Managing the Poor: General Suppliers to the Workhouse

Running the workhouse in mid-nineteenth century Birmingham required numerous supplies of everyday items. Decisions on who and what were supplied were made by the Guardians of the Poor at regular meetings. The workhouse was a considerable customer for many small businesses, and it seems likely that connections across the local business community could play an important role in securing contracts. However, some supplies came from much further afield. Below is the list of suppliers for 1858, agreed at a meeting of the Board of Guardians in early March and published in Aris’s. Meetings of the Guardians were regularly reported in the press, to ensure that local tax payers could see exactly where their money was being spent. The list is interesting for what it reveals of workhouse necessities, from oatmeal for gruel, through to shoes and coffins.

Meat                          Mr Billingham, Congreve Street
Oatmeal                    Mr William Jeffcot, Weaman Street
Ale                             The Deritend Brewery
Wines & Spirits       E. Simpkinson, Jamaica Row
Leather                     Frier, Bull Street
Shoes                         M’Kinley & Walker, Paisley
Butter & Cheese      Knowles, Broad Street
Grocery                     J. Whilock, High Street
Hosiery, Draper      Atkinson & Co., London
& Clothing
Coals                         Weal, Broad Street
Coffins                      Grimley
Stationery                Mr Billing, Livery Street
Printing                    Mr Tonks
Drugs                        Mr Humphreys
Milk                          T. Saxelby

Birmingham’s local newspaper archive is available to view free of charge at the Library of Birmingham, level 4. It may be prudent to make an appointment to avoid disappointment. The papers are also available to view by subscription to the British Newspaper Archive. Please continue to support our local archives and libraries.

 

 

 

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Managing the Poor: the Oakum Room

 

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On May 2nd, 1887, Thomas White was sentenced to fourteen days hard labour for ‘neglecting his task at the workhouse’. An article in the Birmingham Mail described White as a tramp, and the task which he was deemed to have been negligent of was oakum picking.[1] Up and down the country, in workhouses and jails, men, women and children were daily set to work in this onerous, uncomfortable job. Baskets or tubs of dirty, thick rope was pulled into individual strands ready for reuse as caulking material. In workhouses it was used as a test in an attempt to deter people from claiming relief. Most institutions set a daily quota that each claimant must pick. Richard Wood was the tramp master, and at White’s trial he testified that on the morning of April 30th that he had given White 4lbs of oakum to pick, but that he had only picked 2lb 13oz. The workhouse doctor had confirmed that White was in good health. The presiding magistrate enquired if cold weather might have impacted the defendant’s ability to undertake his task, but was assured that the room was ‘sufficiently warm’ and that the job was such a simple one that ‘some of the seven-day boys sometimes picked the oakum just for pleasure’.[2]

Birmingham’s oakum room had not always been situated within the workhouse. In 1867, Guardian Mr Benton brought forward a motion that a labour test should be imposed on those claiming outdoor relief, as it was in Manchester. He stated that he brought the motion forward ‘in no revengeful spirit, but because he thought it would be beneficial to the people not to allow themselves to become paupers.’[3] By the following year there was an Oakum Room Sub-Committee, consisting 11 Guardians, under the authority of the Visiting and General Purposes Committee. The oakum room was based on Great Charles Street, and divided into sections for men and women with male and female attendants.[4] This was some way from the workhouse, and it is possible that it was a test house only for those seeking outdoor relief, rather than for workhouse inmates. By 1871 it was decided that the oakum picking room should be moved to the workhouse, once the tenure on the Great Charles Street premises was up.[5]

It would seem that, although Mr Benton’s proposal was presented as novel for the town, there had been a longer standing tradition of poor tests, including oakum picking. For some reason it had been discontinued.  The Relief Committee was responsible for managing outdoor relief. In March, 1858, they reported to the Board of Guardians that they were currently employing upwards of five hundred men in stone breaking and oakum picking. It was stated that one hundred and fifty men had lately been in the oakum ward as a result of the pearl button makers strike. This statement met with mixed responses: Mr Tonks said that in his opinion ‘the Board ought to require from them such an amount of labour as would prevent them from going there from choice’. Mr Phillips reported that a number of ‘insubordinate’ men from among the strikers claiming relief had been sent to the outdoor oakum ward, but that there was danger of men becoming ill from the cold weather, a factor confirmed by Mr Maher, who agreed that some means of heating the oakum room should be considered as ‘setting aside humanity, it would be economy to do so’. Men who became ill could be an even greater burden on the parish. Only Mr Corbett appeared to show a modicum of empathy, suggesting that it seemed unlikely that men would choose to break stones or pick oakum in return for ‘the miserable allowance of bread and money’ which they provided.[6]

[1] Birmingham Mail, May 2nd, 1887

[2] Ibid.

[3] Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, May 4th, 1867

[4] Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography, GP B/2/3/10 Oakum Room Sub-committee 1869-1872

[5] Birmingham Daily Gazette, March 9th, 1871

[6] Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, March 8th, 1858

From Pleasure Park to Villa Park

 

Lower Ground

Aston Hall was built in the early seventeenth century by Sir Thomas Holte. Two hundred years later, on the death of Dowager Lady Holte, the 1,530 acre estate was put up for auction and purchased by Warwick bankers, Greenaway, Greaves and Whitehead on July 10th, 1817. They subsequently parcelled up the land and sold it on in suitable lots. James Watt Jnr. bought the Hall, part of what was known as the Upper Grounds of the estate, while a Mr H.G. Quilter bought up the Lower Grounds.

The thirty-one acres bought by Quilter became known locally as the Aston Lower Grounds, and he used the land to establish a popular pleasure gardens with fishponds. Over time, these extended to include a hotel (now The Holte pub), a skating rink and sports ground. In 1879 a large aquarium was opened to the public, Showell’s described it:

The principal room has a length of 312 feet, the promenade being 24 feet wide by 20 feet high. The west end of this spacious apartment is fitted with a number of large show tanks, where many rare and choice specimens of marine animals and fishes may be exhibited.

This must have been quite a draw for hard-working Brummies to spend their leisure time. Visitor numbers after 1864 showed an average of 280,000 per annum! In 1887 Buffalo Bill came to Birmingham, with a troupe of some 800 showmen and women as well as several hundred animals, including horses and cattle. They set up a mock camp at the Hall, where visitors could learn about their way of life. Temporary seating was erected to accommodate the expected 4,000 visitors to the twice nightly shows which took place over the course of a month.

Buffalo Bill New Street

Buffalo Bill on New Street during a later visit

The sports ground was known as Lower Ground Meadow. There was a large field for playing cricket or football, ringed by a running track. The AAA Championships were held there, as were the FA Cup semi-finals of 1884 and 1886. Then in 1887, a small, local football team moved from their Wellington Road ground in Perry Barr to establish themselves at the Lower Ground Meadow. It wasn’t long before locals began referring to the ground as ‘Villa Park’ and, eventually, the name of the Lower Grounds was lost to history.

Villa Park

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.

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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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.

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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 :
http://www.britishscienceassociation.org/history

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.