Saturday, 31 May 2014

War Comes to Blakesley Hall

I know the heritage tourist season has barely started, but I have just returned from my 4th visit to Blakesley Hall this year. To be honest I am just a little obsessed with the place. Why is this? Because I really do believe that this site in it's quiet understated way, is the jewel in Birmingham Museums Trust's crown. Staff there are always only too pleased to guide or assist visitors; there are no flash-bang 'gee-wow!' approaches to the story of the site; nobody has to suffer the living hell a 'heritage experience'; and you can make your own way around the place without being treated like you have the intelligence and / or attention span of the average intoxicated newt.

The café also serves carrot cake* that you would kill your granny for (*from my forthcoming book 'Great Carrot Cakes I have scoffed')!

The hall itself is maintained to an excellent standard, and the gardens are always well cared for. In the garden areas you will always find something interesting going on in the wildlife department – today's entertainment was provided by loads of Bumble Bees (It's good to see that the place is such a haven for our endangered friends). 

Like 'buzzzzz', man...

There are also humans doing good things too. Here is a slide-show that I created from an earlier visit.

I haven't wrote up a potted history of the hall here. This is provided very adequately by Wikipedia - wonders will never cease eh?

The reason for my visit was to check out the 'Tom Frank and May – One Family's Story' exhibition which is currently running until November, and is all about the effect of the First World War on the the Merry family; the last residents of the hall. The exhibition is in itself an understated affair but no less potent for that. After taking a flight of stairs to the second floor, storyboards lead the way to covered cases that in turn reveal various artefacts:

Some items were informative:

Soldier's Pay Book

Hand - embroidered greetings postcard
 Some were evocative and poignant:

and some were inadvertently funny:
Just say no, boys and girls...
The caption that went with the cigarettes had words to the effect that they were recreationally consumed by soldiers, but people were unaware of the health hazards at the time. Hmm. Even tobacco - horrible substance as it is - probably couldn't really compete against German bullets and artillery regarding 'threat to health' risks! A more revealing point to have made would have been to explain wartime's part in stimulating a huge and sustained demand for the tobacco industry's products.

A collection of war poetry, facsimiles of the satirical trent magazine 'The Wiper's Times', and stereoscopic images of the conflict were also available to peruse; together with a video film giving a synopsis of Tom, Frank and May Merry's war. This was a very tight and informative production, and I hope that it will eventually be made available to the public after the exhibition closes: It is far too good to be junked or ignored. Here is an extract from the film:

It is always very strange how exhibitions such as this can affect the mind. Personally the exhibition evoked memories of my Grandfather (William Zachariah High) who was a First World War veteran. I would have loved to have talked to him about his experiences, but he died in the 1970s before I was old enough to care about them. He probably wouldn't have talked about it anyway... an awful lot of people didn't back then. But I digress.

An optional purchase from the Hall gift-shop is a homespun but very informative guidebook written by Rev. Tom Merry. At  £4 it is well worth the investment.

So there's nothing much to add except to say please consider getting your butts down to Blakesley Hall in time for this excellent exhibition. It is a low-key evocative reminder of the sacrifices made during that grim period. Congratulations and thanks to all involved.

For anyone not interested in the First World War, get your butts down to Blakesley Hall anyway. It's one of the most wonderful historical sites in the Midlands, and you won't regret visiting for a second.

Photographs and taken by Graham High, © 2014. YouTube Videos rights belong to their respective owners.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Hard Hat Tour at The Coffin Works, Fleet Street, Birmingham Jewellery Quarter - 15 September 2013

Last Sunday (15th September 2013) during Heritage Open Day, My wife and I were fortunate enough to attend an 'Hard-Hat' inspection of The Newman Brothers Coffin Fittings Works at Fleet Street in the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter.

Now I'm currently going through a bit of a love affair with the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham truth be told, so I was really quite excited to visit this place which is on course for being a real heritage treasure for the community. 

The factory was built in 1874 and is Grade II listed. It has achieved celebrity status whilst it was open, and again when it was closed. When the factory was operating it produced fittings for the coffins of Winston Churchill, Joseph Chamberlain and Diana, Princess of Wales. When closed it attracted the attention of the BBC, reaching the finals of the first 'Restoration' series in 2003.

The place is similar to the Smith and Pepper Jewellery Works (which is now the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter) in the sense that when the factory closed (in 1998), it was abandoned with all fixtures and fittings intact. 

The building fell into extreme dilapidation, and it has been quite a challenge to find the money to restore the building sympathetically. To this end, The Birmingham Conservation Trust has been working hard over the past ten years in order to raise the funds. For the most part this has been achieved (although a few extra quid wouldn't come amiss if you feel like donating something!), and the target for opening the building to the public generally appears to be on-track. 

Naturally in these days of nobody giving a stuff about history, the project needs to pay for itself from the word go. So parts of the building will be converted into units for workshops / offices for 'creative' companies. There will also be a heritage centre for history nuts like me! 

In order to get to the Coffin Works, we had to travel through Newhall Street, past the site of the old Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry. I couldn't resist taking a photograph of the site as it is now. Nostalgia folks who consider that the expensive and superficial 'ThinkTank' project a bad move (with its whizz-bang, its primary colours, its buzzwords, and very little else) may choose to weep here:

Upon arriving at the Coffin Works (an hour early), We were greeted by a friendly face who informed us that we could join the current tour in order to save us waiting for the next one. Ah, there are humans here! 

On entry (after each being issued with a reflective jacket and hard hat) the group were made welcome by members of the Birmingham Conservation Trust, and also by Ian and Chris from the restoration company Fairhurst Ward Abbots Ltd

This company are dealing with the methodical reconstruction of the building. Like all enthusiastic people, Ian and Chris were positively brimming over with information to impart - supplemented with a healthy dose of history from Barbara Nomikos who spoke about (and shown) some of the wonderful artefacts discovered in the factory. These treasures are being catalogued and researched even as you read this, and will make fascinating viewing when the heritage centre opens in 2014. Here are some photographs that we took of the industrial wonders to be found at the site during the event:


Photographs were also taken by Tracey during the talk. Tracey is another BCT volunteer. With all the flash-guns going off due the subdued lighting conditions, some of the non-camera attendees must have thought that they were attending a Rock Concert: Sorry!

I would like to wish all the very best and to thank all those involved on the day for making us feel so welcome, treating us like adults, and allowing us to have a share in one of the most exciting heritage projects to grace Birmingham for quite some time. I will be following this project closely, and will report more on the project via this blog as and when.

I must say that it is such a fantastic change to spend a heritage day actually learning something, rather than just pointing and gawping. To all of you history buffs out there, this project is seriously worthy of your support. If you are able to help in any way, please don't hesitate! the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter scores yet again!


Birmingham Conservation Trust are holding a talk about The Coffin Works on 1st October 2013 at the Birmingham and Midland Institute. Full details here. Don't miss it!
Links and further reading:

The Birmingham Conservation Trust website has some fantastic blog pages on the Coffin Works, with lots of additional photographs taken at various stages throughout the restoration project. Of particular interest are the pages dealing with the early restoration works, and the archive material found in the building.

There are also additional reports on the hard hat day here and here, and more photographs available form this site.

Photographs and Videos taken by Graham and Yvonne High, © 2013.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Museum of the Jewellery Quarter: Jeweller's Workshop Talk, 3rd August 2013

In lieu of another substantive blog entry, I would like to share with you a HD video of an excellent talk from the Birmingham Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, at 75-80 Vyse Street, Hockley, Birmingham, B18 6HA. 

The video was shot in the Jeweller's Workshop. This was during the 12:00 guided tour which was excellent from start to finish.

My first impressions of visiting the Museum were rather tainted by the lady at the admission / information desk who had obviously got out of bed the wrong side. I think this person hasn't yet quite got Birmingham City Council out of her bloodstream, as she was very brusque dealing with questions about how the museum worked. Perhaps she should take a moment to reflect that just because she knows about the place, it does not follow that everyone else does.

Bizarrely, both my wife and I were informed that if we booked a place on a guided tour, we had to wait until the next scheduled one in the assigned space upstairs. This applied even when the next scheduled tour was some time off. If we did not do this, or if (gasp!) we left the building for a few moments (presumably to look around the Jewellery Quarter generally, or - god help us - get a cuppa somewhere else) she would vacate our tour booking. If this is a policy approved by the Birmingham Museums Trust, it is a moronic one.

This brand of stupidity is borderline defensible for a council-run free admission establishment, but a private trust trawling for supporters treats paying customers this way at their peril: Take heed.

Dictatorial silliness notwithstanding, I was happy to have stayed around long enough to get just a small flavour of this vital part of Birmingham's heritage. 

The chap featured in this video was superb, and the practical demonstrations given brought the Smith & Pepper company back to life (if only for a few moments, and albeit in a health and safety friendly way). 

Teething problems aside, this museum is a worthwhile place for anyone interested in British industrial history to visit. Make sure you book a tour upon admission though, as you will be unable to visit the workshop unless you are part of a group. When you go in the workshop you will understand why.

Click here to visit the website of the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter.

More about this visit and my exploration of other BMT sites to follow anon.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Batty Langley

This is a slightly revised version of an article written for Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens. The place is well worth a visit.

Batty Langley's name is not easily forgotten once heard. If he obtained fame at all though it must surely be because of a book, written in 1741 entitled Ancient Architecture Restored and Improved by a Great Variety of Grand and Usefull Designs, Entirely New in the Gothick Mode. This book was later re-issued in 1742 with the pompous title of Gothic Architecture, Improved by Rules and Proportions in Many Grand Designs. The debate as to whether or not ancient Gothic architecture was actually built according to rules and proportions is best left for another time. Langley himself was also a great promoter of a systematised style of architecture that was all the rage in the eighteenth century Europe, called Palladian Architecture.

Palladian architecture is derived from the designs of the Venetian architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580). The term Palladian normally refers to buildings in a style inspired by Palladio's own work. That which is recognised as Palladian architecture today is a 17th to 18th Century evolution of Palladio's original concepts. Palladio's work was strongly based on the symmetry, perspective and values of formal classical temple architecture of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. From the 17th century onwards Palladio's interpretation of these classical forms were adapted as Palladianism. This style continued to develop throughout 18th century; A typical example of an English house in the Palladian style is Stourhead House.

 Photograph © Jon Wornham. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Both Palladian architecture and the designs of Batty Langley held great influential sway in America in the eighteenth century, but more about that anon. 

Langley’s architectural aesthetic was based on what was known as the Five Orders of Architecture. The Order of a classical building is akin to the mode or key of classical music, or the Latin grammar of rhetoric within classical literature or speech. The Five Orders were established in architecture rather like the intervals of music, raising certain expectations in an audience attuned to its language. Three ancient orders of architecture—the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian—originated in Greece. To these the Romans added Tuscan (which they made simpler than Doric), and Composite (which was more ornamental than the Corinthian). The orders themselves are illustrated below:

 Encyclopedie: Classical Orders, engraving from the EncyclopĂ©die vol. 18. - Public domain

More information on Palladianism and the Orders of Architecture is available from Wikipedia. Click on the underlined words to read the articles.

Batty and his brother Thomas (who mainly dealt with the engraved illustrated plates) published around 20 books in their career. Only one book dealt with
Gothic, while the remaining books were devoted to instructions on how to deal with Classical Design using the elements of building technology that were available at the time.

These books were extremely well written and researched, and enjoyed an enormous
contemporary circulation. The unusual thing was that (on the whole) Langley books were bought and read by tradesmen (carpenters, masons, joiners, plasterers and so on), rather than the gentry or nobility. Langley books were also sophisticated architectural textbooks for the artisan class, literate craftsmen, or for apprentices with an eye on preferment. The influential nature of the books can be stated with some confidence; Looking at the subscription list for a Langley book published in 1733 reveals nearly 300 hundred subscribers, almost all of them being builders and craftsman in London and the provinces.

Batty Langley was born in 1696 in Twickenham. He was the son of a jobbing gardener, and bore the name of David Batty, a patron of his father's. Twickenham was then a village of suburban villas within easy reach of London by a pleasant water journey on the Thames. Whilst there he inherited some of his father's clients, an early one being Thomas Vernon of Twickenham Park. From Twickenham Langley moved to Parliament Stairs in Westminster, and in 1742 moved to Meard Street, Soho. 

Meard Street was very much a craftsman's area at that time, and this was the location where the Langley's produced the thousands of engraved plates for their books. Thomas Langley also ran night classes for apprentices and other tradesmen there. The subjects ranged from architecture, drawing, geometry, and mensuration (the calculation of the total amount of materials required to construct a building). This poorly paid occupation demonstrates the Langley's enthusiasm for education of the artisan classes. In 1727 (whilst he was still at Twickenham) Batty Langley complained that the young were 'ignorant of proportion'. He also warned parents who were thinking of binding their sons as apprentice builders, to have a covenant entered in the articles to ensure that they received education in the five orders of architecture.

English architecture was riding high with the Palliadian fashion, and the Langley's saw it as their job to ensure that all builders were thoroughly competent in the style in order to keep Britain ahead. In the 1730s there were an astounding number of buildings following this trend all over the country.

The first of the Langley books was
Practical Geometry Applied to the Useful Arts of Building, Surveying, Gardening, and Mensuration (1726). The style of this book was low key, presenting the subject matter as nothing more than a pleasant intellectual study. This was not a successful book in terms of sales, and the next book The Builder's Chestbook, or a Complete Key to the Five Orders in Architecture (1727) did much better. This was probably because the style of this book was much more didactic, and could be used as a practical resource for those actually involved in building. The book consisted of eleven sections in the form of a dialogue between master and pupil. The first seven sections was a catechism on the Five Orders, with the following three sections dealing with building materials, and the final (very long) section covered mensuration.

In 1728 Langley published the book
New principles of gardening: or The laying out and planting parterres, groves, wildernesses, labyrinths, avenues, parks, & c. after a more grand and rural manner, than has been done before; with experimental directions for raising the several kinds of fruit-trees, forest-trees, evergreens and flowering shrubs with which gardens are adorned. To which is added, the various names, descriptions, temperatures, medicinal virtues, uses and cultivation of several roots, pulse, herbs, & c. of the kitchen and physick gardens, that are absolutely necessary for the service of families in general. (They certainly could come up with titles in those days!)

Although Batty Langley was the son of a landscape gardener, this book is in many ways out of step with the main sequence of his work. It may have been an attempt by the Langley's to obtain patronage of the 'well-to-do'. If this was the idea it signally failed in its purpose. The Langley's were never fated to get that sort of patronage, as the wealthier classes found them somewhat pushy and unrefined. 

Here are some plates from the book:

 Langley - New Priciples of Gardening - Public Domain

The Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens Trust, at Castle Bromwich, Solihull has reconstructed an authentic kitchen garden using New principles of gardening as a guide. Below is a picture taken in February 2012. The design of the layout is easier to see without the plants.

Photograph © Graham High. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

In 1734 -1736 Batty Langley published his biggest work (though not his most popular) in the form of a two-volume folio set Ancient Masonry. It was more about freemasonry than masonry as we understand it today. This encyclopaedic work has over 500 plates, all illustrated by the Langley's. The workload is jaw-dropping in its complexity and thoroughness. In the two volumes were all the technical and technological data that a builder was ever likely to need in order to practise his trade. There are even plates (one of which is shown below) that geometrically sets out every letter of the alphabet from A to Z.

In 1740, The Langley's published their most successful work The City and Country Builder's and Workman's Treasury of Designs, or, The Art of Drawing and Working the Ornamental Parts of Architecture. Here we have the Five Orders again, only this time in the form of a pattern book, showing cornices, windows, niches, chimney pieces, pulpits, altarpieces, and other items. The craftsman could lift out of it highly competent designs in the style of Inigo Jones, Kent, or Gibbs. There are hundreds of surviving chimney pieces still all over the country that owe their origins to this book, which ran into two editions.

In 1741, The Builder's Jewel or Youth's Instructor and Workman's Remembrancer was published. Only 5 by 4 inches in size, it could easily fit snugly into a 18th Century pocket. It is illustrated with some beautifully inscribed plates.

Langley - Builder's Jewel - Public Domain

In 1742 The Langley's published the second edition of Gothic Architecture Improved book as mentioned in the opening of this article. Nothing is mentioned at all about Gothic in any of the Langley's previous works, but now Batty launches himself full-on into the head stream of Gothic design. He provides a complete system of Gothic-inspired geometry. The problem with it is that the system he employs is largely ad-hoc, and is used in an attempt to fuse Gothic Design together with the Five Orders.

Langley - Gothic Architecture - Public Domain

This book thoroughly irritated Horace Walpole, whose Gothick villa at Twickenham, Strawberry Hill, gave impetus to the stirrings of the Gothic Revival:
'All that his books achieved, has been to teach carpenters to massacre that venerable species, and to give occasion to those who know nothing of the matter, and who mistake his clumsy efforts for real imitations, to censure the productions of our ancestors, whose bold and beautiful fabrics Sir Christopher Wren viewed and reviewed with astonishment, and never mentioned without esteem'. (Walpole, Anecdotes of Painting, 1798, p 484)
Batty Langley's attempts at Gothic were also very soon discredited by serious students of the style; nevertheless the book did have a very strong influence, and there is an argument to support that it was the most culturally successful books ever produced by them. There are many instances of buildings still standing that can almost have been taken straight out of the plates of the book, like the one illustrated below:

 Langley - Gothic Architecture - Public Domain

In 1747 Batty Langley resumed his mission of making classical textbooks for builders with the handsome folio, The Builder's Directory or Bench-mate. This ran to five editions. Then in 1750 came his final work: The Workman's Golden Rule for Drawing and Working the Five Orders in Architecture. . for the Instruction of Apprentices and Journey Men. This book is remarkable for its size. It is tiny; only 4 inches by 2 ½ inches. 

The very small print includes a dedication to the author's worthy friends, the masters and journeymen of the building trade. They are, he said 
'...the best builders in the world; and for that no thanks is due to the nobility and gentry of this country. All they have encouraged are vice, ignorance, and luxury'

With that final snarl at ruling class, Batty Langley's ended. He died the following year, aged 55.

Here's his portrait:

  Public Domain

Batty had married twice, and brought up a large family naming some of his sons Hiram, Euclid, Vitruvius and Archimedes. A tribute to his four passions, Geometry, Architecture, Mechanics and Freemasonry.

Batty's unusual name coupled with his Gothic book has made him (quite unjustifiably) a figure chuckled at among architects and building historians. However Batty and Thomas Langley's books have a quality and thoroughness about them. The huge quantity of these works bear witness to their devotion on behalf of improving the lot of builders and aspirant architects, as well as young apprentices. This was done by providing tradesmen with useful instruction to stand them in good stead throughout their careers.

Langley's books were enormously influential in Britain's American colonies where Palladianism was immensely popular (just look at the White House!). At Mount Vernon, George Washington relied upon plate 51 of Langley's The City and Country Builder's and Workman's Treasury of Designs as the source for the famous Venetian (or Palladian) window in the dining room; upon plate 54 of the same book for the ocular window on Mount Vernon's western facade; and upon plate 75 of Langley's The Builder's Jewel for the rusticated wood siding. Copies of Langley's works were also given prominence in the library of Thomas Jefferson. Not a bad legacy for a landscape gardener's son from Twickenham.

Thanks to:

The Late Sir John Newenham Summerson CH CBE. The notes I made whilst an undergraduate listening to his Batty Langley lecture forms the main structure of this article.

The Open University


Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens Trust.

Further Reading:

Most of Langley's books are available from Google Books
I recommend viewing this site over buying the reprinted modern editions, as they are expensive and the scanning quality is variable, verging on a complete 'waste of money'. Google's scans are very good.

Ackerman, Jaaes S. (1994). Palladio (series "Architect and Society")

Halliday, E" E. (1967). Cultural History of England. London: Thames and Hudson.

Jackson-Stops, Gervase (1990). The Country House in Perspective. Pavilion Books Ltd.

Marten Paolo, (1993). Palladio. Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH, Koln (Photos of Palladio's surviving buildings)

Reed, Henry Hope, and Joseph C. Farber, (1980) Palladio's Architecture and Its Influence, Dover Publications Inc., New York.

Summerson, John.
The Architecture of the Eighteenth Century (1986),

Tavernor, Robert, (1979).
Palladio and Palladianism (series "World of Art")

Watkin, David (1979).
English Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson.

Wittkower, Rudolf.
Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism

There are precious few biographical publications on Batty or Thomas Langley. If you are aware of any, please contact me via the comments section of this bog, and I will add them to this list.

Hello, and welcome to my History Blog!

Yes, 'fraid so. Another damned rambling local history blog, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

You're right: This is a local history blog covering the West Midlands UK area (except when it isn't); containing the odd obsevation between clenched teeth (except when it doesn't); and with no compunction whatsoever about leaving the question of its significance to others.

Declare the credentials time: I hold an MA (History); PG Dip. in European Humanities; a BA(Hons); and Dip.Eur. Hum. (Diploma of European Humanities). That foregoing plethora of optional additional letters after my name were obtained after many many years of study with The Open University, the greatest place to learn on the planet.

By the way, the foregoing is the only time my qualifications will ever be mentioned in this place. Promise.

I also have a book available that I put together some years ago, but its on a vanity imprint so it doesn't really count. This is particularly true amongst my fellow historians who are a snarly bunch at the best of times. Should you wish to tip my total royalties over the £5 barrier however, please feel free to order a copy. No, it's not about local history.

Another book is in preperation. Don't worry, I'll crow about that loud enough when the time comes.

This blog does not contain academic history: The places to find that are books, universities, lectures, and tutors. It also (by and large) doesn't cover local history nostalgia. This is not because I think there is anything wrong with local nostalgia, but I feel that it is serviced quite well enough by others elsewhere.

What you will find here is a collection of posts and comments on historical subjects that I personally think are interesting, and I hope that you will too. 

Comments are very welcome from anyone but they will be vetted before publication. Sorry, but that's the way it has to be with web comments nowadays. It's a jungle out there.

Why bother? Well, I can't fit all this stuff on Twitter, and as for Facebook... Best not mentioned really.

More to the point, Stephen Fry said of History that it 'whinnys, and quivers, and vibrates in all of us'. That's good enough for me.

Welcome to my record of whinnys received: Thank you for visiting.