Sunday, 4 October 2015

Britain's Birmingham is no longer a city for and says "Farewell" to the scarce old, custodian of its history, Chris Upton

'The days when Britain dominated the world in manufacturing and Birmingham sat at the top of the industrial tree have sadly departed, although the back streets of Digbeth still ring reassuringly to the sound of hammers and fizz with acetylene torches.'

In 2008 Chris, who has died at the age of 62, introduced himself as the President of the Birmingham National Trust Association with : 'Having lived and worked in Birmingham for 27 years, I have watched as history and heritage have become ever more important and prominent in our City and in the wider West Midlands. The National Trust and its membership are in the vanguard of this growing appreciation.'

What you possibly didn't know about Chris, that he :

* was born in Wellington, Shropshire in 1953, brought up and educated in Wolverhampton at the Boys' Grammar and after studying for his BA in Classics and English at Kings College, Cambridge and then MA, was admitted as a research student and PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland at the age of 24 in 1977 and having completed his research in 1980, moved to Birmingham, at first as a research assistant at Aston University, then in a post in the 'Archives and Heritage' Section of Birmingham Central Library (right) and continued to retain his enthusiasm for primary sources throughout his career : "I’m always more excited by a new piece of primary evidence, dug out of the archives, than a new historical theory developed by a current historian and it helps to provide an answer to that age-old historical question: ‘what was it like ?’"

* in 1982 published, with his wife, Fiona Tait, 500 copies of  'The Steganographia of Trithemius' an influential occult text written in the late 1400s, a book both for the conjuration of spirits and a code book with lists of spiritual messengers associated with the divisions of space and time which circulated secretly in manuscript form during the 16th century and was highly valued by Elizabethan astrologer, John Dee.

* at the age of 31 in 1984, successfully submitted his doctorate, 'Studies in Scottish Latin', in which he chronicled the 16th and 17th century endeavours of one, 'John Scot of Scotstarvet (right) to compile an anthology of Latin poetry' the 'Delitiae Poetarum Scotorum' which was 'arguably the largest anthology of verse produced by the Renaissance in England or Scotland' in which he thanked 'My wife, Fiona Tate' who had 'assisted substantially in my analysis of the Dundas Papers and also knows more about the St. Leonard's College Orators' Book than anyone'.

* moved from the Archives to an undergraduate teaching post, first at Aston University and then as Lecturer in History at Newman University College Birmingham and finally as Reader in Public History and at the same time moved the focus of his history study away from obscure medieval and Renaissance manuscripts to the history of the West Midlands in general and Birmingham in particular, while at the same time keeping his feet in the archives, writing in 2000 that 'for a city that feels as modern as Birmingham does, it’s always comforting for a historian to know that we have 1,000 years of documentary history to look back on. Indeed, it’s as well that we do have the documents since the city planners have done their best over the years to erase anything more substantial.'

* produced his first 'Tolkien Trail' in 1996 : "My name is Chris Upton I'm a historian and interested in the literary connections of Birmingham and this is a perfect spot for them. We're in Plough and Harrow Road alongside the hotel, an area very important to Tolkien's life. The night before Tolkien went off to the First World War he stayed for his honeymoon in the Plough and Harrow Hotel next to us. So this part of Ladywood, was very important to Tolkien and for the rest of his life and certainly when he was writing his books we've got the Two Towers that were the inspiration for the second volume of 'Lord of the Rings' and you can see the two towers in front of us. Perrott's Folly, the 18th century one and then the more elaborate tower of Edgbaston Waterworks behind it."

* in 2000, at the age of 47, described the history of the city he had adopted and loved and its Norman transformation from a 'little Saxon backwater into a more than decent trading outpost. Once the new owners - most of them called William and all of them De Birminghams - had hit upon the idea of converting their personal estate into a market town, then the growth of Birmingham was pretty well assured' through to its rise as an industrial city : 'Close enough to the coal seams of South Staffordshire and to the timber of North Warwickshire and near enough to the hills of Wales and Shropshire where the sheep and cattle grazed, Birmingham had what every estate agent craves: location, location, location.'

* in 2008, with a sense of fun, explained the genesis of the James Roberts design for the City's 20th century Rotunda : "James Roberts is sitting trying to think of a building which will fit between the Bull Ring and the bottom of New Street on a very odd shaped site ..."

* published 'Living Back to Back' in 2010 in which he took the survival from demolition of 'Court 15' in Birmingham as his starting point and, with a mixture of documentary evidence and oral history, told the story of those who lived there from the glass eye maker to the Jewish watch-maker from Poland, through the boom years of Victorian expansion to the Hungry Thirties while answering questions like :  'What was it like to live in a house with one bedroom and no running water?' and 'How did eleven families share two toilets?' while placing the story firmly in the context of  the development of urban housing.

* at the age of 57 in 2011 published his 'tour de force', 'A History of Birmingham'and traced its rise from a village worth one pound in the Domesday Survey, to the 'the toy shop of Europe' in 1800, having cornered the markets for gun-making, jewellery, buttons and buckles and then became the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution, selling its wares in vast quantities to the entire world and in the process, pioneered political, educational and municipal government reform, a story which involved Boulton and Watt, Dunlop, Cadbury's, G.K.N., Lloyd's Bank, Austin Rover, Joseph and Neville Chamberlain, Thomas the Tank Engine, Fu Manchu and Mendelssohn's 'Elijah'.

* in the same year, captivated a group of Year 5 an 6 pupils at Paganel Primary School with his illustrated talk on five 'Local Heroes' and explanation of George Elkington's electroplating process as : "It was the way to get something which was very, very expensive, but didn't cost very much, ornaments, things to put on your table to impress people who'd come to see you or on you mantle piece and the way it works, and I only know a bit about it because I'm a historian and not a scientist...."

* was appointed as 'Historical Consultant' for the six-part period tv drama, 'Peaky Blinders', set in Birmingham at the start of the 1920s and worked with the production team, writers and actors to ensure historical accuracy and commented : "It was a real honour to work on the series. Period dramas, such as Peaky Blinders, entertain and inform members of public, shining a light on periods of history that may have been forgotten. While the series itself isn’t based on a true story, the types of events, times and environment in which the drama takes place are real so we wanted to portray these aspects as accurately as possible."

* also said : "I was particularly keen to ensure that the actors’ accents were as accurate as possible and not confused with Black Country accents' and 'provided the cast with tapes of oral history interviews carried out by Newman students with local people who were alive at the time the series is set. That way they could hear how local people would really have spoken and base their accents on real people. Several of the characters in the series are significantly affected by the trauma of their experiences in the Great War and, by listening to the first-hand accounts of local people who shared those experiences, the actors were able to gain a greater understanding of the issues and challenges those characters faced when returning to so-called ‘normal life’ in the city after the War."

* while conducting his 'Gangs of Digbeth Tour' in the City, explained the origin of the name, 'Peaky Blinders' as : "The one we use in the film, that they got three razor blades sown into the peaks of their caps and if you crossed them, they could whip it across you face. The other is that it was simply, they wore these peaked caps that partly obscured them, so that they, as it were, blinded themselves or that they had a peaked cap but also a fringe of hair which also partly obscured what they could see."

* went on the explain that the "illegal activity of choice in the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth" was gambling on horses and "there was a group called the Brummagen Boys who pretty well ran the courses in the Midlands and the North.Their leader was Billy Kimber. In the early twentieth century they tried to move in on the London and Southern courses where they hit the Sabini Gang of former Italian immigrants who were controlling the betting courses in the London area and the 'Battle of Kings Cross' took place in which Billy Kimber was shot and of course its carried on ever since with the Futrels and the Krays and all the rest. But that's a bit too close for comfort though I'm sure 'they were all lovely people'."

* continued to contribute his weekly history for column the 'Birmingham Post' and in 2014 contributed to The Library of Birmingham's 'Those were the Decades : 1960's' event by exploring material from the archives for evidence of Birmingham’s counterculture in the 1960s and in June this summer hosted ‘Festival of Voices' in which an audience of over 200 at the Town Hall enjoyed an evening where the 19th century was brought back to life with music, drama, history, school children’s singing and circus skills with support from the Birmingham Cathedral Choir.

* last month contributed an article in the Guardian entitled : 'Diversity and dedication: the secret of Birmingham's success' in which he explained : 'Urban expansion has always relied on inward migration. To begin with, new blood came from Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. By the 19th century, migrants headed here from Eastern Europe, Russia and Italy. The 20th century flung that net even wider. In one Birmingham secondary school, George Dixon Academy, the pupils speak more than 40 languages. “You enter the school gates,” says one teacher, “and you step inside the rest of the world” and  'Whatever their background, Brummies have got their priorities in the right order: acknowledging their heritage while keeping their roots and their dancing boots in Birmingham, a city that has always welcomed diversity'.

* was looking forward to the publication of 'Joseph Chamberlain. International Statesman, National Leader, Local Icon' in 2016, the fruit of joint editorship with Ian Cawood, in which they deal with his career in the 1800 and 1900s as an international statesman, a national leader and, not unsurprisingly, the aspect for which he is still celebrated in his adopted Birmingham : as the dispenser of sanitation, gas lighting, clean water and cultural achievement providing a model of civic regeneration which has continued to inspire modern politicians.

* was, in his passing, paid tribute by 'Birmingham Post' Features Editor Sarah Probert :
“He was a first class columnist with an enormous sense of humour who had a real passion for his subject.”

and News Editor Ben Hurst :
 “What Chris didn’t know about the City’s past wasn’t worth knowing.”

* when once asked : "What history should be taught in school ?" had answered in true Brummie, civic tradition :

"I would stress, as you’d expect, the importance of local history and the local environment, in school history. I end up covering it with first year undergraduates instead and I think it makes them better citizens, as well as better historians."

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