William Dargue  A History of BIRMINGHAM Places & Placenames from A to Y

A Brief History of Birmingham

Tudor Birmingham


Tudor Birmingham increased in status as a prosperous market town. A wide variety of trades were practised; wool and leather were important and iron making had begun in the area. Local dairy farming was on the increase. Already Birmingham agriculture was biased towards cattle rearing, but the increasing population encouraged more land to be brought into use for grain production and more cattle to be used for dairy rather than for beef. Being more labour intensive than beef, dairying helped provide employment at a difficult time for many. Increasing national prosperity led to increased rebuilding and refurbishment of houses, again an important source of employment Examples of this can be found in the Birmingham area. The population of England may have reached 3 million by the beginning of the 15th century. period from 1500 to 1850 was one of quite severe climatic conditions, now known as the Little Ice Age.

John Leland, Henry VIII's antiquarian, wrote in 1538 of his earlier visit to the town en route from Kings Norton to Lichfield. He emphasised the importance of its market status and of its metal industries:

The bewty of Bremischam, a good market towne in the extreme partes that way of Warwike-shire, is in one strete (Digbeth/ High Street) goynge up alonge almoste from the left ripe (bank) of the broke up a mene hille by the lengthe of a quartar of a mile. I saw but one paroche churche in the towne.
There be many smithes in the towne that use to make knives and all maner of cuttynge tooles, and many lorimers that make byts, and a great many naylors. So that a great parte of the towne is mayntayned by smithes. The smithes there have yren (iron) out of Staffordshire and Warwike-shire and see coale (coal as opposed to charcoal) out of Staffordshire.

And some 30 years later William Camden, a teacher at Westminster School in London described Bremicham as

. . . swarming with inhabitants, and echoing with the noise of Anvils, for here are great numbers of Smiths. The lower part is very watery. The upper rises with abundance of handsome buildings: and 'tis none of the least honours of the place, that hence the noble and warlike family of the Bremichams in Ireland had their original and name.


The town had a population of c1000 by 1500, about the same as in 1300. Because of the decrease in national population, this represents an increase compared to elsewhere in the area. Death rates, especially amongst children, were higher in towns than in the country and the population was maintained by continuing immigration from nearby areas of Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Staffordshire. There were perhaps 200 houses in the town squeezed into a small area comprising Digbeth and Deritend, Edgbaston Street, High Street, Moor Street and lower New Street with many small side alleys. They would have been timber-framed houses of which only the Old Crown in Digbeth and the more typical Golden Lion in Cannon Hill Park survive. By 1550 the population had increased to some 1500 people.

During the 16th century three surveys were made when the manor changed hands. The 1529 Survey or Particulars of the Lordship of Byrmynghame was made when the manor up for sale and gives details of how the market operated in Tudor times:
There is ij (2) Fayres holden ev'y yere, one upon Holy Thursdaye (Thursday in Whit Week) and M'kett ones a weke upon Thursdaye & hit begynyth at X (10) of the clok before none (noon) & lasteth until iij (3) of the clock at aftr none & there is shewe of al' man'r of Beste and ev'y Straunger beyng not fre of the M'kett doth paye Tolle for ev'ry iij beste that they bye a jd (1 penny) and for every score iiijd (4 pence) and for every C (100) shepe ijd (2 pence) and so doth the seller in lyke wyse and every Straunger being fre of the m'rkett doth pay for the same Tolle but jd a yere and the Burgeyses and Comnrs (ie. the people living in the town) of the Towne paye no Tolle.

The survey of 1553 clearly distinguishes between the 'borough', the south-eastern corner of the manor and the 'foreign', the north and west parts of the manor much of it Birmingham Heath. The manorial fields of the demesne had already been enclosed, but were now pasture rather than arable, and the manorial hunting ground of Rotton Park had also been divided into smaller hedged closes. The borough included the built-up area but also reached from the High Street as far as Colmore Row/ Steelhouse Lane in the north, some of it land belonging to the Priory Hospital of St Thomas. No building had yet taken place here.

The subsequent development of the borough was the unintentional result of royal involvement. With Henry VIII's dissolution of monasteries and religious guilds, the Priory Hospital in 1536 and the Guild of the Holy Cross in 1547, land was sold and thus released for development. Further tracts of land were made available at about the same time subsequent to the losing of the manor by the de Birmingham family, holders of the rights probably since the Norman Conquest. John Dudley, later Duke of Northumberland, falsely accused Edward de Birmingham of highway robbery in order to lay hands on the manor. Edward was forced to sell the manor to save his life. On Dudley's execution for high treason under Queen Mary in 1553, the manor was forfeit to the Crown. The manor was bought in 1557 by Thomas Marrow thought to have originated in Middlesex, but later the owner of large Warwickshire estates including the manor of Berkswell. After Thomas's death in 1561, the manor was left to his son Samuel, then to the latter's grandson another Samuel in 1621 and in 1636 to his 8-year-old son Edward. His son Samuel Marrow was created a baronet in 1679 and died before 1686, bequeathing the manor to his five daughters. They sold the manor out of the family in 1746 to Thomas Archer, later Lord Archer of Umberslade. On the death of his son Andrew in 1778 the manor passed to his daughters. However, by 1850 Christopher Musgrave, son of the second daughter, is named as lord. Thereafter which there is no further evidence of the descent.

Industrial activity was increasing in Birmingham, but much was still largely based on farming and practised part-time by people primarily involved in agriculture. This applied equally to masters and men. Wool was farmed, processed locally and sold at Birmingham market. The wool trade employed a variety of workers: shearmen, fullers and dyers. Leather, another agricultural product, was tanned and traded locally as well as being made into saddles. Tanners Row was a small street on the site of Digbeth Institute close to the River Rea. Also around the area tiles were made using local clay and woodwork was widely practised using the abundant local timber. The national population increase led to high agricultural prices; and increased money in the hands of farmers led to much building and rebuilding, furnishing and refurbishing which in turn found employment for many. Local crafts at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century included brick-making, tilemaking, brick-laying, thatching, carpentery, barrel-making, sawing, joining, turning, wheelmaking, weaving, carding and spinning.

Small-scale iron founding had probably begun in the 15th century but is first recorded in the 16th century. Iron was mined in the Black Country, but Black Country timber was already becoming scarce and some industry relocated in the Tame valley where wood and water-power were more readily available. As early as 1538 an iron bloomery forge was operating at Perry. Iron products included scythes, horse-bits, knives, locks, arrowheads, nails and wire. over 200 smithies are on record in 1683 in the Birmingham area, the majority in Digbeth and Deritend, with as many again in the surrounding rural area though much more widely spread than in the town.



William Dargue 18.04.09