A brief history of Birmingham

Best known for being one of the heartlands of the industrial revolution of the 18th century Birmingham has a history dating back to the Bronze Age 4000 years ago. Evidence of Bronze Age burial mounds had been found in the Kings Norton district, but there was no accompanying evidence of any settlements. During 2005, when work began on a relief road around the nearby suburb of Northfield, that evidence emerged setting a starting point for the history of the city. It is also known that the area around Selly Oak has connections with the Romans, possibly having been a junction between Roman military roads. One explanation of Selly Oak is that there was an Oak tree under which the soldiers would be ‘paid’ their salt.

Although the site of Weoley Castle, the manor house of Northfield, is mentioned in the Doomsday book as being the property of one William Fitz Ansculf, the recorded history of Birmingham only goes back about 1000 years and started when the city began to grow out of the various Anglo-Saxon settlements in the area. In 1166 King Henry II granted Peter De Bermingham, Lord of the Manor, permission to hold a weekly market which established Birmingham as a town. By 1250 the town had the right to hold an annual fair in the summer making it a regional centre of its time, attracting traders from all over the Midlands. During this time wool dyeing and weaving became a speciality of the town. Leather work from Birmingham also became popular and it was in the 14th century that Birmingham first started to develop a reputation in metal working. In 1500 Birmingham was still a small market town with a population of around 1,500 people. However, in the following years the population expanded rapidly. By 1560 it was 2000 and by 1650 had reached 5000 making it a large and important town to the Midlands. Its reputation for the quality of workmanship from its cutlers, nailors and Blacksmiths was well established with Birmingham being able to take advantage of the three natural resources; coal, iron ore and limestone from the nearby Black Country and the watermills by the streams which powered the bellows for the forges.

During the English Civil War Birmingham was staunchly Parliamentarian. However, it was sacked several times by the Royalists. It was at this time that Birmingham first became noted for the production of small arms, producing thousands of swords for Cromwell’s army. As the arms trade developed the area of the city where most of the manufacturing took place became known as the Birmingham Gun Quarter. At its peak it was producing thousands of firearms a week, including famous names such as Farmer & Galton and Webley & Scott. The Birmingham Small Arms Company (BSA) was not formed until 1861. In the 20th century it also went on to become well known for making motor-cycles and still has a factory in the Small Heath district manufacturing firearms.

In 1715 St Phillip’s church was built in the city centre, on Colmore Row. Later, the famous pre-Raphaelite painter Burne-Jones designed the stained glass windows, which still adorn it. In 1905 it became the Church of England cathedral in Birmingham. The first Roman Catholic cathedral to be built in England for 300 years, since the Reformation, was built in Birmingham in 1841. Designed by Augustus Pugin, St Chad’s is a classic example of revivalist Gothic architecture

During the 18th century, fuelled by the industrial revolution the population of Birmingham boomed. By 1750 it was 23,000 and by the end of the century it was 73,000. Business also boomed as the demand for metal products continued to rise. In 1769 the first canal in Birmingham was opened linking the town with Wednesbury, in the Black Country. It is around this time that the city also started to become famous for its jewellery and a flourishing glass trade was also developing. Linking back to the well established metal working trades in the town was the rise to prominence of Birmingham as a producer of pen nibs.

Throughout the 19th century the town council started to spend money from the wealth generated by the towns industries on civic projects. The Botanical Gardens opened in 1832, the new Town Hall was built in 1834, and public baths in 1852. 1861 saw the first Birmingham public library and the Museum and Art Gallery opened in 1885. The years between 1873-1875 saw the great civic leader, Joseph Chamberlain, as the Mayor. He went on to make Birmingham a role model for how a town council should provide for its citizens. By 1837 Birmingham was connected to Liverpool by a railway line and a year later it was connected to London. These events again caused a boom in trade giving Birmingham rapid access to the port of Liverpool to export goods and rapid communications with the capital city, London, helping commerce in the city to develop. With the population exceeding 500,000, in 1889 Birmingham was granted City status by a Royal Charter.

At the dawn of the 20th century new industries developed in the city: bicycle making, tyre manufacturing, electrical engineering and motor vehicle manufacturing companies all started up to provide the goods being demanded as the industrial age began to change to the technological age. In the 1930s the population hit the 1,000,000 mark and the city boundaries were expanded to allow more council homes to be built. Heavily bombed during World War II, the city was able to quickly demolish any remaining slum areas and provide housing more in keeping with the 20th century.

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