Birmingham Buildings Past and Present – The Thomas Underwood Gallery

The Post Office New Street ca 1815
The Post Office New Street ca 1815
The original caption states “From a sketch made about 50 years since” which puts this at about 1815. The view point would be close to the Theatre and shows the dome of St Philip’s Church in the background. The house number would be around 70.
Attwood and Spooner's Bank, New Street
Attwood and Spooner's Bank, New Street
It was founded by Isaac Spooner, Aaron Attwood and others in 1791 and collapsed in March 1865 with liabilities of around £1 million. There is no indication of its position in New Street.
The Whip Manufactory, New Street
The Whip Manufactory, New Street
The Manufactory is up the stairs between the shops of Cornish and Underhill. Underhill is at No 39. There is now a No 41 between Cannon Street and Needless Alley, and No 32 is at the corner of Corporation Street
Phipson's Metal Warehouse New Street
Phipson's Metal Warehouse New Street
No indication of position.
Hen and Chickens Hotel
Hen and Chickens Hotel
From a sketch made in about 1833. The right hand side shows the tower and two wings of the Free Grammar School. This ceased being used in 1832 and was demolished to make way for a new building for the school. There is a wall plaque now at 135A New Street which states, inter alia, that it was the site of King Edward VI School from 1552 to 1936. The Free Grammar School was its earlier name.
New Street, corner of Worcester Street
New Street, corner of Worcester Street
On the left hand side there can just be seen the Swan Hotel. In Fig 2 the Swan Inn is shown with what looks like an entrance off High Street. The corner shop of W Jones carries a No. 134. If that is meant to be New Street it poses a problem with the Grammar School at 135.
A View of High Street Birmingham  1812
A View of High Street Birmingham 1812
Copied from a large print published in 1812, showing the Statue of Lord Nelson, which was unveiled on October 25th 1809.
The Nelson Hotel
The Nelson Hotel
From a sketch made in about 1833. In 1811 it was the Dog Inn. In 1833 it is the Nelson Hotel and in Spiceal Street.
High St & Court of Requests
High St & Court of Requests
Probably from a sketch around 1830.The Court of Requests was the building down the alleyway on the right, and dealt with the settlement of small debts. Here it seems to be more concerned with pale ale and stout. The shop numbering is consecutive and with a half squeezed in. The numbering is 29 to 32. The present Waterstones is 24-26, very close by.
Castle Inn
Castle Inn
From a sketch made in about 1833. In Fig2 it is at the junction of High Street and Castle Street and appears to be on both sides of Castle Street
Old House in High Street  1830
Old House in High Street 1830
From a sketch made in 1830.


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.

The Map

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.

Fig1 Detail from Kempsons Map 1811

Fig 1

Fig2 Enlargement of New Street and High Street area

Fig 2

The Book

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”.

3 thoughts on “Birmingham Buildings Past and Present – The Thomas Underwood Gallery

  1. John Davis

    John …What a brilliant find! Those engraving would be lovely if printed and framed; and one of them rang a very loud bell indeed. My City Major Scholarship to King’s Norton Grammar School entitled me too free text books … and where did we go to find them? Cornishes of course … Have a look at No 3, and there is the early shop of the same name … and next to Underhills!
    The Hen and Chickens looks a great place for lunch … when are we going?

    The maps too are fascinating ….
    With your printing skills John, I do hope you take the hint …

  2. Gary Hurst

    This very same Thomas underwood is my great, great grandfather & I am trying to collect as much information as possible for personal use, I.e. Family history. If you possible have any information I would be very grateful if you could forward links etc.

    Kind regards
    Gary Hurst

    1. Nick Benbow

      Your 3xgreat grandfather was a member of the Birmingham Book Club, an organisation which has existed in Birmingham since about 1745. Thomas Underwood was a member from 1859 to 1869. I guess he resigned as a member of the Club because he had been made bankrupt for the third time.
      I’ve collected some info about Thomas and I’d be happy to share it with you. Just drop me a line at
      Nick Benbow


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