PHOTOGRAPHY AS ART AND SOCIAL HISTORY
Part 2: Urban Landscapes and Society: The Warwickshire Photographic Survey from
Birmingham Central Library
Birmingham between the years c.1890-1932 is brought to life with striking visual impact in this microfiche set. Buildings, people, fashions, customs, families, children, shops, warehouses, factories, streets now long forgotten or barely remembered, flattened by concrete or bulldozed out of sight are now collated in a readily accessible reference source.
This will be most valuable for social, regional and urban historians, geographers and all those with an interest in the past as seen through photographic evidence.
We concentrate on the photographs stamped or marked clearly as “WPS” material. To begin with we have focused in on the “B11” photographs covering Birmingham and the Industrial Revolution. During the nineteenth century it grew to a population of over 300,000 by 1861. This reached 522,000 by 1901 and 1,110,683 by 1961.
For those studying British urban life and society in the late Victorian and Edwardian era the material covered here, therefore, makes a most significant case study.
The genesis of the collection is described in the following extracts from Victorian and Edwardian Warwickshire from old photographs ... Introduction and commentaries by Dorothy McCulla and Martin Hampson. (Produced by Local Studies Department, Birmingham Central Library).
"Without the help of old photographs our knowledge of the Victorian and Edwardian periods would be sadly incomplete. It is particularly fitting, therefore, to pay tribute here to an enlightened Victorian gentleman, who had the initiative and skill to make a visual record of his age and to encourage others to follow his example. It was at a meeting of the Sutton Coldfield Vesey Club, in the year 1889, that William Jerome Harrison, a notable geologist, the science demonstrator to the Birmingham School Board and an amateur photographer, outlined his idea for making a photographic survey of Warwickshire. On 11 December Mr Harrison was invited by Sir Benjamin Stone to read to the Birmingham Photographic Society a paper entitled, “Notes upon a proposed Photographic Survey of Warwickshire”. In his speech Mr Harrison stressed the importance of photographing ordinary people:
"We must accumulate portraits, then, of all our local worthies. And to them we must add street scenes secured with the hand-camera from all our towns ... from the country labourer in his smock-frock (a garment now rapidly disappearing) to the skilled artisan of the city, seated before his lathe. Nothing that illustrates contemporary life must be omitted - the policeman, the soldier, and the volunteer, must adorn our albums, and we must go slumming to depict the shady side of life.”
The idea was seconded, resolved unanimously, and the Warwickshire Photographic Survey was born. The first meeting took place on 8 May 1890 and as a result of the remarkable team effort of the members, more than 10,000 photographs are now contained in the Local Studies Department of the Birmingham Central Libraries ...”
Our detailed listing provides data on individual photographs as per examples below:
Print No: WK/B11/5
Date of Photograph: 14th August 1932
Negative By: W A Clark
Print By: ~
Description: Houses at Friday Bridge, Summer Row, Birmingham.
Print No: WK/B11/47
Date of Photograph 1897
Negative By: Dr J Hall Edwards
Print By; ~
Description: “Old Time Fireman”, Diamond Jubilee Procession.
Print No: WK.B11/105
Date of Photograph: 1892
Negative By; ~
Print By: ~
Description: Pearsall’s, late Horton’s Silversmith’s Shop and entrance to Courthouse Yard, showing the old Court House where the “Court Leet” was formerly held. Demolished 1903
Other examples, to give a flavour of the material, include revealing social scenes:
WK/B11/191: Laying telephone wires in Colemore Row, Birmingham, June 1898 by Thomas Clarke.
WK/B11/218: Corporation Street, Birmingham c.1899 by W J Harrison.
WK/B11/352: Bull ring Flower Market, 1st June 1901 by Percy Deakin.
WK/B11/353: Bull ring Flower Market, 8.15am, June 1901
WK/B11/364: Interior view of Smithfield Vegetable Market, 8.15am, June 1901 by F Compton Lewis.
WK/B11/366: Interior view of Smithfield Vegetable Market, 7.10am, June 1901 by F Compton Lewis.
This set of three allows interesting comparisons between the activity and disposition of the market stalls at different time intervals in the early morning.
WK/B11/375: Kerb merchant selling cheap jewellery. 1900.
WK/B11/375: Children of the Poor. Birmingham Cinderella Club outing to Sutton Park 1898-1900, by J Cruwys Richards.
There are a significant number of photographs depicting life and conditions in Victorian schools throughout Birmingham, for instance:
WK/B11/5143: Icknield Street School, the science laboratory, 1895 by William Jerome Harrison.
WK/B11/5146: Needlework lesson at Waverley Road School, 1896 by W Woolaston.
Such social scenes were also captured in many other cities throughout the world during the second half of the nineteenth century. International parallels exist in the work of John Thomson, Jacob A Riis, Paul Martin and Eugène Atget. The first documentary photographs were daguerreotypes by Richard Beard of street types to illustrate Henry Mayhew’s social survey London Labour and the London Poor (1851). John Thomson’s Street Life in London (1877) also documented the life and work of the poorer classes. Thomson placed special emphasis on depicting people in their usual surroundings and accompanied each photograph with a brief article on the living and working conditions of the subject. Adolphe Smith, a journalist, helped him to write these descriptions.
Jacob A Riis, a police-court reporter on The New York Tribune, believed that the camera was a mightier weapon than the pen for beating the bad conditions that lead to crime. Between 1887 and 1892 he took a poignant series of photographs to point out to society its obligations to the poor. With his books How the Other Half Lives (1890) and Children of the Poor (1892) Riis awakened the conscience of the New Yorkers and influenced the Governor of New York State, Theodore Roosevelt, to launch a number of social reforms, including sorting out the problem of the notorious tenements at Mulberry Bend. Today, the Jacob A Riis Neighbourhood Settlement commemorates the photographer’s work.
Paul Martin’s London Street scenes and photographs of people at seaside resorts taken in the 1890s made him the first ‘candid cameraman’ nearly 40 years before the phrase was coined. Using a hand camera concealed in a briefcase Martin was able to capture revealing moments. His “London by Night” pictures taken in the winter of 1895-96 were the first of their kind.
Eugène Atget had a similar passion for documentation. He wanted to record Paris in all its facets, and made between 1898 and 1927 an enormous series of photographs of buildings, staircases door-knockers, ornate stucco decorations, shopfronts, vehicles and street life in every shape and form. The scale of Atget’s self-imposed task, he left to posterity nearly 10,000 prints, was similar to that of the Warwickshire Photographic Survey. Similar endeavours were undertaken by the Boston Camera Club in the United States and in May 1889, E Howarth published his “Suggestions for a Photographic Survey of the District of Sheffield”. William Jerome Harrison, by this time a familiar name in the British and American photographic periodicals, was well aware of all these developments.
The Warwickshire Photographic Survey was William Jerome Harrison’s idea. However, he was supported by a team of photographers and the Birmingham Photographic Society encourage contributions from all quarters. Most significant contributions came from William Jerome Harrison himself, William Archer Clark, Thomas Lewis (see below), Thomas Clarke, Percy Deakin, F Compton Lewis, Lewis Lloyd, George Whitehouse, J W Steele, and A J Leeson.
Thomas Lewis (1844-1913) lived in Moor Street, Birmingham, next door to Pickering and Stern, ‘photographic artists’. As a schoolboy he must have been fascinated by what he saw. The draped studio relied on a large window, good weather, and clients being punctual to catch the best light. On a stand was the camera, made of wood and possibly of the sliding type, for bellows had achieved little popularity in England by the 1860s. A hand-painted landscape rolled down behind a low, mock garden-wall, and the props of the time stood around: a small Doric column, chairs with headrests to prevent sitters’ heads moving during the long exposure times, and a few tasteful house plants completing the clutter. No doubt Thomas would also peer into the coloured gloom of the darkroom and would catch a smell of candles burning in the safelights. The distinctive pungency of collodion being carefully run across glass plates added a magical touch to the new alchemy. In comparison the prospect of perpetuating his father’s tailoring business seemed just a little dull.
Thomas Lewis, at the age of twenty-five, opened his first studio, in Moor Street in 1871. A year later he moved to better premises in up-town Paradise Street. This foundered with the increasing overheads the expensive site demanded. Then for five years Lewis was a photographer for the famous view-card firm of Frith and Sons. He travelled the whole of Great Britain, and acquired a feeling for views which was to remain with him all through his life. He learned what to include in the scene and what to leave out. In 1879 he set up in business on his own again and this time he succeeded. Lewis photographed many of Birmingham’s expanding industries and became one of the country’s first commercial and architectural photographers along with Bedford le Mare of London and Stewart Bale of Liverpool. In 1894 he moved to 200 Stratford Road, Sparkbrook.
Thomas Lewis, the founder of John Whybrow Limited, took over 1,000 negatives and prints of Birmingham between 1871-1930. He was a most important contributor to the Warwickshire Photographic Survey. By 1885 he had increasingly started to devote time to commercial, industrial and architectural photography It was in 1913 that Lewis engaged a new photographer, Sidney Herbert Edward Whybrow, father of John Whybrow.
Birmingham gained city status in 1889 and seven years later the title of Lord Mayor was first conferred on its chief magistrate. By the second half of the nineteenth century important changes were taking place in Birmingham’s industrial structure. Larger premises and the requirements of the factory system led to congestion in the central area. New factories were built along the main rail or canal routes, especially along the Wolverhampton Canal to the north-west and in the north-east, along the Fazeley Canal.
Joseph Chamberlain became Lord Mayor in 1873 and his period of influence on the Borough Council led to many reforms and improvements. The era of municipalisation began in earnest in 1875 when the town’s private gas companies were acquired by the Borough. Joseph Chamberlain also pushed through a similar measure for the municipalisation of water supplies. This did lead to rapid improvements and before long better quality water was available to an extra 47,000 houses. There was no doubt that this measure was one of Chamberlain’s most important in view of the unsanitary conditions prevailing before 1875. He ordered a sanitary census to be undertaken and this revealed all the evils which rapid industrial and urban growth had bequeathed to the region.
Chamberlain has been described as the founding father of the City of Birmingham and certainly he was the guiding force pushing the town into providing the sort of civic services and amenities demanded by its growing importance as an industrial and commercial centre. By 1889, Birmingham had acquired better roads, sewers, water and gas supplies, more libraries and parks, higher standards of public health and an expanding transport system - soon it was to be described as “the best governed city in the world”. It had become a leading provincial city and its fame and reputation had spread worldwide through its manufactures.
However, such rapid growth was bound to have adverse effects and these were to be seen in the appalling living conditions of many of the citizens, submerged as they were in a congested urban sprawl. In the next fifty years many of these problems were tackled and the Warwickshire Photographic Society highlights many of the changes that were necessary.
The biggest and most influential redevelopment scheme in the central area was undoubtedly the building of Corporation Street. The rapid industrialisation and population increases in the mid-nineteenth century had resulted in some of the worst slums in the country in the area between New Street and Aston Road. After the Artisan’s Dwellings Act was passed in 1875, the local authority was provided with extensive powers to acquire, clear and redevelop slum areas and to rehouse the residents. Joseph Chamberlain grasped this opportunity to rid Birmingham of these slums. In the process, he had a vision of driving across the cleared space “a great street, as broad as a Parisian boulevard” which would “open up a street such as Birmingham has not got and is almost stifling for want of”.
The Improvement Committee under the chairmanship of Councillor William White supervised the scheme. By 1889 Corporation Street had filled up with fine buildings which accommodated a wide range of shops, restaurants, coffee houses, hotels and offices.
The photographs in this microfiche edition give a vivid picture of the city centre in the 1890s, as well as providing evidence of the changes made in the next few decades.
The general atmosphere of the central area is well captured. In the 1890s this was in sharp contrast to the faster pace and greater mobility of the modern times. Everything seemed slower then and the principal mode of transport, apart from walking, was by horse-drawn bus or tram, although some new-fangled stem trams had recently made their appearance on the city’s streets. Horses were used in every trade and there were milk and bread carts, railway carts, brewer’s drays and delivery wagons bringing fresh supplies to the shops and carting fruit, meat and vegetables from the Bull Ring markets. Horse-drawn vehicles of all sorts rattled over the cobbled, granite or wood road surfaces, which were covered with sand or sometimes wood shavings, to prevent the horses from slipping - asphalt was considered too slippery and dangerous for horses, especially on city’s steep gradients.
A large selection of photographs in this collection depict the condition of Birmingham’s slums in 1905. Four years earlier, in 1901, housing powers were delegated to a new Housing committee in recognition, at least, that there was a social problem. Its Chairman was Councillor J S Nettlefold, who opposed municipal housing and wholesale demolitions. Instead, his policy was to re-condition back courts by demolishing the two buildings on either side of a court entrance to allow more air and light to penetrate. These came to be called “Nettlefold Courts”. This policy of limited rehabilitation did produce some beneficial results, mainly through firm but friendly pressure upon the property owners so that a good deal of property was overhauled and repaired.
The committee also saw a partial answer to the problem of the central slum area in encouraging the outward migration of the city’s population and it concluded that the average working man required better housing accommodation than he had in the past. The Housing Committee aimed to do everything possible to encourage and nothing to discourage a high standard of living and most significantly to encourage the exodus to the suburbs.
In 1905, Nettlefold’s Housing Committee took a more radical look at the housing situation and a delegation visited Germany to examine the ways in which new houses had been planned and built here. The Committee’s basic problem was to find ways of improving inner area conditions as well as to assist in the provision of healthy, cheerful houses on the outskirts of the city, whilst at the same time not unduly or unnecessarily increasing housing rents. The German experience proved to have a considerable impact on the Committee’s thinking and some fairly advanced Town Planning principles emerged.
The delegation found that every sizable town in Germany had adopted a Town Expansion Plan. This provided for the future development of all land within their boundaries settling direction and widths of streets and generally controlling the types of development in particular areas. This was a novel concept compared to the English experience of a haphazard methodology. Enthused by what they had seen, the Housing Committee recommended that there should be powers to control development in new areas to ensure a better distribution of houses and provision of roads, and to buy land in the suburbs where private enterprise could be encouraged to build working men’s houses at moderate rents. In moving in this direction, Birmingham was emerging as one of the first British local authorities to espouse Town Planning ideas which have since been taken as basic Principles influencing the type and direction of development. These ideas were soon to have legislative support in the Housing and Town Planning Act of 1909. Over 1,200 photographs in this microfiche edition deal with Birmingham’s slums in the period 1905-1912. Over 90% of these photographs were taken in 1905. This sequence starts with WK/B11/1563 Adams Street and proceeds in alphabetical sequence, including Allison Street, Bagot Street Barford Street, Bath Row, Boardsley Street and Wrentham Street. This material should be of great interest to all urban historians.
For additional background information please see Peter Jame’s article A century of Survey Photography reproduced on fiche 1 (first published in The Local Historian November 1990, Volume 20 Number 4, pp166-172), and also the sequence of maps of Birmingham’s most central area in 1533, 1875, and 1972, reproduced on fiche 3 after the Detailed Listing (reproduced from pp16-17 of How does your Birmingham grow? John Whybrow 1972).