The History of Birmingham
Birmingham as a settlement is of relatively recent vintage compared to most of our cities, but human habitation in the area has been traced back into the extremely distant past: in the late 19th century the Saltley Handaxe was found, a stone tool 500,000 years old that predates Homo sapiens.
Still in the Stone Age, but a mere 10,000 years ago, people living in the area left traces that connect them with modern Birmingham in that they demonstrate links with various other parts of the country: tools made with stones from as far away as North Wales , Cumbria and Cornwall show that as in its later history the area seems to have been a trading crossroads.
Though artefacts from the Bronze Age and Iron Age demonstrate some habitation of the area then, no specific settlement can be traced until Roman times, the soil not being of prime agricultural quality other than in small pockets of land. The Romans , however, constructed a fort in the district for military not agricultural reasons – it was for a time a convenient staging post on Icknield Street, the road between Gloucestershire and South Yorkshire . When this post was established it was early in the Roman occupation, shortly after their arrival in 43AD, before they pushed their control into the North. Once this was effected the frontier territory was distant from Birmingham, so by about 120AD it was abandoned, its troops required elsewhere.
The Anglo- Saxons gave us the modern name Birmingham, or at least the name from which it is derived: Beormingaham, meaning the home of Beorma’s people – a clan that occupied either a small settlement in the area, or possibly was spread over the entire district in divers homesteads. Quite when these people settled the area is unclear, probably before the 7th century is the best estimate.
In Anglo-Saxon England Beormingaham fell first within Mercia, then with Viking advances the catalyst of change became part of Wessex , indeed a frontier place as for a time it had been under the Romans, though it was never seemingly a village of any substance: in 1086 the Domesday Book reported it was a small village with: “No mill, no meadow.”
Under the Normans a family which soon took the name de Birmingham controlled the district, though it is unclear whether they were of Norman origin or Saxon nobles who managed to avoid the fate of so many of their kind under the invaders. In 1166 Peter de Birmingham bought a charter from Henry II , reconfirmed in 1189, granting him the right to have a market in the settlement. The market place which evolved was triangular, soon known as The Bull Ring. He was also allowed to charge tolls to travellers through his holdings. It is hard not to bring to mind the M6 Relief Road around Birmingham in our own time, benefitting from its service to trade travellers. Indeed Birmingham throughout the ages has been a nodal point for commercial traffic.
As the population grew in the 13th century land that for earlier settlers had been passed over for farming became more viable economically, so the hinterland of Birmingham market provided more agricultural produce to sell there. By 1250 Birmingham was substantial enough economically to be granted a three-day fair at Ascension (and 150 years later a second such was sanctioned for Michaelmas).
Increased prosperity resulted for the place, and by 1275 if not before it had the right to send two burgesses to the King’s Parliaments. At the same time merchants were attracted by that prosperity, primarily dealing in wool; soon, however, there was processing of and trade in textiles, iron and leather. Fascinatingly a jewellery industry blossomed in this period too, as shown in an inventory of goods seized in 1308 from the disbanded Knights Templar; in the 14th century if not before we can be certain that there were goldsmiths. Modern-day Birmingham is still proud of its jewellery quarter.
In spite of a great fire about 1300, and as elsewhere in Britain the devastating plague of 1349, by 1392 the wealth of Birmingham was such that it merited the creation of its own religious guild, of The Holy Cross. Church building accelerated in this period, another sure sign of medieval economic vibrancy. This dynamism was in part thanks to specific local government conditions in the town as it developed, largely free of trade guild restrictions and simultaneously of agricultural duties to the Lord of the Manor.
The skills developed in fine metalwork were allied to local natural resources in Tudor times in further economic evolution: locally mined coal and iron were used in the fabrication of cutlery, nails, tools and weapons, laying the foundations for employment patterns in the area far into the future – even in the 19th century Birmingham was a place of small workshops, major factories there being largely a 20th century phenomenon.
Unsurprisingly Birmingham, long a place of manufacture rather than agriculture, supported Parliament and the mercantile class in the Civil War , the Royalists twice pillaging it in retaliation. Cromwell and his men were supplied with huge numbers of Birmingham-made swords, and also muskets, a significant factor in the outcome of the conflict. At this time the population was a mere 5,500 or so. By the end of the 17th century this had roughly tripled as manufacturing offered work to incomers and gave natives the wages to support increased families.
When the 18th century brought the Industrial Revolution Birmingham was well placed to benefit further: it still enjoyed coal and iron resources; it had a skilled workforce able to adapt to engineering needs; and it was at the centre of the country. Little wonder that many advances in the newfangled steam engine were made here; nor that the canal network in the region should have Birmingham as its focal point, just as the British motorway network in our own time could be said to have Spaghetti Junction as its central point. In Victorian times New Street Station was built in 1852 specifically to link the railway networks of the North and the South: the railway to Manchester and Liverpool had opened in 1837; to London the following year.
During the Industrial Revolution Birmingham was home to figures such as Matthew Boulton, and Joseph Priestley , and attracted Scottish engineers James Watt (who formed a business partnership with Boulton) and William Murdoch.
Birmingham’s first canal, to the Wednesbury coalfields, was built in 1769. By 1830 there were some 160 miles of canals stretching throughout the Black Country from the town (it still boasts more canals than Venice).
Birmingham entered the 19th century with a population of about 74,000; it left it with 630,000, known throughout the British Empire as ‘the workshop of the world.’ In the middle of the century the Irish arrived in huge numbers, fleeing starvation in their own land, choosing Birmingham for its job opportunities. The same pattern applied in the second half of the 20th century with Poles arriving just after WWII ; immigrants from the Caribbean shortly afterwards, and another wave of South Asian origin in the 1970s.
With rapid population growth in the 19th century came exploitation and overcrowding, back-to-back slums rapidly and poorly built housing many of the industrial workforce, a stark contrast with the showy beauty of the 1834 Town Hall whose architect modelled it on a Greek temple. The initially radical politician Joseph Chamberlain , a councillor from 1868 and mayor between 1873 and 1876 addressed the town’s shortcomings with innovative thinking, taking over the utilities and improving them, and using the increased income to feed back into the system for further civil improvements.
But Birmingham was not only about industry, it developed culturally during the 19th century: it was known as a musical centre - Mendelssohn gave several concerts in the Town Hall; various galleries and theatres were established. And the city’s three great football clubs were founded: Aston Villa in1874; Birmingham City 1875; and West Bromwich Albion in 1878.
In 1889 Birmingham became a city; two years later an Act of Parliament legislated to account for the sprawling expansion which had taken in various surrounding settlements.
During WWII the city’s industries were largely diverted into war-work, making it a regular target for air raids. Post-war Birmingham was again an industrial power-house for a time, and some significant industries remain, though symbolically the Longridge car plant opened in 1905, once the world’s largest, was closed in 2005.
The city has had its share of new political and social problems since the war: in 1974 the IRA bombed pubs in Birmingham; in 1981, 1985, and 2005 parts of the city were engulfed in rioting, racial tensions erupting in violence. But it has also re-invented itself as a major educational centre with three universities; as home to huge exhibitions since the NEC was built in the 1970s; and now as a conference centre with the ICC opened in 1991. Had natural justice and logic prevailed it would in the opinion of many have been granted the national football stadium, given its readily accessible position at the heart of England.