Birmingham History

The history of Birmingham and specially selected photographs

Birmingham was originally in Warwickshire. In February 1909 proposals were made under the Greater Birmingham Plan to annex Aston Manor, Erdington, Handworth, King’s Norton, Northfield and Yardley. The Urban Districts of King’s Norton and Northfield had a population in excess of 78,000 and covered 22,000 acres. The plans gave Birmingham a population at that time of 850,000, making it the second city in England. Other areas, such as Castle Bromwich were also absorbed at a later date. In 1974 the Local Government Act of 1972 came into effect, and the city was one of the places transferred into a ‘new’ county known as West Midlands.

Birmingham originally prospered as an agricultural market town which also made farm implements. By Tudor times it was famous for both its cattle markets and its blacksmiths. It was only in the 17th century that it became clear that the future lay predominately in metal. The farm tool trade developed into specialised blade-making, and then blades gave way to guns. At the same time, though, Birmingham was working at just about every other industry and activity you could think of, and by the 19th century had earned itself such titles as ‘toyshop of the world’, ‘city of a thousand trades’ and ‘workshop of the world’. Even today, everything from chocolate to wedding rings to motorcars is still ‘Made in Birmingham’.

Redevelopment of Birmingham’s town centre began in the 1850s and continued into the 1880s. The aim was to give Birmingham a grand civic area as befitted one of the country’s leading industrial and commercial towns. Among the impressive new buildings erected during this period were the Birmingham and Midland Institute in Paradise Street, Mason College, the Grand Hotel in Colmore Row, the new Council House, and the Art Gallery and Museum. A school of art was also opened in 1885, and a technical school in 1896. A new County Court building was opened in 1882, and at the end of the 19th century Sir Aston Webb and Ingress Bell were commissioned to design the Victoria Law Courts in Corporation Street.

As part of the 19th-century redevelopment of Birmingham, it was planned that a new principal thoroughfare would be driven through its extensive slum area. There were also a number of new side and connecting streets, such as one from Monmouth Street along the side of St Philip’s Church and across Temple Row. A new link was also cut across John Street to the junction of Dale End and Coleshill Street, while a further link cut across Little Cherry Street and Crooked Lane to the High Street. The plan was that the unhealthy area of Steelhouse Lane, Lancaster Street, Stafford Street, and Aston Lane from Steelhouse Lane to Gosta Green would soon be but a memory. The new street, Corporation Street, was intended to rid the town of the evil-smelling and common lodging district around Old Square and Lichfield Street, and provide a much-needed new road out of the centre to the north-east.

Joseph Chamberlain is one of the most important names in Birmingham’s history. He arrived in 1854 at the age of eighteen, and quickly made his fortune as a screw manufacturer. He was elected mayor in 1873, and instigated a number of improvement schemes, which culminated in the clearance of slums, the taking of gas and water companies into municipal ownership, and the erection of many fine public buildings. Joseph Chamberlain became a Birmingham MP in 1876, and a Cabinet Minister in 1880. Joseph’s two sons, Austen and Neville, also entered politics, beginning their careers in Birmingham. Austen became Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons, but his half-brother Neville went ever further, becoming Prime Minister in 1937. Neville Chamberlain had been a successful Minister of Health and Chancellor of the Exchequer, but unfortunately is now remembered as the Prime Minister who trusted Hitler to keep to the terms of the 1938 Munich Agreement, and whose policy of appeasement failed, resulting in him being the Prime Minister who took the country into the Second World War.

Birmingham was once notorious for its grimy back-to-backs, but the after the Second World War the bomb-damaged areas were swept away and exciting modern buildings took their place. The Rotunda, a cylindrical office block in the Bull Ring, has become a symbol of the new, forward-looking city. The Bull Ring itself, where a market has been held since the 12th century, is still the centre of the city. In 2004 Birmingham was voted the second best place to shop in England after the West End of London.

Birmingham is now a vibrant city with an exceptionally good nightlife. It is a multi-cultural city and is particularly famous for its superb Balti restaurants. It has a major international exhibition venue at the NEC, complete with its own railway station, just eight miles from the city centre. Local employment opportunities are now mainly in the service industries, retailing, tourism and conference hosting.

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What you are reading here about Birmingham are excerpts from our book Birmingham Miscellany by Julia Skinner, just one of our General Interest books.

Birmingham Miscellany

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