By Tim Lambert
Birmingham in the Middle Ages
Birmingham is the second-largest city in England. It began as a Saxon village. In the early 12th century it grew into a town. In 1166 the King gave the Lord of the Manor, Peter De Birmingham, the right to hold a weekly market at Birmingham. Once a market was up and running merchants and craftsmen came to live in Birmingham and it soon developed into a busy little town.
In 1250 the people of Birmingham were given the right to hold a fair each Summer. In the Middle Ages, a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year. Birmingham’s fair attracted buyers and sellers from all over the Midlands.
Medieval Birmingham became known for its wool industry. Wool was woven and dyed in the town. By the late 14th century Birmingham was also known for its metalworking industry. By then it was also known for leatherworking. Leather was tanned and then used to make gloves, saddles, bottles, shoes, and many other things.
In the Middle Ages, the church ran the only hospitals. In them, monks would care for the sick and poor as best they could. In the early 13th century a ‘hospital’ dedicated to St Thomas was built in Birmingham.
In 1500 Birmingham was still a small market town with a population of about 1,500. It would seem tiny to us and even by the standards of the time, it was a little town. The Old Crown House was built in the 14th century.
Birmingham in the 16th century and 17th century
In the 16th century, Birmingham grew rapidly. In 1547 the population was around 1,800 people. By 1560 it had probably passed 2,000. In the 17th century, Birmingham continued to grow rapidly. In 1650 it had a population of around 5,000. By then it was a fairly large and important place.
In 1570 a writer said Birmingham was ‘full of inhabitants and echoing with forges. The lower part of it is very wet, the upper adorned with handsome buildings’. Aston Hall was built in 1635.
In the Middle Ages, there was only one fair in Birmingham but by the early 16th century there were two. Furthermore, in the Middle Ages, there was also just one general market but by the middle of the 16th century, there were three specialized markets, the Cornmarket, the Welsh market, and the English market.
Wool was still woven and dyed in Tudor Birmingham. Leather was also tanned and made into goods in the town. There was, in the 16th century, a leather hall in Birmingham where it could be bought and sold.
However, the newer industry of metalworking was fast taking over. Tudor Birmingham gained a reputation as a place where cutlers made knives, nailers made nails and many blacksmiths worked at their forges. Birmingham had 3 natural advantages. Firstly it was near to a source of iron ore. Secondly, it was by a coal seam, which provided fuel for forges. Lastly, it was surrounded by streams so that watermills could power the bellows for forges.
Meanwhile, in the middle of the 16th century, a grammar school was founded in Birmingham.
The civil war between the king and parliament began in 1642. In October 1642 the king came to Birmingham with his army. His soldiers looted the houses of civilians. After the king left the townspeople attacked his baggage train and looted it.
In April 1643 a royalist army was sent to capture Birmingham. The townspeople erected earth defenses across the roads but the royalists simply marched across the open country into the town. They then set about plundering Birmingham again.
The first mention of a fire engine in Birmingham was in 1695.
Birmingham in the 18th century
St Phillips Church was built in 1715. By 1720 Birmingham had a population between 11,000 and 12,000. By 1750 the population had risen to around 24,000. By the end of the century, the population of Birmingham had risen to 73,000.
Industry in Birmingham continued to boom during the 18th century. Metalworking of all kinds flourished in the town. Artifacts made in Birmingham included buckles for shoes, blades, pins, nails, screws, bolts, and buttons. Some craftsmen made brass fittings such as handles for coffins. There were also many gunsmiths and some locksmiths. In the late 18th-century glass making boomed in Birmingham. Meanwhile, Sarehole Mill was built in 1765.
In 1724 charity school called the Blue Coat school was founded. It was so-called because the children wore blue uniforms. In 1769 an act of Parliament formed a body of men called the Street Commissioners who had powers to clean and light the streets of Birmingham. They appointed a ‘scavenger’ who collected all the rubbish (which included large amounts of animal dung) from the streets and sold it as fertilizer. They also widened the streets by demolishing houses. Furthermore, they lit the streets of Birmingham with oil lamps.
Also in 1769, a canal was built from Wednesbury to Birmingham. The General Hospital was built in 1779. Two new wings were added in 1790. In 1792 a dispensary was opened where the poor could obtain free medicine.
Birmingham in the 19th century
In 1801, at the time of the first census Birmingham had a population of 73,670, which meant it was one of Britain’s largest and most important towns.
In 1818 the Street Commissioners began to provide gas street lighting. But in 1852 their powers were transferred to the Town Council.
In the 19th century industry in Birmingham was still dominated by metalworking. The workers of the town still made nails, brass goods (such as bedsteads), nuts and bolts, screws, and buttons. They also made pen nibs and toys. There were also jewelers and gunsmiths in Birmingham. In the late 19th century railway carriages were made in Birmingham. So were bicycles. Glass making was also an important industry. From the end of the 19th century, there was also a cocoa and chocolate industry at Bournville.
A new Town Hall was built in Birmingham in 1834. It was built to imitate the temple of Castor and Pollux in Rome. St Chad’s Roman Catholic Cathedral was built in 1841.
Like most towns in the early 19th century, Birmingham was dirty and unsanitary. But in the second half of the century conditions improved. In the 1850s a network of sewers was dug under the streets of Birmingham. A by-law passed in 1861 stated that all new houses must be connected to a sewer. Unfortunately, it did not apply to houses already built some of whom had to wait decades before they were connected).
Birmingham Water Company was formed in 1826 to provide piped water to part of the town but citizens had to pay for this service and even where it was available many people could not afford it. They relied on wells or water carriers who sold water from carts in the streets. In 1875 Birmingham council took over the water company and after that sanitary inspectors closed many private wells. But it was not until a reservoir was built at Elan Valley in 1904 that Birmingham’s water supply problems were solved.
Although conditions improved in Birmingham during the 19th century there were epidemics of smallpox in 1871-72, 1874, and 1883. There were also epidemics of scarlet fever in Birmingham in 1878 and 1882-3.
However, amenities in Birmingham gradually improved. Winson Green asylum opened in 1850. Rubery Hill asylum opened in 1881. Queens hospital opened in 1847. (It closed in 1993). A general hospital opened in 1897 but it later became a children’s hospital.
The Botanical Gardens opened in 1832 and the first public baths opened in 1852. The first public park in Birmingham opened in 1856. In 1873-75 Joseph Chamberlain was mayor of Birmingham. He was a great believer in local authorities taking responsibility for services like water and parks and set an example for many other local politicians.
The Council House was built in 1879 and the Museum and Art Gallery opened in 1885. Then in 1889, Birmingham was made a city.
A railway from Birmingham to Manchester and Liverpool was opened in 1837. Then from 1838, Birmingham was connected to London by rail. From 1873 horse-drawn trams ran in Birmingham. The town gained its first electricity supply in 1882. The first electric trams ran in Birmingham in 1890.
The first modern fire brigade in Birmingham was formed in 1874 and the first telephone exchange opened in 1879. The first public library in Birmingham opened in 1861. A Municipal School of Art opened in 1885. It was followed by a Municipal Technical School in 1891.
In 1891 the boundaries of Birmingham were extended to include Balsall Heath, Harborne, Saltley, and Ward End.
Birmingham in the 20th century
Birmingham University was founded in 1909. Birmingham Repertory Theatre was built in 1913.
In the early 20th century the traditional metalworking industries continued in Birmingham. So did more modern ones like bicycle making and tire making. Electrical engineering became an important industry in Birmingham at that time. However in the late 20th century manufacturing industry in Birmingham went into a steep decline. They were eventually replaced by service industries.
In 1909 the boundaries of Birmingham were extended again to include Quinton. In 1911 they were extended yet again. This time Handsworth, Aston Manor, Erdington, Yardley, Northfield, and Kings Norton were included. Between 1919 and 1939 nearly 50,000 council houses were built in Birmingham. About 65,000 private houses were also built.
The boundaries of Birmingham were extended in 1928 to include Perry Barr. In 1931 they were extended to include Castle Bromwich and Sheldon. By then Birmingham had a population of about 1 million. The South African War Memorial in Cannon Hill Park was built in 1905. A Hall of Memory was built in 1925.
Fox Hollies Park opened in 1929. The Barber Institute of Fine Arts opened in 1932. A School of Speech and Drama opened in 1936. Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth Hospital was opened in 1938.
During the Second World War Birmingham was, as a major manufacturing center, an obvious target for German bombing. More than 2,000 people died as a result of the bombing.
In the years 1945-54 more than 37,000 council houses were built in Birmingham. By 1970 the number had risen to over 80,000. They were sorely needed. A survey in 1954 showed that 20% of the houses in Birmingham were unfit for human habitation.
In 1956 a statue of 3 famous men, Bolton, Watt, and Murdoch was erected in Broad Street. Birmingham Rotunda opened in 1965. In 1966 a statue named Hebe was erected in Holloway Circus.
An inner ring road was built in Birmingham between 1960 and 1971. Aston University was founded in 1966. In 1971 New Street Station was rebuilt. A Nature Centre opened in Birmingham in 1975.
The Bull Ring shopping centre was built in 1964. In 1973 a shopping centre was built over Birmingham station. In the 1980s it was refurbished and renamed the Pallasades. The Pavilions Shopping Centre opened in 1987. City Plaza followed in 1989. Mailbox Shopping Centre opened in 2000.
In 1987 the City Council unveiled a new City Centre Strategy. Birmingham city centre was to be rebuilt and refurbished. The International Conference Centre and Indoor Arena opened in 1991.
Also in 1991 the sculpture named ‘forward’ was unveiled. Other public sculptures in Birmingham include a statue of Thomas Attwood in Chamberlain Square and Iron Man unveiled in 1993. Also in 1993 fountains and sculptures including the one called The River were erected in Victoria Square, which was pedestrianised. A statue of Tony Hancock was erected in 1996. Ikon Gallery opened in 1998. Furthermore, the Midland Metro System opened in Birmingham in 1999.
Birmingham in the 21st century
In 2001 Millennium Point opened at Digbeth. It includes Thinktank the Museum of Science and Discovery, Imax Cinema, the Technology Innovation Centre, the University of the First Age, and the Hub, which is made up of shops and cafes.
Today finance and tourism are important industries in Birmingham.
In 2020 the population of Birmingham was 1.2 million.