An Accident Waiting to Happen? The Whittall Street Explosion of 1859

The Iron Room

Memorial Card to the victims of the Whittal Street Explosion, 1859 [Ephemera Collection LE/Cards/1]

Come and hear Liz Palmer share the account of the explosion at the Percussion Cap Manufactory, which tragically which took the lives of eighteen young women and one young man.

Birmingham has long been associated with the gun trade, with the gun quarter being focused on the area on the Weaman Estate around Whittall Street. Innovations in the industry in the early mid-19th Century saw the establishment of several percussion cap manufactories as percussion cap weapons replaced flintlocks. The manufactories employed mainly girls and young women whose nimble fingers were suited to the many processes involved in the production of these tiny items.  But the work was extremely dangerous involving several explosive substances including fulminating mercury. Explosions involving loss of life were not uncommon; one of the worst of these was in 1859 at the…

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Were your ancesters Suffragettes?

100 years ago as the result of  the Representation of People Act 1918the franchise was radically extended to give the vote to women over 30 (who met the property qualification) and all men over 21 (Don’t believe anything you may read about equality being granted back then!).

8.5 million women met the criteria,  but it still only represented 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK.

The same act abolished property restrictions for men and thus many of working class origin were able to vote for the first time. Additionally, men in the armed forces could vote from the age of 19. The electorate increased from eight to 21 million.

The National Archives and Find My Past have collaborated to digitise some key records relating to Suffragettes. The Suffragette collection spans from 1902 to 1919 and includes the following series of records from The National Archives: AR1, CRIM9, HO144, HO45, HO140, MEPO2, and MEPO3. Among these are photographs of suffragettes, cabinet letters, calendars of prisoners, Home Office papers of suffragette disturbances, an index of women arrested between 1906 and 1914 (the official watch list of over 1,300 suffragettes), reports of force-feeding, and more.

These records, together with census records and birth, marriage and death records can be viewed for one week only for free on FindMyPast if you follow the link below.

NOW – 8th February
Did the women in your family change history?

Find out now! UK and Ireland only – Free Access Now to 8th Feb on FindMyPast

Birmingham Children of War

The Iron Room

September 12 2016 saw the official launch of Birmingham Children of War. This six month project, run by the Friends of Birmingham Archives and Heritage (FoBAH), with funding from the Heritage Lottery through their ‘First World War: then and now’ grants programme, was established to explore the experiences of children born or living through the First World War in Birmingham.

hall-of-memory Hall of Memory, Broad Street, Birmingham. Plaque (last of three) William Bloye. 1925.

The launch in the Wolfson Centre in the Library of Birmingham identified some initial archive and library resources to help us to learn more about children’s lives during this tumultuous period. A small selection of resources had been chosen to illustrate some of the themes that the project hoped to investigate in more depth with the help of volunteers and in partnership with other organisations.

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Whittall Street Explosion of 1859

In-Memoriam Card for those killed in an explosion at Messrs. PurI stumbled across this Memorial Card in the ephemera collection at the Library of Birmingham one day and I could not help but be moved by it and wanting to know more about the explosion at the Percussion Cap Manufactory.   I’ve since used the image and some basic details of the tragic explosion  which took the lives of eighteen young women and one young man, for a couple of years in a talk on ‘Death in the Archives’. But accepting an invitation to do a talk at the Gunmakers’ Arms in Birmingham’s historic gun quarter has given me the opportunity (or should I say excuse) to delve deeper into the events of that fateful day.

Like all good Victorian melodramas the story has heroes and villains but sadly for the  numerous damsels in distress most of them don’t get rescued. If you want to find out more about the trade, the roles of the young women, the sole male victim and the aftermath come along to the Gunmaker’s Arms on Tuesday 22nd November at 7pm. Free admission – and some good beer on tap!




Remembering Arthur Procter.

Lieutenant Arthur Procter of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, was killed on the first day of thImage Arthur Proctere Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916.  Baptised on 24 September 1887 at St Martin’s, he was the second son of William Procter, a tailor and his wife Sarah Smith. He was educated at King Edward VI Camp Hill. By 1911 the family had moved to Moseley, living at 91 Trafalgar Road. By this date  Arthur was a shop assistant in a Drapers but like his father, who had served with the old Warwickshire Volunteers, he joined the Territorial Force and had risen to the rank of Quarter Master Sergeant prior to the outbreak of war. He received his commission shortly before the 1st/8th Battalion embarked for France in March 1915. In May 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry in leading a successful raid on enemy trenches during which he cut the wires and then ran along the trench parapet bombing as he went.

Gallantry Medal Arthur Procter

On the opening day of the Somme offensive the 1st/8th Battalion was engaged along the Redan Ridge between the hamlets of Serre and Beaumont Hamel. Arthur was one of approximately 600 men of the Battalion to lose their lives that day. Only 45 remained to be counted at roll call the following day. He is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme which bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men.

This was not the only tragedy to befall the Procter family. Arthur’s brother Frank Goodheart Procter, who served with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment before being transferred to the 4th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, died from wounds on 2nd November 1917 and is buried in Etaples Cemetery. Both of these brothers are commemorated on the War Memorial of St Mary’s Parish Church, Moseley.

Their eldest brother, William Thomas Procter, initially joined the Royal Navy and was later transferred to the Royal Naval Air Service. He was the only one of the three to survive.

Research carried out as part of my contribution to the Moseley WWI Research Group.


It’s not all on the internet…….

I’m currently involved with the Moseley Churchyard Heritage Project leading a team of volunteers who are undertaking a survey of  the remaining gravestones, recording the inscriptions, making a photographic record and researching about the lives of those commemorated on the stones. Some of the names are familiar ones (at least around Birmingham) such as Joseph Lucas of Lucas Industries and Horatio Nelson Grimley, founding father of Grimley JR Eve property agents. But others, who may well have been important local figures in the Moseley community in their day, are less well remembered. So how do we go about researching them?

Well with the information from the inscriptions we can follow up all the usual genealogical sources such as births, marriages and deaths and census entries and maybe that will throw up a few more avenues of research including listings in electoral registers or street directories. And we can hope to strike lucky with searches of online newspapers via the British newspaper archive or the the London Gazette. But an often overlooked contemporary source are magazines, journals, books and other publications written whilst the subject of our enquiry whilst they were still alive or were at least in living memory of the writers. But finding these can be a bit of an effort (unless they happen to have digitised by Google Books or the the Internet Archive. How will you know without looking through dozens of issues whether they were written about in the Edgbastonian or the Moseley & Kings Heath Journal whether anything was written about them at all?

2016-05-24 16.39.17Well, help is at hand in the form of biographical indexes compiled over a hundred of years ago when librarians obviously had a lot more time on their hands than these days (or maybe there were just more staff & less customers?)  One of these held at the Library of Birmingham is the “Index to Biographical and Personal Notices which have appeared in Volumes and Local Periodicals Filed in the Central Reference Library of Birmingham to the End of the Year 1914” compiled by C J Woodward. It consists of two volumes and they live on the Quick Reference set of shelves so easily accessible. All you have to do is look up the name of the person of interest and if you find an entry it will give you brief and slightly incomprehensible details at first glance. So searching on George Frederick Lyndon, the incumbent of one of the largest memorials on the South side of the church I found an entry which read:

CP 149 2016-05-24 16.40.15
M II 123
FF I No. 336
P 71 1907
What you then do is turn to the pages at the front of the first volume and translate the codes into the name of the publication and this will be accompanied by an accession number – and these can still be used by staff in the know to track down the most obscure items if they do not appear in the computerised library catalogue.
So checking the codes for my Lyndon entries I end up with the following:
CP 149 Midland Captains of Industry 217842
M II 123 Moseley Society Journal
FF I No. 336 Familiar Figures from Evening Despatch 1888
P 71 1907 Pike: Birmingham at Opening of 20th Century 185889
I’ve now filled out my request slips and hopefully next time I go in to the Heritage Research Area I should be able to peruse these items at my leisure and learn everything there ever was to know about George Frederick Lyndon……IMG_20160420_153135.415
In fact I’ve already looked at the Moseley Society Journal for April 1895 Vol 2 No. 15 and discovered a phot0graph of him plus a 3 page character sketch of this businessman, local councillor and one-time occupant of the Henburys,  an important house no longer standing in what is now Highbury Park.
There are several other indexes that are worth looking at in a similar way including one for local artists and there is also a large collection of biographical newscuttings which are also indexed and always worth checking. And these type of indexes and collections exist not only in Birmingham but also in local studies libraries elsewhere. So do make the effort to seek them out as they could lead you to some great finds – or at the very least stop you wasting too much time on fruitless searches in the ‘wrong’ publications.


Using local BMD Indexes

If you’ve got a subscription to Ancestry, FindMyPast or any similar genealogical website you probably use it to search for post 1837 civil registrations of births, marriages and deaths. Or maybe you use FreeBMD ? As you probably know what you are searching is the General Register Office’s indexes (or should that be indices?) collated from the quarterly returns submitted to them from each of the Registration districts in England and Wales.  Once you have found an entry in the index it will give you a reference number including a volume and page number and this can be included in your order for certificates directly from GRO .

But if you are unable to find an entry for an event you are searching for is this because it didn’t take place (or the registration of it didn’t) or because it has been misindexed. As genealogists we are always striving to use original sources and yet when it comes to BMD registrations we often seem content to use the GRO indexes which are quite distantly removed from the original registers. In order to locate original register entries it obviously does make sense to make use of indexes but the ‘primary’ indexes are those compiled and held by local register offices. These were then transcribed,submitted to GRO and then reindexed by them to form the quarterly GRO indexes. So how do we get to view the original indexes? Well, in some registration districts such as Birmingham or Coventry, the answer is ‘with difficulty if at all’. But in some other parts of the West Midlands (Sandwell, Dudley, Walsall) local family history societies are collaborating with local registration offices to transcribe the original indexes and make them available via West Midlands BMD . So although these are transcripts rather than the original they are still closer to the originals than the GRO indexes – and can be particularly useful in the case of marriages.

What the GRO marriage index doesn’t help you do is to identify the particular place where a marriage took place. But local indexes compiled from the marriage registers held by local register offices can do this. And this can lead to both cost and time savings. If possible I will seek out church marriage registers by visiting local archives and searching either the originals or their microfilmed copies. But this often involves a fair amount of guesswork as to which church particularly if you’re not sure where both the bride and groom were living at the time of the wedding. So, for instance, in the case of my GGGrandparents Joseph HEAFIELD and Mary MOON, a search FreeBMD provided me with the information that the marriage was registered in Jun Qtr of 1852 in Dudley Registration District and had the GRO Reference of Vol 6C p.153. But a search on West Midlands BMD gave me the following result:
WMBMD Index HEAFIELD&MOON 1852Pepper PotFrom this result I know that they got married at St Martin in Tipton and so I can choose to go to Sandwell Archives and find the entry in the parish register they hold there or purchase a copy of the entry from the register held at Sandwell Register Office at a cost of £10.  In case you’re wondering the Pepper Box was the local name for the distintively shaped church as can be seen in the image.


But I would have searched parish registers in vain for the marriage of Thomas James HEAFIELD to Frances M CRADDOCK in Dec Qtr 1876 in West Bromwich for the simple reason that they married at the Register Office. In this case the use of the locally transcribed indexes gave me this result and saved much time in fruitless searching. If I want to see the marriage entry I will have to purchase a copy certificate and can do this from Sandwell Register Office.WMBMD Index HEAFIELD&CRADDOCK

Clicking on the reference number in these results from West Midlands BMD takes you through to a page on the UKBMD site which will show a summary of any results you have clicked on and also whether online ordering is possible (where it is it would link directly to the correct page for certificate ordering for the appropriate register office). Where online ordering is not possible clicking a link takes you to a copy of the certificate ordering form prefilled with the appropriate reference and other details and also showing the correct address to mail the order form to. All you need to do is print it off, add your own name and address details and pop in the post.

Searching local indexes for Births and Deaths don’t give so many advantages as for marriage entries but they should be more accurrate so if you haven’t been able to locate registration of a birth or a death it is worth checking out these indexes on West Midlands BMD or UKBMD and they may just help you break through a genealogical brick wall.


Limited time offer on British Newspaper Archive

FLASH SALE!!! This week only the British Newspaper Archive is offering a 50% discount on 1 month subscriptions. This offer ends on the 20th May. Simply follow this link to  and enter discount code May50A

  • Discount code: MAY50A
  • Valid from: Thursday 12th – Friday 20th May 2016
  • Offer: 50% off a 1 month subscription, £6.48 instead of £12.95.

Last chance for 10% Discount at FindMyPast

Click link and enter code: FEBSAVE10 to get a 10% discount on an annual subscription to FindMyPast which from 16th February 2016 will include full access to the recently digised 1939 Register. This offer is now extended to 11.59pm (GMT) on Monday 15 February, 2016. And  as prices go up by 20% on 16th this deal gives you more than 10%.

FindMyPast is essential if you have ancestors in Staffordshire as it includes searchable records and digitised images of Parish Registers. It also gives access to the Lichfield Diocesan Records which include probates of the consistory court and marriage licences and bonds – and these are relevant for the whole of the Diocese which included Birmingham and Coventry too.