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

A Brief History of Birmingham

Victorian Birmingham


The boom in industry and commerce grew apace through the Victorian period. Because of the innovativeness of its entrepreneurs and the flexibility of its workforce Birmingham became the City of a Thousand Trades, the Workshop of the World, and indisputably Britain's Second City, a position it has held ever since.

As central Birmingham became increasingly industrialised, living conditions for many people deteriorated. The large Georgian town houses were replaced by smaller middle-class houses which were later let or replaced again by housing for artisans or for the working class who needed to live near their work in the centre. Town gardens and courts were infilled with cramped cheap back-to-back housing for the very poor. Squalid slums stretched from the present site of New Street Station to Snow Hill and down into Digbeth and Deritend.

However, this was the century when public authorities gradually began to take responsibility for social matters. Slum clearance began during this century, as well as the provision of public services such as water, sewerage, education, libraries and open spaces. Some central streets were lit by gas lights from 1818; from 1826 a private water company supplied piped water to those who could afford to pay; from 1851 newly-built houses in Birmingham were connected to a sewerage system which took effluent to the River Rea below the town; and trams beganm to run into the town, horse-drawn from 1873, electric from 1890. Many public buildings were erected and a great number of churches were built. The area within the present inner ring road was largely built up and still expanding by the end of the 19th century. However, much of the middle ring of the present city was still rural, although housing for the wealthy and the better-off developed around old village centres, and around the new stations as the railways allowed access to an increasingly wider area.

In his Description of Modern Birmingham of 1818 Charles Pye calculated that in 1810

there were then 9196 front houses, and 8214 back houses, within the connected streets of Birmingham, which, reckoning five and a half to a house, makes the population 97,405. There appears to be about 400 houses erected annually, which will make the number at the present time 18,510, and the population 101,805.

In 1818 land at the top end of New Street became available on the expiry of earlier leases and within ten years Waterloo Street and Bennetts Hill were laid out and developed with high-quality housing and commercial buildings, many of which survive. About the same time on the other side of town, the streets around Bradford Street and Cheapside were built up (See Digbeth and Deritend.), and there was increasing activity on the west side of town along the canals. Around the junction of the Birmingham Canal of 1769 with Birmingham & Fazeley canal of 1789 and the Birmingham and Worcester Canal of 1815, new arms were dug, wharves were built and yards and warehouses were crammed into every available space. The Fazeley canal running east-west along the north of town gradually became industrialised along its length and into Aston. However, the main area of development was north of the old town. From Warstone Lane, through Hockley to the Gun Quarter, Gosta Green and Ashted, there must have been constant building going on throughout this period. And there was no halt the growth. Middle-class Ashted was quickly extending outwards to the north-east forming the new suburb of Bloomsbury. And working-class Duddeston nearby was being densely built up.

By 1830 most of the well-to-do residential estates in the town had been overtaken by industry or infilled with high-density housing for the working classes. Smaller parcels of land were laid out for the wealthy just beyond the built-up town: at Islington around Five Ways, for example, and beyond New Town Row. Gradually this area was linked to the town by ribbon development along and around Broad Street. As early as 1786 the exclusive Calthorpe estate in Edgbaston began to be let, laid out from 1810, and seriously developed from the 1840s. And there was further high-quality ribbon development in this direction along the Hagley Road and the Bristol Road. The extremely wealthy began to move out of the smoky town from the middle of the 18th century, either leasing large manor houses such as Moseley Hall or Castle Bromwich Hall or building and rebuilding as at Farm in Sparkbrook.

The key to all this growth and wealth was Birmingham's industry. And it was the impact of industry on the people of physical aspect of the town that was prominent in the minds of visitors, at this time as in the past. In 1807 a collection of Letters from England was published purporting to be a translation of the letters home of a Spanish nobleman, Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. They describe his visit to England in 1802. However, the letters had neither been written by Espriella - there was no such person - nor had they been translated from Spanish. Their author was the English poet Robert Southey. A supposed letter dated Thursday, July 7th in Birmingham reads,


I am still giddy, dizzied with the hammering of presses, the clatter of engines, and the whirling of wheels; my head aches with the multiplicity of infernal noises, and my eyes with the light of infernal fires,- I may add, my heart also, at the sight of so many human beings employed in infernal occupations, and looking as if they were never destined for any thing better. Our earth was designed to be a seminary for young angels, but the devil has certainly fixed upon this spot for his own nursery-garden and hot-house.

I cannot pretend to say, what is the consumption here of the two-legged beasts of labour; commerce sends in no returns of its killed and wounded. Neither can I say that the people look sickly, having seen no other complexion in the place than what is composed of oil and dust smoke-dried. Every man whom I meet stinks of train-oil and emery. Some I have seen with red eyes and green hair; the eyes effected by the fires to which they are exposed, and the hair turned green by the brass works. You would not, however, discover any other resemblance to a triton in them for water is an element with the use of which, except to supply steam engines, they seem to be unacquainted.

The noise of Birmingham is beyond description; the hammers seem never to be at rest. The filth is sickening: filthy as some of our own towns may be, their dirt is inoffensive; it lies in idle heaps, which annoy none but those who walk within the little reach of their effluvia. But here it is active and moving, a living principle of mischief, which fills the whole atmosphere and penetrates every where, spotting and staining every thing, and getting into the pores and nostrils. I feel as if my throat wanted sweeping like an English chimney.

Think not, however, that I am insensible to the wonders of the place:- in no other age or country was there ever so astonishing a display of human ingenuity: but watch-chains, necklaces, and bracelets, buttons, buckles, and snuff-boxes, are dearly purchased at the expense of health and morality; and if it be considered how large a proportion of that ingenuity be employed in making what is hurtful as well as what is useless, it must be confessed that human reason has more cause at present for humiliation than for triumph at Birmingham.


The Birmingham Journal described the booming town centre in the 1820s:


The most unpeopled streets of a former period were now busy with life and bustling activity. From morning to night continually swept along them a busy tide, and trains of heavy carts extending for more than a mile, loaded with coal and lime, and bars of iron from the district around, stretched from one street to another and far beyond them.


On market days there was great business and bustle. Crowds of country people gazing in at windows blocked up the narrow footway at the risk of being overturned or of danger to their limbs from handcarts and wheelbarrows rolling inside the kerbstone. Ballad singers and blind beggars swarmed at every corner. Here a brawl, the sequence of the sloppings from a trundled mop in the face of a passer-by. There a crowd round some baker's horse with bread panniers occupying the breadth of the pathway and those within playing at pitch-loaf, to the danger of some unwary inhabitant. Heaps of coals lying upon the pavement from morning to night and mud heaps all around.

Burly butchers and wily horse dealers wrangling with the country folks round droves of pigs and sheep and horses in New street nearly opposite the Hen & Chickens; and fights and runaway cattle in the Beast Market from High street to Dale End. Delighted groups of idle men and women and mischievous boys crowding round the Welsh cross hooting, and yelling, and pelting the unfortunate offender in the pillory with mud, bad eggs, and offensive garden stuff; or men and lads fighting dogs at the corner, got up impromptu, in defiance of the law.

Up until the mid-19th century the use of the name Birmingham has been used with reference to the area we now call the City Centre. By 1850 the town had grown beyond its old borough boundary and would continue to expand over the next 100 years or so to its present limits.

The coming of the railways had as great an impact on the town as the canals of the previous century. The first stations were built on the edge of the built-up area at Curzon Street in Duddeston, but their position outside the town centre proved increasingly inconvenient as traffic increased. During the 1850s the building of New Street and Snow Hill stations in the centre of the town entailed the demolition of large of numbers of slum properties. Not that the poor people so displaced were found alternative accommodation, but it began a move away from the town centre which continued largely unchecked until the end of the 20th century.

The beginnings of the business quarter originate with expiry of the leases of the Colmore family's New Hall estate from the 1870s. Many of the plots had become industrialised and there were blocks of slums here too. The expansion of the town had caused town centre land prices to soar and the new leases cost very much more than the old; many of the artisans subsequently moved down to what is now the Jewellery Quarter. Much of the redevelopment involved the construction not of houses but of commercial and later civic buildings many of which can still be seen.

The laying out of Corporation Street from 1879 was the first council-led redevelopment of the centre. The street was not laid out along an existing route but deliberately driven through some of the worst slums in the town. They were replaced by commercial buildings, hotels, restaurants, shops and offices. This project expanded the town's shopping centre beyond the areas of New Street and the High Street. At the top end of the street were built the law courts and the Methodist Central Hall, which continued the process of depopulating the centre.
Civic administration had traditionally centred on the Bull Ring, initially with the manor house and St Martin's Church. The town's Street Commissioners had the Public Office built in Moor Street in 1807. This included as magistrates' courts and prison cells. However, this was a densely built-up area and when the building of a town hall was mooted, it was to be at the opposite end of town where building land was cheaper and more readily available. The Town Hall opened in 1834 and later in the century provided a focus for other civic buildings: the Birmingham & Midland Institute in 1857 the Central Library in 1865, the Council House 1879, Mason Science College 1880 and the Museum & Art Gallery 1885.

The Bull Ring was not the only market in the town, however, the Commissioners and later the Council pursued a policy of concentrating market activities in this area and as a result markets elsewhere in the town were moved or declined. The Bull Ring became the focus of the retail market trade while Smithfield developed as a number of wholesale markets.

During the 19th century houses along the High Street and New Street were converted or replaced by shops, and from the middle of the century, as Birmingham became the Midlands Metropolis, houses were converted or replaced into offices, setting a pattern which would continue for another 100 years.

Nonetheless, there was still housing in what is now the City Centre, and generally of a very low standard. A series of articles, Scenes in Slumland were published before 1901 in the Birmingham Daily Gazette by their correspondent, J Cuming Walters. Walters described the appalling conditions in which thousands of people lived and exposed the deputy chairman and five of the City's aldermen as slum landlords.


The air is heavy with a sooty smoke and with acid vapours, and here it is that the poor live - and wither away and die. How do they live? Look at the houses, the alleys, the courts, the ill-lit, ill-paved, walled-in squares, with last night's rain still trickling down from the roofs and making pools in the ill-sluiced yards.
Look at the begrimed windows, the broken glass, the apertures stopped with yellow paper or filthy rags; glance in at the rooms where large families eat and sleep every day and every night, amid rags and vermin, within dank and mildewed walls from which the blistered paper is drooping, or the bit of discoloration called 'paint' is peeling away.

Here you can veritably taste the pestilential air, stagnant and mephitic, which finds no outlet in the prison-like houses of the courts; and yet here, where there is breathing space for so few, the many are herded together, and overcrowding is the rule, not the exception. The poor have nowhere else to go.

Slum clearance began, as well as the provision of public services such as water, sewerage, education, libraries, open spaces. Many public buildings were erected; a large number of churches were built. The area within the present inner ring road was built up and still expanding by the end of the 19th century; much of the middle ring of the present city was still rural although housing for the better-off and the wealthy developed around old village centres, especially as railways allowed access to an increasingly wider area.



Victorian Population
1086 - c50 estimated
1550 - c1500 estimated
1650 - c5000 estimated
1750 - 23,688 estimated
1801 - 73,670 first census
1851 - 294,122 census
1901 - 744,973 census
1961 - 1,107,187 census

2011 - 1,073,045 census

Significant boundary changes, which continually widened the administrative area of Birmingham, mean that the above figures are not strictly comparable. However, as some of the districts taken into the town were generally rural with previously small populations, the figures do give a rough guide to the rapidly expanding population. 

Like many towns in the 19th-century Birmingham's population grew very rapidly. Much of the increase was due to immigration from surrounding counties but people came from as far afield as the north of England, Wales, East Anglia and London. The death rate in Birmingham, as in many big cities, was well above the national average, but the birth rate was higher still. A Jewish community had existed here certainly since 1751; by 1851 they made up 1% of the population and came largely from Germany, Poland and Russia. Before 1830 Irish immigrants were rare, but with famine in Ireland from 1845 Birmingham's Irish population grew to 4% by 1851 and continued to grow thereafter. By 1861 Birmingham had overtaken Manchester to become the 3rd largest city in Britain; by 1881 it had overtaken Liverpool to become the 2nd largest city, a position it has held ever since.

Under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 Birmingham was granted the status of a municipal borough in Warwickshire with an elected town council. In 1889 Birmingham was granted city status by Queen Victoria and also became a county borough governing its own affairs with no involvement of the county.

During the first half of the century the wealthy began to move out to Edgbaston and to rural areas such as Aston, Balsall Heath and Handsworth: industrialists such as Richard Tangye lived at Winson House, Winson Green, later at Gilbertstone House, Sheldon; Joseph Nettlefold at Kingsfield, Kings Heath; Josiah Mason at Norwood House, Erdington. Edgbaston was the home of R L Chance, R W Dale, George Dawson, Joseph Gillott, and members of the Avery, Barrow, Cadbury, Chamberlain, Kenrick, Martineau, Pemberton, Ryland and Sturge families.

During the second half-century the districts closest to town, with notable exception of Edgbaston, were built up, first with middle-class housing often in ribbon development along the roads leading from Birmingham, later with artisan and working-class housing. Railway travel was never cheap; however, it gave the middle-class access to a wider area in which to live and many suburban housing developments follow the building of local stations. Cheaper trams and buses in the last quarter of the 19th century were laid on to the new suburbs and promoted further growth in outlying areas.

By the 1870s the centre of Birmingham was surrounded by working-class housing in Hockley, Lozells, Nechells, Duddeston, Saltley, Deritend, Highgate, Ladywood; only Edgbaston remained a wealthy upper and upper middle-suburb.

Houses were built of local brick from clay pits and brickyards in eastern districts such as Balsall Heath, Billesley, Kings Norton, Saltley, Small Heath, Sparkbrook and Yardley. Indeed building land was advertised with its assets of clay. Most houses were roofed with Welsh slate brought by canal. However, much was increasingly quickly and poorly built in cramped estates. Many dwellings were back-to-back, 2-up-2-down or even one-up-one-down, with shared outside toilets and washing facilities in a communal courtyard. A large number survived until the 1950s, and some well into the 1970s. From the late 1870s bylaws set minimum standards for housing; better quality houses were built in a further concentric circle intermingled and beyond the previous urban area in Rotton Park, Hockley, Winson Green, Lozells and Nechells; and further out in Highgate, Sparkbrook and Small Heath.

By the 1970s there remained scarcely a single back-to-back house: one block somewhat altered survives in the city at the corner of Inge Street and Hurst Street; it was been restored by the National Trust in 2001. In some districts a great many Victorian houses survive in good condition and provide acceptable housing for large numbers of people.

As the urban area expanded outwards former rural areas surrounding Birmingham voted to become part of the municipality. The local government system was not well suited to rapid urbanisation until the end of the century. Edgbaston amalgamated with Birmingham in 1838, Bordesley which was rapidly building outwards from Deritend joined with Duddeston & Nechells at the same time. Balsall Heath had been urban from 1850 and the rural Kings Norton Board had struggled to cope with the expansion; however, the district did not join Birmingham until 1891. Amalgamating with the City at the same time were Harborne, Ward End and Saltley, the two former still largely rural, but the latter extensively built-up by this date.

Prominent Georgian industries continued to develop in Victorian Birmingham. The town was still famous for gun making, and for 'toys', small items with a high skill content, in the brass, jewellery, glass and button trades. These were largely made not in factories but in many workshops by 'small masters.'

However, new technology brought new industries to the fore and many of these were factory-based. Entrepreneurs worked at the forefront of innovation and increased production dramatically by using manually operated machinery, and increasingly steam power: By the end of the 19th century there were some 2000 factory chimneys in the Birmingham area. The concentration of work into larger factories led to the subdivision of labour, extremely monotonous for many workers, but greatly increasing the efficiency and speed of production.

Technological advances made brass quicker and cheaper to make; steam power was used and brass production and the manufacture of brass products was concentrated in factories. Brass was used for a very wide variety of products in plumbing, lighting, furniture and engineering. The jewellery trade still depended very much on the skills of small craftsmen, although stamping machines allowed mass production techniques to be used for cheaper lines. Most British jewellery was Birmingham-made and a great deal was exported. The Vyse estate of large middle-class houses was built after 1850 around Vyse Street, Warstone Lane, Frederick Street in the Jewellery Quarter, but because of its proximity to the town, the district soon became industrialised and attracted a high concentration of jewellery trades as it still does. Almost all buttons sold in Britain were Birmingham-made and many were exported. A great variety of materials were used and the trade was very sensitive to changes in fashion. Subdivision of labour increased efficiency: it could take 14 people each doing tiny repetitive processes to make a button but enormous numbers of buttons could be made quickly and very cheaply.

Specialist guns were still made by many self-employed craftsmen each engaged in a separate skilled process in a separate workshop. A hunting gun might pass through 50 pairs of hands before completion. However, military gun-making became more mechanised after the American pattern and guns with machine-made interchangeable parts enabled cheaper mass-production of army rifles. In 1862 sixteen separate gun firms amalgamated to form the Birmingham Small Arms Company BSA with a large mechanised steam-powered factory at Armoury Road (BSA soon diversified into cycle and motor cycle production). George Kynoch began by making percussion caps in Great Hampton Street, moving to the Lion Works at Witton in the 1860s (later diversifying into cycles, metal casting, paper, soap, gas engines.) However, many small manufacturers remained in the Gun Quarter around St Mary's Church Whittall Street (site in front of the Dental Hospital) until the radical road developments of the 1960s spilt the area.

Glass continued from Georgian times. Osler's of Broad Street specialised in cut flint glass and in making glass eyes. Chance Brothers of Smethwick were Britain's largest glass company producing optical glass, sheet glass, rolled plate glass and supplying one million feet of glass to cover the Crystal Palace 1851. However, by the end of the century Birmingham had lost its national importance in glass production and only a handful of firms survived.

Electroplating invented by Birmingham surgeon John Wright was pioneered commercially by Henry & G R Elkington 1840, later with partner Josiah Mason and employing over a thousand people. Silver-plate manufacture was revolutionised. Electroplating was also used to make bronze statues, the world's first being that of Sir Robert Peel by Peter Hollins 1855. Steel pen nibs were put into mass production on hand presses by Joseph Gillott from 1829. With the introduction of steam power Birmingham became the world's pen-making centre by the third quarter of the 19th century. Bedsteads in iron and brass were produced in over 30 Birmingham factories. The railway industry needed a very wide range of equipment. By 1866 there were 5 large factories in Saltley employing some 3000 people and producing everything from rolling stock and all its internal furnishing to railway lines and signalling equipment and everything needed on the station for home and abroad. Wire in brass, copper, iron and steel in every thickness and size was produced using steam power and machinery to be made into bird cages, umbrellas, chains, screws, nails, pins and nuts, ships rigging, colliery ropes, needles and fish-hooks, and telegraph wire.

Other metal products manufactured in Birmingham included everything imaginable: from machine tools and machinery for industry to steam engines, from agricultural machinery to machinery for rolling mills, from weighing machines of every size to sewing machines and pumps and locks.

A wide range of prepared foods was also produced in Birmingham including HP Sauce, Bird's custard, Branston pickle and Cadbury's chocolate, and brewing was done on a large-scale by increasingly scientific methods. By 1851 Britain was producing nearly 50% of the world's manufactured goods, and the greatest proportion of these were made in Birmingham. Birmingham products found their way to every country in the world.

During the last quarter century Birmingham industries were faced with increasing foreign competition, but most survived by specialisation and increased emphasis on precision and skill. What characterised the success of Birmingham industrial entrepreneurs large or small was inventiveness coupled with flexibility. New technology was exploited and new inventions manufactured eg. bikes, cars, electrical machinery.



William Dargue 31.07.2012


Birmingham City Centre in 1886 looking over Chamberlain Square with the newly extended Council House and Art Gallery (in the centre), the Town Hall (the building with pillars on the right) and Christ Church between them (demolished - now Victoria Square). The Chamberlain Memorial which is at the bottom in the centre. Centre of left margin with a rose window is the Birmingham School of Art. New Street Station and St Martin in the Bull Ring church are above the Town Hall. St Philip's Cathedral above the square tower of the Council House. Saint Chad's Cathedral can be seen in the background in the top-left corner of the image. The gabled roof of Mason Science College occupies the lower left corner. The rounded end of the original public library occupies the lower right corner.


Drawing by H W Brewer, taken from "The Graphic" 1886. Picture uploaded by G-Man to English Wikimedia.