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.’
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
We have been preparing for an exhibition about Birmingham men who served in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the first world war. I had the opportunity to follow up some of these individuals during my recent trip to Northern France. It’s hard to believe that the gentle countryside of the Somme has been the scene of death and destruction, but the reminders are everywhere, not only in the form of military cemeteries but also road signs indicating the front line at various dates during the Somme campaign. This is the first of two blog posts in which I will look at the stories of three men who lost their lives in this area.
Private Fred Andrews
Private Fred Andrews served with the 1/6th battalion of the Royal Warwicks and took part in ‘the big push’ on the Somme in July 1916. He came from a working-class family in Ladywood, Birmingham. He was an officer’s servant. In our collection we have a set of letters written by Fred to his mother and sister, which give an insight into Fred’s life on a training camp on Salisbury Plain and later as part of the British Expeditionary Force in France.
On Easter Monday 1916, Fred writes: ‘Dinner time we had biscuits instead of bread. We shall have them every Monday and Thursday. They are hard, but very nice, I can eat them all right. One man has put his wife’s address on one and a 1d stamp, on one side, and on the other he put, This is what they give us on Easter Monday, at Salisbury Plain. He sent one just the same last year from the trenches. If I was the post man I should eat it’.
Fred only writes two letters once he reaches France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. In one he says: ‘The Officers, and N.C.O’s [non-commissioned officers] are very good to us here. We can get two green envelopes a week, so you will get the letters pretty quick. Dear Mum, Will you please give Ollie [Fred’s girlfriend] my love, and address when you see her. They are a very nice lot of chaps that I am with now. And we get plenty of food to eat. I will close now with very Best Love to you all, and Ollie. Do not worry I hope the war will soon be over now. Things are looking up here. Love to all, Fred xxx’. The last letter from Fred was received by his mother on 30 June 1916.
The final letters in the series are from Fred’s mother. She writes to him repeatedly during July 1916, pleading with him to write to her: ‘oh son I do hope you are all right I have not had a line for nearly three weeks the last I had you wrote the 30 of June and now it is the 19 of July my own dear boy I am quite sure it is not your fault I do not know what is preventing you from writing if I could only get a line in your hand writing I should feel better’. Mrs Andrews’ letters are returned to her, the envelopes marked ‘missing’.
Fred had been killed on the very first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. He was 21 years old. Mrs Andrews eventually received this photograph of his grave (see image above). Fred still lies in Serre Road Cemetery No. 2 at Beaumont-Hamel, but he now has a permanent headstone.
I visited Fred’s grave in June 2014. Serre Road is one of the many Commonwealth cemeteries designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It was completed in 1934. The Commonwealth cemeteries are now maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and are beautiful and peaceful places to visit.
During the 1920s and 30s many relatives of the dead visited their graves in France, some with the assistance of veterans’ associations. We do not know whether Fred’s family ever had the opportunity to do this.
Our exhibition ‘Soldiers’ Stories: Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment 1914 to 1918’ opens on 19 July 2014.
Read the second blog: First World War – Bill Furse and James Rance
July 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the death of one of Birmingham’s most famous personalities. Joseph Chamberlain transformed Birmingham during the 1870s when he was the town’s Mayor. He later went on to represent Birmingham in Parliament and to serve in the cabinet as Colonial Secretary. He was a controversial figure during his lifetime and continues to be so today. This is a series of snapshots from Chamberlain’s career, based upon objects in our collection.
As Mayor of Birmingham, Chamberlain ran the town like a business, taking utilities like gas and water into public control. He improved the health of the population through better sanitation. One of his most controversial acts was the demolition of large swathes of ‘slum’ housing which made way for the commercial centre of Corporation Street; this enhanced the business environment but many people were displaced and not re-housed. On 17 June 1874 Chamberlain laid the foundation stone of the new Council House, which still stands at the heart of Birmingham. This trowel commemorates the event.
Postcard of Joseph and Mrs Chamberlain
Chamberlain’s personal life was beset by tragedy. His first and second wives, cousins Harriet and Florence Kenrick, both died in childbirth. At the age of 52, Chamberlain found happiness with 23 year old American Mary Endicott. Images of Chamberlain usually portray him as looking severe, but in this postcard we get a rare glimpse of him smiling.
Satirical Drawing of Joseph Chamberlain
In the 1890s the British government was keen to keep South Africa within the British Empire rather than see it become a Boer republic. In 1899 Chamberlain, now Colonial Secretary, was preparing for war against the Boers. In this caricature, Chamberlain pretends to ‘Oom Paul’, the President of the South African Republic, that ‘the dogs of war’ (a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) are just going for a walk. This cartoon was published in Punch.
Wooden Folder Presented to Joseph Chamberlain
The Boer War came to an end in 1902, and in the following year Chamberlain toured South Africa to promote reconciliation between the British and the Afrikaners. He was broadly welcomed, and persuaded the Prime Minister John Gordon Sprigg to hold elections. This elaborate wooden blotter was presented to him by the South African Progressive Association. It is lined inside with blotting paper and was used to blot letters to ensure that the ink was dry.
Satirical Postcard of Joseph Chamberlain
In his early career Chamberlain was a radical reformer, but later he became increasingly imperialist. This satirical postcard pokes fun at a variety of policies that Chamberlain ‘juggled’ as Colonial Secretary. One of his last campaigns was for the imposition of tariffs upon trade with countries outside the British Empire, in order to favour imperial trade. He became notorious for using two loaves of bread as visual aids during a speech in Birmingham, arguing that a loaf baked under tariff reform would be no more expensive than one baked under free trade. The phrase ‘Birmingham bred’ is a pun on this.
Despite his mixed fortunes as a national politician, Chamberlain was always a popular figure in Birmingham. Throughout his career he used a monocle and wore an orchid in his buttonhole, and his instantly recognisable image was reproduced on countless souvenirs. His 70th birthday in 1906 was marked by huge celebrations and a parade through the city centre was attended by thousands. This souvenir programme cost threepence.
To see more objects from our Chamberlain collections, visit ‘Birmingham: its people, its history’ on the third floor of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, or see our Chamberlain Flickr page.
I’m Zoe and I volunteer with the curatorial team at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I’ve recently graduated with my MA in museum studies, and I’m using my annual leave to volunteer once a week at BMAG (I otherwise work in an academic library). The museums sector is so incredibly competitive so I’m focussed on doing all I can to ensure I become a curator one day… and that means volunteering!
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) was the obvious choice when I was looking to volunteer. I’d previously worked as a Visitor Services Assistant at Aston Hall and as an intern with the exhibitions team at BMAG, and had loved every second of it. The curatorial team in particular are extremely experienced and incredibly supportive. They have so much knowledge and expertise between them, and they always have time to share what they know. It’s a pleasure to work with them.
Since starting my volunteering in March, I’ve been researching and blogging about the museums’ Ancient Near East collection. I was lucky enough to assist with the Near East Gallery install whilst interning in the summer last year, so it’s been good fun to learn more about the objects I got to handle back then, and to share what I’ve learned by blogging. Back in March Adam (Curator of World Cultures) and I installed a selection of ornately carved Nimrud ivories in the gallery. They are some of the oldest objects in BMAG’s collection and are even more amazing because they may have been cleaned by famous murder mystery writer Agatha Christie. She was in Iraq helping out at the archaeological dig that uncovered them back in the 60’s.
I’ve also been helping to digitise images of the ethnography collection to add to the museum’s collections management system, so that we have a visual record of what’s what in the collection. Images of cannibal forks and Fijian ancestor figures – complete with detachable grass skirts – are amongst my highlights so far. Helping out with this project has been a really valuable experience as it’s given me the opportunity to learn how to use professional scanning equipment and software in a museum context, and to get to grips with collections management systems. So many curatorial and collections based jobs are asking for these skills, so I’m really pleased I’ve had the opportunity to do this.
I hope to continue to volunteer with the curatorial team into the summer, until I run out of annual leave. The team at BMAG try to tailor my volunteering projects to suit me, so that I can build up my skills and gain experience in things I want to do, which is brilliant. Hopefully they’ll have some exciting projects lined up for me over the summer!
Curatorial Team Volunteer
For more information about volunteering or to be added to our volunteer list please visit: bmag.org.uk/support-us/volunteer