At a recent exhibition titled ‘Women Power Protest’ there was a striking portrait of Catherine Osler, one of the key leaders in the Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society. Given how few portraits there are of Birmingham’s female political figures from that era in the collection, Jim Wells investigates the story behind the portrait. Click on the painting of Catherine below to read the story:-
Education in Birmingham
The Birmingham History galleries at BMAG hint at many stories. Although they are not open for the moment, you can sample some of this material thanks to the efforts of Friends’ member and trustee, Jim Wells. Here he tells how Birmingham citizens over many centuries have developed education ideas and policy.
Click on the picture to read the story:-
Jane’s Walk for Birmingham Museums
During 10 days in early August 2020, our deputy chair, Jane Howell, declared her own personal commitment to support the Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT) during its enforced shut-down. She committed to walk between all nine sites that comprise the BMT group. Her initial aim was to raise £1000.
* You might not be surprised to know that she completed the walk.
* You might be more surprised by the success of her fund-raising.
* Most surprising of all is the engaging character who was with her all the way!!
Changing Birmingham – its people and places
Birmingham Town Hall
With building work being completed and the Town Hall coming back to its full glory it felt like a good time to look at its history both as a building and a venue.
The development of the Town Hall is inextricably linked with the Triennial Music Festival (1784-1912), the funds from which helped support the Birmingham General Hospital. Venues such as St Phillips were becoming too small for the festival so the organisers asked the Town Commissioners for a venue to hold 3000 people at an estimated cost of £20,00. In 1830 a design competition was launched with Hanson & Welch chosen as architects and Thomas Kendal as builders. The actual cost was £25,000 far exceeding the original estimates, causing Thomas Kendal to go bankrupt, an event that has a very contemporary ring to it.
The exterior of the building is based on a three quarters scale reproduction of the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum, with republican overtones reflecting the radical politics of Birmingham at the time. During its construction two workers were killed and are buried in the grounds of St Phillips, marked by a pillar base. The interior has been modified a number of times, with major changes in 1927, but the recent renovation has largely restored it to its original layout.
For further information there is an excellent insight into the architecture involved in the Town Hall by Andy Foster in the Pesvner guide.
Opening in 1834 our next most significant date is 1846 and the association of the Town Hall with Mendelsohn and his choral work Elijah. Mendelsohn was commissioned by the Festival organisers and paid 200 guineas for the work and it put Birmingham on the national music map. Reviewed by the Times: ‘The last note of Elijah was drowned in a long continuous unanimous volley of plaudits, vociferous and deafening’. The work was performed at every festival from that date and continues to have a strong association with the City, the original score was purchased by the Council in 1991.
Coming into the early twentieth century we start the period of Elgar’s dominance in producing work for the Festival. His first commission was for a choral piece based on Cardinal Newman’s poem The Dream of Gerontius. Despite a poor first performance due to chaotic preparations it received great critical claim home and abroad. He went onto produce three further pieces, conducting The Apostles himself at the Town Hall in 1903, and becoming a well-known public figure with a knighthood in 1904.
Whilst music has always been at the centre of the Town Hall programme, it has hosted a wide range of other events since 1834. Continuing our connection with the Sturge family, the niece of Joseph and Sophia Sturge features in a significant event at the start of the campaign for women’s suffrage. The Birmingham Women’s Suffrage Society had been formed in in 1861 and Eliza Sturge became the secretary in 1869. In 1872 Millicent Fawcett, whose statue is in Parliament Square, addressed a large meeting on women’s suffrage at the Town Hall, and representing Birmingham. Eliza made a speech which was reprinted as pamphlet titled ‘On Women’s Suffrage’. She went on to be elected to the Birmingham School Board where she proved to be a valuable member. The current exhibition “Power to the People” provides some more interesting artefacts related to this topic, well worth a visit.
From Dickens to Black Sabbath, Paul Robeson to David Bowie, the Town hall has provided an inspiring venue for performers over the years and continues to do so, holding a special place in Birmingham people’s memories.
Let us know about your memorable experiences at the Town hall on our Facebook page www.facebook.com/friendsBMAG
Below is some suggested reading if you wish to explore further.
Nicola Gauld Words and Deeds Birmingham Suffragists and Suffragettes 1837 -1918,WestMidlands History.
Ann Elliot The Music Makers . BCC 2008
C.Gill History of Birmingham Vol 1 OUP 1952
Andy Foster Birmingham Pevsner Architectural Guides YUP
(written by James Wells, 1/4/20)