Birmingham has long been an industrial hotspot, the very birthplace of the industrial revolution of the 18th century. This tumultuous past has left its marks on the city’s face: widespread, derelict industrial estates – remnants of a once strong manufacturing base, narrow streets with long rows of red-brick terraced houses, a high density of pubs, countless man-made canals which the legend has it are more than in Venice… Birmingham also prides itself with one of the best British universities, the University of Birmingham, competing with the nearby University of Warwick but it has also one of the highest rates of unemployment, benefit claims and deprived neighbourhoods in the country. But why? What made Birmingham what it is now?
I think we could all agree: all big cities started from scratch! But what made London, Paris or Rome become capitals? What made Venice – a marshy floodable collection of islets a commercial superpower 500 years ago?
The answer is always the same: location, location, location. Strategic location. And geographical location together with landscape features played an important role in Birmingham’s performance on the history scene.
Birmingham had long been what I call the ‘black heart’ of England, not only because of its coal rich subsoil but also because it lays at the centre of a ‘triangle of power’ formed by northern cities such as Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool with south-western Cardiff and Bristol as the second angle and with London, the capital at the Eastern angle. 100 miles and you’re in Liverpool, 120 and you’re in Leeds, only about 90 miles away is Manchester and the same distance for Bristol. Last but not least, just 1 hour 15 min on the fast train and you can be in London…
Birmingham’s history spans over 14 centuries, evolving from a small Anglo-Saxon village to the bustling city that fired the Industrial Revolution to the entire world.
Its commercial adventures start at the Bull Ring – the second largest shopping centre in the West Midlands. But 1000 years ago it was a mere cattle market. The ‘Ring’ was the place where bulls were tied for baiting before slaughter, blood splashing everywhere. Today Birmingham’s growing communities of vegetarians and vegans would think that’s cruelty to animals but the ‘ritual’ must have been really popular with the locals in those days because it basically set Birmingham on an economic and historic growing path. That was when Lord of the Manor, Peter de Birmingham obtained a Charter of Marketing Rights (he must have used some solid networking and marketing techniques for that) from King Henry II and got into serious trade with goods at the Bull Ring Markets.
Time passed by, technology developed and in 1712 Thomas Newcomen, a local chap, decided to invent the first successful steam engine in the world. I think he must have obtained a substantial grant from Lord Dudley’s large purse because the engine was used for pumping water from coal-mines on the Lord’s estates.
That’s probably when Birmingham thought it was about time for a re-branding and set the tone for the Industrial revolution. An army of blasting furnaces, chimneys, foundries and factories invaded the landscape and mining for coal and iron became a local must-do. Canals were built to transport coal, heavy metals and other industrial and mining products to the rest of the country.
Railway arrived in Birmingham toward the middle of the 19th century, linking it with Manchester, Liverpool and London. If I am to exaggerate a bit I’d say that now tiny Curzon Street Station, the city’s first railway terminus must have been in those days what Schipol is for Amsterdam today.
As businesses were flourishing workers were flowing in the area. The dark mines and noisy whizzing factories became hungry for more and more man power and the Victorian period was a particularly prosperous one for the city.
Manufacturing boomed and rivers of red terraced houses flooded the streets. They were built to shelter the rising numbers of workers and their families and sometimes even 100 people could live together in one of those 2 storeys high homes.
Work accidents were rife a century or more ago as mine and factory owners and managers were busy bees when it came to making money but clumsy bumblebees when it came to health and safety .
Black Country was a particularly bad area…’black by day and red by night’ (according to the American Consul in Birmingham in 1868)…it is said that when passing through the area Queen Victoria would pull down the blinds of her comfy carriage to spare herself from unpleasant scenes of deprived people and ravaged landscapes.
Birmingham was by then the workshop of Europe: nails, metalwork from fine gold jewellery to pens and generally anything made in iron was being transported to the old continent and further away. Birmingham had a monopoly. Work and business possibilities were aplenty and economic migrants arrived from Poland, Russia, Germany and Italy. Property prices and costs in general were much lower than in London, which was the country’s ‘brain’, one of the big financial and banking centres of the world while Birmingham was the sturdy ‘arms and legs’, its inner power residing in steel and iron and machinery.
Surprisingly or not, many famous businesses and manufacturing brands, some of them still vibrant today can draw their roots to this place: Cadbury’s chocolate, HP Sauce, Typhoo Tea, Bird’s Custard, Chad Valley Toys, Dunlop Tires, BSA (which stands for Birmingham Small Arms) Guns, Lloyd’s Bank, MG Rover Cars, Jaguar, John Wright & Co and others, making it the ‘city of a thousand trades’.
Unfortunately over the last 30 years Birmingham has steadily been losing businesses and jobs in the manufacturing sector. Many workers faced a big struggle to re-train and shift to other employment sectors.
Only between 2003 and 2007 the overall job loss was over 25% while the worst backdrop of decline was in the manufacture of motor vehicles, over 50%! And if you take a taxi today it won’t be unlikely that you also meet a chatty driver with Asian Pakistani roots… ask him about his story and you’ll find out that, before being a taxi driver, he saw years of work in a furniture or car plant when the city was still a manufacturing hub.
Today the City Council and development agencies have high hopes in what was dubbed Advanced Manufacturing, not a very straightforward sector but which is believed to become a crucial area of competitive advantage for both Birmingham’s and the UK’s economy, employing a highly skilled workforce and offering tremendous returns on investment.
The theory says that it includes high innovative technology such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, transport, environmental low-carbon solutions and electronics and electrical engineering. Only that the worst recession in the past 80 years seems to be busting small businesses in the Birmingham area and not sprouting them up.