Originally published in the Westmount Examiner on December 19, 2008.
As I often tell friends, I have been to Birmingham (in the Midlands of Her Majesty’s more or less United Kingdom) more often than I have been to Toronto – easily a dozen times, I would imagine. This compelling odyssey began in the summer of 1986 when I first ventured into this, the second largest of England’s diverse and historic cities.
It was, at the time, a gloomy urban centre, replete with its omnipresent inner city ring roads – the depressing signature of so much of Britain’s post war reconstruction. Moreover, as is the case in numerous municipalities, the area immediately surrounding the central train station was particularly dismal and dingy.
What first brought me to Brum (as the locals like to call it) was quite simply family history. I had always been told that my paternal grandfather hailed from this ancient English borough. Sadly, I never knew him as he had died long before I was born. My late father used to tell me a little about my grandfather, even though he himself was quite young when his Dad passed away in 1939.
Looking back to my initial genealogical research conducted during the winter of 1986, I will always remember the tremendous sense of satisfaction I felt when, after several months of painstaking scrutiny at the old Montreal Library, I finally located my grandfather’s name on the passenger list of the ship that brought him to Canada in 1887. As my family had had absolutely no idea from when and where he forever left England, the search was really quite open-ended and time consuming. A first victory!
The revealing manifest depicted him as a ‘labourer’ despite the fact he was only twelve years of age at the time. Predictably, as is the case with many venerable manuscripts, more questions were created by its discovery than answered. Consequently, I decided to cross the Atlantic and continue my investigation here at Birmingham’s Central Library
situated in the city centre on handsome Chamberlain Square.
On the Britrail train from London to Birmingham, I recall talking hesitantly with an older gentleman who was returning to Brum after a short visit to Coventry. He opined that many North Americans (as a general rule, the locals don’t make that great a distinction between Canadians and Americans) were, for one reason or another, pointlessly intrigued by their family’s origins, and that, furthermore, I should realise that the surname ‘Wilkins’ is very common here in the English Midlands. Moments of awkward silence punctuated our remaining time together so it was still on that somewhat muted note that I later somewhat timidly disembarked the train at New Street Station in the city centre.
After picking up a city map at the local tourist office, I made my way along New Street towards Central Library. I remember thinking during this time how much more multi-ethnic Birmingham appeared to be compared to Montreal. In fact, on more than one occasion in this fascinating urban centre, I found myself to be in the category of the ‘visible minority’ for the first time in my life. That experience in itself made the junket worth it.
Even though the recently-opened library building had just been unceremoniously disparged by Prince Charles as a place where one would more likely see books burned than preserved, I took an immediate shine to it. Perhaps because of my ‘American’ accent, librarians and other employees were most helpful while, at the same time, the kinds of records I required to advance my investigation were indeed abundant and easily accessible.
The first register I decided to examine was the microfilmed copies of the 1881 Census for England and Wales. There was just one problem, yet a major one: I had absolutely no idea where in Birmingham my grandfather’s family had lived before leaving for Canada. Consequently, all ten microfilm reels (each requiring about two hours to view) would have to be examined, unless, of course, I were to find them on the first page of the first film!
No such luck! It took me two full days to pinpoint my ancestors – ultimately on the ninth reel. Yet, finally, there they were before my weary eyes, a family of five, my grandfather a child of seven, ‘a scholar.’ I was euphoric. After much toil, a second victory, and a well-deserved one at that, I might add.
Of course, over time, there would be other triumphs and perhaps because of them, I would grow closer to Brum. Yet, to this day, the irony does not escape me: the town
that my grandfather’s family chose so long ago to abscond is now being regularly visited by one of his descendants. And about that seemingly unusual fact, I often wonder what he would think.
Certainly Birmingham has changed over the twenty-two years I have been coming here. Today, its commercial centre has been inarguably revived. It is, like many European cities, colourful, innovative and pedestrian-friendly – in short, a city to which I have become surprisingly attached.
And Central Library? Perhaps Prince Charles would be pleased to hear that the corporation intends to replace it!!