In my research into the history of St Paul’s Church in Birmingham, one of the most useful documents was Henry Kempson’s Notebook. Henry was a surveyor who often worked with George Holloway, Charles Colmore’s agent, on the leasing of Colmore land. After the passing of the 1771 Act for the building of two new Chapels, they worked together on the building of St Mary’s Chapel and then later on the building of St Paul’s Chapel. In 1776 Kempson became, for a fee, the Secretary of the trustees of St Paul’s. Kempson had his own notebook with a heading “Memorandums relative to St Paul’s Chapel” which gives a detailed record of his activities. Perhaps the book is best known for the records of those who had, much earlier, committed to subscribe to the building of St Paul’s but who, as Kempson was calling to collect the money, were now declining to pay up for all manner of reasons. I began to feel sorry for the man. But then he would record that he was off to the Hen and Chickens for dinner with someone. The Hen and Chickens, where was that? I had not much idea where anything was.
That changed when I came across John Kempson’s map which was published in April 1811. John Kempson was a surveyor and the son of Henry Kempson.The heading to his map states…
“To the commissioners of the Street Acts
This map of the Town and Parish of Birmingham
shewing the Boundaries as perambulated by them
In the year 1810”
There, before my eyes, was the Hen and Chickens, in New Street. And much else besides. It occurred to me that this map could still be relevant to the period I had researched, the 1770s, and perhaps for some years after 1810. Fig 1 shows an enlarged selected area of the map including what may be described as the Town centre. One particular feature is that it picks out the religious meeting places, covering the three Anglican Churches, including Christ Church just recently built in 1805, the three Anglican Chapels, a Roman Chapel, the Quakers Meeting House in Bull Street, a Synagogue in Frogary, the Unitarians at the Old and New Meeting Houses, the Congregationalists in Carr’s Lane and Livery Street, the Baptists in Cannon Street and the Congregationalists in New Hall Street. Then, naturally, there are the hotels, and public buildings. Fig 2 is a further enlargement of Fig 1, covering the High Street, New Street and surroundings.
Looking at Fig 2, the present “House” numbering system on New Street starts from No. 1 at the High Street end on the Post Office side, up to 70 plus at the top end. It then crosses over to the other side and starts at No 80 and increases to about 150 at the High Street end. We will assume it was the same system in 1811.
One evening at home, out of the blue, there was handed to me a book, dirty and distressed, about 38cm wide and 26cm high, with elaborate printing on the cover which read “The Buildings of Birmingham Past and Present Sketched and Described” and in small print “Drawn and Lithographed by Thomas Underwood Castle St High St Birmingham 1866 Published by Walter Sackett 11Bull St Birmingham” It was, literally, falling apart as the binding had gone. I decided to keep it but it was to be some time before I realised what it was about. I also realised that there was a “Second series” published in 1869 and after a search managed to find and acquire one. Again it was in poor condition being badly foxed in places.
The principal contents of the books are sketches by Thomas Underwood. To quote from the introduction “…the aspects of our streets is changing so completely that, in a very few years, very few examples of our existing buildings will remain; and hence the interest and value of the sketches which this volume contains, as examples of the present and relics of the past”. It is not about churches and town halls and municipal buildings. It is about the streets and shops and pubs and perhaps some of the sketches show what it was like when Henry Kempson went to the Hen and Chickens.
This web site
My objective is simply to reproduce here, over a period, as many of the sketches as I can. They will appear in a separate posting as well as “The Thomas Underwood Gallery”.