My father had always told me that his Dad hailed from Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city. 

In fact, perhaps my father, who otherwise had little interest in family history, articulated this same thought once too often. For that reason, a number of years ago, I decided to cross the Atlantic and experience for myself my Granddad’s hometown.

The year was 1986, and I arrived in the Midland metropolis in search of my roots, and little else. When the train from London arrived at Birmingham’s New Street Station, I straightaway headed to that city’s Central Library on   picturesque Chamberlain Square.

Once inside, I informed an aide at the genealogy desk that I was in search of my paternal grandfather, a young boy of six, on the 1881 Census of England and Wales. At the time, all I knew about him was that he was born in that Warwickshire town and that he left there for Canada in 1887.

As I didn’t know exactly where in Birmingham he lived at the time of the government survey, I was handed the ten microfilm reels containing the entire data for the burgeoning municipality. Each one, I was informed, would require approximately two hours to scrutinize. After that, a hushed “Good Luck” was all that was said to me.

The following day, some eighteen hours of research later, I found my ancestor and his family on the ninth reel. I presently returned the ten spools to the same assistant who had first handed them to me the day before. With a somewhat ironic smile, she congratulated me on my tenacity and impishly enlightened me to the fact that that particular census would be fully indexed within a year or two! I abruptly recollected that my father had also told me that his Birmingham Dad had a very appealing, yet curiously dry sense of humour.

(Below, at the foot of my Great Great Grandfather Wilkins’ grave in Warstone Lane Cemetery in July of 1993)

BirminghamThomasWilkinsGrave1993I returned to the town on and off in the decades that followed but it was only in the year 2010 that I had yet another direct encounter with my folks’ Birmingham roots.

On that memorable occasion, I frequented a photography exhibit labeled ‘Birmingham Seen’. Held in the Museum and Art Gallery of Birmingham, the exposition gathered up a remarkable collection of vintage photos of the old jewellery – celebrated city. The pictures were displayed in the adjacent Council Hall and Gas Hall Building.

One print in particular caught my attention. From the ‘Slum Patching Scheme Collection’, it evocatively depicted, on a tiny inner city road called ‘William’, the dirt and grime of urban life in nineteenth century Birmingham.

I was staggered by the abject poverty the photo portrayed; then further astounded by my sudden realization that it was in fact the very street where my grandfather was born in 1874! In fact, it was quite conceivable that his family’s woeful shanty appeared before my very eyes.

I shared my discovery with the curator of the retrospective who was equally amazed by the odd coincidence. I later returned to Montreal keeping my Birmingham reflections about my ancestor’s origins very much to myself.

(Below, Court William Street, Birmingham, in the early 1900’s)

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Last autumn, Brum called yet again. This time my interest was piqued by the erection of a new mega-library to replace the one in which I had done all that microfilm reading a quarter of a century earlier. Ten storeys in total, the dazzling edifice will contain some 35,000 square metres of space, housing both an adult and children’s library along with many other diverse and very contemporary features.

As a struggling independent journalist, I thought that I might write an interesting piece comparing it to Montreal’s pristine, and equally large, Grande Bibliothèque.

Accordingly, I e-mailed the local authority overseeing the building of the innovative Library of Birmingham, requesting to visit the construction site. I identified myself simply as a freelance writer from Canada.

A few days later, I received a terse response to the effect that I should consider joining one of the several tours that had been scheduled for the general public for that very purpose. Unfortunately, however, none of their programmed days worked for me.

With both my late father and Birmingham granddad lingering deep in my musings, I politely persisted in requesting that I be accommodated.

As a result, on October 26 last, I was given a private tour of the erection site of the Library of Birmingham. To my utter amazement, the associate director of the London marketing company promoting the venture greeted me, along with a local city councillor, in addition to the operations director of the company putting up the massive edifice. I immediately sensed that all three were ineffectively attempting to work out exactly who I was and why they were obliging me!

There was, on the other hand, no turning back. For over an hour and a half, these three otherwise very busy individuals graciously escorted me on a visit of the rapidly advancing structure. Their misgivings about me were certainly well concealed, or at least I thought so.

Nevertheless, at the conclusion of the tour, I was courteously invited to return for the facility’s official opening this September 3. We then parted company, and I sensed their relief.

So that is the story of Birmingham and me. I don’t know whether I’ll return to explore the multi-purpose, flashy library, but I do know that my endless fascination with this enduring English city I gratefully owe to my father who, years ago, spoke of it habitually and proudly in my presence.

(Below, at the new Library of Birmingham on October 26, 2012)

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