Mine’s a pint

As I was sharing some information with colleagues I mentioned that in 1701 a malt tax was introduced which raised the price of beer and forced the poor to drink water increasing Cholera and other water born diseases across the country. This reminded me of our continual struggle in museums to correct so many commonly held myths about the past  and Sandwell’s historic buildings: secret passages, priest holes, visits by Guy Fawkes, William Shakespeare, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Richard III, ghostly nuns, haunted wardrobes, smells of tobacco etc.

The Hall at Oak House Museum, West Bromwich – famous for not having priest holes (the family were Puritans), or secret tunnels to Dudley Castle or a local pub (why would you bother?) and neither Guy Fawkes, Richard III stayed there as it wasn’t built until after they died. However it did have a very nice well. 

One of the most pervading (don’t get me started on thresholds, pot-luck and ‘raining cats and dogs’!) is that in olden times everyone drank beer because the fresh water was foul, polluted and tasted bad and was known to spread illness and disease. Beer for breakfast, dinner and supper – for refreshment, for celebration and just for passing the time. This just isn’t true. Fresh water supplies were highly valued and if you had a fresh clean water supply you would certainly drink the water. There are references to people drinking water throughout history although for obvious reasons there are more references to enjoying wine or ale.

The Sand Well or spring at Sandwell Valley

“Let us make use of a healthy, natural drink which will sometimes be of benefit to both body and soul – if it is drawn not from a muddy cistern but from a clear well or the current of a transparent brook.” ~ Lupus Servatus, Abbot of Ferrieres (9th century)

“Ale if I have any, or water, if I have no ale’ ~ Ælfric’s Colloquy (10th century)

When Renaissance artist Michelangelo was suffering from kidney stones, a doctor advised him to drink waters from a spring outside of Rome. Later the artist wrote to his physician stating “I am much better than I have been. Morning and evening I have been drinking the water from a spring about forty miles from Rome, which breaks up the stone…I have had to lay in a supply at home and cannot drink or cook with anything else.”

Most of Sandwell is particularly well favoured with clean water springs, as a consequence of the underlying geology. There are great deposits of glacial sand, which filters and cleans the water and clay, forming underground reservoirs. West Bromwich still has the Sand Well in Sandwell Valley and the Lyne Purl on Stoney Lane, near the hospital. The Lyne Purl was the main water supply for West Brom until it was condemned in 1848. In 1606 the manorial court had forbidden washing filthie clothes and beastes bellies in or near it.

The Manor House Museum – no particular reason but it’s a nice building. However we do know that using culverts under the house they were channelling used water away from the residents of the Manor House and down the hill (no doubt towards the poor people)

In 2014 during the restoration works at the Oak House barns we uncovered a well lined with 17th century brick, although it is likely that the well itself is considerably older. You can see the spot marked with a semi-circle of bricks in the courtyard if you visit the site today. Also as any competent home brewer will tell you – bad water makes bad beer.   Where towns didn’t have a good clean water supply, or sufficient fresh water, significant expenditure went on providing pipes and conduits from further afield. In Lichfield, where I live not-withstanding the pools in the town centre, from the 14th century water was piped into the city centre from the appropriately named Pipe Hill, and the medieval culverts and pipes of Exeter still survive; the medieval engineers placed the lead pipes in tunnels running beneath the streets so that when a water main burst there was no need to dig the entire street up. Perhaps something our own utility companies could take a look at!   Beer cost money whereas water was free (try suggesting that to the water companies today!) and in the absence of licensing legislation anyone could buy grain, make a brew and sell it to their neighbours.

Another nice picture of Oak House

The West Bromwich court appointed two ale tasters annually who were empowered to sample beer being sold in the parish and fine the brewers of (and ultimately destroy) beer of poor quality. It is clear that the common preference was for beer over water: Andrew Boorde, in his 1542 Dyetary of Health, wrote: “water is nat holsome . . . for an Englysshe man, . . . water is colde, slowe, and slake of digestyon. The beste water is rayne water so be it that it be clene and purely taken Next to it is rōnynge water, ye whiche doth swyftly rōne from the Eest into the west vpon stones or pybles. The thyrde water to be praysed is ryuer or broke water, the which is clere rōnynge on pybles & grauayl. Standynge waters the whiche be refresshed with a fresshe spryng is cōmendable, but standyng waters, and well waters, to the which the sōne hath no reflexciō, although they be lyghter thē other rōnyng waters be, yet they be nat so cōmendable. And let euery man be ware of all waters the whiche be standynge, and be purryfyed with froth, duckemeat, and mod, for yf they bake, or brewe, or dresse meate with it, it shall ingendre many infyrmytes”. And the Italian physician Michele Savonarola had this advice for pregnant women: . . .”beware of drinking cold water. It is not good for the fetus and it causes the generation of girls. So keep drinking wine”. Advice an expectant friend of mine, living in Montpellier, Southern France, received almost verbatim from her doctor in the 1990s (except for the bit about generating girls!)

Frank – Manager, Museums, Arts and Heritage


Ruskin Pottery and Black Country People at Work

” The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.” John Ruskin

William Howson Taylor – Sandwell Community History and Archives Service

I woke up on Thursday morning having dreamt about moving Ruskin Pottery around. Luckily my dream wasn’t a nightmare and I didn’t drop any in my sleep! Anyway the reason for this dream was that moving Ruskin Pottery around is one of the things I have actually been doing in my waking life as we have been re-displaying this fabulous colourful pottery in a new gallery at Wednesbury Museum (Sandwell’s Museum and Art Gallery).

When people think about the area that is now Sandwell around 1900 they usually think of heavy industry and not decorative arts, but actually there was lots of artistic creativity going on in the area as well as heavy industry.

Ruskin Pottery – 1898-1935

The pottery created at the Ruskin Pottery factory in Smethwick, began production in 1898. It was notable for experimental glazes in a range of vibrantly coloured pots, vases, bowls, buttons, tea services, plaques and jewellery. It became an award winning studio pottery, but was an expensive commodity which was out of the price range of ordinary Black Country people.

advert from an art magazine 1926

173-174 Oldbury Road, Smethwick

173 and 174 Oldbury Road were bought by Edward Richard Taylor who, with his son William Howson Taylor, converted the site into the Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works. In the early 1900s the pottery was renamed after John Ruskin, who was a Victorian writer and critic. Ruskin believed that there was not enough beauty in everyday life and these ideals seemed to fit with the ideas the Taylors had for their new, modern pottery.

The Ruskin Creators

Edward Taylor

Edward R Taylor was the headmaster of Birmingham School of Art. He invested his entire life savings of around £10,000 to set up the Birmingham Tile and Pottery Works in Smethwick. Despite being in his sixties it is believed that Edward Taylor would stay up until the early hours of the morning taking an active role in the production of the pottery. He was often seen travelling to and from the factory on his tricycle.

Edward’s son, William Howson Taylor had a small kiln in the garden at the family home in Highfields Road, Edgbaston where he conducted experiments with pottery and glazes which later inspired the exciting patterns in Ruskin Pottery glazes.

In 1912 Edward Taylor died and William Howson Taylor took full control of the pottery business. William Howson Taylor was a kind employer who worked long hours. He was also a perfectionist, personally supervising all areas of production insisting on the high standards of the pottery being maintained.

Black Country People at Work

The twenty or so employees were a close knit and well trained workforce. Many of the workers were related to each other by blood or marriage and lived in the Smethwick area, in Spon Lane, Oldbury Road, Lonsdale Road and Thimblemill Road. Workers at the Ruskin factory had good wages and were treated well compared to similar employment at the turn of the 20th century.

The working day began at 8am when a whistle summoned the workers to the factory. There were three breaks during the day; a fifteen minute break in the morning and afternoon and an hour for lunch and the day finished at 6pm unless the kiln was being fired, when it had to be watched all night.

A Day in the Country

Sometimes on Saturdays, William Howson Taylor and his workers went on day trips and picnics into the nearby countryside. They caught a train to Stourbridge and then walked to Arley, Kinver or the Clent Hills seeking fresh air and inspiration from nature.

The factory buildings

When William Howson Taylor wrote to one of his workers, Harry Hill while he was away fighting the First World War, he often mentioned the outings into the countryside writing “What tales you will be able to tell us all when we go to Clent of Sats, and may those days be soon.” Harry Hill returned from the war and joined the other workers on many outings.

The women who worked at the factory went on their own outings organised by Mr Howson Taylor, often taking refreshments at the Vine Inn,  Clent after a brisk walk.

The Great War 1914-1918

Many workers volunteered to fight and after January 1916 were conscripted into the conflict. While they were away fighting William Howson Taylor kept their jobs open and wrote to them on the front line. At the end of the war all of the craftsmen returned to the factory and William Howson Taylor sent each man to his tailor for a new suit, which he paid for himself. He also raised their wages to £4.10 shillings a week which was a very good wage at the time.

sent to Harry Hill from Howson Taylor while he was at war. Harry served in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and was a sapper. This is essentially a digger and would have had to create earthworks in the blistering heat

The Secret to the Grave

In December 1933 a notice was posted on the wall of the factory informing workers that the factory would close at the end of the week.

The day that the factory closed was the first day William had not been there, as he could not bear to see the factory close. Howson Taylor’s health was failing, he had no children to carry on the business and his loyal skilled workforce was growing old.

After years of hard work he needed a rest. Mr Howson Taylor married Florence Tilley, who he had been engaged to during his father’s lifetime. Florence had once worked at the factory but had been living in America for many years. They moved into the house attached to the factory and spent the next year selling off remaining stock. In September 1935 they retired to Devon, but shortly after William Howson Taylor died aged just fifty-nine. Howson Taylor refused to sell the secret of how his unusual pottery was made and the knowledge went to the grave with him.

Ruskin Today

Today Ruskin Pottery is collected all over the world. Examples of Ruskin Pottery are held at the Victoria and Albert Museum and other museums throughout the country.

Ruskin Pottery is now acknowledged as one of the most important small-scale studio pottery factories of the early twentieth century.

Sandwell Museum Service holds one of the largest public collections of Ruskin Pottery the nucleus of which is believed to have been donated by William Howson Taylor himself. The collection has since been developed through private donations and purchases.

Visit our new Ruskin Pottery gallery at Wednesbury Museum and come along to one of our fascinating talks and photo display and learn more about life at the factory celebrating the opening of the new display. You can also see more of our collection with our ‘Ruskin on Tour’ exhibition at Haden Hill House from the end of July until the end of October. Also look out for our school holiday arts and crafts activities inspired by the fabulous colours and shapes of Ruskin Pottery

Certainly Ruskin Pottery is something Sandwell should be very proud of.

Jane- Museum Services Manager


Possibly the most famous person you’ve never heard of!

‘I was born in Old England, near the foot of Hamstead Bridge, in the parish of Handsworth, about four miles from Birmingham, in Staffordshire, and according to my after-knowledge on the 20th or 21st day of August, in the year of our Lord 1745.’

Francis Asbury is a well know figure in American history and in the story of religion in the USA. He travelled thousands of miles across America preaching and spreading the Methodist word, putting forward anti-slavery views, supporting the American War of Independence and even meeting George Washington. His journals are an invaluable source for historians of the period and he has countless churches and roads named after him as well as a number of statues including one on the Capitol Hill. So how did a boy who grew up in a tiny cottage in Great Barr (now part of Sandwell) become this fascinating and important historical figure!

When Francis was about 12 months old his family moved to the tiny cottage which is now Bishop Asbury Cottage Museum on Newton Road. The dominant figure in the young Francis’s life was his mother Elizabeth (‘Eliza’). His father, Joseph, appears as a more distant figure who, whilst a hard working man who ably provided for his family, never fully embraced the Methodist faith that was eventually to become so significant in both his wife’s and son’s lives. Unusually for the period, when large families were the norm, Eliza and Joseph are recorded as only having had one other child – a girl, Sarah, who was born in May 1743 and who was to die just before her 5th birthday.

Eliza never got over the death of her daughter and turned to god for comfort and particularly embraced the up and coming Methodist form of Christianity. At this time Methodism was a new movement within the Church of England, attractive to working people as the movement treated them as equals before god. Reading scriptures was encouraged and lay preachers were important. The more traditional Church of England forms of worship and outlook was associated with the upper classes and the established order. With its emphasis upon emotional conversion experiences, its use of lay-preachers and its outright criticism of the conditions and attitudes within the established church, Methodism proved to be extremely controversial, not least with some of the people at the top of the social scale who greatly resented the idea that they were tainted with the same sinfulness as those at the bottom of the social heap. An excellent example of this is a letter from the Duchess of Buckingham to the Countess of Huntingdon quoted by the famous historian E. P. Thompson in his book ‘The Making of the English Working Class’:

“I thank Your Ladyship for the information concerning the Methodist preachers; the doctrines are most repulsive and strongly tinctured with impertinence and disrespect towards their superiors, in perpetually endeavouring to level all ranks and to do away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth”.

John Wesley the founder of the Methodist movement preached in Wednesbury in 1743 a few years before Francis was born. This caused riots in the town and Wesley’s hair was pulled and his coat torn. This chaos demonstrates the controversial nature of Methodist teaching at the time and the strength of feeling on both sides.

Unusually the local landowner in the area where the Asbury family lived, the Earl of Dartmouth was himself a Methodist. At Methodist meetings he was simply known as brother Dartmouth

It seems that at the age of 13 Francis gave up on formal schooling as he did not like his school master who was rather severe and beat the young Asbury. Francis did enjoy reading though and later claimed he could read the scriptures by the age of 6. He was apprenticed to a blacksmith at a local forge located a short walk from Francis’s parent’s home and by all accounts he was very happy there.

Francis gradually became interested in the Methodist movement which was so important to his mother. He probably initially heard Methodist ideas when attending his local Anglican church, All Saints in West Bromwich, and listening to the vicar, Rev. Edward Stillingfleet, who was sympathetic with the Methodist cause. As Francis read more and more and attended more and more sermons, (sometimes walking miles to here Methodist preachers) he became more and more interested in Methodist ideals.

Francis became a lay preacher himself and his first official sermon was at Manwood’s cottage a short walk from his place of work. Methodist meetings at this time often happened in fields, in front of buildings or landmarks (including our own Oak House) and inside ordinary houses including the Asbury’s own home and Eliza continued to host meetings even after Francis left for America. Francis soon became a travelling preacher, going to ‘almost every place within my reach’ as he later wrote.

For the next 5 years Francis’s ministry took him further and further afield in England- first Staffordshire and Gloucestershire then Bedfordshire and Sussex before moving on to Northamptonshire (1769) and Wiltshire (1770). Then on the 7th of August 1771, Francis responded to a question that would forever result in his name being more closely associated with America than his own native land as Wesley asked for preachers to go to America to spread the word.

The prophet on the long road

“Whither am I going? To the New World. What to do? To gain honour? No, if I know my own heart. To get money? No: I am going to live to God, and to bring others to do so.”

Asbury first set foot on American soil in Philadelphia on the 27th October 1771, preaching his first sermon the next day at St. George’s Church. By 1772 Wesley had appointed him his general assistant in America – a position he was to lose the following year when he was replaced by a more experienced preacher, Thomas Rankin. At first based in and around New York, Francis was eager to push further into the continent of America taking his message to the pioneers who were pushing forward the boundaries of the colonies. By the time of his death in 1816 Francis, in his bid to reach as many people as possible with his message, had travelled 270,000 miles, preached 15,000 sermons and, as Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church, ordained 4,000 clergymen.

In 1784 John Wesley sent a Mr Thomas Coke to America to ordain Francis and, with him, oversee the Methodist Church in America, both sharing the role and title of ‘superintendent’. Within four years this title had somehow changed to ‘Bishop’, much to the disgust of Wesley. The Methodist movement in England didn’t and still doesn’t have Bishops. Wesley wrote to Asbury…

“How can you, how dare you suffer yourself to be called a Bishop? I shudder, I start at the very thought! Men may call me a knave or a fool, a rascal, a scoundrel, and I am content; but they shall never by my consent call me a Bishop!”

The years of relentless travel – mostly on horseback, though frequently on foot – and the harsh living conditions inevitably took its toll upon the health of the Bishop, who travelled until the year of his death. In 1815, he spoke of the physical hardship he had endured in the course of his 45 years of ministry, describing the rheumatism that had recently rendered him unable to use his legs. He died on Sunday 31st March 1816, having preached his last sermon the previous Sunday, at the home of a friend, in Spottsylvania, Virginia.

Once he left the little cottage which is now part of Sandwell Museum Service, he never returned to England despite having told his mother he would be back before he was 30.

On October 15th 1924, the 30th President of the United States – Calvin Coolidge – unveiled a statue of Bishop Asbury in Washington DC. In a speech honouring the work of this man who had done so much to spread the Christian gospel in the fledgling American nation Coolidge stated that’He is entitled to rank as one of the builders of our nation.’

From humble origins in the heart of England to being honoured by the President of a land thousands of miles away, having both seen and made history, the story of Bishop Francis Asbury is a truly amazing one.

Bishop Asbury Cottage is open on several open days each year including Saturday 27th April 10am-12pm and Monday 29th April 1pm-3pm- Entrance is Free.

Find out more about Sandwell Museum Service part of Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council at http://www.sandwell.gov.uk/museums

Baker, F. (1976) From Wesley to Asbury: Studies in early American Methodism. Duke University Press, Durham.                                              Clark, E. ed (1958) The Journal and Letters of Francis Asbury (In Three Volumes). Epworth Press, London.                                       Edwards, M. (1972) Francis Asbury. Penwork (Leeds) Ltd, Manchester.                                                          Gregory, B. (1936) Francis Asbury. Epworth Press, London.                                                                Hallam, D. (2003) Eliza Asbury: Her cottage and her son. Brewin Books, Studley.                                                                      Metropolitan Borough of Sandwell (1959) Asbury Cottage: Restored, re-opened and dedicated. Reprint of an original booklet celebrating the opening of Asbury's childhood home to the public.                                                        Prince, H. (1925) The Romance of Early Methodism in and around West  Bromwich and Wednesbury. Published by the author.  Stevens Bucke, E. ed. (1964) The History of American Methodism. Abingdon Press, New York.                                    Townsend, W. et al eds. (1909) A New History of Methodism. Hodder & Stoughton, London.                                                                    Wesley, J. (1703-91) The Journal of John Wesley. Popular edition condensed 1903. Charles H. Kelly, London.                                                        Wigger, J. (2001) Taking heaven by Storm: Methodism and the rise of popular Christianity in America. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago.

We’re Open

Sandwell Museums open again to general visitors from April

Sandwell Museum sites open again from the beginning of April to general visitors after being closed since the end of the Christmas activities in December.

This doesn’t mean however that museum staff have been sat around finishing off the last of the Christmas chocs since January. Not in the slightest – In fact the winter closed period is one of our busiest times of year (however I do say that about the school summer holidays, Halloween and Christmas too) . January, February and March are an opportunity for staff to undertake activities which they can’t the rest of the year while they are welcoming visitors and users.

The deep clean in the library at Haden Hill – everything is removed and cleaned before re-display

Firstly museum staff usually take an extra few days holiday after the Christmas break in January to take some of the extra time which they spent working evening and weekend events throughout the festive season. Once they are back the business of taking down the Christmas decorations begins. This can take over a week as all the decs have to go back in the correct boxes and lugged back up to the attic or into storage cupboards. The large Christmas tree which beautifully decorated the hallway at Haden Hill House took 4 of us to dismantle and try unsuccessfully to squeeze it back into its box. We ended up giving up and wrapping it in black bags and parcel tape (our staff are always resourceful). Once we had finished it looked like a dead body. In fact it looked like we had murdered Hagrid and were trying to dispose of the evidence. He is now lying in the attic waiting for the 2019 festivities to get underway in November.

Our museum technician – building artificial walls and painting ready for a new display at Wednesbury Museum

So once Christmas has been put back in its box the closed season tasks begin. This usually involves painting rooms or galleries, undertaking re-displays of rooms or exhibitions, updating information or interpretation, undertaking maintenance or putting down new carpets or curtains normally purchased by our Friends volunteer groups, packing away old exhibitions and putting together new temporary or permanent exhibitions, planning events and activities for the coming year, doing end of year activities like stock taking, various admin and business planning tasks for the coming year, sorting old paperwork out and having an office sort out (they can get a bit messy when its full on event season and there are all sorts of random things hanging around like vampire wigs or Santa hats or bits of displays etc we even had an incendiary bomb under the desk for a while – it was a replica).

We also plan new projects which we are undertaking in the coming year. For example one of our Visitor Services Assistants is planning a project with our community art groups to create wall hangings inspired by 17th century wall hangings, so all this had to be prepared and ready to go. We do have quite a small team of staff with one full time and 2 part-time members of staff on average in each of our 4 main buildings plus a couple of us who work across all sites, so it does take us a while to get through all the jobs.

We then take a bit of a break to deliver February half term activities and we let the public in for one week only. From February we are actually open for a number of users including our regular groups like our painting groups, knitters, gardeners, crafters, school groups and other pre-booked groups and activities. Once half term is done we’re back to it.

office move around and deep clean at the Manor House

Another important job in the closed season is the deep clean. The closed season allows us to move furniture and clean behind it and inside it, to wash curtains or other soft furnishings or carefully conservation clean any precious items like the bedspread at Oak House. We are also able to clean light fittings and on top of shelves and all sorts of nooks and crannies which we aren’t able to clean when we’re servicing visitors. We take crockery out of dressers and carefully clean it with soap and water and remove everything from display cases and dust those too. Dust is rather unpleasant and attracts the little creepy crawlies which like to eat our collection. The deep clean enables us to prevent this and to check that we don’t have any pests crawling around.

This year we have also been redecorating Wednesbury Museum after a flood late last year (more about this in another post) and we are re-displaying the rather beautiful Ruskin Pottery Gallery and creating a new space downstairs.

The closed season also gives all of our permanent staff (and a few of our casual staff too) a rare chance to all get together for our annual museums conference, where we discuss future developments, key priorities, ideas and business planning. This year we also looked at customer journey mapping and attracting different audiences too.

We are opening with some lovely temporary exhibitions for visitors to enjoy across our sites. At Wednesbury Museum Ranbir Kaur celebrates 30 years as an artist displaying some of her beautiful arts and craft inspired by Asian techniques. Certainly well worth a visit.

At Haden Hill House, Midland Painting Group have paintings, drawings and crafts on display with a showcase weekend on 27th and 28th April when there will be more works around the house and some of the members of the group painting so visitors can talk to them about their work and their inspirations.

At Oak House we have dug deep into our museum collection and put out on display some fantastic pieces of textiles which have been produced over the last 400 years. These include embroidery and lace and samplers produced by young girls around 200 years ago and much more – well worth popping in on a visit to Oak House.

Of course now we are open we also have a lively and varied programme of events and activities over the early spring season for all ages to enjoy. Visit our listings page for details at http://www.sandwell.gov.uk/joininmuseums

If you want to find out more about general opening times, facilities and a bit more about our fabulous buildings visit http://www.sandwell.gov.uk/museums and follow the relevant links.

So if you ever wonder what museum staff are doing in January, February and March – now you know!

Jane – Museum Services Manager

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