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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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
At the opening of the Staffordshire Hoard Gallery, there were hundreds of precious objects on display, but I was searching for just one; the Story Hoard.
This leather-bound trove of poems, stories and riddles, which now sits on the wooden table in the Mead Hall area of the new gallery, is filled with creative responses to the Hoard. Here are not just facts but characters, not just information but imaginative reflections too. All written, and illustrated, by talented local people, including writers at the Kings Norton Writers’ Group, ESOL students from Birmingham Metropolitan College, metal detectorists and members of the public.
In our writing groups, which ran from winter 2013 to spring 2014, we aimed to be inspired not just by what we know about the Hoard but what we don’t know. We wanted to dream up characters and scenarios, to imagine life and people then. We thought much about what might have happened to the treasure before, and after, it came to lie in the ground.
We also examined works of Anglo-Saxon literature, such as the mysterious poem Deor. We thought about what it means to be human, and inhuman, now and then. We read the epic poem Beowulf and though about the role of the hero, and the antihero – the monster, in the Anglo-Saxon mind.
Then we got down to nuts and bolts. We began to write and write and write. We paid particular attention to working with detail, and capturing our imaginative ideas with images, metaphors and accurate, unusual words. The opening lines of Evan Wang’s poem, The Hoard, rage us back through time in a most thrilling and ominous way.
goes through the body
Just like thunder.
The natural world, particularly weather and the seasons, is revealed in many of the responses, perhaps prompted by our imaginings of what has stayed the same and what has changed in human experience. In Lisa Grace’s poem Untitled, sunlight reveals an ancient warrior:
Coppery tints shine in sun’s midst
Catching my image powerful and true
Of warrior, spear, helmet and shield.
We tried hard to use rhythm, rhyme and vocabulary in meaningful and forceful ways. In Lorraine Boyce’s poem, My Monster, words, and their effective placing, awaken a magnificent creature on the page.
It’s shining metallic, thick headed, foul mouthed
Lurching much closer it marks out our time.
That last word is important. Much of our thinking was around time, and timelessness, particularly what has changed in our lives over the last fifteen hundred years, and, more importantly, which elements of human nature and experience have stayed the same. Anglo-Saxon soldiers Hagan and Edwin, in Lavinia Bousfield’s story Two Brave Warriors, speak for fighters in many battles:
‘Edwin huddled in his cloak to keep the night air from his body. Time passed slowly until he saw the dawn coming. He turned in the direction he heard a bird whistle. Too late, he realised it wasn’t a bird.’
Things are often not what they seem in these tales. In Doreen Goodall’s The Pilgrim and The Shepherd an elderly traveler’s journey takes a very unexpected turn when a mysterious shepherd befriends him:
‘During their walk the pilgrim found that the total of the shepherd’s conversation was sheep, goats and monsters. Apart from that, much to the old man’s chagrin, he moaned incessantly about everything.’
There’s a good, odd, reason why, but you will have to read the story to find out what it is. Surprise and suspense is everything, and everywhere in this collection.
We tried to explore structure, and worked hard to give our stories beginnings, middles and unexpected endings. We thought about journeys as a crucial part of a story. We looked into motivation, particularly what a character wants and why. In Heather J Anderson’s story, The Dream, a hen-pecked schoolteacher experiences a strange escape from his marriage and job:
‘My students are looking at me to help them clarify what they have heard on the news report. I feel all the colour drain from my face as I pick up my marker to point to an area on the map on the board behind me. Suddenly I get the stabbing pain in my shoulder…’
Just as the Staffordshire Hoard is abundant with riches and gems, so is the Story Hoard. I hope you will search through, either using your hands in the Mead Hall, or using your keyboard; you can view the Story Hoard online here. I promise you will find treasure.
Writing group participant comments
Lavinia Bousfield adds:
‘I would like to say how much I enjoyed viewing the Saxon Hoard and the completed Saxon Book on display. I felt proud to see the stories and art work submitted by our writing group from Kings Norton Library, and all the other contributors involved in the project.
The sensory table displaying the pieces of gold was quite fascinating. I found the beautiful workmanship that went into producing the gold pieces by our ancestors quite remarkable. History is here for all to see, and we can learn more about the lives of the Saxons.
This is an exhibition well worth visiting.’
Ann Cullen writes:
‘I found the Stafford Hoard Exhibition exciting and very interesting. I was amazed at how clever the Anglo Saxons were, particularly in jewellery making. Some of the designs on swords, daggers and other items are so tiny and yet they are perfectly set out. The garnets are beautiful.
There are some very significant stories about the way of life of the Anglo-Saxon people – the superstitions, the constant battling of tribes, the burial of the hoard and much more.
I would recommend the exhibition to all. It is a story of history set in a great presentation. I recommend it as a suitable and exciting exhibition for young and old.’
My final week as Artist in Residence at the Museum is now over, the past month has gone so quickly, packed full of new sights, events and meeting new people. During my residency I have been researching pieces within the collections, this research will now be used to create a new piece for BMAG to go on display in January. Continuing with my own practice, interested in the act of looking, the residency has encouraged me to focus on the history behind ‘the gaze’ concerning Women and their image. This is something that became prominent during my research where many of the prints and drawings I looked at depicted women carrying out private acts, often within interior settings, documenting these for the viewer to enjoy. My progress and the ideas behind my new work and its development will be documented by the BMAG team in the coming weeks, please keep an eye out!
I have now moved out of my studio, a space I have made my own during my time here. Not only used as a space for my daily practice I have held workshops for the public and opened it every Wednesday afternoon for visitors to come in and see what I have been up to.
On Friday the 17th of October I held one final printing drop in session, visitors were invited to take inspiration from the woodcut prints of Sir Edward Burne Jones I found in the collections and create their own Lino printed bookmarks.
Here is my own finished bookmark:
It was great fun to help others create something that they could take home and use, everybody enjoyed the Lino method of printing and made some great finished bookmarks.
The public facing studio has provided me with a wonderful space suited to my practice, through the glass panel I was able to watch passers by enjoying their visit as well as watching them watch me work. I thought I would play with this idea of the watcher and the watched by covering the glass with semi opaque plastic with peep holes cut away.
I invited the audience to peep through these observing stations to view inside my studio and view myself, in the process photographing this action. It has encouraged me to question the act of looking within a gallery setting, where looking is actively encouraged. This is not limited to the artwork on display alone but it can also be a place to watch other visitors too! I became aware of this within an engraving called The Exhibition at the Royal Academy, 1787 engraved by Pierto Antonio Martini (from the painting by Johann Heinrich Ramberg), where the focus of the viewer is not purely on the gallery display but on the characters themselves within the exhibition.
Thank you everyone who participated, here are some images of those who decided to have a peak:
I would like to work with these images further, the blurred outlines of the viewers interests me as you have to fill in the missing information. I have experimented with these few images digitally, as seen below, but I would like to eventually turn them into prints.
Looking through the peep holes visitors could observe me inside my studio:
I keep returning to this circular shape to frame my images, over the coming weeks I will explore how I can create a sculptural structure that forms this shape on which I hope to print upon. For now, here are some previous experiments into this form:
Finally I want to thank all the staff at BMAG who have given their time generously to view works, arrange events and help me to develop my ideas for this residency to produce a new commission for the Museum. I can’t wait to get started and look forward to its completion.
Whitworth Wallis Artist in Residence
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,
It is my third week at the Museum, and it has been a busy one before I leave on the 17th of October. This week I visited the Museum Collections Centre in Duddeston, home to all the objects not currently on site at Museums across Birmingham, I ran a ‘Big Print’ workshop on the 4th of October in my studio as one of many activities taking place within the Museum as part of Fun Palaces, and I have been working on my ideas for the Final work.
During my time at the Museum I have been carrying out research into pieces held at the Museum to generate a new piece of work in response to what I have seen. Taking inspiration from artists such as Hans Sebald Beham and Helen Chadwick who have used a circular shape within their work, I have been playing with this circular form as a basis to my work. When looking at these artists I became aware of the effect the circular form had on me as a viewer, the shape draws your attention into the image having associations with an old fashioned peep hole of which to view others through.
Here is a piece I am working on that incorporates this circular frame:
I have been playing with the use of coiled newsprint paper to form a circular surface on which to screen print upon, I am interested in the distortion of imagery to create a closer inspection from the viewer. During my residency I have seen many images that observe women carrying out certain actions from bathing to changing to sleeping, all private and quite intimate acts however, they are on display for us to observe. It is the subject of women and their image which I think I will focus on as the basis to my piece.
I wanted to learn more about how other artists have used photography within their work to stage certain acts and how they use technology to distort the images they work with. Two artists that do this are Mohammed Bourouissa and Semyon Faibisovich, artists who have pieces held at the Museum Collections Centre (MCC). It was a great opportunity to view the pieces in person and see the techniques used by the artists.
Semyon Faibisovich’s images examine contemporary urban life in his home town of Moscow and particularly the lives of those at the bottom of the social ladder. Using a mobile phone, Faibisovich takes photographs of people on the streets and uses these low resolution images to make his oil paintings, enlarging the images to life size and then painting over the image creating pixelated distortions. This was clear when up close to the works entitled Repose, from At the Stop series, 2009 and Sick on the Way?, 2008 from the same series.
Mohammed Bourouissa is an Algerian photographer who uses staged photography to create images that appear real, often depicting moments of physical or emotional tension through the careful arrangement of people and their gestures. They leave you questioning what has happened in the image or what will happen, I like the suspense he creates leaving you wanting more. I saw La rencontre (The Meeting) and Le toit (The Roof), 2005-2007 during my visit to the MCC and both looked at this tension between the characters depicted.
After viewing these specific pieces I spent the rest of my time exploring the vast number of objects and works stored within the centre, it is very easy to get carried away! These are just some of the things I came across:
The Museum Collections Centre (MCC) has a huge natural history collection, with examples of taxidermy ranging from delicate butterflies to a brown bear! Although not relevant to my practical work it was fascinating to see such an array of animals dating back from the 1800’s.
The MCC holds open afternoons for the public on the last Friday of every month and are open for pre-arranged tours and study days, for more information or to make a booking visit: www.bmag.org.uk/Museum-collections-centre.
Finally, thank you to everyone who came to ‘The Big Print’ drop in session to have a taster of what you can achieve through printmaking. From 11-4pm the studio was full of people experimenting with polystyrene prints and mono printing, some fantastic work was made which people could take home or add to the ‘Big Print’ wall in my studio to remain till the end of my residency.
Next week will be my final as artist in residence at BMAG, it has gone so quickly! I am keen to hold one last printing workshop, this time with adults, taking place on Friday the 17th of October between 12.30-2.30pm. We will be making bookmarks inspired by Edward Burne-Jones intricate woodblock patterns I came across in the collections using a Lino print.
Here is one of Edward Burne-Jones’s designs in the collection originally made for the boarder of a book to get you started:
Whitworth Wallis Artist in Residence
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