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Post Visiting Birmingham, "City of a Thousand Trades"
Created by John Eipper on 08/13/19 3:31 AM

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Visiting Birmingham, "City of a Thousand Trades" (Patrick Mears, Germany, 08/13/19 3:31 am)

John E asked me a few days ago if I would pen a post about visiting Birmingham, the second largest city in the UK, because it "tends to be off the radar of tourists." Below is a report on this city in the West Midlands, which boasts a population of slightly over 1 million. The entire metropolitan area, however, contains in excess of 4.3 million people. Of this population, approximately 58% are classified as White, 27% are Asian, 9% are Black, with the remainder being Chinese, mixed race, and "other." Interestingly, Birmingham has the highest Gypsy and Traveller population of any city in the UK.

I. Introduction: A Brief Overview of Birmingham, its Establishment and Growth

Evidence of human habitation of the area now encompassed by the City of Birmingham's boundaries goes back to the Old Stone Age, many thousands of years before the Romans conquered Britain. After their conquest, a fort and road were constructed circa 43-48 AD within the present city boundaries by advancing Roman legions, but this structure was permanently abandoned by them approximately 70 years later. The Anglo-Saxon hamlet of Birmingham was established in either the Sixth or Seventh Century AD, and in 1086 a village of the same name was mentioned in the Domesday Book. This market town began its steady growth in the 12th Century, and beginning in the late 18th Century with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, Birmingham entered into a prolonged period of economic expansion and wealth accumulation. Factories manufacturing jewelry, buttons, pens, guns and other commercial articles multiplied throughout the city and its suburbs and a system of canals in the city began to be constructed in 1768, which network soon expanded throughout the region. The building of railroads servicing Birmingham followed during the 1830s, further linking the city's economy with that of the rest of the nation. Following the invention of the automobile, The Austin Motor Company Ltd. constructed an assembly plant in Birmingham and other manufacturers followed suit in nearby Coventry. Two nicknames for the city, "The City of a Thousand Trades" and "The Workshop of the World," reflect these industrial achievements. Nevertheless all things must pass, and beginning in the late-1960s and early-1970s Birmingham experienced an erosion of its manufacturing base, with many factories moving their operations to other locations or simply liquidating. Nevertheless, the city has been extraordinarily creative and agile in developing and implementing alternative strategies to restart the area's economic development, leading to the result that the city and surrounding region continue to grow and prosper.

II. The Industrial Revolution 1: James Watt and the Lunar Society

During our recent visit, Connie and I learned that the city is commemorating the 200th anniversary of the passing of James Watt (1736-1819), the Scottish-born inventor whose creations and innovations made an enormous impact on the progress of the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom and throughout the world. By 1776, Watt and his partner, Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), vastly improved the performance of an existing steam engine invented in 1712 by creating and installing a separate condenser which, when attached to the machine, permitted it to run without being shut down for periodic coolings. Watt also invented other machines, among them a copier, and developed the concept of horsepower. The "watt," a unit of power in the International System of Units, was named after him. Watt was also a key member of the group of intellectuals and modernists named the "Lunar Society," which gave birth and sustenance to the "Midlands Enlightenment" and whose members met regularly from 1765 to 1813. The society convened its meetings regularly at homes of certain members, including that of Matthew Boulton named "Soho House," and the residence of Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin. The name of the society was derived from the its rule that meetings would only be held on nights of the full moon in order to aid members in returning to their homes in the years prior to the development of modern street lighting.

The City of Birmingham is going "whole hog" concerning James Watt this year, with an extensive array of special events, lectures, and exhibitions throughout the city and region as described in this online brochure: https://www.jameswatt2019.org . Connie and I toured an enlightening exhibition located in the Library of Birmingham during our recent visit, which gives the reader a broad and well-defined picture of this important inventor and his many brainchildren. Also open for touring is the home of Matthew Boulton and venue of numerous Lunar Society meetings, Soho House, which is located in the area of Handsworth just north of Birmingham's city center.

III. The Industrial Revolution 2: Canal Construction

Birmingham is located within an extensive network of canals built during the 18th and 19th Centuries, many of which are still operating today. These canals attract a large number of tourists, who may take short or long journeys on historic canal boats. For example, these vessels are readily available for hire in the city centers of Birmingham and nearby Stratford-upon-Avon. We took such a journey lasting 65 minutes from the Birmingham City Center going west on the Birmingham Main Line, passing through the city to a tumbledown area of overgrown fields, abandoned brick factories, crumbling wharves and disused canal tow-paths.

One such canal, the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, has its origins in 1791 with the passage of a bill in Parliament authorizing its construction. Although work on the canal began the next year, the route was not completed until 1815. The present canal is 29 miles long and contains 58 locks, enabling boats to climb the 428 feet from Worcester to Birmingham. This canal and the many others throughout the United Kingdom accelerated the speed of the Industrial Revolution by, inter alia, permitting faster and more efficient transport of goods, fuel and other products from business to business. This innovation was critical to the surge of development in Birmingham's "Jewellery Quarter," discussed immediately below.

IV. The Industrial Revolution 3: The Jewellery Quarter

The name, "Jewellery Quarter," is the current moniker of an area in the northwest portion of Birmingham's City Centre consisting of 264 acres and which is still home to Europe's largest concentration of businesses involved in the jewelry trade. This area began to attract jewelry workshops and merchants in the late-18th Century, with the establishment of Birmingham's Assay Office there in 1773 and the completion of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal through the south portion of the quarter in 1789, thereby easing the transport of commercial and consumer goods to businesses and homes. By 1850, the jewelry trade's position in the city's economy was profoundly important and by 1914, employment in this trade reached its high point of approximately 20,000 workers. However, the trade began to decline steadily after the Great War, with many businesses going out of business or moving to other areas. It should also be noted that other manufacturing enterprises were established in the quarter during the 19th and early-20th Centuries, including factories and workshops for the manufacture of pens and even a facility for the design and crafting of coffin furniture and fixtures.

In order to redevelop the quarter after the loss of so many of its businesses over time, the City of Birmingham proposed and implemented redevelopment plans for the area beginning in the early-1950s. In November 1998, the City Council adopted the "Jewellery Quarter Urban Village Framework Plan," which promoted a mixed-use development to regenerate the area and attract cutting-edge businesses and individuals to establish their offices and residences there. The City Council also advocates and facilitates the preservation of historical buildings in the quarter and the conversion of some of them into museums that detail the history of these structures and the businesses that formerly occupied them. Prime examples of these institutions are (i) the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter on Vyse Street, (ii) the Pen Museum on Frederick Street, and (iii) the Coffin Works/Newman Brothers Museum on Fleet Street. Connie and I visited these three museums during our recent stay in Birmingham and were fascinated by their intriguing exhibitions and brilliant tours.

V. Corn Law Repeal and Free Trade: The Contributions of John Bright

A well-trodden tourist path in Birmingham's City Center runs from The Mailbox, a development containing many hotels, restaurants, stores and specialty shops, underneath the Suffolk Street Queensway overpass, and continuing on to the New Street Railway Station surrounded by the spacious and extensive Grand Central and Bullring shopping areas. Along the way to the station, one is likely to come across John Bright Street, dedicated to the famous Member of Parliament who sat in the House of Commons during the period of 1843 to 1889 and who, along with Richard Cobden, founded the Anti-Corn Law League which spearheaded the successful campaign to repeal the Corn Laws. These high protectionist tariffs on imported corn not only beggared the British working class by keeping prices for this commodity aloft, but also supported the political power of the landed gentry. The repeal of these tariffs in 1846 not only removed this artificial prop for corn prices but also ushered in an era of "free trade" policy and practices which were to remain UK policy until the onset of the Great Depression. John Bright served in Parliament representing his Birmingham constituency from 1858 to his death in 1889, and has been honored not only by the street bearing his name but also by a magisterial, white-marble statue commanding the entrance to the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

VI. Art, Music and Urban Reconstruction

Speaking of art, Birmingham's Museum & Art Gallery, located on Chamberlain Square in the City Centre, was opened by the Prince of Wales on November 28, 1885, after a successful campaign for public subscriptions. It presently holds over 40 galleries and contains important collections of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, numerous paintings by famous artists including J.M.W. Turner, John Constable, Canaletto and Sandro Botticelli and prominently features the Staffordshire Hoard, which was discovered only in 2009 near Lichfield and contains the largest aggregation of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found. The hoard is believed to have been buried sometime in the 7th Century under circumstances that are still shrouded in mystery. Another outstanding permanent exhibit in the museum is titled "Birmingham: its people, its history," situated on the third floor. This attraction features objects that recount fascinating tales of the city's past and its inhabitants. Also during our visit, we were able to enter a special exhibition in honor of what is perhaps the best-known band made up of home-grown, Birmingham musicians, Black Sabbath.

In addition to the Museum and Art Gallery, the Birmingham art scene boasts a slew of private art galleries. Perhaps the best known of this impressive group is the Ikon Gallery at Brindley Place, which was founded in 1964 by a group of local artists to promote and present contemporary and modern art. Other private galleries include the RBSA (Royal Birmingham Society of Artists) Gallery at 4 Brook Street in the Jewellery Quarter and the Eastside Projects on Heath Mill Lane in the old Irish quarter of Digbeth.

In keeping with its status as the UK's second most populous city, Birmingham boasts a large number of venues for entertainment. Although it had a number of predecessors, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) was established as a permanent, muncipally funded orchestra in 1920. After the CBSO hired in 1980 Simon Rattle (now the chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker) as the orchestra's conductor, CBSO's international reputation skyrocketed. The current conductor is Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, a young woman who hails from Lithuania. The orchestra, whose present home is Symphony Hall, consists of 75 professional musicians and performs more than 150 concerts per year. In addition to the public venue of Symphony Hall, there are other similar locales that feature other live music, such as the Elgar Concert Hall and the O2 Academy, along with local restaurants and pubs, including The Canal House restaurant and pub on Bridge Street and Clearys Irish Bar on Moseley Street in Digbeth.

Finally, a word of caution to the visitor planning a trip to Birmingham: the City Centre is presently undergoing extensive reconstruction, which is designed to facilitate the freer flow of traffic and pedestrians throughout the area. Unfortunately, this activity now makes it difficult to navigate the City Centre due to cordoned-off streets and sidewalks combined with insufficient signage to direct the flow of pedestrians, especially tourists, towards their desired destinations. A detailed map, infinite patience, and an absence of shyness when asking locals for directions will likely serve as essential ingredients for a successful visit to "The City of a Thousand Trades."

JE comments:   Pat, the Birmingham Tourism Bureau should take note:  you've inspired the WAISitudes to visit.  Birmingham is a town a Detroiter can identify with--gritty and "redefining" itself, but with a rich past of innovation and manufacture.  Interestingly, as you know, Birmingham (Michigan) is one of the wealthiest suburbs of Detroit.

Several years ago I read The Lunar Men:  Five Friends who Changed the World (2002), by Jenny Uglow.  Highly recommended:


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