Sewers, Sermons & Shakespeare: Birmingham’s Civic Revolution

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‘The people of Birmingham are surrounded by a richer past than we know’, writes Henry Jones, who worked on a project researching and celebrating the heritage of George Dawson and his Shakespeare Memorial Library in Birmingham.

Recently, as part of the Undergraduate Research Scholarship (UGRS) at the University of Birmingham, I have been given the opportunity to work on the research project ‘Sewers, Sermons & Shakespeare – Birmingham’s Civic Revolution’, led by Professor Ewan Fernie of the Shakespeare Institute alongside Tom Epps of the Library of Birmingham, to uncover my home city’s rich cultural past. These five weeks of study have allowed me to research the formation of many Birmingham cultural landmarks; ones that I had been familiar with, however their significance had been unknown to me before the scheme. My research was conducted at three different locations over the five weeks: The Library of Birmingham in the city centre, the Birmingham and Midland Institute, and finally the Cadbury Research Library, which is located at the University of Birmingham. The emphasis of the research was on George Dawson (1821-76), a Birmingham based intellectual and preacher, who was a key figure in extending educational opportunities for people of all classes, genders, and creeds in the nineteenth century.  The research into George Dawson, a sadly neglected figure in the history of Birmingham, was incredibly rewarding, as it led me to learn much more about my home city, and introduced me to valuable research facilities in Birmingham that I had been completely unaware of. I come from a Birmingham family, but none of my family members knew about Dawson, and all of them joined in my enthusiasm for the project and for learning about our city’s past.

In particular, the Shakespeare Memorial Library, now part of the Library of Birmingham, was a resource that I knew nothing about before the project, despite it being, as a principle of its foundation, open to all the people of Birmingham. Learning more about this library was incredibly rewarding, as it led me not only to learn about the civic pride of its founders, but also to share in their attitude of civic involvement, in addition to their focus on developing and improving the city’s cultural pride and openness across racial, religious and educational boundaries. I learned that in Birmingham Shakespeare was regarded as a common cultural endowment, and was delighted to discover that a Shakespeare First Folio was owned by the city. The common cultural endowment was especially evident when, during my research, I saw for myself that working people wrote to the newspapers about Shakespeare and asserted their rights to use the Birmingham Shakespeare Memorial Library as much as visiting international scholars.  I firmly believe that the Shakespeare Memorial Library is a great testimony to the city’s cultural past and prestige, and that its existence should not only be more widely known, but also actively celebrated by the city.  It was an incredibly valuable experience to have the opportunity to work on a project aimed at opening up, to a greater extent, the resources of the Shakespeare Memorial Library for the people of contemporary Birmingham.

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I would certainly recommend the UGRS to fellow undergraduate students, as it will allow them to gain skills that will aid them throughout their future careers. For example, the scholarship allowed me to gain confidence in key research skills, which will be incredibly useful in further research and work, such as accessing archival material, writing reports to a deadline, as well as filtering large volumes of information to find key materials.

The people of Birmingham are surrounded by a richer past than we know. This project has tremendous potential to enhance our city’s reputation and our own common appreciation of it in the present.

Henry Jones, BA English

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