Victorian Photo Album Nᵒ.10: Chaucer's Head Bookshop (New Street, c. 1870s)

Chaucer's Head bookshop at 74 New Street, c. 1870s.
Held at Birmingham Archive @ Library of Birmingham.

See more of the Victorian Photo Album.

The Chaucer's Head bookshop was at the top on New Street, and was one of four shops set alongside the south wall of Christ Church (see more on these shops here). Christ Church was where the "Floozie in the Jacuzzi" is now. The bookshop was founded at 74 New Street in 1830 by John Cadby, who was succeeded by William Downing (whose name is seen in the photograph) in 1870. It was removed to Temple Row in 1890.*1* Downing was a well known local bookseller specialising in antiquarian books, and with customers ranging from local politician Joseph Chamberlain to Arts and Crafts designer William Morris.*2* 


Advert for Chaucer's Head from Personal Recollections of Birmingham and Birmingham Men by E. Edwards (1877).

Texture and Typography

Entry to the Space Behind
(CHARLES BIKKER****, WINE MERCHANTS)

Browsers and Displays of Books

'Rare & Curious Books'

Enamel (& Metal) Things Nᵒ.6: A Pair of Flowery Wall Plaques for the First Day of Spring (c. 1760s)

Private collection.

Object focus: A pair of enamelled wall plaques in gilt metal frames, depicting flowers in urns, transfer printed and over-painted, c. 1760s. Probably made in Birmingham or the Black Country.

Enamelling was conducted in Bilston and Wednesbury as well as Birmingham, so these plaques may have been name in any of these towns. They have been transfer printed, a process new to this period, and over-painted in vibrant enamel colours. Several butterflies flutter around the flowers.

The artisans making these decorative goods often took inspiration, or directly copied, from a range of books designed for engravers, enamellers, japanners, and other craftspeople; for ladies' needlework; as well as the general interest for the public. They were usually published in sets of six, such as the example below:

A Select Collection of the most beautiful Flowers, Drawn after Nature, after Heckel (1795, reprint from c. 1750-1770 prints).
Held at the V&A. One of a set of six.


See more prints, below:

Metal (and Enamel) Things Nᵒ.9: The Making of Gilt & Enamel Equipage (c. 1760s)

Equipage with egg-shaped containers and etui, c. 1760s.
Wolverhampton Museum Collection.

Object Focus

Yesterday's post (here) explored eighteenth-century equipage (also called chatelaines) which were hung from women's dresses at the waist, holding and displaying objects such as watches as well as the etui shown in these examples, etui being containers of useful items such as scissors, needles and bodkins.

Very similar examples of enamel equipage are held across several museums (see four pieces above and below), and this post considers how they were made for a broader consumer market.

Equipage with two hooks, containers and etui, c. 1760s.
MET Collection.

Equipage with two hooks and etui, c. 1760s.
Philadelphia Museum of Art Collection.

Equipage with elongated chain, containers and etui, c. 1760s.
V&A Collection.

Although unmarked, all the equipages and etui depicted were very likely made in Birmingham. The metal parts are stamped and gilt, and the enamelled parts either made in Birmingham, or in nearby towns such as Bilston or Wednesbury, and applied afterwards. Birmingham and nearby towns contained individuals with these diverse skills and knowledge of these processes, and new processes such as stamping were dominant in this area. One manufactory known to have contained workpeople with all these skills is John Taylor's in Birmingham.

Stamping was the process of making impressions in metal which imitated chasing, chasing being the hammering of metal to produce a decorative design. Rather than each design being chased individually, stamping required this to be done once and then the design could be stamped into metal again and again which is why the tops of these four equipages have the same design with rococo scrolling with two serpents at the base.



Despite this being the beginnings of mass production, "beginnings" is the key word as these were not the products of industrial machine-based production and still required several hand skills. This manner of making also allowed such goods to serve new markets, as if each item was chased by hand it would have increased the price making them only available to elite consumers. The development of stamping, though, required the same workmanship but chased once (or the opposite, repoussage, which was hammering from the other side) in reverse which would then be stamped to create the same repeated design, like intaglio printing but onto metal. Birmingham contained several skilled engravers and chasers, such as the Hancock's and the Wyon's, whose skills adorned goods such as these but the new processes allowed for them to be affordable to a new range of pockets.

Variety was introduced into each of the designs through the addition of enamelled plaques and etui, all designed slightly differently or, as with the example held at the V&A, a different drop section. Some of the enamelled parts seem to have been replaced but for the most part the different enamel sections contain matching imagery and designs, and these were hand painted. Despite being made by several hands, the finished articles came together into well-considered designs, but Birmingham and Black Country towns had been working this way, dividing labour between several hands, since at least the late 1600s with different cottage workshops produced different components for goods.* 

These articles provided their owners with both elegance and utility, with the appearance of chased gold, but ingeniously made and at a more affordable price.

Three loose etui made in Birmingham and/or the Black Country, c. 1760s.
One etui (blue with flowers) made c. 1900.
Sold at Christie's for £2000 in 2011.

See more

© Jen Dixon 2020. All text belongs to the author and is taken from PhD, contact jenni.a.dixon@gmail.com.

Notes
* For example: Robert Plot, The Natural History of Staffordshire (Oxford: The Theatre, 1686).

Objects In Use Nᵒ.1: Equipage - Displaying Workmanship & Craftswomanship in the Eighteenth Century

A gilt metal equipage with enamel adornments and watch, made in Birmingham, c. 1770.
Sold at Bonhams in 2011 for £3,250.

These items are generally called chatelaines but the name 'chatelaine' was a Victorian invention; during the eighteenth century these articles were called equipage. Equipage was hung from women's dresses at the waist and were produced to both hold and display useful things that a lady may need to hand, such as watches, seals, thimbles, scissors, needle cases, other sewing tools such as button hooks, note cards, perfume bottles and bonbonnières.

The example, above, was almost certainly made in Birmingham, and possibly in a manufactory like John Taylor's.

Equipage in use is seen in this 1742 painting.

Portrait of Miss Mary Edwards by William Hogarth, 1742.
Frick Collection.


Equipage was noted in a 1747 poem called The Bassette-Table by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:

Behold this equipage by MATHERS wrought
With fifty guineas (a great pen'orth!) bought!
See on the tooth-pick MARS and CUPID strive,
And both the struggling figures seem to liue.
Upon the bottom see the Queen's bright face;
A myrtle foliage round the thimble case;
JOVE, JOVE himself does on the scissars [sic] shine,
The metal and the workmanship divine.*

Equipages were often articles of overt display so the craftsmanship was important in making them stand out and to be admired. It is interesting that Montagu outlined a conversation about the design and making of the equipage, such as the 'myrtle foliage' and 'workmanship divine', as this was something important to the owners of these items. The fine workmanship of the maker was admired and displayed, and, taking that Montagu's poem related to experiences she observed, discussed with others.

As well as being decorative adornments, equipage held and displayed useful items such as the thimble case and scissors noted by Montagu. Decorative and essential needle crafts were something many women were proud of, and several portraits included women at these employments (image below). Portraits of men also depicted them with objects of their pursuits, such as their collections of coins or fossils, or their favourite snuffbox. Equipage had various uses for women, but one use was in placing the tools of their needlework on display, promoting it as either a useful or pleasurable pursuit, and also keeping these essential tools to hand.

Lady Jane Mathew and her Daughters, artist unknown c. 1790.
Yale Centre for British Art.


Below is one such equipage, made in gilt metal and enamel and included an etui, a container which could include useful articles, this one including scissors and a knife, a bodkin, needle case and strips probably used as rulers. 

The making of these gilt metal and enamel equipages will be explored in a post published tomorrow.

Equipage with two hooks with egg-shaped containers and etui, made in Birmingham, c. 1760.
Wolverhampton Museum Collection.


Notes
© Jen Dixon 2020. All text belongs to the author, contact jenni.a.dixon@gmail.com.
* Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Six Town Eclogues. With some other Poems (London: M. Cooper, 1747), p. 22. Mathers was an eighteenth-century toyshop keeper who sold, and likely made, a variety of adornments.
- For information on Victorian chatelaines, see: Jessica Rose Hartley, 'Glittering Baubles: An Examination of Chatelaines in Britain, 1839-1900', in The Journal of Dress History, 4 (2020), 45-71.
- Other chatelaines here and here.

Victorian Photo Album Nᵒ.9: Looking Through Windows - Ornaments & Things Inside


The last Looking Through Windows (here, here & here) posts explored 'Greenery in the "Slums"'; and showed that despite these houses being termed 'slums' by officials, the people living them adorned and beautified their homes in multiple ways. 

With a desire to knock down these houses, the photographers took pictures of buildings with cracks in the walls and broken windows, but didn't always notice the little things, the things which can be found by zooming into the old Victorian photographs. 

The previous posts looked at plants and flowers, this one looks at ornaments on window ledges and outside, and other things which can be peeped at by zooming in.  

This Looking Through Windows explores the things that people owned which can be seen in the shadows inside the homes (some door peeking as well as window peeking was necessary). See the images below.....

Tour of Lost Birmingham Nᵒ.61: A Regency Stay at the Hen and Chickens Hotel (New Street)

The Hen and Chicken's on New Street, with King Edward's school to the right, c. 1808.
Coaches would enter the rear stables through the arch.
Held by Birmingham Museums.

Were you at the “Hen and Chickens,” from which I write, however, you would be very well content with your quarters [...] I am surrounded by vases of beautiful flowers, many of them the choice productions of the green house in our rude climate, which ornament and perfume the halls and landings of the staircases, and impart an air bordering on elegance, to the general neatness and comfort of the establishment. The inn at which we are, is said to be the best in this great work-shop of iron and steel [...].*
So noted Charles Samuel Stuart, an American visiting England and Ireland in 1832. He did not remain long in Birmingham, he felt it very modern, and the manufactures that made it worthy of visiting made it smokey and noisy. But Stuart did remain long enough to visit some manufactories before he left. He popped to the Pantechnetheca over the street, and up to St. Philip's church to visit the nearby premises of Edward Thomason on Church Street. Find details of his visit here.

The writer Thomas de Quincey also stayed at the Hen and Chickens in the 1830s, and noted:

as to the noise, never did I sleep at that enormous Hen and Chickens, to which usually my destiny brought me, but I had reason to complain that the discreet hen did not gather her vagrant flock to roost at less favourable hours. Till two or three, I was kept waking by those who were retiring; and about three commenced the morning functions of the porter, or of “boots”, or of “underboots”, who began their rounds for collecting the several freights for the Highflyer, or the Tally-ho, or the Bang-up, to all points  of the compass, and too often (as much happen in such immense establishments) blundered into my room with the appalling, “Now, sir, the horses are coming out.” So that rarely, indeed, have I happened to sleep in Birmingham.**

The Hen and Chicken's, where Stuart and de Quincey stayed, was a coaching inn on New Street built in 1798 'according to the plan of James Wyatt Esq of London'.*3* So stated an article in Aris's Birmingham Gazette that year which informed the Birmingham public that Mrs. Sarah Lloyd was removing the Hen and Chickens from its original site on High Street to its new home on New Street. 

The extent of how important the 'coaching' part of the establishment was can be seen in the sale plan, below, which shows how much land behind the hotel the stables covered. But the building itself was large for an inn of this time, and de Quincey described it as 'colossal'. 

Front elevation and plan of stables for Hen and Chickens, 1836.
Birmingham Archive: MS 3069/13/2/66.

The plan, above, shows the building of the Hen and Chickens with its new portico, protruding porch supported by columns in a classical design, built in 1830. This lent an even grander tone for visitors such as Stuart and de Quincey. It had been built under the hotel's ownership by William Waddell, who took over after Mrs. Lloyd (by at least 1818, probably before). At the same time as building the portico, Waddell converted the front rooms of the premises into 'a commodious restaurant'.*4*

Advert for Wm Waddell's Hen and Chickens, 1830-1835.
Engraved by J. Garner from a drawing by Samuel Lines.
Held by Birmingham Museums.

The view, above, looks along New Street towards Christ Church at the end of the street.


Click here for and image of the Hen & Chicken's from Bisset's Magnificent Directory (1800)/

Notes
The original Hen and Chicken's on High Street, nearby, was called the Angel and Hen and Chickens in the 1740s. It was where the first flying coaches arrived at in 1742, which came from London in two days, something considered amazing at the time (see post on the London to Birmingham stage, here). It also had a fine bowling green attached, bowling being a popular pastime of the mid-Georgian era.*5*

Full references on request. MS 3069/10/345
* here, pp. 42-43.
** Autobiographic Sketches, pp. 291-292.
*3* Dent, p. 304.
*4* Eliezer Edwards, The Taverns of Old Birmingham (1879).
*4* Aris's Birmingham Gazette, 14 December 1741.

Victorian Photo Album Nᵒ.8: Looking Through Windows - Greenery in the "Slums" (Part Three)

Part three (of three parts) of Looking Through Windows (Greenery). See part one, here and part two, here. Concept: Jen Dixon 2015-2022 (used in previous art exhibition), please contact to use these cropped images in this way - jenni.a.dixon@gmail.com

During the late Victorian period many of central Birmingham's poorer housing was earmarked for demolition in a drive to revamp the city centre and move those living in these houses out to newer homes in the outer parts of the town. Hundreds of photographs of 'slum housing' (Victorian terminology, not mine) were taken of the many courts of back to back housing in the town. These images were taken was to assert the reasoning for their demolition, that they were run down, so they "frame" the buildings to tell this story. This is only one story, though, as these buildings were filled with families living their lives and beautifying their homes, and if you zoom into the images you can find traces of this

Click on the images, below, to view in a lightbox.

Object Focus Nᵒ.8: Catherine Hutton's Poem on Love & a Cosy Cottage

Held at Birmingham Archive in the Hutton Collection.

A watercolour of a small cottage accompanied by a five verse poem painted and written by Catherine Hutton (1756-1846) of Birmingham.

The poem reads:

Birmingham Women Nᵒ. 1: Catherine Hutton, Writer and Home Crafter (1756-1846)

 Catherine Hutton (11 February 1756 to 13 March 1846) was part of the Birmingham Hutton family, the daughter of stationer, book seller and historian William Hutton and his wife Sarah Cock.* Catherine was a weaver of tales as well as a needlecrafter, and was putting pen to paper right up to her death at the age of 91. She was a particular fan of Jane Austen, as she explains 'I have been going through a course of novels by lady authors, beginning with Mrs Brooke and ending with Miss Austen, who is my especial favourite. I had always wished, not daring to hope, that I might be something like Miss Austen; and, having finished her works, I took to my own, to see if I could find any resemblance'.* In 1813 she published her first novel, The Miser Married (view here)and published two subsequent novels, The Welsh Mountaineer (1817, volume one here) and Oakwell Hall (1819). Catherine published other fiction and articles in magazines, and her published letters outline the life of a middle-class woman at this time. 

The Hutton family business and home were both attacked during the Birmingham riots of 1791, which targeted local dissenters and religious non-conformists, and the Hutton family were Unitarians. Their shop in Birmingham was burnt down and the family had taken shelter at their family home at Bennett's Hill, a few miles from the town. On hearing that rioters were on their way there too, the family had to quickly flee, and leave the house and their possessions to the mob. 

The riots had been very hard for Catherine and she took to company less and less. Two years after the experience she wrote to a friend: 'Last Monday I broke the spell by visiting the Miss Mainwarings, and I was found so rusticated, so antiquated, that the first thing they did was to take my cap to pieces and make it up in a different form. Now, mark my resolution. I visited three families on the three following days, and I have engaged myself for two evenings next week. Be so good when you write to say something about fashion, that I, who used to be an example, may not be quite a scare-crow' [letter to Mrs. André, 2 Sep 1792].* In her isolation, Catherine took joy from tending to her garden, stating in the same letter that 'my inexhaustible fund of amusement is the garden' asking to be sent 'some flower seeds and bulbs. I should particularly like some feathered hyacinths' [ibid].

Catherine's love gardening and flowers probably influenced her production of a patchwork bedcover surrounded with an array of appliqued flowers made in 1804. The design included jasmine, roses, tulips and lilac, and, as historian Elaine Mitchell notes, the 'appliqued plants delivered a cornucopia of botanical specimens from around the globe into the house' (see here).** It also bought some of Catherine's well-loved garden indoors and the needlework would have likely soothed her in the years she spent more isolated after the affects of the riots.

Section of Catherine Hutton's bed cover (335cm by 362cm), 1804.
Birmingham Museum Collections (20015.86.1).
Photograph copyright Elaine Mitchell.

Another of Catherine's surviving creations is a small purse made using simple lace-making techniques:

Part of the Hutton collection at the Library of Birmingham.

Top image: Catherine Hutton age 43 and 83, held at the Library of Birmingham Archive.

NOTES
© Jen Dixon 2022. All text belongs to the author (jenni.a.dixon@gmail.com).
- Reminiscences of A Gentlewoman of the Last Century: Letters of Catherine Hutton, ed. by Catherine Hutton Beale (Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1891). 
- William Hutton, The Life of William Hutton (London: Baldwin, Craddock and Joy, 1816).
* Full references on request. 
** Elaine Mitchell, 'The efforts of her needle: unpicking Catherine Hutton's 1804 counterpane', Retail History (Blog post, 2019). This is part of Elaine's PhD thesis at University of Birmingham.

Tour of Lost Birmingham Nᵒ.60: Turner's Brass Houses (Coleshill Street, c. 1740)

Interior Mr. Turner's Brass Works from R. R. Angerstein's Illustrated Travel Diary, 1753-1755.

Reinhold Rücker Angerstein was a Swedish metallurgist from a family of iron masters, who extensively travelled Britain's industrial works in the early 1750s, including many in Birmingham and nearby. In 1754 he visited Turner's brass works in Birmingham: 
The brass-works [...] belongs to Mr Turner and consists of nine furnaces with three built together in each of three separate buildings. The furnaces are heated with mineral coal, of which 15 tons is used for each furnace, and melting lasting ten hours. Each furnace holds nine pots, 14 inches high and nine inches diameter at the top. Each pot is charged with 41 pounds of copper and 50 pounds of calamine. Mixed with [char]coal. During charging I observed that a handful of coal and calamine was first placed on the bottom of the pot, then came the mixture, which was packed in tightly, followed by about a pound of copper in small pieces, and finally again coal and calamine without copper, covering the top. This procedure was said to lengthen the life of the pot both at the top and the bottom. [...] There are six workers for the nine furnaces and casting takes place twice every 24 hours.*1*

In 1782, William Hutton stated that the 'manufacture of brass was introduced by the family of Turner, about 1740, who erected those works at the south end of Coleshill-street' (see map, below). Although writing in 1783, Hutton first visited Birmingham in the 1740s and moved to the town in 1750, so would have some recollection of the early brass trade. He also said of the works that 'Under the black clouds which arose from this corpulent tunnel, some of the trades collected their daily supply of brass'.*2* Those 'black clouds' can be seen rising from the chimney's of Turner's 'Brass Works' on the 1753 East Prospect of Birmingham:

St. Bartholomew's Chapel and smoking chimneys of the brass works, from the East Prospect of Birmingham (1753).

Section of the 1751 Map of Birmingham showing Coleshill Street and Turner's Brass House.


Although this was the beginnings of the manufacture of brass in Birmingham, Birmingham and nearby areas were already making brass things but buying brass produced elsewhere, such as Bristol. Buckles were one such brass thing, and Robert Plot noted the manufacture of 'Poland buckle[s], the pease buckle, chased buckles, Dutch and Irish buckles, which are brass' in Walsall in 1686.*3* John Wilkes was also making beautiful and intricate brass locks in Birmingham in the late 1600s (see post here). The opening of Turner's brass works meant that local makers could now source their brass in Birmingham. 

The 'Mr Turner' noted by Angerstein was Thomas Turner.*4* It is possible that Thomas had made buckles before opening his brass-making works on Coleshill Street, as there was definitely a buckle maker called Thomas Turner working in Birmingham in the 1730s.*5*

In the 1770 Birmingham Directory John and William Turner were 'Proprietors of the Brass Works' at 4 Coleshill Street, possibly sons, or other relatives, of Thomas. William Turner's marriage licence described him as a brass maker.*6*

NOTES
*1* R. R. Angersteins Illustrated Travel Diary: Industry in England and Wales from a Swedish Perspective, 1753-1755, ed. and translated by Torsten and Peter Berg (London: Cromwell Press, 2001), pp. 38-39.
*2* William Hutton, An History of Birmingham (Birmingham: Pearson and Rollason, 1783), p. 329.
*3* Robert Plot, The Natural History of Staffordshire (Oxford: The Theatre, 1686), p. 377.
*4* John Townley, 'Turner’s Brass House, Coleshill Street', published online on The Iron Room.
*5* Turner v Fulwood, 1738, National Archives, C 11/861/79.
*6* Staffordshire, Dioceses Of Lichfield & Coventry Marriage Allegations And Bonds, 1636-1893.
~ https://historywm.com/file/historywm/business-men-and-the-politics-of-the-brass-industry-article-duncan-frankis-final-28482.pdf

Victorian Photo Album Nᵒ.7: Looking Through Windows - Greenery in the "Slums" (Part Two)


Part two (of three parts) of Looking Through Windows (Greenery). See part one, here. Concept: Jen Dixon 2015-2022 (used in previous art exhibition), please contact to use these cropped images in this way - jenni.a.dixon@gmail.com

During the late Victorian period many of central Birmingham's poorer housing was earmarked for demolition in a drive to revamp the city centre and move those living in these houses out to newer homes in the outer parts of the town. Hundreds of photographs of 'slum housing' (Victorian terminology, not mine) were taken of the many courts of back to back housing in the town. These images were taken was to assert the reasoning for their demolition, that they were run down, so they "frame" the buildings to tell this story. This is only one story, though, as these buildings were filled with families living their lives and beautifying their homes, and if you zoom into the images you can find traces of this

Click on the images, below, to view in a lightbox.

Tour of Lost Birmingham Nᵒ.59: St. Martin's Parsonage (Smallbrook Street)

St. Martin's Parsonage, from a drawing by David Cox and engraved by William Radcliffe, published 25 March 1827. Hand coloured later.

St. Martin's Parsonage was demolished in 1826. The image above was drawn in about 1825 or 1826 by David Cox, and the original drawing is held by Birmingham Museums (see here). The Parsonage housed a long line of the rectors of St. Martin's, and stood a little distance from the church, up Edgbaston Street and at the base of Smallbrook Street.

It was described in 1830, not long after its demolition, as an 'ancient, half-timbered edifice, coated with plaster' and that the 'entrance was through a wicket in the large doors of a long range of low building[s] next to the street'. The building had originally been encircled by a moat, as seen in snippets from the 1731 map of Birmingham below, but only dried-up parts of the moat remained when it was demolished despite the engraving including the moat filled with water.*1* An Act of Parliament was required for its demolition and acquired in 1825, which described the building as 'a most ancient and inconvenient building' which was 'very ill-suited for the residence of the rector'.*2* Parts of it were very ancient indeed.

Snippet from 1731 map showing St. Martin's church and parsonage.

Snippet from Bernard Sleigh's version of the 1731 map showing St. Martin's church and parsonage.

Close-up of the Parsonage from  Bernard Sleigh's version of the 1731 map.

The engraving was copied by Charlotte Brontë in about 1832.*3* Brontë never visited Birmingham.

Charlotte Brontë's copy of the 1827 engraving, c. 1832. Private collection.


NOTES
*1* An Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Birmingham (1830), p. 108.
*2* Graphic illustrations of Warwickshire (1829), p. 116. 
*3* Christine Alexander, 'Charlotte Brontë, Her School Friends, and the Roe Head Album', in Brontë Studies, 29, pp. 1-16 (p. 4).
~ MS 1452/2/119/108-109 : LS 908* : L/F/05/31 Local & Private Acts/Vol. 6/17763 : MS 1280/16

Victorian Photo Album Nᵒ.6: Looking Through Windows - Greenery in the "Slums" (Part One)

Original full photograph of 'slum housing',
back of 52 & 54 Midland Street, late 1800s.

During the late Victorian period many of central Birmingham's poorer housing was earmarked for demolition in a drive to revamp the city centre and move those living in these houses out to newer homes in the outer parts of the town. Hundreds of photographs of 'slum housing' were taken of the many courts of back to back housing in the town. These images were taken was to assert the reasoning for their demolition, that they were run down, so they "frame" the buildings to tell this story. This is only one story, though, as these buildings were filled with families living their lives and beautifying their homes, and if you zoom into the images you can find traces of this

Below is part one (of three parts) of Looking Through Windows (Greenery). Concept: Jen Dixon 2015-2022 (used in previous art exhibition), please contact to use these cropped images in this way - jenni.a.dixon@gmail.com

Click on the images, below, to view in a lightbox.

Paper Remnants Nᵒ.10: G. Hougton & Son "Foremost High Class Gent's Hosier's" (New Street, 1899)

G. Houghton & Son on Birmingham's New Street, 1899.
Printed by W. B. Hill & Co.

See all Paper Remnants.

Victorian Photo Album Nᵒ.5: Monumental Encounters - Framing the Theatre Royal (New Street from Bennetts Hill)

Demolition of the Theatre Royal in 1901.
Held at Birmingham Archive.

Towns have always been gathering points, and anciently the market was a primary draw, as well as other trade opportunities in manufacturing towns like Birmingham. Throughout the eighteenth century, though, the make-up of provincial towns, both architecturally and socially, was changing. Peter Borsay describes an ‘architectural renaissance’ beginning in the late 1600s and early 1700s, with provincial towns beginning ‘to appear visually more attractive and sophisticated’.[1] This occurred along with an increase in social activities as leisure became more in demand in the towns.[2] Wealthier residents and successful businessmen, with more free time, encouraged the building of increasing number of spaces within towns to be used for pleasure and entertainment, and these sites became focal points of the town. In Birmingham these included St. Philip’s with its elegant promenades and later the music festival, assembly rooms and later, in the early 1830s, the Town Hall.

One of Birmingham's most important buildings for its social life and entertainment was the Theatre on New Street, opened in 1774 (later patronised and called the Theatre Royal). The facade was built in 1780 by the renowned architect Samuel Wyatt and was described by one as ‘one of the handsomest theatre's anywhere’.* 

The theatre, later the Theatre Royal on New Street. Image possibly from
about 1800.


When it was built the Theatre stood opposite the other side of New Street, a row of unassuming houses including the Georgian Post Office and its yard. In the early 1820s, though, the site behind the Post Office was redeveloped and two new streets were made, Waterloo Street and Bennetts Hill (see here). Bennett's Hill was deliberately designed to create a frame for the the admired Theatre Royal, and that "frame" is still visible as the theatre was being demolished in the photograph, although the Georgian Theatre Royal itself was very soon to be gone. A new Theatre Royal was to be built, which Bennetts Hill framed for a short time, and now that has been demolished too.

Framing tells us where to look. It takes a section of something, like the urban landscape, and singles it out for particular contemplation, and this is evident in the case of New Street's theatre. One commentator regretted, in 1830, that the theatre had not been built further back from the other buildings on the street to further enhance its prospect, but he cheerfully noted that it could be seen with full effect from the road called Bennett’s Hill which faced it.*


------------

NOTES
[1], [2] Peter Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance
[*] Other and full references on request.
~ The building on the right of the photograph is the Bennett's Hill face of the Post Office Building (never actually a post office but replacing the Georgian cottage post office, hence the name) designed by Charles Edge, and erected in 1842.