A Thousand Years (ish) of Birmingham

By Dr Chris Upton

We’ll never know when Cro-Magnon man first wandered onto the Birmingham Plateau to survey the view, or whether there was a woolly mammoth there to meet him. Our recorded history (recorded in the soil and not on paper) only begins - give or take the odd burnt mound - with the Romans, and even they probably did not stay too long at their fort next to the University Medical School.

All the same, for a city that feels as modern as Birmingham does, it’s always comforting for a historian to know that we have 1,000 years of documentary history to look back on. Indeed, it’s as well that we do have the documents since the city planners have done their best over the years to erase anything more substantial. But Birmingham does have its entry in the Domesday Book (where the whole manor is said to have been worth just one pound). Many a picturesque and historical Cotswold village would give its right arm to be able to say that it goes back to 1086 !

Luckily the planners haven’t managed to wipe the slate completely clean, and every redevelopment helps to turn up something old, as well as something new. There’s enough evidence to show that a Saxon village, perhaps with a market-place, was already functioning in the Digbeth area at the start of the millennium that has just ended. Enough, at least, for the Norman landowners to build on and turn a little Saxon backwater into a more than decent trading outpost. Once the new owners - most of them called William and all of them De Birminghams - had hit upon the idea of converting their personal estate into a market town, then the growth of Birmingham was pretty well assured.

Even from that early starting-point the trick that is Birmingham, ancient and modern, had been learnt. There was no need for natural resources (just as well, since there weren’t any, apart from some clay) except for what current personnel departments call ‘human resources’. Close enough to the coal seams of South Staffordshire and to the timber of North Warwickshire and near enough to the hills of Wales and Shropshire where the sheep and cattle grazed, Birmingham had what every estate agent craves: location, location, location.

All the same, location is not something you can take for granted. In a world of muddy tracks and winding by-ways being in the centre of England had its market opportunities. When, by the 18th Century, trade meant access to rivers and ports Birmingham began to look less promising, and places like Bristol and Hull and even Worcester had their built-in advantages. So the Birmingham industrialists re-cycled a little of their spare cash to make sure that their town had the connections it needed (they called them ‘inland navigations’) so that their goods could find a market. You might think that trade with Europe is a relatively recent phenomenon. By as early as the 1850s, in fact, two-thirds of all the goods made in Birmingham and Wolverhampton were being exported to the continent.

So Birmingham established itself about half way up the trading chain. Its manufacturers shipped in the raw materials and turned them into cheap, mass-produced goods that everybody wanted. And from the workshops of Hockley or Digbeth, Small Heath or Aston, they headed off to all corners of the world. It was not always the most ethical of businesses - they exported guns and leg-irons for slaves and counterfeit jewellery - but it was always adaptable. To call Birmingham ‘the city of a thousand trades’ is a bit of a misnoma since almost all of those trades involved metal, but you can indeed do a thousand things or more with metal.

The days when Britain dominated the world in manufacturing, and Birmingham sat at the top of the industrial tree have sadly departed, although the back streets of Digbeth still ring reassuringly to the sound of hammers and fizz with acetylene torches. We’ve now entered - like it or not - the post-industrial world and Birmingham has to compete in the new markets - leisure, information technology, the service industries and tourism. Can you remember how hard it used to be to buy a sandwich in the city centre ? Now the problem is finding anywhere to buy a light-bulb or a screwdriver. The old certainties have gone, but if history can teach us anything it is that being first in the market-place, and having a market-place in the first place, is the best way to come out on top. That, at least, is the lesson that William de Birmingham left behind him.

©QLHS 2000 - Chris Upton

Click here to go back to the Oracle page.