23 Apr 2018

Birmingham Manufactures:
Alfred Bird & Sons - Poles Apart

In 2013 Birmingham Museums acquired a collection of products made by Alfred Birds & Sons at their Digbeth factory. They were catalogued and photographed as part of the Birmingham Manufactures project. 

Bird’s is an iconic brand which originated in Birmingham. With its familiar blue and yellow packaging, it appeals to a comforting vision of homelife in the twentieth century and a nostalgic yearning for British-made goods and products. But these objects also tell other stories. 

Although history remembers Alfred Bird as the maker of custard, he considered himself a chemist, famed for the type of innovation and experimentation that was typical of Birmingham manufacturers in the nineteenth century. It was as an ‘experimental chemist’ that Bird opened his first shop in Bell Street in 1837, and through his experiments that he developed his ‘fermenting’ (later ‘baking’), and custard powders.1

There is much that could be said about this collection, but for the purpose of this blog I’m going to focus on three items, and think a little bit about what they tell us about the reach of Alfred Bird’s products, and the place of Birmingham made goods in the world.

Two of the earliest Bird’s tins in the collection

The majority of the Bird’s collection is from the twentieth century and the packaging is very much of that period; typically appealing to housewives and young children, most of the advertising promised a well-fed family and domestic ease.2 The two tins pictured here are a little different. These are two of the earliest items we acquired from Bird’s, and although we are not certain about the dates, they are probably from the nineteenth or early twentieth century. Interestingly, the target audience for these two products appears much different from their later counterparts. The tin of egg powder, for example, claimed that: 

EXPLORERS, DIGGERS & HUNTERS requiring fresh bread will find Bird's Concentrated Egg Powder excellent for making light wholesome bread whilst engaged in expeditions.

The packaging on the tin of baking powder also included ‘testimonials’ from some surprising customers. One was from Captain Sir Francis Leopold McClintock who confirmed the use of Bird’s products by explorers. McClintock reported that:

Alfred Bird’s Baking Powder proved the greatest service in the making of all sorts of Pastry and Bread during our Arctic voyage.

There was also a testimonial from the Duke of Newcastle who was responsible for supplying the British troops engaged in the Crimean War. Newcastle claimed that ‘The Bread made with Alfred Bird’s Baking Powder is good and sweet’. In 1843 a newspaper reported that Bird had been in correspondence with him ‘to supply the troops in the East with his baking and fermenting powder, which would admit of their being regularly supplied with fresh bread’.

A tin of custard powder from a late nineteenth century expedition to the north pole

Amazingly, it is not only information from the packaging that demonstrates the presence of Bird’s products around the globe, but the objects themselves. The tin of custard powder pictured above survives from a late-nineteenth century expedition to the North Pole. We know this because a handwritten note identifying it as such also survives, and appears to have been attached to the right of the label and the directions for making the ‘Richest Custard Without Eggs’. The label tells us that the custard was for the ‘Fram’ expedition to the North Pole in in 1893-6. The name of Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer who led the expedition, is included underneath.

Handwritten note in the Name Of Fridtjof Nansen from the ‘Fram’ expedition to the north pole, 1893-6

The tins of egg powder and baking powder are thought to have been recovered from the other side of the globe, from expeditions to the South Pole. When Birmingham Museums acquired these items in 2013, it was thought that these two items had been recovered from Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910-1913 ‘Terra Nova’ expedition to the Antarctic. Accurately dating these items is, however proving tricky. As we have seen, the testimonials on the side of the baking powder date from 50 years before Scott’s voyage, from the time of the Crimean War and McClintock’s expedition. Alfred Bird & Sons were well-known for their innovation in advertising (Alfred Bird’s motto ‘Early to bed, Early to rise, Stick to your work, and Advertise’ became something of a guiding principal for the company), and it seems highly unlikely that they would be relying on reviews given half a century before. Without knowing more about the provision for Antarctic base camps it is difficult to say for certain, but I don’t think I would be relying on fifty year old baking powder!

Whether or not these items were actually recovered from Scott’s Terra Nova basecamp, these objects suggest how great the reach of Birmingham made products was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These tins made it all the way from Birmingham to the either side of the globe and back to the collection at Birmingham Museums. As we catalogue more of the collection for the project, there will undoubtedly be more such stories…

1 My thanks to Mike Jee for information on this.
2 This is based on historical advertising of the Bird’s brand.

The BIRDS trade marks are owned by Premier Foods Group Limited.