Birmingham 2022: Meet the Commonwealth families who made the city their home

Thousands of people who moved to Birmingham from across the Commonwealth, are to go on display in a major exhibition - and there’s a Coronation Street connection

<p>The families from across the Commonwealth who made Birmingham their home </p>

The families from across the Commonwealth who made Birmingham their home

Fascinating photographs spanning four decades, featuring of some of the thousands of people who moved to Birmingham from across the Commonwealth, are to go on display in a major exhibition.

The Dyche Collection is a ‘hidden treasure’ of more than 10,000 pictures in the Library of Birmingham archives. They were donated after the deaths of Ernest Dyche and his son Malcolm, who ran a photographic studio at 354 Moseley Road in Balsall Heath.

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The pictures are single shots, couples, families and groups, captured from the 1940s to the 1980s. Many of the immigrants from the Caribbean, Ireland and Indian sub-continent wanted to record their new lives, buying prints to keep and to send to family left behind to show they were doing well.

Dyche collection reproduced by the permission Library of Birmingham ahead of Commonwealth Games exhibition

Sitters were dressed in their finest clothes, from hats to kipper ties, or their new work uniforms. The pictures range from grainy black and white to vibrant colour.

Some of the photographs have been turned into a smaller exhibition to be sent round 20 schools in Birmingham, as part of an education project by Sampad Arts. Students will produce their own work in response as they reflect upon the history of the people in the pictures.

This work, including art projects by Year 11 from Selly Park Girls School, will be incorporated into the exhibition of around 100 photos from the Dyche Collection. It will be on display at the Library of Birmingham in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, from March 18 to June 18 2022, when everyone will be invited to explore From City of Empire to City of Diversity: A Visual Journey.

Lorna Laidlaw, Coronation Street actress from Birmingham

What is the Coronation Street connection?

Soap star Lorna Laidlaw, who plays Aggie Bailey, in Coronation Street is an ambassador for From City of Empire to City of Diversity - and a Brummie with a Jamaican heritage, who grew up in Aston and Ladywood as one of six children.

Coronation Street viewers should take note of what’s in the background in scenes in her soap character’s house, as they will spot Lorna’s real family photos.

Lorna said: “From City of Empire to City of Diversity is an amazing project, which I’m proud to be part of. It connects our young people with the experiences of our elders, which is essential in understanding the story of Birmingham. The photos remind us we are indebted to those people from the Commonwealth who settled here.

“When my mum and dad, Hyacinth and George, came to Birmingham in the late ‘50s, they didn’t bring any pictures. So when I went to Jamaica for the first time four years ago to meet my cousins, I raided their photo albums.

“I found pictures of my great uncle, who’s 101, who was the first to come to England. He was in the RAF in the war and worked on the railways. There was a lovely picture of my parents’ wedding, and I found a picture of my mom at 21 looking beautiful. When I showed it to her, she said ‘Who’s that?’.

“When I started on Coronation Street, I put these pictures in the Baileys’ lounge. That detail, giving a history of a family, is really important.”

Selection of photos from the Dyche Collection which will be exhibited during the Commonwealth Games

Who are the people in the pictures?

Most are anonymous, as no indexes survive to identify the sitters. The exhibition organisers hope that people will come forward if they recognise any of the photos. That’s what happened when Pavandeep Gill started researching family pictures.

She said: “They were hanging on the wall in the lounge for as long as I can remember. They were taken in the 1950s of my grandfather Gurdev Singh Gill, who left India after the 1947 Partition in search of a better life.

“He worked on rubber plantations in Singapore before eventually settling in Balsall Heath. He worked his way up to foreman in the Joseph Ash foundry until he had enough money to buy a terraced house and bring his wife and two sons to Birmingham. My father was five and it was the first time he’d seen his dad.

Little boy in his Sunday Best in the Dyche Collection, to be exhibited at the Commonwealth Games

“When my grandparents died in 2019, we took the photos down and on the back were details of the Dyche studio. I did some research and discovered the Library of Birmingham had all these amazing photos and that Sampad was putting together this schools project.

“It’s very exciting to share my photographs and story. It’s one that’s familiar to many, but I don’t think the story of immigrants coming to the UK is very well told. I am thrilled to be part of this exhibition.”

Andy Hamilton Band in the Dyche Collection to be exhibited during the Commonwealth Games

What do the organisers say?

Rita McLean, co-curator of From City of Empire to City of Diversity and the former director of Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries, said: “This is a visual journey and the material is so strong. It gives us a picture of the city that we don’t read in history books.

“Next year during the Commonwealth Games we will welcome people from 72 countries, so it seemed really important to stage this exhibition to celebrate that.”

Rachel Gartside, project manager from Sampad, said: “We want to honour the lives and experiences of the people in the photos and introduce them to students across the city. They were very brave in making an unknown world their home.”

Martin Phillips from Historic England said: “This is all about engaging pupils. What’s really exciting is that it’s an opportunity to discover a lot of untapped history, as young people ask questions of their parents and grandparents. People might tell their stories for the first time.”

Rachel Gartside Sampad Project Learning Manager, Robert Turner Assistant Head Selly Park Girls School, Lord Mayor of Birmingham Councillor Muhammad Afzal, Lorna Laidlaw, Sabra Khan Sampad Executive Director

What does the Lord Mayor of Birmingham think?

Speaking at the project launch, Birmingham’s Lord Mayor, Councillor Muhammad Afzal, said: “I’m an immigrant who came here 52 years ago. I hope this project will help students explore how our city evolved into one of diversity. The photos are part of a hidden treasure in our archives, and will enable young people to be proud of who they are and proud to be a Brummie.”

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