The Public Works Committee: 1852

In late 1851 a new Improvement Act made the Birmingham Street Commissioners defunct, and powers of managing and maintaining the town were handed to the town council. Many changes were brought into effect under the new system and the town councillors were keen to introduce what they believed to be a far more efficient system of administration. The minute books of the town council from around this time are really interesting, as they go into great detail of how this re-organization took shape. Below is an extract from a committee report of January 1852. The town council had only been handed full control in December of the previous year, so, although there were still some issues to be sorted out, they must have moved with great efficiency.

Report of the Public Works Committee (January 2nd, 1852)

Proposed system for conducting the business of the department:

For the efficient maintenance, cleansing and watering of public thoroughfares, the borough  divided into 4 districts, viz.

The North District The East District The South District The West District

  • 21 men assigned to each district, including a foreman to keep their time and direct them and 5 cleansing machines and 9 watering machines (all of which are in stock) with 10 horses and a proper proportion  of 26 gravel and mud carts which were also in stock
  • Hours of labour to be from 6am to 6pm  (except the men employed in cleansing the streets) ‘who are to be at their work at any hour, day or night, as the weather and circumstances may require, allowing one hour for breakfast and one hour for dinner excepting the months of November, December, January and February when the hours will be from 7 to 6, the men breakfasting before commencing work during these months’

Stations assigned to the districts:

North District     the yard in Shadwell Street
East District        no yard yet fixed
South District    the yard in Holliday Street
West District               do.

  • The Sewer Department will consist of 7 men including one foreman
  • Flagging and Paving Department for repairs only will consist of 8 men, 2 stone masons and their 2 labourers, 2 paviours and their 2 labourers
  • For keeping the watering machines, the bodies of the gravel carts and for jobbing work, two carpenters will be employed.

All works such as paving and flagging (except repairs) should be done by tender and contract, as well as the supply of rag stone and materials, horse provender etc.

Committee not yet prepared to report on the removal of night soil or on the plans of proposed new sewers

Number of men employed  Details of Men to be Employed Weekly Wages Annual Wages
84 Road and cleansing men, wages averaging each 19/- £79,,16s
1 Inspector of Cleansing Machines £1,,10
1 Porter for Holliday Street yard £1,,5
2 Attending machines, feeding horses, cutting chaff, beams etc., 18/- £1,,16
1 Yard Man for North District Station 18s
1 do.  for South District Station 18s
90 Total £86,,3 £4479,,16
Sewer Department
1 Foreman £2
6 Men  @ 18/- £5,,8
7 Total 7s/8d £384,,16
Flagging Department
2 Masons  4s/6 each £2,,14
2 Labourers 3/- each £1,,16
2 Paviours 4s/6 each £2,,14
2 Labourers 3/- each £1,,16
8 Total £9 £468
2 Carpenters £2,,16 £145,,12
Borough Surveyor’s Office
Office Clerk £1,,10 £78
Office Boy 8s £20,,16
Char Woman 15s £39

At the end of their report, the committee expressed regret in reporting the death of Edward Day, a young labourer employed in the maintenance of Birmingham’s sewers. During a great storm, Edward had been washed into the River Rea and had drowned. The public works committee requested a gratuity of £5 for Edward’s mother, who was ‘entirely destitute’ to cover the expense of his funeral. The minutes do not make clear whether this sum was granted.

The town council minute books are available to view in their original form at Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography,  Wolfson Centre, Library of Birmingham  – reference for this copy BCC/1/AA/1/1/2  

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‘The Birmingham Rat’: Freeth’s cheese and workhouse dripping

Those who have been fortunate enough to visit the Birmingham History gallery at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BM&AG) will be familiar with the wonderfully presented ‘Freeth’s Coffee Shop’, where it is possible to take a step back in time and hear the words of Birmingham’s famous  balladeer, John Freeth and read a little of his place in local history. If you’ve not been, I can highly recommend a visit (and better yet, it’s free entry!). Freeth was proprietor of the Leicester Arms, on the corner of Bell Street, in the latter years of the eighteenth century and the early years of the nineteenth. He died in 1808. The pub was also a coffee house and it became generally known as Freeth’s Coffee House when he ran it. At this time, coffee houses had become important centres for debate on national political issues of the day, as well as local affairs. They were less exclusive than the French salons and, in commercial centres like Birmingham,  they would attract local tradesmen and small business owners. John Freeth turned many of these debates into ballads that became popular beyond Birmingham, eventually being published.  It should be remembered that those could be dangerous times for sharing political ideas and the government regularly introduced  legislation to try and curb any hint of political dissent.



But back to BM&AG – in their recreation of Freeth’s Coffee Shop, there is an interactive table on which you can see some of the ballads and also hear them as they would have sounded when sung. It’s a lot of fun! On my last visit I was particularly interested in a ballad that referred to ‘The Birmingham Rat’ – someone, as yet not identified, who had stolen cheese from the workhouse. My photograph is not very good, but I hope you can get the gist of the words:



And the ballad is helpfully interpreted by a further image on the interactive table:



This was interesting to me, because just a couple of weeks before the visit I had spent another wonderful day in the archives at the Library of Birmingham, collecting names of Guardians of the Poor from their minute books,  for my research. Because I’m so nosey,  it was impossible to just scan for names  (the professional thing to do) and I ended up reading through the minutes (running out of time to complete my list of names!). There were a few mentions of ‘prevarications’ amongst the workhouse staff, although the minutes seemed to fall short of actually calling it ‘theft’. It was enlightening to discover, through seeing the ballad at BM&AG, that the local community were aware of these ‘corruptions’ and keen to see the perpetrators ‘named and shamed’.

The following extract is taken from the minute books of the Guardians of the Poor (who had responsibility for the workhouse). There are many volumes of these minute books, all available to view in their original form at Archive, Heritage & Photography, Library of Birmingham – this volume, reference: GP/B12/1/2 (1809-1826). 

A couple of notes – the Overseers were annually elected representatives of the parish who worked alongside the Guardians. The term ‘perquisite’ (I had to look it up) is ‘a benefit one enjoys or is entitled to on account of one’s job or position’ – perk of the job!

At the Public Office, March 17th, 1818
Report of the Investigating Committee

In the kitchen department your committee found that system of perquisites had been established by custom and carried on to an extent unknown by the Guardians and Overseers. The quantity of kitchen grease and dripping solde every week for some time past upon the average has been from 25 – 28 lbs at from 1 ½ to 6d per lb and though these facts have been confirmed by the testimony of some respectable Housekeepers, yet your committee are sorry to state that during the investigation they observed a great deal of prevarications and falsehood among the servants united with an evident wish to conceal and extenuate. Your committee are so deeply impressed with the infurious tendency and the great abuse to which perquisites of any kind are liable that they most urgently press it on the attention of this meeting to abolish the system entirely and afford every steward in the house fair and proper wages.’

The report suggested that the kitchen be placed under a new management and added that ‘through the whole of this laborious investigation it was not in their power to trace a single parcel of the large quantity of goods taken out of the clothes room although some must necessarily be of large dimensions. Such a manifest neglect of duty in those who occupy responsible situations is criminal and calls for immediate redress’.  – This is the part that Freeth’s cheese reminded me of!

edit: The lovely people at BM&AG have told me that ‘The Birmingham Rat’ is available on SoundCloud, so if you’d like to hear how a rendition in Freeth’s Coffee Shop might have sounded, check this out:

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