Remembrance Sunday 11 November 2018: From the Great Hall, University of Birmingham, to the Acme Trench Whistle

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On 11 November 1918, at 5am, an armistice with Germany was signed in a railway carriage based at Compiègne, France. Thus, concluded the Great War, the war to end all wars or what became known as the First World War. At 11am on 11 November 1918 on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” a ceasefire commenced. Yesterday was Remembrance Sunday. This is a day to remember and honour those who sacrificed themselves to secure and protect freedom and also to remember all those who were, directly and indirectly, involved in this conflict. Professor John Bryson reflects.

There are many ways of reflecting on the Great War. For the University of Birmingham, we must remember our students who participated directly and indirectly in this war. Every time I attend a graduation ceremony in the Great Hall of this University three thoughts past through my mind. First, of the many thousands of students who have celebrated the successful completion of their degrees. Second, of the stained-glass window that celebrates Birmingham as a city of a thousand trades. Third, a memory of the photographs of the Great Hall as a hospital ward. During the Great War, the University of Birmingham became the 1st Southern General Hospital. Initially, this hospital had 520 beds, but this had increased to 1,570 by the summer of 1916. Every part of this University was converted to hospital use, mainly wards. Marquees were erected outside the Great Hall and the Harding Library was transformed into a chapel. Patients who had been awarded decorations were wheeled outside to participate in an open-air ceremony. University House was commandeered and became a Nurses’ Home. Wounded soldiers came to Selly Oak station by train and then were transferred to the hospital by two-wheeled trailers. J.R.R.Tolkien was transferred to this hospital in November 1916 suffering from trench fever. He stayed at the hospital for around six weeks. During the war, 125,000 patients were treated at the University of Birmingham.

The stained glass window in the Great Hall also reminds me of the contribution that Birmingham and the wider West Midlands conurbation made to the Great War. There are many contributions to consider. I want to highlight one of these. Birmingham was for centuries the centre of the UK small arms trade. This trade can be traced back to the early sixteenth century[1]. In June 1861, The Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA) was established to manufacture guns by machinery. BSA has a long and distinguished history making guns, bicycles, motorbikes and, today, a much smaller firm specialises in the production of air rifles, hunting rifles and sporting guns[2]. During the war, BSA manufactured 1,601,608 Lee Enfield rifles with production increasing from 650 week to nearly 8000 a week by January 1916[3].  In addition, during the war BSA produced Lewis guns, shells, bicycles, motorcycles, aero engines, aircraft and other vehicles and machine tools. BSA was one of Birmingham’s most important industrial conglomerates. The firm, however, collapsed in 1973 and parts of the firm were acquired by Manganese Bronze Holdings plc (MBH)[4].

The subsequent history of the Birmingham firms that manufactured all types of products to support the Great War is one of restructuring, takeover, failure and decline[5]. There are, however, some exceptions. One of these exceptions, is Hudson and Co, Hockley, Birmingham, a firm that is better associated with the brand name Acme. This firm is located on the periphery of Birmingham’s jewellery quarter. Arguably this is an archetypical Birmingham firm specialising in the production of small functional products produced from metal. There are many ways of reading this firm. One reading takes us back to the Great War.

During World War 1, the British Army used Trench Whistles to make different sounds which were used to coordinate military activities. This included the blowing of a Trench Whistle as a signal for thousands of men to pour out of the trenches or ‘to go over the top’. For many, this was one of the last sounds that they would hear. Many of these Trench Whistles were manufactured by Hudson and Co [6]. It is possible to buy an original Trench Whistle. These are date stamped with the year of production and those purchased directly by the War Office are also stamped with an arrow. Acme Whistles is an innovative company. The firm works with the University of Birmingham on research and development to create new innovations in sound and whistle technology. It also draws upon its heritage. Thus, Acme manufactured the mates whistle used on the Titanic in 1912 and still produces the authentic Titanic whistle that is made on the original tooling.

I have two Acme whistles on my desk. One is an original Trench Whistle that was made by Hudson and Co, in Birmingham, in 1916. The other was ordered last week from the Royal British Legion Shop[7]. This was also made by Hudson & Co. in Birmingham and is a ‘copy’ of the original ‘Trench’ whistle that was issued to Infantry Offices and NCOs during World War 1. Like the Acme Titanic whistle, this whistle was handmade in the same Birmingham workshops as those whistles produced between 1914 and 1918 and was made with some of the original equipment.

On the 11 November 2018, there are many things to remember. Those who fought, died or survived the Great War. We must also remember their families. For the University of Birmingham, we should remember the time when our campus made an important contribution to the war as a place of healing, but also of many deaths. For the city of Birmingham, we should reflect on the city’s contribution to the Great War. This includes all those involved in manufacturing that made a critical contribution to the war. We should also remember the Trench whistle.

There many ways of reading a Trench whistle – as a signal of hope and of death. There is another reading. The Trench Whistle is also a celebration of one of this city’s manufacturing companies. A company that was founded in 1870. The history of this firm is one of adaptation, continual innovation and a focus on quality. It is also a history of a firm that is aware of its history and heritage. The heritage links this firm to many of the most important events in English history – from the invention of the first police whistle to the Titanic whistles and Trench Whistles. The focus on heritage also ensures that this firm can celebrate its past through its products. My 1916 Trench Whistle links me directly to the Great War, but it also links me back to the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter and one of the firms that made Birmingham the workshop of the world. It links me to a local firm that thinks globally and acts locally. It innovates, manufactures and continues to provide local jobs for local people in this great city.

The Great Hall, University of Birmingham, is linked back to the Trench Whistle. Many of those who survived the signal to ‘go over the top’ but were wounded ended back in the hospital that was then based at this University. Thus, during the next graduation ceremony in December 2018, I will reflect both on war and whistles, on death and healing and on the success of those who will be celebrating the completion of their studies at this great university.

[1] Taylor, M. and Bryson J.R. (2006) ‘Guns, Firms and Contracts: The Evolution of Gun-Making in Birmingham’, in Taylor, M. and Oinas, P. (Eds) Understanding the Firm: Spatial and Organizational Dimensions, Oxford: Oxford University Press: 61-84


[3] Ward, D.M. (1946), The Other Battle: Being a history of the Birmingham Small Arms Co, Donovan Ward: Birmingham.

[4] Perhaps best known as the company that manufactured London’s black taxicabs. This company went in to administration in October 2012 and in 2013 Geely acquired the firm’s assets.

[5] Bryson J.R. and Taylor, M. (2010), ‘Mutual Dependency, Diversity and Alterity in Production: Cooperatives, group contracting and factories’, in Fuller D., Jonas A.E. and Lee R. (eds), Interrogating alterity, Ashgate

[6] Bryson, J.R .and Taylor, M. (2010), ‘Competitiveness by Design and Inimitability through Service: Understanding the dynamics of firm-based competition in the West Midlands Jewellery and Lock Industries’, The Service Industries Journal, 30: 4: 583 – 596


This blog was written by Professor John Bryson, City-REDI, University of Birmingham.  

The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI or the University of Birmingham.

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Author: John Bryson

Professor of Enterprise and Competitiveness, City-Region Economic Development Institute, Birmingham Business School, The University of Birmingham, UK

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