The History of Birmingham
Friday September 2, 2016
Here are 19 of our favourite facts from the history of Birmingham and snapshots of a few of the notable historical figures who were born here
- Brummies have been around for at least 500,000 years! The proof is in a Stone Age axe that was dug up in 1890. This mind-blowing artefact can be seen (for free) at BMAG in the centre of the city.
- Birmingham’s name stems from Beormingaham, the Old English for home (ham) of the people (ing) of the tribal leader Beorma. Unfortunately nothing more is known about Beorma, but we suspect that he/she was a really ‘bosting’ human being.
- People from Birmingham are now called Brummies. This comes from the city's old dialect name, Brummagem.
- The history of Birmingham shows us that the city has always been well connected. The Romans – who knew a thing or two about logistics -built a major military fort in what is now the Edgbaston area of the city.
- We owe our great city to Henry II. 850 years ago, Henry granted a royal charter to one Peter de Birmingham that allowed a weekly market to be held at his manor and tolls to be charged on traffic. That got the Birmingham ball rolling and over the next two decades a tiny hamlet grew into a town. From little acorns…etcetera etcetera.
- Brummies have always been an industrious lot. Medieval Birmingham was known for its wool industry and by the late 14th century Birmingham was also known for metal and leatherwork.
- The Bull Ring - now a vibrant shopping centre - has been an important part of Brummie life for well over 800 years. Its distinctive name comes from the blood sport of bull baiting using dogs (thankfully banned many, many moons ago).
- Many Brummies supported Parliament rather than the king in the English Civil War and provided its armies with swords. During the Battle of Birmingham in 1643 about a tenth of the town was burnt to the ground when Prince Rupert’s Royalist troops attacked.
- The 18th century was boom time for Birmingham. In 1720, Birmingham it had a population between 11-12,000, by 1750 the population had doubled to about 24,000, by the end of the century the population of was 73,000. A massive rise in 80 years!
- In 1815, the skeleton of a soldier wearing a Civil War period helmet was unearthed in Floodgate Street, Birmingham.
- Birmingham also played a part in another civil war – this time in the USA – by making millions of guns to be used in the American Civil War. The deadly trade developed from the late 1700s and was massively profitable. Professor David Williams, author of The Birmingham Gun Trade, wrote that, “Profligate gun makers and barrel makers on wages of £20 and £50 a week (in the early 1860s) were lighting cigars in public houses with £5 notes'.
- The Lunar Society of Birmingham was an exclusive dining club established in the mid-eighteenth century by the Midlands intelligentsia. Over the five decades or so it existed men such as Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandpa) were members.
- Birmingham's first canal was opened in 1769. We are ridiculously proud of the fact that we have more canals than Venice.
- Thanks to our inventive, entrepreneurial spirit Birmingham became known as The City of 1,000 trades. 19th century Birmingham specialised in producing nails, brass goods, nuts, bolts, screws, buttons, pen nibs, toys, jewellery, railway carriages, bicycles and glass!
- The composer Antonin Dvorak (born 1814) said of Birmingham: "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."
- At one point, Brummies could claim with pride that 75% of everything written in the world was written using a pen nib made in Birmingham. Learn more at the city's Pen Museum.
- Over 4,000 Belgians took refuge in Birmingham when Germany invaded their country in 1914. Many were sent to live with local families.
- The Hall of Memory (found close to the Library of Birmingham) commemorates the deaths of the 12,320 Birmingham people who died during WWI. Another 35,000 were injured. Public donations paid for the building, which opened in 1925. The names of the those who died in WWII and later conflicts have been added.
- After London and Liverpool, Birmingham received the most damage from air raids during World War II. 2,241 people died and their names are commemorated on the Tree of Life memorial close to St Martin in the Bull Ring.
The history of Birmingham – 12 Brummies of distinction
We’re an inventive lot,full of entrepreneurial spirit. Here are a few fascinating Brummies, some of whom you may never have heard of.
- Francis Aston (born 1877) won the 1922 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. The science behind his win is completely beyond our comprehension, but you can read about his achievements on the Nobel Prize website.
- Albert Austin (born 1882) was a silent film star who worked with Charlie Chaplin on his hugely successful films including The Kid. He was a member of the Fred Karno troupe with Chaplin and travelled over to the USA with him in 1910.
- Sir Michael Balcon (born 1896) was a successful British film producer who - amongst many other achievements - helped to launch Alfred Hitchcock’s career
- Edward Benson (born 1829) began his career as a schoolmaster at Rugby but ended it as Archbishop of Canterbury. A story Benson told the author Henry James inspired the still chilling ghost story The Turn of the Screw.
- Sir Alfred Bird (born 1878) invented custard powder (for which he should be remembered and praised forever!) because his wife was allergic to eggs. The wonderfully eccentric Bird family are said to have been chauffeured around in custard yellow Rolls Royces. Birmingham’s creative quarter, The Custard Factory, is based on the site of the factory.
- Artist Sir Edward Burne Jones (born1833) was a major player in the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Birmingham is home to the largest public collection of his work (at BMAG – free to visit). This includes some stunning stained glass and The Star of Bethlehem – the largest watercolour of the 19th century – which was commissioned for BMAG.
- No history of Birmingham would be complete without a Cadbury or two. John Cadbury founded the eponymous chocolate company in 1831 selling cocoa and drinking chocolate. The company made its first Easter egg in 1875, The innovative Bournville manufacturing site was the brainchild of John Cadbury’s son George.
- Neville Chamberlain (born 1869) became British Prime Minister in 1937. He had previously serviced as Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minster for Health. Chamberlain’s reputation as PM has been dominated by his attempts to keep the peace with Nazi Germany. He finally declared war in 1939 after Germany invaded Poland.
- Artist Edith Holden (born 1871) became famous decades after her death by drowning in 1920. Her intricate drawings of the natural world were published in 1977 as The Edwardian Diary of a Country Lady. It is thought that Holden drowned in the Thames near Kew Gardens in London having tried and failed to reach a branch of chestnut buds she wished to draw.
- Jane C.Loudon (born 1807) was an early sci-fi pioneer and best known for 'The Mummy! Or a Tale of the Twenty-Second Century'. Her circle of friends included Dickens and Thackery.
- John Rogers (born c.1500) was the first Protestant martyr to die in the reign of Mary 1st. Rogers, a priest and bible translator, was burned at the stake for the crime of heresy.
- Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck (born 1778) wrote in support of the anti-slavery movement. She was born Mary Anne Galton but married into a Dutch reading family (hence her unusual surname). Schimmelpenninck was a determined character: she took part in the anti-slavery sugar boycott of 1791 at the age of 13 and remained a staunch abolitionist despite the fact that her husband was a partner in slave voyagers.
Come and stay
We hope that this history of Birmingham has inspired you to visit our city. It’s a fascinating place. Our chic serviced apartments are based in a unique Grade II Listed building called the Rotunda. You’ll find us right at the heart of the city: it’s the perfect base for exploring the history of Birmingham.