Brian Sudlow

The Birmingham Municipal Technical School (BMTS) opened officially on 19 January 1891 and operated in buildings leased from the Birmingham and Midland Institute until 1895. In December that year, it moved into its own purpose-built premises on Suffolk Street beside what is now the A38. Currently the location of the registers for 1891-92 and 1892-3 is unknown, and it is possible that neither record has survived the passage of time. For now, among the earliest document in the Aston Archive is the BMTS General Register for the Session 1893-94.

The registers

All the registers we possess contain a list of students, their personal addresses, their employers and occupations, and a note of the classes they signed up for. Some of the later registers serve as account books as well, keeping tally of the various fees paid by each student. In 1893-4, a basic class without laboratory or workshop elements cost 2s 6d, a sum popularly known as “half a crown”. Fortunately, a syllabus from the period 1891-96 has survived and we will be exploring its contents in the coming months.

The student body

In 1893-4 there were 1,528 registered students at BMTS: 1,459 men (95.3%) and 69 women (4.7%). These ratios will shift by the 1920s when the gender difference is closer to a 70-30% split. In the 1890s, however, the classes only ran in the evenings, which might explain why only 23% of students took more than two classes. The youngest student we have found was 13 while the oldest was 51.

Students and their occupations: the ‘community of makers’

In the 1893 register, about 73% of the student body list an employer and or an occupation. The classification of occupations probably reflects the information given by students at their registration, rather than any predetermined categories. 

Of those students who list an occupation, the largest group is formed by workers from the industrial metals sector (about 20%). These include brassfounders, nickel platers and tin plate workers, as well as assayers (quality inspectors) and industrial chemists. Another very varied group of students (10%) comes from smaller manufacturing sectors or traditional crafts. These include brewers, gun makers, jewellers, carpenters, pen makers, saddle makers and whip makers. Together, all these students formed a community of makers indeed.

The Birmingham Municipal Technical School seems also to have catered to professional sectors, although there was nothing in the curriculum remotely resembling management at this time.  The largest professional group is formed by clerks (15% of the students listing an occupation), a category covering a wide range of administrative responsibilities. Since some of these clerks went on to professions in accountancy or the law, we might see them as the forerunners of students now in the College of Business and Social Sciences. Teachers represent another professional group (11%) in 1893-4, while engineers (8%) and electricians (3%) form smaller cohorts yet. 

Many of the female students are teachers (see below). Some students, often the women, list no occupation, or their occupation is assigned as ‘student’ or ‘scholar’.

Employers in the city

One of the most intriguing features of the BMTS registers is that they record the names of local employers. As we sound the contents of the registers more thoroughly, these entries will provide fascinating perspectives on the evolving business landscape of Birmingham. In the 1893-4 register, there are many well-known manufacturing businesses whose names fill the advertisement pages of the press during the period: for example, Abel Stokes and Co. (screw manufacturers), Bindley and Sons (glue), Jackson Asbestos Company, and the prolific G. E. Bellis and Co. which over many years had produced everything from steam engines and early torpedo technology to self-lubricating machinery. We must not of course forget the British Small Arms Company (BSA) or the Royal Small Arms Factory at Sparkbrook whose employees took classes at BMTS and whose weapons travelled the world in the hands of British military personnel. 

The presence of smaller manufacturers and artisanal businesses among these employers is, nevertheless, striking, and reflects the richness of the city’s entrepreneurial dynamics. Late nineteenth-century entrepreneurs often kept things in the family. Arthur Field Burman registered to study at BMTS while he was in the employ of his own father R. H. Burman, a lamp manufacturer. Student George Thomas Blaby worked for his father George S. Blaby, a die sinker and stamper. Students employed by large operations like Nettlefolds crossed paths with those coming from small backstreet workshops in the Jewellery Quarter. In 1893-4 no fewer than three jewellers from Harry Griffiths and Sons of Warstone Lane took classes at BMTS.

Next steps

This light-touch analysis of some of the data from 1893-4 was facilitated by Will Peaden’s transcription of parts of the register using the A.I.-powered handwriting recognition programme Transkribus. The programme will require further training before we can be sure that it accurately identifies all the data in the registers, and its results can be subjected to more rigorous analyses.

Whether transcribed or not, the registers contain a wealth of information that sheds light on the industrial, economic, commercial, and social landscape of Birmingham over one hundred years ago. The skills shortages and fast-evolving professions of the period bear comparison with today’s situation in the world of work. History does not repeat itself, but one might say it rhymes. In this regard, today’s Fourth Industrial Revolution can look back to the Second Industrial Revolution of the late nineteenth century for inspiration and insight.

Case studies on the 1893-4 General Register

Will Peaden

Story 1. The Brittain family
Four members of the Brittain family attended the classes during 1893-4. They were all siblings, and the census of 1891 identifies their father as a coach plater. Their names and the classes they attended were as follows:

SurnameChristian namePrivate addressAgeWhere employedOccupationMaleFemale


Kate41 Carlyle Rd21   1
BrittainAnnie41 Carlyle Rd    1
BrittainWilliam41 Carlyle Rd25 Coach Plater1 
BrittainThomas41 Carlyle Rd. Edg17Owen & Chapman, 23 Colmore RowClerk1 
Who attendedClasses attendedTeacherDayTimePremisesRoom Fee
Kate and AnnieBotany, ElementaryJoseph W. OliverMonday7.30-8.35Paradise Street122/6
WilliamBrassfounding, ElementaryW. ProbertWednesday7.30-10.00Baskerville Place25/-
ThomasMechanics, Theoretical, Solids, ElementaryA.H. Atkins, B.ScWednesday7.30-8.35Paradise Street152/6
ThomasMechanics, Theoretical, Fluids, ElementaryA.H. Atkins, B.ScWednesday8.40-9.45Paradise Street152/6

Thomas took two classes on a Wednesday, but William’s single class was the same length as Thomas’. The two girls attended the same class on Mondays. The only people to not disclose their ages were the females, and here Annie has not disclosed her age (though the 1891 census tells us she would have been 28).  Thomas was taking Theoretical Mechanics classes but was employed at the accountants Owen and Chapman on Colmore Row. Whatever his motives for studying mechanics in 1893, the later census of 1911 records that he became a chartered accountant. 

Story 2. Women at the BMTS 1893/94

Of the 502 students surveyed in the data 477 were men and 25 women (see male and female for pie chart). The age ranges of the women were from 16 to 42. Most of these women were teachers - 17 out of 25. There were two students (scholars) and one pen-maker. 19 of the female students at BMTS took Elementary Botany with some of these taking other classes. The other classes taken by women were:
•    Sound, Light and Heat, Elementary
•    Electro-Metallurgy, Nickel Platers
•    Mechanics, Theoretical, Solids, Elementary
•    Mechanics, Theoretical, Fluids, Elementary
•    Geology, Advanced and Honours
•    Geology, Elementary
•    Mathematics, Elementary (Class I)
•    Chemistry, Inorganic, Elementary, Practical
•    Chemistry, Inorganic, Advanced
•    Chemistry for Trade Group
•    Chemistry, Organic, Elementary
•    Chemistry, Organic, Elementary, Practical
Many of the women took more than one class over the year.
Of particular interest is Mary Winfred Hadley, age 20, who took the most classes of any of the female students and would have been at the BMI every night from 7.30-10.00pm:

Classes attendedTeacherDay TimePremisesRoomFee
Botany, ElementaryJoseph W. OliverMonday7.30-8.35Paradise Street122/6
Chemistry, Inorganic, Elementary, PracticalW. Russell, F.I.C.Tuesday7.30-10.00Paradise Street185/-
Botany, AdvancedJoseph W. OliverWednesday7.30-8.35Paradise Street122/6
Chemistry, Inorganic, AdvancedC.J. Woodward, B.Sc. and P.C. Coultas, A.R.C.ScWednesday8.40-9.45Paradise Street172/6
Chemistry for Trade GroupC.J. Woodward, B.Sc. and P.C. Coultas, A.R.C.ScThursday7.30-10.00Paradise Street175/-
Chemistry, Organic, ElementaryW. Russell, F.I.C.Friday7.00-8.00Paradise Street182/6-
Chemistry, Organic, Elementary, PracticalW. Russell, F.I.C.Friday8.00-10Paradise Street185/-

The register does not specify her place of work or her occupation, but she must have been a teacher as some of these classes were only available to teachers.
Lizzie Eagles was employed at Perry and Co, Lancaster Street as a pen maker and is one of the older students at 38. She took:

Geology, ElementaryJoseph W. OliverTuesday7.30-8.35Paradise StreetRoom 122/6

Margaret Butler, age 30, took the class:

Electro-Metallurgy, Nickel PlatersT.J BakerWednesday7.30-10.00Paradise StreetRoom 35/-

As an addition to the programmes of study in July 1895, the foundation of a ‘women’s department’ was approved by the Technical School Committee with classes in cooking, dress making, millinery, domestic economy and hygiene.