Stoke as the home of the first health food: “Hovis” bread

The journal Nature: “6th October 1886, The Hovis bread brand dates from the patent granted on this date to Richard Smith, miller, of Stoke-on-Trent.”

“Be it known that I, RICHARD SMITH, a subject of the Queen of Great Britain, residing at Stoke-on-Trent, in the county of Stafford, England, have invented a certain new and Improved Treatment of the Wheat-Germ and Broken Wheat … The objects of this invention are to produce a wheat-flour having the nutritive qualities and nutty flavor of the wheat-germ without the danger of discoloration and rancidity usually incident to the presence of the germ of the wheat.” — from his slightly later U.S. patent of 1887.

In the early years of public sale his new healthy loaf was said to have been sold as “Smith’s Patent Germ Bread” or “Smith’s Old Patent Germ Bread” and the flour as “Smith’s Patent Germ Flour”, germ here referring to the inclusion of the nutritious wheatgerm that had previously been discarded. At that time there was a need to make brown bread enticing to the public in Britain, to improve the nation’s overall nutrition. This led to a Bread Reform League, which from 1881 championed the cause of brown bread over refined white bread, and called for nutritional/ingredient labelling of bread and other basic foods. It seems that brown bread was at that time associated with poverty and state-dependence. If they had money, people preferred to have refined white bread of the type eaten by the gentry and made with imported flour.

Picture: Heath Robinson’s version of the early years of Hovis production, from his Unconventional History of Hovis (1926).

Having proved his product in North Staffordshire, Smith secured funding and the services of the Fitton & Son flour mills in nearby Macclesfield. The patent flour for his loaf was in production there from October 1887, but the product was still sold with the old name. It was not until 1890 that the loaf was re-launched with a more enticing new name, “Hovis”, this being derived from the Latin for ‘strength of man’ (hominis vis). National distribution only seems to have begun in 1893…

“By an arrangement with its Proprietor and Inventor, Mr. Richard Smith, it was taken up by Messrs. Fitton & Son, and introduced on an extended scale in 1893, since which date “Hovis” Flour and Bread have become widely known, and the produce of Messrs Fitton & Son’s Mills is to be found in nearly every home.” — Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, 1898.

“Smith’s Patent Hovis Bread” proved to be reliably healthy and tasty, the British population was booming, and by 1895 over one million loaves were being sold every week. There were 1lb and 2lb loaves, alongside 8 oz. “junior” loaves and even tiny “penny” loaves. There was also a line of biscuits in the 1890s, made from Hovis flour by Scottish biscuit makers Middlemass.

“The name of Mr. Richard Smith is intimately associated with the first successful attempt to treat the germ on a commercial basis, and since the advent of his patents numerous other methods have been invented. Hovis Bread is manufactured from a special meal made by mixing one part of germ prepared according to Mr. Richard Smith’s process, with three parts of flour by weight, and adding sufficient salt to obviate the necessity of the baker adding the latter ingredient. The bread is highly nutritious, and when properly made, possesses a delicious flavour. It possesses aperient [promotes digestion] qualities, without the slightest danger of irritation, the cellulose being of a very fine nature and evenly distributed through the meal.” — Elementary Principles of Breadmaking, 1896.

The Hovis flour was made between stone millstones, rather then the metal iron rollers that made white flour on the continent. Presumably millstones were thus important to the “very fine” grinding of the cellulose, and my guess is that it was probably very handy that the best-quality millstones in Europe were to be quarried very near at hand at Mow Cop. His emphasis on the use of stone in the process may have been why Smith was popularly referred to as ‘Stoney’ Smith. Or it could have been because he was born into the trade, being the third-generation son of a water-mill based milling family of the town of Stone (a few miles south of Stoke along the River Trent). Smith was aged about 50, and evidently living in Stoke-on-Trent, when he perfected and patented the Hovis method.

Like Josiah Wedgwood before him — who invented many aspects of the modern factory and marketing system here in Stoke — Smith and his local partners similarly helped introduce the development of modern franchising and marketing in food retail. Such efforts helped Smith’s loaf reach many corners of the British Isles. There was no retail sale of flour bags to the public, but only sale to bakers who would then use it locally…

“Bakers wanting to produce Hovis bread had to buy stamped tins, paper bags and the flour from Messrs Fitton, who insisted that only bread made from their flour could be baked in the tins and sold as Hovis, an insistence they were always prepared to back with court actions. Its advantage for the baker was that he did not have to bother with advertising or publicity as that was all handled by the company.” — The Agrarian History of England and Wales, page 1089.

The baking tins were stamped “HOVIS” and the capital letter “H” at each end of each loaf, thus ensuring strong and persistent in-home branding even before the era of wrapped bread.

Sales were helped along by health claims, with Smith evidently roping local Stoke doctors into his advertising, the latter picture being 1894…

Smith also helped apply the new science of micro-photography to the wheat grain. Robert W. Dunham’s book The Structure of Wheat: Shown in a Series of Photo-micrographs (1892) states…

“I must not conclude this brief introduction without expressing my sincerest thanks to Mr. Richard Smith, the well known miller and inventor of Hovis bread, without whose aid this collection of photographs might never have been brought into existence”.

According to his gravestone Smith appears to have lived his last years in London where he died in 1900. There appears to be no photograph of him, and no obituary to be found online. But his Hovis Bread Flour, Limited company (est. 1898) survived his passing and by 1914 the famous brand was firmly established in the public mind, its lesser competitors vanquished. It made enough for 50 million loaves a year, and had manufactories in London, Manchester and South Africa.

So Hovis was born in Stoke-on-Trent. Not that you’d know it. The famous Hovis TV ad was filmed in Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, Dorset. Over the years the owners of the Hovis brand have obviously been assiduous in preventing the horrid name of Stoke-on-Trent from tarnishing the origin of the Hovis ‘brand story’. If Smith’s home place is mentioned at all, it’s just a vague “Staffordshire”.

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Charlotte S. Burne’s paper “What Folkore is, and how it is to be collected”

Folklorist Charlotte S. Burne’s paper “What Folkore is, and how it is to be collected” was published in North Staffordshire Naturalists’ Field Club, Annual Report and Transactions, 1896. She had lived at Eccleshall and been active with Miss Keary of Stoke in collecting local folklore, until Burne’s move to Cheltenham in 1894.

Items of note in her paper…

i) “Cricker” was a Wrekin word for the driver of a packhorse. Possibly one packhorse, rather than a team.

ii) “Aqualate Mere, a sheet of water on the Shropshire border of the county, nearly two hundred acres in extent, is said to be inhabited by a mermaid. On some occasion there was an idea of draining it, but the mermaid put her head out of the water and exclaimed:— “If this mere you do let dry, Newport and Meretown I will destroy,” and the plan was abandoned. A similar tradition attached, I believe, to the Black Mere near Leek, where the mermaid threatened to “destroy all Leek and Leek Frith” if her abode was disturbed.”

iii) Tradition at Bagot’s Park of an especially large… “Beggar’s Oak, beneath whose branches, so the popular belief has it, any wayfarer has the right to a night’s lodging. [seems to indicate] some prehistoric common right, disregarded at the time of the enclosure, but still existing in the popular imagination”.

I hadn’t heard that before from other sources. Presumably then, the various “Beggar’s Bush” pub names of the Midlands arise from this forgotten ‘sanctuary’ tradition, e.g. the pub on what is now the edge of Sutton Park and on the old Roman road?

iv) “while the agricultural hiring-time in North Staffordshire is Christmas, the potters’ ancient hiring-time is Martinmas.”

Martinmas is 11th November, which was also the Derbyshire farm hiring time in the 19th century. Perhaps this indicates that the majority of the early pottery workforce were drawn in from the countryside on the Derbyshire side of the Potteries?

v) The character of the men of the mid and north parts of the West Midlands, in general: “The racy humorous speech, the shrewd sense, the genial hospitable temper, are found everywhere.”

That rings true, although there’s a distinct strain of grumpiness running alongside that in some places.

When her paper was read at the Cheadle meeting of the N. Staffs Field Club in 1895, the vicar, the Rev. G. T. Ryves…

“mentioned that when he first came to Tean the ‘guisers’ were in full force, and that he had got together as much as possible of the text of the dialogue. On piecing the fragments together, he obtained an interesting play, which had undoubtedly been handed down by tradition and memory for hundreds of years.” [and the paper also provoked comment that a belief in witches was still alive and spoken about in the district…] “within the last four years he met with a young farmer who positively declared that he knew a man who had bewitched all the cattle on the farm in order to spite the dairymaid.”

Found: another local author, Mary Howitt

I’ve found another North Staffordshire book and author, My own Story, or the Autobiography of a Child (1845). The author Mary Howitt (1799-1888) was one of the top writers of the period. She grew up in Uttoxeter and the surrounding district. Her short book is very vivid and readable today, though sadly the chapter on “Town Customs” is short and notes only three of the Uttoxeter customs. One of these customs is, however, the town’s bull-baiting and a child’s view of it.

There is also her multi-volume Mary Howitt; an autobiography (1889) in which Chapter II is titled “Early Days at Uttoxeter”. After her marriage she and her equally literary-minded husband went to live in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, to take over a dispensing chemist shop of all things. This rather unlikely venture opens Chapter V, which also includes her eyewitness account of a lecture by the notorious Stoke preacher ‘Muley Moloch’ at his height. The couple lasted seven months in the quickly “despised” Hanley of 1821, before moving away and ending up in Nottingham (and then in the 1830s to Surrey, so as to be nearer the London publishers and magazines, then to London itself from 1843).

There is no survey-essay online, covering the whole of her vast output. But in the 1950s there was a joint biography Laurels & Rosemary: The Life of William and Mary Howitt (Oxford University Press, 1955), and a Kansas University Press volume Victorian Samplers: William and Mary Howitt (1952). Both are long out-of-print and not online.

I made a brief search-based examination of her output. This unearthed a range of interesting local material. For instance, the early joint poem The Desolation of Eyam (1827), which describes a deadly 17th century outbreak of the plague in the Peak District. Later Mary wrote at least one fairy poem set in the Staffordshire Moorlands…

  And where have you been, my Mary ?
  And where have you been from me ?
  I’ve been to the top of Cauldon Lowe,
  The midsummer night to see.

This is from “The Fairies of the Cauldon Low”, found in the collection Ballads and Other Poems (1847). I see that the book also has other faerie poetry such as “Isles of the Sea Fairies”, “The Voyage with the Nautilus”. These seem lively and well done, but the bulk of her poetry is Victorian and unpalatable today. Her book collections of poetry can certainly appear off-putting, padded with too many cloying Victorian ‘religious sentiment poems’ of the sort paid for by Annuals, and generally displaying the ornate thee-and-thou style of the time. One can understand why Howitt wasn’t much remembered for her mainstream poetry in the 1890s-1900s, the decades after her death. Her conversion to Catholicism in old-age (1883), complete with a move of residence to Rome, probably didn’t help her reputation to survive.

But note that Ballads and Other Poems has an interestingly macabre backwoods poem “The Tale of the Woods”. Possibly there are more such poems to be found in her output. She does appear to have had quite a taste for the macabre, despite her staunch religious beliefs. For instance she was the author of the classic macabre poem “The Spider and the Fly” (1828), for which she is still remembered today and which is still the subject of adaptation and illustration. She was also the first English translator of Hans Christian Andersen stories (Wonderful Stories for Children, 1846), apparently done on the basis of her having already translated at least one of his novels. The story collection was followed a year later by her translation of Andersen’s The True Story of My Life (1847), and Hans Andersen’s Story Book: With a Memoir (1853). Her first book of Andersen stories was done in a slightly toned-down form, acceptable to an English publisher and his purchasing public and reviewers. Only one of the stories in Wonderful Stories for Children is said to have actually had its plot slightly tweaked (so that storks did not deliver dead new-born babies to doorsteps). It appears that a certain continental Andersen scholar was later made apoplectic, on discovering zis sacrilege by ze philistine English, and in the 1950s he effectively destroyed her reputation as a translator by finding about 40 errors. Her translations may have been a little stiff compared to the originals, but how else could she have seen Andersen published and read by children in England and America during the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign? Howitt also translated many volumes of the work of Frederika Bremer, and also Icelandic sagas and Swedish folk-songs (see The Literature and Romance of Northern Europe, 1852).

Her attempt at publishing a paid journal-magazine Howitt’s journal of literature and popular progress lasted only two years, perhaps marred by an attempt to blend politics (pro Free Trade, anti the Death Penalty, apparently) with literary work and sketches. But even a cursory glance at it reveals an evident tendency to the macabre. For instance, Howitt’s journal published three tales which were later included in the modern Penguin Classics collection Gothic Tales. These were by Howitt’s friend “Cotton Mather Mills”, a pseudonym for Elizabeth Gaskell. Howitt had first met Gaskell on an 1841 tour of the Rhineland, where she is said to have aroused Elizabeth to an abiding interest in the macabre by telling her terrifying night-time stories — thus setting Gaskell on the path to writing such stories herself. Gaskell’s first gothic stories were published in Howitt’s journal. The journal also published Eliza Meteyard, another author who appears to have had a connection to the Staffordshire/Derbyshire Peak (see Dora and her Papa).

As if to confirm Howitt’s interest in the macabre, a few years later she and her husband — by now a veritable ‘writing-machine’ duo — also popped out a hefty two-volume translation from the German of The History of Magic (1851)…

Note that Mary has taken the opportunity to compile a new survey of true-life accounts of such things, which at that time must have taken quite some doing in terms of reading and research. She was in London at that time, so presumably had the British Library available for use. This interest paralleled… “the temporary immersion of both of them in the fashionable practice of mesmerism [hypnotism] and spiritualism of the eighteen fifties” (from a review of Laurels & Rosemary: The Life of William and Mary Howitt, 1955). Obviously her previously staunch Quaker beliefs didn’t preclude an interest in insidiously genteel cults like spiritualism.

But, returning to her early years, I see that Staffordshire was the setting for her breakthrough adult book Wood Leighton: A Year in the Country (1836). Specifically, it is set in the once-vast Needwood Forest and the adjacent town of Uttoxeter. Her early poem “May Fair”, a vivid account of the May Fair day at Uttoxeter (“And these will go to see the Dwarf, and those the Giant yonder”) here gains a companion rendering in prose. As a child Mary had been familiar with the surviving parts of the ancient Forest. For instance her book Tales in Prose contains a section giving a number of more or less fantastical “Anecdotes” from her childhood — including one where she is in Needwood Forest…

“What a horror now fell upon us! The glade was like an enchanted forest: all at once the trees seemed to swell out to the most gigantic and appalling size ; every twisted root seemed a writhing snake, and every old wreathed branch a down-bending adder ready to devour us. The holly thickets seemed full of an increasing blackness, which, like a dreadful dream, appeared growing upon our imagination till it was too horrible to be borne. We felt as if hemmed in by a mighty wilderness of gloom that cut us off from our kindred…”

A North Staffordshire Field Club excursion report of 1896 suggests that her successful The steadfast Gabriel: a tale of Wichnor Wood (1848) was also set locally, but possibly the author was mis-remembering after a period of some 40 years. Because a 1965 survey book of Nineteenth Century Children: Heroes and Heroines claims her book was set in the Forest of Dean, noting that coal mining occurs within the forest. Yet the 1965 author was making a broad survey of thousands of books and thus might have been misled as to the setting. The steadfast Gabriel was a well-reviewed ‘woodland life’ book for children in middle-childhood and was said to be part of the “William and Robert Chambers’ series of ‘novels for the people'”. On the location, I would be inclined more to trust a member of the North Staffordshire Field Club. It is however difficult to confirm that Wichnor Wood does/doesn’t = Needwood Forest, because it’s not freely available online. Only Hathi has it, and even there it’s locked down. There’s almost no mention of it her Autobiography, only a mention that it was written to order for the Chambers series. Perhaps it was effectively a children’s version/re-write of her earlier three-volume Wood Leighton?

Howitt’s Autobiography notes that her child-self delighted in places like Chartley… “It and its surroundings were all wonderfully weird and hoary”. Chartley was an enclosure of the ancient Needwood. She would later produce with her husband a sumptuously illustrated book of similarly “weird and hoary” places, the Ruined Abbeys and Castles of Great Britain (1862), though sadly none of the places chosen were local to the Midlands. A publisher appears to have heavily shaped this book, including the bizarre addition of the antiquated long-s throughout the text. One has to assume that the Howitts had little control here, since the Midlands counties are curiously and effectively erased from the book. Still, its presence in her output again suggests Mary’s interest in such gothic places and their lore.

Howitt did however write at least one remarkably vivid topographical / autobiographical article of local interest, beyond recalling her childhood in autobiography…

“… articles from Mrs Howitt’s pen appeared in the Eclectic Review, 1859, called “Sun Pictures”, a delightful account of a journey [three nights, on foot] through this country [into the high Moorlands], and giving a charming description of Alton, Ipstones, and the district. I remember the landlord of the Inn at Ipstones was very indignant at his portrayal, and breathed out threatenings and slaughter at the author of what everybody but himself thought a life-like picture.” (N. Staffs Field Club Trans., 1896)

I’ve extracted and compiled the “Sun Pictures” (1859) in PDF (100Mb), as it seems to have been totally forgotten. It’s well worth reading, and although it is certainly “charming” in a great many places, the charm is deliciously and seamlessly counterpointed by her obvious taste for the macabre — depicting things like encountering a creepy changeling boy on a railway platform, lovingly describing many grotesque and curious personalities, encountering gypsies carrying a strange mis-shapen woman in their sideshow caravan, and recounting a gruesome olde time murder in the wind-swept Moorlands. “Sun Pictures” has its share of dark among the light. It’s out of copyright and would make a fine graphic novel or even an Under Milk Wood style audio drama/reading.

Most of the real names in “Sun Pictures” are omitted or obfuscated under fictional names. She and her daughter appear to have first taken the train from Alton to Biddulph. The ornamental gardens and organ player are obviously at Biddulph Grange, though the place is not named. Then they took the train from Biddulph to Cheddleton or perhaps Leek; then walked up into the hills. After that presumably Waystones = Ipstones, Rams = Foxt; Foxholes = Swineholes; High Stone Edge = the Ipstone Edge; Wyver = Cauldon; then a walk across Wyver Lowe = Cauldon Lowe; across the unnamed Weaver Hills (“to the west … lie the great quarries”); Welstone = Ellastone; Sturton = Alton; they end the journey by entering The Dale = Rakes Dale adjacent to Alton Castle, and they arrive at their summer home base at what may have been the small village of Hansley Cross which is adjacent to Alton. Thornborough Hall may = Alton Towers or perhaps even the Castle, and terming it a “farm-house” may be some jest by the author or some allusion to a common local jest.


Further reading:

Quaker to Catholic: Mary Howitt, Lost Author of the 19th Century, 2010. By a local author, who lives in Uttoxeter.

“The ‘Airy Envelope of the Spirit’: Empirical Eschatology, Astral Bodies and the Spiritualism of the Howitt Circle”, Intellectual History Review, 2008.

Laurels & Rosemary: The Life of William and Mary Howitt, Oxford University Press, 1955.

Victorian Samplers: William and Mary Howitt, University of Kansas Press, 1952.

Her letters are at The University of Nottingham’s Department of Manuscripts and Special Collections, having been purchased in the 1990s. They also hold an East Midlands Collection which has many examples of the Howitt books.


A suggested contents list for a new locally-oriented print-on-demand/ebook anthology of her work…

* A new introductory essay.

* Selections from My own Story, or the Autobiography of a Child (1845).

* Selections from Mary Howitt; an autobiography (1889): Chapter II “Early Days at Uttoxeter”, the Stoke-on-Trent part of Chapter V, and other local passages.

* “The Desolation of Eyam” (1827) – a deadly 17th century outbreak of the plague in the Peak District.

* “The Fairies of the Cauldon Low”.

* “May Fair” (long poem on the Uttoxeter May Fair).

* The relevant “Anecdotes” from Tales in Prose.

* Extracts from Wood Leighton: A Year in the Country (1836), set in Needwood Forest and Uttoxeter.

* Woodland scene extracts from The steadfast Gabriel, probably reflecting her early experience of Needwood Forest.

* Any local items from the run of her magazine Howitt’s journal of literature and popular progress.

* “The Spider and the Fly” (1828).

* “Sun Pictures” (1859) with annotation.

* Extracts from her letters, re: North Staffordshire, Uttoxeter and Stoke.

And any other newly-discovered locally interesting material from her vast output.

The train station at Longport

A view of the train station at Longport, where my novel The Spyders of Burslem opens. The Bradwell Woods (“Burgweard Woods” in the novel) are just visible in the distance. Probably 1920s, whereas my novel imagines it more than 50 years earlier.

Now there are two Tolkien biopic movies

Interestingly, there now appear to be two Tolkien biopic movies in the works.

1. The first is from Fox Searchlight Pictures and focusses on the Tea Club and Barrovian Society friendships in Birmingham, and the impact of the First World War on these. Filming has reportedly just wrapped on this.

2. The above report also mentions…

“another Tolkien life story is in development at New Line Cinema [makers of the LOTR movies] with director James Strong. This movie will focus on the courtship and marriage between Tolkien and Edith Bratt.”

I think the latter was the one I’d already heard about. It’ll be interesting to see if either actually film(ed) in the Midlands — Birmingham and mid/north Staffordshire — and at Exeter College in Oxford. Or if they have been compelled to film in Ireland or Eastern Europe, due to subsidies and quotas.

Admittedly there’s not much architectural coherence left of the ‘old pre-1914 Birmingham’ around the site of Tolkien’s New St. school, though the city centre still retains a few moments of ground-level charm: the Waterstones bookshop; the northern part of Corporation Street around the Law Courts, the Cathedral (though its grounds have changed, judging by an Edwardian postcard I saw); the BM&AG museum. I’ve always assumed that the young Tolkien often nipped around the corner to this local museum, to see the world-class Pre-Raphaelite collection there. The Museum would probably be the easiest place to close off and secure for a day’s filming, I’d guess. Though the hire and “show the pictures on the big screen” costs would probably be prohibitive.

The film which has just finished its main filming seems likely to be set for a late 2018 release. New Line Cinema presumably won’t want to confuse audiences by releasing two such films simultaneously, so I’d guess their film might be a summer 2019 movie.


Much of Birmingham was destroyed in the 1960s and 70s by cars and by socialist-brutalist so-called ‘planners’. Today the best three-hour circular stroll from New St. station, keeping to the most interesting Victorian and Edwardian bits, would be: Exit Birmingham New St. station by the Stephenson Street entrance, and turn right. Cross over the road and walk through the Burlington Arcade to reach New St. Turn left, and visit the Waterstones bookshop. Exit Waterstones and turn left up New Street, and then cut up Needless Alley (for a faint taste of the old dark ‘n grungy Birmingham, though it was sadly half-heartedly gentrified in the late 1980s) to Temple Row and the Cathedral. From the Cathedral walk up Colmore Row, then cut down to the top of Edmund St. and then around to the Museum (BM&AG) for the Pre-Raphaelite and Burne Jones collections. On exiting the Museum, turn left and then swing hard around the corner along the front of the Council House, and then strike off down Waterloo St. Then down Bennett’s Hill to return to New St. Half way down New St., turn right into Lower Temple St. to return to the train station via the Stephenson Street entrance.

This is roughly how Tolkien might have navigated on foot or bicycle from school — up to museum — over to the CoE Cathedral (for the surrounding grounds and benches — it would have been a pleasant stop on the way to walk over from his school toward the Catholic Cathedral, or for some fresh air after a feast at the long-lost Barrows’ Stores tea-rooms nearby on Corporation Street).

The site of his old school on New Street isn’t passed by the above walking route, as it was in the lower part of New St. and it’s now long-gone. The site is just not worth seeing today, and Tolkien called its desecrated site “ghastly”. It still is, despite recent changes.

Waterstones on New Street is probably as close as you’ll get today in flavour to the old Tolkien favourite of the Cornish Brothers (“Cornish’s”) bookshop on New Street, where he “explored for books on Philology” (Reader’s Guide). Cornish’s was at 37 New St. This is currently the Muji store, but was formerly gent’s outfitters Austin Reed — in which I briefly worked once! So I know that the place has an extensive basement where Austin Reed’s junior sizes were kept/displayed, and which I’d like to think was where Tolkien’s favourite Philology section might once have been consigned. 37 New St. is between today’s Waterstones and the entrance to Needless Alley (see postcard below). Sadly Cornish’s was not the bookshop where Tolkien so fatefully encountered his Gothic grammar book. But it may have been where the book came from. The Gothic book had been purchased in error by a schoolmate who thought it might help him with his Bible studies, circa 1908-09. It didn’t help, and thus Tolkien — realising what it was — took the book off his hands for a very modest sum.

I’m unaware of the former locations of any other city-centre second-hand bookshops he might have frequented in the city centre, though they would likely have been in backstreet places near to Cornish’s such as Needless Alley, or in places now totally swept away. In the 1960s and 70s Needless Alley certainly had a large second-hand record shop, a second-hand bookshop, and a stamp collector shop.


Looking west up New St., probably 1930s. The Midland Hotel (now Waterstones bookshop) on the left with the green iron canopy. Opposite, Austin Reed is where “Cornish’s” bookshop was. Follow the sight-line of the Austin Reed sign along the shopfronts a little, to glimpse the oblong street-sign plaque indicating Needless Alley. Postcard newly colorised.

If you’re especially interested in Tolkien’s early religious observance and you have another 90 minutes to spare, then the above walking route can be extended from the CoE Cathedral via Colmore Row and Weaman St. to reach the Catholic Cathedral. I don’t know of any hard evidence that he often frequented the Catholic Cathedral, but it was the church of the fathers at the Oratory. As such it seems impossible to imagine he never, over nearly a decade, accompanied the fathers there to take part in major events such as Easter and Christmas. I have found one mention that he “served Mass daily” as a boy in Birmingham, but that was perhaps at the Oratory.

Apparently the less grand church of Saint Anne in Digbeth, to the south of the city centre was his initial church from 1900 — the Chronology has: “St Anne’s Church, which Tolkien, his mother, and his brother attended for a while”. It was on the four-mile walking route home to Moseley from the city centre (in 1900 he couldn’t afford a tram fare, though he later bicycled everywhere), and then appears to have served a mostly Birmingham-Irish population. But today Saint Anne’s exterior and unsavoury neighbourhood have little to recommend them, and it’s a long and tedious walk from the city centre. It may be worth visiting by taxi if you can arrange an interior viewing, however. About a year or so later the family moved to Kings Heath and started to frequent the nearby and very humble Roman Catholic church of St. Dunstan, “then a building of wood and corrugated iron on the corner of Westfield Road and Station Road” (Reader’s Guide).

Then there was another house move and it seems the Oratory became their church for several years circa 1902-04. The Oratory appears to have remained his church, on and off, while he was living at various lodgings nearby during 1905-1911. Today seeing the Birmingham Oratory on foot involves a trek up the hideous Broad Street and from the city centre, and then way out beyond Five Ways on the Hagley Road. As such it’s not walk-able from the city centre, unless you can stand having heavy dual-carriageway traffic in your ears and lungs all the way. Nor is it reachable on foot along the canal towpaths, even if these were safe to walk once you get outside the city centre. However, if you’re there, note that he lived almost within sight of the Oratory at 4 Highfield Road, Edgbaston, from 1909-11 — at which location Google Street View shows this evocatively tree-ish ruin and gate today…

Further reading:

* The J.R.R. Tolkien Reader’s Guide, “Birmingham and its Environs”.

* “Tolkien’s Birmingham”. A 42-page spiral bound pamphlet from 1992, long out of print.

* Robert S. Blackham, “Tolkien’s Birmingham”, Mallorn 45 (Spring 2008).

Tolkien Studies #14 (2017)

The new edition of the leading journal Tolkien Studies (Volume 14, 2017) appears to be available now at Project MUSE. Not that I’d be able to tell, as it’s pay-walled there. Scholars outside academia and outside the USA have to pony up $70 for a paperback version. $70!

Why is there no ebook version, on Amazon? The editors might be able to make more profit that way, according to my back-of-the-envelope sums. Let’s say they sell 1,000 copies of the $50-$70 paperback and make $38 a copy after printing and overheads. That’s $38,000 profit in maybe 18 months of sales. Let’s say that West Virginia University Press takes a 35% publisher’s cut, thus leaving the editors with about $25k per issue.

But if there was an $8.95 Amazon-delivered ebook giving $6 profit per book, after Amazon’s modest cut, and it sold 5,000 copies (because it was on Amazon, and so cheap and accessible in digital form) then that would give $30k profit in 18 months or so.

Anyway…. the highlights of the issue, for those not interested in the invented languages, are:

* The Mystical Philology of J.R.R. Tolkien and Sir Israel Gollancz: Monsters and Critics. (Update: found in Open Access)
* Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer. [Update: found a summary on the author’s blog]
* The Year’s Work in Tolkien Studies 2014. (The usual lengthy and authoritative survey review)

Project MUSE does at least have the first page of each of these, for free.