Birmingham Stories is a series of blog posts exploring the experiences of Birmingham men and women during the First World War through the Museum’s collection.
Harold Hall was born in Woodgate on the outskirts of Birmingham in 1893. At the age of 14 he began working at Cadbury’s in the Biscuit Department. When war broke out in 1914, Harold volunteered for the Army but he was classed as unfit for military service. Harold had lost a finger in an accident when he was 15 years old. At the beginning of the war men volunteering for the army were often rejected on the grounds of poor health, sight, or bad teeth. They could also be rejected if they were not tall enough. Undeterred, Harold then enlisted as a Private with the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) on the 24 November 1914. The RAMC were a non-combatant corps of the armed forces who undertook a range of orderly and medical duties on the home front and overseas.
Home Front Hospitals
In August 1914 parts of the University of Birmingham campus, including the Aston Webb building, were commandeered by the Territorial Force to become Territorial General Hospitals.The University was known as the 1st Southern General Hospital. In May 1915 City Hospital, then Dudley Road Infirmary, became an annex of the 1st Southern General. By May 1917 it was established as a hospital in its own right, known as the 2/1st Southern General Hospital.
Numerous other smaller annex hospitals and convalescent homes were established in Birmingham. They were often run by a combination of the RAMC, the Red Cross or St John’s Ambulance. They could also be sponsored by local businesses and individuals.
Harold trained at the 1st Southern General Hospital before moving to Dudley Road Infirmary in 1915 where he worked in the kitchens.
Harold was a member of the Woodgate Valley Prize Band. In August 1916 he joined a newly formed Dudley Road staff band. The band regularly performed for patients at the hospital, and on military parades. They also performed at the funerals of soldiers who died in Birmingham hospitals, many of whom were buried in Ludgate Hill Cemetery.
Before the introduction of conscription in 1916, Military Tribunals were established in 1915 as part of the Derby Scheme. The tribunals aimed to free up more men for military service overseas. When Harold attended a tribunal he was deemed fit for overseas service.
In August 1917 Harold left England for France. He was initially attached to the 1st Highland Division Second Field Ambulance. Harold was a stretcher bearer. In an interview in 1981 he described what his role entailed.
‘[A normal day on duty at the Line] There would be the walking cases…there would be the stretcher cases…and when they were gassed…all sorts of sickness amongst them of various forms…they all had to have attention, didn’t they….see…[My job was] To follow up and take care of casualties…as they arose…to bring them to the [First Aid] Post and carry them across trenches and all that sort of thing…’
Harold Hall served during the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. This photograph depicts the Advanced Dressing Station of 51st Highland Division Field Ambulance on the 20 November 1917. In an interview in 1981 Harold described what was happening in the photograph.
‘They were First Aid Posts used by us for stretcher bearers and we has to get the casualties off the stretchers and and put them on that windlass thing there and the German prisoners there were releasing the handles to let the stretchers slide down the ramp into an underground hospital which was in a German dugout. The surgeon and doctors were down there and they were doing amputation and all sorts of things on the casualties as they came in …see…they were in a pretty bad way…the chaps you were sending down there…the walking cases…we could get them away…but we couldn’t get the stretcher cases away…where immediate operations were needed…to save their lives…’
Harold probably volunteered at the same time as his friend George ‘Stanley’ Payne, who was also from Woodgate. Stanley was killed at Marfaux in France on the 15 July 1918. He was serving with the 15th Field Ambulance. He died when the First Aid Post he was working at received a direct hit from a German shell. Stanley was 23 years old. During the First World War 743 officers and 6130 soldiers in the RAMC were killed.
Harold Hall donated his collection of personal memorabilia associated with his First World War service in the RAMC in the 1980s. To see more objects relating to Harold’s First World War service with the RAMC or Birmingham hospitals during the First World War please go to BMAG Flikr.
Birmingham Museums are interested in collecting objects relating to Birmingham people during the First World War. Did your ancestor serve in any of the following areas either on the Home Front or overseas?
- Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service
- Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD)
- Red Cross
- St John’s Ambulance
- Friends Ambulance Unit (FAU)
Please contact email@example.com
Apart from being one of the most striking architectural features, the gas lights that hang over the Industrial Gallery are an important reminder of the Museum’s roots. They are beautiful to look at and vital to telling the story of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. However, they are also mysterious and we are still trying to find out exactly how they functioned.
The gas lights have a number of different names. The term ‘Gasoliers’ comes from French ‘chandelier’ and is frequently used in literature about the museum. However, my favourite name is ‘Sun-Light Burners’. This was used to describe them in the minutes made at meetings about opening a gallery. Apart from being vaguely poetic I prefer this term because it accurately reflects their job.
There are seven gas lights in total. Two in the Edwardian Tea Room, three in the Industrial Gallery, one in the Round Room and one above the Vestibule reception area (in every room of the original gallery). They were manufactured by Messrs. Strode and Company from London for the cost of £488.
The purpose of having gas lights was revolutionary. It reinforces the argument I made in my previous blog entry about how Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was an institution designed by the people and for the people. In the 1880s Art Galleries were the domain of the middle classes. As well as being a place to see beautiful objects they were also a place to be seen by your peers. Because museums were lit only by sunlight they were only worth visiting during daylight hours. Working class people, generally, did not finish work until the evening and therefore would not be able to see the exhibits.
By providing gas lights Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery enabled these people to view the exhibits too. This explains why the term ‘Sun-Light Burners’ applies so well. The Museum was established specifically to inspire the artisans, therefore it would have been a huge mistake if they could not view the things specifically displayed to inspire them.
When the gallery opened in 1885 it was on top of the newly municipalised city gas offices. Nowadays there are only two things to remind us of this: the Foundation Stone in the main entrance and the gas lamps.
So the practical considerations: how were these lights lit? Naively, when I first considered this question I imagined a Victorian man leaning over the iron work on the balcony of the Industrial Gallery with a large wooden stick, prodding the lamp from a distance and hoping for the best. Obviously, this was not the case. In the case of the lamps above the Vestibule and Round Room, they were winched down to a gentleman below who would light it, shout up to say it was ready, and then be winched up again very early in the morning. It is clear to see that the entire structure would have moved because today they are hidden away in the ceilings. When stood in the roof space this sort of movement is also evident from the design of the lamps themselves.
For the lamps above the Edwardian Tea Room and Industrial Gallery the procedure less obvious. There are winching mechanisms in the roof space but the outer structure of the lamps is clearly static. I am currently waiting to see the original blue prints, which will reveal the procedure but at the moment my best guess is that an internal part was winched down to the floor where it was lit and then brought back up.
The one question we, as Visitor Assistants, always get asked is ‘do they work?’ As the lamps used Town Gas, which is no longer used, it is impossible to tell. Also there are a plethora of conservation issues connected to having gas lamps and oil paintings in immediate proximity so it is probably for the best that we don’t use them today!
So the importance of these architectural features is huge. They remind us of the connection to the gas offices. They are a visual symbol of the equalising effect Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery had on the cities communities when it opened. They also fill everyone who sees them with curiosity and invite questions that we still cannot fully answer.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
On Friday 17th October staff and volunteers from Soho House Museum attended a special service at Westminster Abbey. The service was to commemorate a memorial stone dedicated to Matthew Boulton.
This is not the first time Boulton has been memorialised. Brummies are familiar with the gold statue on Broad Street that depicts Boulton, his business partner James Watt and Soho’s master engineer William Murdoch.
Matthew Boulton was a master manufacturer in the 18th century and along with other members of the Lunar Society has been credited for developing concepts and techniques that laid the foundations for the Industrial Revolution.
There are several other places throughout the city of Birmingham that memorialise Matthew Boulton. Matthew Boulton College opened in 1957 in his honour, and Boulton Road in Handsworth is a stone’s throw away from Soho House, where he lived for 43 years and which displays the first of three blue plaques.
Sarehole Mill in Hall Green was leased by Boulton between 1756 and 1761. He probably used the mill to produce sheet metal until all production moved to the new Soho Manufactory in the 1760s. Today the mill displays a blue plaque recording Boulton’s time spent there. Steelhouse Lane in Birmingham city centre also has a blue plaque. It was here that Boulton was born and his father had a toy, button and buckle workshop.
In 1788 Boulton established his Soho Mint and in 1797 he won a contract to produce Britain’s copper coinage. During the next two years his mint struck 45 million coins. Boulton was able to provide the Royal Mint with better machinery and coins from his workshops were exported around the world. Most importantly, his coin designs were so good it hugely decreased forgery, thus enabling the working classes a secure form of payment for a day’s work.
On 2nd November 2011, in recognition of their advancements in engineering and coinage, Boulton and Watt were immortalised by the Bank of England on the fifty pound note.
On 10th March 2009, he along with other industrialists and inventors was honoured with the issue of a Royal Mail postage stamp. The stamp bares his image alongside the Soho Manufactory – home to his Sheffield Plate, Sterling Silver tableware and Ormolu ornamental wares.
Matthew Boulton is celebrated in St Mary’s Parish Church, Handsworth. Boulton, Watt and Murdoch were all buried in the churchyard. The church was later extended over the site of his grave. In recognition of this, inside, on the north wall of the Sanctury is a large marble monument to him, commissioned by his son, Matthew Robinson Boulton.
Very active in public life, Boulton was involved with Birmingham Dispensory (which provided the poor with medicines), the General Hospital and established Soho Manufactory’s insurance scheme. This provided financial support for his workers who were sick and became the model for later schemes.
In the Westminster order of service The Bidding reads:
‘We come to add another illustrious name, that of Matthew Boulton of Birmingham, to the long list of distinguished men and women from the United Kingdom and from overseas who are buried or memorialised in Westminster Abbey.’
‘James Watt was given a memorial 189 years ago, within a few years of his death in St Paul’s Chapel […] Now an omission will be corrected. Matthew Boulton, without whom his achievements might not have been recognised, will be memorialised beside his business partner.’
Boulton and Watt’s Smethwick engine, the world’s oldest working steam engine can be seen at Thinktank Museum and the Archives of Soho House, including thousands of Boulton’s letters can be viewed by appointment at the Library of Birmingham.
Visitor Services Assistant,
150 years ago today the Sultanganj Buddha, one of the most important objects in Birmingham’s collection, was offered to the Corporation of Birmingham. On 7 October 1864 Samuel Thornton, a former mayor of the city, wrote to Birmingham Borough Council offering:
“…the colossal figure of Buddha, and the large marble one, to the town, to be placed in the Art Museum, now being erected, where they may be duly and properly located for the free inspection of the inhabitants of Birmingham…”
Samuel Thornton’s main business was as a railway ironmonger but he also had an interest in ancient India. Following its discovery by engineers constructing the Indian Railway in 1861, he paid £200 to have the two-metre tall copper Buddha transported to England.
In 1867 the Buddha went on display in the ‘Corporation Art Gallery,’ a room in the Central library. In 1885 it went on display in the newly built Museum and Art Gallery. Today the statue is displayed in the Buddha Gallery. Offerings of flowers are frequently left at the feet of the statue by Buddhist visitors. To commemorate the 150th anniversary, the statue will be blessed by monks from the Birmingham Buddhist Vihara at a public ceremony on Wednesday 8 October between 11am and 1pm.
Curator of World Cultures
This is one of our most frequent questions and the response always fills me with great pride. The simple answer is that it was purpose built as a museum and art gallery, and when it first opened its doors on November 28th 1885 it was as full of art as it is today.
Perhaps a broader question would be ‘WHY did Birmingham build a Museum and Art Gallery?”
The answer to this question is best understood as a series of steps beginning in the first half of the Nineteenth Century.
STEP 1 – Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham were competing to become England’s ‘second city’. The Middle Classes began to use art galleries as a means of expressing their identity and to raise the civic profile of the cities they lived in. However, in order for public museums and art galleries to be built local councils and governments had to change their attitudes towards the arts – this was a slow process. Groups of Art Reformers sprung up in Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham. They championed the idea of setting up galleries and had four main aims:
- To provide healthy recreation for the Working Classes
- To improve workers’ satisfaction in pleasurable labour and industrial design by providing objects of study
- To help workers to lead more fulfilling lives by showing them the grace and beauty of the world
- To help audiences see the ugliness created by industrial capitalism and make them change the modern urban environment
STEP 2 – Birmingham School of Design was established in 1843. Those involved with the school wanted an Industrial museum to display objects that would inspire the artisans. They wanted a gallery that would make art accessible to the greatest number of people. Suddenly there was an institution devoted to creating beautiful things but the setting was far from inspiring. The city centre was crowded with filthy slums. Chimneys churned out black smoke and people worked around the clock in unhygienic factories. (For a more fleshed out description of how bad conditions were for the average worker Charles Dickens gives some great descriptions of Birmingham and the Black Country during the 1840s in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’).
STEP 3 – Birmingham’s local government had a reputation for ‘penny-pinching narrow-mindedness’ (Stuart Davies, ‘By the Gains of Industry Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery 1885-1895’). As evidence of their lack of interest in culture, they failed the Free Libraries and Museums Act when it first came into being in 1845. It was finally passed on the 21st February 1860 and a committee was formed to create a library and Museum and Art Gallery. Around this time leading citizens remade the local government and the city was in a position to embrace some of the ideas advocated by the Art Reformers.
STEP 4 – The Birmingham Midland Institute opened a small exhibition of objects and pictures in 1860. The exhibition included the Bust of David Cox (so I like to think of this as the beginnings of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery!)
STEP 5 – Over the next 15 years the collection grew rapidly. There were numerous successful exhibitions including one of amour and jewellery, which attracted 160,000 visitors in 1868. There were huge donations from Philanthropists such as the Tangye Brothers, which amounted to millions of pounds in today’s money. The Public Picture Gallery Fund was launched in 1871 to collect and commission paintings. Frederick Leighton’s ‘A Condottiere’ was the first to be purchased in 1873. Mayor Joseph Chamberlain gave £1000 of his own money for an industrial museum in 1875. All of this interest meant that the council was under pressure to find a site and funds to build a gallery in the centre of the city.
STEP 6 – Joseph Chamberlain municipalised Birmingham’s failing gas works and made them highly successful.The company grew and had to move out of its offices. The council used the profits from the gas company to build new offices on the land acquired through the Free Libraries and Museums Act and put an art gallery on top. This is why there are so many stairs in the main entrance to the museum, as most of the galleries are on the second floor. Henry Richard Yeoville Thomason won a competition to design the building and Whitworth Wallis was selected to be the keeper. This meant he was responsible for collecting, displaying and securing the collection.
Saturday November 28th 1885 – The permanent Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was opened with a celebration at the Town Hall and an address by the Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII). It consisted of the main entrance, the Vestibule and Round Room, the ‘long gallery’, the Wedgewood and Italian galleries (no prizes for guessing what was in those) and the Industrial Hall. Nowadays the Italian gallery is the shop, the Wedgewood gallery is the Buddha gallery and the ‘long gallery’ is the Edwardian Tea Room.
I hope this goes somewhere to explaining – in a simplified way – how there came to be such a grand building in the centre of Birmingham and why it is such an important institution to the city and its people. In fact the simple answer to ‘Why did Birmingham build a Museum and Art Gallery?’ is for the people.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
For more information about the History of BMAG read the previous blog post: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery History Project.
During a trip to Northern France in June 2014, I visited the graves of some men whose stories we are featuring in an exhibition about Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the first world war. The family photograph and letters reproduced here are part of the collection of Dave Vaux.
Bill and Alan Furse
Bill Furse and his brother Alan lived in Moseley, Birmingham. When war broke out Lord Kitchener put out an appeal for volunteers, and many white-collar workers joined the so–called ‘Pals’ battalions. Bill and Alan both joined the 1st Birmingham battalion (also known as the 14th battalion) in September 1914. In this photograph Bill is seated to the left hand side, and Alan is standing.
The Furse brothers were middle-class and their background and education would have qualified them for advancement. Both were commissioned to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Alan’s letters home give a vivid picture of life in the British Expeditionary Force. He describes the conditions in the trenches: ‘Whilst on your tour of duty round in the front line you are floundering knee deep in mud and both sides are slimy with mud so that you have nothing clean to steady yourself by and when you get back to your dugout to rest you have the slimy walls and at least a foot of mud on the floor. You soon learn not to drop things as of course they are useless afterwards and the great trouble is to find somewhere to put something down’.
Alan also writes to his teenage brother Claude, who was an Army Cadet. These letters present the war as a great adventure: ‘It is a grand sight to see the anti aircraft guns firing at an aeroplane, little puffs like bunches of cotton wool suddenly appearing all round the plane until he gets out of range…Whilst we were walking back to the wood today a couple of shells fell about 100 yds away and kicked up a devil of a row…They are called Whizzbangs because they are of such high velocity and you get no warning of their arrival, just the whiz thro’ the air and then the explosion…’.
Tragically, Alan’s brother Bill was killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. He was 25. Alan was not far away, but he did not hear the news of Bill’s death until several days later when his parents informed him by telegram. Alan’s response to his parents is a prime example of ‘stiff upper lip’, but his grief can be read between the lines: ‘Thus goes the finest pal I have ever had and one of the best and most straightforward men who ever lived. Of course the shock has been bad for me but what you must feel at home having to sit still I can’t imagine but you must not give way more than you can help. Try and bear up. God grant you all His help at this awful time and give you strength to bear the loss of such a splendid man’.
I visited Bill’s grave in June 2014. By the time he died Bill had been transferred to the Tyneside Scottish Brigade, formed of ‘Pals’ battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Bill was temporarily buried where he fell, but was transferred to Bapaume Post Cemetery near Albert after the Armistice.
Alan Furse was discharged on medical grounds later in 1916 and survived the war.
James Edward Weeks Rance
Many men who served in the first world war also went on to fight in the second world war. One example is James Edward Weeks Rance of the 2nd battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery during the first world war.
In May 1940 Major Rance, now aged 42, was part of the British Expeditionary Force once again. During the retreat to Dunkirk, he was among those fighting to defend the town of Wormhoudt. During the retreat to Dunkirk, he was among those fighting to defend the town of Wormhoudt, where he was killed. Following this battle, 80 Royal Warwicks were taken prisoner by the Waffen-SS division, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. They were locked into a barn and murdered.
Rance is now buried at Wormhoudt Communal Cemetery. A small number of Commonwealth war dead from both world wars lie among civilian graves. It was quite moving to see war graves scattered among the tombs of the local townspeople.
Our exhibition ‘Soldiers’ Stories: Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment 1914 to 1918’ opens on 19 July 2014.
Read the first part of this blog: First World War – Private Fred Andrews
Photographs 1-3 courtesy of Dave Vaux.
Hello I’m Connie, one of the volunteers at Aston Hall and I have been volunteering as a House Guide since the start season. In this blog I will explain why I chose to volunteer at Aston Hall and I will include some of my favourite stories that I share with visitors.
Aston Hall is one of Birmingham’s most historic buildings and is Grade I listed Jacobean house. Aston Hall has played a large part in not just Birmingham’s individual history as a city but is part of England’s wider history as a country. The Hall was involved in the Civil war after being damaged after an attack by Parliamentary troops in 1643.
I choose to volunteer at Aston Hall for all the reasons mentioned above, but mostly for the experience and a chance to work in a place completely different to anywhere else I have ever worked. I am currently doing a history and politics degree at Lancaster University and Aston Hall is the perfect place to get some experience in history. The Hall is rich with historical significance and it’s great to work in such an amazing place and be surrounded by such amazing artwork, artefacts and architecture. Aston Hall is conveniently located in the heart of city and a great piece of local history. It’s a great way to get some experience in your local area and find out what part your city played in history.
Aston Hall’s famous connections makes it stand out as one of the most significant buildings in the city. The house was owned by James Watt Junior, the son of the important Victorian inventor James Watt. Sir Thomas Holte, 1st Baronet was the original owner of Aston Hall, the Holte family were a wealthy family of some importance in Warwickshire. Thomas Holte was known for his great temper with famous disputes with his son and neighbours, such as he sued his neighbours for accusing him of splitting his cook’s head in two with a cleaver! Aston Hall has also housed Charles I in 1642 and Queen Victoria first came to visit when she was on a tour of the country with her mother, she later visited again in 1858 to open Aston Hall as a public museum.
The house is not only for history lovers but due to its extensive range of paintings is also has its interests for art historians, having minored in art history in my first year at university it was amazing to be surrounded by such works of art. Particularly impressive paintings are ‘King Charles I and his family’ by Remy van Leemput and ‘Lucy Loftus’ by Peter Lely. Lely was a Dutch painter who became the dominant portrait painter to the court in England. There are a few portraits of Charles I such as the one in the world room of Charles on the left, and his wife, Henrietta Maria on the right. When being on post in the Long Gallery, the portrait of Marchioness of Rockingham (d.1761) by Godfrey Kneller has always got a lot of attention. People always ask who the woman is in the painting as it creates a large impression due to its grandeur and size so I’m always ready to answer. Mary, Marchioness of Rockingham being the wife of Charles Watson-Wentworth a British Whig statesman and known for his two terms as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Edmund Burke, the famous philosopher, became his private secretary and would remain a lifelong friend, political ally and advisor until Rockingham’s premature death in 1782. She was very active in the political scene as she contributed to the parliamentary management of the Rockingham whigs and it was her positive influence upon her husband that was her most significant contribution to politics.
Another story I like to tell is prompted by the portrait of Edward Holte, Thomas Holte’s son. Edward, had gained a position in Charles I household. In his service Edward met and married Elizabeth King, Thomas did not give his permission for the marriage but Edward went ahead with the wedding. As a result Edward was entirely cut out from his inheritance. Charles I pleaded with Thomas himself to reinstate Edward as his heir but Thomas refused. Edward died on military service in 1643 having never reconciled with his family. It was rumoured Thomas locked up a daughter because she refused to marry her father’s choice of husband, the rumour suggests she starved to death.
Aston Hall’s significance is further emphasised by its architecture as it is one of the last great Jacobean houses to be built in Britain and its location in Britain’s second biggest city. Much of the architecture is original 17th-century plasterwork that has been maintained and the house remains relatively unchanged.
Aston Hall also manages a wide range of events across the year including ‘Make and Take Craft’ which are craft days every Wednesday in the holidays for children. There’s also historic days organised to explore the English Civil War with a living history re-enactment. Birmingham Tours Museum Heritage Bus also takes visitors around other historic sites in the area such as Soho House and Blakesley Hall. The events are a great way to get children more involved and interested in history, which I think is extremely important and a great active day out away from the classroom which is always needed! Aston Hall takes a lot of visits throughout the year from nearby school children and they are given a special tour. Volunteers are encouraged to get involved and events are organised to keep volunteers up to date with information, also there are fun ideas to get us more involved such as picnic days and tour guide training.
The engagement with the customers is always a great chance to get to hear other people’s views of the Hall. Many visitors have returned to the house having been years ago when they as a child at school. Other visitors have come again for a second or a third time to bring family and friends. Many are amazed by the long gallery, my favourite room and one of the most spectacular rooms in the house. Hands down an extremely different place to work and hope to work in other places like Aston Hall in the future.
Volunteer at Aston Hall
If you’re interested in volunteering for Birmingham Museums Trust then find out more at: www.bmag.org.uk/support-us/volunteer