Perspective: Historic gateway to an exciting new world.
A rather unusual shop opened on Corporation Street back in October 1906. The goods on display could not be bought, though window-shopping was invited nonetheless. And the items displayed -corn and bread, fruit and flowers -were designed less to encourage shoppers to pay more regular visits to Corporation Street than to take leave of Birmingham altogether.
The shop was owned by the Canadian Government Regional Emigration Bureau. Its long-term mission was to lure unsuspecting Brummies from a life a urban overcrowdedness to the wide-open prairies and chilly winters across the Atlantic.
Between 1900 and the First World War something like 2.5 million emigrants left Britain for a new life in what were then called 'the Colonies'. Canada had always been the country of choice. Whereas Great Britain was over-stocked and over-industrialised, Canada offered an opportunity to return to the rural idyll and (coincidentally) to provide cheap agricultural produce for the imperial market. All the equation needed was people.
By the 1890s emigration to Canada had been the responsibility of the Canadian Minister of the Interior, who had agents in various British cities. In Birmingham the first agent (appointed in 1892) was Ernest Jameson Wood from Manitoba. Wood's job was to promote the joys of Canada to those who knew little of its many charms. He was the son of a Staffordshire rector -from Grindon -who had emigrated in 1882, so he clearly knew what he was talking about. Mr Wood took furnished rooms, first at 79 Hagley Road, and then at 78 Beaufort Road in September 1894, and he covered a wide area of the western Midlands.
Wood promoted emigration chiefly by lectures funded by the various shipping companies: he gave no less than 68 lectures in a six-month period from November 1893 to April 1894, illustrated by limelight views. Although he concentrated his lectures on agricultural areas, reflecting the kind of emigrant Canada wanted, the richest pickings were to be had in the urban areas. Josiah Brame, a Birmingham shipping agent, reported to Wood that after his appointment bookings had been almost 40 per cent up on the previous year.
Wood was especially keen to recruit those with capital, and to this end he delivered lectures in the grammar and public schools of the area. His appointment lasted until 1897, after which he trained as a clergyman at Lichfield Theological College.
A new Midlands office (covering the ten west and east Midland counties) was established in October 1902 at Newton Chambers, 43 Cannon Street, to counter the dominance of the US in emigration. The new agent was George Henry Mitchell. But the office at Cannon Street was on an upper floor and in a back street. Canada wanted an attractive street front 'so that the qualities and characteristics of Canada should be readily advertised.'
Thus it was that in 1906 the office moved to 139 Corporation Street, with a rich display of Canadian produce in the window. Mitchell too gave lectures, as well as commissioning other lecturers (now equipped with superior lantern slides) and distributing promotional literature to libraries and institutes. In 1908-9 a total of 9,500 atlases and 400 wall maps of Canada were sent to schools.
In addition pamphlets were sent to every local farmer and market-gardener. Behind him Mitchell had an army of shipping agents - 212 in the Birmingham district alone -who were ready and willing to supply the tickets for that great and exciting leap into the unknown, and a new life on the far side of the Atlantic.
If you received Christmas cards from Ken and Edith in Vancouver back in December, then the shop at 139 Corporation Street may well be the reason.
Dr Chris Upton is not planning to emigrate from his job as Senior Lecturer in History at Newman College of Higher Education in Birmingham.