The Birmingham Municipal Technical School’s general register for 1920-21 is intriguing for a number of reasons. The severe charring on the spine of the volume, shows that it was caught at some point in a fire, although we currently have no clue as to when that happened. Inside the volume towards the back pages, we also find severe staining suggesting that somebody put out the fire by pouring water on the burning book. Several entries are marred or have been entirely obscured by the effects of the water on ink.
The volume’s contents
In addition to the names and addresses of students, their occupations and employers’ addresses, the volume contains details of the classes they attended (and on which day), as well as records of the fees that were paid. There is a little more consistency regarding alphabetisation than in the earlier volumes, but the imperfections of a handwritten recording system remain.
Going beyond the registers
Our newly opened archives are part of a network of data sources scattered across the country that can tell us much about our recent and more distant past. For the purposes of this exhibition, we want to show how this 1920-21 register can be linked to other public records. These include the recently published 1921 census, alongside previous censuses going back into the nineteenth century, and the 1939 national register undertaken at the start of the Second World War.
The stories that emerge from these sources are mixed. In the interwar period, there was little career infrastructure in the modern sense to aid students take the next step up; for this, they would have been dependent on their employers and the opportunities of the moment. Some met success. The career trails of others run cold. Yet others seem disconnected from their studies.
Nevertheless, these are all human stories. Arguably, they may be more authentic than some of the curated profiles found today on LinkedIn and elsewhere! No doubt as we explore the registers, we will identify some illustrious former pupils from BMTS. The ones we have chosen below, however, are selected at random from the pages of the register: two men and one woman, reflecting the 70-30% gender split in 1920.
Thus, without further ado, you are invited to read some of the Birmingham Municipal Technical School’s Graduate Stories.
Arthur Donovan Bach
Arthur, aged 17, registered for the 1920-21 session at BMTS to study mathematics and a basic course in electrical engineering. He commuted to BMTS from High Street, Kings Heath where he lived close to the Kingsway cinema. Here, however, our own records fall silent. Arthur did not list an employer and neither did he list an occupation, though it was not unusual for students to identify their occupation, even while unemployed. What he did and who he worked for are not apparent in the BMTS register.
Happily, other public records tell us more about Arthur’s story and his future. He lived with an aunt and with parents Eva and Arthur. The latter was a confectioner and ran a shop. In the 1921 census, Arthur recorded his occupation as a boot repairer, and it is noted that he worked from home. Was it the low social status of such a role that made him omit it from the BMTS register? Certainly, the classes he took in 1920-21 seem designed to improve what we would today call his employability.
The 1939 register completes Arthur’s career story. By that time, he had moved to 92 Church Road in Moor End Green. Aged 36, he recorded his occupation as a sheet metal worker for aircraft. There is no military record for Arthur from either war, and it is likely that, regardless of his age, his kind of job was a reserved occupation, considered as necessary in the context of the war.
He died at Bransford, west of Worcester, in 1968.
Arthur Ernest Hadley
Arthur Ernest Hadley also registered at BMTS in 1920-21, taking classes in metal plating on a Monday and a Thursday. He lived with his parents in Cromwell Lane, Northfield on the southern edge of what is now the Bournville Trust Estate at a time when the rural fringes of Birmingham lay closer to the centre than they do today. His father was a farm labourer.
Arthur, however, worked in manufacturing. He was employed at the Cadbury’s factory in Bournville, but his role as a sheet metal worker means he must have been one of the support staff, maintaining the industrial infrastructure that underpinned Cadbury’s confectionery operation. By 1930 Cadbury’s was the twenty-fourth largest manufacturer in Great Britain.
And so it seems to have remained for a good part of Arthur’s career. The 1939 register states that he was still a sheet metal worker, although his place of employment is not recorded. At that time, however, he had moved to Thackeray Lane, Bournville, much closer to the centre of the Bournville Trust Estate, and we may surmise that he had remained in the same job. Further inquiries into the Cadbury’s archives might reveal what became of him thereafter.
To finish his story on a personal note, we find that Arthur married Dulcie Adams in 1925 and they adopted two children in the 1930s. He died in 1976.
Annie Louisa Gadd
Our final graduate story belongs to Annie Louisa Gadd who registered, like the two Arthurs, in 1920-21. Annie took a cooking class, but like Arthur Bach, she listed no employer and no occupation. Neither did she record her age, though this is frequently the case for female students at BMTS. In fact, she was 43 years of age. On the face of it, we have no reason to assume that she was taking this class other than to further her cooking skills.
A look into the 1921 census, however, reveals that she was in fact a housekeeper. Perhaps it was a matter of discretion on her part not to mention her employer in the census or the BMTS register, although it was a socially respectable profession. Of course, her role as a housekeeper might suggest a reason why she would choose the cookery course. Yet the 1911 census also records that she was a housekeeper, meaning that when she registered for a cookery class in 1921, she had already at least ten years cooking experience behind her. Did she really need to take this course? In the circumstances, it is easy to imagine that a 43-year-old woman living with her two older siblings might have registered for a class simply to meet other people.
Nevertheless, Annie’s family were far from dull and uninteresting. In 1921 Annie’s two sisters, Mary and Ruth, were shopkeepers, presumably running a business from their home address of 112 Tarry Road which is still a commercial property today (though no longer a shop). Delving further back into the family history, moreover, we find that Annie and her two shopkeeper sisters were the children of William and Sarah Gadd who had lived with their nine children at the Barracks Tavern on Great Brook Street Aston. This was one of the local pubs for Duddeston Barracks where the 5th Dragoon Guards was stationed. Sarah was the named manager of this establishment, though it was a family affair and one or other of the Gadds managed the pub until at least 1911. William Gadd, moreover, had his own business alongside. He ran a smithy’s workshop, and in the 1881 census he proudly reported that he had four employees. The Dragoons were a cavalry regiment, though there would have been plenty of work anyway for a blacksmith in 1880s Birmingham. The later 1901 census records the occupations of Annie’s brothers Alonzo and Harry as ‘wheelwrights’, and by 1911 Alonzo had returned to his father’s path as a blacksmith.
And thus, the record of Annie Louisa Gadd - who only wanted apparently to take a cookery class – opens up for us an object lesson about a late nineteenth-century entrepreneurial Birmingham family of craftsmen and makers, publicans and shopkeepers….