Visit to the University of Birmingham Research Library & Archives

Thursday 21



Another trip in the minibus with our group, this time to the Cadbury Collection of Archival material at the Research Library of the University of Birmingham.

We were given a tour by Anne George, who spoke with the group about the very specific conditions that need to be maintained to preserve archive material, from animal skin and leather to vellum and parchment, photographs, letters, official forms and objects such as war medals and other personal effects.

Most fascinating to the young people was the strong room, which had a variety of safety equipment including a system that, in the case of a fire, emits a gas which quickly removes all of the oxygen in the room so as to prevent the fire spreading.

We were then very lucky to receive a lecture presentation from Professor Martin Killeen about the wounded soldiers from World War One and the network of hospitals that were established, first at the University of Birmingham, but then across Birmingham, at schools and at Highbury Hall. There were 32 sites of medical treatment (four military hospitals, two civilian hospitals, seven local schools used as hospitals and 18 auxiliary hospitals) in Birmingham with an especial focus on South West Birmingham. Highbury Hall was one of the first hospitals to receive and treat patients with neurological disorders, including the recently diagnosis phenomena of 'shell shock'. By 1919 over 125,000 men and women from Britain and across the world had been treated at hospitals in Birmingham. The young people were interested that one of these had been a young JRR Tolkien, who was 24 in 1916 and fought in the Battle of the Somme. There was also a further link to letters as we learnt that Tolkien developed a clever code that enabled him to avoid censure when writing to his wife.

Martin's presentation ended with a rather shocking series of images that showed terrible shrapnel images that were treated with skin grafts. The young people were duly shocked, and it was somehow refreshing that their reaction to such horrible injuries had not been dulled by horror films and video games where gore is a prerequisite for entertainment.

We were all fascinated by yet another fact of Birmingham's role in the war, that as well as having this considerable network of hospitals saving lives, the city was also the centre of a gigantic munitions industry that employed children to keep up the collosal demands for ordnance for the British guns. One of the biggest munitions employers was Kynoch, who had 16000 men and women on their books, reinforced with child labour


Matt Hinks