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27 Apr 2018

Collecting Birmingham:
Mrs Eunice McGhie-Belgrave MBE

I am Paramjit Sehmi and I have been volunteering for Collecting Birmingham archiving and documenting some amazing acquisitions. Indeed, The Collecting Birmingham project has acquired some precious gems which I'm lucky to have had the pleasure of exploring.

One such example is the truly fascinating collection of objects donated by Mrs Eunice McGhie-Belgrave MBE. The overall aim of the Collecting Birmingham project is to highlight the significance of people, and the stories of their lives in Birmingham and Eunice’s story certainly fits this brief.

Eunice McGhie-Belgrave during the Collecting Birmingham exhibition at Soho House.

Eunice McGhie-Belgrave during the Collecting Birmingham exhibition at Soho House.

In 1957, as a young woman in her early twenties, she moved with her family from Jamaica to Birmingham. In our collection we are lucky enough to have the very suitcase she used on that momentous trip! The humble size of it struck me initially, especially when nowadays we might take a suitcase three times that size just for a brief holiday!! To have moved an entire life across continents through such an object provides a real sense of perspective.

The suitcase used by Eunice McGhie-Belgrave when she moved from Jamaica to Birmingham.

The suitcase used by Eunice McGhie-Belgrave when she moved from Jamaica to Birmingham.

I also enjoyed listening to Eunice’s oral history, in which she recalled how shocking she thought the cold weather was on her arrival in England. This was quite a statement, considering that her flight to Birmingham had a stop off in Canada first! Though frankly, after the winter we have recently endured, I completely believe it was colder here and can surely sympathise with Eunice. It must have been quite a shock to the system. Yet, what I noticed from Eunice’s oral history and the collection of objects, was her bright and positive attitude regardless of cold weather or mistreatment.

Notably, in a period of racial intolerance in the late 1950s, it seems that Eunice was always patient and calm with others. In one particular instance, she recalled how she had gone to a shop and, while paying for her items, the shopkeeper was surprised by her ability to speak English and deliberately chose not to put the change in Eunice's hand. Rather than argue with the man, she simply left the money on the counter. The next time she went to the same shop, the shopkeeper made sure he gave her the money properly, which I believe shows Eunice’s ability to change people’s perceptions for the better.

Eunice’s positivity appears to have transcended through her life and work as she not only had several businesses, but she made time for volunteering. Eunice’s voluntary work included a notable project called ‘Shades of Black’ which allowed children to learn valuable gardening skills. In turn, the children gained an appreciation for picking and eating fresh fruit rather than buying pre-packaged goods. Through this, Eunice promoted practical skills, education and a healthy lifestyle, which is excellent.

Eunice McGhie-Belgrave holding vegetables, grown through her voluntary gardening project, for which she received the Co-Operative Local Champion award.

Eunice McGhie-Belgrave holding vegetables, grown through her voluntary gardening project, for which she received the Co-Operative Local Champion award.

From documenting the collection I kept finding items which only increased my admiration for Eunice. I developed a special interest in Eunice’s work making clothing for others. As someone with an avid interest in sewing and dressmaking I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the neat ledgers she kept, documenting all her materials, orders and payments. It was a truly home-grown practice! That is not to say that it was amateur by any means, though. For example, I found this odd lump of material which I later discovered to be wax used for sewing. This wax is usually used to thread needles (something which can be a right pain) so it is very useful. However, this amount of wax seemed industrial and seemed like it was meant for a very professional sewing machine and dressmaker!

The rather large block of wax used by Eunice for her sewing work.

The rather large block of wax used by Eunice for her sewing work.

I must also mention the amount of awards, trophies and certificates which Eunice received – and not just because I had to carry them around the museum! Seriously though, who needs a gym when you could just carry around Eunice’s awards!? So, whilst I was developing muscle mass I was able to appreciate these lovely objects highlighting Eunice's contributions, such as the ‘Pride of Britain Award’ and ‘The Queen’s Golden Jubilee Award for Voluntary Service’. The latter was not the only award she received from royalty, having also been given an MBE!

An admirable collection of images, awards and trophies which Eunice McGhie-Belgrave received, including her MBE medal and Golden Jubilee Award.

An admirable collection of images, awards and trophies which Eunice McGhie-Belgrave received, including her MBE medal and Golden Jubilee Award.

Overall, I have found the life and collection of Mrs Eunice McGhie-Belgrave truly enriching to explore and I have thoroughly enjoyed documenting the items. It reminds me that there are incredible stories to tell and that we should perhaps take more time to talk, listen and share our experiences with others. It is a gift to be able to do that even if not all of our memories can be preserved in a museum.

A selection of objects donated by Mrs Eunice McGhie-Belgrave and others acquired during the project are currently on display at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in our Collecting Birmingham: Who Is Birmingham? exhibition.