A landscape image showing a hand in the middle holding a piece of paper with the words 'Herstory of Birmingham '. To the left of the paper is cherry blossom, pink against metal grey bars. And to the right of the paper is a green bush, canal towpath and canal water. In the distance is a arched bridge. It is a blue sky day.

International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day

In this special #InternationalWomensDay blog post, we revisit our Herstory of Birmingham zine, and share a new research discovery about a female woodturner who worked a few doors down from the Roundhouse.

We have to look a little bit closer to find the histories of women who played a part in industrial Birmingham, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. In 2021, four young curators (Nathan, Avi, Harry, and Beth) created a ‘Herstory of Birmingham’ zine, inspired in part by the forgotten stories of female lamplighters. This collaboration between Roundhouse Birmingham and local cultural organisation We Don’t Settle was shortlisted for ‘Partnership of the Year’ at the 2021 Museum and Heritage Awards.

We don’t know for sure how many women were employed to light public gas-lamps, but there were enough for the Mayor of Chester to call for ‘kindness’ and ‘consideration’ towards them in 1915. This was because they faced greater safety risks when working alone at night than their male counterparts.

Back in 1890, Grindle & Co asked specifically for ‘women used to finishing’ to produce Carriage Lamps. This company appears on the Trade Directories for Corporation Wharf, the side that included the Roundhouse and surrounding buildings on Sheepcote St.

An image reading: 'Carriage Lamps - women used to finishing wanted - R. Grindle and Co., Sheepcote Street.'

Caption: Birmingham Mail, 3 May 1890

The Herstory of Birmingham zine shares stories like these alongside poetry, illustrations and news about Brummie women, past and present. You can pick up a free copy in our Visitor Centre during March.

Another hidden history we’ve dug up this #InternationalWomensDay relates to a female woodturner working at Brook’s Mill, the sawing mill that stood on the west side of Sheepcote Street from 1886.

The Roundhouse was not the only industrial building on Sheepcote Street in the late nineteenth century: picture a busy, noisy hive of wharves, factories and beer houses packed in amongst homes, with timber merchants, boat-builders and stable-workers roaming.

On our street, ‘Mrs Jane Gee, woodturner’ is listed at Brook’s Mill in Kelly’s 1884 Trade Directory of Birmingham. Woodturning is a form of woodworking using hand-held tools and a wood lathe, to create objects like table legs. During the Arts and Crafts movement of the late nineteenth century, many women approached woodworking in formal education for the first time.

In fact, there is evidence of significant female interest in wood crafts, due to an anonymous pamphlet published in 1842 by a Miss Gascoigne, ‘The Handbook of Turning’. Even while hiding her name from publication, Gascoigne proudly advocates for female woodturners, writing: ‘why should not our fair countrywomen participate in this amusement? … the taper fingers of the fair sex are far better suited than a man’s heavier hand’.

The record of Mrs Jane Gee is interesting, emphasising her married status. While it is true that some women are recorded in Trade Directories with the profession of their husband, historian Richard Vinen has argued that Birmingham was unique as women were often employed in separate industries, creating more economic stability within a household.

Unfortunately, we know very little about the place that Jane Gee worked, Brook’s Mill, except that it was run by John Pearsall, a brassfounder, who filed for bankruptcy in 1881. It was next door to Sykes Timber, an 1862 company that supplied spokes for the wheels of horse-drawn carts, and so may have served the horses stabled here at the Roundhouse! This business employed a small number of women and is still trading to this day, now based in Warwickshire.

A landscape image showing a map of the local Birmingham area.
Caption: 1888 Deed Map of Sheepcote St. The ‘Saw Mill’ is probably Brook’s Mill, with Sykes in the Timber Yard next door, and the Roundhouse is the circular ‘Corporation Wharf’ site.

So, the Jane Gee listing is not an anomaly. Other female woodturners are listed in the local area in 1875, and in other industries of the time like steel pen-making, women outnumbered men 8:2.

Today, with a majority female team of staff, and our passionate volunteers, we strive to uncover new details about the key figures who lived and worked in the area. Pop into our Visitor Centre to delve into our history yourself, and pick up a free copy of the Herstory of Birmingham zine, available throughout March.




Richard Vinen, Second City: Birmingham and the Forging of Modern Britain (2023, Penguin)

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