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Washington Irving - Birmingham City Council

Michael Balcon, who was often regarded as one of the pioneers of the British film industry, had courage and a flair for showmanship, to which was added a good business brain. He had a talent for producing both comedy and drama and the films which he produced at the old Ealing Studios combined originality, wit and humour in a way which made them a unique part of British film history.

Balcon, the son of Louis Balcon of South Africa and Birmingham was born in Birmingham on 19 May, 1896.

He was educated at George Dixon Grammar School, City Road, Edgbaston (remember P.C.George Dixon in the film The Blue Lamp and later in the famous B.B.C. television series Dixon of Dock Green?).

After World War I he joined another young Birmingham film enthusiast, Victor Saville, in forming a company called Victory Motion Pictures. At first they made short advertising films but then launched into the production of feature films in London.

Their first Woman to Woman was an immense success but a second film failed dismally. Balcon then founded his own company, Gainsborough Pictures, which was later to merge with Gaumont British.

Many of his films in the 1930s were extremely successful and included titles such as The Good Companions, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, and A Yank at Oxford.

In 1937 he became executive producer at Ealing Studios.

During World War II he produced many outstanding feature documentary films, including The Foreman Went to France, and San Demetrio London.

Then eventually came the famous series of Ealing Comedies - Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore, The Lavender Hill Mob, and The Titfield Thunderbolt.

Later came The Cruel Sea, The Ladykillers, and Dunkirk.

Balcon married Aileen Leatherman in 1924 and they had a son and a daughter, Jill (the actress widow of the poet Cecil Day-Lewis). He was knighted in 1948. The successful actor Daniel Day-Lewis is his grandson.

Birmingham City Council

Washington Irving

Washington Irving

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The American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859) spent many years in Birmingham, first visiting at the end of the Napoleonic War, in 1815. He stayed with his sister Sarah, her husband, Henry van Wart, and their two sons and two daughters, one of whom was his god-child. They later told of how he would invent stories to entertain them and their friends.

van Wart, an American who became British by special act of parliament, was a businessman and politician, founder of the Birmingham Exchange, one of Birmingham's first Aldermen and a director of the Birmingham Banking Company.

Irving lived with the van Warts first in Icknield Street West (formerly Ladywood Lane), then Camden Hill (now called Newhall Hill). Although neither house still stands, the former was half way between the Monument Lane Canal and Spring Hill Library, the latter on the corner of Legge Lane and Frederick Street. Irving christened each of these buildings "Castle van Tromp". Irving later stayed with the van Warts at their subsequent homes, at 13 Calthorpe Street, Edgbaston, and "The Shrubbery" on Hagley Road. He is also known to have worshipped at St Paul's Church in St Paul's Square.

It is worth remembering that, when Irving was here, most of what we now know as Birmingham was countryside, with no railways and only the beginnings of the industrialisation that was to follow - Camden Hill would have been on the country edge of what we now know as the Jewellery Quarter, with many small workshops, but Icknield Street West was in countryside - Irving would probably have been aware of nearby Perrot's Folly, although Edgbaston Reservoir, beside which it stands, was not made until 1825. Perhaps Irving also visited Boulton and Watt's works a mile or so away, at Soho, or Boulton's home, Soho House?

Irving toured England, Scotland and Wales during his stay here, meeting Coleridge and Walter Scott, and working on his collection of essays, "The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent." (1819-20), including the famous story of Rip van Winkle, a story which he wrote through the night at the house in Camden Hill, reading it to his hosts over breakfast the next day, and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which has recently been filmed.

His next book, "Bracebridge Hall, or, The Humorists, A Medley " (1822), was inspired by his visits to Aston Hall. The hall was then occupied by James Watt Junior, whom Irving visited, but was previously owned by members of the Holte Family (the last Holte to own, but not live at, Aston, Charles Holte, had only one child, Mary, who married Abraham Bracebridge, who in turn became Charles' tenant at Aston). There is also a Bracebridge Pool in Sutton Park. Irving's notebook of 1818 includes such jottings as:

"Aston Hall. Gateway to the park. Lion Head Knocker. Studded nails, squirrel on top of gateway - gateway and porters lodge sheltered under trees... church spire rising above... Old oak gallery of great extent... figures of knights in armour with banners".

An epitaph used in the book was "borrowed" from a gravestone in Handsworth parish churchyard.

Other works, including "Alhambra" (1832) and "Mahomet and his Successors" (published 1850, although finished much earlier) were drafted on his travels, and completed in Birmingham, which he continued to visit for many years.

To this day, Birmingham has an Irving Street, west of Bristol Street and parallel with Holloway Head, in the City Centre.

Much of the material on this page was found in The Life of Washington Irving, by Stanley T. Williams, 1935, which is available, along with many other reference works about, and writing by, Irving, in Birmingham Central Library.

St Paul's Church