Chris Upton – Bridging the Gap

Our promotional Literary Bus leaflet from 2010, with Chris and Gollum!

Being asked to give the inaugural Chris Upton Memorial Lecture was both an honour and privilege. There were many other people who could have been asked to give the first lecture, so this was a truly humbling experience and one of those occasions that made me prouder than I can ever express. That said, I did feel the great weight of responsibility. But, in true Chris style, the rules were straight forward: keep it simple, but informative, unstuffy and most importantly, fun.

The theme of the Chris Upton Memorial Lecture was public history, largely focussing on how Chris bridged the gap between professional and public forms of history, and most importantly, how he made it fun. He was after all, the ‘people’s historian’. For him, telling a story, communicating that story to the public and making it as entertaining as possible was a vocation, it was his gift. It just so happens that the stories he told were all based on fact, not fiction. Well, for the most part, that is.

Not your average historian

I first met Chris in 2005, when I was working at Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, but the fondest memories I have are working with him on the Literary Bus for three consecutive years between 2010 and 2012. This is where I got to know Chris and his passion for using history to entertain the public. He could take straight-laced fact and turn it into pure entertainment. The basic premise of the Literary Bus involved a coach full of passengers travelling around the city, making stops at places of literary significance, with key characters from various books boarding, and well, colliding with the present and the past, depending on who they met along the way. Chris had an imagination, because only he could conceive of a stage where Rip Van Winkle crossed paths with Dr. Samuel Johnson, which culminated in Dr. Johnson chasing Rip around the grounds of Soho House Museum!

If you’re curious about the literary connections here, Rip Van Winkle is a short story published in 1819 by American author, Washington Irving, while he was living in Birmingham. But he is perhaps better known as the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Dr. Johnson was an English writer and critic, who just so happened to marry a Birmingham lass, but even this didn’t quell his disdain for the town, calling all Birmingham inhabitants ‘boobies’. If all this sounds crazy, it was, but that’s what Chris did: he allowed history, drama and imagination to collide, and when they met, it was the workings of pure genius. This was public history at its best.

Public history versus professional history 

Dr Samuel Johnson catches Rip Van Winkle in the grounds of Soho House Museum.

But what exactly is public history, and how does it differ from professional history? Let’s first start with professional. This refers to the academic world of universities for the most part, where trained historians critique the past, devoid of emotion, striving for objectivity. In contrast, public history can be defined as that which appeals to the masses – the types you find in museums and heritage organisations, or the types of history you might experience in a documentary for television. Often here, memory and emotional connections shape people’s perceptions of the past, so its deemed to be subjective. There’s a wealth of literature published on both, which often revolves around the conflicts that exist between the two – the conflicts that is, of those who supposedly seek an objective truth, and those who allow memory and emotions to shape their views of history. But the two aren’t mutually exclusive and they can work together. For museum professionals, public history is one of our biggest assets, because our emotional connections to the past often govern our interest in the past in the first place.

Public history is simply another type of record, another form of historical evidence, which of course has its flaws, but its strengths are far greater.  Chris appreciated this and it’s fair to say that he strove to bridge the gap between the two disciplines. Connection is key in public history and ‘doing’ public history well isn’t easy. The public can be your biggest critics, but they can also help you improve your work, and become your biggest supporters. Public history can colour the past in a way that a secondary source can’t – it breathes life into it, it gives it shape, albeit an imperfect one, but perhaps more importantly, it gives it personality, making it gritty and honest.

Chris also understood that the public are the biggest consumers of history, the biggest consumers of the past – bigger than the academic world, bigger than ‘that’ professional world, so why be sniffy about public history, about engaging with the public? This is not to say any history would do for Chris – for him it was still based on rigour and research, on using primary sources in places like archives, and we all know how much Chris loved a primary source. Chris understood that history belonged to everyone, and that you don’t need a degree to appreciate history, you just need a past. This isn’t to devalue the discipline of history -I myself am a trained historian – but professional historians should view the public as a resource in its own right, a resource that can enrich their own work.

Civil Experts

Literary Bus passengers enjoy a stop at Blakesley Hall, with Chris doing what he did best: entertaining the public.

Research shows that the public’s interest is often governed by three key issues: the role of direct emotional connection, the relevance of real places and family history. One challenge for the public historian is to present an accurate, yet lively account of the past, and implicit in this is being able to tell a good story. A project that demonstrates Chris’ understanding of this and his ability to tap into the very essence of public history is his work on the Birmingham Back-to-Backs, which is very much one of his legacy projects.  Elizabeth Perkins, former director of Birmingham Conservation Trust, who led the project, credited Chris with the narrative he created, and the intricacies of the stories of real people that he brought to the fore, both of which allowed people to connect with the history of Court 15. And it’s those stories that have made the museum as popular as it is today. According to Chris, one of the biggest resources for creating the museum and his subsequent book, ‘Living Back-to-Back, was,

‘based on memories from people who had lived in them, letters and phone calls, donations of artefacts, family photographs, copies of carefully researched family trees. Few of the letters related specifically to the families who lived in Court 15, but they were part of a communal memory of which court 15 was the catalyst. It was everyone’s history that was being projected.”

Women talking in courtyard of a Birmingham back-to-back, circa late 1950s© Chris Upton, Living Back-to-Back.

As Chris says, it didn’t even matter that the many letters he received didn’t relate specifically to Court 15 – they were part of a collective history of lived experience that helped create an important narrative.  At a recent conference I went to, there was a speaker who had used the phrase ‘civil experts’ or ‘civil heritage experts’, which helps explain how Chris put the public’s memories to good use. So, in relation to the Back-to-Backs what does this mean? Well, the civil experts in this case are the people who actually lived in them, the people who lived in Court 15, the people who know the intricacies of living in those exact houses. They know how it felt to walk up the narrow stairs, to share those two toilets with those eleven families, to walk on, or hang their washing out in that exact cobbled courtyard in those particular months and years – the summer of 1976, or the great freeze of 1963. Yes, historians could write a contextual past, but it’s that lived experience, that level of intimate detail that means that nobody is better placed to tell you how these places were used and lived in, than the civil expert. And that is the type of history that brought the Back-to-Backs to life and why it’s been such a success ever since. Chris knew which notes to play – he knew how to connect to the public and what would resonate with them.

It wasn’t that it was even a particular mission of Chris’ to reach out to the public because that was somehow the right thing to do. He just didn’t understand why you would limit your audience when you could reach out to as many people as possible, in the books that you write, the tours that you lead and the talks that you give. But because Chris chose to write for the masses instead of solely for the ‘elite’, his academic journey was perhaps harder than it should have been, which he perfectly summed up below:

“When I was interviewed for my professorship four years ago, I was told that I had probably sold more history books than the rest of the panel combined – a panel that included two professors, a university vice chancellor and a college principal – but because the majority were published by Phillimore, they didn’t count.”

 Chris’ work as a public historian somehow didn’t count, because it wasn’t peer reviewed, and yet he got the endorsement and support of thousands, a majority, rather than the sanction of a few. But that is the system. Chris could have confined himself solely to the academic route, but I think that went against the grain of what he truly believed – that history belongs to everyone and making it elitist simply closes down the conversation and the many possible connections.

Knowing your own history

Chris on board the Literary Bus in 2012. © Robert Jones. 


Chris wrote the first single-volume history of Birmingham for half a century, and in doing so, he unearthed, even resurrected aspects of the city’s history that had either been forgotten, or never realised by many. There was a massive gap in the market, because even Brummies didn’t know their history. Chris’ A History of Birmingham was a revelation for me the first time I read it – in many ways it felt like fiction because there was so much that I didn’t know about my own city. For instance, how did I not know that Charles Dickens gave his first public reading of A Christmas Carol in Birmingham in 1853 at the Town Hall? I read A Christmas Carol at school for the first time in 1997. I was twelve and this fact would have inspired not just me, but a whole class. It would be another ten years before I’d learn of this fact when I read Chris’ book for the first time. Incidentally, Dickens opened the reading of a Christmas Carol in 1853 by saying,

“Ladies and gentleman—I have said that I bear an old love towards Birmingham and Birmingham men; let me amend a small omission, and add Birmingham women too. This ring I wear on my finger now is an old Birmingham gift, and if by rubbing it I could raise the spirit that was obedient to Aladdin’s ring, I heartily assure you that my first instruction to that genius on the spot should be to place himself at Birmingham’s disposal in the best of causes. I now have the pleasure of reading to you tonight A Christmas Carol in four staves.”

Now that’s a quote that gives you goose pimples. But why have we never shouted from the rooftops about our great history in this city? I’d never been able to put my finger on it, but Chris summed up why so many of us, and therefore the rest of the country, don’t know about the history on our doorstep:

“At some point in the early 20th century, Birmingham decided to demolish the pastit was entirely in harmony of an image cultivated over a century or more. There was a city and people more interested in tomorrow than yesterday: brash, energetic, frantically astute and innovative. Even her coat of arms bore the legend ‘forward’. As new ideas and technologies advanced, Birmingham was first on the bandwagon, energetically moving forward. The past needs time and contemplation, and Birmingham was in too much of a hurry for such niceties.”

Chris reminded us that we need to slow down, stop and reflect. Knowing your history – not just our successes, but where we we’ve gone wrong, seems even more relevant of late. You really do need to know where you’ve been to realise where you don’t want to go again. Chris, in so many ways relit the torch for us, and we owe it to him to not let it go out again.

Speaking Russian

Chris with Sherlock Holmes and Watson © Robert Jones. 


The last conversation I had with Chris was in the summer of 2015. A production company had approached me and asked if the Coffin Works would appear on  television, focussing on the Birmingham canals. Chris had helped me once before in 2010, when I was asked to do my first television interview at Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, talking about the exact same thing. On this second occasion, I remember talking to a couple of the Newman University students, who were on placement with me at the Coffin Works, and saying something like, ‘Oh I wish Chris could help me – he would be far better at this than me’. Martin, one of Chris’ students said, ‘well, let me call him for you – I’m sure he’ll be up for it’. In that moment I was touched that someone was so willing to help, but more so by the fact that Chris’ students could so easily feel that they could contact him. That’s what Chris did effortlessly – made himself so accessible, and in the true style of any great teacher, it wasn’t just his subject that he loved, it was joy of sharing knowledge and helping others to achieve that set him apart.


My sister, Anne-Marie and I with Chris in 2011 planning for the Literary Bus.


Needless to say that Chris agreed to take part, but that isn’t why I remember the conversation. I’m not sure why it even came up, but during that telephone call Chris told me that he spoke Russian, and even more impressively, that he’d read War and Peace in Russian. I genuinely thought I’d misheard. I was intrigued and asked Chris, why Russian out of all the languages he could have learned. And he said, “well Sarah, you have to remember that I grew up during the Cold War, and my teacher said, ‘if we don’t talk to them, we’ll never make it better’”. It was one of those moments that could have come straight from a film or a book, but it perfectly summed Chris up. He was always so willing to learn, so willing to communicate and he spoke many languages – he was truly multilingual, and I don’t just mean because he spoke Russian. He spoke the language of his students, the language of museum professionals, and the distinct language of the general public, and the many dialects in between. That is why we haven’t just lost a great historian, we’ve lost a great communicator, who could translate the past to anyone who was prepared to listen. But Chris’ biggest legacy is that people are still so willing to listen to him now – he continues to inspire and his voice is still heard, and that is a legacy that most of us can only dream of.

Click here to watch the Chris Upton Memorial vlog here: 

Sarah Hayes, November 2016


Letters, lies and crossing the picket line

1894 was a good time to enter the coffin-furniture trade, but what you won’t often hear is that it was a dangerous time. And not because of industrial accidents or poor working conditions. This was a well-organised and tight-knit industry where outsiders were not thought highly of or easily admitted.

© Newman Brothers. Staff at Newman Brothers in 1912, maybe even including some of the workers who went out on strike in 1897.

© Newman Brothers. Staff at Newman Brothers in 1912, maybe even including some of the workers who went out on strike in 1897.

In fact, by 1888 admission to this exclusive group was strictly regulated and you needed just two things in common: to be master coffin-furniture makers and second, to ‘doff your cap’, or sell your soul, as others saw it, to the reigning organisation known as the ‘Alliance’.

The Alliance was a group of manufacturers with mutual interests, whose main aim was quite simple: to regulate trade and stop competition. Its underlying means of getting things done, was based on manipulation, corruption, threats and sometimes, it seems, even violence.

The Newman Brothers 

Why did Alf and Edwin Newman then, voluntarily choose to enter this unscrupulous world, actively making the move from brass founding to coffin furniture production? They must have been aware of this group and the influence they possessed. But, it would seem that rather than fully complying with the Alliance , they chose to sit on the sidelines and go head-to-head with this powerful combine. Why? Most likely to take a chance, fill a gap in the market, offer cheaper products, thereby challenging the ruling elite. And to do this, they had to play dirty.

Very possibly Newman Brothers' first trade catalogue as coffin furniture manufacturers.

Very possibly Newman Brothers’ first trade catalogue as coffin furniture manufacturers.

Because of the ease with which coffin fittings could be made, pretty much any brass founder or stamping company could produce it, and there lay the problem. By 1888 there were 19 master coffin furniture manufacturers in the UK, with the overall majority in Birmingham. But there was also a wider ‘black’ or common section of the trade, making cheaper products in the city. This was allegedly causing a fall in prices and profits, and the ‘masters’ did not like it.

‘Unhealthy’ Competition

© Wikipedia. Harry Fowles, aka 'Baby Face' was part of the Peaky Blinders of the 1890s. Although they weren't in anyway involved in the coffin furniture disputes, no doubt similar 'groups' operated to enforce the Alliance's dealings.

© Wikipedia. Harry Fowles, aka ‘Baby Face’ was part of the Peaky Blinders of the 1890s. Although they weren’t in anyway involved in the coffin furniture disputes, no doubt similar ‘groups’ operated to enforce the Alliance’s dealings.

18 of the 19 firms manufacturing coffin furniture in Britain, most of which were in Birmingham, joined forces creating a monopoly. Together they intended to eliminate any outside competition by encouraging others to buy from them, and them only. Rather than accepting a free market, the Alliance instead, made moves to control it, and this is where the recent production of Peaky Blinders comes to mind. But initial attempts weren’t as successful as they had hoped. It was clear that more severe actions were needed. They needed leverage – they needed control of a bigger force, what they needed was to control the workers.


Document from the Brassworkers Mutual Protection Society. A Coffin Furniture trade union did not exist until the late 1890s, so many workers engaged in this labour force would have most likely have been members of Brassfounders' trade unions like this one, and the later Brassfounders trade union on Lionel street, just one street away from Newman Brothers. © Birmingham Museums Trust.

Document from the Brassworkers Mutual Protection Society. A Coffin Furniture trade union did not exist until the late 1890s, so many workers engaged in this labour force would have most likely have been members of Brassfounders’ trade unions like this one, and the later Brassfounders trade union on Lionel street, just one street away from Newman Brothers. © Birmingham Museums Trust.

Manufacturers did exactly that and joined forces with workers creating a new ‘union’ between masters and men. This was led by the Alliance and what they did was instrumental – they created a Trade Association, which outwardly appeared as though it was acting as a union for the labour force, but this was a front. And why a front? Exactly because workers didn’t decide when to strike – they were strategically encouraged to strike at manufactories which choose to operate outside of the Alliance’s remit. And their efforts were successful. They managed to engage nearly the entire labour force of the coffin furniture trade by offering 10% bonuses to any worker who joined them.

Bribery was the name of the game at at the prospect of more money, workers forgot their sense of loyalty according to F. Owen and Co allowing:

“outside interference to cause them to forget the value of regular employment and good wages.”

The workers at this company were not so lucky and paid with their jobs after Owen replaced ‘disloyal’ workers with non-union men.

Unionising the workforce

Why was this so significant? Exactly because this Trade Association could now call workers to strike, thereby forcing certain manufacturers outside the Association to join it. The choice was join us, or we will destroy you from the inside, by taking your workers and stopping your production. Interfering with sources of raw materials and customers would seal the deal.

For the short term at least, this worked. And it wasn’t just the manufacturers who were ‘held to ransom.’ In April 1897, several union pickets were arrested for intimidation of a worker who refused to leave his job.

Don’t cross the picket line

Members of Birmingham's Victorian police force. ©

Members of Birmingham’s Victorian police force.

Not long after, the Association tried their luck at Newman Brothers and the call to strike left Alfred Newman with no workers except for a few boys. Alfred was forced to concede and joined this new alliance between men and manufacturers. He did however fine ‘six’ of his workers £3 each for breach of contact.

Things got even nastier and even more desperate. In order to prevent non-members from selling cheaper products, the Association promised undertakers and ironmongers a special rebate of up to 10% so long as they only bought from the ‘recognised’ firms in the Association. Newman Brothers would appear to be reconsidering their position within the Association, as they were threatened with price fixing and would be undercut by 25% if they chose to operate outside of the Association’s remits.

You mischief-making devil

Edgar Kettle, Newman Brothers’ manager, went to the extreme of publishing letters in the newspapers warning customers against aligning themselves with an association that cared more about controlling their profits than looking out for their customers. He warned of the perils this would create for the entire industry and how this artificial control of the market stifled business and would let international trade in. This kind of bad press was clearly damaging for the Association and Kettle was warned off by a staunch member, Mr H Phillips. He not only appeared at Newman Brothers to personally ‘dissuade’ Kettle, but he was also fined £30, around £3,000 today, by Birmingham Police Court, for threatening Edgar in a rather explicit letter:

Excerpt from Birmingham Daily Post from 12 May 1898 reporting on the court summons raised by Edgar Kettle.

Excerpt from Birmingham Daily Post from 12 May 1898 reporting on the court summons raised by Edgar Kettle.

Seemingly, it was the physical threat to ‘punch your — head’ that caused Kettle to get a court summons for such threats. Edgar was accused of ‘playing dirty’ by trying to get ‘other’ men’s workers to strike. It would be easy to see Newman Brothers as a flagship in their attempts to promote a free market, when in actual fact, like others who resisted or rebuffed the Association, they were most likely just as concerned with their profits, and believed they would be hindered by the Association’s artificial control of the market.

Profits and principles seem to have been the driving force, and it was the precise action of companies like Newman Brothers, which in the end, made the Alliance and their Trade Association redundant. There were, by the close of the 19th century, just too many companies making coffin fittings to control. Newman Brothers survived this eventful chapter and emerged as one of Birmingham’s dominant forces of the 20th century.

Sarah Hayes, Collections & Exhibitions Manager

Newman Brothers at The Coffin Works opening October 28!

Sewing Machine Slider

A Family Connection

Late 19th-century map showing Fleet Street. Caroline's daughter, also called Caroline, lived briefly at number 3 Fleet Street in 1891 and may well have seen the construction of Newman Brothers, which began in 1892.

Late 19th-century map showing Fleet Street. Caroline’s daughter, also called Caroline, lived briefly at number 3 Fleet Street in 1891, located near the corner of Newhall Street. Just a stone’s throw away, she may well have seen the construction of Newman Brothers, which began in 1892.

Family history never ceases to amaze me, especially in how we can often unknowingly mirror the endeavours and actions of our ancestors. In fact, a recent discovery of an ancestor working in the funeral trade in Birmingham over 150 years ago, and then of her daughter living on Fleet Street, just ten doors down from what was to become Newman Brothers Coffin Works (my current place of work) is almost poetic symmetry for me. For those unfamiliar with the project, Newman Brothers made coffin furniture for over 100 years between 1894 to 1999 on Fleet Street in the Jewellery Quarter. But failing to meet the demands of changing-industrial processes, largely dictated by the ‘plastics revolution’, as well as simply running out of steam, meant that Newman Brothers finally closed its doors in 1999, leaving everything behind. Everything is the operative word here, because everything from machinery, coffin handles, breast plates, company ledgers to a bottle of whiskey along with cans of soup were discovered. These objects will form the basis of Birmingham’s latest heritage attraction, allowing people to step back in time and experience the history of this company and of this trade.

©Sarah Hayes. Caroline Derkin, with one of her daughters around 1871.

©Sarah Hayes. My great-great grandmother, Caroline Wilkes, daughter of Caroline Derkin, who was living on Fleet Street in 1891.

My connection to this trade is through my great-great-great grandmother, Caroline Derkin, who at the age of 17 was described as a ‘coffin-furniture maker’ on the 1861 census, the year that Prince Albert died. Discovering that I have a direct connection to this trade through one of my ancestors was a special moment indeed, and has fuelled my passion for this project even further. Coffin furniture covers a broad spectrum of products and as there was a division of labour between genders at this point, it’s most likely that Caroline was either working in the ‘soft’ furnishings division of this trade, making shrouds, linings and other textile-based products, or equally feasible is that she may have been working on the more industrial side, operating fly presses for cutting and piercing metal, another female-oriented role.

In 1851, there were nine master-coffin-furniture manufacturers in Birmingham, but the ease with which coffin furniture could be made, meant that goods could also be produced by a number of other non-specialist metal firms who made similar products, using the same industrial processes.This makes it difficult to pinpoint exactly which company Caroline was working for, but as she was living on Cecil Street in the New Town area of the city, it’s likely therefore, that she was working within walking distance of her home, as was the norm during this period.

The red pin shows the location of where Caroline was living in 1861, just a stone's throw from the Jewellery Quarter.

The red pin shows the location of where Caroline Derkin was living in 1861 in the New Town area of the city. 

But, regardless of where she was working, it’s her connection to this Birmingham industry and more specifically, her direct connection to me and her legacy to my own story, that somehow brings me closer to her, and in a funny sort of a way, is an appropriate epitaph to our family’s history. She made coffin furniture and I’m attempting to preserve it. And it’s exactly that, the personal sense of preserving her story in my endeavours to preserve the history of Newman Brothers’ that has made this project yet again even more personally satisfying. What she’d make of a museum dedicated to the history of coffin furniture 150 years on is beyond me, but the story of Caroline Derkin has brought me closer to a chapter of Birmingham’s history and somehow for me, anyway, legitimised my role in preserving and exhibiting the history of this important Birmingham trade.

Keep up to date with progress @CoffinWorks and via


Sarah Hayes, Collections and Exhibitions Manager @CoffinWorks
Follow me @HayesSarah17

Your BNA Stories – From Worcestershire to the North American Plains

From Worcestershire to the North American Plains

Names like the Battle of Little Bighorn, General Custer and Geronimo are recognisable to most of us on account of the great Western movie tradition that has long dominated our television screens. Most people would name the likes of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood when recalling this genre, but if you’re of my generation, one of the most memorable scenes has to be Marty McFly being plunged back to 1885 in the middle of a United States Cavalry pursuit of Native Americans in Back to the Future, Episode III.

Marty McFly desperately trying to ‘outrun’ the ‘Indian’ charge in Back to the Future, Part III.

Marty McFly desperately trying to ‘outrun’ the ‘Indian’ charge in Back to the Future, Part III . Source:

It’s the noise of hooves pounding the scorched ground and clouds of dust kicked up in the charge, combined with the familiar sound of Native American ‘war cries’ that defines so many depictions of this genre. Most of my knowledge of this period was previously based on the fictional or half-true accounts portrayed in such films, but now the discovery of an ancestor caught up in the renowned American Indian Wars has truly captured my attention.

It all begins with a boy from Worcestershire, Kidderminster to be precise. Henry Rogers Moorby, my first cousin, four times removed was born in 1853 to Edwin and Rebecca Moorby, who incidentally were married in my hometown of Birmingham at St Martin’s in the Bull Ring. When the Moorbys left England for America isn’t yet known, but the birth of a new addition to the family, by the name of Henrietta is recorded in New York in 1858. From this we can presume that Henry was at least five, but probably younger when he left for America with his family. Three years later the family had moved once again, this time to New Jersey. We’ll never really know why the Moorbys set sail for America but as the 1850s were part of one of the biggest waves of immigration to the US from Europe, we can only assume that they too, were in search of a better life in the ‘great land of opportunity’.

New York in the 1850s and a long way from Worcester. Was this the New York that greeted the Moorbys?

New York in the 1850s and a long way from Worcestershire. Was this the New York that greeted the Moorbys? Source:

But this isn’t the part of Henry’s life that’s gripped my attention. Instead I need to skip forward to 1876 when Henry was twenty-three years old. Staying true to his nomadic lifestyle, he joins the army, enlisting with the 4th Cavalry in Jersey City. His enlistment papers describe him as 5’5″, fair complexion, grey eyes and brown hair. This was a time of great land hunger and the strong economic developments such as the railway boom of the 1850s and 60s demanded enormous resources. The population had also been nearly doubling every twenty years from 1800 up until this point and the main task of the US army was supporting the government in ‘consolidating’ the nation. But what did that exactly mean? The ensuing government after the Civil War set out to unify America and complete what many nineteenth-century Americans called their manifest destiny, to conquer land from east to west, thereby sowing their ‘superior’ way of life. The idea of exceptionlism fuelled the policies behind the pioneer settlement and gave justification to the removal of an ‘inferior’ race from this newly-conquered land. The Great Plains, where the majority of the army were based in 1876 were simply the missing link in that manifest destiny.

Columbia, the allegorical representation of America is pictured here in John Gast’s American Progress driving settlers and thus ‘civilisation’ westward to colonise new lands and modernise the Wild West’.

Columbia, the allegorical representation of America is pictured here in John Gast’s American Progress driving settlers and thus ‘civilisation’ westward to colonise new lands. Source:

This was frontier land, wild and unruly and ‘up for grabs’ as the US government saw it. The outrage for the many Native American tribes was that they’d been moved here from their native homelands as a result of the Indian Removals Act of 1830. This relocated tribes west of the Mississippi River on what was considered to be poor land with harsh climates, thereby making space for the new white settlers on ‘vacant’ fertile farmland. But east of the Mississippi was quickly becoming overcrowded as the population continued to soar and the insatiable appetite for more territory convinced the government that the lands of the Great Plains weren’t so bad after all. It was this land battle that defined the many struggles of the American Indian Wars.

The missing link in uniting a nation. The Great Plains traditionally seen as stretching from southern Canada to the southern American states.

The missing link in uniting a nation. The red area highlights the Great Plains, traditionally seen as stretching from southern Canada to the southern American states. Source:

As a member of the 4th Cavalry, Henry would have been at the very centre of this conflict as the regiment are known to have been based in the likes of Arizona, South Colorado and New Mexico after 1876; their main duty being to project the pioneer settlers and their lands. But joining the army at this time wasn’t the most appealing of options. It was persistently under-resourced and in 1874 was only 27,000 strong, but responsible for manning two-hundred posts, roughly 135 men if divided equally for each station. The army even made it difficult to spend wages, as troops were paid in paper money which wasn’t yet readily recognised in the West, having to be exchanged at a loss, for coin. Although many recruits may have joined for adventure, it was reported that nearly twenty percent of the army deserted between 1873 and 1876, usually as a result of boredom. Recruits even petitioned Congress in 1878 complaining that their duties simply consisted of building bridges, roads and telegraph lines. But all of these amenities were essential in isolated and vulnerable frontier communities, and the army was crucial in maintaining this new way of life.

Nevertheless there must have been other motivations for joining. The Long Depression had already been raging for three years by the time Henry enlisted and would continue for another three until 1879. One in four labourers in New York and no doubt the situation was worse in New Jersey, were out of work and as a brass moulder, Henry would have suffered the brunt of it. Manufacturing and construction were the main causalities of this recession and with one million unemployed the army must have seemed like a good option. A guaranteed $13 a month for a private in 1876 and the assurance of filling your belly, despite the rations consisting of poor meat, hard bread, beans and strong coffee was seemingly more appealing than life as a civilian.

United States Army recruiting poster, circa. 1876.

United States Army recruiting poster, circa. 1876. Source:

Another event that presumably acted as perfect propaganda in 1876 was the news of Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn. But it wasn’t just a defeat, it was an annihilation of 268 men from the 7th Cavalry at the hands of the Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors led by Sitting Bull. The reaction was one of outrage and shock, and the timing couldn’t have been worse. The news would have reached the American public during the celebration of the nation’s centennial. America was a hundred years old and for all its economic and political ‘superiority’ it had just been defeated by what many saw as a primitive people standing in the way of natural progression. There’s much more to this story, namely in the fact the Native Americans weren’t primitive at all and grossly underestimated. But the point of mentioning it here is to colour the background and frame the political scene of the America that Henry was living in when he enlisted. The legend of Custer must have played a part in persuading young patriotic men to enlist. Henry did, after all join just four months after the infamous battle and this together with poor economic prospects probably fuelled his decision to abandon civilian life.

Lakota Chief, Sitting Bull, led more than 2,000 Native American warriors against Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

Lakota Chief, Sitting Bull, led more than 2,000 Native American warriors against Custer’s 7th Cavalry at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Source:

The story skips forward here yet again to April 25th 1882, when Henry, now a sergeant aged just twenty-nine years old died ‘of wounds in action with Indians on cars between Lordsburg and Separ, New Mexico’. It was the description of being killed by ‘Indians’ that initially caught my attention and led me to believe that there was something more behind the story. Granted, there were many small battles and skirmishes between cavalry and ‘Indians’ during this period, but even a skirmish can make the newspapers. Lo and behold, a simple search of ‘Lordsburg 1882’ revealed an abundance of sources from books, but more decisively generated newspaper articles, including one from the Sacramento Daily Record-Union reporting on Henry’s death. It places Henry in a conflict with Apaches on April 23rd 1882 that’s frequently referred to as the Battle of Horseshoe Canyon or Doubtful Canyon. Colonel Forsyth, who was present at the battle reported that:

“I ordered Lieutenant McDonald, with six Indian scouts, to scout the country and proceeded across the Gila River. When about two-thirds across, one of the Indian scouts announced to me that four of the scouts were killed by a large number of Chiricahuas and Lieutenant McDonald and the other two were defending themselves against them. I galloped for sixteen miles to them and found the Indians strongly entrenched in Stein’s peak range. I attacked them at once and drove them from their entrenched position. They fell back and occupied two impregnable positions. I found it impossible to dislodge them without great loss and gave up further operations. My loss was four Indian scouts and one private of C killed and one sergeant and four privates wounded.”

This perfectly supports other accounts from that day, namely that ‘Forsyth raced up with Companies C, F, G, H and M of the 4th cavalry.’ The colonel’s call for reinforcements would spell the fateful demise of Henry as he was caught up in the subsequent gun battle with Apache warriors and shot ‘through the left lung just below the heart; the wound being probably fateful’ and it was. Of course the ‘probably fateful’ explains why he died two days after the attack ‘on cars between Lordsburg and Separ’ as Forsyth sent the wounded by train to the former for treatment. Henry, no doubt was on one of those carriages, dying before he reached the town.

Cutting from the Sacramento Daily Record-Union, dated April 26th 1882.

Cutting from the Sacramento Daily Record-Union, dated April 26th 1882.

A search of the U.S. Registers of Deaths in the Regular Army, 1860-1889 for Henry confirms his cause of death noting that he died of ‘gunshots of chest’.

Henry's cause of death noted in the U.S. Registers of Deaths in the Regular Army, 1860-1889.

Henry’s cause of death noted in the U.S. Registers of Deaths in the Regular Army, 1860-1889. Source:

In other accounts, and indeed Forsyth’s own, there is very little about the four Indian scouts and private who were killed. But a simple search of the same register of those who died on 23rd April 1882 discloses the names, confirms the ranks and states the place of death of these five men. Forgotten by history in one sense, they are perfectly preserved in another, and can be ‘written back in’ to this story. Yuma Bill, Kaloh Vichajo, Panocha and Ceguania are revealed as the four scouts, along with Private, William Kurtz, also part of C Company with Henry, who all died at Stein’s Peak on 23rd April. Details around the scouts’ deaths are more limited mentioning only that each had ‘died in action with hostile Indians’ as Yuma Bill’s entry below shows:

'Indian' Scout, Yuma Bill or Bill Yuma, who is listed at the bottom even mentioning Stein’s Peak where McDonald and his contingent were heading to.

‘Indian’ Scout, Yuma Bill or Bill Yuma recorded as dying at Stein’s Peak where McDonald and his contingent were attacked. Source:

The six men killed at Stein’s Peak listed on the U.S., Registers of Deaths in the Regular Army, 1860-1889.

A search on of the U.S. Registers of Deaths in the Regular Army, 1860-1889 reveals the five men killed at Stein’s Peak on 23rd April 1882. Source:

However, if the passage from the Encyclopedia of Indian Wars below is taken to be true, the circumstances around the scouts’ deaths are all the more tragic as they were initially reluctant to follow their general into Stein’s Peak:

“McDonald found the raiders’ (Apaches) trail heading north and followed it into a canyon so narrow that his scouts would not follow him. Calling the scouts cowards, McDonald continued alone. Shamed, Yuma Bill soon followed with the rest. The scouts’ fears proved justified, for minutes later they were ambushed. Three scouts went down in the first volley. McDonald took a bullet through his hat and another one creased his jaw. Yuma Bill engaged in a gun battle to the death with several Apaches.”
‘Indian’ scouts, Company C Arizona, 1882. They were first authorised as members of the U.S. Army in 1866 and provided vital knowledge of local terrain and Native American tribes.

Indian’ scouts, Company C Arizona, 1882. They were first authorised as members of the U.S. Army in 1866 and provided vital knowledge of local terrain and Native American tribes. Source:

It would be naive to assume that this is an objective account and the phrase ‘cowardly’ is equally problematic, but nevertheless in terms of confirming the number of scouts killed and the presence of Yuma Bill, it perfectly supports the report from the Record-Union. As for William Kurtz, if Henry can be described as ‘lucky’ for surviving two days after the battle, the private was desperately unfortunate being shot in the head and no doubt dying instantly.

Henry’s story ends at Fort Bayard, now a national cemetery in New Mexico where he’s buried. This, however, wasn’t his first resting place as he was reinterred at Bayard on 9th May 1884 having been moved from an earlier point, still to be determined. As for the other five men, no records of their burials appear, but considering that the army would very often bury the dead where they fell, chances are they are resting somewhere very near Stein’s Peak today. Who’s remembered and who’s forgotten has always fascinated me and this story proves not so much that history is written by the victors, but more that rank and position frequently make the headlines. For me, history is an abridged version of the past missing many detailed footnotes. Yet, social history which has been described as ‘the history with people put back in’ has always been my starting point for understanding the bigger narratives of the past. By ‘getting to know’ the likes of Henry and adding names to the nameless, I’m able to appreciate the human story behind this bigger chapter of events. Although we think we ‘know’ history, we are often more acquaintances than good friends, but by trying to understand the actions and motivations of the people involved, just like those in the skirmish of Horseshoe canyon, we can infuse colour back into a faded picture of the past.

Sarah Hayes, Freelance Curator
Follow me on Twitter @HayesSarah17

Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

During the past six months Birmingham Museums have launched two brand new galleries showcasing the cultural heritage of the city and I’ve had the privilege of being involved in both developments.

The History Galleries, Birmingham: Its People, Its History opened last October at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and We Made It opened at Thinktank as recently as last week. The two exhibitions perfectly complement each other, working in tandem to innovatively explore the manufacturing history of this region. But, what exactly ties these two exhibitions, one about science and the other history, together, if anything? Well, first of all and most obviously, Birmingham. The History Galleries at BMAG explore nearly one thousand years of Birmingham’s history, but it’s the last two hundred years or so, that are really relevant to We Made It.

While the History Galleries explore Birmingham’s past from the point of the influential and everyday people…

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Exploring Medieval Birmingham 1300 ‘Virtual’ Tour!

If you’ve enjoyed the blogs, check this out!

Exploring Medieval Birmingham: Part II

The 1296 Borough Rental referred to in my previous blog is the earliest known ‘census’ carried out in Birmingham. Official censuses didn’t begin in this country until 1801, but recording information about people, land and property has preoccupied governments since time immemorial. We know, for instance, that William the Conqueror commissioned the great land survey, Domesday Book, in 1086 to assess how much his newly occupied country was worth. The Borough Rental was no different in that its main purpose was to keep a record of the rents owed to the lord of the manor. However, like Domesday, it doesn’t give an accurate indication of Birmingham’s population, as it mainly lists principle tenants, those people renting land directly from the lord. William de Birmingham, Lord of the Manor, was in essence a landlord and generated much of his income from renting his land to Birmingham townspeople.

How William de Birmingham made his money! Just some of the burgage plots he rented out to the townspeople.

Our model isn’t just about buildings and institutions in medieval Birmingham, it’s first and foremost about the real people who lived in the town. The Borough Rental doesn’t just record the names of townspeople though. In some cases, it lists their trades and locations. This, together with archaeological evidence from the Bull Ring excavations, has given us a unique opportunity to quite literally trace their footsteps, or at least the general area of Birmingham they called home. We want to allow visitors to learn more about the real townspeople and to ‘interact’ with them through our model.

They can do this through a series of push buttons, which link to eight characters positioned around this interactive. The button will trigger a light and illuminate a character in the model, and visitors can learn more about where that person lived or worked. The characters we’ve chosen represent the wide spectrum of wealth and trades in Birmingham, ranging from the lord of the manor, to everyday folk like tanners and potters.

A tanner scraping skins to remove the unwanted hair.

Kilns were located in people’s back yards away from the main buildings because of the risk of fire.

Archaeology and history go hand-in-hand in this display as the two disciplines combined provide us with an invaluable insight into how people lived. For instance, there will be a selection of cattle horns on display which represent the established tanning industry in medieval Birmingham. The horns also serve to highlight the presence of Welsh cattle drovers who came here to sell their cows at market. With its abundant natural springs and streams scattered around the market place, Birmingham was the perfect place to water livestock. One of our characters, Richard le Couherde, which translates as the cow herder, would have played his part in helping the drovers to guide the cattle to market in the busy town. We know that Birmingham was already at the centre of a well-established road network by this stage, and there’s evidence to suggest that the roads the drovers used were already very old by 1300. Welsh names like Jones, Prys and Brangwayn even crop up in the Rental. While we don’t know if these men were drovers, we can safely assume that they, or their ancestors used these roads to make their journeys to Birmingham.

A cattle horn core found during the Bull Ring excavations in the late 1990s. Horn cores were the only waste product from the cattle, as everything else including the meat, skin and horn were sold.

Richard le Couherde driving the cattle to market or the ‘Bull Ring’ as it became known.

Birmingham was built on migration and this is a strong theme running throughout the new History Galleries. This trend was well under way in the Middle Ages, and was not simply a nineteenth and twentieth-century phenomenon as is often assumed. Other surnames in the Rental stress this point and include the likes of de Coventre (‘from Coventry’), Newporde (‘from Shropshire or Wales’), de Parys (very possibly ‘from Paris’) and those places closer to home, including de Edebaston (‘from Edgbaston’) and de Norton (‘from King’s Norton’).

Birmingham’s thriving market attracted migrants from nearby settlements. Its nearest competition came in 1300 when Sutton Coldfield was granted a market charter. By this point, Birmingham’s market was nearly 150 years old and too well-established for Sutton to pose a threat.

As well as locational surnames, the Rental lists many occupational names which were very common in the Middle Ages. Nicholas le Sawyer would have been responsible for many of the new builds in the town. Le Sawyer means the person who saws wood, and in a place constantly attracting new migrants, homes would have been in demand.

A sawyer hard at work.

Another new build, but this time workers are ‘raising the cruck’, which refers to the ‘A’ frame wooden beams they are hauling into place. The other common type of building was the ‘box frame’ to the left of the cruck.

One thing that tied all these people together were the rents they paid to William de Birmingham. But, even William wasn’t top of the tree. Above him were the Lords of Dudley from whom he held the manor of Birmingham, and above all of them was the king.

William de Birmingham in his deer park with his huntsman and greyhounds.

Having access to such a valuable document like the Borough Rental will help people to make more sense of the objects on display in the new History Galleries. While we don’t know the biography of people’s lives in the medieval town, we can make links through their professions, where they lived and even the names we share with them. We can identify with their daily struggle to pay the rent and put food on the table, and while we can never fully ‘know’ them, we can learn more than we ever could have hoped for, simply because of the discovery of this document just a few years ago. It just makes you wonder what else is out there, above ground and below!

Once again, special thanks to our model makers, Eastwood Cook

Sarah Hayes, Freelance Curator

Follow me on Twitter @CinnamonLatte17 to keep up to date with the latest developments on the Birmingham History Galleries.

This blog first featured on Posterous in July 2012,

Exploring Medieval Birmingham

A scale model allows visitors to depict a scene in a way that words or illustrations sometimes fail to do. To put it simply, it does all the hard work for the viewer by giving them a unique perspective that allows them to survey a landscape in its entirety. We wanted to do exactly that for our visitors at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. The model we recently commissioned for the new History Galleries illustrates what Birmingham might have looked like in 1300. ‘Might’ is deliberately used here because there are some physical features of the town for which we simply have no concrete evidence. For instance, we don’t know what the fabric of the buildings looked like and whether these buildings were front side or gable end onto the street. Timber framed buildings from the 13th century rarely survive. In Birmingham’s case, its oldest timber framed building is the 15th-century Old Crown Pub in Deritend. Nevertheless, we’ve done what historians do best! We’ve used the abundant evidence we have relating to 14th-century buildings and the limited knowledge from the 13th to produce a ‘most likely’ case scenario.

Model of medieval Birmingham in 1300. Notice the familiar triangular shape to the left of the model, which you can still see today as you walk downhill from New Street to St Martin’s Church.

Some people may be thinking ‘why not just focus on the later medieval period, for which we have more evidence?’ Well, we do have one tangible piece of factual evidence which we’ve based the blueprint of the model on. That is a document called a Borough Rental dating from 1296. This recently discovered document lists the names of townspeople who rented plots of land in Birmingham from the lord of the manor. It also tells us that there were 250 dwellings in Birmingham in 1296. Using this record, along with research from specialists, George Demidowicz and Mike Hodder, we have been able to map rented plots of land that existed in the town. These areas were known as ‘burgage plots’ and in some cases we can pinpoint exactly where certain townspeople lived.

The distinctive long and narrow burgage plots were a common feature of medieval towns. You can also see the ‘half’ plots, where land has been subdivided because of population growth or simply to generate more income.

One such person is Roger le Moul, the wealthiest merchant in 13th century Birmingham. Not only did he own 17 plots, he also gave his name to one of the best known streets in Brum: the Moulestrete of 1437 is today’s Moor Street. Birmingham, a place many assume emerged out of the Industrial Revolution was already thriving in the 13th century and this legacy is embedded in the surviving place and street names of the modern city! Our model, however, doesn’t show the full extent of medieval Birmingham. We’ve simply focused on the market place, the heart of the town, and the burgage plots that surrounded it.

A man who means business! Roger le Moul’s courtyard house, located on what later became Moor Street.

The Borough Rental also helpfully identifies the locations of Birmingham’s early industries, demonstrating why they were situated where they were. Tanning pits, a necessary component of the leather industry were located on Park and Edgbaston Streets. These streets were on the edge of the town and were ideal locations for such a noxious and smelly trade that used urine and animal faeces. Similarly, pottery making, another important early trade was located on the periphery of the town (on the site of Selfridges car park today) because of the fire hazards associated with the craft. In this way, the model really helps to emphasise the rationale of early town planning.

Tanning pits on Park Street, now the site of Selfridges.

Fire was one of the perils of everyday life in any medieval town.

The beauty of our model is that it will help to dispel the myth that there was nothing here in the Middle Ages, when in fact we know that Birmingham was a bustling market centre and home to around 1,500 people. So, if you want to meet William de Birmingham, Richard le Couherde or Isabell le Sonster amongst many other medieval Brummies, visit the new Birmingham History Galleries this October and immerse yourself in the medieval history that made our modern city.

Whether keeping animals, growing food, dying cloth or making pottery, people’s back yards really were places of activity in medieval Brum.

St Martin’s Church sat at the centre of the medieval market town.

The biggest house in town, and home to William de Birmingham, Lord of the Manor.

Look out for my next blog which focuses on the interactive features of the model.  You can see the model on display this October in the new Birmingham History Galleries, Birmingham, its People, its History.

Special thanks to our model makers, Eastwood Cook

Sarah Hayes, Freelance Curator

This blog first featured on Posterous in June 2012,