Read CHAPTER XV of A Tale of One City: The New Birmingham, free online book, by Thomas Anderton, on

Some Personal recollections.

Though reminiscences and recollections are rather overdone in these days, I may, perhaps, be permitted a few personal reflections in bringing my chapters to a close. And I shall not write a long, tedious tale, and why? Because, like the needy knife-grinder, I have no story to tell. Happy, we are told, is the country that has no history, and, if this is so, happy should be the man who is not burdened with too many reminiscences.

Still, there are just a few memories that I should like to jot down, which may, or may not, be of interest to my readers. Authors, I fancy, often write as much to gratify themselves as to please other people. I cannot boast that I have been personally intimate with many distinguished people. I have never been to Court, and, consequently, I am, according to Shakspeare’s clown, emphatically “damned.” I have known some few titled people, and have even sat at meat with a Duke in his palatial home, and did not fail to notice that his Grace was very easy and human in his tastes and manners, and was not above taking a glass of port wine with his cheese. I have just occasionally shaken hands with a lord of high degree, and even with a belted earl, but I am not of the Upper Ten, and am quite outside the gilded gate that encloses the noble of the land. I have seen few people that were particularly worth seeing, that is, for book-writing purposes, but I will take leave to reconnoitre in my memory those I have beheld in Birmingham during the course of my uneventful career.

I may, perhaps, preface my observations with the paradoxical remark that the first great celebrity I ever saw I just missed seeing. This was Louis Kossuth. I was only a small boy when the great Hungarian patriot visited Birmingham in the year 1851. Hearing so much talk about Kossuth I naturally burned with a desire to see him. When the eventful day of his visit came I secured a very good position at the top of Paradise Street, and fancied I was going to have a fine view of the distinguished Hungarian and the procession that accompanied him. I waited patiently for some hours, then I heard the sound of music in the distance, and then the roar and cheers of many voices. They grew louder and louder; then came the surging wave of a great crowd of people. For a brief time I was quite submerged, and when I recovered my position the procession and the patriot were past and gone.

I remember the visit to Birmingham of the Prince Consort in 1855 to lay the foundation stone of the Birmingham and Midland Institute.

I saw his Royal Highness well and truly lay the said stone, and I afterwards saw him in the Town Hall, where he was entertained at luncheon. I have a very distinct recollection of the occasion even now, and I call to mind in particular that the Prince wore a pair of light grey trousers and a swallow-tail, that is, a dress-coat. We should think this a strange costume for a gentleman at a morning function in these days, but times have changed, and the dress coat is now never seen in the morning, and not so much at night as it used to be.

Of course I remember the Queen’s visit to Birmingham in 1858, for the purpose of opening Aston Park, the “People’s Park,” as it was proudly called. There was a deal of effervescent talk about this noble project. The People, with a capital P, were going to buy the park for the People, with the money of the People. The scheme succeeded save in the matter of getting the funds. The People approved of the project, the People shouted themselves hoarse when her Majesty came to put the finishing touch to the noble undertaking, but, unfortunately, the great People failed to find the money necessary to carry out the grand undertaking, and the Municipality had to pay up to complete the purchase.

It is still going back a long time, but I distinctly recall the visit of Lord Brougham to Birmingham in 1857, when as president he delivered the inaugural address at the opening meeting of the newly-born Association for the Promotion of Social Science. I remember the Town Hall was completely filled, and much interest was felt in the appearance of Lord Brougham on the occasion. When he took his place on the platform there was some little disturbance and confusion among the audience. This promptly brought to his feet Lord Brougham, who said in very emphatic tones, “Allow me to say and I have had some experience of public meetings that if any persons attempt to disturb the proceedings of this meeting, measures shall be taken to expel them.”

I am quoting from memory, but I believe my words are pretty correct. When Lord Brougham had delivered this emphatic utterance, he proceeded with his address, which was a dull affair and did not inspire the least enthusiasm. It was, indeed, a somewhat somnolent discourse, and his audience hardly seemed to wake up till he reached his peroration, which closed with a telling quotation from Oliver Goldsmith.

If I recollect rightly there were many notabilities present on this occasion. I remember the interest I felt in seeing Lord John Russell for the first and only time in my life. There was not much of him to look at, but what there was looked pleasant. I saw, indeed, a small man, with a big head, and a large smile. There was, of course, a good deal of eloquence on the evening to which I refer, and at this distance of time I remember that one distinguished visitor made a rather amusing bull. Speaking of some obvious fact and carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment, he said, “Gentlemen, the matter is as clear as the rising sun at noon-day.”

I remember seeing Thackeray in Birmingham, and heard him deliver his lecture on George III. at the Music Hall, Broad Street, now the Prince of Wales Theatre. I was, of course, interested to see the great novelist, but I thought his lecture a prosaic performance. In a literary sense the address was characteristic and interesting as can be seen in its printed form but it gained nothing by its author’s delivery. It was a well-composed piece of work, and it had a composing effect upon those who heard it. At least I know I found it dull, and half dozed during its monotonous delivery. Indeed, it was not till Thackeray reached his concluding words which, by the way, were Shakspeare’s, being an effective quotation from “King Lear” that I was roused from my dreamy reverie.

I recollect seeing Charles Kingsley when he was President of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, and noticed that though in speaking he stammered perceptibly, when he delivered his presidential address he adopted a sort of sing-song tone which more or less concealed his impediment of speech. In fact he half intoned his discourse. I remember, too, meeting Professor Tyndall at Mr. Chamberlain’s table, and was struck by the simple modesty of the eminent savant. I sat next to Mrs. Tyndall, who was very unaffected, pleasant, and conversational. I have often thought of this occasion, and did so especially when the sad and tragic mistake occurred which ended in Professor Tyndall’s premature death. Mrs. Tyndall, it may be remembered, gave her husband a wrong dose of medicine, which brought his illness to a sudden and fatal termination. What an awful mistake. To live after this was pathetic.

Of course I remember a good deal about the late Mr. John Bright and his visits to Birmingham. So do other people, and as many of these others are scribes and quasi-historians who have published their records, there is really not much for me to tell. I may say that I heard nearly every speech our distinguished member delivered in Birmingham, for I hardly ever missed a meeting at which Mr. Bright was a spokesman. Even now I distinctly recall the first occasion on which he spoke after he became M.P. for Birmingham. The Town Hall was more than crowded, it was packed; indeed, I might almost say that herrings in a tub have elbow room compared with the very compressed gathering that welcomed Mr. Bright on the occasion.

In order to make more space the benches were removed from nearly all parts of the Town Hall, and the curious sight of the sea of faces when Mr. Bright appeared lingers in my memory still. One curious thing I observed at this gathering was that so long as our member was speaking the vast assembly was held spellbound. But when he paused for a moment to turn over his notes or take a sip of water, the tightly squeezed audience swayed for a little bodily relief and expansion, and this resulted in big surging waves of humanity, which rolled from one end of the body of the hall to the other, and often lasted for some little time.

At this moment I can recollect almost word for word the stirring and eloquent peroration with which Mr. Bright closed his first address to his Birmingham constituents. It roused his hearers to a pitch of demonstrative enthusiasm such as I have never seen equalled.

I could quote from memory many striking passages from the principal speeches I heard our distinguished member deliver. But why? Are they not recorded in a hundred books, or at least in many books and hundreds of newspapers? I will, therefore, now content myself with just one or two personal reminiscences connected with our great Parliamentary representative.

One little story I have to tell is connected with Mr. Bright’s speech on the occasion of unveiling the statue of Mr. Joseph Sturge, erected at the Five Ways, Birmingham. There was an immense gathering on that occasion, and of course I was there. I secured a good position for hearing, but, unfortunately, there was a woman near me with a crying baby in her arms. This prevented me hearing much that the speaker said, and at last I got quite out of patience, and turning to the woman I remarked, “Why don’t you take that noisy child home?” “Oh,” said the woman in reply, “her’s just as bad at home.” I felt I had my answer, and that there was no more to be said.

On another occasion I remember Mr. Bright walking down New Street, just after delivering one of his grandest speeches, when a working-man, one of the real “horny-handed,” stepped up to him and patted him on the back in the most familiar and approving manner. I will also just note one other little incident in connection with Mr. Bright and Birmingham and then I have done. I have to give this second-hand, but I believe what I say may be accepted.

When Mr. Bright was offered a seat in Mr. Gladstone’s administration in the year 1868 it caused him some severe searching of heart. He did not like giving up his freedom in the House of Commons. When this question was before him he was staying with Mr. now Sir John Jaffray, Bart., and in discussing the matter with his host he walked up and down the room talking and talking till the hours flew by and it became late. Mr. Jaffray who was rather an early man became weary before Mr. Bright had finished his talk. The latter probably perceived this, for with a fine touch of humour he made for the chandelier, and said, “I see, Jaffray, that you will never go to bed till I turn off the gas.”

In searching the files of memory it is rather surprising to find how one thought leads to another, and the long-hidden past reveals itself with almost as much clearness as the events of yesterday. When I began to write down these personal recollections I thought I should find little or nothing to tell. As I proceed, however, occurrences of past years crop up and crowd upon memory, and that to such an extent that it becomes a question of what I shall not write rather than what I shall.

Lest, however, I become tiresome and tedious I will for the most part “let the dead past bury its dead,” and content myself with a little chapter of history which is especially interesting to me, and may not be without some amount of interest to others, especially those concerned in our educational and industrial progress.

One important change that has recently taken place in what I will call business Birmingham has brought back to my mind a throng of mixed memories. I allude to the vicissitudes that have taken place in local trading concerns, and I may especially mention the disestablishment or dismemberment of the manufactory of R.W. Winfield and Co., Cambridge Street. To see the break-up of this once large, important, and successful concern has been a matter of some sorrow to me. And why? Because it was at this establishment that I began my working career. Yes, at an early age I was a junior clerk at Cambridge Street Works, when it was the private business of the late Mr. R.W. Winfield.

At that time the manufactory was one of the largest if not the largest in Birmingham. It employed about 1,000 hands, and its operations were carried on in several separate departments. These were the tube and metal, the gas-fitting, the metallic bedstead, the stamped brassfoundry, the general brassfoundry, and other departments and divisions. To my youthful eyes it seemed to be a huge place, and, indeed, it was a big manufactory, and had a very extensive home and foreign trade.

I do not propose now to go into details concerning the manufacturing work done at Cambridge Street at the period of which I speak. This would be a matter of small interest to general readers. The once large establishment has had its day and has now ceased to be, though why it should have fallen to pieces so completely is not readily to be explained.

There are, however, matters concerning the earlier days of Cambridge Street Works that well deserve to be recognised and recorded. I think, indeed, I may say that Mr. R.W. Winfield was the local pioneer of compulsory education. There were, of course, a large number of boys employed at the works, and Mr. Winfield not only provided an evening school for these young hands but compelled them to attend and be educated whether they liked it or not.

At the time mentioned, I remember, Mr. James Atkins then a manager of one of the departments had a large hand in the educational operations carried on in connection with the Cambridge Street manufactory. He had the happy knack of attracting boys to him, and could interest those he taught and teach those he interested. Mr. Atkins, as is well known, afterwards became the principal of the firm, but more of this anon.

In the work of these evening schools, Mr. John Fawkener Winfield, son of Mr. R.W. Winfield, took a very active interest. He used to give some excellent lectures, and constantly taught in the classes. Much money was spent upon these schools; indeed, a large room was specially built, at very considerable cost, in order that the educational work might have elbow room and be carried on effectually.

Mr. Winfield was a stiff, unbending man in some matters especially in politics but he was in many respects broad-minded and large-hearted. He was thoughtful for those in his employ, especially the young people, and his son was like unto him.

When I was engaged at Cambridge Street Works Mr. R.W. Winfield lived at the Hawthorns, Ladywood Lane. The house seemed by comparison to be a large and important mansion, and was quite in the country then. Yes, I remember now, at this distance of time, how often our employer used to give us treats at his house, and what pleasant jinks we had in playing and rollicking about the fields and grounds surrounding his residence.

In many respects Mr. R.W. Winfield was one of the real old school. He was not a high or broad so much as a good, thick, consistent churchman of the Evangelical school. He “wore his beaver stiffly up,” his neck-tie was a starched white cravat, his clothes were black broadcloth, with the dress coat worn by gentlemen in the early and middle years of last century. All the same, he had some modern ideas, especially, as I have said, in the matter of education. If it came to be totalled up how much he spent on the education of the boys in his employ, the aggregate sum would run to large figures.

Time, we know, smooths the surface or rounds off the corners of past events that seemed rather arbitrary at the time of their occurrence. But, after making allowance for all this, my experience of Mr. Winfield’s evening schools is occasionally wafted back to me with many pleasant memories and associations. Compulsory education was the iron hand that directed the young ideas how to shoot, though it was enveloped in a soft velvet glove. Mr. Winfield did good far-reaching work by the establishment and maintenance of his evening schools, and his thoughtfulness and generosity in this direction should be counted unto him for righteousness.

Why Cambridge Street Works, which once employed so many hands, should have so completely collapsed is, as I have hinted, a bit of a mystery. I can only guess, and as tracking conundrums is not my purpose in these chapters, I will leave others to unravel the riddle if they can. It is, however, a matter of local business history that some thirty years or more ago the Cambridge Street concern shewed signs of tottering to its fall, and when Mr. Atkins went into the business as a proprietor, he had to make some sweeping reforms that naturally created some resentment and criticism. Possibly the business was “eating its head off,” and the process of deglutition had to be rigorously curtailed. This having been done, the business thrived and prospered once more, and continued to do so for some years. I will not follow its fortunes to its ultimate fall. It became a public company, and now it is no more.

Winfields’ is not the only important local business that has gone under during the past fifty years, yet it is satisfactory to find that many of our old-established manufactories and businesses have survived, and still exist in some form or other. Elkington’s, Gillott’s, and Hardman’s still flourish, and among the brassfounders Pemberton and Son’s, Tonks and Son’s, Cartland’s, and others, go on their way rejoicing, casting, stamping, lacquering, and polishing, and pushing brassfoundry into more ornamental and utilitarian use.

Some of our old-established merchants and factors are still with us. The trade of Messrs. Keep and Hinckley, whose place of business was for years near St. Mary’s Square, is now carried on by Keep Bros., in Broad Street. The establishment of Rabone Bros., merchants, also in Broad Street, still stands where it did. The businesses of Rock and Blakemore, Moilett and Gem, and others, are still carried on by survivors of the old firms.

As for the new industries, the new firms and companies that have been created in our midst during the past half-century, their enumeration and description would be a big story, and would require a large volume to tell it. That volume I do not propose to begin. I desire to close my present little chapter, and perhaps I shall not be the only one who will be glad to come to the end of it.