Bringing the ghosts of Birmingham’s criminal past back to life

By BOLDtext writer Tim Stimpson

If you’ve ever walked down Steelhouse Lane in Birmingham you more than likely  have no idea what lies behind the front door of the unprepossessing redbrick building on the corner of Coleridge Passage. Unless you’re a police officer or have been arrested, it’s even less probable you’ve seen inside. But the old Central Lock-Up has been the first stop for many of the city’s criminals for 125 years. As such it’s an important and fascinating part of Birmingham’s heritage.


The Lock-Up closed its doors in 2016 and West Midlands Police are now in the process of transforming the grade II listed building into a new home for the force’s museum. All being well it will start welcoming the general public in the next few years. In the meantime BOLDtext have been busy writing short plays about some of the people who would have passed through the Lock-Up during it’s first few decades. Some of them are well-documented, such as Chief Constable Charles Rafter who (as well as inspiring Sam Neil’s character in the TV hit Peaky Blinders) championed the introduction of women to the Birmingham City Police. The first of these was Evelyn Miles who, having been a lock-up matron, became a constable at the age for 50 and didn’t retire until she was 72. Or there’s Tommy Tank, a notorious drunkard who potential inspired Ozzy Osbourne by biting the heads of live rats, or Sarah Bernhardt, the famous French actress who had to register at the Lock-Up as an enemy alien when she performed at The Grand.

However, there are also characters who are little more than a name. One of these is Frederick Ratcliff. As you enter the Lock-Up you’ll see a large wooden Roll of Honour on the wall, commemorating the Birmingham police officers who served in the First World War. Fred’s name appears with a ‘W’ next to it, indicating that he was wounded. Many more have a ‘K’ next to their names, indicating that they were killed, or ‘M’ for missing, or ‘DW’ for died of wounds. We know nothing else about Fred, but in writing my play about him I’ve assumed he returned to the force and may well have been involved in the strikes of 1918 – 1919, which precipitated the banning of the police’s right to strike. It’s remarkable how much can come from a name on a wall, but it’s also a responsibility. My Fred is probably nothing like the real one, but I hope I have a least done justice to the battles he and his fellow officers fought.

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You can meet these characters and many more at Behind Bars: Ghosts of Past, which is being performed in the Lock-Up from October 19th – 21st. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to take a theatrical journey through Birmingham criminal past.

Book your tickets at:


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