesting blog. Your work reminds me of the hours that I used to spend in Birmingham library where I would use a microfilm reader to slowly go through old newspaper articles in the hope of finding out more about my family history in the city! 🙂

    • Hello Chris, thank you very much for your kind comments. The microfilm readers are still there, but they’ve been updated recently so you no longer have to turn a big handle! Did you find the newspaper articles useful in your research?

      • Yes I did find some of the articles in the library, but there were some that I was unable to find. For example, there was a story that someone in my family made front page news when her house collapsed whilst she and her friend were inside (luckily they were unharmed). The house had probably been weakened by the second world war bombing and the vibrations from a passing tram finally brought it down! I went through the newspapers from a five year period, but never found anything. Perhaps my recollection of the story is incorrect or perhaps I was simply not patient and thorough enough in my research. One day I might take a fresh look at this…

      • Sounds terrifying! Really hope you’re able to carry on the research. The British Newspaper Archives are continually adding new editions to their online collection, but I can only see Birmingham papers going up to 1917 on there so far.

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