Memories of BFoE – before the Warehouse

In this blog piece one of the early BFoE pioneers, Lynn Roberts, writes about her memories of those years before the move into the Warehouse. She has also had input from Pete Raine, Val Stevens and her husband Robin.

  1. INTRO

I first joined FOE Birmingham in early 1974 when it met in a private house in Moseley and was co-ordinated by a New Zealander called – I think – John. There was a groundswell of environmental concern with many people from all walks of life wanting to affect policy and do something either on single issues or more broadly against rising consumerism and its effects.

A few months later via meetings in a pub John had decided to move back to his home country and it moved to my house in Passey Road.

6 Passey Road
6 Passey Road – home to Birmingham FoE in mid 1970s

 

Our group was very busy across the environmental spectrum from 1974 until we moved into the warehouse in April 1977 – when it became even busier!  In many ways, the taking-on of the building was a natural expression of the proliferation of activities and the need for more space, a more central location and the opportunities for fundraising which that would enable.

 

 

 

 

There were certain characteristics of the group in the 74-77 period which laid excellent foundations for the expansion of activity into the warehouse:

  1. a) Networking with very many different groups around particular topics.

Although FOE could be seen as campaigning for single issues – recycling, wildlife, nuclear etc – FOE Brum linked up with many associated groups around these issues and somehow seemed to get on with them! For example: Conservation Groups for the built environment, numerous wildlife groups in relation to cetaceans, political organisations in relation to the Post Office Campaign.

  1. b) An emphasis on positive side to campaigns – what you can do

Campaigning can be negative but in the case of FOE Brum we naturally found ourselves also focussing on what individuals and groups could do to bolster and demonstrate the positive side of a message – and this had the effect of empowerment, linkage, positiveness and fun – all essential ingredients for long term and positive growth.

  1. c) The positive side of campaigns had the effect of making FOE Brum entrepreneurial originating new products and/or distributing and selling products from elsewhere very successfully thus spreading the message and raising funds which could then be used for more activity. Our giant raffle, created by Robin in,  probably, 1975, had some 28 prizes which ranged across the length and breadth of sustainable living and so aptly illustrated how consumer choices could be different when seen through the prism of environmental concerns. The raffle was also very successful financially and so enabled us to plough receipts back into our projects.

It was during the 1974-77 years the FOE Brum became the most active and dynamic local FOE group in the country.

  1. CAMPAIGNING

There has always been a hard, campaigning edge to FOE and around certain topics FOE Brum in 74-77 was very active. Some were led by FOE nationally but others originated out of being in Birmingham.

 

NATIONAL

Save the Whale

As well as numerous talks and lobbying, the group somehow created a 20 foot long papier mache whale which we drove to London in a huge Shirley U Drive van with 20 or so of us stuffed in the back surrounded by whale! (Before the days of Occ Health and Safety!) We demonstrated outside the US Embassy (with Spike Milligan) and attracted the local media when we carried the whale into the new Central Library up the main escalator for a big exhibition there!

Materials Re-use and Recycling

We were heavily involved in campaigning for better materials design and use and undertook all sorts of stunts to raise the need to use materials better and to facilitate recycling rather than simple mixed disposal. This included putting a large skip outside the Central Library into which members of the public put their empty glass bottles, when post consumer glass recycling was almost unheard of.

Lyn and Robin remember constructing a massive effigy affectionately called Willie Waste More out of cashew nut boxes and various bits of junk which the group paraded through Moseley for its Festival in 1975 – all a gimmick but it caught peoples’ attention and interest.

Nuclear

FOE Brum gave many talks about energy in general, and nuclear in particular in the early days. This led to Robin writing our document “An Approach to a Total Energy Policy” to put nuclear into the context of overall energy policy.

We created a large exhibition which was featured at the National Exhibition Centre in early 1976 and this whole process began to lay the groundwork for ramped-up campaigning a) against nuclear and b) for energy conservation and insulation once we were a better-resourced group at the warehouse.

Lyn and Robin remember FOE Brum taking some 50 seats on a national FOE Demo to Windscale in 1976. As our train through the countryside Lyn remembers sitting on the floor of the goods wagon weighing our dates and sultanas on a set of kitchen scales while others from Brum created other snacks for hungry demonstrators. We then persuaded the British Rail catering guy to “lend” us his trolley so we could use it to purvey healthier goods to the train travellers!

Pete and Val remember FOE Brum chartering a whole train for two demos in 78-79 to London : an anti-Windscale  one after Parker had reported and an anti-whaling demo. Lyn’s brain fails completely to recall either but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen!

BIRMINGHAM

Action against Car Racing in Bham CBD

In 1974 Birmingham City Council was eagerly pushing for road racing around inner Birmingham and environmental groups like FOE Brum were bitterly opposed to this honouring of the car, burning rubber and burning unnecessary fuel. We worked with local residents opposed to the racing and made the BBC’s national prime time evening TV news. Duckhams was a major supporter of this initiative and we were there adding ourselves to the rear of their cavalcade of racing cars with an old bus, numerous bikes and wearing T-shirts putting down “Muckhams”!

Post Office Facade

In 1975 there was a push to demolish the Victorian Post Office at the top of New Streetand replace it with a tower block of flats and offices thus removing a significant Victorian landmark from the Birmingham cityscape.

geograph-2222208-by-Michael-Westley
Victoria Square Post Office c.1980

Here, much to our surprise, we found ourselves linking up with two groups of people with whom we had had little linkage until then – the Victorian Society with its emphasis on the preservation of the built environment and the building workers and trade union which was campaigning against the way large parts of cities were being demolished and re-built for what seemed purely money-making purposes. As that happened their skills were being replaced by mechanisation and cityscapes were losing their character.

 

As this campaign developed FOE Birmingham developed close links with trade unionists. This included Jack Mundey, the union leader of the Australian Green Ban movement, who joined the campaign in person to save the Birmingham Post Office and demonstrated side by side with FOE Brum members.  The Green Ban movement , brought unions and environmentalists together to save parts of the natural and built environment of Australia during the 1970s.

The concept of “Socially-Useful Work” rather than work with no consideration of its implications became a powerful rallying call and led into many of the projects which FOE Brum could develop once it had its central base at the warehouse.

Healthy Food & Positive Health

Taking care of the inner environment and seeing the complex relationships between food, health and agriculture was close to many in early FOE Brum days.

We attended conferences, helped with catering, linked with church groups concerned about poverty in countries where cash crops predominated.

In the process we laid the groundwork for several of the initiatives taken on once the warehouse was our base – Muesli Base, Wholefood School of Nutrition, Alternative Health talks etc

Recycling

As well as campaigning about materials issues in sync with other FOE groups to promote national objectives we also became quickly involved in amassing materials for recycling and becoming much more informed of the markets for paper, cardboard, glass and metals.

There became a pressing physical need to relocate FOE Brum from Lyn’s house in suburban Sparkhill when it began to overflow with recycling materials left there by the many groups we had networked with!

Robin wrote his report “Proposals for a Community Recycling Scheme in Birmingham” in May 1976 and this became our calling card enabling us to talk with Birmingham City Council (Theresa Stewart was a prominent member and one of our supporters) and not-for-profit organisations such as The Settlement and Selly Oak Colleges.

After several possibilities came and went we eventually took out a lease (jointly with the Birmingham Gay Community Centre next door) from the Calthorpe Estate effective April 1977.  As Pete remembers “Normally the landlord has to approve a new tenant, but for some reason that clause was missing from the existing lease so we were able to take on the building even though we had almost no assets.  I remember the warehouse was 6,500 square feet and had been used as a food store by the Indian cash and carry company Sandhar and Kang and smelt pleasantly of turmeric and garlic.   Just after we moved in a white Rolls Royce stopped outside in Allison Street, and a splendidly bearded and turbaned Sikh got out, all dressed in white .  I went over and asked who he was.  “I am Kang!” he replied magnificently.”)

Pete remembers that the first grant we got was £650 from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust (helped by Tony Webb from FOE National) to buy a Bedford van for recycling collections as we had outgrown various domestic-size vehicles used at Passey Road. The van  – UVT 797 – was beautifully decorated by Andrew Jones, and truly was a pig to start, and belched black clouds of diesel.  Lyn’s vivid memory is of Pete loathing to go off on a recycling round as it meant having to get the damned thing going!

  1. EMPHASIS ON INFORMATION

A significant aspect of FOE Brum has always been that of Education – information underpinned our campaigns and informed our activities. It empowered members and it made our activities credible.

We created exhibitions, gave numerous talks to all manner of groups, supplied handouts for distribution and attended many schools to talk about environmental topics which were becoming increasingly in the public spotlight.

Education and Information eventually led seamlessly into the Information projects created by Brum FOE at the warehouse around materials, recycling, nature conservation etc. Importantly, though we didn’t know at this stage, these were fundable under the Government’s Job Creation Scheme affording us the opportunity to employ people rather than rely wholly on volunteers.

  1. INNOVATION OF PRODUCTS

Already in the mid-70s FOE Brum was designing and creating items to support its campaigns and to make much-needed funds.

Around 1974 we made simple sticky labels to enable envelope re-use and these were sold to other FOE groups around the country in a very low key way. Then, unbeknownst to the group a piece appeared in the Sunday Times picturing them – orders on the Tuesday totalled 30, Weds 50, Thursday 120….this became very big very quickly and whole evenings were taken up getting orders out. Our small local printer did very well out of our repeat orders.  Pete Raine says “I first met Lyn when I signed a petition to save the Post Office at the top of Hill Street.  Foolishly I said I was an accountant and could I help – and so my first visit to Passey Road was to help count the ‘Save Paper Spare Trees’ label money which was in jamjars all over the house”. 

1976 Invoice for recycled paper goods (Thanks to Dave Clare!)
1976 Invoice for recycled paper goods (Thanks to Dave Clare!)

FOE groups traditionally sold pin-button badges and we created several which were very successful – Food is for Sharing, Save the Whale being notable.

As we got to know the world of recycled paper it transpired that A4 Xerox duplicating paper and toilet rolls (dyed with beetroot juice!) were ripe for promoting and that we did in an increasingly big way! Indeed, Pete recalls Lyn meaning to order 100 boxes of toilet rolls (once we’d moved to the warehouse) and instead having ordered 1000 by mistake! Lyn’s braincells don’t recall this at all!

In addition, we designed and created T-shirts, sold some designed by other groups and all of this led naturally into a quite considerable merchandising activity at the warehouse.

 

  1. WAY OF WORKING

FOE Brum was always a very inclusive and open group, trying to draw on people’s skills and knowledge and doing all we could to make people feel welcome and involved at whatever level they wished.

There was an infectious and fun feeling in our activities which never felt like work, and people seemed to find a place to settle in and feel they were giving and receiving within the group.

This way of working coupled with our connections with left-leaning thinkers and activists would naturally lead towards a co-operative structure once it was necessary to become incorporated as activity mushroomed at the warehouse.

‘Rocking the Wire’* at Greenham

Back in the early 1980s Birmingham Friends of the Earth and other organisations based at the Warehouse actively supported the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham Common and took part in actions such as  ‘Embrace the Base’, where hundreds of women joined hands in a giant circle around the perimeter of the base. Marian Hall has dug in her archives and found some of the following images which capture some of the energy and atmosphere of these mass protests.

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If you want to learn more about the events at Greenham you have until Sunday to catch The Fence and the Shadow exhibition at the MAC which features artist Dr. Sally Payen’s response to her research and visits to Greenham Common as it is now. You can also hear an interview with Sally in which she discusses her work about women’s activism, protest and the peace camp here.

Also at the MAC this weekend Women and Theatre stage Rocking the Wire which is based on interviews with women who were there and whose stories have been weaved into this theatre piece about a woman looking back and reflecting about the experience and the impact on her life.

And we hope to find more in the BFoE Archives about our links with this important period in the history of women’s activism and the peace movement.

As always please get in touch if you can add any more information to this story – or if you have any photos or other material to donate.

*With apologies to Women and Theatre for ‘recycling’ their title 😉

Liz Palmer

Oral History Training

Join us for a fun oral & video history training session to be led by community film maker Rachel Gillies on Thursday 23rd November 2-4.30 at Stirchley Baths on Pershore Road. Come earlier if you want to sample the vegetarian and vegan delights on offer in the cafe run by Change Kitchen

We will be learning how to conduct oral history interviews and having a play with audio and video recorders.
Please email heritage@birminghamfor.org.uk to confirm your place or for further information.

Forthcoming archives research sessions

1979 - October Event Diary
Join me, Liz Palmer, in the Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Level 4, Library of Birmingham on the following dates to systematically work our way through the archives looking for information that addresses our key themes outlined above. Please bring your County Archives Research Network (CARN) ticket with you (or ID with signature and address) plus a pencil (!). I’ll book the sessions and order the material to view.

Tuesday 21st Nov 4-6.30pm
Tuesday 28th Nov 4-6.30pm
Tuesday 5th Dec 4-6.30pm
Saturday 9th Dec 1-4.30pm
Tuesday 12th Dec 4-6.30pm
Tuesday 19th Dec 4-6.30pm
And we’ll probably have a quick drink at the Post Office Vaults following each session – sadly our funding won’t cover free pints ;-(

Please email me at heritage@birminghamfoe.org.uk to let me know if you are attending.

 

Windscale Demo

Archive Research sessions

The Birmingham Friends of the Earth archives are held within the archives at the Library of Birmingham and include some early newsletters, minutes and photographs. At the end of this project we will be depositing more documents and photographs to add to the existing archive.

Our next archives research sessions will be on Saturday 14th October and Tuesday 24th October. On Saturday 14th we’ll meet in the cafe mezzanine at 1.30 pm and on Tuesday 24th at 4.30pm prior to going up to Level 4 to the Wolfson Centre. This will give me a chance to talk to you about the archive, some of the rules we have to comply within the archives and give you an overview of the collection and how to use the catalogue.

Rachel Gillies will hopefully also be on hand at the Saturday session to do some filming and will be seeking your reactions to some of the material we find.

If you would like to come please email heritage@birminghamfoe.org.uk to book your place. Places are limited so it is essential to book with us.   You will need to bring ID with you if you don’t already have an archives card (CARN ticket) – either a driving licence or a utility bill including your address plus a bank card for signature.

Foray into the archives

A large amount of material  including newsletters, minutes and other admin records, photographs (many unidentified!) and campaign materials were deposited with Birmingham archives, now at the Library of Birmingham, about 10 years ago. The online catalogue lists the material in substantial detail and provides much background detail.

We will be making extensive use of this material during the project and had our first foray into the archives yesterday (Saturday 19th Aug) to get a feel for what was there and how we might be able to use it. We’ve started to put together a timeline including the key events in BFoE’s history and will also use the material to help develop themes and questions for use in the oral history strand of the project.
We’ll be adding to this with more records from the last 10 years plus anything else we generate through this project. If you have anything you think might be of interest please let us know. And if you want to join us on future forays into the archives please get in touch via email to heritage@birminghamfoe.org.uk and I’ll add you to our mailing list.

Sorting archives

Unearthing the Past

The FoE Heritage Project is getting underway after several months of planning.  As BFoE staff and volunteers are preparing the Warehouse for the impending major building work they are uncovering several stashes of old newsletters, campaign materials and other documents that help tell the story of Birmingham Friends of the Earth.  We’ve made a start at sifting through this and identifying the material that should be retained and will be deposited with the existing BFoE archives at the Library of Birmingham.

And on Tuesday 8th August a group of eight potential volunteers gathered in the meeting room to hear more about the project and the proposed timescale for researching the archives and recording oral and video histories of early activists and workers for BFoE. They were a mix of past and present members of BFoE or FoE UK and between them have a varied array of skills and interests – it all bodes well for an exciting project over the coming months.  But there are still plenty of opportunities to get involved – so please get in touch if you want to get involved and/or join our mailing list.

How you can get involved:

Volunteer:

  • research the existing archives & sort new material
  • oral/video recordings
  • social media
  • Design print media, publication and an exhibition.

Donate material

Photographs of BFoE activities particularly linked to campaigning

Early campaign materials, minutes of meetings from the 1970s?

Follow & share our progress:

Blog: https://bfoeheritage40.wordpress.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/BFoEHeritage40

FoE Birmingham Heritage Project

As Birmingham Friends of the Earth celebrates 40 years at The Warehouse it has been successful in securing a £10 000 Sharing Heritage grant from Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).  Through a mix of oral history recording and archival research, project volunteers will uncover the early history of the organisation and its contribution to the environmental movement together with its impact on the people of Birmingham.

Project volunteers will seek out some of the early activists and employees to learn about their role in the heritage of Birmingham’s environmental movement. Use will also be made of the existing archives of BFoE which are safely housed at the Library of Birmingham, and it is hoped that additional early material will be located to add the archive. A fire at the Warehouse in the early 1980’s led to the loss of much early material. Volunteers will receive training in archive research skills, oral history recording, filmmaking and presentation skills.

The project will be co-ordinated by Liz Palmer, a local heritage genealogist and researcher, who worked for Friends of the Earth in the mid-1980s selling recycled paper. She will be assisted by Rachel Gillies, a fellow member of the Peoples’ Heritage Co-operative and community filmmaker and they will be supported by a steering group from BFoE including John Newson, Chris Crean and Bernard Parry.

So how can you help?

Volunteer:  We are looking for volunteers to join the project to research the existing archives, undertake oral/video recordings and compile and disseminate the findings via social media, a print publication and an exhibition. Do you have some time to give and get involved with any (or all!) aspects of the project?  Specific skills aren’t necessary as you would receive appropriate training. If you would like to know more please come to our first meeting on Tuesday 8th August 6pm at The Warehouse, 54-57 Allison Street, Digbeth B5 5TH

Donate material

Do you have photographs of BFoE activities particularly linked to campaigning? Or early campaign materials? Or any minutes of meetings from the 1970s?  If so please let us know – if you don’t wish to donate it to the project (for eventual deposit in Library of Birmingham Archives) we could arrange to scan material.

Follow our progress:

Blog: https://bfoeheritage40.wordpress.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/BFoEHeritage40

To add your name to our mailing list to be kept up to date with meetings and training dates, or to seek further information about any of the above email us at heritage@birminghamfoe.org.uk or click the ‘Follow us Blog’ over on the right.