England’s second city: Birmingham

Birmingham’s distinctive Bullring shopping centre © Robert Convery/Alamy

Long pigeon-holed as a centre of industry, Birmingham is a vibrant centre of arts and literature, shopping and socialising, a mix of the old and the new.We revisit the workshop of the world and discover England’s second city is more sophisticated than ever.

Birmingham’s distinctive Bullring shopping centre © Robert Convery/Alamy
Birmingham’s distinctive Bullring shopping centre © Robert Convery/Alamy

Birmingham gained its reputation as ‘the city of a thousand trades’ and ‘the workshop of the world’ during Victorian times. The downside of this far-reaching commercialism was an image of grimy industrialism that has been unfairly hard to shake. Nowadays, Birmingham has transformed itself into a vibrant cultural hotspot crammed with history and contrasted with forward-thinking architecture. Throw in its glorious surroundings in historical Forest of Arden countryside and you have Birmingham, a gem set in the heart of England – one which its residents have been furiously polishing in recent years.

In 1086 Birmingham was a hamlet worth 20 shillings. In the 20th century it became Britain’s centre of manufacturing. However, Birmingham, which is located in the centre of England, has none of the obvious natural attributes of a trade city – no large rivers, far from the coast, no mines or mineral deposits. So just how did the miraculous metamorphosis occur? Local historian and blue badge guide Ian Jelf thinks he has the answer. People, he claims, are Birmingham’s greatest asset. “Birmingham just attracts the right people at the right time.” Inspiring and inspired individuals form the links of Birmingham’s chain and its story can be told through the men and women who have lived and worked in Britain’s second city.

The first major players on Birmingham’s stage were the de Birmingham family, who held the lordship of the manor of Birmingham for 400 years. In 1156 Peter de Birmingham obtained a market charter from Henry II for the famous Bull Ring, kickstarting a long commercial history. In addition, the family were comparatively liberal with their tenants and there were no restrictive obstacles to trade. The de Berminghams were eventually cheated out of the lordship of the city (see boxout, p78), but many members of the family were buried in the church of St Martin in the Bull Ring, which nestles appropriately between the futuristic shopping centre, with its glossy, glamorous Selfridges, and the markets. Dipping in to the Victorian version of the church between shopping trips allows a glimpse of a stained glass window designed by Burne-Jones and made by William Morris, splendid Minton floor tiles and, of course, the de Bermingham arms.

A bronze statue of a bull at the Bullring shopping centre © Keith Larby/Alamy
A bronze statue of a bull at the Bullring shopping centre © Keith Larby/Alamy

As England faced Civil War (and needed swords, pikes and armour) Birmingham emerged as a leading centre for all kinds of metalwork. But it was the return of Charles II to the throne that really set the city to work. His taste for jewellery, embellished buttons and fancy buckles set fashions that had artisans turning out pieces in their thousands. So it is appropriate that the best place to get a feel for Birmingham’s mercantile heritage is the Jewellery Quarter, a 20-minute walk north from the city centre. Here you can still find hundreds of jewellers and workshops, accounting for 40 per cent of Britain’s jewellery production. A stroll through the area, following in the footsteps of couples in search of the perfect engagement ring, can be rounded off with a tour of the wonderful Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. When the family-owned Smith & Pepper company went out of business in 1981, the workshop closed, leaving behind everything from die presses to workbench tools to teapots and even £900 worth of gold dust in the cracks and crevices. This slice of history was preserved completely intact, offering a rare insight into the jewellery trade and the daily lives of British workers.

At the heart of the Quarter is the Grade I listed ‘Jeweller’s Church’ of St Paul’s. It was here, in an elegant, tree-lined Georgian square, that Birmingham’s most famous industrialists – Matthew Boulton and the Scotsman James Watt – came to worship. Boulton campaigned vigorously for the city’s own Assay Office, which was established in 1773. The story goes that Birmingham’s famous assay mark of an anchor was decided by the toss of a coin in the Crown & Anchor pub. Fittingly enough, it was Boulton who revolutionised coin production, using metal working techniques and industrial-scale methods to produce counterfeit-proof coins as we know them. Today, the square is home to cafés and galleries, including the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists.

By the time of the Industrial Revolution Birmingham had become the commercial centre of the Midlands. It was during this period that the inventiveness of its people really came to the fore: between 1760 and 1850 Birmingham residents registered over three times as many patents as those of any other British town. Chief among those innovative minds were the members of the Lunar Society (see boxout), which numbered Boulton and Watt among its members. Between them, they revolutionised the manufacturing industry, giving us factories as we know them and improving and developing the steam engine.

BMAG and the Town Hall in Chamberlain Square © eye35.pix/Alamy
BMAG and the Town Hall in Chamberlain Square © eye35.pix/Alamy

Back in the city centre, Birmingham pays homage to these pioneers with a gilded statue of Watt, Boulton and their colleague William Murdoch, known locally as The Golden Boys. The statue stands in Centenary Square, facing the new Library of Birmingham. Studded with golden discs resembling giant coins, this ultra-modern monolith will replace Birmingham’s Central Library in 2013. Central Library, an inverted Brutalist pyramid, is Europe’s largest non-national library, with over 32 miles of shelves.

Literary residents in Birmingham over the years include WH Auden, the poet and Birmingham academic Louis MacNeice and the novelist Henry Green, who were part of a vibrant artistic community in the 1930s. Perhaps Birmingham’s most popular literary connection is JRR Tolkien, who grew up in suburbs of the city and attended school here. Hobbit fans can follow the Tolkien Trail to see how the surrounding landscape, including Perrott’s Folly and the Edgbaston Waterworks, inspired young John Ronald Reuel to create his labyrinthine fantasy world.

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Selly Manor, Bournville © Edward Moss Photography

Birmingham’s industrial history is well-established, but its musical pedigree is just as well-formed. Many famous musicians visited the city for its world-famous triennials over the years, including Mendelssohn, Grieg, Sibelius, Saint-Saëns and Elgar. Czech composer Antonin Dvorak said:

“I’m here in this immense industrial city where they make excellent knives, scissors, springs, files and goodness knows what else, and, besides these, music too. And how well! It’s terrifying how much the people here manage to achieve.” This sense of accomplishment has carried on throughout the years. In 1980, Simon Rattle (last seen cavorting with Mr Bean during the Olympic Opening Ceremony) was appointed Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The ICC is now home to the Symphony Hall, a stunning auditorium with fabulous acoustics.

A short walk from the ICC, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is justifiably proud of its luscious collection of Pre-Raphaelites (including local boy Edward Burne-Jones, whose window also adorns the Cathedral). The museum is also home to legally verified treasure in the form of items from the Staffordshire Hoard – the largest haul of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever discovered

BMAG, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery © Craig Holmes/Images of Birmingham
BMAG, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery © Craig Holmes/Images of Birmingham

The richness of the BMAG is offset by the cool purity of the Ikon Gallery on Brindleyplace – a contemporary art venue that has found a home in the shell of a Victorian school. The gallery still prides itself on its educational resources, with a wide range of events, family days and films. The building is a lovely red-brick example of neo-Gothic architecture and the shop stocks a wonderful selection of beautifully illustrated children’s books.

Birmingham’s canal network also plays host to occasional artworks such as The Rootless Forest, a boat planted with miniature trees, which set sail from Brindleyplace this summer. A more prosaic but perhaps more welcoming boat-based installation is the café that plies the canal waters. It can be found outside Brindleyplace, which also teems with onshore eateries. One such is the Malt House, which was surprised by a famous customer during the G8 summit in 1998: none other than President Bill Clinton, in search of some fish and chips and a pint. Clinton is not the only American to find himself in Birmingham – Benjamin Franklin was a member of the Lunar Society and Washington Irving wrote Rip van Winkle during a stay in the city.

Birmingham has scrubbed up nicely, a sparkling 21st-century city displayed against a rich historical backdrop. Visit while the majority still don’t realise what a treasure it is.

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