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Key to the City™, Birmingham.

A Brief History of Birmingham

Bull Ring, Birmingham
Bull Ring, Birmingham

Birmingham as a settlement dates from the Anglo-Saxon era. The home (ham) of the tribe (ing) of a leader called Birm or Beorma. Geography played a major role in the transformation of Birmingham from a medium-sized market town into Britain's centre of manufacturing in the 20th century.

It was a dry site with a good supply of water, routes converging at Deritend Ford across the River Rea. There was easy access to coal, iron and timber. The development of Birmingham into a significant urban and commercial centre began in 1156, when the Lord of the Manor Peter de Bermingham obtained a charter from Henry II to hold a market at his castle. In 1250 William de Bermingham obtained permission to hold a four day fair at Whitsun.

In addition the family allowed many freedoms to their tenants and there were no restrictive obstacles to trade. Developing as a market centre, Birmingham also saw the beginnings of small scale smithing and metal working. Craftsmen were listed amongst the taxpayers in 1327. When Leland visited Birmingham in 1538 there were 1500 people in 200 houses, one main street with a number of side streets, markets and many smiths who were selling goods all over England. The de Bermingham family held the Lordship of the manor of Birmingham for four hundred years from around 1150.

Boulton, Watt and Murdoch Statue, Birmingham
Boulton, Watt and Murdoch Statue, Birmingham

By supplying the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War (1642-46) with swords, pikes and armour, Birmingham emerged with a strong reputation as a metal working centre. By 1731 the population had grown to 23,000 and manufacturing business thrived. By the time of the Industrial Revolution Birmingham had become the industrial and commercial centre of the Midlands.

Most significant, however, was the development in 1776 of the industrial steam engine by James Watt and Matthew Boulton. Freeing for the first time the manufacturing capacity of human society from the limited availability of hand, water and animal power, this was arguably the pivotal moment of the entire industrial revolution and a key factor in the worldwide increases in productivity that would follow over the following century.

New Street Railway Station, Birmingham
New Street Railway Station, Birmingham

By 1791 it was being hailed as "the first manufacturing town in the world". Birmingham's distinctive economic profile, with thousands of small workshops practising a wide variety of specialised and highly skilled trades, encouraged exceptional levels of creativity and innovation and provided a diverse and resilient economic base for industrial prosperity that was to last into the 20th century.

Ratcliff Place, Birmingham
Ratcliff Place, Birmingham

Birmingham's tradition of innovation continued into the 19th century. Birmingham was at the heart of the country's canal network and later the terminus for both of the world's first two long-distance railway lines. During the Victorian era, the population of Birmingham grew rapidly to well over half a million and Birmingham became the second largest population centre in England.

The 1950s and 1960s would be Birmingham's worst period when the city was extensively redeveloped. Many fine Victorian buildings were demolished and motorways were driven through the city centre. The city lost much of its character, becoming a concrete jungle and very pedestrian unfriendly. This included the demolition of streets around the Bull Ring including the fine Market Hall, the Free Library and buildings around Chamberlain Square, Snow Hill and New Street stations. Today the city is slowly removing the mistakes of this era.

Last Updated Friday 6 March 2020

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