Law Makers, Law Breakers

Although Birmingham was incorporated in 1838, until 1851 the majority of the management of the fabric of the town still fell under the control of the self-elected Street Commissioners. Over the course of some 80 years they oversaw the transformation of the town from a few puddled streets into a thriving commercial centre. They held administrative responsibilities not dissimilar to our current council, including paving, draining, lighting but also street cleansing, licensing of cabs, managing the markets and filling in potholes. They also had to oversee some seismic changes, particularly the coming of the railways. Overall, reading through the minute books of the Commissioners, there is an impression of a pretty impressive system. However, just like today, the management of a large and dynamic infrastructure came with many difficulties and the Commissioners came under fire, particularly over issues of drainage and smoke pollution. In the letter below, taken from the Birmingham Journal of September 24th, 1842, a local resident is complaining about something which must have been quite an issue to those living and working nearby, that is the smells of managing Birmingham.

Law Makers, Law Breakers,

Sir,- if I mistake not, our commissioners have made a bye law to prevent persons removing manure &c. between a certain hour in the morning and a stated time at night. Now, at their own premises in Shadwell-street, manure is often removed during the day, causing such a stench as cannot be conceived, far different to stable manure generally.  In fact, it is quite a nuisance.
Yours respectfully,
Birmingham, September 17th, 1842


From rumour to riot


Rioters attacking firemen in the Bull Ring

In the wet and stormy summer of 1839, Birmingham was in turmoil. There was a strong Chartist presence in the town, holding meetings in the Bull Ring twice a day promoting the ideal of universal suffrage to large crowds. It was the newly established town council which had the responsibility of policing the tensions, a difficult task given that the Churchwardens had taken up a legal challenge against the legitimacy of the council. They refused to hand over any of the rate money to the council, leaving them hamstrung and unable to properly suppress the growing unrest. In consequence the town’s first mayor, William Scholefield, decided to approach the Home Secretary for support. A body of Metropolitan Police had been dispatched, arriving in Birmingham on July 4th and subsequently being subjected to a severe beating as they attempted to break up a meeting. Two of the London police were stabbed, although they did make a recovery at the General Hospital. In consequence of this a new, bitter antagonism grew between the Brums, the alien police force and the town council who had called them in. Across the course of several days the Metropolitan officers exacted their response, operating a random stop and search policy and confiscating any tools that might be deemed as offensive weapons. In an artisan town where men relied on their tools to earn a living this act only added to the pervasive tensions. The riot act was put in place, but few observed the magistrates’ ban on assembling in public places. On July 15th a notorious riot took place in the Bull Ring, a number of shops were razed, firemen were attacked and some local families were forced to clamber down from upstairs windows as Birmingham burned. The episode caused a good deal of national scandal, the young Queen Victoria summoned a meeting with Prime Minister Melbourne and  wrote of her concerns  in her diary.

The case against the arrested rioters reached the Warwick Assizes in September, during which three men were found guilty of the capital offence of pulling down property. The following is the witness statement of Edward Savage, a shoe maker of Bow Street (near Horsefair). This is a useful statement as, if accurate, really reveals just how the riot of July 15th began. The Lovett and Collins mentioned in the transcript were William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Association and John Collins, a journeyman pen maker from Birmingham who was a leading Chartist. The two had been arrested and imprisoned in Warwick gaol for penning and publicly posting an objection to the behaviour of the London police. The news of their bail on the 15th had clearly reached Birmingham.

Edward Savage, a shoe-maker, Bow Street:- I left work about seven o’clock on the night of the 15th of July, and went with a few neighbours to the meeting at Holloway-head. There were some hundreds there. We came from Holloway-head down Exeter Row, where Wilkes directed the mob to go down Smallbrook Street, down Digbeth to the Warwick Road to meet Lovett and Collins. I and my companions saw two policemen endeavour to take a man into custody. We afterwards followed the crowd to Camp-hill, and the man, who was not taken, told the people there assembled how he had been treated by the police. When the man told the mob what had happened, some of them said they would go and ‘hammer’ the police. Two hundred, I should think, went back towards the Bull Ring.

St. John Ambulance Association: Nurses for Egypt (1882)

From Birmingham Daily PostSeptember 12th, 1882

St. John Ambulance Association:- Nurses for Egypt

To the Editor of the Daily Post,

Sir,- Will you permit me to inform numerous local applicants who have addressed me on this subject – some of whom (men and women) have most generously volunteered their services – that the conditions upon which they are accepted are these: All travelling and other necessary expenses of the nurses and ambulance pupils who may be selected for service at the seat of war are paid; and although the committee’s list is fully complete, further increase of the number, which is much required, will depend on the pecuniary support received from the public, who are earnestly appealed to for contribution to enable dispatch of this expedition on its mission of humanity. Subscriptions – however small – will be gratefully received, acknowledged, and forwarded to the promoters of the Egyptian Relief Fund by,
Yours faithfully,
G. King Patten, Hon. Secretary
105, Colmore Row
September 11

In 1882 the British government staged an intervention in Egypt, sending a fleet of ships to the coast in July, with an army of more than 40,000 men heading across land towards the Suez Canal zone and on to Cairo and other key towns/ports. Britain maintained an occupation of Egypt until after the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian treaty. The St. John Ambulance Association was founded in 1877, developing and forming into a uniformed brigade a decade later. There was a military nursing corp at this time, ‘The Army Nursing Service’, which had been active during the first Boer (Zulu) War. The conditions must have been extremely challenging for women travelling to North Africa at this time.

Some interesting background on the Army Nursing Service can be found here:


Charge of Bigamy

From Birmingham Daily Post, September 13th 1861

Birmingham Police Court

Before T.C. Kynnersley, T. Cox and C.H.Cope Esqs.

Charge of bigamy.- A young man named W.G.Reed, a coach-maker, residing in Francis Street, was brought up on remand, charged as above. It appeared from the evidence that in December 1850 (sic.) , the prisoner married a woman named Elizabeth French, at St. Andrew’s Church, Bordesley, in this town. – Mrs. Sarah Wall, pew opener at the church, said she saw the parties married, and Detective Jenns, who had the case in hand,  produced a copy of the marriage certificate. Within seven months the coach-maker, who had gone up to London, became acquainted with a young woman named Emma Churchill, and was in July 1959, married to her at St. Phillip’s Church, Stepney. Jenns produced a copy of the certificate of this second wedding. The defence set up by the accused was an odd one. His first wife, a deformed young woman….agreed to make her his wife, on condition that, should she bring forth a living child, the union should be held to be binding, but if the babe died then the marriage would be void. The child did die and he, leaving the deformed woman, married Churchill in London. The Bench committed him to the next assizes for trial. The question of bail being referred to, the Magistrates said that they would accept two sureties in £50 each, and the prisoner at £100. Not being provided with the sureties, the bigamist was locked up.

**The missing word, replaced in the text above with three dots, was not quite legible to me, and the more I looked at it the more unsure I was of what it read. I think, given the context, it perhaps referred to the impregnation of  poor Elizabeth French. The date ‘1850’ seems quite clear in the print, but it would seem more probable that it should have read 1858, which would tie in with Reed’s trip to London ‘within seven months’. 

A Nuisance on Henry Street

This letter to the editor featured in Birmingham Daily Post on September 9th, 1859

A Nuisance
To the Editor of the Daily Post

Sir,- Will you oblige me, on behalf of several of my neighbours, by giving publicity to the following most intolerable nuisance: Every day, but far worse on Saturday, the occupants of houses situated on the corner of Heneage and Henry Streets are greatly annoyed by parties in in the next yard in Henry Street flying their pigeons and throwing stones, potatoes &c., upon the roofs above houses, which fall into the first named yard with destructive effect upon windows &c.,  and render it very dangerous for children walking in the yard, and adults too; when if any remonstrance is made by the neighbours they only receive abusive language for their interference.  Can you, Mr. Editor, or any of your correspondents enlighten me as to what I or any of my neighbours can do for the suppression of this nuisance which becomes more and more unbearable and oblige,
faithfully yours,
Henry Street

Singular Conduct of a Pistol Maker

Birmingham Police Court


September 1st, 1858
Before T.C.S Kynnersley and S. Buckley Esqs.

Singular conduct of a pistol maker:- A respectable young man named William Henry Bate, who stated that he was a pistol maker in Talbot Street, Winson Green, was summoned to answer the following rather serious charge: A neat little Irish girl named Margaret Colorin, servant to Mrs. E. Mahoney, shopkeeper in the above locality, stated that a few nights ago – it was near ten o’clock and quite dark – she had occasion to go into the yard, into which the premises of the defendant Bate came. As she passed she distinctly heard Mrs. Bates say to her husband “Paddy’s a-coming”, and he directly fired off a pistol three several (sic.) times. The sound came as if defendant was not many yards off, and she was so much frightened that on getting into her mistress’s house she had a violent fit of hysterics.  Mrs. Mahoney and another respectable female neighbour, proved hearing three distinct reports of fire-arms. The defence was that Mr. Bate, whose father is a gun-maker in Whittall Street, in accordance with his father’s practice, always proves his pistols before disposing of them. He did so on the night in question. He only discharged one, his wife letting off the other two. He distinctly denied pointing them at the girl, and did not hear his wife say that Paddy was coming. Mr. Kynnersley said it was a highly improper course to pursue at night and Mr. Bate must pay the costs, 7s. This was done.

[Birmingham Daily Post, Thursday 2nd September 1858]

The British Association for the Advancement of Science: Birmingham, 1849

At a general meeting of the Birmingham Street Commissioners held on September 4th, 1848, exciting news was revealed: the British Association for the Advancement of Science had announced that it would hold its nineteenth annual conference in Birmingham the following year. This was great news for the town, and a strong indicator of a growing cultural reputation. The Association, formally established in 1831, had become an institution of some national importance, holding annual meetings, attracting great scientific minds and, of greater importance, pooling ideas into readily accessible publications.

As was the habit in Birmingham, visiting members of the Association were treated to a warm reception lasting several days. Aris’s Gazette recorded an impressive list of ‘noble and distinguished visitors’  who were entertained by the Mayor. Amongst the names can be seen local gentry and European dignitaries, including Charles Bonaparte, Prince of Canino and nephew of the Emperor, he was also a recognised ornithologist who discovered a new breed of petrel during a trip to America. Other visitors to the conference included easily recognisable names, Charles Darwin, whose grandfather Erasmus had been part of the Lunar Society,  Michael Faraday (also no stranger to Birmingham, he worked with the Chance brothers on improving lighthouse efficiency) and Hugh Edward Strickland, who had just published his groundbreaking work on the anatomy of the dodo.


Frontispiece from Strickland’s ‘The Dodo and its Kindred’ (1848)

The arrangements for the conference had been undertaken with suitably rational organisation, utilising Birmingham’s numerous cultural buildings. The Gazette reported how the Association’s various  groups and committees were accommodated across multiple sites. This is interesting, as it reveals the diversity of the Association and an inkling of how exciting the conference might have been but also really shows an impressive array of cultural institutions in Birmingham; this was not just a dusty town of lodging houses and puddled courts (although there were plenty of those too!):

The most ample accommodation was provided by the Local Committee for the comfort and convenience of the members. Eight departments in the Free Grammar School were devoted to the use of the four sections, A, C, D and G; the Philosophical Institution was set apart for the section of chemistry; section F and the sub-section of Natural History were accommodated in the Queen’s College. The large room of the Society of Arts was converted into a reception room, where every facility was afforded the members for procuring lodgings and obtaining information upon all subjects. The Town Hall was also thrown open, and nearly all the manufactories of the town were accessible to the visitors

For all its culture, Birmingham clearly also kept an eye on the commercial opportunities that such a large and nationally important event might bring.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science still exists, now known as the British Science Association. Their website can be found here :

The minutes of the Birmingham Street Commissioners are available to view by appointment at the Wolfson Centre, Library of Birmingham, the 1848 entries are in MS 2818/1/7  – this is a free service but recent staff cuts means that access is now limited.

Aris’s Gazette is available via subscription to British Newspaper Archives, or free of charge in the Library of Birmingham Local Studies department, floor 4. Again it is perhaps best to check on opening times. Please support our local archives and resources in any way you can. They are a vital part of preserving and understanding our heritage and culture. If we lose them, and the experts who manage them, there is little chance of getting them back. Ta.