From Cabinets to Coffins

 

Possibly Newman Brothers’ first coffin-furniture catalogue, circa 1894. Familiar with brass since 1882, they continued to use this material in their new business venture producing coffin furniture from 1894 onwards. © Newman Brothers at The Coffin Works.

Possibly Newman Brothers’ first coffin-furniture catalogue, circa 1894. Familiar with brass since 1882, they continued to use this material in their new business venture producing coffin furniture from 1894 onwards. © Newman Brothers at The Coffin Works.

One of the most common questions people seem to have in relation to Newman Brothers is ‘why did a coffin-furniture manufactory choose the Jewellery Quarter to run their business from…wasn’t that an odd place?’ The short and simple answer to that is no, surprisingly not, but I understand why people initially may draw that conclusion. Newman Brothers were originally brass founders, established in 1882, operating from premises in Nova Scotia Street in what is the Eastside area of town today. As such their business was based on casting an assortment of metal articles, in this case, largely cabinet furniture from molten brass. But by 1894, just over ten years later, they had moved to new premises at 13-15 Fleet Street in the Jewellery Quarter. This move also spelled a slight change in their production line.

Casting ladle from the Newman Brothers’ collection, discovered in what was their tool room. This was probably used to pour the molten metal into cast-iron dies when Newman Brothers were brass founders and certainly during their years at Fleet Street as coffin-furniture manufacturers. © Newman Brothers at The Coffin Works.

Casting ladle from the Newman Brothers’ collection, discovered in what was their tool room. This was probably used to pour the molten metal into cast-iron dies when Newman Brothers were brass founders and certainly during their years at Fleet Street as coffin-furniture manufacturers. © Newman Brothers at The Coffin Works.

Some of Newman Brothers’ smaller drop stamps dating from 1894. © Sarah Hayes 2014.

Some of Newman Brothers’ smaller drop stamps dating from 1894. © Sarah Hayes 2014.

 

They were now listed as ‘Coffin Furniture Manufacturers’ and specialised in the production of general brass furniture. I say slight change as coffin furniture is, in fact, a natural extension of the jewellery and ‘toy’ trades and their many ancillary trades, using not only the same materials, but also incorporating the same skills and processes to produce various metal goods.

Central to the production of both trades was and is (especially in terms of today’s jewellery production) the drop stamp, which uses heavy metal weights known as dies and punches with chiselled designs, on a pulley system to ‘stamp’ out products. So, the materials, machinery and methods of production were identical in both the jewellery and coffin-furniture trades, with the main exception being that drop stamps for the latter were much bigger, incorporating more weight to produce the larger items. Whether you were making a badge, a breastplate or a brooch therefore, the manufacturing processes involved were the same. The only difference was the intended use of the finished article. In this respect it made perfect business sense for Newman Brothers to relocate to the Quarter, as this new locality positioned it amongst a hive of thriving skills central to the production of coffin furniture, as well as allowing them to continue their tradition of casting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A Newman Brothers’ registered design from 1884 depicting a cabinet backplate and handle. © The National Archives.

Sarah-2

A Newman Brothers’ backplate and ‘swing’ handle from circa 1894-1900. Although a different shape, the familiar form can be seen in its resemblance to the cabinet design on the left of this image. © Newman Brothers at The Coffin Works.

The company’s transition from cabinet to coffin furniture was equally a natural development rather than a radical innovation in their product line. Take the two images above for example. The one on the left shows an 1884 Newman Brothers’ patent design for a cabinet backplate and handle, and was one of their earlier registered designs as brass founders. The other is yet another backplate and handle, but this time, intended for a coffin rather than a cabinet. Although flora-inspired designs for coffin furniture were common during this period, fauna-based patterns rarely seem to enter the equation. In this respect, the form and function of what Newman Brothers were producing largely remained stable, but the aesthetics of their designs altered to suit the backdrop of their new business.

Brass founders were renowned for making a range of different products and because of the ease with which coffin furniture could be produced, many non-specialist firms could quite comfortably ‘tap’ into this line of business, which means that there’s a good chance that Newman Brothers were already making some goods for the funerary trade before they became specialist manufacturers. No doubt they also had an existing clientele to some degree too, making their transition into the funerary trade smoother, and it would seem that their move from cabinets to coffins was most likely financially motivated. The transient nature of the funeral was simply bigger business than the permanence of home furnishings.

Sarah Hayes, Collections and Exhibitions Manager at Newman Brothers at The Coffin Works.

Follow progress @HayesSarah17 and @CoffinWorks 


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. 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 http://www.birminghamconservationtrust.org

 

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


Medieval ‘Footprints’ in Birmingham

footprints

© Birmingham Museums

The title of this blog doesn’t refer to the sort of footprints you leave behind in the mud or snow, but rather the type that define the area or space occupied by a building, or in this instance the boundaries of a burgage plot. By ‘burgage’, I’m referring to the long and narrow strips of land arranged along street frontages that functioned as the basic units of a town that could be built upon.

So perhaps footprints isn’t the best word to use, because I’m actually referring to plot boundaries rather than the actual buildings. But, footprints is, in another sense, an appropriate word to use as it calls to mind the idea of ‘evidence’ left behind and that’s exactly what the landscape historian and archaeologist has to work with when attempting to reconstruct medieval towns. For a city that’s never been overly keen on preserving its most recent heritage, it might surprise you to learn that Birmingham has some of these medieval ‘footprints’ left.

Burgage plots were characteristically long and narrow, but pressure to subdivide land on account of prosperity and population growth resulted in subdivision of plots making them smaller as you can see in the top right-hand corner of the image.

Burgage plots were characteristically long and narrow, but pressure to subdivide land on account of prosperity and population growth resulted in subdivision of plots making them smaller as you can see in the top right-hand corner of the image. © Birmingham Museums

There are around several of these medieval burgages left in the city centre located in the Digbeth area of town, which appear to conform to their original 13th-century boundary lines. The idea of property boundaries surviving is probably slightly underwhelming for a lot of people, who’d much rather see the actual medieval buildings, but the boundary lines are largely, in fact, an older remnant of medieval towns. Moreover, their story of survival is a fascinating product of the early legal status our ancestors attributed to land. After all, it was owning land, a burgage, that made a townsperson a burgess giving them particular privileges like participating in the collective decision-making of a town. Burgess is in fact, derived from the word burgage which itself comes from the Old French word, burgeis, simply referring to an inhabitant of a town. Buildings, although more appealing, were the dispensable attributes of a property, as they came and they went, but land was preserved precisely because of its power to bestow status on a person, and not to forget its potential to make them money.

The frontages of Birmingham's surviving burgages located in Digbeth just off Park Street.

The frontages of Birmingham’s surviving burgages located in Digbeth just off Park Street. © Sarah Hayes 2013

We need look no further than London after the great fire of 1666 to help explain how and why burgage plots survive. This event brought disastrous consequences on the city burning down a third of London with an estimated ninety-thousand people displaced.

But for some like Sir Christopher Wren and the Royal Society, this was a golden opportunity. They proposed to rebuild London on the basis of an ordered grid system in place of the disordered medieval streets, but this didn’t happen for a few reasons. First, a complete redesign would have taken too long but more specifically here, the property boundaries, although now virtually impossible to pinpoint on account of the absence of the buildings, were still protected by law.

Map of London in 1593. Notice the disorder of the medieval streets.

Map of London in 1593. Notice the disorder of the medieval streets. Source: http://www.medart.pitt.edu/image/England/London/Maps-of-London/London-Maps.html

In fact, it would have involved intervention by the government to implement a complete redesign, and the difficulty of compensating people or transferring their property was a messy and complicated task. The actual reality of rebuilding London after 1666 involved surveyors like Robert Hooke walking the charred streets with residents, armed with available property deeds as well as twine and wooden posts to ‘stake’ out their original plots of land. This example serves to illustrate how legality ensured longevity. That’s to say, that it is precisely the early legal status assigned to boundaries that ensured their survival very often into the 19th century and as recent as the present day in many cases.

Sir Christopher Wren’s proposal for London after the Great Fire of 1666.

Sir Christopher Wren’s proposal for London after the Great Fire of 1666. Source: http://www.architecture.com

‘So what’ I hear some people say, but when you appreciate that we have a stretch of original medieval burgage plots still in Birmingham, standing on the same 13th-century boundary lines, that is a remarkable feat of survival by any standards. What fascinates me the most about this survival though, is that these plots would have been carefully measured out by some of Birmingham’s medieval residents using the town’s very own measuring rod or pole to achieve the intended widths and lengths. These boundary lines, now official, would have been recorded in court rolls and subsequent deeds of transfer. In 13th-century Birmingham one of these plots would have cost you eight pence or four pence for half a plot, incidentally much cheaper than the one shilling fee in other parts of the country.

A reconstruction of what we think the Digbeth plots would have looked like in the 13th century. Located in the heart of the town, this was a prime spot and the pressure to build here must have been great.

 An impression of what we think the Digbeth plots looked like in the 13th century. Located in the heart of the town, this was a prime spot and the pressure to build here must have been great. © Birmingham Museums

Likewise, burgage widths vary a great deal across the country. In Birmingham, they were probably originally around five metres wide and anything up to 60 metres in length, but in Stratford-upon-Avon the average plot was around 15 metres wide! If you’re lucky, these exact widths and lengths are recorded in official documentation like borough charters as in the case of Stratford. But as Birmingham doesn’t have a borough charter, how do we know that these properties are standing on the same original medieval boundary lines?

terry slater burgagenew

We can see what original burgage plots would have looked like when a town was first laid out as illustrated at the top of the image. Once a town started to prosper, plots were subsequently subdivided as depicted in the bottom half of this image. Source: Ideal and Reality in English Episcopal Medieval Town Planning, T.R. Slater

Good question, and the answer is a mixture of hypothesis and fact. Local specialists like George Demidowicz used a technique known as deed regression, which involves tracing boundaries back as far as possible by using property deeds. Such documents record the positions and measurements of a townsperson’s land and luckily for Birmingham, we have a handful of surviving deeds which reveal the transfer of ownership for some of the town’s residents. But this isn’t the case for the entire original medieval town, as we only have this information for sections of the buildings around the Digbeth plots. The deeds tell us that the owners in this part of town ranged from early forms of local government like the Guild of the Holy Cross as well as prominent townspeople such as the Inge and Phillips families.

Specialists also turn to map regression, a technique that uses maps from different periods to compare changes over time and also to identify any continuity. By continuity I’m specifically referring to boundary lines that look ‘ancient’. This involves identifying classic parallel sequences of long strips of land which are often found on19th-century maps denoting the presence of burgages. If these same long strips are visible on even earlier maps like tithe and estate records, there’s a very good chance that we are looking at original burgage plots as laid out when a town was founded. A town’s layout up until the 19th century was often very stable and reflected the original burgage pattern of a town. And although burgages were subject to internal divisions, these later divisions did not normally alter or remove earlier boundaries. This has proven to be the trend across the country. In York, for example, burgage boundaries have survived unchanged from the tenth century, and when plot boundaries were eventually destroyed due to new developments, this change normally occurred in the second half of the 19th century.

A classic burgage pattern depicted on a 19th-century map. This sequence of burgages has since been displaced by modern developments and lies somewhere underneath Selfridges.

A classic burgage pattern depicted on a 19th-century map. This sequence of burgages has since been displaced by modern developments and lies somewhere underneath Selfridges. Also note how the plots have been subdivided, but the earlier original boundary lines nevertheless survived.

In many instances, therefore, we can be sure that when we see long and narrow strips of land on 19th-century maps in places with a medieval past, there’s a very good chance we are looking at some of the original property boundaries of a town. Although the majority of property deeds we have for Birmingham only stretch back to the 1500s, the same rule applies as above: if map regression demonstrates that burgage boundaries do not alter until the 19th century, there’s no reason to suppose that they would have altered by the 16th century. That’s where hypothesis comes in, but this hypothesis is based on detailed research as well as numerous case studies from around the country. Although we can’t actually legitimately trace the Digbeth plots back to the 1150s when Peter de Birmingham founded the town, we can, with the help of both map and deed regression along with the presence of 12th and 13th-century archaeology from the plots, confidently place them at the very latest in 13th-century Birmingham. What is even more satisfying though, is that the forthcoming £150m Beorma Quarter set to transform the area with a 27-storey tower as well as 600,000-square feet of offices, retail and leisure space, will still retain the existing boundaries in the design of the new development. So fortunately, it looks like the medieval relics have a long life ahead of them yet!

A proposal for the forthcoming Beorma development. The new development will be constructed on the same medieval boundaries thereby maintaining around 700 years continuity. Source: www.trevorhorne.com

A proposal for the forthcoming Beorma development. The new development will be constructed on the same medieval boundaries thereby maintaining around 700 years continuity. Work is due to begin in September this year and will start with the construction of a hotel and the refurbishment of Digbeth’s grade-II listed cold storage building. Source: http://www.trevorhorne.com

Birmingham’s burgages are an incredible vestige of our medieval past in a city that’s rarely been sympathetic to its heritage. For me however, they’re simply special because of their ability to take us back to Birmingham’s beginnings as a recognisable commercial and soon to be urban centre. Just as those London residents who walked the streets with Hooke in 1666 staked their claims and protected their boundaries, this stretch of burgages in Birmingham similarly has the power to evoke the presence of people preparing and planning their very own town. In fact, the truly remarkable thing for me about these seemingly trivial features is the knowledge that around 700 years ago a few of Birmingham’s residents were protective of the very same boundaries we can still see today. In this way these medieval ‘footprints’ serve as a gateway with the power to take us back to the point when Birmingham’s inhabitants were laying the foundations of their town and creating the blueprint of what was to become the basis of this great city.

Follow me @HayesSarah17


Exploring Birmingham’s Medieval Streets

Depiction of medieval Birmingham at the end of the 13th century, with St Martin's Church sitting at the centre of the town.

© Birmingham Museums. Depiction of medieval Birmingham at the end of the 13th century, with St Martin’s Church sitting at the centre of the town.

A recent talk I gave for the University of Birmingham’s People, Places and Things series of seminars prompted me to write this latest instalment about medieval Birmingham. In fact, it was a question from a member of the audience after I presented the video of Exploring Medieval Birmingham, 1300 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZq9cBzrIVI) that determined the topic of this blog. The person in question asked if I’d thought about superimposing images or footage of Birmingham’s present-day streets over the medieval depictions illustrated in the video. Nice idea, and yes, I did think of doing exactly that, but budgetary and time constraints prevented me from doing so, but that isn’t to say that this can’t be achieved in the near future. Nevertheless, until then this blog will attempt to fill a ‘void’ in going half way to doing just that.

The 1296 Borough Rental referred to in my previous blogs on medieval Birmingham mentions around ten streets in the 13th-century town. Not a bad number, considering that Birmingham had roughly only thirty streets 400 years later. Moreover, some of Birmingham’s best-known streets today were already in existence by 1296. This included the likes of Egebastonstret (Edgbaston Street), le Parkestrete (Park Street), Overparkstret (now Moor Street) Novus Vicus (New Street) and Super Montem (the later High Street).

One of the most recognisable streets in Birmingham with a medieval past.

One of the most recognisable streets in Birmingham with a medieval past.

New Street isn’t as new as we might like to think, but certainly existed by the late 13th century. Perhaps it was only recently new then, but equally it could have been a fixture in the medieval town much before this point. While identifying the streets that framed the town, I started to think about their names especially as they can tell us a lot about an area and its ‘lost’ landscape. It’s easy to forget or simply not realise that the original meaning of street names, much like place names, once ‘said’ a lot about a location.

The many different types of street name can reveal an abundance of information relating to topography or geographical location, natural features, types of industries or even people. It seems that the streets that shaped the medieval town of 1296 were largely ‘signposts’ of locational names or topographical features. One example is Super Montem, translating as ‘Upon the Hill’ and this isn’t hard to appreciate when you realise that this part of town really did and does sit at a higher level than the land leading downhill towards St Martin’s and Digbeth, suitably reflected by its current name, High Street. Then there are the convenient indicators of important trading routes such as Edgbaston Street, named after the Anglo-Saxon manor of Edgbaston, meaning Ecgbeald’s Farm. As Edgbaston was seemingly at one time more successful than Birmingham, as indicated by its higher valuation in Domesday Book, it’s perhaps natural that a road should lead to such a neighbouring settlement. After all, it’s very likely that Birmingham’s inhabitants were trading with Edgbaston’s and vice versa and not to forget that Edgbaston Street led to even more important locations like Northfield. Valued at £5 in Domesday, Northfield was one of the more prosperous manors in the wider area, worth five times as much as that of Birmingham. Moreover it was also once owned by the same overlord as Birmingham: William Fitz-Ansculf whose power was centred on Dudley Castle. So perhaps the street also marked the importance of a wider trading route, as well as leading to Edgbaston itself.

Another important manor also held by William Fitz-Ansculf was Aston, meaning the east estate. Its lands were valued at five times that of Birmingham’s at £5 in Domesday Book.

Another important manor also held by William Fitz-Ansculf was Aston, meaning the east estate. Its land and goods were valued at five times that of Birmingham’s at £5 in Domesday Book.

Novus Vicus or New Street is an indicator of Birmingham’s growth and prosperity as new roads were being built presumably to accommodate more inhabitants and trading ventures. Perhaps also, the adjective ‘new’ reflects the age of some of the other streets in the town as they had presumably been in existence for some time to warrant the latest road being called new.

New Street looking down towards what was once the heart of the medieval town.

New Street looking down towards what was once the heart of the medieval town.

A 'relic' of a pastime now long gone.

The name survives as a ‘relic’ of a pastime now long gone.

Novus Vicus or New Street is an indicator of Birmingham’s growth and prosperity as new roads were being built presumably to accommodate more inhabitants and trading ventures. Perhaps also, the adjective ‘new’ reflects the age of some of the other streets in the town as they had presumably been in existence for some time to warrant the latest road being called new.

Judging by the question that prompted this blog, people naturally want to know what Birmingham’s oldest streets look like today. It comes as no surprise either that most reside in what is the oldest part of town; the original planned settlement Peter de Birmingham carved out in 1166. This is still one of the busiest parts of Birmingham today bustling with shoppers and inhabitants, now paying their ‘tolls’ and ‘rents’ to a different ‘lord of the manor’. On account of the scale and size we had to adopt for the model of medieval Birmingham, the likes of New Street isn’t featured, so I’ve simply focussed on the streets that are depicted to illustrate what these medieval route ways look like today.

Taken from Birmingham: The Building of a City, the map depicts Birmingham in 1553, but the 12th-century town Peter founded can still be seen. Notice the original triangular shape with four of Birmingham’s earliest roads branching from it: High Street, Edgbaston Street, Molle Street, soon to become Moor Street and Park Street, also at one stage known as Little Park Street.

This brings me on to Edgbaston Street, which in the 13th century was home to surely the smelliest industry in town: leather tanning and judging by the archaeological excavations in the area this trade made the greatest mark upon the industrial endeavours of medieval Birmingham. As an essential material in the Middle Ages, leather goods were a staple of everyday life, as were other goods made from horn and bone, which inevitably grew out of the presence of the tanning trade. Today, Edgbaston Street has exchanged tanning for trading of a different sort, but you can still nevertheless find leather goods, minus the noxious smell, that is. This street is now home to Birmingham’s famous Rag Market, amongst many other traders of mixed enterprise.

By 1553 the Tudor town had spread down New Street and towards the Priory lands of what is now Bull Street.

By 1553 the Tudor town had spread down New Street and towards the Priory lands of what is now Bull Street.

photo (5)

© Birmingham Museums. Edgbaston Street in 1296 looking towards St Martin’s Church.

Edgbaston Street today looking towards St Martin’s Church.

Edgbaston Street today looking towards St Martin’s Church.

The beginning of Park Street in the 13th-century town around where Selfridges is today.

© Birmingham Museums. The beginning of Park Street in the 13th-century town around where Selfridges is today.

Park Street or le Parkestrete was developed to make way for the many burgeoning industries, thereby cutting into the lord’s deer park, on what was then the edge of town. Although Park Street no longer lines the periphery of Birmingham, it does in many ways mark the edge of its shopping quarter lying adjacent to Selfridges and its attached car park. In this sense, Park Street is still on the fringe of Birmingham for many, particularly the enthusiastic shopper who merely walks this medieval road in pursuit of one of Birmingham’s biggest twenty-first century industries.

The extent of Park Street today, which actually begins around Selfridges’ car park stretching to just past this point towards Millennium Point.

The extent of Park Street today, which actually begins around Selfridges’ car park stretching to just past this point towards Millennium Point.

The beginning of what was to become Moor Street near the eventual site of Selfridges.

© Birmingham Museums. The beginning of what was to become Moor Street near the eventual site of Selfridges.

Much like Park Street, Overparkstret was also testament to the growth of Birmingham, with the lord once again sacrificing more of his own land for the good of the town, and of course his own pocket. The name is simple and reflects exactly where this new road would lie: ‘over the lord’s park’, or at least part of it. Maybe Overparkstret and Le Parkstret were cut at the same time, maybe they weren’t, but what is clear is that they came into existence to facilitate the expansion of some of Birmingham’s early industries like tanning and pottery making.

Junction of Park Street and Moor Street where we think Roger le Moul held just some of his numerous burgage plots in 1296.

Junction of Park Street and Moor Street where we think Roger le Moul held just some of his numerous burgage plots in 1296.

Perhaps the word park in two of the town’s roads which also lay very close to one another was slightly confusing for its inhabitants and traders, as Overparkstret was eventually renamed. In 1344 we find the earliest known reference to its new name: le Mulestret or Moulestret, in honour of the richest family in town, after the De Birminghams, at least. As we know, le Moulestret is today’s very own Moor Street, becoming the second of Birmingham’s medieval streets to accommodate a train station. We arguably have Roger le Moul to thank for this name change, and it’s indeed ironic that his surname translates as the small when we know he was a man of great property. Owning most of the land in town after William de Birmingham, he certainly ensured that his name and his family’s legacy would forever be preserved in his hometown.

Start of Super Montem or High Street in 1296. This was no doubt used by drovers to bring their cattle to market in the town.

© Birmingham Museums. Start of Super Montem or High Street in 1296. This was no doubt used by drovers to bring their cattle to market in the town.

Last but not least, we finish with Super Montem, now High Street, which is only just visible at the very edge of the scale model. True to its name it still sits on higher ground, which is why I always suggest that people make the effort to stand at the top of High Street and look downhill towards St Martin’s Church. Although the natural topography has been slightly distorted by the most recent Bull Ring developments, you can still get a ‘flavour’ of what the medieval landscape once looked like in terms of its gradient.

Almost identical to the previous image in terms of position, High Street today is still bustling with shoppers and in the distance St Martin’s steeple peers up towards the higher ground.

Almost identical to the previous image in terms of position, High Street today is still bustling with shoppers and in the distance St Martin’s steeple peers up towards the higher ground.

Street names are really an excellent starting point for beginning to understand the physical development and topography of places, and sometimes the most ordinary of names, just like Park Street, lying in the most unassuming parts of town, can with a bit of detective work, really reveal a ‘hidden’ or forgotten history of a place. These muted relics of the past can tell us much more than you’d ever imagine, acting as signposts to a displaced landscape or in some cases subtly pointing to a terrain still very much intact, but obscured by the urbanisation of the modern city. Nevertheless, if we take the time to look hard enough, we can develop these ‘negatives’ in to fully-fledged images and create a colourful depiction of these ‘lost’ landscapes.

Sarah Hayes, Freelance Curator
Follow me @HayesSarah17


Exploring Medieval Birmingham: Part III

Birmingham in 1300. Any houses that take your fancy?
©Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

As I’ve discovered, the model is already inspiring interest in Birmingham’s medieval past, and, for some, it’s presenting what they once saw as a dull topic in a vibrant and accessible way. Conversations so far have ranged from serious discussions about what the archaeology from the Bull Ring excavations can tell us about Birmingham in the Middle Ages, to me discussing with people which houses we’d like to live in. The latter point isn’t as trivial a topic as you might think, because imagining is part of ‘experiencing’ and understanding history. The success of this display will be based on visitors not simply viewing the archaeology as ‘lifeless’ objects, but by making the link between the objects and the people who made them, used them, or sold them. So, don’t feel silly for imagining which house you’d live in or where you’d work. This is a good starting point for beginning to understand what life must have been like for our medieval ancestors.

The model sits at the centre of the new medieval gallery, Origins,and this is deliberate. It’s not a stand-alone interactive, as it has been designed to act as a ‘gateway’ for understanding all of the medieval objects on display in the gallery. This brings me on to one of my favourite objects; the skull of a hunting dog.

Skull of a hunting dog now on display in the new History Galleries, Birmingham: Its People, Its History.
©Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

It’s most likely the skull of a greyhound, one of the oldest breeds of dog known to man. The skull dates from the 14th century and was actually found at Weoley Castle, around six miles from Birmingham city centre.

William de Birmingham hunting in his deer park. ©Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

So, how is it relevant to the model of medieval Birmingham? Well, the de Birmingham lords would have also kept greyhounds, and we know this from the extensive deer park that existed next door to the town. In fact, the deer park existed before the town. The manor of Birmingham covered an even larger area stretching from the River Rea in Digbeth at one end, to Edgbaston at the other. The town Peter de Birmingham founded in 1166 occupied a small patch of land within the manor in comparison, but as the town became more successful, the subsequent de Birmingham lords released more of their deer park, until eventually it was absorbed by the expanding town.

The greyhound skull can tell us a lot about how land usage gradually changed in medieval Birmingham. Any self-respecting lord of the manor had a deer park because venison was a luxury meat and being able to invite your friends over to hunt was a sure sign of status. For the de Birminghams to ‘sacrifice’ something that represented their social standing, the town had to be prospering, and it was. Initially it was probably ‘topping-up’ their annual income, but the realisation of the town’s success and potential convinced them to release more land from their manor. This allowed the town over time to get bigger and meet the growing demand of trade. The idea of lordship was changing and land usage was changing with it. The town was now becoming the status indicator rather than the deer park.

A successful investment! The market triggered Birmingham’s growth and the town continued to expand gradually into the rest of the manor. ©Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

The water-filled ditch in the middle of the image acted as the boundary line of the town. By 1300, tanning pits were occupying what was once the deer park. ©Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

We can use this object to understand how feudalism was breaking down in Birmingham and England as a whole. The park was becoming gradually less important as the town prospered. That’s to say that the deer park was now more valuable to the lord as part of the town, than it was as his hunting ground.The economy was no longer solely based on feudal obligations, whereby peasants worked the land for the lord in return for living on his manor. We know that in Birmingham as early as 1232, sixteen townsmen had come to an agreement with William de Birmingham (an earlier William than the one featured in our model) to free themselves from their haymaking duties. It was more beneficial to William for these merchants and tradesmen to sell their goods at market and support the growth of his town, than to help out with this communal obligation. This was part of the gradual move from a land-based economy to a money-based economy.

Greyhounds were bred for the nobility in the Middle Ages and any ‘commoner’ caught with one would be severely punished and the dog killed. This was seen as a justifiable act to preserve hunting rights. ©Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

By this stage, the lord of the manor was looking outwards rather than inwards, beyond the boundaries of the manor, as it was trade from the wider area that would secure the success of his town and his status as lord. Owning a town within your manor was now part of the aspirations of the aristocracy, and while deer parks were by no means out of fashion, it seems that for the de Birminghams, at least, entrepreneurial vision had superseded hunting pursuits in the ranks of lordly endeavours.

My greys running on Bamburgh beach this year and probably why I’m obsessed with this object! The breed is still favoured for its speed and agility today.

Remember that the new History Galleries, Birmingham, Its People, Its History opens next month on 12th October.

Keep up to date with the progress of the galleries by following me on Twitter @CinnamonLatte17.

 

 

 

Special thanks to our model makers, Eastwood Cook http://www.eastwoodcook.com/

Sarah Hayes, Freelance Curator

 


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 http://www.eastwoodcook.com/

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,  http://birminghammag.posterous.com/exploring-medieval-birmingham-part-ii


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 http://www.eastwoodcook.com/

Sarah Hayes, Freelance Curator

This blog first featured on Posterous in June 2012,  http://birminghammag.posterous.com/exploring-medieval-birmingham