Submitted by Mike Hunkin, Birmingham Archives and Heritage
James Bisset was born in the city of Perth, Scotland, around the year 1762. Not a great deal is known about his early life and family background. He grew up in relatively humble circumstances, although his parents managed to find the money to send James and his sister to a small private school for a penny a week. He became fascinated with the arts at an early age, and purchased numerous second-hand copies of journals and printed books with the little money he had. From the age of nine James took the Gentleman’s Magazine regularly, using pocket money granted by an uncle.
At the age of fifteen Bisset had moved to Birmingham where he became an artist’s apprentice. Bisset was listed in a 1785 local street directory as a ‘miniature painter’ based in Newmarket, and by 1797 was advertising as a ‘fancy painter’ working in New Street. He was also a coiner of medals, permitted to use the title ‘medallist to his majesty’ and designed one commemorating the naval victory of Admiral Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The premises also housed one of Birmingham’s first museums, alongside a shop selling various curiosities, prints of which appear in a few surviving local newspapers.
Bisset’s passion for writing is well documented by the survival of a curious manuscript notebook of his verse in the collections of Birmingham Archives and Heritage Service. Much of Bisset’s work was published, and although he is not well known today, he did boast later in life that he managed to sell sold over 100,000 of his printed works during his lifetime. He tended to write about a variety of everyday topics, including current affairs and local people and places. His style was impulsive and humorous, and he chose subjects which, being a shrewd businessman, he knew would find a market amongst Birmingham’s educated elite.
His writings show the mindset of one of many lesser known prosperous and educated townsmen who made as much of a mark on the town as the Joseph Priestleys, Samuel Galtons and Matthew Boultons of the time. They chronicle one Birmingham citizen’s thoughts and opinions on the impact of local and national politics on the town at the turn of the eighteenth century and Birmingham’s increasing status as an economic centre, as well as more general observations about local life and people.
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