British Towns and Cities: Birmingham

Michael Rix takes an historical and architectural look at England's second city.

Engraving of Birmingham by Wenceslas Hollar, published in 1656.Covering an area of 80 square miles and with a seven-figure population, the City of Birmingham is second only to London in size and importance among English towns; and for more than a hundred and fifty years, its name has evoked the idea of Industrial Revolution. But no comparable British city had such humble and obscure beginnings; and its history can only be understood against the background of the Black Country lying to the north-west, and in the light of England’s evolution during the last three centuries. How did a small Warwickshire village become the centre of the country’s metal industry and the home of no less than 1,500 different trades? The position of our sea-ports has attracted industrial activity; but no English town could be farther from the sea than Birmingham; and, in comparison with such great productive areas as Lancashire, Tyneside, or Clydeside, it has no apparent natural assets to explain the growth of works and factories. Yet today greater Birmingham occupies an area as large as Liverpool and Manchester combined.

In the popular imagination a place of work - shops, office and industrial suburbs, it possesses-in fact, its own architectural dignity. Here, for instance, is the neo-classical Town Hall, built in 1834, a copy of the Temple of Jupiter Stator in Rome, where Mendelssohn himself conducted the first performance of Elijah. Foremost among eighteenth-century churches is St. Philip’s, now the Anglican cathedral, one of the few truly baroque English churches, built by Thomas Archer during the reign of Queen Anne. Other notable buildings include Aston Hall, a particularly magnificent Jacobean house, once inhabited by James Watt’s son; the Art Gallery with its great Pre-Raphaelite collection; the Roman Catholic cathedral by Pugin, and the Barber Institute, which contains probably the richest small collection of paintings to be found anywhere in the British Isles. Lining the approach roads from the south and west are rows of pleasant Regency stucco houses. Boulton and Watt are commemorated at Soho, Dr. Priestley at the Unitarian Chapel, Cardinal Newman at the Oratory, and Joseph Chamberlain in Corporation Street.

From some points of view, perhaps the most fascinating subject of all is what might be called the industrial archaeology of the area, to be studied among the canals and factories, in the railway stations and the jewellery quarter. Separately its structures are very often interesting; collectively, they are a terrible reminder of the formlessness of modern industrial growths. Birmingham has no proper centre: the Bull Ring, the Cathedral, the Town Hall, the New Civic Centre—still in its infancy—are widely scattered; and this lack of focus is reflected in the haphazard juxtaposition of industrial and residential districts, and by the presence of numerous villages, absorbed and submerged in the spread of modern Birmingham. How rapid that spread has been is shown by the history of the Austin Motor Works, which has now 20,000 employees and covers 250 acres, with a weekly output of over 3,000 vehicles.

Yet the picture of industrial expansion is not one of chaos unrelieved; the model Bourneville Village, begun in connection with Cadbury’s works in 1879, was a pioneer-venture and the first British town-planning scheme was initiated in Birmingham in 1911. This pioneering spirit, which has always characterized the city, helps to explain its early success. While other towns and cities were bound by the Guild System, even in Tudor times the small market town of Birmingham imposed no restrictions upon the metal-workers who gathered there. Newcomers to the religious life of the city have enjoyed a similar freedom. Quaker families were welcomed, some of them becoming bankers like the Lloyds and the Galtons, others industrialists, like the Cadburys. The Unitarian Movement, as exemplified in Doctor Priestley, took root at a later period; and so did the restored Roman Catholic church led by Cardinal Newman.

Naturally, one of the chief reasons for Birmingham’s rapid progress was her position on the edge of the South Staffordshire coalfield, the boundaries of which demarcate the Black Country, which provided many of the raw materials and semi-finished articles needed by her workmen. The original market-town had been placed on a ford, at the meeting-point of several important roads in a rather desolate neighbourhood; and the unlimited supply of pure water helped to encourage its subsequent rise. Already in Tudor times, Leland had described it thus :

“... the beauty of Bremischam, a good market towne in the extreme partes that way of Warwikeshire is in one strete goynge up alonge almoste from the lefte ripe of the broke up a mene hille by the lengthe of a quarter of a mile: I saw but one paroche churche in the towne. There be many smithes in the towne, that use to make knives and all maner of cuttynge tooles, and many lorimars that make byts, and a greate many naylors. So that a greate parte of the towne is mayntayned by smithes, who have their yren and sea-cole out of Staffordshire ...”

About a century later Prince Rupert sacked the town because it produced swords for the Cromwellian army; and in every subsequent war Britain has been largely dependent on Birmingham for the supply of fire-arms.

It was imperative, in the early days, that the products of the Birmingham metal trades should be small and easily portable; for, as the town possessed no navigable waterway, the capacity of a pack-horse determined the bulk and size of articles manufactured. The results of this limitation are still to be seen in the products of Birmingham and her satellites. Small arms, steel toys (buckles and personal ornaments), nails and jewellery, were staple products, and, indeed, have always remained so. Among Birmingham’s satellite communities, Redditch supplies the world with needles; Belbroughton has a monopoly of scythe-making; and Willenhall produces most of England’s locks. Only since the coming of the canal and the railway have bulkier goods appeared; Chance Brothers can now supply complete lighthouses to any part of the world, and Netherton is the recognized centre for anchors and cable chains. It is remarkable that this inland region should specialize in nautical equipment; and much of the credit must go to an obscure Black Country man, named Noah Hingley, who, in the first half of the nineteenth century, saw that the substitution of metal chains for hempen ropes as ships’ cables, together with the coming of the canals, would enable him with the assistance of the experienced local chainmakers, to provide the finest chain cables on the market. So successful was Noah Hingley, that the works he founded retain a virtual monopoly in this type of manufacture; and Hingley’s is one of those establishments, now alas so rare, where one can still watch a craft-team working without regard to the tyranny of the clock. When they have done what they consider a day’s work, they knock off, whatever time of day it may be.

Birmingham’s supremacy, at the beginning of the industrial age, was also due to the galaxy of brilliant men, gathered there during the latter half of the eighteenth century. They formed themselves into the Lunar Society, which met once a month in the house of one of its members, at the time of the full moon to enable those attending to drive home comfortably by moonlight. Among foundation members were Matthew Boulton and James Watt, who between them were transforming the industrial universe; while the inner circle contained such men as Doctor Joseph Priestley, Unitarian Minister, father of modern chemistry, and the “discoverer” of oxygen, nitrogen, ammonia and sulphuric acid; John Basker-ville, probably our greatest British printer; and Dr. Erasmus Darwin, philosopher, poet and botanist, in more ways than one the grandfather of Evolution.

“Dear Boulton” (wrote Darwin apologetically in April 1778),

“I am sorry the infernal divinities who visit mankind with diseases and are therefore at perpetual war with doctors, should have prevented my seeing all your great men at Soho to-day. Lord! what inventions, what wit, what rhetoric, metaphysical, mechanical and pyrotechnical, will be on the wing, bandied like a shuttlecock from one to another of your troop of philosophers! while poor I, I by myself, I, imprisoned in a post-chaise, am joggled, and jostled, and bumped and bruised along the King’s high-road, to make war upon a stomach-ache or a fever!”

Other members of the Lunar Society included Dr. William Withering, physician, mineralogist, and one of the leading botanists of the day; Josiah Wedgwood, the master potter; Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, who had accompanied Captain Cook on his great voyage round the world; Sir William Herschel, the Astronomer Royal, and an early investigator of the properties of infra-red rays; Richard Lovell Edgworth, a brilliant young Irishman and father of the novelist, and his friend Thomas Day, the author of Sandford and Merton. One aspect of Day’s social experiments is well summed up in the Concise Dictionary of National Biography, which records that “he educated two orphan girls, intending to marry one and apprentice the other, but subsequently married a Miss Esther Milnes”. Among their companions, all of them Fellows of the Royal Society, were James Keir, a brilliant chemist and manager of Boulton and Watt’s engineering works; John Whitehurst, whose interests included clock-making, ventilation and subterranean research; and Samuel Galton, a Quaker banker, whose grandson, Francis Galton, was to be the pioneer of eugenics and the inventor of the system of finger-printing afterwards adopted by Scotland Yard.

Unfortunately, no records were kept of the meetings of the Lunar Society; but we know that experiments were made and scientific discussions held. Indeed, the Society’s proceedings epitomize the first fusion of science, industry and capital which was to have worldwide effects during the next two hundred years. Boulton had inherited his father’s “steel toy” factory and, being an enlightened man, he was determined to manufacture goods of the highest quality. To him, in search of financial backing, came James Watt, the inventive genius who had already worked out a method of improving the Newcomen steam engine by the addition of an independent condenser; and their partnership was one of the turning points of the Industrial Revolution. “I shall never forget Mr. Boulton’s expression to me” (Boswell records on the occasion of his visit to the Soho factory), “‘ I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have—power.'” Yet James Watt did not grasp the full implications of his invention; and his reply to a letter from Boulton suggesting the development of rotary motion in the steam engine, that it might be applied to cotton mills, was that Lancashire had sufficient water power to make such a project uneconomic. During its early stages the partnership neared bankruptcy, and only Boulton’s vision, enthusiasm and business acumen saw the steam engine through to its final triumph. His foresight, however, was sometimes imperfect. Both the partners discouraged their gifted employee, Murdock, from continuing the researches which in 1784 produced the first steam locomotive, still preserved in the Birmingham New Technical Museum. Among Murdock’s other discoveries were gas-lighting and pneumatic lifts.

Inevitably, this great industrial centre was built up on the hardships of its work-people and on ferocious competition between its masters. An example of such competition is provided by the activities of John Wilkinson; the accuracy of his gun-barrel borings made him the obvious producer of the cylinders needed for the Boulton and Watt steam engine; but he had no compunction in selling black-market engines of his own manufacture, thus infringing the patent. When the partners accused him of sharp practice, his response was to threaten to close down his cylinder works. What is more, he carried out his threat; and Boulton and Watt were thus forced to build the Soho Foundry and produce the parts themselves. Much of the original Soho building still stands, today forming a section of Messrs. Avery’s works, where can still be seen a number of the machines installed late in the eighteenth century. In the church of Handsworth nearby are Chantrey’s seated statue of James Watt, one of his noblest works, a bust of William Murdock by the same artist, and Flaxman’s fine bust of Matthew Boulton.

The Lunar Society was unequalled in provincial England. But the intellectual preeminence of Birmingham came to a violent end in 1791. A dinner had been planned by a group of Radicals which included members of the society for July 14th, to celebrate the second anniversary of the fall of the Bastille; and their intentions must have received too much advance publicity; for a riot broke out, with the watchwords of “No philosophers! Church and King for ever!”, and an excited mob set fire to the New Meeting House at which Priestley was Unitarian Minister, also destroying his books, laboratory, instruments and apparatus, and a good deal of the property of his fellow dissenters.

Like many other industrial towns, Birmingham, until the passing of the First Reform Bill, had no parliamentary representative; but immediately after 1832 she became a centre of Radicalism, and took a leading part in the Chartist Movement. During the nineteenth century, Birmingham’s greatest political figure was undoubtedly Joseph Chamberlain. Having made the City a leader in municipal welfare, and given her a University—the first in the country to receive a Royal Charter after Oxford and Cambridge—he devoted the rest of his working life to the service of Britain and her Empire, and became almost the only holder of the office of Colonial Secretary to leave an indelible mark on history. He also founded, as it were, a dynasty of ministers, for no other family in the history of the country can show three of its members in two generations holding Cabinet rank.

Twentieth-century Birmingham is a city of striking contrasts. Still influenced by the backyard type of industrial enterprise, in which the master employs few hands, and craftsmanship and skill are his main assets, it also contains mammoth works nearly as large as towns in themselves. Here the industrial present meets the industrial past. The canal system, which is still a living organism, preserves remarkable feats, of engineering by Brindley and Telford, as well as charming Regency bridges and locks, the folk art of its boats and the nomadic life of its boatmen to visit its towing paths is to travel back to the leisurely days of the eighteenth century. Warehouse architecture and railway building are well represented, especially in Curzon Street Station, designed by Philip Hardwick for the London and Birmingham Railway as a counterpart to his great facade at Euston. The hand-manufacture of. sporting guns, nails and chains is fascinating to watch; and the lover of English iron-work, in search of railings, gates, balconies and well-designed lamp-brackets, may be rewarded by the discovery of a cast-iron pulpit in a nonconformist chapel made by the great ironmaster, Wilkinson himself; while the student of industrial archaeology may happen on a beam engine made by Boulton and Watt, and still in working order. Many such relics have been lost through neglect or broken up for salvage drives; it is good news and Birmingham is to be congratulated on starting a Technical Museum which was opened this Summer.

Thanks to the variety of her products, Birmingham has been less exposed than other cities to the impact of world depressions; her unemployment figures for 1929-31 were well below the average. Her real problems spring from her size. So vast is the space she covers, taken in combination with the Black Country urban group, that re-planning on harmonious lines is likely to be a most difficult task. In the Black Country, two centuries of the mineral exploitation have left a disastrous heritage of squalid housing and derelict land. Under the rule of laissez-faire it was nobody’s business to clear up the havoc created by the industrial giant; but derelict land (as the Beaver Report pointed out during the war) is apt to produce a derelict-minded population. True, the desert landscape of slag heaps, marl holes and rubbish tips is a potential asset in so far as it provides open spaces for building sites and playing fields; but it will be no easy undertaking to re-plan and re-cultivate the Birmingham waste-lands. The problem is particularly urgent since, of all our great population-centres, Birmingham is most poorly provided for by the National Parks scheme. Every scrap of ground must therefore be carefully employed, to, satisfy the requirements of a population of over 2,000,000 people. Early in the century Birmingham’s City Fathers were pioneers of town-planning; but far more vision and practical drive are at present needed. With her lengthy tradition of independent thought and municipal enterprise, Birmingham once again should set England an example by drawing up a revolutionary long-term plan for the nation’s second city.