Mount Misery

Getting by in 19th century Birmingham could be hard.  A town of great innovation and opportunity it was also subject as much as any other to the vagaries of fluctuating economic fortunes and depressions.  Small trades could be impacted by changing fashions and new inventions. Another factor, particularly during the first half of the century, was the lull in heavy international conflicts, which caused a drop in the demand for guns and metal arms, for which Birmingham was a leading manufacture. In those days people suffering from poverty could become dependent on the poor rate. This was before the days of the Victorian workhouses. There was a workhouse in Birmingham, but it was not run under the sort of system more familiar in ‘Oliver’, and most of the poor were given ‘out relief’, a very small amount of money and often in return for otherwise unpaid labour.  This piece from Showell’s Dictionary of Birmingham explains. Pushing men, especially young men, into such backbreaking work would have been intended as a way of preventing violent unrest at a time of great deprivation.

Mount Misery.– At the close of the great war, which culminated at Waterloo, it was long before the blessings of peace brought comfort to the homes of the poor. The first effects of the sheathing of the sword was a collapse in prices of all kinds, and a general stagnation of trade, of which Birmingham made prosperous through the demands for its guns, &c., felt the full force. Bad trade was followed by bad harvests, and the commercial history of the next dozen years is but one huge chronicle of disaster, shops and mills closing fast, and poverty following faster. How to employ hundreds of able-bodied men dependent on the rates, was a continual puzzle to the Overseers, until someone, wise in his generation, hit upon the plan of paying the unfortunates to wheel sand from the bank then in front of Key Hill House up to the canal side, a distance of 1 1/2 miles, the payment being at the rate of one penny per barrow load. This fearful ‘labour test’ was continued for a long time, and when we reckon that each man would have to wheel his barrow backwards and forwards for nearly 20 miles to earn a shilling, moving more than a ton of sand in the process, we cannot wonder at the place receiving such a woeful name as Mount Misery.

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William Scholefield: Birmingham’s First Mayor

On May 4th, 2017, the people of the West Midlands will have the opportunity to elect a Mayor. This is different to the usual appointment of Lord Mayor, which does not fall to a public vote. Birmingham’s last elected mayor was James Smith, who took office in 1895. The first mayor was William Scholefield, who was granted his position on December 28th, 1838. Scholefield was the son of the Birmingham MP Joshua Scholefield (who also held a Birmingham ‘first’, being one of the town’s first MPs along with Thomas Attwood) and would later become an MP himself.

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William Scholefield (c) New York Public Library

Scholefield’s term of office should have represented a triumph for Birmingham as the town celebrated the institution of its first municipal corporation. But instead he found himself at the centre of controversy at a time of immense social tensions. Some of the difficulties were of Scholefield’s own doing. At the time of the first town council elections he put himself forward as returning officer. That is, he oversaw the counting of votes, a role which was supposed to fall to the High Bailiff of the town. Scholefield had been High Bailiff until October 1838, at which time local button manufacturer James Turner who held that position. When the local Tory party, the Loyal and Constitutional Association, began a legal challenge against the legitimacy of the wholly Radical town council, Scholefield’s dodgy appointment gave real momentum to the anti-corporation campaign.

By the summer of 1839, Birmingham’s first town council had become more generally unpopular within the local community. Chartism was becoming increasingly popular, but the town councillors had allied themselves with another political agitation, the Anti-Corn Law League. This created a really strong line of tension that would erupt into violence in July, 1839. Once again it was Scholefield who found himself at the centre of the controversy.  Groups of Chartists had been gathering in the Bull Ring twice daily and creating something of a disturbance. Shopkeepers complained about the nuisance and Scholefield sought support from the magistrates. A dispersal notice was posted in the Bull Ring on May 10th, but protesters took no notice. Nightly, torchlit parades were held in the streets. The council had been given responsibility for policing and keeping the peace, but they had no money to manage this. Scholefield and a magistrate went to London and requested support from the Home Office. On July 4th 1839 a body of Metropolitan Police arrived in the Bull Ring with instructions to disperse the crowds and arrest any Chartist speakers. What ensued was what can only be described as a mass brawl. The protesters broke the staves of their flags and banners, using them as weapons against the police; railings around the nearby parish church, St. Martin’s, were pulled up for the same purpose. Among the many injuries two of the London Met officers were stabbed and left fighting for their lives. The Riot Act was read and Dragoons from nearby barracks raced in to break up the melee. Over subsequent weeks numerous skirmishes broke out between the London police and locals. On July 15th, following claims of police violence against working men, shops in the Bull Ring were looted and torched in a riot that shocked the whole country. As a result three men and a youth were transported to Australia. They were lucky to have their original death sentence overturned.

Although the first Mayor of Birmingham had a difficult year in office, nevertheless he oversaw the introduction of the town’s own magistracy and law court – previously there had been a total dependency on the county bench in Warwick. Birmingham also got its first coroner, Dr. Birt Davies. Again the previous coroner, though a local man, had been appointed by the magistrates in Warwick. Even with all the difficulties of political differences and the very real possibility that the council might be found to have no legitimate role, Scholefield and the other municipal men made an important step towards independence from the county and showed admirable tenacity in the face of intense opposition.

‘Birmingham Tranquility’: 1776

Birmingham’s last mayor who held the position as a result of being elected to office, was James Smith in 1895. On the appointment of the city’s first Lord Mayor in 1896, in fact (now Sir) James Smith again,  the City Librarian, Charles Scarse oversaw the re-publication of an eighteenth-century trades directory, which was ‘Dedicated to the First Lord Mayor of Birmingham’. The frontispiece of the directory contained a ballad which may have inspired Scarse to choose this particular publication as a suitable dedication. The ballad was by John Freeth, a famous balladeer of the town during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Freeth was also landlord of the Leicester Arms, a public house in Birmingham where men gathered to drink, smoke a pipe and discuss issues of the day. The ballad came to my mind as I picked up the ballot card that had dropped through my letterbox, for the upcoming West Midlands Mayoral election on May 4th (2017), so I thought I’d share it here. It’s also interesting to witness an obvious pride in Birmingham’s industry and an insight into how important work was to the identity of the town. More information on Freeth and his coffee shop at the Leicester Arms can be found at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery – head up to the third floor and check out the fabulous History Galleries there if you haven’t already.

Birmingham Tranquility
John Freeth
1776

In England’s fair capital, every year,
A tumult is raised about choosing Lord Mayor;
Each party engages with fury and spleen
And nothing but strife and contention is seen

Ye wrangling old cits, let me beg you’d look down,
And copy from Birmingham’s peaceable town,
Where souls sixty thousand or more you may view,
No justice dwells here, and but constables two

In no place besides that’s so populous grown,
Was ever less noise or disturbances known:
All hands find employment, and when their work’s done,
Are happy as any souls under the sun.

With hammer and file time is carefully beat,
For such is the music of every street;
The anvil’s sharp sound is the artist’s delight,
And stamps, lathes and presses in concert unite.

Let cities and boroughs for contests prepare,
In choosing of sheriffs, recorders or mayor,
With most kinds of titles they’ve nothing to do,
Nor discord in choosing of officers shew.

The envy and hatred elections bring on,
Their hearty intention is always to shun;
No polling, no scratching, no scrutinies rise,-
Who friendship esteem must such measures despise.

To far distant climes doth her commerce extend;
Her channels of traffic admit of no end;
And Birmingham, whilst there is trade in the land,
In brightest invention unrivalled shall stand.

The First Corporation Supper

On February 2nd, 1839, the Birmingham Journal ran an advertisement for a Town Hall dinner event to celebrate the institution of Birmingham’s first municipal corporation.

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Birmingham Journal, February 2nd 1839 © BritishNewspaperArchive

It was an expensive event, clearly not intended for the hoi polloi of the town. On the 21st February the Town Hall was decorated in fitting style. A further report in the Journal, published on the 23rd, revealed that,

Immediately above the mayor’s chair, in the way of a canopy, a large and very handsome crown, festooned with laurel and having a union jack waving over it. Over the vice-president’s chair, there was a splendid silk banner with the Birmingham Arms painted on it, and resting on the rail of the great gallery was the well-known symbol, the bundle of sticks surmounted by a cap of liberty, to indicate that freedom can only be upheld by union; and accompanied by a pair of scales, as emblematic of equal justice to all, the great purpose why liberty ought to be vindicated and maintained.

The symbolism of the decor was very telling, and perhaps slightly hypocritical given that the majority of ‘people’ had been debarred from the event by way of a prohibitive pricing policy. The mayor was clearly intended to be seated in a regal manner. It was William Scholefield who was granted this auspicious honour. His father was one of Birmingham’s first MPs and William would himself hold that seat a few years later. Scholefield, along with many of the other new town councillors, had also been an active member of the Birmingham Political Union, a Radical political group that had played a significant role in the establishment of  the Chartist Movement. The cap of liberty had been a hugely controversial symbol of Radicalism in the early part of the century when it was considered an expression of revolution and could get a man thrown in gaol just for displaying it. Now it held pride of place at Birmingham’s first corporation supper.

The silk banner bearing the Birmingham Arms was doubtless an expression of civic pride. Taken together, it is possible to come to a tentative conclusion that these men, Birmingham’s first municipal men, felt themselves to hold a vital position in ensuring that the town was properly represented. They were exciting times, the 1830s,  with the nation sitting in the cusp of modernity and at the very beginning of what would become recognised as the Victorian era. The railways were coming and life was running at an increasingly fast pace. Over subsequent months the municipal men would be faced with huge challenges and find themselves becoming very unpopular amongst the local community. But for now they made the most of their moment, celebrating the incorporation of the borough with good port, a fine dinner and a toast to what they earnestly believed to be a triumph of Radicalism.

‘ A revolting’ scene: The Pritchett Street Murder

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At 8:15 am on Sunday, March 5th 1876,  Police Constable Oram of the Third Division found himself in the kitchen of Isaac Elwell. He had been called to number 4 court, 5 house, Pritchett Street by a woman in some distress. Oram described the kitchen as ‘having the appearance of a slaughter house’. Isaac Elwell was lying on an old coat on the floor of the kitchen, still alive, but in a very dangerous state. The Daily Post reported that ‘the floor was covered for a space of several yards with blood, among which were a number of small pieces of flesh’. Elwell himself was in a pool of blood, his right arm described in the report as ‘frightfully mutilated’, providing a further and very graphic account of numerous cuts along Elwell’s arm, right to the shoulder. When PC Oram lifted the poor man’s body, he found a small clasp knife, which was presumed to have been the weapon used to inflict the injuries.

Elwell was barely clinging to life, crying out for water as the surgeon, Mr. Joyce (who had been called for at the same time as Oram) carried out an examination. The surgeon shook his head and advised the police officer that  Elwell’s case was ‘hopeless’. Nevertheless he was sent to the General Hospital, transported on a handcart with an old door for a stretcher on which to carry his rapidly failing body. At the hospital it was discovered that a main artery had been sliced and Elwell, ‘in spite of every attention’ died within half an hour of his arrival.

An inspection of Elwell’s house revealed a scene of great disarray. The furniture was ‘very much disarranged’ and spattered with blood, ‘as if a great struggle had taken place’, and spots of blood were also found on the pantry door. Oram began making enquiries among the neighbours, and by 11:30 am a 36 year old woman named  Mary Ann Boswell was under arrest on suspicion of the murder. Mary Ann was described as a nail stamper, and lived at the same address as Elwell. In fact, she was his common law wife of more than a decade, and the pair had three children together. According to witnesses it was not a happy relationship,  that ‘they were both of dissipated habits, and that he was addicted to drinking’. Elwell was married to another woman, with whom he also had children, but they had been separated for a number of years.

On Saturday afternoon Elwell and Boswell went out together, returning to the house on Pritchett Street around 4pm. After tea ‘as was his custom’ Elwell headed back out ‘evidently for the purpose of drinking’. At around 10pm on Saturday night Elwell and Boswell were seen quarrelling on Brearley Street and Elwell was reported to have assaulted Boswell and pulled her bonnet off. The witness stated that Elwell was clearly drunk. Neighbours heard arguing coming from the Pritchett Street house at 1am on Sunday morning, and a ‘noise resembling the smashing of crockery’. Shortly after this time a widow named Mrs Tain saw Mary Ann Boswell and her three children out on the street; Mary Ann was crying and said that Elwell had ‘turned them all out on the street’. The kind widow offered to take Mary Ann and the children in for the night.

At 8am on Sunday morning, Caroline Clements, a relative of Mary Ann, went to the house on Pritchett Street. She said that the door was locked and, upon knocking, was aware of the sound of low groans and ‘her suspicions excited that something was wrong’, she alerted the neighbours who helped her to break the door down, finding Elwell in the condition as described above.

Mary Ann Boswell’s statement:- Emphatically denying the charge, Mary Ann confirmed that she and Elwell had argued in Brearley Street and after he assaulted her she went ‘elsewhere’, only going back to the house to check on him at around half past midnight. She claimed that ‘he was drunk, kicking about and making a great disturbance’. It was then that she left with her children and went to stay with Mrs Tain. She said that when she last saw Elwell he did not appear to be injured.  However, she did ‘intimate’ that she had  two men, whom she did not name, had entered the house and assaulted the victim. It is not clear if Mary Ann actually saw this happen, and if so at what time she witnessed it. But Elwell had been subjected to a violent assault just a few weeks earlier, when he had been so badly injured that he had to attend the General Hospital for his wounds. This happened shortly after yet another violent altercation with Mary Ann.

What do you think? Was Elwell the victim of ‘persons unknown’, or did Mary Ann reach the end of her tether and resort to horrific violence? What about the story of Mrs Tain? It seems a bit different to Mary Ann’s – and how had the door come to be locked, if there had been intruders?

Hair loss: a caution against ‘violent exercise’

From an advert in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, February 4th 1839. *Other hair restorers were doubtless available* 

The Hair:- “In cases where total loss of hair takes place, it will be found to originate from various causes, but in particular from violent exercise, for thus the perspirable fluid is secreted in too great an abundance for the healthy condition of the Hair, which becomes gradually destroyed – a relaxation of the beautiful and delicate bulbous roots first occurs; then the acidity, which is natural to the perspirable fluid, injures the medullary or colouring particle of the Hair; a change of hue takes place, and after a short period baldness is invariably the result.” [From the 31st edition of a Treatise on the Hair by Alex. Rowland and given (gratuitously) with each bottle of Rowlands’ Macassar.
Agent:- M. Elmore, Perfumer, &c., 31 Bull Street, Birmingham.

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‘Mysterious Tragedy in Birmingham’

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The Illustrated Police News of October 29th, 1898 carried the dramatic illustration and story of a woman who had been gagged and murdered in her bed. The crime took place at number 60 Latimer Street. This road no longer exists, but was near Bath Street. It was demolished in the 20th century to make way for the inner ring road. The victim is named as Miss Mary Aliban, aged ‘about sixty two years of age’ and the report suggests that she had in the past been an ‘inmate of Winsor Green Asylum’ (clearly a misprint).

The picture is a bit startling, depicting how poor Mary might have suffered at the hands of her murderers. A smaller, inset picture shows her collecting rent, for she was in possession of some properties which, the report reveals, gave her a moderate income of about thirty-two shillings a week. She was in the habit of collecting her rent with the assistance of two boys, whom she employed to carry her money bags. Neighbours described a woman of ‘miserable disposition’ and many reported that the ‘chink of coins’ could be heard from her home as she counted up her savings.

The house in Latimer Street was a front house, with one room upstairs and one room downstairs, occupied by Mary Aliban. The back of the house was occupied by someone else.  Mary was usually an early riser, but on Thursday her shutters remained down all day. A neighbour recalled seeing her shortly before 11pm on the Wednesday evening ‘fetching some beer’, and appeared ‘in her usual health’. The unusual occurrence attracted the attention of some of her neighbours, who found that the front door was open, prompting them to call for a police officer.

Police-officer Waters entered Mary Aliban’s house and went upstairs to her room, where he found her body, on the bed ‘a piece of calico tied tightly around her neck, a handkerchief stuffed into her mouth, and both arms tied to the rails of the bedstead’. The evidence pointed to the act having been carried out by a labouring man, or men (as the illustration garishly suggests). ‘The arms were tied with cheap silk handkerchiefs, of the description usually worn by men of the labouring class when dressed up.’ The piece of calico, pulled so tightly around Mary’s neck and which was likely the cause of her death, had been torn from a garment pulled from a box near the end of the bed. Strangulation was assumed, undertaken with violent determination. Knuckle marks were seen on the victim’s face, and it was suggested that there had been two assailants, one who attempted to suffocate her with his hands while a second found the material with which to strangle and gag her. ‘It was abundantly clear that the murderer, or murderers, had carried out their work with the utmost ferocity.’

The motive had, doubtless, been Mary Aliban’s cash. One of the bags which she used for rent collection was found empty on the floor. The second, described by her neighbours, was missing altogether. There was no sign of forced entry and it was concluded that ‘whilst the victim left the house for the supper beer on Wednesday night the murderers had entered unobserved and secreted themselves in the cellar until their victim had gone to bed’.

Mary Aliban was probably in possession of considerable savings, most of which she carried about with her in an old carpet bag. One neighbour, Mrs Hewlett, claimed that Mary had once asked her to feel the weight of the bag, ‘I lifted it up’ said Mrs Hewlett, ‘and it was remarkably heavy for its size’. A search of the house found some cash overlooked by the murderer/s – police found a quantity of gold, silver and copper to the value of £108, hidden in a saucepan. Most of the neighbourhood were aware that Mary carried her savings around with her, and that she might have a considerable sum of cash in the bags she persistently carried around, or got others to carry for her.

For some time police were at a loss as to the identity of Mary’s murderer/s, but a breakthrough came through the witness statement of yet another neighbour who recalled seeing two youths leaving Mary’s house at 8am on Thursday morning. She thought they were about nineteen or twenty years of age and  of the ‘peaky blinder class’. On Friday afternoon police received information from the landlady of a lodging house in West Bromwich regarding the ‘extraordinary behaviour’ of a tenant named Frank Jones, who had bought copies of each evening newspaper as they were published, taking them to his room to read. It was soon found that Jones, who was unemployed, had previously lived in Latimer Street, and would have known of Mary’s supposed fortune. On being searched he was found to have a sovereign, which he claimed to have found when he was walking back to his lodgings in West Bromwich, admitting that he had been in Latimer Street until one o’clock on Thursday morning. ‘There is no trace of the second man supposed to be involved in the affair, nor is it known how much money has been stolen from the house.’

What do you think? Do you reckon it was Frank Jones who murdered Mary? And did he act alone? If so, what might have happened to the money? 

Dr Church’s Steam Carriage

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Experiments with steam transport dates back possibly to as early as the 17th century, but it was with the expansion of road links in the later 18th century that interest in developing efficient forms of transport really took off.  I came across the following extract when browsing through Langford’s for information on something totally unrelated, but it is very easy to go off on a tangent when looking through his fascinating, somewhat quirky, account of Birmingham’s history.

Being a town built on manufacture and trade, roads and transport were incredibly important to Birmingham. One of the key reasons for the founding of the town’s first improvement body, the Street Commissioners, was to ensure that roads and byways were kept in order and it was this body that would later oversee the arrival of the railways.  So it is perhaps of little surprise that the minds of Birmingham’s innovative businessmen were absorbed in attempts to perfect modes of transport. If you travel along Broad Street today you will see a gold-coloured statue of three men, all members of the Lunar Society,  contemplating a document. One of those men depicted is William Murdoch, an early pioneer of steam transportation, although the other two men in the statue, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, did try to talk him out of it. Nevertheless, interest in the use of steam in road transportation continued to capture the imagination and in 1835 the London and Birmingham Steam Carriage Company was formed, following the successful patenting of a steam carriage by Dr William Church of Birmingham. The account in Langford’s seems to describe an early outing of his patent – very likely the one in the picture at the top of the page. It must have caused some excitement in the town and I wonder what the Brums thought of it as it trundled along.

Langford’s A Century of Birmingham Life, 1741-1841 was published in two volumes in 1868, and there should be a copy available in the Local History section of the Library of Birmingham. This is taken from volume II.

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Birmingham Illuminations: 1814

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When I was a child my family used to take an occasional coach trip to Blackpool around October time, to see the lights. We would spend the day at the seaside, maybe one or two rides in the amusement park, a blustery walk along the pier and fish and chips on the front. As a child I rarely got to see the lights. The coach would make its way along the promenade slowly on the way home, so we could take in the spectacle, but I was invariably asleep before we had ventured much further than the car park exit. Nevertheless, there was a sense of excitement about seeing the lights and as a family from Brum on a limited income, we certainly travelled far enough to see them.

In Georgian times, before electricity, there was a similar urban fascination with light displays. London famously had a very large display in April, 1789, to celebrate King George’s recovery from ‘madness’. These early illuminations were created with the use of gas lamps and transparencies. A transparency was usually a piece of paper, often coloured and not actually transparent as we understand it, but sheer enough for light to shine through. I found the following report of an illumination in Birmingham in Aris’s Gazette of June 13th, 1814.  Illuminations were a celebration, so it seems likely that this particular display would have been connected to the recent abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte  in April of that year and the imminent visit to England of the Allied Sovereigns of Europe. Some of the descriptions of the illuminations more than hint at it. Whatever the occasion actually was, it must have been a very lovely sight in the pre-gaslamp streets of Brum. And no coach journey required!

Birmingham Illuminations
“The following description, we fear, will be necessarily imperfect; some of equal interest with those described may possibly have escaped our observation:-

High Street
Mr. Powell, Swan Hotel – A very novel and brilliant display of variegated lamps. In the centre was a transparent likeness of our venerable monarch, with circles of lamps diverging to a considerable height, over which was a square frontispiece, consisting of four pillars and a capital, the pillars wreathed with lamps and by a mechanical contrivance kept in constant motion. At the base the word ‘Peace’ in large characters; the tout-ensemble had a most splendid and striking effect.

Mr. Richards, Silversmith – A large transparency representing, in the upper part, Peace, Justice and Prudence; below them Britannia crowning the bust of Pitt and trampling on the badges of despotism. On the left a cherub guarding the crown and blowing the trumpet of fame over the British Navy. Beneath the emblems of commerce, agriculture and industry.

Messrs. Beilby & Co. – Britannia, her spear and shield upon the ground, in the act of kneeling upon the latter, gratefully receiving the blessings of Peace; a lion at her side couchant and cornucopia. Motto:- ‘The blessings of Peace restored”.

Mr. King – Two transparencies, illustrative of Isaiah

The Castle Inn – Portraits of ‘The Saviours of Europe’, Wellington, Hill, Graham, Platoff and Blucher.

St. George’s Tavern – Several transparencies, with inscriptions, and a brilliant display of variegated lamps.

Nelson Hotel – Several transparencies, with a display of variegated lamps.

O. and H. Smith – A transparency with the word ‘Peace’ very tastefully formed by a combination of agricultural implements, musical instruments, cornucopia, &c.

The report also stated that Nelson’s Statue had been illuminated with ‘at least 500 lamps’ – this is the same statue that can be seen in the Bullring today, just down near Starbucks and Selfridges.

Among the many other displays reported is a rather grand sounding one at Mr. Chandler’s on Dale End, ‘A transparency representing Time bringing Louis XVIII to the throne, in the presence of the Allied Sovereigns, the Duke of Wellington and two prelates; Peace extinguishing the Torch of War; with the genius of Pitt hovering above, bearing a scroll which was inscribed ‘My Country saved’ and ‘England has done her duty’. While over on Bull Street Mr. Henry Evans had on display ‘a gigantic figure of Peace, ten feet high, with her hands extended over the Earth on which she had just alighted. Her benign aspect dissipating the clouds of war and desolation’. A rather less poetic and more pragmatic display could be seen at the bank of Messrs. Coates, Woolley & Co. on Cherry Street – a simple illustration in variegated lamps read ‘Trade Revived’. Well, this was Birmingham after all!

You can read hundreds and hundreds of newspapers online by subscription to The British Newspaper Archive, including Aris’s Gazette. Or you can head to the Library of Birmingham, floor 4 and have a look at them for free on microfilm. Birmingham’s amazing archives are under persistent threat from local government cuts. Please support our local resources in any way you can. Once they’re gone, we can’t get them back. Cheers. 

Happy Birthday Birmingham History Galleries

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It’s four years since the wonderful exhibition ‘Birmingham, its people, its history’ was opened at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BM&AG) and it’s still there and free (though donations are always welcome!) for anyone to go and visit. Charting the history of the city from earliest times to the current day, the gallery contains a wealth of objects, images, information and interactive devices which really bring the history of Birmingham to life.  Taking up half of the top floor, where the oldies among us might remember seeing the ‘dinosaur’, the gallery is fresh and vibrant and an asset to anyone researching local history.

In the gallery you will find a scale model village of Birmingham in medieval times. Look behind you and you’ll see a map showing how the city’s population has grown and how the boundaries have expanded. There is a recreation of Freeth’s coffee shop where you can hear some of the ballads that he penned.  The dynamic role played by locals in the protest against slavery is well covered, along with other political activism which defined Birmingham in the early nineteenth century.

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Beyond the nineteenth century the gallery includes a hugely informative and poignant section on war-time Brum and you can have a sit down and listen to real stories, related by real locals, remembering the good times and the bad. Through the twentieth century you should find things that stir your own memories. And there’s a great interactive table that has images of Birmingham provided by BrumPics.

Currently (2016) some of the items are not on display, including the iconic HP sign. This is because of the building works going on outside the building, which have been causing vibrations, putting  some displays at risk. But the Birmingham History Galleries are definitely worth a visit.

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