Growth of Victorian Birmingham

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.
Even in the 16th Century there were many smiths using iron and coal from Staffordshire and during the English Civil War, Birmingham was a major supplier of swords, pikes and armour.

Hutton's History of Birmingham relates the derivation of some of the streets whose names are recognised even today :
New Street is in fact the oldest street in Birmingham dating from at least 1397!
Deritend = derry yate = low gate; end = extremity of the parish
Digbeth = duck's bath - originally Well street (many natural springs) Digbeth may also = dyke's path, a built up road to avoid flooding.
Pinfold = pound for stray animals (owners paid a fine to reclaim animals) - this was removed in 1752
Moor Street = Mole street
Spiceal Street = Mercer Street (also known as Spicer Street because of grocery shops)
Cannon Street - the name was borrowed to imitate a street in London, but there were foundries nearby. It might have been where gun barrels were welded. It was cut through as a means of access to the Baptist Chapel in Guest's cherry orchard off New Street (the land was bought by the Baptists in 1738).
Colmore Row was named after the family who owned the land.
Bull Street was originally Chapel Street - a chapel belonging to the Priory.
New Row = Old Meeting Street.
New Meeting Street = Presbyterian meeting place.
Ellis Street was laid out by 1792 taking the name of the Shropshire family who owned the land (off Holloway Head - head = summit - this was the original road to Worcester, worn down by heavy traffic, i.e, carts, waggons and cattle, until it became a "hollow way")

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.)

Before 1715 Birmingham consisted of just one parish - St Martin's - but then a district in the centre was formed into the new parish of St Philip's as the town expanded north west to the higher ground. It is interesting to compare maps of the town centre for the years 1731 and 1795. The area beyond Temple Row is a cherry orchard and beyond the boundary of New Hall Lane are open fields. By 1795 new Hall Lane has become Colmore Row and there is quite a lot of development beyond it, including the Birmingham and Fazeley canal.

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.

As Early as 1707 the Bristol Road was said to be almost impassable due to the heavy traffic (i.e. wagons) which moved iron and coal from the Bilston and Dudley areas, and salt from Droitwich. Later in the 18th Century 80 pack horses a day were bringing in fruit and vegetables from the Evesham and Pershore orchards and farms. By 1731 there was a weekly service by carriage and by wagon to London and by 1777, when the Turnpike Acts had led to road improvements, 17 wagons a week travelled to London and others to cities further afield, such as Edinburgh. In 1785 the improvements to road surfaces, to carriage construction and to the road network overall meant that travellers could board a coach to London six days a week, a journey of 19 hours in summer and 22 in winter which had previously taken 2 -3 days. (see Chapter 1 for more details of 18th century roads)

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
Brass had been manufactured in Birmingham since 1740, and other metal-working trades had followed. The area was full of small workshops and enterprises making buttons, pins, snuff boxes, "toys" (that is, trinkets, candlesticks, etc) and buckles, as well as larger items such as swords and guns. The workers were used to adapting their skills and moving easily between trades; the sub-division of labour meant that the workers became highly skilled and could command high wages. They operated on flexible working periods, often working long hours at the end of the week in order to have Monday, as well as Sunday, as free time. The tradition was known as "St Monday". "Piece work" was the norm and although there were some large factories, notably the brass foundries, most of the work was done in small enterprises - quite different from the "dark Satanic mills" of the Manchester area.

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 were 17,323.
The population also grew rapidly, trebling between 1750 and 1801 (23,688 to 73,670), and more than doubled again between 1811 and 1841 (85,755 to 182,922).

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 Conditions
What was it like to live and work within this hive of industry? For details of life in Back-to-back houses see "Living Back-to-Back" by Chris Upton ISBN 1 86077 321 4. The houses he mentions in Court 15, Inge Street, Birmingham have been restored by the Birminghm Conservation Trust and are open to the public. He also comments on social housing in general, and gives a very clear picture of how many of our ancestors lived in Victorian towns and cities, whether in back-to-backs, tenaments or terraced houses. We also have two contemporary accounts which throw light on the lives of Joseph, James and Harvey in the early 19th Century.

According to 'The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge', Birmingham in 1833 was a town some two miles long, with its chief street called Digbeth, but the latter was "of a low and watery situation". New houses were continually being built and "great improvements are now proceeding, especially in the construction of a new and enlarged market, for which many houses have been taken down". This would be the new Market Hall in the Bull Ring, opened in 1835, but there was also the Smithfield Market opened in 1817 on the site of a former moated manor house.

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).
In 1840 the average weekly wage for a 13-year old boy was 4s - 2d, (for a 13-year old girl, 3s - 3d); a man aged 20 could expect an average weekly wage of 14s (5s for a woman) but many could earn up to 19s. By his mid 30s a man might earn £1 - 5s (or up to £2 for more skilled work) and a woman 8s - 7d (up to 14s). Nowadays we are struck by this discrepancy in earning power between the sexes, but it wouldn't have raised an eye-brow in 1840. The fact that even a 7-year old child could be employed for 1s a week shows that poor families were unlikely to make education a priority. (statistics quoted in "A History of Industry in Birmingham" by Marie Rowlands 1977).

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).