History Research Projects at Birmingham Cathedral by Jane McArdle, Heritage Manager

As part of our Tercentenary activities we are exploring and sharing the cathedral’s 300 year history.  One activity is archive and family history research.

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We’re currently gathering groups of interested volunteers.  No previous archive or research experience necessary just an innate curiosity about the past!  Already a volunteer from the congregation, Gill, has uncovered some fascinating history connected with the memorial of a Sobieska Brookshaw – blog coming soon!  Robin, a guide from the Coffin Works, has created a record of monuments in the cathedral along with their maker and date. He is now concentrating on the life of Edward Thomason, a successful Birmingham manufacturer, whose impressive memorial is in the cathedral too. In addition there will be oral history recording to capture the cathedral’s more recent events and memories.

We are fortunate that the cathedral has a rich archive of material housed at the Library of Birmingham.  It is made up of original building accounts, parish registers, as well as a range of note books, minutes of meetings, photographs and even the original deeds. The material is able to tell us much about the life of St Philip’s – the church that became a cathedral, as well as much about the life of Birmingham – the town that became a city.  To date it has been used by historians and people interested in their family histories, but has not been fully mapped and catalogued. By looking more closely at this material and supplementing with other sources such as local newspapers we hope to be able to find out more.  We’ve learnt that the cathedral was attacked by a suffragette in May 1914, that John Baskerville (a Birmingham printer and atheist) was a church warden in the 18th century and that the first baby baptised  at St Philips on 7 Oct 1715 was named Philip!

This semester, second year history students from the University of Birmingham have carried out research using the cathedral archives. They’ve studied various aspects such as the cathedral in wartime and the cathedral’s civic role. They have had a tour of the cathedral, written essays and are doing a group presentation.

Central to this work is our partnership with the library. In a series of ongoing workshops the archive staff have been sharing their expertise and helping us access and understand the material. They have advised us on collecting current material to keep the archive alive and relevant.

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Another intriguing aspect of the cathedral’s hidden history is the churchyard. Amazingly, there are thought to have been over 60,000 people buried here!  Burials ceased in the mid 19th Century and a small number of stones remain. A research project  “In Loving Memory” will uncover the stories behind these stones. Among the people recorded are artists, gun makers, visitors, manufacturers, even a fish curer. A headstone near the entrance records the death of Nanette Stocker ‘The Smallest woman in the Kingdom’.

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There is such enjoyment in undertaking these research projects that I am inclined to subscribe to a view by historian David McCullough  “To me, history ought to be a source of pleasure. It isn’t just part of our civic responsibility. To me, it’s an enlargement of the experience of being alive, just the way literature or art or music is.”

If you’d like to join our journey of discovery please get in touch.

jane.mcardle@birminghamcathedral.com

 

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