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:
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is open to the public free of charge, including the world class Birmingham History Gallery:
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Original minute books available to view, by appointment (and at no cost) in the Wolfson Centre, Library of Birmingham – PLEASE SUPPORT OUR ARCHIVES, CURRENTLY UNDER THREAT AS A RESULT OF CUTS TO THE LOCAL FINANCES – ONCE THEY’RE GONE, THEY’RE GONE FOREVER.