11 December 2017

Map of the Hundreds of Staffordshire, c. 1650

Map of the hundreds of Staffordhire, by Hollar, c. 1650s.

Although this is a map of Staffordshire, the town of Birmingham can be seen at its borders on the left, but north is to the right (one of the enlargements - below - is tilted with north at the top). It was produced in about the 1650s by Wenceslaus or Wenceslas Hollar, a Czech etcher, who made several images in the British Isles, and died in London in 1677. The original is 19 by 26 cm, and part of the Wenceslaus Holler Collection at the University of Toronto (see here).

2 October 2016

Freeth's Coffee House & the Society Feasts

Freeth's Coffee House was a tavern (more formally known as the Leicester Arms) on Bell Street, a lost street which would have stood under the complex of the new Bull Ring Shopping Centre. It was run by John Freeth (sometimes John Free), a local poet and political commentator, often known as Poet Freeth and printing publications such as The Political Songster. As with many coffee houses in the eighteenth-century, it was a meeting place, not just of people, but of ideas. Most well-known are the meetings of the Jacobin Club, a group of political radicals including James Bisset (toy-maker and museum keeper) and James Sketchley (printer and auctioneer). In his obituary in 1808 it was noted that Freeth would sing his poems and 'delight a large company with original songs, composed from subjects of a public nature, replete with wit and humour'.

The pub was the site of a number of dinners where the radical politics and current affairs of the day could be discussed. The call to these feasts was frequently through a few lines of poetry, printed in letterpress onto small cards. Here are some examples:

Click on the cards to enlarge.

Poet Freeth (John Freeth).

26 September 2016

James Watt's Workshop

A short video by History West Midlands, taking us inside the workshop of James Watt, which existed at Watt's home, Heathfield Hall, in the late eighteenth-century. The workshop is now reconstructed at the Science Museum in London.

3 September 2016

The Swan Hotel in Pictures

Swan Hotel in 1829.

The Swan Hotel was a large and dominant coaching inn on the High Street throughout the eighteenth-century and before. According to Joseph Hill it was an ancient tavern, the land of which stretching across the corner of High and New Streets, and belonged to a family called Rastell during the reign of Henry VIII. Between 1666 and 1688 the landlord of the Swan was Edward Crank, who demolished the old tavern, and built another set back from the street, with a large yard in front for carriages, and erected a row of five smart town houses along the street (seen on the left of the trade card, above).* The Swan was a haunt of Samuel Johnson, who writes in 1755 'I was extremely pleased to find that you have not forgotten your old friend, who yet recollects the evenings which we have passed together at Warren's and the Swan'. Johnson resided in Birmingham in the early 1730s, initially with Edmund Hector (to whom he writes above) at Thomas Warren's bookshop situated opposite the Swan at that time (Warren's shop moved about).

Contemporary colouring of the 1829 card.

In the 1730s, as the notice below announces, you could catch a stage-coach to London at the Swan at six on a Monday morning, and return 'if God permit' on the Saturday. Take a journey on the Birmingham to London stage-coach here.

The hotel survived until the late 1950s, but was demolished before 1961 to make way for the new Rotunda. The photos below were taken in 1932 by William A. Clark.

The swan over the door. 
The entrance door with the swan over, looking up
Swan Alley. Note Fred Burn on the right.
Poor image of the alley from the other direction. Not taken by Clark.
Landing of the Swan Hotel.

There was another entrance to the Swan around the corner on New Street (see below, far left). The street on the right of the trunk manufacturer is Worcester Street, and when the Rotunda was built, this became Worcester Passage, which was covered and cut underneath the building.

New Street (left) at the corner of Worcester Street (right).

1 August 2016

John Baskerville's House and Something Unexpected in the Garden

Baskerville's house at Easy Hill.

John Baskerville was a japanner, letter cutter, type founder and printer in Birmingham in the mid eighteenth-century. Japanning was his initial, and also very prosperous, trade, which enabled him to build himself a grand house on the outskirts of Birmingham in 1745, at Easy Hill. By the 1770s the Birmingham Canal and its wharf had encircled the house, and the town was encroaching nearer and nearer (see map below).

1778 map highlighting the house at Easy Hill, with a long tree lined drive
garden, and possible orchard. Birmingham is expanding onward.

Baskerville died in 1775, and the house was lived in by his widow and daughter, and his daughter owned it until 1788 when it was bought by John Ryland, who had the images below produced. They give some interesting detail of the ornamentation, and if anyone knows what the statues are, please let me know in the comments.

Easterly front of Baskerville's house.

Southerly front of Baskerville's house.

Close-up of the statues.
The house is thought to have been demolished in about 1795, and the land utilised for manufacture, and by a canal wharf, the construction of which, in the 1820s, unearthed Baskerville's corpse, which he had asked to be buried in a catacomb built especially for the purpose in the garden. Below is a drawing of said corpse, produced by Thomas Underwood in 1829, after the body had been on display. It says something about Baskerville's fame and renown that this seemed acceptable. 

30 July 2016

Birmingham's First Book (Probably)

A Sermon Preached, p. 1.

Above is the title page of what is probably the first book printed in Birmingham, produced by Matthew Unwin, whose press was near St. Martin's church. The book is not dated, which suggests that it was printed in the same year as the sermon was preached, 1716. Unwin also printed two other known books in Birmingham; A Loyal Oration (see below) and The Martyrdom of King Charles the First, both in 1717. The Martyrdom of King Charles was written by 'J. B.', thought to be the Reverend John Bridgeman, who was Master of King Edward's School on New Street between 1705 and 1714. A Sermon Preached [...] (title page above, and continued below) was written by Thomas Southall, the vicar at Harbourne, so these were both local works. 

Like most Birmingham booksellers and printers, Unwin worked near St. Martin's church, but he didn't seem stay long in Birmingham; he probably married Frances Bourne at St. Mary's in Handsworth in 1717 (30 Apr), but by 1722 a Matthew Unwin is recorded as a bookbinder in Leicester, taking on a Humphrey Haywood as an apprentice,* and continues to print a number of books in the town, before being buried there in 1749.**

Some more of the pages of A Sermon Preached [...] are below, AND some of A Loyal Oration are further down.

A Sermon Preached, p. 2.

A Sermon Preached, p. 3.

A Sermon Preached, p. 4.

A Sermon Preached, p. 5.

A Loyal Oration
A Loyal Oration, imprint 1717.
In the third section (above) is a reference to the Rector of the newly built St. Philip's church who had apparently been 'displeas'd and nettl'd' with such a 'scurrilous Discourse'.

A Loyal Oration, p. 5.

Birmingham's next major printer was Henry Butler (more a printer of ephemera rather than books). Then came Thomas Warren, who printed extensively in the town.


* 4 March 1772, and listed as a bookbinder.
** Exposition of Common Prayer ('Mr Unwin, Printer at Leicester' (1737)), A Catalogue of Books. In Divinity, History, Law, Physick, Mathematicks, Poetry, Classicks ('Matthew Unwin, printer and bookbinder' (1743)). Some note that this Matthew Unwin is not the same as at Birmingham, but in 1741 (20 Aug) 'Frances, wife of Matthew Unwin' was buried at St. Martin's in Leicester aged 49. In relation to the marriage to Frances Bourne near Birmingham, this would suggest that both are the same man. Unwin dies in Leicester in 1749 (buried 14 March at St. Martin's) and leaves a will (proved 1750-not seen).

28 October 2015

Georgian Graffiti & Political Discontent

Good advice from a graffiti artist beneath the M6 between Aston and Bromford. The concrete pillars of this 'underneath place' form canvases for graffiti, hidden from anyone but the most intrepid explorer (I was there following the River Tame through Birmingham). 

Graffiti is nothing new though (see this post about graffiti on Aston Church), and in Birmingham Archive there's a document where manufacturer and museum keeper, James Bisset, recorded the changing inscriptions on Birmingham's walls in the late 1700s. In the 1780s the inscriptions "BUCKLES" and "NO SHOE STRINGS" reveal how the waning fashion for shoe buckles was affecting local artisans who were going out of business and struggling financially. Many Birmingham buckle makers petitioned the King, who promised to wear buckles and not shoe laces, but fashion is a cruel mistress, and 'shoe strings' won the day.

In 1791 "NO PRIESTLEY" appeared on the walls, as did "The CHURCH and the KING". 1791 was the year of what later became known as the Priestley Riots (find more posts about the riots here). A tremendous tension built up in the summer of that year with a great deal of animosity towards Dissenters (religious minorities), and those seen to support the ideals of the French Revolution. This resulted in three days of rioting, mostly directed towards the Dissenters, and the destruction of several of their homes by fire and sheer will-power. Also written at that time was "DAMN THE JACOBINS"; the Jacobins took a particularly left-wing, revolutionary political stance, and Bisset himself was a member of Birmingham's Jacobin Club (see below).

James Bisset and 'Freeth's Circle'; political radicals.
Bisset is fourth from the right.

In following years came "WAR and PITT", "OLD ENGLAND for EVER", and "DOWN, DOWN with the FRENCH". This reflects the conflicts Britain fought alongside other European countries against post-revolutionary France. Bisset also notes an inscription of "DAMN all DISSENTERS", showing the continued simmering tensions between the different sections of Christianity.

A few years later the mood had changed. "BLOOD or BREAD" was plastered on the walls, as was "NO WAR" and "DAMN PITT". War, coupled with a succession of poor harvests, was leaving the masses hungry, and they called for "LARGE LOAVES". "NO K--G, LORDS or COMMONS" showed the people's discontent, as did "NO TAXES", "NO TITHES", "FREE CONSTITUTION" and "REVOLUTION". If Bisset's recording of the graffiti is to be trusted as unbiased, a huge turn in public opinion can be perceived.

With no images of Georgian graffiti to show (unsurprisingly), here are some more of the work that I found along the River Tame.

Click on the images to enlarge.

13 June 2015

South-West Prospect, 1731

Birmingham nearly three hundred years ago.

The vista of Birmingham, above, is a copy of one first produced in 1731, as the town was growing and beginning to achieve fame and prominence as a centre for industry and ingenuity. In the distance the landscape is one of rolling green fields, and from the vantage point taken, you can see the spire of Yardley Church (on the right), Whitacre, Curdworth, as well as Charlbury Forest in Leicestershire. It was produced by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, who visited Birmingham in 1729 to take initial drawings (see below).

The inscription written at the bottom is added below:

"BIRMINGHAM (anciently written BIRMYNCHAM also BRYMYNCHAM) is neither Borough nor Corporation; but remains, what it was before the Norman Conquest, only a Lordship: nevertheless, by the Industry & Ingenuity of its Inhabitants & the Advantage of its being an open free place of Trade, it is become famous for the vast Quantities of Iron & Brass, besides, Thread and Leather &c. manufactured there, and risen to A Competition with any of the most flourishing Towns in England being adorn’d with several beautiful Structures, such as a New Church: a Charity School, wherein are maintain’d and taught upwards of 50 Boys & Girls and a Free Grammar School founded and endow’d with a large revenue by King Edward teh sixth now rebuilt in a stately and commodious form. The Town is govern’d only by two Constables & holds a large Weekly market on Thursday, with two Annual Fairs, one on Ascension day, & the other on the feast of St. Michael. ____________ 1. New Hall. 2. St. Philip’s Church. 3. The Road to Worcester. 4. The Free School. 5. The Market House. 6. The Parsonage. 7. Charlbury Forest in Leicestershire. 8. St. Martin’s Church. 9. Curdworth. 10. Whitacre. 11. Lady’s Well. 12. The Manor House. 13. Digbeth. 14. The Bridge. 15. The River Rea. 16. St. John’s Chappel in Deritend. 17. Collshal. 18. Yardley."

The landmarks listed have been numbered more clearly below.

Below is one of the original drawing that the Buck's produced in 1729.

Drawing for the later printed prospect, pen and Indian ink with wash over pencil, 1729.
Held at Birmingham Museums (1934P399).

13 March 2015

Paradise Lost

'Red Brick Paradise'- Paradise Street, c. 1850, with the Town Hall, Christ Church and Queen's College.

The title of John Milton's epic poem from 1667, 'Paradise Lost', seems perfect in name, if not in theme, for the changes that will occur around Birmingham's Paradise Forum over the next few years. The controversial, but undeniably iconic Central Library will be demolished, along with the atrium of Paradise Forum inside, and the hidden concrete cave of Paradise Place will disappear as well. The developers are calling the proposed plans for the dramatic transformation of the area simply 'Paradise'; which makes me think of all the lost Paradise's, since the name was first used in the 1760s.

Trade card for Brown and Hardman of Paradise Street.


The first of Birmingham's 'Paradise's' was one of red brick Georgian refinement and "the residence [...] of several highly respectable professional gentlemen, as well as the establishments of some eminent merchants and manufacturers".* As with elsewhere in Birmingham, even some of the finest streets contained manufactories and workshops; Birmingham's own idea of 'paradise' being a hive of industry, but with a face of refinement. In the 1820s the top of Paradise Street (now part of Victoria Square) was described as "one of the most pleasing and lively spots in the town [...] there is a continual succession of objects; and being the centre of a busy manufacturing district, the throng of artisans leaving their several workshops, at the hour of One, and hurrying to their meal,has a particularly animated and cheerful effect, especially in this time of plentiful employment".* Sounds quite a bit like the area today!

This (image below) is that area at the top of Paradise Street in about 1848, with the 'throng of artisans', as well as all manner of others.

The Town Hall and Queen's College by Samuel Lines, c. 1848.
Find out more about this painting here.


Birmingham's Victorian library, which faced the Town Hall

The Victorian 'Paradise' replaced the red brick one with grand Gothic, Italiante and neo-Classical buildings, one of the most prominent being the complex of the Birmingham and Midland Institute and the Public Library*. The Paradise the Victorian's produced here was one of free (or at least affordable) learning for all, with the BMI providing education and evening classes for Birmingham's working people, and the library next door offering over 50,000 (by 1879) books to be lent. This was a period of civic pride, of creating buildings of cultural significance for more than just the town's elite. This is perhaps an idea that should be reverted to, in this time of massive cuts to Birmingham's libraries and other cultural institutions.


In the 1960s Paradise spread round the corner; the old Victorian library was knocked down and John Madin's new Central Library built nearby with a concrete garden behind called Paradise Place. This Paradise of the late 20th century is the one that I remember growing up in Birmingham, one of grey lines and rugged angles. And this Paradise is truly 'lost'; it leads nowhere and entices no-one, so nobody ever finds it except by accident or if they know it's there. There is a lot written about this development and the general failure of the Brutalist vision of the 1960s, including here.

Paradise Place by Chris Whippet
The word 'ironic' is often used when describing the name of
Paradise Place.


The new development encompasses more of the original Georgian Paradise Street than the Central Library complex did, so is a truer 'Paradise' in the spatial sense than ever before. But is it the right way to go? It is probably a daft question to ask, because the area is on the verge of being demolished, but I cant help agreeing with many others that the space could be something amazing.

Paradise Place at the back of Central Library, Birmingham.
Taken May 2012.

* designed by Edward Middleton Barry in the 1850s (though completed by other architects) and rebuilt after fire by Joseph Henry Chamberlain in the 1880s

24 January 2015

The East Prospect of 1732

It seems apt that the first post for the new look should be about the East Prospect of Birmingham which has been used for the top image of the blog. It was made by William Westley in 1732, who also produced the 1731 map of Birmingham, so the two relate to each other nicely.

The prospect shows a thoroughly modern town, filled with brick (and they would have been red brick) buildings; a brand new church in the fashionable Baroque style (St. Philip's) on the highest point; and neat, uniformed streets in the 'new' town right of the church, including the new 'Square' built for the wealthy, and a modern innovation in early Georgian urban planning. It was Westley that produced this image as it was a view that his family's fingerprints were all over. His father, William Westley Senior, had worked on St. Philip's (the architect was Thomas Archer) and had built some of the surrounding streets (one was called Westley's Row); he was probably the man behind the 'Square' too. The Westley's had designed refinement and modernity into the fabric of the town, and were now promoting it in the beautiful East Prospect, and the map produced the previous year.

In a central engraving Westley dedicates the prospect to his 'Worthy Patrons' Thomas Archer and Henry Archer, Thomas of course being the architect of St. Philip's. The engraved stone is flanked by symbols of Birmingham's industry and refinement; a palette and mechanical devices on the left, and musical instruments on the right. The town is also described:
“BIRMINGHAM, a Market Town in the County of WARWICK, which by the art and industry of its Inhabitants has for some years past been render’d famous all over the World, for the rare choice and invention of all sorts of Wares and Curiositys [sic] in Iron, Steel, Brass &c. admir’d as well for their cheapness, as their peculiar beauty of Workmanship [...]”
The description of Birmingham's wares as 'curiosities' was the spark of my PhD thesis at the University of Birmingham and BCU,* and is referring to Birmingham 'toys' (small metal items NOT children's toys) and trinkets that were highly desirable commodities of the time. The poet William Shenstone, who lived at Leasowes in Handsworth near Birmingham, was a great lover of these toys, and noted 'I have often viewed my watch, standish (inkstand), snuff-box, with this kind of tender regard; allotting them a degree of friendship, which there are some men, that do not deserve'. Birmingham was already renowned for these items, and became even more so over the next century, becoming known as the 'Toy-shop of Europe'. Birmingham was supplying everything modern and fashionable, and Westley is showing the actual space of the town as the same.


Below you can see Digbeth, a street that shot out south-east from Birmingham, and led to the neighbouring village of Aston, over the River Rea. To the left is St. John's chapel which served the community that huddled along the river, using the waters for tanning leather and powering mills and forges. St. Martin's is the church with the tall spire, still standing today, but rebuilt completely. To the left of St. Martin's is the moated manor house, which was the seat of the old 'de Birmingham' family, a remnant of the town's mediaeval history. The old Birmingham estate can be seen rolling towards the horizon, with Edgbaston Church a dot in the distance (far left).

Digbeth 300 years ago. 1732 Prospect & 1731 Map of Birmingham, by William Westley

Below St. Philip's can be seen on the hill, and the area around was being slowly filled with brand new houses for the Birmingham elite, whose wealth was growing rapidly as the town's trade in luxury wares expanded. One of these was Westley's Row which was near the Square (see pointing finger), which was frequented by Samuel Johnson, among other notable persons of the time. In the foreground is a stretch of the River Rea not on the map, and it is nice to see a party fishing on its banks, especially as the Rea here today flows morosely under the streets along brick culverts.

St. Philip's and the Square. 1732 Prospect & 1731 Map of Birmingham, by William Westley

* PhD thesis title is 'A Cabinet of Curiosities: The Production, Promotion and Consumption of Birmingham's Luxury Wares, 1730 to 1830'.