Category Archives: Elsewhere (not Essex or Suffolk)

A Birmingham mystery: is this brick really 132 years old?

A Joseph Hamblet "blue brick"

Joseph Hamblet, West Bromwich, 1883

On the junction of Greenfield Road and Vivian Road in Harborne, Birmingham, some refurb work has recently taken place on what was once a furniture upholsterer’s called Connolly’s. I loved looking in the window of that shop – whether it was an old chair reupholstered in surprising new fabric, or a classic art deco sofa and armchair set, there was always something in the window that grasped my attention. But this morning, what caught my eye was this brick: is it really 132 years old?

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Exhibition reviews: “Terror & Wonder” and “Sherlock Holmes”

gothic-sherlock-exhibition-review

It was my birthday and I wanted a treat, and seeing as two quite interesting exhibitions were on in London, it seemed as good an excuse as any to wend my way temporarily down south. I decided to see Terror & Wonder: The Gothic Imagination at the British Library (open until 20th January 2015), and Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die at the Museum of London (open until 12th April 2015). I’d never been to either place, so that was a bonus….

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Inspector Whicher, Sergeant Cuff, Mr. Holmes, Monsieur Poirot

Yesterday1)I started to write this on Christie’s birthday, but this behemoth could not be completed in one day. was Agatha Christie’s 124th birthday, so it seems appropriate to carry on with Wilkie Collins and Sensation Novels – how they developed into what we recognise as detective fiction.

So polish your magnifying glass, button up your Ulster, wax your moustache, and we shall travel back to Road, Somerset in 1860, to the scene of a real crime.

(Needless to say, this contains multiple spoilers).

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. I started to write this on Christie’s birthday, but this behemoth could not be completed in one day.

Jack the Ripper DNA test proves… not very much, really

My friend Anna asked me what I think about the DNA testing which apparently “proves” that Aaron Kosminski was the infamous Jack the Ripper. I posted a Facebook comment in reply, and it was such a long comment that I thought, do you know what, I think I may as well blog this. So here it is (slightly amended).

I should point out that Russell Edwards, a self-proclaimed armchair detective, says this is case-closed. I am a self-proclaimed chaise longue detective, who is usually more interested in the Essex arsenic panic, but I shall don my deerstalker anyway, and go for a gallop about the foggy backstreets of late 19th century Whitechapel… (a stone’s throw from where two of my great-grandparents were living at the time).

Murder!

Murder!

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An airy thought….

There I was, opening another marriage register, ready to transcribe, when I spotted something, which took my mind far from the nuptials of the people of Essex, and off into the realms of literature.

Not that this is an unusual occurrence – some people have remarked to me that “we’re all related to each other anyway” and “it’s just a list of lots of names”, but what always fascinates me are the stories you can find in parish registers. There is so much material for authors of historical novels in them – strange deaths, attempted bigamy, bizarre choices for children’s names, I could go on…..

Sometimes, I come across things in registers which remind me of novels I have read. I studied English Literature at university, which is probably to blame. For instance, all those soldiers posted at Weeley from 1803, who married the local girls, reminded me straight away of the militia being billeted near the Bennets’ home in Pride and Prejudice. And my various wanderings in old churchyards bring to mind Wuthering Heights and (as mentioned when I went round St. Peter’s, Harborne) the ghost stories of M. R. James.1)Especially when something rather uncanny happened to me and my mum in the churchyard at High Ongar….

But on this particular occasion, where I paused in my transcribing, my thoughts derailed, it was because I had noticed a particular surname. It wasn’t the first time I had, but this time my thoughts coalesced adequately for me to to think… “Hang on! I wonder if…?”

Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels. It has been since we read an abridged version of it when I was 11 at primary school; then, when I was 13 at senior school we read the full edition and were allowed to watch the 1983 adaptation with Timothy Dalton as Mr. Rochester.2)Watch out – I do love my costume dramas and adaptations, and will be writing about them in this blog. It is a novel at once so ordinary and yet so strange; humdrum life wrapped about with the uncanny, that I cannot prize it from my mind. So little wonder then, that, as I looked at the marriage register and for some reason I don’t know, looked at the instructions for vicars on how to fill out the entries, rather than the entries themselves, that I noticed, once again, that the name of the publisher was George Eyre:

george-eyre

George Eyre’s name appearing in a marriage register. His name also appears in baptism and burial registers from 1813 onwards. After 1831, the “King’s printers” became known as Eyre & Spottiswoode. The 1812 Act specifically states that the registers are to be “of good and durable Paper, to be provided by His Majesty’s Printer as Occasion may require”, which means that every baptism, marriages and burial register in the country was printed by Eyre & Strahan. A sample of 1813 registers that I have looked at are all printed by “His Majesty’s Printer”, but later registers, from the 1840s, are produced by a range of other companies.

George Eyre's name appearing at the front of a baptism register. The Act to use pre-printed registers was passed in 1812, to come into force at the beginning of 1813.

George Eyre’s name appearing at the front of a baptism register. The Act to use pre-printed registers was passed in 1812, to come into force at the beginning of 1813. Old-style, pre-printed registers were in use for marriages from 1754-1812 (although not published by Eyre & Strahan), and some parishes used pre-printed registers for baptisms and burials to keep track of the taxes to fund the war with France.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Especially when something rather uncanny happened to me and my mum in the churchyard at High Ongar….
2. Watch out – I do love my costume dramas and adaptations, and will be writing about them in this blog.

Further afield…

Today, I went for a wander around the churchyard at St. Peter’s in Harborne, a suburb to the west of Birmingham. No, not in Essex or Suffolk, but a wonderful old place to rummage about in nonetheless. The church has a 14th century tower, but people have probably worshipped there since Saxon times, or before – it is where St. Chad of Mercia (to whom Birmingham’s Pugin-designed Catholic cathedral is dedicated) preached. This corner of Harborne has a distinctly “village” vibe. The cricket club is just across the road, and an ancient lime tree avenue runs across the pitch, from the church to Harborne Park Road.

18th century headstones at Harborne St. Peter's

18th century headstones at Harborne St. Peter’s

It’s a splendid churchyard, with stones dating back to the late 18th century with fairly legible inscriptions (which I’ll write about in later blogs). It is canopied by tall, ancient trees, so that it always seems to be in an M. R. James half-light, a liminal space where history is breathing at your shoulder.

There are several ways into the churchyard: we entered from the gate by the junction of St. Peter’s Road and Old Church Road. The graves here are from the early twentieth century, so might be an extension of the original churchyard.

We were met at once by an extraordinary memorial, which is right up by the churchyard wall, to 17-year old Freda Strawbridge, who died in 1936, “result of a motor accident”. I don’t know when this was erected, but I had always assumed that a headstone like this – well – is a bit early 21st century. Sociologists seem to attribute the fad for headstones with drawings of steam trains, aeroplanes, teddy bears and cars on them to our post-Princess Diana mindset (before 1997, I don’t remember the British leaving floral tributes at the site of fatal accidents, but nowadays, it’s a national past-time). So this stone really stuck out, and when I read the dates on it, I was actually amazed that it is so comparatively early. 1936, really?

Freda Strawbridge's unusual memorial at Harborne St. Peter's

Freda Strawbridge’s unusual memorial at Harborne St. Peter’s

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