Nowadays we think of Birmingham as England's second city, with sprawling suburbs and vast areas of industrial processing, but what was it like before it reached pre-eminence?
Tudor Birmingham was not much different from mediaeval
Birmingham - one long street connecting the hamlets of Deritend
and Dale End, with various side-streets and markets in
between. Digbeth is a continuation of Deritend High Street.
Originally you had to cross the water from Digbeth to Deritend
over stepping stones and the gate would keep cattle from straying.
Wooden bridges followed, then the River Rea was diverted and
new bridge started in 1788. The constructors of this ran out
of money and consequently it was not opened until 1813.
Hutton's History of Birmingham
relates the derivation of some of the streets whose names
are recognised even today :
According to Hutton, "When
land was appropriated for a street the builders are under no
control - each lessee proceeds according to his interest."
So much for town planning! (Interestingly, some years later Hutton's
daughter, wishing to benefit her health but not wanting to go
too far from her dying father, went to Malvern Wells so as to
be "within call". This in 1815 and presumably meant
that communication by mail coach was considered reliable.)
Birmingham did not gain a charter to create an incorporated borough until 1838 and therefore had several advantages over the longer-established towns and cities. It was attractive to Dissenters; it had no guilds with long-established traditions, privileges and apprenticeship regulations and it had a wide rural hinterland from which to recruit workers. Being centrally positioned within England it was well-placed for the transportation of raw materials and manufactured goods.
The development of the canal network resulted in huge benefits for land-locked Birmingham. Not only could the ports of Worcester and Bristol now be reached by boat, but coal, which in 1772 had cost 13 shillings (65p) a ton to transport from the Black Country by road, cost half as much to transport by water and could be moved in barges carrying 25 tons apiece.
Although transport by canal remained a vital part of industrial life in Birmingham for many years, the advent of the railways brought a faster and more reliable means of transport to the city. Curzon Street station saw the arrival of the first train from London in September 1838, and when New Street station finally opened in 1854 it was the largest station in the United Kingdom, with the largest roof in the world at the time.
1845 was the high point of "railway mania" in Britain, and there was great demand for all types of brass items. Unfortunately individual railway companies constructed lines and junctions independently of, and in competition with, each other, which no doubt pleased the manufacturers, but led to a totally fragmented national railway system. Nevertheless, goods and people could now be transported quickly and reliably for the first time - a great improvement on slow canal barges or horse-drawn vehicles.
The Brass Industry
Workers flocked in to Birmingham from the surrounding rural areas, eager for the higher wages, the roomier accommodation and the better leisure opportunities which the town offered. It should be remembered that living in the country was no rural idyll, and that farm cottages were often cramped, damp and dark. Birmingham was growing much later than cities such as London and there was plenty of land available for building.
By the mid 18th Century Birmingham
was the fastest growing industrial town in the land, and became
"the city of a thousand trades". The number
of houses grew rapidly: In 1700 there were 2,504; in 1821 there
By 1800 Birmingham was by far the greatest centre of the brass and copper trades in Britain, and the brass industry was the most important of all the many trades in the town. In 1840 Birmingham led the world in the manufacture of brass goods, which were exported to every part of the world. These products included, besides the traditional buttons, buckles and pins, fittings for carriages, harnesses, locks, keys, handles, hinges, screws, bolts, lamps, fittings for gas lights as well as components for steam engines (which were in use on the railways, in heavy industry, and for pumping stations as water supply and sanitation improved).
Living and Working
We also learn that "The town is watched and paved, and lighted with gas under the provision of a recent Act of Parliament. The flagging of the footpaths is gradually proceeding and the edging of the flags (flagstones) with scored iron curbs, the invention of a native of the town, adds both to its neatness and durability." "Although forges and furnaces so much abound, the air of Birmingham is deemed pure and salubrious which is possibly owing to the dryness of its red sandy soil. The vicinity (i.e. the Edgebaston area) abounds with the many pleasant villas and retreats of its opulent manufacturers."
The 'Chadwick Report on Sanitary Conditions 1842' upholds this surprising revelation that Birmingham was a comparatively healthy place to live despite the undoubted squalor of the slum areas. The natural drainage, availability of building land and a good water supply meant that housing and living standards were better than in other industrial towns and cities. Typhus was rare in Birmingham and only 24 cases of cholera were noted in the outbreak of 1840, when it was virulent in Bilston a mere 10 miles away in the Black Country.
The 1840s was a time of national depression, probably the worst of the century, and became known as 'The Hungry Forties'. Trade dropped, wages were cut and workers laid off - pawnbrokers ran out of money to lend. 1845 was the year of the disastrous potato famine in Ireland, when one million people died and one and a half million emigrated, mostly to America.
Despite the difficulties of these
years, Birmingham continued to expand. The most important retail
shops were to be found in New Street, High Street, Bull Street
and the Bull Ring. There were very many small industrial
units, plus the essential 'cook shops' which provided
hot meals for workers - a plate of roasted meat for 3d (1.25p),
bread and potatoes for 1d (0.5p) extra and soup at 1d per pint,
Workers were known to eat well in times of high employment and,
as we have seen, skilled workers in Birmingham earned good wages
(even in 1770 no skilled adult earned less than 7 shillings (35p)
per week, and some up to £3).
The 1850s were years of industrial recovery and prosperity, with an even greater increase in foreign trade. It was a time of high ambition - 1849 saw the peak of the Californian Gold Rush, while there was also "Gold Fever " in Australia from 1851 to 61. Articles made in "Brummagem" would have found their way to every corner of the globe and to every part of Victoria's expanding Empire, including Africa and India. The Great Exhibition, for which the Crystal Palace was constructed in Hyde Park, ran from May to October 1851. It celebrated the Works of Industry for All Nations, but was actually a show case to illustrate British industrial supremacy. Birmingham firms and products were widely represented.
Although the tradition of "St Monday" persisted (despite opposition from employers) until the 1860s, working practices were changing. There was a need for regulated hours and more regular attendance at work, instead of piecework completed at a pace set by the individual. Employers tried to encourage this by offering bonuses and day outings (by rail) to the Lickey and Malvern Hills and by the fixing of Saturday as a half-day.
This then was the background against which the Webb brothers earned their livings and brought up their families in Victorian Birmingham. They lived through the great expansion of the town of Birmingham as it grew towards city status (granted in 1889).