Memorial to PETER OLIVER (1713-1791)

Introduction – Short Synopsis

The monument to Peter Oliver, the former Chief Justice of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, is situated on the left-hand side of the nave, second monument from the front. Its presence in the Cathedral reminds us of both the turbulence of the eighteenth century and the universal plight of refugees.

Peter Oliver Memorial

Memorial to Peter Oliver, Birmingham Cathedral.

In 1776, Peter Oliver was forced to flee Boston, having formerly been among the most eminent people of the colony. The American War of Independence had a direct effect upon him and his family; he was manhandled, prosecuted, forced to leave his mansion and take refuge in Boston, to be finally banished, his mansion burned down two years after he left. Sixty thousand people left America during this period, scattering to other British colonies including Canada, Sierra Leone, the West Indies and Barbados, with ten thousand arriving in England. Most settled in London, but other cities had their own contingent – Peter Oliver eventually settled in Birmingham. As well as Oliver being buried in St. Philip’s, his granddaughter Mary and her daughter, Margaret, as well as his grandson, Daniel, were also buried here.

Continue reading below for the full blog post on Peter Oliver.

Picture of Peter Oliver

This picture, by Richard Wilson of Birmingham, is located in the Boston Museum of Fine Art. The Chief Justice points to a letter with the name “Miss Betsy Watson, Plimoth” on the front. It was painted about 1783, when the artist had returned to Birmingham after several years in America.

Oliver’s Early Life

Oliver’s forbears had emigrated from England to Boston in America in 1632 and the family had flourished; the original emigrant, Thomas Oliver, had been a surgeon; Peter’s father, Daniel Oliver, became a wealthy merchant and prominent and pious citizen of Boston. His mother, Elizabeth Belcher, was the sister of a Governor, and all his life Oliver moved in the circles of the governing class. There is in existence a painting of the young Peter Oliver and his two brothers; his eldest brother Daniel died in 1727 of smallpox in London. Peter and his older brother Andrew seem to have been close. Both Peter and Andrew, who was six years older, were sent to Harvard College at the customary young age of thirteen, and they proceeded to run an import business dealing with wine and textiles, although Oliver’s interests lay in literature, the new science, and the writing of poetry. His father died in 1732, and he inherited the family mansion in Purchase Street, Boston, whilst his brother inherited the new mansion his father was building. After the death of his father both he and his brother married within a few months of each other in 1733 and 1734, Peter Oliver marrying Mary Clarke, the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Andrew married at this date for the second time and had many children, who mostly immigrated to England with their uncle. Peter Oliver then began to buy land in Middleborough, situated thirty miles from Boston; the estate included an iron works which he developed, and thereafter his business interests concentrated upon producing shot and shells for the colonies, as well as domestic cast iron ware, and he became very wealthy. It was this industrial enterprise which brought sufficient profit to build his mansion, Oliver Hall, in 1744, but he also became interested in new methods of farming and the breeding of stock, on which he published. His other interests included the development of the colony and he collected documents concerning its history; and literature and poetry. It is possible that this industrial background brought contact with Birmingham, which may be why he eventually settled here. Oliver was considered an educated and urbane man, with a wife who was a gracious hostess.

Some sources state that he visited England as a young man, as had his two brothers, and he was certainly an Anglophile; his mansion was based upon an English manor house, having beautiful grounds, a library contained in a whole wing, and imported furniture and decorations from England. The family were known for their hospitality, throwing a large banquet in 1762 when news came of the birth of an heir to the king, George III. Another cause for rejoicing was the wedding of Oliver’s physician son, Peter, to the daughter of the Governor, Thomas Hutchinson, in 1769; Oliver threw a four-day reception and built his son a house in the grounds. The Hutchinsons frequently visited Oliver Hall, on one occasion bringing Benjamin Franklin. Although Oliver had two slaves, the way they were treated was quite different from southern plantations, one of them apparently being employed for his conversational abilities (these slaves, however, did not choose to come to England and there is no record of them being freed).

He and his wife had six children: Elizabeth born in 1735, Daniel born in 1738, Peter born in 1741, William born in 1743, Andrew born in 1746 and Mary born in1751, who died at a young age. It was Peter, a doctor, who later settled with his father in England. Elizabeth married at a young age in 1753, both Peter and Andrew in 1769, and it is possible that his son William had also married by the time the family left the Thirteen Colonies.

The families of Andrew and Peter Oliver and the Hutchinson family became very intertwined, creating a governing class which would come to infuriate the future rebels. The wife of Andrew Oliver was the sister of Hutchinson’s wife; Hutchinson’s son Thomas married Andrew Oliver’s daughter Sarah; Hutchinson’s daughter Sarah married Peter, the doctor son of Peter Oliver; and Hutchinson’s son Elisha married the granddaughter of Peter Oliver. These intermarriages continued for several generations. Therefore, when the struggle for Independence began, the problems for one family would, through family ties, affect the other families also.

Oliver became a prominent and involved citizen in Middleborough, and, despite having no legal training, was appointed as J.P. in 1744, and supervised the building of a new courthouse. He was elected to the Council between 1759 and 1766, and he then served as Justice of Plymouth Inferior Court and Justice of the Supreme Court, before becoming Chief Justice of Massachusetts in 1772, the last person to hold the post before the Revolution. By 1771 Hutchinson became Governor, Andrew Oliver was appointed Lieutenant Governor, and then Peter Oliver was appointed Chief Justice. Oliver knew that in taking on this position he took on a poisoned chalice, but he never hesitated in upholding the law as dictated by the British parliament.

The Chief Justice had to keep up all the show of an English judge, moving around in a four-horse coach with outriders. In seventeen years, Oliver spent £2,000 of his own income in fulfilling these legal roles, as he had to move on circuit, and it would be the issue of his inadequate salary (he scathingly stated that the doorman at the court was paid more than him) that brought things to a climax during volatile times. It has been noted that Oliver was an anglophile, and he had a supercilious attitude towards rebels. He considered it his duty to uphold the law, so when the British insisted on imposing the Stamp Act in part to pay for the Seven Years War (1756-1763), he insisted disastrously that legal papers coming to his court should have the proper stamp, despite his private reservations about the Stamp Act. Some of his attitude was due to the amount of smuggling engaged in by apparently respectable merchants, but he also had nothing but disdain towards such people as John Adams, who would eventually become the second President of the United States, accusing rebels of envy of the rich. At a time when the governing class were flourishing, there were a great many impoverished people during the recession after the Seven Years War. In addition, people who were trained in the law were infuriated that people such as Hutchinson and Oliver could become judges.

The War of Independence (1775-1783)

Until the 1760s the Hutchinsons and the Olivers flourished, shielded by their wealth, but after the end of the Seven Years War, known in America as the French and Indian War, when Britain took over American and Canadian territory from the French, the political climate began to change and both families failed to change with it. The problem for the British government was how to fund both the war and the maintenance of troops in America; the national debt was by now more than half the national product. The need to raise revenue by taxes was urgent, and taxation of the American colonies had not been large up to this point. These colonies had been accustomed to raising their own taxes, and new eighteenth century ideas of human rights led to the cry:

‘No taxation without representation,’

the colonies had no representative members in the British Parliament. What Massachusetts did have was its own House of Representatives, which passed its own laws and levels of taxation. The British government’s argument that places in the United Kingdom such as Birmingham and Manchester also had no representatives in Parliament, but had to pay taxes, reads uncomfortably to modern minds.

Andrew Oliver had been appointed Stamp Officer following the Stamp Act of 1765 (a new form of taxation) and suffered the terrible consequences: his house was ransacked, the building he was erecting to collect tax was destroyed by the mob, his effigy was hung on the Liberty Tree at Boston harbour and he was humiliatingly forced by the mob to relinquish his post in public not once but twice. The irony of his appointment was that he did not personally agree with the tax. The mob violence, by rebels who became known as the Sons of Liberty, after this date continually threatened, even though many on the side of Independence did not approve the violence. By 1768 the response of the British was to send two regiments, who were provoked by the mob and fired upon them (which became known as the Boston Massacre), resulting in a trial of the soldiers in 1770 at which Peter Oliver was one of the judges. The Stamp Act riots brought about the abolition of the tax, but the British government retained the right to tax, particularly on tea.

The Boston Tea Party of 1773, the culmination of American indignation about taxes and unfair trade forced upon them by the British Parliament, involved both Elisha and Thomas Hutchinson, sons of the future governor, as consignees of tea famously thrown in Boston harbour by the rebels. The brother-in-law of Peter Oliver, Richard Clarke, was also a consignee and agent to the East India Company. By March 1774, at the funeral of Lieutenant Governor Andrew Oliver, the atmosphere in Boston was so toxic that Peter Oliver was unable to attend his brother’s funeral as officials would not grant him safe conduct. The night after the funeral mobs jeeringly displayed a coffin and there was great unrest.

The eventual collapse of Peter Oliver’s American life concerned his stipend, which was granted by the Massachusetts Assembly and was inadequate. The king was mindful of the situation and offered the judges a stipend, but the Assembly stood firm on the issue that only they could pay their judges, for fear that the loyalty of their judges would be to the Crown and not to the government of Massachusetts Bay. His four fellow judges, aware of the revolutionary atmosphere in Boston, accepted the offer of the legislature, and only Oliver was prepared to accept the British money. In February 1774 the House of Representatives moved for him to be removed as a judge but Governor Hutchinson refused. The rebels sought in vain to find instances of unfair judgements by Oliver but failing in this (which is a compliment to his reputation), the House then moved for him to be impeached, which Governor Hutchinson would not allow, and in the middle of these events his brother Andrew died. The attempt to impeach him was much reported in British newspapers.

The death of Andrew Oliver, the Lieutenant Governor, caused Governor Hutchinson to delay what he regarded as a temporary departure to England, but, soon after General Gage’s appointment as Military Governor, Hutchinson departed in June 1774, together with Elisha Hutchinson, the husband of Peter Oliver’s granddaughter.

In April 1774 the issue of Peter Oliver’s salary came to the fore, with a jury refusing to serve under someone who had been impeached and General Gage sent troops to surround the court. During this period Oliver was manhandled on his way to court and his effigy strung up. On August 24th, 1774, he was forced by a mob meeting him on his way into Boston to sign a declaration that he would not exercise his office but considering that a promise made under duress was not binding, Oliver ignored it. He mostly had not suffered mobs, living thirty miles from Boston at Middleborough, but in 1774 he left his mansion for Boston where British troops were stationed, and was forced to live a confined life (his son Peter remained in Middleborough until he too had mobs surrounding his house in 1775 and then also moved into Boston). The Supreme Court was suspended, and Oliver became a Mandamus councillor under the new Governor, Gage (Mandamus councillors had no option but to serve, under British law, and were a feature of colonial rule).

Following the Boston Tea Party, the British in 1775 had sent another ten thousand troops to Boston under General Gage (the later Governor), who had authority to suspend the local government of Massachusetts Bay and set up a Provincial Congress, as well as closing the port. The response of the rebels was to besiege Boston, where the British were then forced to receive supplies from Halifax in Nova Scotia by sea. Supplies were soon running short.

From March 1775 to April 1776 Boston was encircled by rebels, supplies were already short and were to get much worse, and the town was eventually fired upon as the rebels seized control of Bunkers Hill. Oliver notes that:

‘After having been confined to the limits of Boston for eighteen months, the rebels, who had for many months surrounded the town with strong entrenchments, began to bombard and cannonade it on the 2nd of March 1776.’

The British sent one hundred and twenty ships to Boston in March 1776 to evacuate ten thousand of both the military and the loyalists, and Oliver set sail to England via Nova Scotia, together with most of his family. Due to weather conditions those on board had to wait a fortnight until 17th March before departing. Oliver had to leave behind the majority of his possessions, and a few years later his mansion was destroyed by the mob and his beautiful estate went to waste.

Before departure those on board witnessed the English troops burning Castle William where they had been quartered, a symbol of the destruction of the former life of the loyalists. Oliver’s housekeeper reported years later that apparently, he was able to slip away on the last day and reach his home in Middleborough by horseback, where he hurriedly packed some valuables before fleeing back to the ship. The ship finally sailed to New Brunswick in Canada, and five weeks later Oliver took ship again on 12th May and landed in Falmouth on 1st June. It is uncertain whether Oliver ever intended to settle in Canada, but by this time the colony was overrun with exiles, inflation was rampant and the colony was unable to cope.

On his taking leave of America Peter Oliver wrote:

‘Here I took my leave of that once happy country, where peace and plenty reigned uncontrolled, till that infernal Hydra Rebellion, with its hundred Heads, had devoured happiness, spread desolation over its fertile fields, and ravaged the peaceful mansions of its inhabitants, to whom late, very late if ever, will return that security and repose which once surrounded them… and here I bid A Dieu to that shore, which I never wish to tread again till that greatest of social blessings, a firm established British Government, precedes or accompanies me thither.’

His life in England

By the time Oliver arrived in England his wife Mary had died in 1775. His daughter Elizabeth, married to Colonel George Watson, had died in childbirth in 1767, and two of her three daughters came to England; her daughter Mary was married to Elisha Hutchinson, son of the former governor, and Elisha had already sailed to England with his father in 1774, believing he could soon return to bring his wife and children to England. Letters survive showing Elisha’s great anxiety when he was unable to bring them for three years, leaving his pregnant wife in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with her father. Oliver’s son Daniel had died unmarried in 1768, aged twenty-nine. His third son, Andrew, had died in 1772 but Andrew’s wife, Phoebe Spooner, lived to old age. She chose to remain in Middleborough, and her daughter was in contact with her family in England. According to one source, Phoebe apparently moved into Oliver Hall for two years after Peter Oliver had left, and when she moved out in 1778 it was burned down. Oliver’s daughter Mary had probably died as a child, and his son William is rather a mystery; when Oliver made his will in 1770 William was clearly alive and may have come to England but was clearly in his father’s bad books and does not appear in records of the time.

Oliver’s unmarried niece, Jenny Clarke, from his wife’s side of the family, had kept house for him after the death of his wife and also emigrated with him. In addition, his brother Andrew’s children by his second wife sailed with him, of whom two, Daniel and Louisa, settled in Birmingham.

Oliver’s son, Dr. Peter Oliver, had, with his wife and family, set sail on 25th March 1776, in a different ship from the judge, which went directly to Falmouth and landed on 31st April 1776. The son of Thomas Hutchinson, also called Thomas (who was married to Sarah Oliver, the daughter of Andrew Oliver), sailed with the doctor, together with his family; his wife gave birth whilst on board, and miraculously the baby survived, despite a terrible journey where people were seasick all the way.

On 1st June 1776, after finally landing in Falmouth about a month after his son, Peter, Oliver proceeded to visit tin and copper mines, setting a pattern for his behaviour in England. He then took coach to London by 13th June, living first in Jermyn Street where, ‘I had three rooms well-furnished at 13 guineas a week.’ Later he lodged briefly with Hutchinson, and then moved for a time to Marylebone High Street with his son Peter’s family. From the first Oliver was delighted to be in England, not least because he had been seasick all the way from Canada. On June 13th, 1776, he wrote in his diary:

‘Thanks be to Heaven, I am now in a Place where I can be protected from the Harpy Claws of that Rebellion which is now tearing out its own Bowels in America, as well as destroying all who in any Degree oppose its Progress.’

In this he was very different from Thomas Hutchinson, who had only planned a temporary stay, longed to go home and fretted constantly about the political situation. Hutchinson would die in 1780, heartbroken over the death of his son William shortly before his own death.

Hutchinson had regular contact with the court and had discovered when he arrived that George III was in touch with events in America. He also had all sorts of contacts with aristocracy, officials and politicians, and regularly visited, or was visited by, American exiles. So many exiles were arriving in London that there were several coffee houses, centres of news and gossip, where they particularly gathered, the main one being the New England Coffee House. Oliver was able to engage with this network of new and old acquaintances and was able to go to court to be received by the king, attended the queen’s birthday levee, and also met the Prime Minister, Lord North.

On 4th July 1776 both he and Hutchinson received the degree of D.C.L. (Doctor of Law) from Oxford, a splendid occasion which Oliver greatly enjoyed, spending several days visiting the area (this degree was rarely awarded and had recently been awarded to Dr. Johnson; in much later years it would be awarded to Winston Churchill). When George III had appointed Thomas Oliver, from a different family, as Governor after Hutchinson’s departure, historians agree that he had actually meant to appoint Peter Oliver. The judge was eventually to be offered the post of Lieutenant Governor in New Ireland in northern Maine after Hutchinson refused the post, but it never materialised.

After he had got his bearings in London, where members of Andrew Oliver’s family and the Clarke family lived, he spent time visiting mines, workshops, factories and engineering projects in England, investigating new scientific and engineering discoveries. He also became fond of magic shows and theatre-going and witnessed a balloon ascent. It was in September 1776 that he and Jenny Clark first visited Birmingham and its environs on a tour, together with Hutchinson and his youngest daughter Peggy, a trip which included a visit to Boston in Lincolnshire; this early visit to Birmingham may have prompted his later move.

Dr. Peter Oliver kept a diary and informs us that it was In April 1778 that the judge moved permanently to Birmingham with his housekeeper, Jenny Clarke. Oliver told Hutchinson that he intended;

‘…of fixing in the country near that town, never to come to London again,’

although he was forced to come to London several times after this date. No reason is given for his move, but it may have been business interests that were the cause. He greatly admired the Soho works and the Lunar Society, and it is interesting to note that one American traveller stated that Birmingham was the English town most like Boston. As the war continued, more and more American exiles came to England, forming small groups in several towns. With Peter Oliver in Birmingham came his son, Dr. Peter Oliver with his family, his granddaughter Mary and her husband Elisha Hutchinson with their family, and eventually his nephew and niece Daniel and Louisa Oliver, son and daughter of Andrew Oliver. Peter Oliver lived at 27 Colmore Row; Elisha settled at Hagley Row, Five Ways, and by 1784 Dr. Peter Oliver had moved to New Hall Street, having moved around several times, as had Daniel and Louisa.

In November 1778 came the news that Oliver Hall had been ransacked, which may well have added to Oliver’s feeling of now being firmly settled in England. The loyalists had originally believed that they would win the war, but as the rebels won various battles it gradually became inevitable that Independence was coming.

Dr. Peter Oliver and Elisha Hutchinson were both present in London in 1780 when Thomas Hutchinson died of a stroke, and Peter Oliver was one of the witnesses to his will. In a letter around 1781 Oliver wrote:

‘I live in a retired Part of the Town, clean, healthy & free from Noise; the Doctor and his Family with me; many of our New England Acquaintance nigh me & the rest I can see every Day. I can at once burst into the Bustle of Life or remain in a still & almost rural Retreat. The Amusements & Instruction of Life are easily entered into, or I can entertain myself, undisturbed with my Book; everything is upon such an extensive Scale, that a Person must be completely stupid to wear out Life on Complaints of having nothing to do.’

It is usually stated that this place was a cottage on the outskirts of London, but it is possible he is writing of Birmingham.

In 1781 he had his portrait painted in Birmingham by an American refugee called William Williams. Ostensibly a portrait showing him mourning the death of his wife, it has been pointed out that the inscription ‘O Maria’ has a ‘c’ imposed and is subtly demonstrating his feelings about the loss of America. This painting was sent to his granddaughter Sarah Brimmer in America. During his lifetime he had several portraits painted, one of which was by the leading American artist of the day, John Singleton Copley (married to his wife’s niece), who had come to England in 1774 (Copley also painted portraits of many members of the Oliver families, and Peter Oliver’s brother-in-law, Richard Clarke, lived with the family).

It was also in 1781 that he wrote his most important work, a book called, The Origin and Progress of the American Rebellion: a Tory View, which, because he was on the losing side, was mostly neglected until the twentieth century when it was recognised as a valuable, if biased, record and for which he is most remembered. His portraits of the rebels are wholly negative, but these were the people who are now regarded as the founders of the United States. He writes of the great suffering which befell people regarded as the enemies of the Sons of Liberty, including beatings, tarring and feathering (a violent form of humiliation), losing both their livelihoods and houses, and suffering from want. This book was not published until after his death.

By 1781 it was clear that the war in America was over, with clear success for those in favour of Independence, but as the war had spread overseas, due to the involvement of France, the Treaty of Paris was not signed until 1783 and clearly recognised the United States of America as a separate country. George III aimed to set up friendly relations thereafter, and the Whigs in Great Britain attained ascendancy over the Tories.

During these years Britain was in political turmoil, at war with France and Spain, but although the years in England might be lacking in great incident for Oliver, for all American exiles they were anxious times, with much time taken up with family and financial matters. Ships to and from America were waited for eagerly, bearing news of the war and family letters. American refugees complained of how hard it was to find work, but Oliver was absolved of such a worry. In 1779 he had been attainted for treason and his property confiscated by the American courts, so the King first granted him a pension of £400, later reduced to £300 by the British government, and Oliver also received compensation for his lost property of £2,500. The government received so many applications for pensions from exiles that they later first reduced the amount given, and then gave a one-off amount of money. Sorting out these matters involved many visits to relevant officials and the need for proof which were hard to find. Dr. Peter Oliver wrote in his diary:

‘March 12th, 1786. The Judge … and myself, rode to London in the two-day coach, and return’d the 24 inst. We went before the Commons, and soon was rid of them. They boggled about our want of proof concerning the worth of our works.’

Given that their relatives struggled to earn a living, both Oliver and Hutchinson had many people to support with the money gained from the government. The wrangles about compensation for American loyalists continued well into the nineteenth century.

We get a glimpse of Oliver in Birmingham in 1782 through the writing of Elkanah Watson, a wealthy American businessman who had connections with John Adams and the rebels. Whilst on a tour of the country Watson came to Birmingham, where he was affected by the amount of coal smoke and met Judge Oliver and Elisha Hutchinson. The judge introduced him to Dr. Priestley, James Watt and Henry Moyes, and commented that;

‘They are among the most eminent philosophers of Europe.’

Elkanah Watson went on to visit Priestley several times, and remarks that he was a Unitarian minister; it is noteworthy that we know Elisha Hutchinson originally attended a Unitarian church. It would appear that Peter Oliver was now an Anglican, having been Congregationalist in America.

Watson describes going with the judge to church, which was probably St. Philip’s as the judge lived in Colmore Row:

‘The first Sunday I spent in Birmingham I accompanied Judge Oliver to church, and when the clergyman in an audible voice pronounced, “Oh Lord, turn the hearts of our rebellious subjects in America,” the Judge gave me a smart jog on the elbow, as if to make a personal application of the prayer. The progress of events enabled me to return the hint by the retort courteous. I was again at Birmingham after the formal recognition of our Independence, and occupied with Judge Oliver a seat in the same church. After the service, I whispered to him, “Well, Sir, I waited in vain, this time, for a jog on the elbow.”’

In another passage Watson describes leaving Birmingham:

‘Mr. Green, the night previous to my departure from Birmingham, gave a supper to the Americans in the city. There was about the board twenty-five beside myself, and I was the only avowed rebel in the group. It was agreed that they might talk tory whilst I should be permitted to talk rebel; and thus being unconstrained we passed an amusing evening.’

This urbanity on the part of Oliver is only part of the story, for his very negative opinion of John Adams, leader of the rebels, was reported back when Watson returned home to America.

It is not known how Oliver knew Priestley and Watt, but an American, Judge Curwen, describes visiting Birmingham in 1780, when he visited Soho with both Oliver and Elisha Hutchinson.

From about 1788, when he was aged seventy-five, Peter Oliver became infirm and was nursed by his niece Jenny Clark. It is remarkable how his health, compared with those around him, was so good, as of his children only his son Peter outlived him. On October 13th, 1791 Dr. Peter Oliver wrote in his diary:

‘The Judge died this morning aged 78 years, 3 months and 13 days,’

and notes his burial on 19th October ‘under the new church’. On 25th February 1792, he writes:

‘I put up a Monument in St. Philip’s Church, Birmingham, to the Judge.’

His Children

Elizabeth (1735-1767)
By the time Oliver was driven to leave America his daughter Elizabeth, married at the age of eighteen to Colonel George Watson, had died in childbirth in 1767, and two of her five children had also died in early childhood. Colonel George Watson was a Mandamus councillor and a colonel in the British army. He died in 1800, having married again after Elizabeth died, and remained in America when his daughters left. Two of Elizabeth’s daughters, named Mary and Elizabeth, came to England, whilst her daughter Sarah remained in America; all three of her daughters were remembered in Peter Oliver’s will, and the impression is that he was a fond grandfather and great-grandfather.

Elizabeth’s daughter Mary (1754-1803) (known as Polly) was married in 1772 to Elisha Hutchinson, the son of the former Governor, who came to England with his father in 1774 believing he would soon return. He left behind his wife who was pregnant with their second child and who was with her father in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Mary remained in Boston for three years before coming to England via Dublin in 1777, and meanwhile Elisha seems to have remained with Peter Oliver in both London and Birmingham, as they were clearly close. She was buried, like her grandfather, Philip Oliver, at St. Philips in May 1803.

The number of their sons and daughters is a little uncertain, but of the ones I have traced Margaret Hutchinson, born in 1774, must have been the child Mary was pregnant with whilst Elisha was in England. She died before her mother and was buried in St. Philip’s in April 1796, described as a spinster. The oldest child, Mary Oliver Hutchinson was baptised at the Unitarian church in Street, Warwickshire in 1781 but was born in 1771. She died at Trentham in 1823 and was buried with her father at Blurton, Staffordshire, the parish church of her brother. A child named Elizabeth Hutchinson Oliver was baptised in January 1779 at the Unitarian church in Street; one book states that Elizabeth died aged fourteen in 1793, but I have not been able to ascertain this. George Watson Hutchinson, born in June 1782, was first baptised into the Unitarian church in Street a year after his sister Mary, and then baptised in the Anglican church of Holy Trinity, Sutton Coldfield, in October 1801 aged nineteen (as George was an adult, I would assume he wished to make his career in the Church of England at this date). The church register there not only, most unusually, gives his date of birth, but also states ‘they now live in Edgbaston’. Their son John Hutchinson, born in 1793 after the death of his great-grandfather, has an even stranger baptismal history, as he was baptised at St. Mary’s in Birmingham soon after birth, and then baptised a second time at Holy Trinity, Sutton Coldfield in in 1809.

Elisha lived until 1824; he says in a letter that he lived first in Colmore Row and was forced to move to Newhall Street by a drunken landlord. He then lived for many years in Hagley Row, Five Ways. He died at Blurton parsonage in Staffordshire, and was buried in the church there, where his youngest son John was a well-loved perpetual curate, as well as being Precentor at Lichfield Cathedral. John was involved in the restoration of the cathedral and was also an author who completed the last volume of his grandfather Thomas Hutchinson’s, History of Massachusetts Bay. This John married Mary Oliver Hutchinson, daughter of his first cousin the Reverend William Hutchinson (who was the son of Thomas Hutchinson’s son Thomas), and had five children. He was buried, like his father, at his church in Blurton.

George Watson Hutchinson, the older son of Elisha and Mary, was vicar of Tutbury in Staffordshire and was buried there in 1818, dying unmarried aged thirty-six of consumption. He received a very fulsome obituary as he laboured unceasingly in a very poor parish, having a special interest in education. Both he and his brother were exceptional young men who were educated in Birmingham Free School (King Edward’s) and Oxbridge.

Having suffered the death of his father and three siblings in England, in 1783 Elisha Hutchinson and his brother Thomas took their families to France for eighteen months. Elisha would visit France several times afterwards. Judge Oliver remained in constant contact, with letters to Elisha containing loving and jokey postscripts written to his great-grandchildren, whom he named “Miss Peggy”, “Miss Poll”, “Miss Betsy” and “Mr. George”.

Elizabeth’s daughter, Sarah (1759-1848) (“Sally”), married Martin Brimmer, had three children and married again after his death. Martin Brimmer was a Boston iron merchant, a mayor of Boston and a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and one of their children also became mayor of Boston and member of the House of Representatives. Their grandchild, also called Martin, was the first president of the Boston Museum of Fine Art. It was Sarah in Boston, where the couple had remained after the departure of her sisters, who wrote to her sister Elizabeth in Birmingham asking for a picture of her grandfather Peter Oliver, and this portrait, painted in Birmingham, is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Art (see above). She died in Italy at the age of eighty-eight (it puzzled me why the letter in the portrait is addressed to “Betsy Watson, Plimouth”, but I suggest it is a memorial to his dead daughter, Elizabeth Watson).

The third daughter, Elizabeth (1767-1809) (“Betsy”), married two wealthy husbands and died before her second husband. She had no children by the Boston merchant Thomas Russell, who had been married twice before and already had children. She married Sir Greville Temple in 1797, after her first husband’s death, and had five children, one of whom became the 10th baronet. The family seat was in Stowe, Buckinghamshire. Sir Greville Temple was the son of the Lieutenant General of New Hampshire and his mother was the daughter of a governor of Massachusetts; his father was born in Boston and eventually became the first British Consul General to what became the United States. Elizabeth’s husband became ninth Baronet of Stowe on the death of his father; her son, the tenth earl, was a major in the British army and his brother was a captain.

Daniel (1738-1768)
Daniel went to Harvard and never married. He died at sea while on a trip for his health to the Canary Isles.

Peter (1741-1822)
Peter married Sarah Hutchinson (1744-1780), daughter of the governor, Thomas Hutchinson, and sister to Elisha Hutchinson who married her niece; as stated above, their wedding in1769 was a very grand affair, and they went on to live in a house, especially built for them by Judge Oliver in the estate of Oliver Hall, which still survives and is carefully preserved. Peter Oliver Jr. was a doctor, who met his wife by boarding with her brother Elisha at Harvard, and he and Elisha remained close. Sarah Hutchinson is remembered as the daughter who went to her father’s house when the mob was at the door and persuaded him to leave, an act which saved his life. The house was completely destroyed, and Hutchinson later claimed for all his goods when in England. Dr. Peter Oliver describes in letters how his own house was surrounded by mobs and he was forced to move to Boston, where he became a soldier for a while.

He and his family left Boston in March 1776 on a different ship from Judge Oliver, which went straight to England on a terrible journey. He travelled with Thomas Hutchinson’s eldest son Thomas, who had tried to stay on the Minton estate of his father but was forced to take refuge in Boston. The two families had several children with them on board ship, and Thomas Hutchinson’s wife gave birth on board. Dr. Peter Oliver eventually received a pension of £50 p.a. from the British government.

Peter and Sarah had three children who survived, born in America, all of whom died unmarried. Margaret Hutchinson Oliver (1771-1796) is said to have died unmarried of consumption in Wales. Thomas Hutchinson Oliver (1772-1865), was apprenticed to a surgeon by his father in 1789, became an army surgeon, and died in Yarmouth aged ninety-three. Peter Oliver (1774-1794), was sent to sea in 1789 and died of consumption. Dr. Peter Oliver wrote in his diary most movingly of Peter:

‘He was the sickest person in a consumption I ever saw; had lost his voice about 7 months, & a very bad sore throat most of the time: continual cough and expectoration – high fever – great protraction of strength and loss of flesh. P.O. was buried in the City St. Chad’s Yard,’ (the city referred to is Shrewsbury).

Once the couple came to England the two children born there did not thrive. There was a baby called Daniel who died in 1779 aged four months whose burial place is unknown, and then another baby called Daniel, born in 1780 who caused his mother to die in childbirth just before the death of her baby. This baby was buried in 1780 aged three months by his heartbroken father in St. Philip’s; he describes him as:

‘… my dear little infant, who was very near my heart particularly.’

Dr. Peter Oliver wrote:

‘I buried my little baby the north side of St. Philip’s church, and near the vaults – six feet deep.’

It is clear that the death of this baby, the last memento of his wife, nearly broke him.

The death of the former governor, Thomas Hutchinson, was only three weeks before the death of his daughter Sarah, the wife of Dr. Peter Oliver. Her brother, William Hutchinson, had died of consumption in 1780 just before his father. Her sister Margaret, who had sailed with her father, had died in 1777 of consumption. Many of the Hutchinsons were buried in Heavitree, Essex, where her brother Thomas Hutchinson jun. later settled. However, Governor Thomas Hutchinson, his son William and his daughter Sarah were buried at Croydon, where there was an American minister. Dr. Peter Oliver had to make arrangements for his motherless children on the death of his wife, and sent his boys to Windsor, his daughter to boarding school in Moseley and the baby to a wet nurse in New Hall Street, where he died. Dr. Oliver moved into a room in High Street, opposite New Street, and later moved to New Hall Street, where he put up his doctor’s brass plate.

He wrote of his wife:

‘She was one of the most virtuous, amiable and kindest wives that ever man was blessed with,’

and when he died in 1822 aged 82, he had been a widower for forty-two years. I think it is likely that he moved to Shrewsbury after the death of his father in 1791, as his son Peter died in Shrewsbury and was buried there in 1794. It seems logical that his daughter Margaret Hutchinson Oliver, who died in 1796, would also be buried in Shrewsbury, but as she was actually buried in Wales (possibly in Cardiganshire) she may have been on holiday or on a rest cure. Dr. Oliver was buried in St. Chad’s, Shrewsbury, like his son, in 1822, and the record of Mary Clarke on the same gravestone, who also died in 1822, would suggest that she moved to Shrewsbury with her cousin. It would not be surprising if such a hard life had made the doctor bitter, as he refused to loan his father’s copy of a book by one Hubbard, The History of New England, to a Massachusetts society in 1815. His father’s copy contained the only complete last chapter in existence, but Dr. Oliver claimed that manuscripts stolen when his father’s property had been burned had never been returned, and he refused to help the society.

It is usually stated that Dr. Peter Oliver had no descendants as none of his children married, but I discovered that Thomas Hutchinson Oliver had an illegitimate daughter Sarah, by one Sarah Thornton, who was baptised in St. Peter’s, Huddersfield in 1814; he had clearly been based in Huddersfield with the army at this time.

William (1743 – ?)
In his will of 1770 Peter Oliver only leaves his son William five shillings, strongly suggesting that there is something wrong in the relationship. One reference states that he married a sister of Captain John Fulke and lived in The Hawkins near his wife’s father, but I have not been able to check this information. I would suggest that William either married a woman his father did not approve of, or he backed the rebels.

Andrew (1746-1772)
Andrew married in 1769, the same year as his brother Peter, when he was twenty-three, and was dead by twenty-six. One source states that Andrew was of intemperate habits and his wife’s father disinherited his daughter, but the Judge provided and built a house in Mattock (in Middleborough) for them. Andrew’s wife, Phoebe Spooner, gave birth to two children before her husband died, Daniel and Elizabeth, and remained in America when her father-in-law departed. In 1776 she petitioned the General Council for relief when the war was at its worst as her house had been taken from her. One source states that she moved into Peter Oliver’s mansion in Middleborough for two years, and after this she clearly remained in the area. She was the last link with Middleborough, dying there in 1831 aged eighty-two, having been a widow for sixty years. Her daughter, Elizabeth, married Dr. Waterhouse of Cambridge, Massachusetts who was famous for introducing vaccination for smallpox to America, having received samples from Dr. Jenner in England. Peter Oliver sent Dr. Waterhouse a grandfather clock, which is preserved in Harvard Medical School, and Phoebe also requested and received a portrait of the judge which still exists. Unfortunately I have been unable to trace Daniel with any certainty.

Mary (1751-?)
Mary was certainly dead by 1770 when Peter Oliver made his will, and probably died young.

Other Refugees

Of the people who came to England with Peter Oliver, the children of his brother Andrew, Daniel (1743-1826) and Louisa (1759-?1801), settled in Birmingham. Neither of them married. Louisa is possibly the Louisa Oliver who is buried in 1801 in Beaudesert in Warwickshire, where the register states that she was from Henley in Arden. She did not arrive in England until 1779 and she may have lived some of the time in London. Her brother Daniel, who was a lawyer, first lived in Temple Street and then lived in Ashted on what was then the outskirts of Birmingham, and was buried in 1826 at the age of eighty-two at St. James, Ashted, where the register states he lived in Great Brook Street. Daniel and Louisa moved into Elisha Hutchinson’s house in Five Ways on the several occasions he went to France. Daniel was unmarried and left his wealth to his brother Brinley Sylvester Oliver who lived in London and was a surgeon in the British army.

Jenny Clarke proved difficult to trace. Although persistently described as Judge Oliver’s niece, I have been unable to identify her parents in the family of his wife, Mary Clarke. I found an obscure reference to a gravestone in St. Chad’s churchyard, Shrewsbury:

‘Jane Clarke, spinster, cousin to the above (Dr. Peter Oliver) age 72, 1822.’

She obviously went with the doctor when he moved to Shrewsbury after the death of the Chief Justice in 1791. From a notice in a magazine, it appears she died in either October or November in the same year that Dr. Peter Oliver died, and they therefore shared a gravestone. Perhaps she served as a housekeeper to Dr. Peter Oliver, as she had to his father.



  • There are portraits available online of many of the people mentioned in this article, which difficulties over rights have prevented from reproduction.
  • In older books Peter Oliver is credited with having written ‘The Scripture Lexicon’, but more recent research credits this book to a Baptist minister of the same name living in Birmingham at the time.
  • Older books frequently give inaccurate information about the Oliver family, so I have used church records whenever possible.


Gill Partridge, November 2019


Memorial to FRANCIS ROGERS M.D. (1765-1804)

Introduction – Short Synopsis

Further to the article on Edmund Hector, I was interested to discover that the Cathedral memorials include an eighteenth-century physician as well as a surgeon and was delighted at the fact that Francis Rogers had an early place in the history of the Birmingham Dispensary.

The memorial to Francis Rogers is situated near the front of the North aisle (on the left as one faces the altar) on the right-hand side wall. His monument was designed by Peter Rouw the younger, and as a sign of the medical profession, includes a snake coiled round a club. Peter Rouw also designed medallion portrait reliefs of Matthew Boulton and James Watt during their lifetime, has medallions in several museums, and designed many memorial tablets including that of Moses Haughton at the back of the Cathedral.

Francis Rogers Memorial

Memorial to Francis Rogers, Birmingham Cathedral.

His memorial reads:

In memory of
He was a native of Bottereaux in Normandy
studied Medicine in the University of Glasgow
and resided two years in this town.
A fever caught in the benevolent discharge of his professional duty
proved fatal to him on the 11th October 1804
in the 39th year of his Age.
To express their sense of so affecting an event
and their gratitude for valuable services
the Subscribers of the Dispensary
have erected this Monument.

We can discover the most about Francis Rogers from an excerpt, Monthly Magazine, vol.18, (Nov 1, 1804):

‘This gentleman, a native of Normandy, was educated for the church and emigrated in 1792. After a residence of a few years in Yorkshire, he went to the University of Glasgow, where he studied medicine, and obtained his doctor’s degree. He came to Birmingham and offered his services to the dispensary in the year 1802. Since that time, he held the office of physician to the above institution without any remuneration from the public, but greatly to the benefit of the town, and the objects of his unwearied attention and professional skill. He contracted the disease which terminated his life in the exercise of his duty.’

Continue reading below for the full blog post on Francis Rogers.

The Birmingham Dispensary

The original dispensary was situated on Temple Row, next door but one to the fashionable Hotel (built in 1772) which had an assembly room. Hotels copied the French fashion and unlike other inns in Birmingham, did not accommodate coaches. The website, Blogging Birmingham, points out that many of the poor were obtaining medical services next door to the fashionable elite. It is thought that the house in which the Dispensary was situated was probably built by William Westley the elder, who was one of the carpenters engaged in the building of the Cathedral.

Birmingham was late in building a General Hospital and a Theatre Royal, and so it was also late in achieving its first dispensary. Dispensaries provided free outpatient care and medicines for the poor at a time when the realisation of the terrible state of many of the population was growing as a result of poverty, overcrowding and poor sanitation. By the 1740s, London and Bristol had already opened dispensaries, but Birmingham’s dispensary opened in 1793 – Rogers was the third physician of the institution. It was funded by subscription from the better-off citizens, with subscribers provided a letter of recommendation for prospective patients if patients were too poor to pay the small amount asked. The physician dealt with cases that could not be accommodated at the General Hospital and with people too poor to afford private medical care. He did a great deal of visiting of patients in their homes, as well as holding a clinic at the Dispensary. It is also interesting to note that from the beginning, the Dispensary provided midwifery services. In 1792, we are told that, ‘325 patients received medical advice and assistance in their own home of which 246 were Sick Patients, 48 Midwifery and 31 Inoculation Patients’.

After Rogers’ death, the Dispensary moved to Union Street in 1806 in a building purpose-built by architect and sculptor William Hollins, whose monument by his son Peter Hollins is situated in St. Paul’s in the Jewellery Quarter. The pediment to the door of the second dispensary is now in Birmingham Museum.

Matthew Boulton was involved with the Dispensary, as he was with the General Hospital. The idea of founding the Dispensary had been mooted in 1792, and when funding was proving difficult, Boulton stated, ‘If the funds of the institution are not sufficient for its support, I will make up the deficiency’; it would therefore seem a reasonable assumption that Francis Rogers knew Matthew Boulton as Boulton was the Treasurer of the Dispensary.


In this picture, the Dispensary can be seen to the right of the hotel in Temple Row. The road to the left is Bull Street.

Monthly Magazine vol.18 Nov 1, 1804

‘This gentleman, a native of Normandy, was educated for the church and emigrated in 1792. After a residence of a few years in Yorkshire, he went to the University of Glasgow, where he studied medicine, and obtained his doctor’s degree. He came to Birmingham and offered his services to the dispensary in the year 1802. Since that time, he held the office of physician to the above institution without any remuneration from the public, but greatly to the benefit of the town, and the objects of his unwearied attention and professional skill. He contracted the disease which terminated his life in the exercise of his duty.’

I regret that this is all I have been able to discover of Francis Rogers as I have been unable to uncover anything further of his personal life, but it should be noted that Scotland was the leading nation in Europe at this time for the study of medicine. Physicians undertook a degree, unlike surgeons who undertook an apprenticeship, and Rogers was at the beginning of the increasing professionalization and specialisation of medical practice. There were few qualified physicians in the country at this time; in 1791 there were eight physicians and thirty-seven surgeons in the Birmingham area. It is stated online that Rogers died of scarlet fever, which is usually found in children and is now treated with antibiotics, but I am unable to confirm this.

The death notice prompts speculation as to whether his departure from France was connected with the French Revolution, whether he was “intended” for the Roman Catholic or Protestant church and what was the source of his wealth. There is a death notice in the Hull Packet of 1804 which states that he was ‘greatly beloved in private life’, and there is a statement in a strange book entitled Pratt’s Harvest Horrors (1884) that there were in Birmingham three Frenchmen who came to escape the horrors of the French Revolution, of whom Rogers was one.

Birmingham Philosophical Society

Philosophical societies studied science and became increasingly common as the eighteenth century progressed. Rogers was one of six founder members in 1800 of the Birmingham Philosophical Society, and like many other societies, this one contained several doctors who were interested in natural sciences. The six came together in order to purchase scientific equipment, and in January 1803 expanded to twenty members in order to buy further equipment. It was apparently successful as it expanded to 200 members and bought a building long after the death of Rogers. Because there is so little information available on Rogers’ life, it may be of interest to consider these nineteen in order to appreciate the status of the class in which he moved.

George Barker (1776-1845) a solicitor, was the founder of the Philosophical Society, chairman of the committee of the Triennial society which funded the General Hospital, a friend of Watt and Boulton and a Fellow of the Royal Society.

John Blount was a surgeon apothecary who practised in Temple Row. After Rogers’ death, he became Senior Surgeon at the Dispensary and Surgeon of the Town Infirmary.

Robert Bree M.D. (1759-1839) was physician to the Dispensary before Rogers, having held similar posts in Northampton and Leicester. In 1801 he became a physician to the General Hospital. He lived in The Square and moved to London in 1804, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1808. He specialised in respiratory disease and wrote a well-known paper on asthma.

Walter W. Capper (1772-1834) was a hardware merchant on Great Charles Street. He lived in Shrub Hill, was interested in gardening and wrote Anatomy of the Vine.

William Cope – I assume to be the William Cope briefly described as William Cope of Bordesley, chemist.

John Petty Dearman (1761-1808) owned the family business, Eagle Iron Foundry. He wrote to James Watt several times on business, enquiring about engines.

Samuel Dickenson (1733-1823) was a contemporary of Erasmus Darwin at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and as a clergyman was tutor to his son. Dickenson was a botanist as well as a vicar in Staffordshire. He kept a botanical garden containing plants he collected on his travels with Darwin’s son and wrote two books of his travels.

George Freer (1770-1825) was a surgeon at Birmingham General Hospital and a founder of the General Orthopaedic Hospital.

William Francis was the partner of John Petty Dearman in the Eagle Foundry, situated on Broad Street. The foundry specialised in producing culinary utensils.

John Johnstone (1768-1836) was a physician to the General Hospital from 1801 to 1833 and also had a large private practice. His brother Edward Johnstone was one of the original physicians of the General Hospital and doctor to Matthew Boulton. John Johnstone became of Fellow of the Royal Society in 1815.

Richard Lawrence was a veterinary surgeon who seemed to specialise in horses.

Samuel Lloyd (1768-1849) was a member of the Quaker banking family, the son of Sampson Lloyd III. He lived in The Crescent, East wing. Quakers were prominent in the movement to abolish slavery.

E. M. Noble was a surgeon who specialised in eyes.

Charles Plimly was probably an iron and steel merchant in Holt Street.

Thomas Robinson Jr. examined disease in factories and in 1796 wrote an influential paper.

Edward Thomason (1769-1849) is memorialised at the back of the Cathedral. He was apprenticed to Matthew Boulton and then expanded his family’s very successful manufactory in Church Street, producing tokens, coins, medals and other toys. He invented many devices, including a successful corkscrew, was knighted in later life and became High Bailiff of Birmingham in 1818. His autobiography gives details of the Philosophical Society and a lecture he gave there on mineralogy, and it is from his autobiography that this list of names is taken.

Thomas Welch produced coins, medals and tokens.

William Whitmore (1784-1819) owned a foundry and a canal and lived on Newhall Hill. He has a monument in St. Paul’s in the Jewellery Quarter.

James Woolley was a cutler and sword manufacturer whose shop was on Edmund Street.

One can draw one’s own conclusions from this list, but I would merely point out that it contained the same mixture of manufacturers, inventors and medical men as did the older Lunar Society. It is possible that it was through the Philosophical Society that he met Robert Bree and was put forward to be physician to the Dispensary. Francis Rogers was clearly a man with an enquiring mind.


Gill Partridge, November 2019


Matthew Boulton and James Watt: The Beginnings of Industrialisation and the People

By: Emily Jones, Placement Student from the University of Birmingham

The Beginnings of Revolution: Boulton and Watt’s Foundation

Birmingham-born Matthew Boulton was baptised at St. Philip’s in 1728 (see Fig. 1). His partnership with technical innovator James Watt in the late eighteenth century would go on to revolutionise every aspect of manufacturing and transport in the nineteenth century. While working on a repair of an early steam engine, Watt developed his ideas for a more efficient engine, adding a separate condenser that cooled the steam to make the concept of steam power commercially viable. It took twenty years and near bankruptcy before he found commercial success through his partnership with Matthew Boulton. Together, their successful partnership was a key element in the process of industrialisation, uniting business ability with inventiveness to produce a major technical advance that would drastically alter the lives of nineteenth-century citizens. By 1800, Boulton and Watt had hundreds of engines in operation throughout Britain; they were widely used in tin mines, coal mines, ironworks, breweries, distilleries and the engineering of canals. Subsequently, the method, speed and accessibility of transport was transformed, bringing about the development of the railway and furthering the field of engineering as a highly skilled industry during the nineteenth century.

Matthew Boulton Baptism Record, 1728, clear version

Fig. 1:
Matthew Boulton’s Baptismal Record.

1812-1832: A Changing Society

This period saw the dawn of large-scale public railways with engineer George Stephenson’s harnessing of Boulton and Watt’s efficient steam engine. He opened the Stockton to Darlington line in 1825 and engineered the first passenger railway to use steam locomotives on the Liverpool to Manchester line which opened in 1830. Stephenson’s immediate success prompted railway companies to build lines across the country which proved to be a key development of the industrial age. Beneficial effects were almost immediately visible – the railway got the economy moving, transporting people and goods at speed and low cost as well as leading levels of employment to increase – not only did the railway provide a means of transporting workers to work, the railway work itself required a work force of thousands. Furthermore, the railway boosted the iron and coal industries, fundamental to the industrial success of the Black Country region.

1832-1846: The Railway ‘Revolution’ and Associated Economic Growth

By the 1840s, the railway was one of the most important industries in Britain. The opening of the Liverpool to Manchester line inspired other entrepreneurs, creating a vision that a railway system would work on a large, national scale that would endure for the long-term. Railway development improved the country’s infrastructure and dramatically altered the landscape, demonstrating an underlying confidence in the stability of the economy. Engineering went hand-in-hand with industrial progress, with notable individuals including Robert Stephenson (son of George Stephenson), and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Robert Stephenson helped his father to design The Rocket, the first locomotive on the Liverpool to Manchester line, and was appointed Chief Engineer of the London to Birmingham Railway in 1837 – he apparently walked the length of the route on the London to Birmingham line fifteen times while it was under construction. Similarly, Isambard Kingdom Brunel became Chief Engineer of the Great Western Railway, designing the highly-acclaimed London to Bristol line with its mile-long box tunnel.

By the 1840s, many railway lines were operating at a profit despite initial financial outlay, sparking a mad scramble to construct railways in every corner of the land. Rail coverage went from scarcely more than one-hundred miles in 1832 to nearly two-thousand miles by 1843, rising to four-thousand miles in 1846 and eventually fourteen-thousand miles in 1875, stimulating the wider economy. The iron and coal industries expanded to meet the increasing demand for rail tracks and fuel; agriculture was boosted since fresh produce could be delivered to large centres of population, and many new jobs were created at a time of unemployment. National newspapers flourished, the postal system sped up, and the period also witnessed the development of Trade Unions. Furthermore, the thriving railway system also provided an important advance towards a less elitist society with the Railway Act of 1844 under Robert Peel’s administration. Despite being nicknamed the ‘Parliamentary Train’, this act stipulated that every railway company had to provide a carriage for third-class passengers at least once a day with the fare capped to one penny per mile. As such, many social effects were bound up in economic developments.

Direct Effects on Birmingham: Birmingham New Street Station and Snow Hill Station

Being the burgeoning industrial hub that it was, Birmingham experienced direct positive effects as a result of the development of the railway system from the harnessing of steam power by Boulton and Watt.

Today, Birmingham New Street is the largest and busiest of the three main railway stations in Birmingham City Centre – as such, it is a central hub of the British railway system. The original New Street Station opened in 1854 following London and North Western Railway’s obtaining of an Act of Parliament in 1846 to extend their line into the centre of Birmingham. The station was constructed by Fox, Henderson & Co. and designed by Edward Alfred Cowper of that firm (who had previously worked on the design of The Crystal Palace), with the internal layout of tracks and platforms designed by Robert Stephenson. The effects of increasing railway construction can be directly witnessed when looking at Birmingham’s connectivity throughout the country. As of 1838, Birmingham sat on the Crewe to London line, being subsequently connected to Crewe, Rugby, and London. After 1848 and the railway ‘mania’, however, Birmingham became connected to Glasgow and Edinburgh, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, York and Leeds, Derby and Nottingham, Oxford and Cambridge, Gloucester and Bristol, Exeter and Weymouth, Portsmouth and Brighton as well as Dover, to name a few. As such, when first opened, New Street Station was described as the ‘Grand Central Station at Birmingham’.

North Prospect Edit, Robert Jones

Fig. 2:
North Prospect prior to Snow Hill Station.

Similarly, Birmingham Snow Hill Station is one of the three main city-centre stations in Birmingham today, located to the North of Birmingham Cathedral (see Fig. 2) – interestingly, in addition to being baptised in St. Philip’s, entrepreneur Matthew Boulton was also born in Snow Hill. The station has been re-built multiple times since its temporary wooden structure in 1852 became permanent in 1871, eventually rivalling New Street Station at its height between 1906 and 1912 with its large booking hall, arched glass roof, and lavish waiting rooms with oak bars. Engineer Robert Stephenson was also involved with the workings of Snowhill Station; he and solicitor Samuel Carter argued in parliament over the fact that there would be safety risks in rival train companies sharing the congested connection into the station. Prior to Snowhill Station, Oppenheim’s Glassworks – Birmingham’s first glassworks – occupied the site. As a result of its demolition in preparation for the building of the station, many parts of the building and machinery are buried beneath the station and car park – because of this, the area has been designated as a site of archaeological importance by Birmingham City Council. However, one piece of original Victorian architecture that has survived above-ground to today is the Great Western Arcade. Snow Hill Tunnel was built by the cut-and-cover method; the cutting was roofed over in 1872 and the Great Western Arcade built on top, lying between Colmore Row and Temple Row (see Fig. 3).


Fig. 3:
The Great Western Arcade today, Temple Row entrance.


  • Chapple, P., The Industrialisation of Britain (London, 1999)
  • Hopkins, E., Industrialisation and Society, 1830-1951 (Abingdon, 2000)
  • Lowe, N., Mastering Modern British History (Basingstoke, 1998)
  • Mathias, P., The First Industrial Nation: An Economic History of Britain, 1700-1914 (Abingdon, 1972)
  • McCord, N., and Purdue, B., British History, 1815-1914 (Oxford, 2000)


  • Fig. 1: UK, Birmingham Cathedral, Matthew Boulton’s Baptismal Record, image by Jane McArdle.
  • Fig. 2: UK, Birmingham Cathedral, North Prospect of St. Philip’s Cathedral in Birmingham, William Westley (1732).
  • Fig. 3:



Memorial to Nanette Stocker: The real-life case of The Greatest Showman

By: Emily Jones, Placement Student from the University of Birmingham.

Nineteenth-century Britain can very much be described as the age of spectacle. During this time, Britons could pay to see foreign peoples performing in local theatres and galleries where adults and children performed songs, dances and ceremonies. Initially, these performances were restricted to the wealthier classes due to being expensive, but by the end of the century, they were significantly cheaper and therefore more accessible to the working and middling classes. These performances were advertised as educational since those being exhibited were often either colonized peoples from the British Empire or people who sparked the public’s curiosity, such as Nanette Stocker.

For the thousands of Birmingham citizens who walk past Nanette Stocker’s headstone, they are often oblivious that there lies a woman of showbiz in the churchyard grounds who became a superstar of the musical hall era. Standing at a petite thirty-three inches tall, Nanette toured continental Europe from 1797 as the ‘smallest woman in the kingdom,’ satisfying the public’s thirst for the unusual and gaining a mass following. She rose to prominence upon teaming up with John Hauptman, a native of Germany who stood at thirty-six inches tall. Together, they wowed audiences with their musical talent whereby Nanette played the pianoforte and John the violin, both waltzing together also. Stocker is supposed to have been engaging and personable, Hauptman more reserved and indifferent – he allegedly proposed to her but was declined for ‘reasons known only to herself’. Unfortunately, Nanette passed away on May 4th, 1819, at the age of thirty-nine whilst performing in Birmingham, and so was buried in the churchyard of St. Philip’s – she had had a close connection with Birmingham for years as she was the headline act at Birmingham’s Onion Fair, a vibrant carnival held once a year at Aston.

Nanette Stocker Headstone

Contemporary Britons beyond Birmingham often encountered colonised peoples on display at international exhibitions, with examples including the Great Exhibition of 1851 – held at Hyde Park in London – and the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 – held in South Kensington, London. Both these exhibitions showcased imperial goods and labour to celebrate the existence of Britain’s empire as a source of industry, manufactured goods and raw materials. The organisers of such exhibitions wanted them to be of scientific interest and education, with anthropologists often visiting with the intention of using performers – often from colonised countries – as experimental subjects. With this, though, came numerous sensitive and ethical concerns. The shows were often labelled as, “human zoos”, and despite being a catchy phrase, it was problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, it assumed that the patrons thought of performers as little more than animals – visitors often had varying and complicated reactions. Secondly, it assumed the performers had no agency – it is true that many displayed peoples performed under exploitive circumstances that involved unequal power relationships, but many equally had the agency to refuse to perform. Finally, it tended to overlook the lives that performers had outside of the exhibition venues – many often settled down, married and had families.

Nanette Stocker and John Hauptman

As a result, we must ask ourselves how, despite obtaining autonomy, the exhibitors – such as Nanette Stocker – emotionally came to terms with offering themselves to be gaped at publicly in exchange for money. The answer to this question is that it simply provided them with a living that was far better than any other means available to them. This was cemented by the fact that when they could, they supplemented their performance with a form of talent that enabled them to believe the audience valued them for their talent, as opposed to their appearance – musical talent in Nanette’s case. As such, it is fair to describe the nineteenth-century as the age of spectacle, with Nanette Stocker’s story acting as the real-life case of the Greatest Showman.

Texts Used:

  • Adelson, B. M., The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity to Social Liberation (New Brunswick, New Jersey and London, 2005)
  • Burton, A., ‘The Visible Empire and the Empire at Home, c.1832-1905’, Empire Online (2004)
  • Qureshi, S., Peoples on Parade: Exhibitions, Empire and Anthropology in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Chicago and London, 2011)
  • Tabili, L., ‘A Homogenous Society? Britain’s Internal “Others”, 1800-Present’, in C. Hall and S. O. Rose (eds.), At Home with the Empire: Metropolitan Culture and the Imperial World (Cambridge, 2006)

Image Credit:




Memorial to Edmund Hector

02334cff-cea3-4493-a066-01e97908e918EDMUND HECTOR (1708 – 1794)


The memorial to Edmund Hector is situated on the left hand side of the central aisle of the Cathedral near the back, and a rough translation of the Latin reads:

Edmund Hector, born in Lichfield on 30th January 1708. He practised the art of a surgeon in Birmingham for 65 years. He died on 2nd September 1794 aged 85. An upright and benign man who was benevolent towards everyone, qualities which were born in him.


Edmund Hector and Dr. Johnson

It is little known that a friend of Samuel Johnson is buried in the Cathedral. Edmund Hector and Dr. Johnson were schoolboys together at Lichfield Grammar School, and were friends all of their lives. When Johnson contacted him in 1756 he wrote, “I long to see all my friends…and particularly you whom I always think on with great tenderness.” In 1781 Johnson, preparing to visit Hector, said to Boswell, “Hector is an old friend, the only companion of my childhood that passed through school with me. We have always loved one another; perhaps we may be made better by some serious conversation.” Of a previous visit in 1776 Boswell wrote, “It gave me pleasure to observe the joy which the Doctor and Mr. Hector expressed on seeing each other.”

In his later years Dr. Johnson had Boswell as a regular companion, and when Johnson died Boswell decided to write his famous Life of Samuel Johnson. Hector gave Boswell information about the schooldays of himself and Johnson, and it is from this book that we learn not only of Johnson but also of Hector.

On starting Lichfield Grammar School about the age of seven Hector was one of three schoolboys who would take Johnson on their backs to guide him to school, because of his physical difficulties. Johnson’s appearance and manners were particularly unprepossessing yet he was, nevertheless, revered by his school friends and many others for his intellect; both Hector and Boswell marvelled at Johnson’s rapid and extensive memory. But the relationship between the Johnson and Hector families lay at the very beginning of Johnson’s life when George Hector, the surgeon uncle of Edmund Hector, had acted as a “man midwife” at his birth, which had been particularly difficult. Johnson later said that as George Hector was his physical midwife, so Edmund Hector was the midwife of his literary life.

Johnson left Lichfield at the age of fifteen to go to another school, helped his father in the Lichfield bookshop for two years and then managed to go to Oxford for one year, which he left on account of poverty. Meanwhile Hector, who came from a family of medical men, when he left school was apprenticed to a surgeon, (whether to his father or another is unknown), this being the normal form of qualification at the time. If his memorial stone is correct and he had practised for sixty-five years, he must have been in Birmingham by 1729, where he lodged with a bookseller called Thomas Warren whose house and business stood in High Street, near the Swan tavern where the Rotunda now stands. It has been stated that Warren was both the first bookseller and the first printer in Birmingham, but Johnson’s father had sold books in Birmingham market and his father’s brother, Andrew, had a bookshop in High Street up to about 1731, situated very near Warren’s shop, and we know that Andrew Johnson printed at least one book. Warren has the distinction, however, of being the printer of the very first Birmingham newspaper.

Towards the end of 1732 Hector invited Johnson to stay with him in his lodgings because his friend was suffering from what we would call depression, and was then called melancholia. Johnson was unemployed, his father had died, he had been forced to leave Oxford and his family was poverty stricken. To pass the time he was in the habit of walking to Birmingham and back to visit his friend; such behaviour had begun when he was at Oxford and had walked to Birmingham to visit his godfather, after whom he was perhaps named, Dr. Samuel Swynfen, who lived in The Square.  His friend’s landlord, Warren, clearly was taken with Johnson, and invited him to contribute to the first Birmingham newspaper called The Journal, although none of the articles Johnson wrote has survived. (The only remaining copy of the newspaper is housed in Birmingham Reference Library.) In later life Johnson became renowned for his contributions to London journals.

Both Warren and Hector encouraged Johnson to find the writing work he most wanted, and eventually Johnson settled on the translation into English from a French translation of a book entitled Journey to Abyssinia by Jeronimo Lobo, a Jesuit, which he had read in Oxford. Hector then went to the trouble of obtaining the book from Oxford, and Johnson set about translating it for Warren to produce. He began the task eagerly enough, but was overcome by depression. Hector urged him to continue by pressing on him the plight of the printer who would be impoverished if the work was not completed, and the translation was eventually finished because Hector took dictation from Johnson who was lying in bed. This was Johnson’s first book, and its production illustrates Hector’s very kind nature.

After staying six months in Hector’s lodgings, Johnson moved into lodgings in Bull Street; he stayed another six months in Birmingham and made the acquaintance of Mr. Porter, a friend of both Warren and Hector, who owned a draper’s shop in High Street (which was situated probably in the building where Andrew Johnson formerly had his bookshop). Porter’s sister was the second wife of the headmaster of Lichfield Grammar School, who would be known to both Hector and Johnson. Mr. Porter died and his wife Elizabeth became Johnson’s wife in 1735, despite the fact that she was about twenty years his senior. Johnson had by this time left Birmingham and he married “Tetty” in Derby.  Many years passed before Johnson was to become well known for his essays, Dictionary, Lives of the Poets, and an edition of Shakespeare. In 1562 Johnson eventually received a royal pension and became able to afford to travel, and it was then he started visiting his old friend again. They had, however, been in touch by letter at least since 1755 when Johnson asked him to help sell his Shakespeare, which did not actually appear until 1765.

Hector by this time lived at 1, The Square, where Johnson visited both with and without Boswell, and after his last visit in 1780 died only a month later. In 1860 a plaque was put on Hector’s house by the Birmingham Shakespeare Society recording these visits. The plaque was placed in Aston Hall after The Square was demolished, together with panelling from the house. Today Hector and Johnson are memorialised in the sculpture in the island named “Old Square” at the top of Priory Queensway.


The Life of Edmund Hector

His early life

The Life of Samuel Johnson gives us a picture of schoolboys in Lichfield, going for walks, skating on ice, and being taught a rigorous curriculum of classics at Lichfield Grammar School. As young boys Hector remembered buying pies at Dame Read’s shop with Johnson, and as Johnson received private education as a small boy to learn to read, presumably Hector also did so. The facts of Edmund Hector’s genealogy give a picture of a secure professional family, saved from the threat of poverty which hung over Johnson. We are told that Johnson would go to Hector’s family home to escape the atmosphere of his own home.

We do not know when Hector left school; there is some flexibility in the length of time of an apprenticeship which was supposed to last seven years, and in the age at which boys would leave school.  However, it is reasonable to suppose that by the age of twenty- one in 1729 he may have come to Birmingham, and if he had undertaken an apprenticeship with his father Benjamin Hector, also a surgeon, his apprenticeship would fit neatly between the two apprentices his father is recorded as having taken on. In becoming a surgeon he was following in the profession not only of his father, but also of his grandfather and uncle; later some of his cousins and nephews also became either physicians or surgeons.

His relatives

Edmund Hector (died 1709), the grandfather of the Birmingham surgeon, was a person of significance in Lichfield. He was a sheriff and a member of the corporation in 1682, a junior bailiff in 1685 and senior bailiff in 1690 and 1699, and by profession was a surgeon. He and his wife Dorcas or Dorothy had thirteen children, all of whom were baptised in St. Mary’s next to Samuel Johnson’s birthplace, and most of whom were dead by the time of the death of their parents. This church had no burial grounds, and some of his children are buried in St. Michael’s on the edge of the town. His will of 1709 mentions only his sons George and Benjamin, and the grandchildren of one of his daughters, Ann, who married Henry Boylston, a member of a family also involved in the local government of Lichfield. Similarly the will of his wife Dorcas in 1726 leaves her household goods to Benjamin and two silver spoons to her grandson Edmund, as well as gifts to her son George and her Boylston grandchildren.

George Hector (1675-1763), the uncle of Edmund, was the man midwife who delivered Samuel Johnson. He had a responsible position in Lichfield, being a J.P. and member of the corporation by 1714, and was then senior bailiff in 1719, as well as being a churchwarden at St. Mary’s for several years. In 1728 he resigned and moved to Lilleshall in Shropshire where he continued to work as a surgeon. George Hector’s wife was Elizabeth Brooks, and he named one of his two sons Brooke. Brooke Hector (1700-1773) was a well-known physician in Lichfield (he took an Oxford degree), and both he and his two wives were buried in Lichfield Cathedral. Brooke Hector’s grandson Benjamin Hector became a surgeon in Atherstone. Of George Hector’s thirteen children, five are are known to have died young and as one daughter cannot be traced, the number is probably six.

His daughter Sarah (baptised in 1708, the same year as her cousin Edmund) married Edmund Withering in 1734 and became the mother of William Withering. William Withering’s father Edmund had been the apprentice of George Hector for five years from 1730, and in 1765 Edmund Withering took as his apprentice Benjamin Hector, who was the grandson of George Hector.

A nineteenth century book, Stemmata Botevilliana, which traces the genealogy of William Withering, states that George Hector’s daughter Ann married the brother of the bishop of Worcester, and his daughter Charlotte married a Dr. Seagre of Atherstone, but I am uncertain if this is correct. There is an Ann Hector who married one Thomas Ebdell at Stretton, Staffordshire in 1737, who was firstly the headmaster of Lichfield Grammar School, and then the vicar of Caldecote in Warwickshire and took over the parish of Ansley in Staffordshire on the death of his vicar father. Similarly there is a Charlotte Hector who married William Herner at Shifnal in Shropshire in 1732, but I cannot trace a marriage to Dr. Seagre.

George Hector had a son also named George, and by him had a grandson called Benjamin who became a surgeon in Longdon, Staffordshire. Edmund Hector’s will states that he owned land in Longdon, and his parents seem to have retired there.

Benjamin Hector (1682-1757), the father of Edmund who was also a surgeon, married Mary Walton (1685-1763) in Longdon in 1707 and their first son Edmund was christened there in 1708. Their next three children, Ann (1711), Mary (1714) and Philip (1720) were, however, baptised at St. Mary’s Lichfield, where the family presumably had moved. Johnsonian Gleanings states that the family lived in Sadler Street, now called Market Street. (The Johnson family house was on the corner of Sadler Street and Market Square.) Mary was buried in 1716 and Philip was buried soon after birth, both of them at St. Michael’s, and the impression is that Edmund and Ann’s lives seem to have been drawn closer together on the death of their siblings.   The family seems to have been professionally successful, as in 1727 Benjamin Hector was mayor of Lichfield. Both he and his wife were buried in Sandon, Staffordshire, where his daughter Ann was living, suggesting that he moved out of Lichfield as did his brother George, and as the burial register states that they were from Longdon, one assumes that they moved back there. It may be that when Edmund’s parents moved to Longdon, Edmund moved to Birmingham.

Ann Hector (1711-1788), the daughter of Benjamin, may have lived with her brother before her marriage, as in the register at Coleshill on 13th December 1738 both she and her husband, Walter Carless, are listed as being of the parish of St. Philip’s. Her brother Edmund is listed on the special licence for the marriage. Walter Carless (1714-1757) was the only child of Richard Carless by his first wife, Ann Moseley, whose father was the son of Sir Edward Acton of Aldersham; Richard Carless is said to have been a Birmingham attorney and the family owned property at Five Ways. Richard Carless married twice, and his second wife, Elizabeth nee Banner, was also married before. By her first marriage she had a daughter, Elizabeth Gibbons, whom Edmund Hector married.  Walter Carless was therefore the step brother of Edmund Hector’s second wife. By his second marriage Richard Carless had three daughters, two of whom married clergymen.

Ann’s husband Walter was a clergyman who eventually became the vicar of Sandon in Staffordshire; records state he was also a vicar in Birmingham and Harborne.  At the beginning of their marriage he and Ann nee Hector seem to have been living in Lichfield, as their children Richard and Ann were baptised in St. Mary’s in 1739 and 1743 respectively. He died in 1757 and Edmund Hector was the executor of his will; their son Richard only lived to early adulthood and was buried in Sandon in 1764. Their daughter Ann married in 1770, at which point Mrs. Carless seems to have moved in with her widowed brother, his wife having died the previous year.

Dr. Johnson had known Ann Carless in Lichfield and met her again in 1770. He writes to his friend Mrs. Thrale, “I have passed one day at Birmingham with my old Friend Hector – there’s a name – and his Sister an old love. My Mistress is grown much older than my friend.” His visit with Boswell in 1776 is better known, as he told Boswell, “She was the first woman with whom I was in love. It dropt out of my mind imperceptibly, but she and I shall always have a kindness towards each other.” Boswell informs us that “…though much advanced in years (she) was a genteel woman, very agreeable, and well-bred.”   Near the end of his life Johnson was brooding about her, as he told Boswell that if he had married her it would have gone well.   It amused me to read Boswell’s comment, “His juvenile attachments to the fair sex were very transient”, as most commentators fail to note that Johnson was not only attracted to other women in his youth, but that at the time of his brooding about Mrs. Carless he was hurt by the behaviour of Mrs. Thrale – her husband had recently died and Johnson wished to marry her but was rejected.     Nevertheless in 1784 Johnson wrote to Hector, “I send my kindest respects to dear Mrs. Carless”, and she seems to have had equal regard for him, sending a present to Mrs. Thrale who visited The Square with Dr.Johnson.

His sister’s children were to prove important to Hector, as it was Ann’s descendants who would become his heirs. In 1770 the daughter Ann Carless married George Hopper of Welwyn in Hertfordshire, who was a surgeon. Edmund Hector’s name is once again upon the special licence which states that Ann had stayed for a sufficient time in Birmingham, where the couple married on 2nd November 1770 at St. Philip’s. They lived in both Welwyn and Durham, and had a son named Walter Carless Hopper in 1772, who would become Edmund Hector’s heir, both of his parents being dead and buried in the churchyard of Sandon by the time of Hector’s own death.


No.1 Old Square, pictured with its plaque.


His adult life

Edmund Hector, Benjamin’s surviving only son, seems to have prospered after his days with Warren and Johnson: by 1736 he is listed in the Poor Law levy in both the New Street quarter and Bull Street quarter, suggesting that he may have lived in one property and worked in the other. Clearly his practice was flourishing. Like his sister, he got married by special licence in a church with which he seemed to be unconnected; in his case the licence is made out for Sheldon or Temple Balsall, but I have not been able to trace a church register. The licence is dated 12th May 1740, and the date would suggest that he had left getting married later than most of his contemporaries. His wife, Elizabeth Power (1714–1741) of Kenilworth, was probably the daughter of an attorney named Anthony Power, and she had a brother who is said to have been a surgeon in Polesworth. The licence states that Hector was “thirty upwards” and his bride twenty-five.  The marriage was sadly short-lived, as the register of St. Nicholas in Kenilworth has two devastating entries on the same page; his wife was buried first on 30th March 1741, having died presumably in childbirth, and then on 15th April 1741 his son, Power Hector, was buried.

Hector seems to have decided to remarry shortly afterwards, and took out another special licence dated 16th August, 1742. He married Mary Gibbons (1706-1769) in St. Philip’s on 17th August 1742, and around this date he seems to have moved into his house in The Square, which he rented before buying. No. 1 The Square was owned by John Pemberton, a Quaker, who had purchased the Priory lands and organised the building of The Square, which was designed by William Westley; when his son died, John Pemberton arranged to let the house, which Hector then stayed in until his death.

Mary Gibbons’ father had died in 1714 and is said to have been an attorney with a large practice, and whose mother was related to a lord. Mary’s mother had then remarried Richard Carless in 1718 at Castle Bromwich. Mary and Edmund do not seem to have had any children, and after twenty-seven years of marriage she was buried on 30th June 1769 in St. Philip’s; in her will she left a bequest to St. Mary’s, Lichfield, for the poor of the parish, which may indicate that the couple kept in touch with Hector’s home town. In his will Hector makes arrangements for the £1,000 she brought to her marriage, a demonstration of her family’s wealth.


The Lunar Society

Edmund Hector was of a different generation to members of the Lunar Society, but seems to have links with several of them.

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)

We know that Samuel Johnson knew Erasmus Darwin after Darwin arrived in Lichfield in 1757 (he left in 1780), and visited him, so Hector was certainly likely to know of him; whether he actually knew him is a matter of conjecture, but given that there were still members of Hector’s family living in Lichfield, it seems possible. When Small died in 1775, it was Darwin who recommended Withering to take on Small’s medical practice and welcomed him into the Lunar Society. Darwin’s daughter married Samuel Tertius Galton, the son of Samuel Galton who lived in The Square.

William Small (1734-1775)

William Small came to Birmingham in 1765 and died from malaria in 1775. He was buried in St. Philip’s graveyard, and prior to his death had practised in Temple Row as a physician with Dr. Ash. He and Ash were prime movers from 1769 in getting the General Hospital built, and their first subscription contains Hector’s name. As well as these likely connections through work and worship, we know that Small was initially introduced to Matthew Boulton and then became a leading light of the Lunar Society, and we know that Hector also had connections with Matthew Boulton.

William Withering (1741-1799)

Erasmus Darwin recommended that William Withering take the place of William Small after the latter’s death, both in the Lunar Society and in Small’s medical practice in Birmingham. Withering had family connections with Hector, and he is sometimes described as Hector’s cousin, but in fact it was his mother Sarah who was Hector’s cousin (as stated above), which made him Hector’s second cousin. In 1775 Withering lodged in The Square at no. 10 for a while, and took over Small’s consulting rooms at 9 Temple Row, which he shared with Dr. Ash (1723-1798), who was the prime mover for the General Hospital, and therefore it is more likely than not that Hector also knew Ash quite well. Edmund Hector was on the committee for the General Hospital which urged that Withering should take the place of Small, and we know that Withering spoke warmly of him. Withering later bought 15, The Square, and when, in 1786, he purchased Edgbaston Hall he continued to use his house in the Square as his town house.  In the last year of Hector’s life, Withering wrote to him from Portugal, where he was attempting to cure the TB which eventually killed him.



Another connection with Withering was through St. Philip’s, where Withering was a churchwarden. Temple Row, opposite the church, together with The Square, housed so many leading physicians and surgeons it is unnecessary to list them, but there is a high likelihood of them all knowing each other both through work and through church .

During the Priestley Riots of July 1791 the rioters, protesting against dissenters and such progressive views as siding with the French Revolution, targeted Withering’s house, Edgbaston Hall, right at the end of the riot. They were bribed to prevent the house being destroyed as Priestley’s had been. Withering was an Anglican member of the Lunar Society, but presumably held some of the Lunar Society’s progressive views which had incensed the crowd. It has been suggested that Hector was a Tory rather than a Whig, and the same has been said of Dr. Johnson, but many of their friends and associates were Whig.

Samuel Galton junior (1753-1832), another member of the Lunar Society, lived in The Square from 1780, although he also leased Great Barr Hall; he was a Quaker who was condemned for his gun making, and also a banker. There were only sixteen houses in The Square, and it therefore seems likely that Hector would have known him, possibly through his connections with the Quaker Lloyd family who lived on the Square and were friends with both Hector and Johnson.

Matthew Boulton (1728-1809)

Matthew Boulton’s father of the same name originated from Lichfield, and on moving to Birmingham lived around Snowhill, which is both near St. Philip’s, where his son Matthew was christened, and near The Square.

His son, Matthew Boulton, when he moved to Soho, used several doctors including Small, but the book Matthew Boulton: Selling What All the World Desires, includes the catalogue of the exhibition held in 2009 which lists an item dated 1792 from Hector. This is the bill for £7 11s 6d for thirty-one visits to Soho House between 1790 and 1792 and includes an entry “For the cure of Miss Boultons Toe”.

Matthew Boulton was one of the major proponents for the building of a general hospital beginning around 1769.As Hector is named on the original subscription list it seems likely that they did know one another at this date, and may be the reason that Boswell and Hector, and on another occasion Dr. Johnson, were able to visit the Soho works, a fairly new attraction which had opened in 1765. Boswell states that Boulton said to him, “I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have – power.” Hector accompanied Boswell on his trip to the works and in the carriage was pumped for information by Boswell on Dr. Johnson’s early life.

Boulton played a part in the music festival started to raise funds for the General Hospital, which took place in St. Philip’s. The festival raised enough money to get the hospital built in 1779, after ten years of trying, and the Triennial Festivals continued to raise money for the hospital into the early twentieth century. As Hector worshipped at St. Philip’s, his parish church, and worked at the General Hospital, it is possible that he was involved with the musical festival along with Boulton.

There is another link with Boulton which is not wholly explicable; among the Boulton papers in the Reference Library is listed the marriage contract of Hector’s great-nephew Walter Carless Hopper, suggesting a close connection between the two families.

William Baskerville (1706-1775)

In 1755 Johnson mentioned in a casual way in a letter to Hector that he had been to see Baskerville, suggesting that both of them knew him. As he remembers drinking with Warren in the Swan tavern in the same letter, he and Hector may have known Baskerville since the 1730s. Hector would have a church connection with Baskerville also, as Baskerville was a church warden at St. Philip’s, presumably before he became an atheist. (Dr. Johnson presented one of Baskerville’s first volumes, Virgil, to Trinity College, Oxford.)


Other friends and acquaintances

In modern parlance, Hector could be said to have had a large network, which might be loosely grouped into three. Firstly there were the people he might hear of, if not personally know, through Dr. Johnson.  Johnson formed a literary club which had as members the leading figures of the time: Oliver Goldsmith, Joshua Reynolds, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Edmund Burke, David Garrick, Edward Gibbon and Adam Smith.   Towards the end of his life in particular, Johnson contacted many people in Lichfield, both those with whom he had gone to school and others. He also had as good friends and benefactors the Thrale family. Mr. Thrale was an M.P. who owned a brewery and his wife, Hester Thrale, was someone of whom Johnson was very fond; he recommended Hector as a surgeon to her, and Hector and his sister sent her a present of crockery. Johnson lived in Gough Square, off Fleet Street in London, and supported in his house a motley array of dependents, whom Hector may have met when he visited Johnson at least once in 1782 on the way to visit his sick niece.

One of the three schoolboys who helped Johnson to school was John Taylor (1711-1788), whom Johnson visited when he also visited Hector. Taylor was vicar of Market Bosworth, chaplain to the Duke of Devonshire, held a prependal stall in Westminster Abbey and, from 1784, was minister of St. Margaret’s Westminster.   Although Hector had been at school with Taylor, there is no clear evidence of continuing friendship; Taylor grew up in Ashfield, Derbyshire and was again living there at the time Johnson began to visit him, on the way to visiting Lichfield. It was John Taylor who conducted Johnson’s burial in Westminster Abbey. Towards the end of his life Johnson exhibited great curiosity about people he had known in his youth, and Boswell mentions several of his old schoolfellows whom Johnson contacted in Lichfield, but we do not know of Hector exhibiting any interest in them.

Sampson Lloyd (1699-1777) was the founder of the first bank in Birmingham, together with John Taylor (1711-1775), a manufacturer of buttons, both of whom lived in The Square. They are mentioned in Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson as entertaining Dr. Johnson when Hector was not at home, which suggests that they were acquaintances of Hector. Both of them were leading citizens of Birmingham.

Secondly, there were the great number of surgeons, doctors and apothecaries Hector would meet through his work, especially from the beginnings of his connection with the General Hospital in 1769. Given that so many surgeons and doctors lived near St. Philip’s, these relationships might well have overlapped with the sociability of church attendance. It is also possible that as his reputation spread, Hector would number many of the wealthy citizens of Birmingham as both patients and friends.

Thirdly, there were the array of people known through family and former Lichfield citizens who had moved to Birmingham. Matthew Boulton, Dr. Swynfen and Andrew Johnson have been mentioned, but there were many more, including the first rector of St. Philip’s. Hector’s sister Ann seems to have moved near Birmingham early on, and Hector was on good terms with her family. His will hints at his relationships with his extended family of cousins, and his cousin Richard, son of George Hector, was a surgeon in Birmingham before moving to Shropshire.


Hector’s professional life

During the eighteenth century the practice of medicine began to differentiate and professionalise and the surgeon apothecary became the equivalent of a general practitioner. Whereas physicians usually attended a university, used the title “doctor” and were considered gentlemen, surgeons would serve an apprenticeship lasting seven years, after leaving grammar school, and were considered “trade” because they worked with their hands. (There is a memorial stone within St. Philip’s to Francis Rogers, a physician who studied at Glasgow and died in 1804.) Hector may have served as an apprentice to his father, another medical relation or even to a member of his future wife’s family, but we do not know.

The medical profession was in flux, with some apothecaries and surgeons also taking university degrees after apprenticeships, as did William Withering and Edward Jenner. Apothecaries would prepare medicines and sometimes prescribe them; in country areas they sometimes practised as doctors in all but name, and usually had a shop, the equivalent of a chemist. Hector was certainly qualified as an apothecary, as he was so described when taking on an apprentice. When, late in his career, he was appointed a consultant surgeon for the General Hospital, it is notable that surgeon apothecaries were separated from surgeons. Throughout the eighteenth century, as more hospitals were established, it became more common for surgeons to spend time “walking” a hospital after their apprenticeship, and at the end of the century the need for medical lectures and medical schools was gradually emerging.

Midwifery had been a primarily female profession, but in the eighteenth century more surgeons became midwives. There are no references to Hector acting as a midwife, as there are no direct references to him having an apothecary’s shop. I would assume that he therefore belonged to the category of surgeon apothecaries who prepared their own medicines for their practice, using mostly plants. A directory of 1774 lists Robert Mynors as a surgeon and man midwife living at 14 The Square, who would write Practical Thoughts on Amputations in 1783 and, in 1785, History of Trepanning the Skull, which illustrate the 18th century thirst for scientific knowledge extending into the medical sciences.

We may think of amputations in the eighteenth century as being the prime function of a surgeon, but this clearly was not so. They frequently dealt with such things as eye and ear problems and broken bones, operated for stones, and treated disease by the common treatment of bleeding, as well as attempting to deal with the scourges of the period such as typhoid, cholera, cancer and tuberculosis. Hector’s uncle, George Hector, a surgeon in Lichfield, worked for The Conduit Trust and there is an interesting list still in existence showing work for which he needed to be paid by the trust, having served the patients free of charge. His work included a number of broken legs, a broken arm, draining an ulcer and treating scrofula. The art of surgery was to cut into the body, which was supposed to be done with a physician present. It was not until the nineteenth century that the importance of sterilisation and the understanding of the cause of disease came about, but towards the end of the century there was an initiative towards inoculation for smallpox.

An instrument case belonging to Hector is preserved in the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and is described as being of pocket size and made of white metal with silver plating, covered with polished shagreen. It contains two pairs of scissors, one curved, dressing forceps, a combined earscoop and director, and a spatula for spreading ointments.

Apart from Matthew Boulton, I have only been able to find one instance of a patient whom Hector treated, Sir Walter Gough of Perry Hall. Hector’s bill of around 1748 lists “a wound upon Michael’s knee 7/6d,” “Mrs. Gough’s eye 1/3d”, “a mixture for the neck 1/2d” and “opeldodoch 2/4d”.

It should be noted that Birmingham was late in acquiring a General Hospital and a Dispensary; Bristol, for example, had a General Hospital in 1737. The purpose of such hospitals was to provide care for the poor at a time when industrial towns were growing, and Hector’s compassion for people who could not pay seems to have been as great as that of Withering, who was renowned for treating people of all classes in the same way. Surgeons and physicians at Birmingham General Hospital were allowed apprentices, but we do not know of any taken on by Hector at this late stage of his life. We do know that prior to this period he had at least three distinguished apprentices. One would assume that for him to be appointed a Consultant Surgeon at the General Hospital when it opened, he was held in high esteem and kept abreast of changing practices.

These three apprentices were Robert Ward, John Nott and Christopher Wren. Robert Ward came from the family after whom Ward End is named, and became one of the surgeons at the General Hospital. It is said that he and Withering admitted the first forty patients when the hospital first opened.

John Nott (1751-1825) was an intriguing figure. Born in Worcester, he was the son of a German courtier. After serving his apprenticeship with Hector from 1767, he went to London, Paris and Europe, then to China for the East India Company, and learned Persian. From 1789 to 1793 he was attached to Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, but is most remembered for the large number of books he wrote. We know that Hector subscribed in 1787 to Selected Odes from Hafiz by his former apprentice.

Christopher Wren (probably 1747-1797) was apprenticed in 1762, and it seems possible that he was part of the Wren family who lived at the Wroxall estate in Warwickshire. This estate had been bought by the famous architect of St. Paul’s, who had himself been apprenticed to a surgeon. He is most likely to be the grandson of the architect, and attended Solihull school, but I have not found any evidence of him practicing surgery.

In his will Hector names “Mr. – Taylor, now apothecary at the General Hospital near Birmingham” and leaves him “all my instruments, drugs etc. belonging to my surgery”. The instrument case mentioned above is said to have been left to the Royal College of Surgeons by a Thomas Taylor, apprentice to Edmund Hector, but as his dates are given as 1796-1890 this clearly cannot be true; another source states that his uncle was apprenticed to Hector. I cannot find a Taylor in the Medical Register for 1783 which lists the hospital staff, but he may well have been appointed at a later date.

When the General Hospital opened in 1779 Hector was already in his sixties. We have seen that he was treating Matthew Boulton in 1792 and the impression is that he was able to continue to practise until his death at the age of eighty-five.


His later life

Hector’s second wife died in 1769, not long after the death of his mother in 1763 and his nephew Richard Carless in 1764 (who had died of an accident). Ann Carless, after the marriage of her daughter in 1770, moved into his house and died in 1788, a year after the death of her daughter’s husband George Hopper in 1787; her daughter Ann Hopper had died in 1782. Because the son of Ann Hopper, Walter Carless Hopper, attended King Edward School in Birmingham, it is possible that he lived with his great uncle after his mother’s death; he matriculated from Oxford in 1794, and had come of age by the time of Hector’s death, enabling him to inherit the estate. Dr. Johnson died in December1784, and visited Hector for the last time in November: on returning to London and in great pain, he wrote to Hector on 17th November, “Let us think seriously on our duty…we have all lived long and must soon part.”   Despite all these deaths, Hector seems to have remained active and cogent to the end of his life, writing to Boswell after the publication of his famous Life of Samuel Johnson in 1791, telling him how much he had enjoyed it. Even in January 1794, shortly before his death, Hector was corresponding with Boswell concerning the correct attribution of a juvenile poem of Johnson’s.

We know little of Hector’s life, but some fragments remain. His house in The Square is known to have had a large garden (a warehouse was built there after his death), and, according to Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, there was a fire in the house in 1751. In 1770 Hector finally bought the house for £605. We learn more of his life from his will written in the last year of his life, which gives the impression of a wealthy man. As well as leaving his house in The Square to his great-nephew, he owned two houses in High Street and a freehold house and farm in Longdon, Staffordshire (which one assumes was inherited from his parents). Should his great-nephew die, he wishes his property to be given to “my cousin Elisabeth Pierson, wife of John Pierson of Tettenhall, Staffs”, and his cousin Thomas Walton of Longdon. The latter was clearly a relation of his mother, giving an indication that he was in contact with her side of the family. The residue of his estate, should his great-nephew die, is to go to “the five children of my late cousin George Hector, brother of the late Dr. Brooke Hector”. “To my friends Thomas Smith of Birmingham, Dr. in Physic, and Robert Ward £50 each”, which was for the trouble of being his executors; and finally he leaves one year’s wages to his three servants. Robert Ward, his former apprentice and now a surgeon at the General Hospital has been mentioned before; Thomas Smith was a consultant physician at the hospital who took his degree in Glasgow.

His “cousin”, Elizabeth Pearson, was the daughter of Penelope Hector who was the daughter of his uncle George, and married John Leake of Salters Hall in Shropshire. Elizabeth was her parents’ sole heiress, and married Thomas Pearson of Tettenhall in Staffordshire. In May 1776 William Withering’s wife went to stay with them there. Their son, John Pearson, became the Advocate General of Bengal, and their daughter married Dr. Johnstone, who was a physician of Birmingham General Hospital, became President of Queens College and later helped found Queens Hospital.  In 1808 Johnstone bought Edgbaston Hall, formerly owned by Withering, and prior to this, in 1805, had moved into The Square.

Hector’s heir, Walter Carless Hopper, inherited property at Five Ways from his Carless relations as well as Hector’s property, and eventually went to live in Durham after he sold 1 The Square in 1796, where he became a Deputy Lieutenant to the county. He married Margaret Shipperdson and his eldest son named Edmund Hector Hopper changed his name to Shipperdson and became a clergyman. The daughter of the latter, Mary Adeline, married Sir Henry Pottinger and her daughter became Lady Knaresborough.

By the time of his death Hector was sufficiently well known to merit an obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1794:

“September 2nd, 1794. At Birmingham in his 85th year, Edmund Hector, esq., the school-fellow, and, through life, the intimate friend, of the late Dr. Samuel Johnson; a gentleman eminent for skill and assiduity in his public character as a surgeon, and much and deservedly esteemed in private life for his benevolence of disposition, liberality of sentiment, and urbanity of manners.”

This old postcard depicts the so-called “Johnson’s room” in Aston Hall, which contains the pannelling from Edmund Hector’s house.







westley-richards-memorial.jpgWILLIAM WESTLEY RICHARDS (1789 – 1865)

“To be the maker of as good a gun as can be made”



In 1849 the visit of Prince Albert to the Exhibition of Manufactures at Bingley House in Birmingham was covered extensively by the press; the exhibition preceded the famous Great Exhibition of 1851 in London and helped inspire it. Prince Albert, catching a train in London, reached Birmingham in only two hours then took a carriage to the exhibition.  He was escorted by Mr. William Westley Richards who was both chairman of the exhibition, and, since 1840, the possessor of a Royal Warrant as gunmaker to Prince Albert.  The press marvelled that Prince Albert showed so much knowledge of manufacturing, and it was noted that he spent a long time at the stall of the Westley Richards firm.

Richards had reached this position of eminence by building on the experience of his father Theophilus Richards, who was both a gun manufacturer and the owner of a toyshop on Birmingham High Street.   William Westley Richards (who seems mostly to have called himself Westley Richards) was the youngest son and opened his own business making guns.  He proved to be the epitome of a Victorian entrepreneur, transforming how guns worked and building up a world-famous firm which was further expanded by his son.   He lived long enough to have photographs taken of him, and to be sufficiently famous to inspire a positive obituary in the Times.  The obituary stated that he had a kindly nature and was caring towards his employees, some of whom worked for him for fifty years.

As the son of Theophilus Richards he followed his father’s public spirit, being a leading light for most of his life of the George Fentham charity for the support of Bluecoat School, taking on some of the pupils as apprentices. He was a Street Commissioner and High Bailiff in Birmingham, a Justice of the Peace, a Warden of the Birmingham Assay Office, a member of the Musical Festival Committee, and a Juror at the 1851 Hyde Park exhibition.  We also know that he played a part in encouraging the establishment of the Royal Society of Arts in Birmingham, at one point holding a special event in St. Philip’s to raise funds.  In a private capacity he supported shooting competitions and country sports, and was interested in horses.

His memorial, made by John Gow, a Birmingham funerary sculptor, is situated on the back wall of the Cathedral near the entrance door, which, below a skilfully sculpted urn, lists his family as his wife Harriet and three sons as Charles, George Seale and William, together with the son of Charles named Charles Westley. The monument to Theophilus and Mary Richards, the parents of William Westley Richards, is situated nearby on the other side of the door, and the difference between their modest style and William Westley Richards’ monument could be seen as a reflection of the difference in wealth, as well as a change in taste.

What the average visitor could not possibly know from this monument is that William Westley Richards was married twice and had six children by his first wife, Ann Barlow. The monument also does not state that, as he described himself on censuses, he was a gun manufacturer.  It is interesting to note that on the parish register at the baptism of his children he never declared himself as a gun manufacturer but as a jeweller or silversmith.  Being in no way qualified to comment upon guns*, in this article I wish mostly to explore the family of William Westley Richards, which turns out to have sad overtones, in contrast to the immense success of his business.


His business

It is necessary, however, to say a little about the business of Westley Richards & Co., which he founded, in order to explain his importance. The slogan quoted in the title illustrates his quest to constantly improve his product, rather than just sell as many guns as possible, and his guns became renowned for their quality in both military and sporting capacities.  The Mechanics Magazine in its obituary of 1865 said, “…the mark of his firm being a guarantee for high quality, trustworthiness, and excellence of workmanship“.

His business opened in 1812 at the address where both his father and grandfather had owned a toy shop, 82 High Street. (I tentatively suggest that this was part of where the Pavilions Centre how stands.)  His father was a silversmith, cutler and gun maker, and in an 1812 directory there are two businesses listed in the High Street under the names “Theophilus Richards and “Theophilus Richards & Co.”  By 1829, in a directory of that date, Theophilus Richards is listed as a gunmaker at 32 High Street, which presumably was the business of William Westley’s brother, Theophilus, who continued his father’s business after his retirement in 1825 and his death in 1828. In an 1835 directory Theophilus has moved from the High Street and became a very successful merchant.  Westley Richards seems, therefore, to have taken over or closed his father’s gun business.

William Westley Richards only seems to have dealt in guns himself, but, coming from a family of jewellers and goldsmiths, he was a co-director of his father’s, firm at the time of his father’s death in 1828 and was in charge of the Toy Shop for a short while (which may have moved from 82 High Street.) We know, however, that he retained his gold and silver smithing skills from the role he played in the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a juror for these skills, and from his self-description on church registers.  Both his grandfather and father had made guns, but from the time of his father’s death in 1828 he may have been the only member of the family who did so.  (The name Theophilus appears on guns until 1833, but I think it is possible that Richards continued for a time to manufacture the guns of his father’s business.)  His father retired in 1825 and in 1826 William Westley assumes responsibility for the Toyshop from his brother Theophilus for a short while, before Theophilus’ son Henry took it on, and it then disappears from view.  There is no mention of Theophilus Richards as a gun manufacturer at 33 High Street in Birmingham directories after 1830.  Theophilus had a very successful merchant company which appears at various addresses until settling at 36 Edmund Street.

In 1813 William Westley played a large part in establishing the Gun Barrel Proof House in Birmingham, still there today, which helped ensure the quality of guns and enabled Birmingham gunsmiths to deal with their products locally rather than having to go to London. In 1815 he opened a shop in New Bond Street, London, where his agent was the so-called “Bishop of Bond Street”, William Bishop, who was well-known by the aristocracy of the day and served the firm for sixty years.  His business seems to have been a success from the beginning, as in 1812 the Napoleonic wars were still in progress; many sales were made to the British Army throughout the nineteenth century, which was grateful for his innovations.  In 1821 he entered the first of nine patents, typifying his drive to improve. His firm gained a reputation for sporting and hunting guns at the time when trade dipped at the end of the war, and then began to sell both military and sporting guns abroad. During his lifetime the majority of his guns were produced in the High Street, mostly using an inhouse system of small workshops, rather than buying in from the many small workshops beginning to inhabit the Gun Quarter around St. Mary’s church.  A factory system, as we would know it today with an assembly line, had not yet been invented.

William Westley’s eldest son, Westley Richards, inherited his father’s desire for excellence to an even greater degree, and took out twenty patents to his father’s nine. He worked for his father as a co-partner until his father’s death in 1865, and became a senior partner when his half-brother Charles died in 1871. There are various reports that he actually took charge of the business in 1840 or 1855. He retired around 1873, and after this date he retained an interest in the firm whilst employing a managing director, and continued to submit patents for the improvement of guns.   After the son had retired, the firm continued to grow and moved to an Arts and Crafts building in Bournbrook, Edgbaston in 1894, demolished in 2009. (The university pub called The Gun Barrels, recently demolished, was named after the factory.)  By the time Westley died in 1897 the firm was the most highly respected gun makers in the world, and went on to play a large part in the supply of guns for the First World War.  Having been forced to expand to accommodate supply, after the First World War the firm declined somewhat, but tended to concentrate on sporting guns for which it was renowned.  It continues today under the same name but with different owners in premises near the Gun Quarter.

Samuel Galton Junior (1753-1852) was asked to leave the Quakers because he was an armament manufacturer, and went back to Quakerism when he retired in 1804 and became a banker. I have found no evidence that either the St. Philip’s congregation or the Anglican Church at this period had any moral doubts about the sale of guns, possibly because by this time Britain had abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833.  William Westley Richards bought a pew in the church (a normal practice of the time) and was a churchwarden for three years between 1822 and 1825.


His birth family

William Westley was the eighth child and fourth son of Theophilus Richards, (the subject of a previous article). By the time Richards was born, on 9th October 1789, his parents had already lost at least three children and went on to lose another son in 1800. Both his mother and father had been baptised and married at St. Philip’s, and all of their children were baptised here.  William Westley was to be their only child with a monument in St. Philip’s, and although he lived in Edgbaston for much of his adult life, having moved from High Street after the birth of his second child, he apparently continued to worship in this church and all his children were baptised here.  Whereas both his second wife and their three sons were all buried in St. Philip’s, his first wife and their adult children were buried elsewhere, with the three younger children of his first marriage who died being buried in St. Philip’s without memorials.

It is said that he had a good education, and might possibly have been to Sicily, (or he might have been confused with his brother Thomas Bingham Richards). As stated above he had silver and gold smithing abilities, which he must have learned from his father, together with the knowledge of gun making.  In January 1813 his sister Mary Ann married a clergyman, Francis Pelly; in the same year, on 21st September when he was almost 24, William married Ann Barlow at Acton Trussell in Staffordshire, and there are suggestions, which are hard to verify, that the marriage was not happy.  Ann Barlow came from a well off family who had bought the manor house at Acton Trussell, a village near Stafford, in 1778.  Her father having died, the ownership of the house passed to her brother John.  There is a memorial to a John Barlow still standing in the churchyard of Acton Trussell who may have been her brother and who sold the house in 1819; the manor house is now a hotel.

As was common at the time, it is quite possible that it was the marriage settlement from his first wife which enabled Richards to set up in business. His elder brother Thomas worked as his father’s agent but mostly had his own career in antiquities, and his second brother Theophilus worked in his father’s two businesses. William Westley may at first have been left to make his own way as the youngest living son, building on his experience of his father’s work so successfully that he would eventually become the most well-known of his family.  All three of the brothers would become both successful and rich.  The fact that William Westley named two of his daughters after his sisters might indicate a happy family life, as also does the fact that he worked with his brother Theophilus on the 1849 exhibition in Birmingham, and was married for the second time by the husband of his sister; his second wife was a friend of his sister Caroline and one of the executors of his will was the husband of his niece.


His first family

His six children with Ann were:

– Westley Richards, born 8th August 1814, baptised 6th January 1815

– Emma Richards, born 4th December 1815, baptised 5th June 1816, died 15th November 1819

– Caroline Richards, born 8th February 1817, baptised 1st May 1817

– Edward Harding Richards, born 14th June 1818, baptised 15th October 1818, died 23rd April 1819

– Ellen Richards, born 16th November 1819, baptised 5th January 1822

– Mary Ann Richards, born 16th July 1821, baptised 5th January 1822


I find this list very thought-provoking. It is repeatedly stated that William Westley Richards divorced Ann, a difficult thing to do at this period as it required an act of parliament.  This fact is usually aligned to his statement, “the inside of a barrel (i.e. of gunpowder) is like a woman or a violin” (meaning unstable).  Yet it clearly states in the church records that when he married his second wife he was a widower, so it seems unlikely he was divorced, and I have been unable to trace a divorce.   There is a notice in a magazine called The Weekly which states in the death notices of its edition for October 1821, “Anne, 29, wife of Mr. Westley Richards possibly after a long illness.”  I discovered that she was buried on 15th September, 1821 in Acton Trussell, and her address is given as Hagley Road, Edgbaston, which proves she had been living in the family home.

It seems possible that following the birth of her last child Anne died of complications. In 1819 her baby Edward Harding died in April, then her daughter Emma died on 15th November at the age of three, and the following day Ann gave birth to Ellen.  Ellen was not baptised in Ann’s lifetime, suggesting that Ann may have been ill, and was not yet two when Ann gave birth to Mary Ann and died three months later.  When Ann died she had only been married seven years and had given birth to six children.  The fact that she was buried in Acton Trussell may or may not be indicative of strain in the marriage.

By 1818 the family seems to have moved from the High Street to the corner of Chads Lane (now Chads Road) and Hagley Road in Edgbaston, a part of the select Calthorpe estate which was beginning to be developed; both his father and his brother Theophilus were living in Edgbaston at this time.  Hagley Road at this date was semi-rural, with several farmers being listed as house owners.  As Birmingham town centre became increasingly crowded and industrialised, it was normal for the wealthy, and merchants in particular, to move out to Edgbaston.  By 1853 he was living in Hall Hill Road, Edgbaston, (now Edgbaston Park Road), probably on the corner of Somerset Road.


His second family

After the death of Anne in 1821, Richards baptised his last two daughters in St. Philips in 1822, and then in 1823 he married Harriet Seale from London, who presumably came from a wealthy family as she brought £3,000 to the marriage; her father was a merchant who was dead at the time of the marriage, and had lived in Muscovy Court near the Tower of London. It is thought that Harriet was a friend of one of his sisters, which presumably is how he met her.  The wedding took place on 18th January at Old Church St. Pancras in London and was performed by Richards’ brother in law, Francis Perry.  The couple went on to have the children listed on the memorial:

– Charles, born 14th December 1823, baptised 2nd December 1824

– George Seale, born 6th July 1825, baptised 6th October 1827

– William, born 28th December 1827, baptised 26th January 1828

In the 1841 census the family are all living at home; by the 1851 census their son William had died aged sixteen in 1843 and Charles and George Seale are still living at home, together with their half-sister Mary Ann. By the 1861 census Charles was still at home together with Mary Ann, but George Seale had married and moved.  Harriett died at the very beginning of 1864, and William Westley died not long afterwards in September 1865, their deaths possibly expedited by having their son George Seale die in 1863.  Charles did not survive long after his parents, dying in 1871 aged 47, two months after the death of his only son who was aged fifteen months.  He had lived with his parents until their death.


The children of William Westley Richards

I appreciate that the children of Richards’ first marriage are not memorialised in St. Philip’s, but it is difficult to understand his life without including them.

Westley Richards (1814-1897) became very wealthy and had his daughter marry into the aristocracy, but had a sad life. His mother died when he was six, two siblings died in 1819 when he was four and his sister Caroline died when he was seventeen.  After such a childhood he then had to endure the death of his half-brother William when he was 28, and the death of his young wife so soon after marriage when he was 31; in short order his half-brother George then died when he was 49, his step-mother died when he was 50, his father died when he was 51 and his last half-brother Charles died when he was 57.  It is therefore not surprising that Westley comes over as a stern and hard-working character, a high Tory who was keen on hunting and country sports as well as being involved in the Conservative party in Birmingham, but who mostly threw himself into his work; he was the opposite of his father’s kindly character.  It was under his jurisdiction that the firm became most prominent.

In the 1841 census Westley is listed at the address of his maternal uncle, Edward Barlow, an attorney, together with his two surviving sisters, Ellen and Mary Ann, and their grandmother, Ann Barlow. His uncle lived in what might be described as a small stately home in Stone, Staffordshire.  His father’s second family, meanwhile, were living in Edgbaston.  One wonders if either there was some division in the family, or if he and his sisters were actually brought up by his mother’s relations after her death.  (On the other hand it is perfectly possible that they were simply visiting, which was not recorded.)  Certainly the legal records which concern Westley Richards contain the names of his mother’s and his wife’s family, rather than those of his father’s family.

In 1845 he married Emma Vere Fane, the daughter of an M.P. and banker who was the grandson of the 8th Earl of Westmoreland and who lived at Little Ponton Hall in Grantham. (It is sobering to realise that Vere Fane was compensated for his West Indian slaves on the abolition of slavery by the British government, and put his money into banking.)  They were married by her maternal uncle, indicative of the close ties he retained with her family all his life.  The newly married couple lived in Wood End, which is part of Erdington and was then a rural area; in the Post Office directory of 1845 Westley Richards is listed as a farmer in Erdington.  They probably lived in a Tudor house known as Wood End Hall, now demolished, which had been the manor house in the ancient parish of Pipe.  The marriage settlement between them, in which she brought £3,000 and he brought £5,000, was drawn up by his maternal uncle Edward Barlow among others.

His young wife had recently given birth to their daughter, Adela Augusta, when she died in a hunting accident in 1847, and was buried at the then newly-built church of St. Barnabas in Erdington High Street in December. I was told that she was probably interred in a vault underneath the area on the side of the church now covered by a new café.  Westley Richards moved from Wood End and never married again, throwing himself into his work.

By the 1851 census he is listed as being in a hotel in Rugby, and in 1871 he is living at the back of 82 High Street, Birmingham, where the firm is situated. The death of his half-brother Charles in 1871, and the marriage of his daughter in 1873, might have encouraged him to retire in 1873 (although one source states that he retired because he was ill), but he seems to have lived an equally vigorous life in Rutland.  In 1857 he had bought the estate village of Ashwell, probably for a hunting estate, which he was praised for improving.  Both his uncle Edward Barlow and his future son-in-law Henry Bromley had financial interests in the area. In 1879 he built Ashwell Hall, which is as large as a stately home, and the census of 1881 reveals that he lived in great style with a butler, housekeeper, secretary and a large number of servants.  He became a J.P. and High Sherriff of Rutland, and a strong supporter of country pursuits, as well as being a member of the Carlton Club. Throughout his life he played a very active part in country shows, shooting, breeding horses and exhibiting cattle, as well as frequently acting as a judge and donating prizes. In 1893 he wrote a book about cattle and was a judge of horses. By the time of the 1891 census his daughter has moved into the main house and he is living in Ashwell Lodge, where he died in 1897. He had a commemorative plate engraved in Ashwell church, “Sacred to the memory of the beloved wife of Westley Richards”, fifty years after her death, coupled with his name.  In his will he leaves £14,000, a reflection of how far his family had come since the death of his grandfather Theophilus.

Adela, his daughter, having lived with her future husband’s family at the family estate in Lincolnshire after the death of her mother, married her cousin Sir Henry Bromley, the son of her mother’s sister, who was a Captain in Nottinghamshire Yeomanry Cavalry.  She became Lady Bromley in 1895 when her husband succeeded to the title as the fifth Lord Bromley of East Stoke, and they moved from Ashwell to the family estate.  She died in 1926 aged 79, long after her husband’s death in 1905.    He left nearly £33,000 in his will, whereas Adela left only £1,200.

They had five children, all of them distinguished. Her daughter Esther married Charles Tryon, a banker who was the son of a British admiral, and settled in Vancouver; she died in 1956, forty years after her husband.  Adela’s son Herbert was a lieutenant in the 7th Canadian Infantry and was killed in action in 1915 aged 35, being memorialised on the monument in Ypres.  Robert became the 6th Lord after the death of his father but died aged 31 in 1906, having been an attaché to Washington, a J.P. and Assistant Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for the Colonies.  The next son, Maurice Bromley-Wilson then became the 7th Lord and was a major in the South Nottinghamshire Yeomanry, Deputy Lieutenant of Westmoreland, a J.P. and High Sheriff of Westmoreland.  His brother Rear Admiral Sir Arthur Bromley became the 8th Lord in 1957 on the death of his brother, and lived until 1961.  Having retired from the navy where he had fought in World War I, he became a Gentleman Usher to King George V, Edward VIII, George VI, and our present queen and was awarded at various times C.M.G., C.V.O., K.C.M.G. and K.C.V.O.


Caroline Richards (1817- 1831), died aged fourteen and was buried in St. Philip’s on 4th May 1831.  Her brother Edward had died on 23rd April 1819 and her sister Emma died aged not quite four on 15th November 1819.  From then on her life must have been very difficult as her sister Ellen was born 16th November 1819 and her sister Mary Anne in July 1821, after which her mother died.  She was almost six when her father remarried.  It is notable that Emma, Caroline and Edward are not memorialised in St. Philip’s. One can only presume that her death was devastating for the whole family, but perhaps particularly for Westley, to whom she was nearest in age.


Ellen Richards (1819-1912)  As stated above, Ellen was living with her maternal uncle in Staffordshire on the 1841 census.  On the 1851 census she is listed as a visitor to the Hobson family in Northfield, (where the wife is listed as “daughter of a factor”) and in 1857 she married Robert Hayling Woodhouse, who was ten years younger than her 38 years.  Robert Woodhouse had a brother who was a clergyman, by whom they were married, and may have had a brother who was a solicitor, which might explain the connection with her half-brother George. They married in Claines, Worcestershire where her half-brother George was a solicitor, but the couple lived in Leominster, where Robert Woodhouse’s family had lived for several generations.  In the 1861 census Robert is listed as “clerk to shop merchant”, but by the 1871 census he had become a hop merchant and went on to become a J.P.  Having married late, Ellen swiftly went on to have two children, Robert Westley Woodhouse born in 1858 and Marion Ellen Woodhouse, born in 1860.

By the 1891 census the family had moved to Great Malvern, and Marion was unmarried. Despite being ten years younger than his wife, Robert died in 1904, leaving very little money, but Ellen would live until she was 93, dying in 1912, and leaving over £3,000.  As William Westley Richards had left her £4,000 in his will, and specified any husband was to have no control over it, one assumes the money she left was inherited.  She outlived her daughter who died unmarried, also in 1904.

Her son Robert Westley does not give the impression of having thrived. In the 1891 census he is listed as a clerk assistant, and in the 1901 census he is simply living on his own means and not working; he died unmarried in 1906 in the Talbot Hotel in Leominster.  He left only £1,000, yet his parents in the 1901 census seem to live in some style, with a valet and several servants.  Ellen therefore outlived all of her family.

When faced with these bald facts it is hard to know if Ellen’s marriage to a man ten years younger and apparently not well off was an act of rebellion, but there is no hint of disapproval in her father’s will.


Mary Anne Richards (1821- after 1864) never married. She is with her Uncle Edward on the 1841 census, and then with her father’s family on the 1851 and 1861 census.  At the time of her father’s will of 1864 she is still unmarried. I tentatively suggest that she may be the Mary Anne Richards living in Leamington Priors, a fashionable place for rich Birmingham people, who died in 1868.  On the list of probate she is described as aged 45 and a spinster, leaving under £2,000.


Charles Richards (1823-1871) is said to have worked on the accounts side of his father’s business, and in censuses appears as a gun manufacturer. He lived with his father in Edgbaston until his father’s death and then in 1869 married Elizabeth Mary Howe, the daughter of the vicar of Knowle, the Reverend John Howe, in St. John’s, Knowle; she was aged 20 to his 46.  It is sad to read the 1871 census when their family was complete with a baby son, and then to realise that shortly after this date their first and only son Charles Westley died in May 1871, swiftly followed by his father in July.   According to his probate he is worth under £9,000 and at the time of his death was living in Carpenter Road, Edgbaston, situated very near his father’s old house.  The houses on this road might be described as opulent, being large and surrounded by trees.

Elizabeth Mary went on to marry again after the devastating death of her husband and son, and, as the daughter of a vicar, it is not surprising that when she married for the second time she married a priest. She must have stayed in the Birmingham area, as in 1874 she married Josiah Mander.  He was at first a teacher, but then took holy orders and became a curate at St. Philip’s in 1871.  In 1876 he became the vicar of Stonechurch in Oxfordshire, and then rector of Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire around 1901, and seems to have been a very active priest and writer of holy music.  They had three daughters and a son; Elizabeth Mary died in 1905, followed by her husband in 1914.


George Seale Richards (1825-1863) was the only son not to work in his father’s business. He was a solicitor in Claines, near Worcester, and married Charlotte Martha Walker, who came from County Sligo, Ireland, at the church where his parents married, Old Church St. Pancras, in 1858.  When he died in August 1863 his probate states that he was worth under £3,000, which suggests that he had made his own money and had not inherited any of the family fortune.  He died aged 38 and was buried in St. Philip’s, and certainly by the time of the probate in 1864 his widow had moved to Calthorpe Street, Edgbaston, which is by Five Ways.

Charlotte Martha Richards in the 1871 census has moved to live with her sister on the Hagley Road near Woodbourne, and then, in a strange turn of events, she married John Howe in 1872 in Edgbaston. He was the widowed vicar of Knowle, who was the father of her sister in law Elizabeth Mary nee Howe, and they went to live in the vicarage in Knowle with his two young daughters.  She was widowed for a second time in 1889, and in the 1891 census is living in Leamington with her step daughters.  When she died in 1894 she was buried in Knowle.

George Seale Richards had a son, George Westley Richards (1859-1925) who does not appear on a census with his mother after 1861 (though he may simply have been at boarding school) and went into the Royal Berkshire regiment, where he was sent to India. He married Eunice Mary Dames, whose father had been in the Royal Artillery and was a Lord Lieutenant and in 1888 High Sheriff, at Enderry, Ireland.  Their son, Francis Howe Richards (1891-1937), was christened in Leamington where George Westley’s mother was living.    In 1903 they were living at Withington Manor, near Cheltenham, when Major George Westley Richards returned from the hunting field to find his wife dead at the age of 38.

He married again after this tragedy: Nora Ellen Mitchelson came from Pickering in Yorkshire, where they married in 1905, but they lived near Cheltenham; she was only 20 to his 46.  In Gloucestershire he became a J.P. and was a High Sherriff and Deputy Lord Lieutenant. When he died in 1911 he was buried in St. Peter’s churchyard in Cheltenham, where he is commemorated under a cross.

George Westley Richards had two sons, one by each of his wives.  His son by his first wife, Francis Howe Richards, followed his father into the army, and was a Major in the Royal Artillery, like his mother’s father, when he fought in the First World War.  He was wounded four times and received the D.S.O.; his medals were sent to his stepmother as he was still in hospital in 1921.  He worked in Ireland and India and, before the Second World War broke out, he died in 1937 in Rawalpindi, where he was commanding the 5th Field Brigade Royal Artillery and was killed by a falling boulder at the age of 46.

By his young second wife, George Westley Richards had a son, George Dick Kendall Richards, who was born in 1918 in Reading, and married in 1940. He went into the Royal Navy where he was killed in 1943, and is listed on the Chatham Naval Memorial.  At the time of his death he was a Commander dealing with enemy armed trawlers around Dunkirk, and during his career he was awarded D.S.O. and D.S.C.  There were many reports of his death, describing him as “a dashing gunboat commander” and noting that he set six enemy vessels ablaze.  He was not quite 25 when he died and had been married only three years.


William Richards (1827-1843)

All that is known of William Westley’s last child is that he died at the age of fifteen, almost sixteen.


The will of William Westley Richards

Written in January 1864, Richards’ will was executed in 1866, a year after his death, by his son Charles, who seems to have looked after legal as well as monetary matters in the firm, and his niece’s husband Charles Couchman, whom he describes as his friend. The latter was married to Annette, the daughter of Theophilus Richards, his brother.  Richards’ second wife, Harriet, had died on 1st January 1864, so I would assume that this will, dated January 28th, replaced a previous will as there is no mention of his wife. The probate listing of the will as “under £10,000”, puzzled me until I read the will, in which it emerged that his eldest son Westley had probably taken money from the business already.

There are several touchingly personal bequests; at the very beginning he leaves to his son and executor Charles “the picture of Our hounds painted by Mr. Woodward of Worcester”; he assures his eldest son Westley that although he has not left him any part of “Estate and Effects” it is not from “any want of affection but solely because he has been and is well provided for from the share he has had and continues to have in my said trade or business”; and he takes great care to leave his grandson George, son of George Seale Richards who died in 1863, the profits from an investment of £2,000 for his “education and maintenance” and to give him capital if necessary for his “advancement and preferment”. George Westley Richards went to Eton and Oxford before going into the army, and clearly made good use of the bequest.

It emerges from the will that Richards owned an estate in Battersea, and it is from the rent income from this that he leaves his two daughters £4,000 each “free from marital Control”. (His brother Thomas Bingham Richards had also owned property in Battersea, and I am not sure if these properties were in some way connected.)  He states that he was in co-partnership with his sons Westley and Charles, and bequeaths his share of the business including “Messuages, Workshops Warehouses and buildings” into a trust which was used for the trustees’ expenses and then went to Charles.


Westley Richards had a varied group of grandchildren: Adela Bromley became firmly connected with the aristocracy and her children went into public service and the armed services; Marion Woodhouse and Robert Woodhouse died young and unmarried; George Westley Richards flourished in the army and received high public office. Of his great-grandchildren, two died in war and another died in the army.  I cannot help but wonder what this man, so rich and successful but faced with so much death down the generations, would make of all this.


*For information on the many innovations brought to guns by the firm of Westley Richards, see

Written by Gill Partridge April 2017


Memorial to James Bayley 1755-1834

JAMES BAYLEY (1755 – 1834)


The monument to James Bayley is situated on the corner by the entrance door to the Cathedral and is executed in the same design as that of Theophilus Richards on the other side of the corner, thought to be by William Hollins, a well-known Birmingham funerary sculptor. I was unable to find a connection between these two families, but instead discovered the world of the Napoleonic wars through investigating the Captain Powney and his wife named on the monument

James Bayley’s monument states that he was “formerly a merchant of this town”, and a reference in the book “Luxury and Pleasure in the Eighteenth Century”, by Maxine Berg, states that he was in fact a merchant in steel toys. This is confirmed by an entry in a Birmingham directory of 1800 stating that he was a “steel toy maker” in Exeter Row.  (Exeter Row was the early name of Holloway Head.)   The possibility is that Theophilus Richards bought goods from James Bayley for his toyshop on the High Street, so they may have had a professional connection.  Between the 1770s and 1790s James Bayley supplied Josiah Wedgwood with bezels, the grooves and flanges for settings which would be used for cameos, seals, gilt frames and steel mountings for buttons in which Wedgwood inserted his own goods.  There is also extant a letter from Bayley to Matthew Boulton, so he may have also done business with the Soho works, which supplied the same goods to Wedgwood.   In 1789, together with his co-partner Sampson Freeth, Bayley was declared bankrupt, but shortly afterwards another meeting at the Shakespeare Tavern in New Street declared that creditors would be paid in full.

Sampson Freeth’s firm was well-known for the manufacture of tools, and in particular became well-known in France for the design of a corn grinder which enabled corn to be ground by hand. It would also appear that his son or relative of the same name went into the military, which is interesting in view of the various military connections of James Bayley.  As partners, Freeth and Bayley joined the Chamber of Commerce in Birmingham together at its very beginnings.

We know from his memorial and other sources that James Bayley lived in Summer Hill Road, which at this time was newly built on the edge of what would become the Jewellery Quarter, developed out of the New Hall estate which had belonged to the Colmore family. The houses were described as “detached villas” and would have been built after 1747 when New Hall was pulled down and the estate was developed. In his will James Bayley leaves to his “old and faithful servant”, Mary Sindo, a mahogany four poster bed, two armchairs and a wardrobe, plus a silver butter knife and other silver items, from which we might deduce that he lived in some style.  It is probably that this house was built by his father and became his after his mother died.

In a Birmingham directory of 1785 James Bayley appears as a toymaker and merchant.   In 1797 and 1815 he appears as a merchant and factor of Newhall Street and Summer Hill; the term “factor” was used for jewellery merchants who would arrange for the numerous small jewellery businesses to make different parts, get them assembled and sell them.  In view of where he lived and had his business, it is clear that he was part of the toy trade which had existed for about a century and for which Birmingham was renowned worldwide, and which directly preceded the jewellery trade in Birmingham.

By 1818 he may have retired as he simply appears in a directory of that date as “of Summer-hill”, but his name appears in 1831 as connected with Birmingham Canal Navigation, in which sponsors including Galton, Lloyd and Ryland are advocating for the Birmingham, Dudley and Wolverhampton Railways, together with the Birmingham and Basford Railways. As I will discuss below, Bayley’s father lived in Sandpits from which sand was shipped by canal very early on in the history of canals; 1831 is very early in the history of the railways, which suggests the Bayley family was mixing with the elite of businessmen who invested in these new forms of travel.  (The very first railway, Stockton to Darlington opened in 1825 and the Liverpool to Manchester Railway in 1829.)


James Bayley’s father, James Bayley senior (d.1772)

The will of James Bayley’s father, also called James Bayley, is available and at the time of his writing the will (1772) he states that he had three living children, William King Bayley, James Bayley and Elizabeth Bayley. From this one might deduce that James Bayley senior was the Bayley who married Elizabeth King at Upton on Severn in 1747.  The three children named in his will were all baptised at St. Philip’s: William King Bayley in 1754, James in 1757 and Elizabeth in 1765.  If the Sarah Bailey, christened in 1756 according to the St. Philip’s register, was also one of his children, she was clearly dead by 1772.   James Bayley senior wrote a will of seventeen pages in his efforts to set up trusts to ensure that his wife and children and any future issue would be well provided for, but in the event only his daughter would marry and have a daughter, the only grandchild.

The will reveals a wealthy man who owned sixteen acres in Sandpits, which he was developing with warehouses and properties, and who was keen to ensure that the brew house and stables of his own house, which were under construction in 1772, should be completed. In 1758 he subscribed to a book called “Thoughts Moral and Divine”, where his address is listed as New Hall Walk, and in 1774 his name appears in a directory where his occupation is given as “factor commerce” and his address as 3 New Hall Street – presumably he was listed after death.  His will shows a man concerned about the future of his wife and children, with money to ensure they were educated and asking the executors to get his sons apprenticeships. He left £3,300 to his wife (which was probably the money she brought to the marriage) as well as his goods, and instructions that she should be able to remain in the house until death, together with specifications about money to be provided for his wife if she remarried; £1,000 was left to each of his sons and £1,500 for his daughter.  His life as a merchant, factor and developer seems to have been followed by his son James, who may well have lived in his father’s house and possibly took over his business.

James Bayley’s brother, William King Bayley (1754-1813)

William King Bayley was buried at St. Philip’s in 1813 aged 59, the burial register stating that he was a bachelor. Like his father he was a merchant, but in hats, with businesses both on High Street, Birmingham and in London.  He went bankrupt several times, in all cases listed as a merchant, factor and chapman.  (A chapman was a dealer who arranged for goods to be assembled and sold, much the same as a factor.)  He left his property to his brother and money both to his niece and her husband, as well as money to Lieutenant Cockburn, and was generous towards his servants.

James Bayley’s sister, Elizabeth Bayley (1765-1826)

There is a reference in the Birmingham Journal dated 4th November 1826 stating that James Bayley’s only sister, Elizabeth Fortescue Cockburn died in 1826 “after a long and severe illness”, and  in his will he leaves John Fortescue Cockburne, “of Bootorstown near Dublin”, £1,000.  In 1809 John Fortescue Cockburne, a Lieutenant, married Elizabeth Carleton at St. Martin’s in the Bullring, by licence.  Elizabeth Bayley married Francis Carleton in 1782 at St. Clement Danes in London, where it was stated that her father James was dead and her mother was also called Elizabeth.

Her first marriage took place when she was only seventeen, and necessitated a bond sworn by oath of £200, followed by a licence which states that she lived in Islington, her father was dead and her mother gave permission for the marriage. The reason for such a bond and licence is probably due to the fact that she married on 15th June 1782 and her baby Elizabeth Carleton, was baptised on 6th July at Deal in Kent.  Perhaps the illness and death of her father in the same year had brought about such a rushed event.

As Francis Carleton must have died before 1809 I did not understand why it was so difficult to find a record of his death, until his name turned up on army lists, and it became evident that he was very likely to be the Captain Francis Carleton of the 16th Regiment of Light Dragoons who is reported in the Scots Magazine as having died on 18th June 1804 at Surinam in South America, which had been occupied by the British in 1799 after France incorporated the Netherlands, and was handed back to the Dutch in 1816 at the end of the Napoleonic wars.

In 1782 when he married he was a Lieutenant of the 2nd Regiment of Foot stationed in Dublin and shortly became a captain of an independent company of Foot which accompanied Sergeant John Stewart to survey hospitals in the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean.  This whole area was to become involved in the French wars, (the Caribbean islands were divided between French and British colonists), and prior to this date there had been sympathy in the Caribbean with the American War of Independence and troubles with Dutch trade, not to mention piracy.

Francis Carleton next appears in the records in 1803 as a cornet in the 22nd Light Dragoons, which served in Ireland and Egypt.  It is possible that he left the army before rejoining in 1803, and eventually moved to the 16th Regiment of Light Dragoons.  What we do know is that he married Elizabeth Bayley and had a daughter who, as Elizabeth Powney, appears in James Bayley’s will as his niece and the inheritor of all his freehold and leasehold estates.  His daughter, Elizabeth Carleton, married Captain Powney of the Royal Navy, and it is these two who appear on James Bayley’s memorial stone.

Before leaving the subject of Francis Carleton, there is a note in the Navy List concerning Captain Powney stating that Elizabeth Carleton, his wife, was the niece of the Chief Justice of Ireland, which suggests therefore that Francis Carleton was the brother of this chief Justice, Hugh Carleton of Cork, first Viscount Carleton. My research suggests that it was in fact Francis Carleton who was the nephew of this important man, who helped bring about the unification of Ireland with England.  The Carleton family were descended from merchants and were the leading family in Cork.  Elizabeth Bayley may have made a hasty marriage, but it was to a member of a family who were of the same wealth and class.  Her great uncle by marriage sat in the House of Lords and lived in Hanover Square.  Her husband’s brother Henry became a Major General.

Elizabeth Bayley’s second husband, John Fortescue Cockburne proved rather elusive. I found a brief mention of him on army lists as a Lieutenant on half pay in the Second Garrison Battalion, having been a lieutenant since 1811. Part of this battalion fought in Madeira, but as the garrison battalions consisted of wounded and old men, he may not have fought.  He and Elizabeth do not seem to have had any children, and after her death in 1826 he married again in 1827 in Dublin and had several children; one daughter settled in Australia.  Both her husbands, therefore, had links with Ireland and fought in the British Army.

Although Elizabeth seems to have died in England, she has strong links with Ireland and it is interesting to note that she may have met her second husband in Ireland, as Viscount Carleton at one time had a house in Booterstown, near Dublin where John Fortescue Cockburne settled.

James Bayley’s niece, Elizabeth Powney (1782-1837)

Elizabeth nee Carleton married John Powney at St. Martin’s in 1810, and it is noteworthy that the marriage followed so quickly upon the second marriage of her mother in 1809, also held in St. Martin’s. Unlike her mother, however, Elizabeth did not marry until she was 28.  She married a man from an old established family.     John Powney’s father, Pennyston Portlock Powney, was an M.P. for New Windsor and was involved both with royalty and in the politics of the day, and was a Ranger of Windsor Little Park and a Lieutenant Colonel of the Berkshire militia.  John Powney had an equally distinguished career, ending up a Captain and Commander, and awarded a K.H., a Hanoverian Order of Chivalry.  His career was extraordinary and too long to list, but included escorting the King off Weymouth, escorting the East India fleet to St. Helen’s and escorting a British minister to the United States; when he escorted a Mexican Charge d’Affaires to New Spain he was presented with a table service.  He was attached to the fleet in the Mediterranean, assisted at the capture of Flushing, served on the coast of North America and protected fisheries near Jersey.  He finished his career overseeing the coastguard in Aldeburgh.

Elizabeth seems to have had no children and in 1837 a notice in the Western Times states, “May 31 at Chudleigh, after a protracted illness and great suffering, Elizabeth the beloved wife of Capt. J. Powney, R.N., K. H., aged 56.”

After the death of her uncle, James Bayley, Elizabeth and her husband seem to have lived in his house in Summer Hill for a while, as Captain Powney is listed in a directory, but they apparently settled in Devon. Her husband married a much younger woman after Elizabeth’s death and had several children, dying in 1855.  Elizabeth had inherited most of the family fortune, but lived little longer than her uncle.


As well as remembering his old servant in his will, James Bayley left £50 each to the Bluecoat School, the General Hospital, the Dispensary and the Deaf and Dumb Institute, popular bequests for the congregation of St. Philip’s at the time. His freehold and leasehold estates were left to his niece, and his shares in Birmingham Canal Navigation were left to people in Staffordshire.  His executors were from Bridgenorth and Sutton Coldfield, and he also leaves bequests to people in Bristol.  These facts do not convey the unusual aspects of his will, which has two codicils which seem to have been hidden around the house, and give the impression that in his last days he was eager to remember practically everyone he had known with small gifts of money or silver objects.  Among the objects listed are a silver marrow spoon, a diagonal barometer, a silver lemon strainer and eight gold sovereigns.  He remembers his servants, mentioning one who had served his mother, leaves bequests to the children of people he had known, and remembers to leave money so that his servants can have funeral clothes.  He request that he should have a funeral “without parade” and no pall bearers, and be laid to rest in the family vault.  The fact that he left a bequest to a new servant suggests a kind man, and like his father he also subscribed to a book of sermons.

His will demonstrates that he was at the heart of the rapid expansion of Birmingham and the expansion of trade, based upon metal trades, and his relatives were deeply involved in the Napoleonic wars. He offers us a glimpse of how the events of the times he lived in affected the congregation of St. Philip’s during these turbulent times.

 Gill Partridge Jan 2017


Theophilus Richards 1747-1828

theoTheophilus Richards (1747-1828)


The unadorned monument to Theophilus Richards can be seen on the left of the south exit door of the Cathedral, which names himself and his wife, Mary Bingham. Both of them were people who were baptised, married and buried in St. Philip’s, and all of their children were baptised here. Theophilus, the son of Thomas Richards, was baptised on 23rd August 1748, and his wife Mary, daughter of Thomas Bingham, on 17th March 1757.  They married on 30th November 1779 and proceeded to have ten children, of whom three died soon after birth.  (Theophilus also had the date of birth of his children listed in the church register, which was unusual.)

Thomas Bingham, baptised 9th January 1781

Mary Ann, baptised 31st May 1782, buried 14th April 1783

Eliza, baptised 26th August 1783

Theophilus, baptised 30th November1784, buried 27th February 1785

Mary Ann, baptised 19th May 1786

Theophilus, baptised 2nd May 1787

James Henry, baptised 29th May 1788, buried 9th May 1789

William Westley, baptised 30th November 1789

Charles Smallwood, baptised 15th June 1791.  (Charles was buried at St. Philip’s on 9th June 1800.  A note in Jackson’s Oxford Journal states that he died of a paralytic complaint with which he had been afflicted for eighteen months.)

Caroline, baptised 30th November 1792

After four deaths the Richards were therefore left with six children, three male and three female.


Mary Bingham (1757–1841) was clearly of a wealthy family, as in his will Theophilus arranged to safeguard her marriage portion of £1,000. It is likely that she was the daughter of the Thomas Bingham who was a maker of buckles and nutcrackers (which can be still be found in auction catalogues) and who lived at 12 New Hall Street and 54 Steelhouse Lane.  As her family worshiped at St. Philip’s it is likely that she had known her future husband since childhood, and it is equally likely that Thomas Richards purchased her father’s goods.  A Thomas Bingham, who may be a member of her family, was one of several people responsible for getting the new church of St. Paul’s in the Jewellery Quarter built as a chapel of ease to St. Martin’s in the Bullring.

Thomas Richards (died 1779) was the father of Theophilus, and as the owner of both a manufactory of guns and a toy shop is probably the originator of the fortunes of the Richards family in Birmingham. He is listed as taking on an apprentice in 1752 as a toymaker and again in 1772 as a jeweller.  The earliest mention of his businesses is in a directory of 1777 where at 82 High Street his shop is listed as Richard’s toy shop, “late Moodys”, and at 53 High Street as a gunsmith.  In a directory of 1787 he is listed as a gun maker at 53 High Street, and a silversmith, together with his son Theophilus, at 82 High Street, even though he was actually dead.  As he subscribed to a book called “Currencies of the British Colonies” in 1765, it suggests that he was trading overseas and doing well.  Most gun makers of this period made money from the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and from the slave trade in Africa, providing governments at home and abroad with guns; some of the guns Thomas Richards made are still in existence and highly prized.  He is known to have been one of a delegation from Birmingham in 1759 who visited Wales to look into the quality of iron produced for their goods.  There is a Thomas Richards buried in St. Philip’s on 18th September 1779 who is generally supposed to be the father of Theophilus, and his son probably continued to trade in his name for a few years until changing the name of the firms.

Theophilus Richards

In 1802 Nelson made a famous visit to Birmingham. He was already a national hero, although his final victory over Napoleon was not complete, and was so popular in Birmingham that the hotel where he stayed, situated opposite the Nat West bank on the corner of the churchyard, was surrounded by crowds.  Nelson had come to Birmingham, like many visitors of the time, to visit Matthew Boulton’s Soho works, but during his visit he found the time to visit the shop of Theophilus Richards in the High Street. The Concise History of Birmingham in 1808 tells us, “The shop of Theophilus Richards, in the High Street, is the toyshop of Birmingham; for the elegance of its appearance and the multiplicity of its valuable articles it is scarcely rivalled.”*

What were toys? The most interesting description of them I have come across is in an account in the Times of 30th March 1826 concerning the theft by one of the “shopmen” who lived in what had been the house of Theophilus senior (who had moved to Edgbaston) on the High Street, of “silver boxes, knives and forks, seals, necklaces, chains and various articles of plate and jewellery”.  (This poor man, named Henry Child, was sentenced to death; the article is headed “Betrayal of Trust”.) Other likely items on sale would include candlesticks, snuffboxes, toothpicks, tea boxes, papier mache trays, seals, silver gun furniture, buttons and buckles, the multifarious wares of a city founded upon metal.  As a curious contrast, Theophilus and his wife were both also licensed to sell hair powder.

Theophilus took over his father’s two businesses, and in turn his own sons took on his – his will of 1828 informs us that he had been in copartnership with his son William Westley Richards and in partnership with his son also named Theophilus. His eldest son Thomas Bingham Richards apparently acted as his agent in London.  It would appear that in addition to teaching his sons about business, he also taught them gold and silversmithing skills, as there are references later to all of them using their craft. Theophilus senior began to manufacture guns in his own name by 1799 and held a Royal contract for the manufacture of arms for the British Army.  In church records he is variously described as a silversmith, a goldsmith or a cutler, never a gun maker. Unlike other gunsmith businesses, which had separate gun parts made in various different workshops, the Richards’ fathers and sons always seemed to have had their own gun making factories on High Street, the factory belonging to Theophilus being called “The Royal Patent Waterproof Gun Manufactory”, indicating the continuing interest the family was to have in taking out patents for the improvement of guns.

As a wealthy merchant Theophilus played his part in the expansion of the town; in 1803 he was High Bailiff of Birmingham and in 1808 he sat on a committee with Boulton, Watt and the politician Thomas Attwood, dealing with new waterworks for Birmingham. His will shows that he invested in canal shares, as did most of Birmingham’s wealthier citizens.  A version of the William Westley map of 1731, printed after that date, states that Theophilus was a nephew of William Westley and was in possession of the plates of the map some years after it was produced; he is therefore presumed to be responsible for ensuring that the plates he owned were published, for which generations have owed him a debt of gratitude.

I am in no way qualified to discuss the patents and improvements made by Theophilus in the manufacture of guns, but it is known he was responsible for the Brown Bess flintlocks used by the Royal Ordnance, of which it was said that Wellington refused to change them. His businesses seem to have flourished and his children mostly became gentry and gained connection with aristocracy, whilst the executors of his will include Thomas Westley Oldham, who was High Sheriff of Leicester.

The earliest date I have found describing Theophilus as living in Edgbaston is 1815, but although living in Edgbaston he still chose to be buried in St. Philip’s. Edgbaston is described in Bradshaw’s as a place of fine villas built for rich merchants and was where two of his sons would also live. In his will he states that he gave up his businesses to his son Theophilus in 1825 (presumably he was retiring at the age of 78!), and in 1826 there is an advertisement in the Times stating that William Westley Richards was taking on responsibility for the business from Theophilus junior.   When he died Theophilus senior was living at Edgbaston Cottage, which is where his son Theophilus is living on the 1841 census, presumably because his mother Mary had died in January 1841; in his will Theophilus senior stated that his wife was to have his house and estate (which was on leasehold from Lord Calthorpe) until her death, and an income of £400 p.a. from William Westley Richards, as well as an annuity on £1,000 which was their marriage settlement.  He states that he had made a settlement on his daughter Mary Anne at her marriage and left £1,000 marriage settlement on Caroline, but there is no mention of Eliza, which suggests she may have died.

What happened to his businesses? The gun business most probably was absorbed into that of his son William Westley Richards.  For a short while William Westley was responsible for the toy shop in partnership with his nephew Henry, the son of Theophilus junior, and Henry a little later took on full responsibility when they dissolved their partnership.  Theophilus junior apparently was not interested in the toy shop, but carried on mercantile firms called Theophilus Richards and Co. and Theophilus Richards and Son in different parts of Birmingham.


The children of Theophilus and Mary Richards

 Thomas Bingham Richards (1781-1857), the eldest son, did not go into his father’s various businesses in Birmingham, and it has been said he studied law, although I have found no certain corroboration. He led a fascinating life.  He was the author of a book called “Letters from Sicily” in 1798, from which we learn that he was acting as an agent for his father in London and abroad at the age of 17.  In 1798 he managed to escape on the last available ship from Naples with the King of Naples (who was a Bourbon) going to Sicily.   By November 1814 he got to meet Napoleon on Elba, after which he wrote “An unpublished conversation with Napoleon” which was published finally in 1911.  (Rather curiously, he mostly appears to have discussed with Napoleon the provision of iron.)  This article informs us that he waited to marry until his prospects were good in 1816 and bought a “good house near the Foundling Hospital in London” which I assume to be in Battersea, as there is a report of a thief being apprehended at the house.  We learn from his will that he also owned another estate in London in Rotherhithe.  In 1816 he married Anne Francis in London but they had no children, and he writes that he liked to spend money on family and friends.

As an agent he was responsible for buying artefacts for the British Museum on behalf of Henry Salt of Lichfield, the British Consul General in Egypt, whom he first met at drawing lessons in Birmingham as a boy and with whom he was to remain friends all his life.  The Henry Salt collection of Egyptian antiques began the collection for which the British Museum is famous worldwide, and Richards also sold on Salt’s behalf a sarcophagus of Seti I to Sir John Soane.   After Napoleon fled Elba, Thomas earned his living acting as an agent for people shipping antiquities to London and retired about 1836.  He ended his life as a country gentleman in Kent where from 1832 he had an estate called Broomlands near Sevenoaks in Kent, his wife dying before him in 1852.  Having no children he left money to his two sisters, and half of his money to the Royal Literary Fund.  We learn from his will that like many rich people of this date he owned shares in railway and canal companies.  His sister Caroline came to live near him when she was widowed and he appears to have cared for her and her family.


Eliza Richards (1783-?) is a mystery as she is not mentioned in her father’s will of 1828 and there is no burial or marriage date for her in the registers of St. Philip’s.  I came across a mention of one Elizabeth Richards, a spinster of independent means living in Ashted Row who died in 1827, buried in St. Mary’s, a chapel of ease to St. Martin’s.  In a codicil of his will Theophilus mentions a great deal of property around Deritend and Moor Street which he has taken on from one Elizabeth Richards, so there is a possibility that both of these Elizabeths may be his daughter, but no certainty.  If this Elizabeth was his daughter, his death the year after her death is suggestive of great grief.


Theophilus Richards junior (1787-1874)**  took on his father’s firm, and was also therefore a gun maker, but removed himself from family businesses about 1826, whereupon he took on a wide range of interests. (It is usually stated by gun sources that he stopped making guns about 1833, but it is possible that his brother William Westley continued manufacturing them in the name of Theophilus from 1826 to 1833).  By 1835 he is listed simply as a merchant in Great Charles Street; in 1837 he dissolves a partnership for glass manufacturing, and he is known as being the first to suggest in 1836 an “Exhibition of Industry, including Foreign Manufacturers” in Birmingham which was one of the factors leading to the famous 1851 Great Exhibition in which his brother William Westley Richards was involved.  He had a patent in improving the cutting of wood in 1841.  He had a role at the Bluecoat School, and in 1840 wrote for the Children’s Employment Commission.  In 1843 he was one of the first thousand members of the British and Foreign Institute.  He consulted with the government in setting up a Department of Practical Art, was one of the founders of the Birmingham Society of Arts, left a collection of photographs of European tourist attractions to the Midland Institute and gave a rare species of crocodile to the Natural History Museum in 1851.  He moved to Leamington Priors but actually died in a hotel in Folkestone.

In 1823 he married Eliza Mount of Canterbury at St. George’s Bloomsbury, the service being officiated by Francis Pelly, the husband of his sister Mary Anne.  They had seven children, but one child, Edward Bingham Richards, was buried in St. Philip’s in 1831, even though his first five children were baptised in Edgbaston.  His son William Francis Richards was baptised in 1833 at the British Chaplaincy in Napoli, then baptised again in 1834 in Edgbaston. The birth of their last child, Theophilus, born in 1837, led to the death of Eliza at Handsworth Hall, where they seemed to have moved around 1834.  After Eliza’s death he never married again and was a widower for more than forty years, becoming richer than his brother William Westley Richards according to his will.  His daughter Mary Louisa married John Savage, a soldier who served in the Crimea and died of cholera.  His son Henry served in various roles for the Richards family firms and was an executor of several family wills.


William Westley Richards (1789-1865) is the most well-known of the children of Theophilus and Mary, and is the subject of a separate article. As the third son, William probably did not go to work in his father’s businesses when he became an adult (although he did so later) but opened his own gun making firm on the High Street in 1812 and in London in 1815, a firm which continues under his name to this day.  He married twice and had eight children, of whom three died soon after birth and another at the age of 16, and, like his father, stayed in the Birmingham area all his life.  William was to live long enough for photographs to have been taken of him.  His eldest son, Westley, would continue and expand the gun business.


Mary Ann Richards (1786–before 1861) married the rector of Seston in Gloucestershire, the Reverend Francis Pelly (whose brother became a baronet), on 16th January 1813 at St. Philip’s. There are hints in the family of Francis Pelly which remind one of Jane Austen, as his family had naval men, clergymen and large houses in their midst, and also included a distinguished soldier.  Mary Ann was Francis Pelly’s second wife and had eleven children.  The father of Francis Pelly was a governor of the Bank of England, a governor of the Hudson Bay Company and High Sheriff of Essex in 1780.   One of Francis’s brothers fought with Nelson, and another was a Lieutenant Colonel in the army, fighting in Egypt and the Peninsula Wars and gaining the Order of the Bath.  Francis Pelly died in 1844 leaving £500, and Mary Ann moved into Hertfordshire.  There is a portrait of their son Justinian Pelly, a merchant, available online, who had a son named Lancelot.  Justinian also had a daughter named Violet who married the bishop of New Westminster, British Columbia.  Mary Ann’s eldest son, named Theophilus, was the rector of Church Brampton, Northamptonshire.


Caroline Richards (1792–1869) was married in Edgbaston in 1825 to Charles Barker, graduate of Oxford, who was the schoolmaster of Bishop Vesey School in Sutton Coldfield after having been an Assistant Master at Rugby.  He leaves the distinct impression that he was a disaster in Sutton Coldfield, at times reducing the previously successful school to only one pupil, apparently due to his insistence on teaching the classics.  He was a warden of Sutton Coldfield Corporation and a J.P. for Warwickshire and died more than twenty years before Caroline.  We are told that in 1843 “he fell dead from the back of a horse which returned home without him”.  Of their five children, their eldest son died aged 6, their third son Francis died soon after birth, and the second son Charles died aged 35 unmarried.  The two girls, Mary and Catherine, never married.  On the death of her husband in 1842 Caroline moved first to Hastings, where she appears on the census as a landed proprietor, and then to Speldhurst in Kent where she was near her brother Thomas and is mentioned in his will.  The two unmarried daughters seem to have continued living there after their mother died aged 76, a few years after the death of her son Charles.  One has the impression of a family which did not thrive.


An afterthought

By my count Theophilus had at least 25 grandchildren, so one assumes his later life was busy. He lived through a period of incredible expansion and change in Birmingham, and among the events of his lifetime were the American War of Independence, the Priestley Riots, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.  He was living and working at the time when Birmingham became the first industrial city and its population exploded, and lived to see canals introduced and the setting up of Boulton’s Soho works.  Simultaneously he lived through the reign of George II, the madness of George III, the regency of George IV and some of the latter’s reign.  Although a rich man living eventually in the best area of Birmingham, he encountered a great deal of death with the decease of his children and several grandchildren.  He must have known many of the prominent citizens of Birmingham through business and through his worship at St. Philip’s, with which several members of the Lunar Society are linked.  It is impossible to know what he was like as a person, but there is in existence a letter touching on business he writes to his son Thomas Bingham Richards which he signs, “your affectionate father”.  In addition he subscribes to a volume of poetry by a female writer, Anna Sawyer.


* For a picture of the shop of Theophilus Richards and further information on the business, see the website “Mapping Birmingham”

** It is persistently stated online that Theophilus junior died in 1833. In fact there were three Theophilus Richards’ living in Birmingham around these dates, and the one who died in 1833 was a nonconformist.

Gill Partridge 12/2016



Cathedral Square by Anne French

The feeling of being in Cathedral Square will stay with me for a long time. As a newcomer to Birmingham, volunteering for the In:Site Festival, I was excited by the vibe around the Cathedral, which was by turns intense, serene, and something in between the two. I will take away memories of lovely conversations with Craftspace staff and volunteers, flocks of pigeons flying overhead, afternoon sunshine in the trees, and unplanned philosophy session with some of the more reflective and passionate people who dropped by our tents for a chat and to join in with what we were doing. Cathedral Square is clearly a special place which means different things to different people and it is on this level that, in my view, the In:Site festival worked so well. All the makers in their various ways gave individuals the space to pause, look and leave their mark for a while in the heart of the city as part of collaboration with people they may never meet. The thread running through my experience of In:Site was one of making connections. And that is probably why I was there in the first place. My background is in events and programming for the National Trust and our work is all about helping people connect to special places. There are many ways of doing this, and my personal interest happens to be in the arts and crafts. Knowing that I was looking for some relevant volunteering, a colleague suggested Craftspace and I sent off my application to help at In:Site. It was great to meet new people and get my hands covered in ink but I have also learned a lot that will be helpful to me in my professional life, and I’m looking to sharing my experience with my team. I’d like to thank everyone at Craftspace for having me and I’d be terribly sad if I thought we wouldn’t all meet again someday.




My Experience as a Chorister at Birmingham Cathedral

My Experience as a Chorister in Birmingham Cathedral by Ben Thompson

I have been part of the Birmingham cathedral choir from April 2010 until July 2016. Below I will be telling you about my journey through the choir including my role as head chorister, the great trips I have been on with the choir and also what I have obtained from being a member of the community in the cathedral.

I started attending the choir in 2010 when the director of music Canon Marcus Huxley came to my primary school looking for children to audition. I auditioned for the role of boy chorister (or treble) which is the highest voice offered in the choir. Fortunately I passed the audition but it wasn’t that easy as I had to undergo a six month trial period as a probationer to see if I was up to the standard needed in order to be a part of the choir. Eventually on the 17th October 2010 I was officially admitted as a chorister which was the start of my career in the choir. A few years later after a lot of practise and a lot of hard work I was made one of the badge boys. Badge boys wear medals to signify experience in the choir and they are also the best in the choir. There are often three or four badge boys at a time. Soon after I was chosen to be the first Saddlers boy chorister which was a medal given by the Saddlers Company to recognise their appreciation for cathedral music. There is also a girl’s Saddlers chorister. This was given to me specifically due to experience and attendance. In January 2014 I became the head chorister in the cathedral which was a great achievement as I felt I had become an important part in the choir.

With head chorister comes great responsibility! It involves a number of things, the most important of which I believe is being a role model to the younger choristers. This meant I had to set an example and also be approachable if others needed help. It’s also important in inspiring younger choristers and over the two and a half years as head chorister I have been encouraged to hear that I have been a good role model to many of the younger children. I also had to do the register for the boys’ choir and wear a large red cloak which identified me to the congregation. It also meant I represented the choir when we went on tours to other cathedrals. Finally my favourite part about being head chorister was doing solos because I feel like I have developed in the choir and come a long way, training my voice and I enjoyed being able to share my talent with the congregation while also being a part of their worship.

Over the years I have partaken in many trips both nationally and internationally to places such as Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany; St. Pauls cathedral in London, England and also Notre Dame in Paris, France. There were also many more but these were in my opinion the best and most exciting ones to visit due to them being globally recognised as iconic cathedrals. While on tour we may look around the area for example in France we went on a boat trip around the river Seine. Notre Dame was my favourite trip and while there we made full use of its amazing acoustics, singing a piece by Bairstow called ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ which goes from fortississimo (which is very, very loud in Italian) to silence, leaving a haunting echo in the cathedral.

Overall the cathedral has been a wonderful experience and I fully enjoyed my time in the boys’ choir. I have also learnt valuable skills like teamwork and perseverance especially when learning more challenging music. I am planning to join the men’s choir after the summer break singing tenor where I hope to get even more opportunities with the choir.


Ben is the chorister in red on the left. Photo by Sally Huxley