1. History & Traditions
Small farming settlements existed in the Birmingham area since the Bronze Age.
In Roman times, the Icknield Street Roman road passed through what is now the Birmingham area, and a large military fort and marching camp existed in what is now southern Birmingham.
Remains have also been found of a Roman setllement named Vicus in the Birmingham area alongside the Roman fort.
Until the Middle Ages, the Birmingham area was a sparsely populated backwater, due to poor quality soil which made agriculture unproductive.
Much of the area was covered by the once-vast Forest of Arden.
Birmingham probably came into being as a small Anglo-Saxon village.
The name 'Birmingham' is derived from the Saxon name Beormaham. At some point 'ing' (people) was interjected. The meaning is a hamlet or village of Beorma's people, Beorma probably being a local Saxon tribal leader.
After the Norman conquest of Britain the area passed into the hands of the de Birmingham family (usually spelt de Bermingham) who established a small farming estate.
Birmingham was recorded as a minor village in the Domesday Book (1086) which stated that
there was land for six ploughs, but only three plough teams were used, there were the families of five villiens and four borders; woodland half a league by two furlongs, had no mill nor meadow.
It also stated that there was a manor, worth 20s, around a fifth of
the value of neighbouring manors Aston and Northfield. The manor house
was surrounded by a moat, which explains the origins of today's
'Moat Lane' and Birmingham City Council's 'Manor House' offices in the area.
Around the year 1154, lord of the estate Peter de Birmingham obtained a charter to hold a market. The market transformed Birmingham from a tiny, undistinguished farming village into a thriving centre of trade.
The market came to be called the Bull Ring
. Located at a crossing point on the River Rea, Birmingham was at a focal point for trackways in the area, and for this reason attracted much trade, which in turn attracted skilled craftsmen to set up business there.
Throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the growth of
Birmingham continued steadily.
The growth of Birmingham is indicated by the poll tax return of 1327, where the number of taxpayers in the town was third only to Warwick and Coventry in Warwickshire.
The de Birminghams retained control of the area until 1527, when John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland gained control of the town.
The area is now hugely changed of course, but Digbeth is marked on the map, and still exists. There is a pub (The Crown) from the 14th century still in Digbeth.
St Martin's in the Bull Ring
The parish church of Birmingham, or "The Cathedral of the Bull Ring", as some would say. The first church was probably Norman, but was rebuilt in the 13th century.
As it stands today, most of the church dates from the late 19th century, though inside you can see effigies of the de Berminghams, who were Lords of the Manor.
There are windows by Burne-Jones and William Morris inside.
From at least the 13th century, St Martin's church has been at the centre
of the area now known as the Bull Ring
, and it is almost certain that there
was a church on the site when Henry II granted a charter for a market.
The church was first mentioned in a written source of 1263. However in around 1290, a member of the de Bermingham family built a new church. Unfortunately, the church was built of red sandstone, a very soft material that weathered badly.
This meant that by 1690 there was serious deterioration of the building's fabric.
To try to combat the deterioration, the whole building (the tower included though not the spire) was encased in three thicknesses of red brick.
It was to stay like this for the next 200 or so years, but even that did
not stop the erosion of the sandstone.
Consequently, in 1873, the church, apart from the previously restored tower and spire, was rebuilt, and stands to this day.
This church was designed by Birmingham architect Alfred Chatwin.
Until the 17th century, St. Martin's was the only Birmingham church, and the population
subsequently grew so quickly that church facilities were rapidly in short supply!
St. Philip's church (in Colmore Row) was consecrated in 1720 and became St. Philip's (Birmingham) Cathedral in the late 19th c.
The Market and the Bull Ring
The site of the Bull Ring, beneath the St Martin’s Church, has always been the city’s historic market centre.
In the 12th century, a charter was granted to allow Peter de Bermingham, the lord
of the manor of Berm, to hold a weekly market every Thursday at his
manor, and levy tolls on goods and produce sold therein.
The geographical location of Birmingham, standing on the river Rea at the only good crossing in the area, combined
with this market charter were crucial factors in the early development of Birmingham.
From this time on, the town grew and flourished as craftsmen and traders began to settle in Birmingham to be near the market.
The name 'The Bull Ring' came about in the 16th century when a man called John Cooper was given the right to bait bulls at a site opposite St Martins Church.
At the time, this was one of the most popular sports, and the activity continued on the site until 1798, when it ceased to be held in the Bull Ring, instead being staged at Handsworth, which was outside the boundaries of Birmingham at that time.
As the town grew, the markets, at its very core continued to flourish.
The 19th century Bull Ring consisted of shops as well as markets.
The place was alive with people trading in all manner of goods.
Even as a child in the late 1940s, I remember well the traditional street entertainments that still took
place in the open market. These included a dancing bear and an escapologist
who got out of a chained, padlocked, sack. The picture (above) of St. Martin's
and the Bull Ring market was taken at about the same time - in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
In 1809, a statue of Lord Nelson was opened in the Bull Ring, in memory
of the men who died in the battle of Trafalgar in 1805.
In 1834 the original Market Hall was built in the Bull Ring, with enough room
for 600 stalls. The building was a magnificent hall, which overlooked the
street traders and barrow boys. Gas lighting was installed to allow trade
to continue after dusk.
My paternal great-grandfather, William Lerwill, sold his clocks here in the later part of the
19th c. His older two sons were also greatly involved in his business of clock-making, and the
third son was the one who had the task of taking the goods by cart from Milk Street to
market in the 1890s, before he joined up as a regular soldier.
The market hall was bombed and gutted in 1940 by a German
incendiary bomb. It was still in use however, although roofless until the
first redevelopment of the Bull Ring (see below under Regeneration) swept it away in the early 1960s.
By the 1950’s the old Bull Ring site seemed to have everything, from shops like Chapmans selling birds, the Army & Navy store, and the largest Woolworths of its day.
Beginnings of Industrialisation
From the 16th century onwards, Birmingham became a centre of many metalworking industries, with a skilled population of ironmongers. Birmingham also became a centre of arms manufacturing, with guns and swords being produced in the town.
Birmingham's inland location, away from any major transport links, meant that its manufacturers had to produce goods of high quality and value to compensate the high cost of transport. This gave Birmingham a reputation for quality.
The armarments trade was greatly helped by the English Civil War: In 1642, Birmingham was sacked by the royalist forces lead by Prince Rupert. Following this, Birmingham allied itself with the Parliamentarian cause and Birmingham manufacturers supplied the Roundheads with much of their weaponry. Reputedly, 15,000 swords were produced in Birmingham for Oliver Cromwell's forces.
The Industrial Revolution
Birmingham's skilled workforce, and the fact that Birmingham was located near the coalfields of northern Warwickshire and Staffordshire, meant that the town grew rapidly during the Industrial revolution. By the mid 18th century, Birmingham had become the largest town in Warwickshire.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, Birmingham became a centre of the canal system, which greatly aided its industrial growth.
During this time, Birmingham was home to Matthew Boulton, James Watt, William Murdoch, Joseph Priestley who, with others, formed the Lunar Society.
"Others" included Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of the evolution theorist, Charles Darwin.
The idea of these meetings was both social and scientific, to exchange views with each other on various topics.
In the 1830s the Grand Junction Railway (linking onwards to Liverpool and Manchester) and the London and Birmingham Railway were built and shortly aftwerwards, Birmingham New Street station became the hub of the national railway network.
Due to its growing size, in the 1830s Birmingham was incorporated as a borough and gained Parliamentary representation, following abolition of the rotten boroughs.
During the 19th century, Birmingham's population grew rapidly and by the middle of that century Birmingham had become the second-largest population centre in Britain. Birmingham became known as the "city of a thousand trades" because of the wide variety of goods manufactured there.
The "Jewellery Quarter"
centred on Hockley (north Birmingham) became especially famous.
It was also during the 19th century that Birmingham gained its reputation (which is perpetuated to this day by those ignorant of recent changes) as a grim industrial city.
In 1873, Joseph Chamberlain
became mayor of the city. Under his leadership, the council introduced many innovative civic improvements. The town council purchased the city's gas and water works which improved the lighting and provided clean drinking water to the city,
and pioneered slum-clearance schemes.
He was instrumental in providing a healthy income for the council and in the building of the Council House and the Victoria Law Courts in Corporation Street. Numerous public parks were also opened mostly as a result of bequests of lands from prominent personages, such as the Calthorpe family. The improvements introduced by Chamberlain were to prove the blueprint for municipal government, and were soon copied by other cities.
Birmingham became a county borough in 1889, and a city in 1896.
Between 1889 and 1911 the boundaries of Birmingham were expanded to include the formerly separate towns of Aston, Edgbaston, Erdington, Handsworth, King's Norton, Northfield and Yardley, some of which had been part of Staffordshire and Worcestershire.
In 1974, as part of a local government reorganisation, Birmingham expanded again, this time taking over the borough of Sutton Coldfield to the north. Birmingham lost its county borough status and instead became a metropolitan borough under the new West Midlands County Council.
During the 20th century, Birmingham's population continued to increase.
In the First and Second World Wars, the Longbridge car plant built everything imaginable from ammunition to tank suspensions, steel helmets, Jerricans, Hawker Hurricane fighters, Fairey Battle light bombers, Horsa gliders (as used at Pegasus Bridge and Arnhem), mines and depth charges, with the mammoth Avro Lancaster bomber coming into production towards the end of WWII. The Spitfire fighter aircraft was mass produced for the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain, at Castle Bromwich.
The Castle Bromwich airfield was the home of Battle of Britain anniversary air displays until 1958,
when the land became utilised for the purposes of Castle Vale housing estate.
The city was heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe during World War II, in a failed attempt to break the morale of the city's workers and reduce its vital industrial capacity. By the war's end over 5,000 citizens were killed or seriously injured, and over 6,000 homes were destroyed. Many of Birmingham's fine buildings were also destroyed in the air raids. It has been argued that Britain may have lost the war had it not been for Birmingham's industrial might. However, not-far-away Coventry (also a great engineering and industrial centre) also suffered greatly from the bombings, and both cities and their people (and the whole West Midlands area) take great credit in being able to continue their massive contribution to the war effort.
In the postwar years, a massive program of slum clearances took place, and vast areas of the city were re-built, with overcrowded "back to back" housing being replaced by high rise blocks of flats (the last remaining block of four back to backs have become a museum). The city centre was also extensively re-built, especially the Bull Ring Shopping Centre. Birmingham also became a centre of the national motorway network, with Spaghetti Junction
being a famous linkage between the M6, M5, Aston Expressway and other main roads.
In 1974, two city-centre pubs were bombed by the IRA, with consequential mortalities.
In the years following World War II a major influx of immigrants from the British Commonwealth changed the face of Birmingham, with large communities from Southern Asia and the Caribbean settling in the city, turning Birmingham into one of the UK's leading multicultural cities. As of 2001, 29.7% of the city's population was made up of ethnic minority communities. Amongst the largest minority communities, 10.6% of Birmingham residents are Pakistani, 5.7% are Indian, 6.1% are Black Caribbean or African, and 2.9% are of mixed race.
Since the early 1980s, Birmingham has seen a new wave of migration, this time from communities which do not have Commonwealth roots, including people from Kosovo and Somalia.
Sport is mainly represented by Aston Villa
(at Villa Park, or - as once called - Aston Lower Grounds)
and Birmingham City (originally called Small Heath Alliance) in soccer,
Moseley in Rugby Union and Birchfield Harriers is famous in athletics' circles.
Warwickshire County Cricket Club has its headquarters at Edgbaston, and is a perpetually recognised
test match ground.
It's not a well-known fact that music has been taken very seriously in Birmingham over the years. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (for example) has for many years been recognised as a leading British orchestra. But not only classical music has been represented, but various forms of popular music also. The once-famous Moody Blues and UB40 were but two pop groups originating from Birmingham - as did the Spencer Davis R & B group. And then there was my own particular love of the 1960s - the Ian Campbell Folk Group, including the incomparable Dave Swarbrick. Click here for more information about the Ian Campbell Folk Group
. Their wonderful folk music at the Jug o' Punch - and Ian Campbell himself was a fine writer of songs - lit up my Thursday nights!
In the 1970s, the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) was built, 10 miles southeast of the centre, close to Birmingham International Airport. Although it is actually just inside neighbouring Solihull, it was instigated, and largely owned, by Birmingham Council, and is thought by most people to be in the city. It has been expanded several times since then.
The International Convention Centre (ICC) opened in central Birmingham in the early 1990s.
The massive new Central Reference Library was completed in the 1970s, and the nearby area around Broad Street, including the canal network, Centenary Square, the ICC and Brindleyplace, was extensively renovated at the turn of the Millennium.
In 1998 a G8 summit was held in Birmingham, and US president Bill Clinton was clearly impressed by the city. He famously had a drink in a canalside pub - though he never paid for his beer!
In September 2003, after a year long redevelopment project, the new Bull Ring shopping complex was opened. In 2003, the city failed in its bid to become the 2008 European Capital of Culture, under the banner "Be in Birmingham 2008".
The 1960s had seen the first redevelopment of the Bull Ring. Work began on
this development in 1961, and three years and eight million pounds
later the new centre was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh.
The development was a massive undertaking, covering 23 acres,
with 350,000 sq feet of retail trade area. It was described as 'the ultimate shopping experience', and the biggest indoor shopping mall outside of
America. It contained high street names, as well as independent shops,
an indoor market and the 'Bull Ring Outdoor Market'.
In 1964, the Rotunda was added to the city centre development.
Originally meant to be 11 storeys, it ended up as 25. One of the most
famous landmarks of the Birmingham skyline, the Rotunda has been both celebrated and berated. It is a true love it or hate it figure.
A few years ago the Rotunda was threatened with demolition. Thankfully however, it survived, and will continue to dominate the skyline of the city
centre for many years to come.
By the 1980’s, and despite its trading history, Birmingham had little to offer in terms of the burgeoning growth of new generation retailers and department stores. The old Bull Ring shopping centre was tired and jaded, and the city had only one department store - a retail offer which was not on a par with Birmingham’s growing status as a leading centre for business and culture.
The latest redevelopment of the 40-acre Bull Ring site by The Birmingham Alliance is another milestone in the city’s history of innovation. The 110,000 square metres' scheme has been cited as the catalyst for Birmingham’s transformation into a world class retail capital - bringing modern, retail space into the city with department stores for Debenhams and Selfridges, over 140 shops, cafes and restaurants, 3,000 new car parking spaces, new open spaces, walkways and performance areas, and iconic new architecture.
Drawing on Birmingham’s historic street patterns, the Bull Ring is composed of a series of traditional streets, squares and open spaces, which once again link New Street and High Street to St Martin’s Church, the open markets, Digbeth and beyond. The Bull Ring provides a gateway to the east side of the city where plans are in place to regenerate the area and create a public park and learning quarter.
As part of the Bull Ring development existing landmarks such as the Rotunda, the old Moor Street Station, and St Martins Church have been cleaned and restored, and long lost historic Birmingham street names, going back as far as the 18th century, have been reintroduced.
A new pedestrian walkway next to St Martin’s Queensway has been called ‘Swan Passage’ after the nearby ancient route of ‘Swan Alley’, which appears on the 1731 plan of the city. Other names to reappear include Jamaica Row and Spiceal Street which first appeared in 1795.