Saturday the 8th March is International Women’s Day.
‘International Women’s Day celebrates the social, political and economic achievements of women while focusing world attention on areas requiring further action.’
In this blog we wanted to highlight the stories of some of the Birmingham women featured in the history galleries who have inspired change.
This rare portrait of an18th century businesswoman depicts Ann Fuller who was a pawnbroker in Digbeth during the late 18th century. Ann took over her father’s business at 53 Digbeth shortly after this portrait was painted.
We know very little about Ann other than she was one of a small number of businesswomen in Birmingham at the time. Research for the history galleries revealed other women including Catherine Sawyer who ran the Boarding School in The Square, and Mary Lloyd who was the owner of the Hen & Chicken’s Hotel.
You will find Ann’s portrait in the Strangers Guide to 18th Century Birmingham (1700-1830).
Nellie Hall was a suffragette who lived in Edgbaston. She became an active campaigner as a teenager, and suffered imprisonment in Winson Green prison in Birmingham. Later she was sent to prison again in London, went on hunger strike and endured forced feeding. Birmingham had a very strong suffragette movement, which involved women from prominent local families including the Cadburys and the Rylands. The equality for which these women risked their freedom, and sometimes their lives, was a long time in coming. Women over 30 gained the vote in 1918, but full voting equality with men was not granted until 1928.
Nellie Hall wrote to her father from prison in 1914: ‘No free spirit has ever been wrecked by a mean spirited oppression yet. And mine won’t be either.’
You will find Nellie’s hunger strike medal in Forward (1830-1909)
Mary Newill studied at the Birmingham School of Art. In the late 19th century the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement was reviving hand crafts, in a reaction against mass production. The Birmingham School of Art encouraged students to try new techniques, and pioneered art education for women. Female students were encouraged to work with metal, wood and stained glass as well as textiles and painting. Mary Newill was one of the women who forged ahead in techniques traditionally practised by men. Newill also worked as an illustrator and embroiderer, and became a teacher at the School of Art.
You can see Mary Newill’s stained glass panel in Forward (1830-1909)
Lilly Duckham OBE
Lilly was born in Birmingham on the 14 October 1892. She left school aged 14 and went into domestic service. In 1917 she enlisted with the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps aged 25. Lilly was one of 10 women sent to the Western Front to be in charge of the Officer’s catering. Many disapproved of women working on the Western Front. In this extract from an interview with Lilly in 1981 she explained why she believed it was important for her, and other women to serve alongside men.
‘When I read of the quantity of boys that were being killed and that they, they wanted more men they wanted more people out there and they were going to try and experiment with girls you see I put my name through […] They asked if I wanted to stay at home or go abroad, well I very much wanted to go abroad there were only about five of us the rest were wanted to stay in England you know but I wanted to get out […] to do what I could […] I felt that was where the help was wanted was needed and that’s why I thought that’s where we should be and I mean the hardships and everything it was no more I felt it was no more for us than it was for the boys’.
Lilly was demobbed 6 months after the end of the war. Shortly after returning to Birmingham she was awarded an OBE for her war services.
You can listen to extracts from Lilly’s interview as well as other Birmingham women’s first world war stories in An Expanding City (1909-1945) in the Birmingham at War display
Shahin Ashraf was born in Birmingham in 1971. She is a fundraiser for Islamic Relief, an international aid organisation which began in Birmingham in 1984.
Shahin began volunteering for Islamic relief in 1989 after the Kashmir earthquake. In this extract from her interview for the history galleries she recalls what it was like as a volunteer.
‘We were basically going around the country collecting clothes in a big truck, there was a group of us and we were the only women that could drive at that time. [We then delivered] them back to the warehouse and […] helping […] sorting out clothes, making sure the clothes […] were okay for the country that they were going to. I mean a lot of people gave summer clothes and it was winter there so […] we couldn’t take those clothes’
Islamic Relief [was] in its infancy and then what happened was that […] Central News in Birmingham […] picked it up and suddenly there was an influx of clothes and the warehouse was full to the brim but they had […] hardly any volunteers
So this was the call for volunteers and I was one of the very few volunteers. In those days there was no texts, there no sms, there was no email, it was just word of mouth and Doctor Hany [the founder of Islamic Relief] had gone to the different colleges within Birmingham and he said I really need your help so if you could come to the warehouse […] and suddenly there was about 4-500 volunteers’.
You can listen to extracts from Shahin’s interview in Your Birmingham (1945-today)
Jo-Ann Curtis and Henrietta Lockhart, Curators – History
The bustle and confusion of 18th and early 19th century Birmingham is not usually associated with works of literature but two objects on display in the Stranger’s Guide section of Birmingham: its people its history point towards a particular interest in verse.
The painting by Johannes Eckstein ‘John Freeth and His Circle’ shows a group of men gathered around a table with their drink and pipes. These are members of the Jacobin Club who meet to discuss news and listen to Birmingham’s great celebrity performance poet of the day, John Freeth. In the picture he is sitting at the front, second from the left. John Freeth (1731-1808), combined ballad writing and performance with running a Coffee House / Inn called the Leicester Arms in Bell Street an area which has now been re-developed as part of the Bullring.
He published a number of collections of his works and several of his ballads were well known outside Birmingham. Politics provided the inspiration for his writing and the tumultuous times of the American and French Revolutions gave him plenty of ammunition to criticize the government. Naturally, much of his work has a Birmingham slant. In this ballad from 1776 called “Birmingham Tranquillity” he pokes fun at London’s handling of its mayoral elections whilst at the same time making the acerbic point that Birmingham for all its 60,000 inhabitants still does not have the right to return a Member of Parliament – a situation which would not be remedied until 1832.
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 contest prepare,
In choosing of sheriffs, recorder or mayor,
With most kinds of titles they’ve nothing to do,
Nor discord in choosing of officers shew
The envy and hatred that 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 second object does not paint such a flattering picture of Birmingham.
This jug was presumably sold as a souvenir of a bare-knuckle boxing match fought on Billesley Common in 1817. It tells the story of how Sam Scott, a boatman from the Black Country defeated his Birmingham opponent, the prize fighter Granby. The poet in this case is unknown.
Sam Scott the fly boatman a chap of renown
Beat Granby the boxer of Birmingham town
He beat him so much with his great clumsy fist
That poor Granby the boxer could scarcely exist
It was on a large common near Mosely way green
That combatants meet too were plain to be seen
The first setting too it were not much amiss
But Sam made poor Granby near ready to p-s
The second set too bets went five to one
For the company knew Granby soon would be done
And in the third bout Sam turned him quite round
He said shall I kick his a-e or knock him quite down
The forth round when they met Granby laugh’d in his face
Sam Scott said d-m thee that shall be to thy disgrace
He gave him such thumps he was forced to come down
So thus with Sam’s heavy blows ended this round
The fifth and last round showed but little sport
Sam pelted poor Granby about his poor throate
He fell muzzle upwards as tho he was dead
And out of the ring he was forced to be led
So this was the way that the battle ended
And I think that poor Granby was not much befriended
For instead as he expected to have beaten bold Scott
To Sam’s satisfaction it was his own lot.
Both objects, and much more besides, are on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Curator (Applied Art)
A recent talk I gave for the University of Birmingham’s People, Places and Things series of seminars prompted me to write this latest instalment about medieval Birmingham. In fact, it was a question from a member of the audience after I presented the video of Exploring Medieval Birmingham, 1300 that determined the topic of this blog. The person in question asked if I’d thought about superimposing images or footage of Birmingham’s present-day streets over the medieval depictions illustrated in the video. Nice idea, and yes, I did think of doing exactly that, but budgetary and time constraints prevented me from doing so, but that isn’t to say that this can’t be achieved in the near future. Nevertheless, until then this blog will attempt to fill a ‘void’ in going half way to doing just that.
The 1296 Borough Rental referred to in my previous blogs on medieval Birmingham mentions around ten streets in the 13th-century town. Not a bad number, considering that Birmingham had roughly only thirty streets 400 years later. Moreover, some of Birmingham’s best-known streets today were already in existence by 1296. This included the likes of Egebastonstret (Edgbaston Street), le Parkestrete (Park Street), Overparkstret (now Moor Street) Novus Vicus (New Street) and Super Montem (the later High Street).
New Street isn’t as new as we might like to think, but certainly existed by the late 13th century. Perhaps it was only recently new then, but equally it could have been a fixture in the medieval town much before this point. While identifying the streets that framed the town, I started to think about their names especially as they can tell us a lot about an area and its ‘lost’ landscape. It’s easy to forget or simply not realise that the original meaning of street names, much like place names, once ‘said’ a lot about a location.
The many different types of street name can reveal an abundance of information relating to topography or geographical location, natural features, types of industries or even people. It seems that the streets that shaped the medieval town of 1296 were largely ‘signposts’ of topographical features. One example is Super Montem, translating as ‘Upon the Hill’ and this isn’t hard to appreciate when you realise that this part of town really did and does sit at a higher level than the land leading downhill towards St Martin’s and Digbeth, suitably reflected by its current name, High Street. Then there are the convenient indicators of important trading routes such as Edgbaston Street, named after the Anglo-Saxon manor of Edgbaston, meaning Ecgbeald’s Farm. As Edgbaston was seemingly at one time more successful than Birmingham, as indicated by its higher valuation in Domesday Book, it’s perhaps natural that a road should lead to such a neighbouring settlement. After all, it’s very likely that Birmingham’s inhabitants were trading with Edgbaston’s and vice versa and not to forget that Edgbaston Street led to even more important locations like Northfield. Valued at £5 in Domesday, Northfield was one of the more prosperous manors in the wider area, worth five times as much as that of Birmingham. Moreover it was also once owned by the same overlord as Birmingham: William Fitz-Ansculf whose power was centred on Dudley Castle. So perhaps the street also marked the importance of a wider trading route, as well as leading to Edgbaston itself.
Novus Vicus or New Street is an indicator of Birmingham’s growth and prosperity as new roads were being built presumably to accommodate more inhabitants and trading ventures. Perhaps also, the adjective ‘new’ reflects the age of some of the other streets in the town as they had presumably been in existence for some time to warrant the latest road being called new.
Similarly, other roads reflecting the town’s success are Le Parkestrete and Overparkstret. These locational names refer to the fact that Birmingham’s lord of the manor sold part of his deer park to make way yet again for more burgage plots and room for the expansion of industries. Both roads were named after the area of land and type of recreation it once accommodated. So, without digging too deep, street names can tell us a lot about the types of activities that once took place.
Judging by the question that prompted this blog, people naturally want to know what Birmingham’s oldest streets look like today. It comes as no surprise either that most reside in what is the oldest part of town; the original planned settlement Peter de Birmingham carved out in 1166. This is still one of the busiest parts of Birmingham today bustling with shoppers and inhabitants, now paying their ‘tolls’ and ‘rents’ to a different ‘lord of the manor’. On account of the scale and size we had to adopt for the model of medieval Birmingham, the likes of New Street isn’t featured, so I’ve simply focussed on the streets that are depicted to illustrate what these medieval route ways look like today.
This brings me on to Edgbaston Street, which in the 13th century was home to surely the smelliest industry in town: leather tanning and judging by the archaeological excavations in the area this trade made the greatest mark upon the industrial endeavours of medieval Birmingham. As an essential material in the Middle Ages, leather goods were a staple of everyday life, as were other goods made from horn and bone, which inevitably grew out of the presence of the tanning trade. Today, Edgbaston Street has exchanged tanning for trading of a different sort, but you can still nevertheless find leather goods, minus the noxious smell, that is. This street is now home to Birmingham’s famous Rag Market, amongst many other traders of mixed enterprise.
Park Street or le Parkestrete was developed to make way for the many burgeoning industries, thereby cutting into the lord’s deer park, on what was then the edge of town. Although Park Street no longer lines the periphery of Birmingham, it does in many ways mark the edge of its shopping quarter lying adjacent to Selfridges and its attached car park. In this sense, Park Street is still on the fringe of Birmingham for many, particularly the enthusiastic shopper who merely walks this medieval road in pursuit of one of Birmingham’s biggest twenty-first century industries.
Much like Park Street, Overparkstret was also testament to the growth of Birmingham, with the lord once again sacrificing more of his own land for the good of the town, and of course his own pocket. The name is simple and reflects exactly where this new road would lie: ‘over the lord’s park’, or at least part of it. Maybe Overparkstret and Le Parkstret were cut at the same time, maybe they weren’t, but what is clear is that they came into existence to facilitate the expansion of some of Birmingham’s early industries like tanning and pottery making.
Perhaps the word park in two of the town’s roads which also lay very close to one another was slightly confusing for its inhabitants and traders, as Overparkstret was eventually renamed. In 1344 we find the earliest known reference to its new name: le Mulestret or Moulestret, in honour of the richest family in town, after the De Birminghams, at least. As we know, le Moulestret is today’s very own Moor Street, becoming the second of Birmingham’s medieval streets to accommodate a train station. We arguably have Roger le Moul to thank for this name change, and it’s indeed ironic that his surname translates as the small when we know he was a man of great property. Owning most of the land in town after William de Birmingham, he certainly ensured that his name and his family’s legacy would forever be preserved in his hometown.
Last but not least, we finish with Super Montem, now High Street, which is only just visible and the very edge of the scale model. True to its name it still sits on higher ground, which is why I always suggest that people make the effort to stand at the top of High Street and look downhill towards St Martin’s Church. Although the natural topography has been slightly distorted by the most recent Bull Ring developments, you can still get a ‘flavour’ of what the medieval landscape once looked like in terms of its gradient.
Street names are really an excellent starting point for beginning to understand the physical development and topography of places, and sometimes the most ordinary of names, just like Park Street, lying in the most unassuming parts of town, can with a bit of detective work, really reveal a ‘hidden’ or forgotten history of a place. These muted relics of the past can tell us much more than you’d ever imagine, acting as signposts to a displaced landscape or in some cases subtly pointing to a terrain still very much intact, but obscured by the urbanisation of the modern city. Nevertheless, if we take the time to look hard enough, we can develop these ‘negatives’ in to fully-fledged images and create a colourful depiction of these ‘lost’ landscapes.
Sarah Hayes, Freelance Curator
Follow me @HayesSarah17
The expanding city is the 4th gallery in the suite of new Birmingham history galleries and looks at the period between 1909 and 1945. The gallery is divided into two sections, the first, A Vision of Birmingham, looks at the development of the suburban Birmingham during the early 20th century, and the second, Birmingham at War, focuses on the experiences of Birmingham people during the first and second world wars.
Within the expanding city, I was able to select some fantastic objects with great stories including: cream pots once used by dairy farmers in Moseley during the 1920s, and a 1914 Birmingham Battalion badge issued to men who volunteered for the Birmingham Pals at the beginning of the first world war; but for me the highlight was the opportunity to use recordings of people sharing their personal experiences.
Cream Pot, Cold Bath Farm, Moseley
Lapel Badge, Birmingham Battalion, 1914
The Museum has collected oral testimonies since the early 1980s, and has amassed an archive of over 1000 recordings with Birmingham people on topics as diverse as working life, migration, war, and the Bull Ring markets. Today we consider collecting oral histories a vital part of developing our Birmingham history collections, and where possible we will conduct an interview when acquiring a contemporary object.
‘Now it’s forgotten sometimes how during the war there were lots of refugees that came into Britain. They came from all parts of Europe, but many of them came from Austria, Czechoslovakia, there was in fact what they call a Czech army. A special group of men who joined the British Army of Czechoslovakians and other foreigners of a like, who wanted to fight fascism’. Lilly Moody
Enabling to someone tell their own story is very powerful, which is why the use of oral histories was key to developing these galleries. Most of the displays are supported by a sound post where you can listen to a range of topics including: working at Cadbury’s, moving into a suburban council house during the 1930s, and volunteering for the Caribbean Regiment during the second world war.
The Museum has particularly strong oral history collections relating the two world wars, and we wanted to make the most of these interviews in the new galleries. The central feature of Birmingham at War is an installation which features interviews with over 30 Birmingham people.
Jo-Ann Curtis, Curator (History)
Curatorial tours for an Expanding City
Throughout 2013 there are a number of curator-led tours of the Birmingham history galleries. The following tours will focus specifically on An Expanding City or may feature it as part of a wider gallery tour.
Tickets are available from reception and cost £2 per person. Tours begin at 1:00 in the Round Room.
- 7 May – Cadbury’s Angels: Experience of Women Workers in the Early 20th Century by Jo-Ann Curtis
- 18 June – From paintings to postcards: snap shots of Birmingham through its history by Jo-Ann Curtis
- 2 July – Faith and Social Conscience: some examples of faith in action from Birmingham’s history by Henrietta Lockhart
- 17 September – Birmingham at War: Industry during wartime, by Jo-Ann Curtis
- 15 October – Birmingham: a city made by migration, by Henrietta Lockhart
The new Birmingham history galleries cover 900 years of history. One of the biggest challenges was deciding what to put in, and what to leave out. When designing a display like this you have to decide what your themes are going to be, and then ruthlessly stick to them.
So how did we go about selecting our 19th century displays? First of all, we had to identify the most significant stories. What made Birmingham stand out from other towns? Secondly, the strengths of our collection had to be considered. What objects did we have that could tell those stories? Thirdly, we had to think about the displays in the context of the architectural space. The area designated for the 1830-1909 period was split into three spaces – the spectacular domed gallery, with smaller and rather awkward spaces before and after it.
The abolition of slavery is our first 19th century theme and our portrait of Joseph Sturge provides the centrepiece. We faced a challenge, however, when trying to tell the story of women’s anti-slavery campaigning and the contribution of black campaigners who visited Birmingham. We had no objects to represent either of these groups, so we approached them in different ways. An object made during a recent project on female abolitionists makes a great link between past and present. A joint project with George Dixon J&I School resulted in some inspiring artwork and creative writing about black abolitionists.
We wanted to use the domed gallery in a theatrical way, and decided to aim for the atmosphere of a trade exhibition. This enabled us to focus on particular companies or industries, rather than showing ‘a bit of everything’. We incorporated aspects of Birmingham’s cultural life into this space as well. Keeping to our theme in this section meant that some objects were interpreted in interesting ways. We selected costume made in Birmingham so that it could be tied into the ‘trade exhibition’ theme. If an item was simply owned by a Birmingham person it had to be excluded. Similarly we could include the poignant child’s hearse and coffin as part of the trade exhibition because of the importance of Birmingham’s coffin industry.
Our third theme has the overall title of ‘Unequal Birmingham’, and looks at poverty and reform. Many different topics had to be brought together here, in quite a small space. One of the challenges of representing the poor is that very few objects survive, so we had to make the most of what we did have. The spectacular objects from the workhouse chapel provided a good starting point. Famous Birmingham reformers make their appearance here, including the political campaigner Thomas Attwood, and most famous of all, Joseph Chamberlain.
Choosing the themes and the objects is not, of course, the end of the process. One of the key elements of designing any display is to decide what messages you want to put across. We hoped to enable our visitors to make links between past and present – hence the screens in Unequal Birmingham which compare conditions in 19th century Birmingham with those in the 21st century. And we wanted to question some common assumptions, for instance by pointing out the negative aspects of Chamberlain’s improvement scheme. Consulting with our community action panel and with experts on Birmingham history helped us not only with the historical facts but also with our approach to emotive issues such as enslavement.
The displays can only scratch the surface of 19th century Birmingham. We hope they inspire people to find out more.
Curator of History