building birmingham by donna taylor
Walking through town a few days ago, I was struck by the intensity of construction works, right across the city centre. Roads are being dug up near the Madin Library for the Paradise development and further along, on Corporation Street, there are roadworks preparing for the tramline extension. And then, of course, we have the mega-building site that is New Street Station. As anyone who has lived in Birmingham for a considerable time will know, Birmingham has been under construction for decades; in fact there have been roadworks in the city centre for more than 200 years.
In 1786 William Hutton, Birmingham’s first historian, penned a bleak description of the town, describing dark, narrow streets that were dirty ‘from want of air’ and ‘puddled with stagnant water’. (1) The roads in the town at that time were in such bad condition that in 1763, trade carriers threatened to raise their prices for journeys that passed through Birmingham ‘on account of the badness of the roads’.(2) Hutton was one of a small group of local businessmen who went on to establish themselves, through Act of Parliament, as an ‘improving body’ known as the Birmingham Street Commissioners.
By 1838, when the town elected its first corporation council, this body of ‘improving men’ had overseen the transformation of Birmingham’s material infrastructure and the town had been paved, drained and Macadamized. The railways were arriving at a pace and Birmingham had evolved into the thriving commercial centre that we still recognize today. It was an extraordinary achievement, but one that has tended to be overshadowed by the later improvements that took place under the leadership of Joseph Chamberlain later in the 19th century. These too were important improvements, however they could not have materialised without the monumental efforts of Birmingham’s earlier administrations.
(1) Hutton, William, An History of Birmingham (Birmingham, 1786)
(2) Bunce, J. T., History of the Corporation of Birmingham (Birmingham, 1878)
The original minute books of the Birmingham Street Commissioners can be viewed in the archives at the Library of Birmingham (ref: MS 2818/1/1-8) and I spent much of summer 2014 reading through them. These documents are incredibly detailed and reveal the changing face of the town, from Hutton’s ‘puddled streets’ through the building of Smithfield Market, the Town Hall and the much loved and missed Market Hall. It is the Street Commissioners who must be credited with each of these achievements. The minute books also reveal that the projects were carried out in response to public demand. In 1806, residents demanded the pig market be moved from New Street, resulting in the building of Smithfield. In 1827, a ‘numerously and respectably’ signed petition was presented to the commissioners demanding a Town Hall:
Every Town in the Kingdom of of any importance with the solitary exception of Birmingham is possessed of a Town Hall…and it is not credible to the public spirit of this place to be left without such an accommodation.’ (3)
The commissioners subsequently, and with some immediacy, set about obtaining the legal jurisdiction, lands and funding to build the requested town hall. The commissioners did not have any large sums of money tucked away to undertake these projects as all of their funding came from the annual rates. Raising lump sums was done by advertising in the local press for loans. The loans mostly came from local wealthy families and were repaid, with interest, often in the form of annuities, with money taken from the rates. In the case of the Town Hall, a special ‘Town Hall rate’ was introduced. It can be fairly said that much of Birmingham was built for the people and by the people
The minute books contain far more detail than can be included here (though I do occasionally have further insights on my own website) but I wanted to take the opportunity given to me by Brumpic to press some points. Firstly, that Birmingham has always been a town/city that is never afraid to transform and modernize itself. Secondly (important to me!) Joseph Chamberlain did NOT invent modern Birmingham. And finally, something that we should all be concerned about – in the early nineteenth century, there was a huge acquisition of private land, brought into public ownership for the people and by the people, and this is being frighteningly eroded away as local authorities, struggling with government cuts, is forced to sell public land back into private ownership and not only in Birmingham. I think this is a great loss.
(3) MS 2818/1/5, December 3rd, 1827, Birmingham Archives, Heritage and Photography
Donna Taylor is proud to be a Brummie and is currently nearing the end of the second year of her PhD at the University of Birmingham. Her research centres on Birmingham’s early nineteenth-century civic administration, patiently supervised by Professor Carl Chinn. She occasionally blogs her findings on her website, Notes from Nineteenth-Century Birmingham: https://birminghamhistoryblog.wordpress.com/