' ... great photographs ... engagingly written ... really enjoyable to read ... great little books ... '
Midland History (2016)
' ... this tremendous little volume ... adds much to our understanding of Victorian periodical culture ...' - Victorian Periodicals Review (2016).
The Birmingham Biographies series seeks to tell the stories of the men and women, largely now forgotten, who shaped Victorian Birmingham. All of these books can be ordered from Amazon and other booksellers.
Stephen Roberts, Recollections of Victorian Birmingham. 84pp, 2018 ISBN: 978-1719078887. £4.99
This book offers readers an absorbing portrait of Birmingham’s nineteenth century. It provides eyewitness accounts of the main events and personalities of the time. These twenty-five autobiographical articles were originally published in the Birmingham Gazette and Express in 1907-9, but have been long forgotten. In bringing them back to attention, the editor provides fascinating glimpses into life in Victorian Birmingham. Who knew that the town famous for brass bedsteads, buttons and glass produced a prize-winning strawberry? Or that a leading politician, wounded at being described as the ugliest man in Birmingham, set out to find a man who was even uglier? ‘Stephen Roberts is an indefatigable and dedicated researcher of Victorian Birmingham. His knowledge is deep and wide-ranging yet he succeeds in sharing his expertise in an accessible and engaging way through his engrossing books and lively talks.’ – Carl Chinn.
Stephen Roberts, Birmingham 1889. 86 pp, 2017. ISBN: 978-1544139227. £4.99
This entertaining book provides a vivid, month-by-month portrait of life in Birmingham in one year - 1889, the year city status was awarded by Queen Victoria. Drawing on the city's famous satirical magazines and the correspondence columns of its leading morning newspaper, this account reveals what Brums most enjoyed doing (going to the pantomime and the circus, day trips to Llandudno, watching the Villa win at Perry Barr) and what they most moaned about (noisy and expensive trams, naked bathing in the canals, watching the Villa lose at Perry Barr). Readers will meet the rather stern town clerk Edward Orford Smith, the first black pastor in the city Peter Stanford, the Shah of Persia, Austen Chamberlain and Billy Poole, who appeared before the magistrates for being drunk and disorderly on no fewer than 170 occasions. The book is illustrated with ten photographs and ten cartoons relating to Brum in 1889.
Stephen Roberts, Sir Richard Tangye 1833-1906: A Cornish Entrepreneur in Victorian Birmingham, 65 pp, 15 photographs, 2015. ISBN 9781512207910, £4.99.
'We launched the Great Eastern and she launched us' - Sir Richard Tangye.
In January 1858 Isambard Kingdom Brunel's Great Eastern, at that point the largest ship ever built, was, after several failed attempts, finally launched into the Thames. The powerful hydraulic jacks that enabled the ship to get afloat were manufactured by Tangye Brothers of Birmingham. For this firm of Cornish-born engineers the launch of this great ship was the breakthrough they had been waiting for. By the end of the nineteenth century the firm was employing 2000 people at its Cornwall Works in Smethwick. The life-story of Richard Tangye was held up in Victorian Britain as an outstanding example of what a man could achieve by determination, single-mindedness and sheer hard work. Tangye was undoubtedly a brilliant entrepreneur, but, as he acknowledged, his brothers were also brilliant engineers. Bound together by family ties, the talented Tangye Brothers created one of the most famous industrial success stories of the nineteenth century. As this book reveals, the brothers were also generous benefactors in their adopted town - the Art Gallery and School of Art were more or less their creations - and intrepid travellers, crossing the globe in search of profits and adventure.
Stephen Roberts, James Whateley And The Survival Of Chartism. 70 pp, 2018. ISBN: 978-1983503030. £4.99
What happened to the Chartists after the movement was over? Many local spokesmen in fact remained prominent figures in their communities – and carried the principles they had fought for in the 1840s into their later careers. This book tells the stories of two such men who became, respectively, a town councillor and a minister in Birmingham. James Whateley spoke up for working men in the council chamber. He called for polling hours to be extended into the evenings to increase working class participation; and he campaigned on behalf of postmen who made up to eight deliveries a day and who, faced with few letter boxes, had to wait for each door to be opened. Charles Clarke, from his pulpit, inspired members of his congregation to enter local politics and improve their town – six of them became mayors – and campaigned for free, compulsory, secular schooling for working class children. The book is illustrated with twelve contemporary cartoons and photographs.
Stephen Roberts, Joseph Gillott and Other Birmingham Manufacturers 1784-1892. 98 pp, 2016. ISBN: 978-1539483069. £6.99
This book is made up of biographical studies of five manufacturers ranging across the trades of nineteenth century Birmingham. Apart from the lead chapter on the pen maker Joseph Gillott, there are also essays on the brass founder Robert Walter Winfield, the glass manufacturer Rice Harris, the button and electroplate manufacturer James Deykin and the measuring devices manufacturer John Rabone. These stories encompass technological breakthroughs, huge profits, bankruptcies, strikes, the Great Exhibition and employees' outings. The private passions of these men are also explored - from collecting paintings to Shakespeare - as well as their public roles - Alderman James Deykin drowned in Aston reservoir whilst carrying out his duties.
Stephen Roberts, Now Mr. Editor!, 100pp, ISBN 9781518685897, £6.99
'Now, Mr Editor! I should very much like to know who is to blame …' Birmingham Journal, 24 February 1838. This book was inspired by one letter to a newspaper. In January 1842 a correspondent to one of the Birmingham newspapers expressed his view that police constables, when they had nothing else to do, should be instructed to clear the foot paths of snow. From this unintentionally amusing letter grew this project, which collects together over sixty letters published in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette and the Birmingham Journal from 1820 to 1850. Correspondents wrote in to their newspapers to complain about prostitution, bull-baiting, the state of their streets, the shortcomings of their police constables, the cost and comfort of railway travel and that most dangerous preacher George Dawson. Taken together these letters provide a fascinating insight into life in Birmingham in the first half of the nineteenth century. The letters are accompanied Eliezer Edwards' splendid essay describing Birmingham in the late 1830s. This essay has been edited, and extensive footnotes provide much detail about the people and places mentioned by Edwards.
'An engaging little book' - Guy Sjogren, Newsletter of the Friends of the Centre for West Midlands History, University of Birmingham, January 2016.
Stephen Roberts, Joseph Chamberlain's Highbury: A Very Public Private House, 46pp, ISBN 9781515044680, £3.99
During the second half of the nineteenth century the country houses of leading statesmen became part of the political vocabulary. Gladstone’s Hawarden, Disraeli’s Hughenden, Salisbury’s Hatfield House would all have been familiar place names to those who took an interest in politics. As a man with great ambitions for himself in the political world, and with a son who was being made ready to follow in his footsteps, Joseph Chamberlain wished to own a house that reflected his status and importance. The result was Highbury, situated several miles south of the town centre, which became the Birmingham home for Chamberlain and his family in 1880. But Highbury was more than a family home; it was also a public symbol, a physical reminder of Joe’s national importance and local political control. Statesmen regularly arrived to be entertained and to formulate their political plans at Highbury, and were photographed on the terrace which overlooked the magnificent gardens, another feature designed to impress. The house and gardens were widely written about in the newspapers and magazines of the day. This essay, drawing on this material and personal recollections, offers a glimpse into life in a very public private house.
Stephen Roberts, Dr J.A. Langford 1823-1903: A Self-Taught Working Man and the Sale of American Degrees in Victorian Britain. 65 pp, 8 photographs, 2014. ISBN: 978 1495475122. £4.99
John Alfred Langford began life as a chair maker and autodidact and went on to cross the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans and, in circumstances of some controversy, acquire a degree from a little-known American college. This biography tells us about how a bright working man sought to immerse himself in books, about how the acquisition of knowledge led him into journalism and literature, and about how he worked with men with more clout and money such as the preacher George Dawson and the manufacturer Richard Tangye to improve his town and the lives of the working people who lived there.
'Fascinating … Roberts is to be congratulated on seeking to revive interest in … a forgotten Victorian working class politician and writer'
John A. Hargreaves - the website of the Historical Association
'Stephen Roberts' affectionate and clear-eyed portrait … is a welcome addition to our growing knowledge of the many fascinating individuals who made up Victorian Birmingham'
Sue Thomas - University of Birmingham, Newsletter of the Friends of the Centre for West Midlands History, April 2014
'This is an interesting book … Stephen Roberts is to be congratulated on bringing to life both Langford and the context in which he worked'
Tim Lomas - website of British Association of Local History
Stephen Roberts, Sir Benjamin Stone 1838-1914: Photographer, Traveller and Politician, 102 pp, 20 photographs, 2014. ISBN: 978 1499265521, £7.99
Sir Benjamin Stone lived a full life, and was certainly a more contented man than his restless Birmingham contemporary Joseph Chamberlain. A shrewd businessman, with investments in glass and paper manufacture, Stone had no difficulty in funding his expensive interests in photography and travel. He left behind 22,000 mounted prints and 17,000 glass negatives (now in the Library of Birmingham) and in the early 1890s travelled around the world and sailed 1000 miles up the Amazon. These remarkable aspects of his life are fully covered in this biography, as are also his business career and his determined championing of the Tory cause in Birmingham.
Stephen Roberts and Roger Ward, Mocking Men of Power: Comic Art in Birmingham 1861-1911. 60 cartoons, 2014. ISBN: 978 1502764560. £8.99.
A rash of satirical journals hit the streets of Birmingham from the 1860s onwards. Their full-page cartoons, drawn by, amongst others G.J. Bernasconi and E.J. Mountford, attracted much attention in the town and beyond. 'Birmingham is becoming famous for its cartoons', one of the satirical magazines observed. Inevitably Joseph Chamberlain looms large in the 60 cartoons that appear in this collection. However, there were other figures of interest and significance in Victorian Birmingham, including George Dawson, John Bright, Jesse Collings, J.B. Stone and W.J. Davies. These men are also represented in this selection. This book includes a detailed introduction, discussing the owners, writers and artists associated with these satirical magazines, and a chronology, setting out the main developments in local and national politics.