History of Birmingham

St Martin's Church and the Selfridges building.
St Martin's Church and the Selfridges building.

Ancient history

Small farming settlements have existed in the Birmingham area since the Bronze Age.

In Roman times, the paved Roman road called Icknield Street passed through what is now the Birmingham area, and a large military fort and marching camp existed on the site of the present Queen Elizabeth Hospital near what is now Edgbaston in southern Birmingham. The fort was constructed soon after the Roman invasion of Britain in AD 43 and was inhabited for around 150 years until the end of the 2nd century AD. Remains have also been found of a civilian settlement, or vicus, alongside the Roman fort.

Until the Middle Ages, the Birmingham area was a sparsely populated backwater, due to poor quality soil which made agriculture unproductive. Much of the area was covered by the once-vast Forest of Arden.

Saxon Birmingham

The Romans left Britain in the late 5th century, and by the 7th century, Anglo-Saxon tribes started to settle in the area and establish villages. Birmingham may have been one of these villages.

The name 'Birmingham' has Saxon origins, 'Birm' is derived from Beorma (or Beornmund) — Beorma was probably a local Saxon tribal leader, 'ing' is derived from ingas meaning 'tribe of' or 'people of', and 'ham' is short for hamlet or "heim", village or homestead. Therefore 'Birmingham' roughly means "The home of the tribe or people of Beorma".

Medieval Birmingham

After the Norman conquest of England the area passed into the hands of the Norman De Birmingham family (sometimes spelt De Bermingham) who became lords of the manor from which they took a surname. Birmingham was recorded as a minor village in the Domesday Book of 1086 which stated:

"There was land for six ploughs, but only three plough teams were used, there were the families of five villeins [i.e tenants of the Lord] and four bordars [i.e farmers]; woodland half a league by two furlongs [2778 by 402 m], no mill, no meadow and a total value of only 20 shillings [£1]."

At the time of the Domesday survey, Birmingham was far smaller than other villages in the area, most notably Aston.

In the year 1154, lord of the estate Peter de Birmingham obtained a charter to hold a market. The market transformed Birmingham from a tiny, undistinguished farming village into a thriving centre of trade.

The market came to be called the Bull Ring. Located at a crossing point on the River Rea, Birmingham was at a focal point for trackways in the area, and for this reason attracted much trade, which in turn attracted skilled craftsmen to set up business there.

Birmingham prospered, and developed industry early on, by the 13th century Birmingham had developed a woollen industry with wool being woven and dyed in the town, Birmingham also developed a leather industry, with leather being tanned to be made into shoes, gloves and many other things.

By the early 14th century, Birmingham had become the third largest town in Warwickshire, with only Coventry and Warwick being larger. Although Birmingham was still quite small, its population probably being around 1000-1500.

The De Birminghams retained control of the area until 1527, when John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland gained control of the town.

16th and 17th centuries

From the 16th century onwards, Birmingham became a centre of many metalworking industries, with a skilled population of ironmongers. Birmingham was located near sources of iron ore, and coal and also several streams which could power bellows. These natural advantages ensured that Birmingham developed into a metalworking and manufacturing centre.

In 1538 during the reign of King Henry VIII, a traveller named John Leland visited Birmingham, and noted that items such as knives and nails were being produced in small forges and workshops.

Birmingham's inland location, away from any major transport links, meant that its manufacturers had to produce goods of high quality and value to compensate the high cost of transport. This gave Birmingham goods a reputation for quality.

Birmingham soon became a centre of arms manufacturing, with guns and swords being produced. By the mid-17th century Birmingham had grown into an important manufacturing town with a population of around 5,500.

The armaments trade was greatly stimulated by the English Civil War: In 1642, the townsfolk refused to support the King, and in revenge Birmingham was plundered by the royalist forces led by Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Following this, Birmingham allied itself with the Parliamentarian cause and Birmingham manufacturers supplied the Roundheads with much of their weaponry. Reputedly, 15,000 swords were produced in Birmingham for Oliver Cromwell's forces.

By the late 17th century, gun making in Birmingham became concentrated in an area called the Gun Quarter. By the end of the century 200 muskets a month were being produced in Birmingham for the government. In the latter half of the century Birmingham's population expanded rapidly; by 1700 it had grown to over 15,000.

18th century

Street plan of Birmingham from 1731
Street plan of Birmingham from 1731

In the 18th century Birmingham grew rapidly into one of the world's first major industrial towns. In 1791, Arthur Young described Birmingham as "the first manufacturing town in the world".

The industrial revolution began in the Midlands area of England, especially in the Ironbridge area, some 30 miles (50 km) to the west of Birmingham.

Birmingham's skilled workforce, and the fact that Birmingham was located near the coalfields of northern Warwickshire and Staffordshire, meant that the town grew rapidly. By the mid-18th century, Birmingham had become the largest town in Warwickshire. In the latter half of the 18th century, Birmingham's population tripled from 24,000 in 1750, to 74,000 in 1800.

During this time, Birmingham was home to Matthew Boulton, James Watt, William Murdoch, Joseph Priestley who, with others, formed the highly influential Lunar Society.

During their time in Birmingham, Boulton, Watt and Murdoch were instrumental in innovations such as the development of the steam engine and gas lighting, and Birmingham found itself at the forefront of industrial technology.

Until the 1760s Birmingham's local government system, consisted of manorial and parish officials, most of whom served on a part-time and honorary basis. However this system proved completely inadequate to cope with Birmingham's rapid growth. In 1768 Birmingham gained a rudimentary local government system, when a body of "Commissioners of the Streets" was established, who had powers to levy a rate for functions such as cleaning and street lighting. They were later given powers to provide policing and build public buildings.

From the 1760s onwards, Birmingham became a centre of the canal system. The canals provided an efficient transport system for raw materials and finished goods, and greatly aided the town's industrial growth.

The first canal to be built into Birmingham, was opened in November 1769 and connected Birmingham with the coal mines at Wednesbury in the Black Country. Within a year of the canal opening, the price of coal in Birmingham had fallen by 50%.

The canal network across Birmingham and the Black Country expanded rapidly over the following decades, with most of it owned by the Birmingham Canal Navigations Company. Other canals such as the Birmingham and Worcester Canal the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal and the Warwick and Birmingham Canal (now the Grand Union) and the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal linked Birmingham to the rest of the country. By 1830 some 160 miles of canal had been constructed across the Birmingham and Black Country area.

19th century

In 1802, Nelson and the Hamiltons visited Birmingham. Nelson was fκted, and visited Matthew Boulton on his sick-bed at Soho House, before taking a tour of the Soho Manufactory and commissioning the Battle of the Nile medal. In 1809 a statue was erected to Nelson, by public subscription. It still stands, in the Bull Ring, albeit on a 1960s plinth.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Birmingham had a population of around 74,000. By the end of the century it had grown to 630,000. This rapid population growth meant that by the middle of the century Birmingham had become the second largest population centre in Britain.

Railways arrived in Birmingham in 1837 with the opening of the Grand Junction Railway which linked Birmingham with Manchester and Liverpool. The following year the London and Birmingham Railway opened, linking to the capital. This was soon followed by the Birmingham and Derby Junction Railway and the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway.

These all initially had separate stations around Curzon Street. However in the 1840s these early railway companies had merged to become the Midland Railway and the London and North Western Railway respectively. The two companies jointly constructed Birmingham New Street Station which was opened in 1854, and Birmingham became a central hub of the British railway system.

In 1852 the Great Western Railway arrived in Birmingham, and a second smaller station, Snow Hill was opened. The GWR line linked the city with Oxford and London Paddington.

Also in the 1830s, due to its growing size and importance, Birmingham was granted Parliamentary representation, by the Reform Act of 1832 initially with two MPs. Birmingham was one of the first new towns to be incorporated as a municipal borough by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, in 1838.

Birmingham's growth and prosperity was based upon metalworking industries, of which many different kinds existed.

Birmingham became known as the "City of a thousand trades" because of the wide variety of goods manufactured there — buttons, cutlery, nails and screws, guns, tools, jewellery, toys, locks, and ornaments were amongst the many products manufactured.

Drawing of Birmingham from 1886 showing the Council House, Town Hall and Chamberlain Memorial
Drawing of Birmingham from 1886 showing the Council House, Town Hall and Chamberlain Memorial

For most of the 19th century, industry in Birmingham was dominated by small workshops rather than large factories or mills. Large factories became increasingly common towards the end of the century when engineering industries became increasingly important.

The industrial wealth of Birmingham allowed merchants to fund the construction of some fine institutional buildings in the city. Some buildings of the 19th century included: the Birmingham Town Hall built in 1834, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens opened in 1832, the Council House built in 1879, and the Museum and Art Gallery in the extended Council House, opened in 1885.

Birmingham became a county borough and a city in 1889.


As in many industrial towns during the 19th century many of Birmingham's residents lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. During the early to mid 19th century, thousands of back-to-back houses were built to house the growing population, many of which were poorly built and badly drained, and many soon became slums.

In the 1850s a network of sewers was built under the city, although only new houses were connected to it, and many older houses had to wait decades until they were connected.

Birmingham gained gas lighting in 1818, and a water company in 1826, to provide piped water, although clean water was only available to people who could pay. Birmingham gained its first electricity supply in 1882. Horse-drawn trams ran through Birmingham from 1873, and electric trams from 1890.

Joseph Chamberlain
Joseph Chamberlain

Between 1873 and 1876, Joseph Chamberlain served as mayor of the town. Under his leadership, Birmingham was transformed, as the council introduced one of the most ambitious improvement schemes outside London. The council purchased the city's gas and water works, and moved to improve the lighting and provide clean drinking water to the city, income from these utilities also provided a healthy income for the council, which was re-invested into the city to provide new amenities.

Under Chamberlain, some of Birmingham's worst slums were cleared. And through the city-centre a new thoroughfare was constructed, Corporation Street, which soon became a fashionable shopping street. He was instrumental in building of the Council House and the Victoria Law Courts in Corporation Street. Numerous public parks were also opened. The improvements introduced by Chamberlain were to prove the blueprint for municipal government, and were soon copied by other cities. Although he resigned as mayor to become an MP, Chamberlain took close interest in the city for many years after he resigned.

Birmingham's water problems were not fully solved until a 73 mile long aqueduct was built to a reservoir in the Elan Valley in Wales; this project was approved in 1891 and completed in 1904.


Between 1889 and 1911 the boundaries of Birmingham were expanded to include the formerly separate towns of Aston (1911), Edgbaston, Erdington (1911), Handsworth (1911), King's Norton, Northfield and Yardley (1912). The city boundaries were further expanded in 1928 to include Perry Barr and in 1931 to include what is now known as Castle Vale. Many of these new additions to the city were taken from Worcestershire and Staffordshire.

Sutton Coldfield became part of Birmingham in 1974.

20th century

During the 20th century, Birmingham's population continued to increase.

Logo of the Society

In 1918 The Birmingham Civic Society was founded to bring public interest to bear upon all proposals put forward by public bodies and private owners for building, new open spaces and parks, and any and all matters concerned with the amenities of the city. The Society set about making suggestions for improvements in the city, sometimes designing and paying for improvements themselves and buying a number of open spaces and later gifting them to the city for use as parks.

In 1936, King Edward's Grammar School on New Street was demolished and moved to Edgbaston. The school had been on that site for 384 years. The site was later transformed into an office block which was destroyed in the bombing of the Second World War. It was later rebuilt and named "King Edward's House". It is used as an office block and on the ground floor as shops and restaurants.

In the First and Second World Wars, the Longbridge car plant switched to production of munitions and military equipment, from ammunition, mines and depth charges to tank suspensions, steel helmets, Jerricans, Hawker Hurricanes, Fairey Battle fighters and Airspeed Horsa gliders, with the mammoth Avro Lancaster bomber coming into production towards the end of WWII. The Spitfire fighter aircraft was mass produced at Castle Bromwich by Vickers-Armstrong throughout the war.

Due to Birmingham's industrial importance and contribution to the war effort. The city was heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe during the Birmingham Blitz in World War II. By the war's end 2,241 citizens had been killed by the bombing and over 3,000 seriously injured. 12,932 buildings were destroyed (including 300 factories) and thousands more damaged. The air raids also destroyed many of Birmingham's fine buildings.

In the postwar years, a massive program of slum clearances took place, and vast areas of the city were re-built, with overcrowded "back to back" housing being replaced by high rise blocks of flats (the last remaining block of four back-to-backs have become a museum run by the National Trust).

Due largely to bomb damage, the city centre was also extensively re-built under supervision of the city council's chief engineer Henry Manzioni during the postwar years. Emblematic of this was the new Bull Ring Shopping Centre. Birmingham also became a centre of the national motorway network, with Spaghetti Junction. Much of the re-building of the postwar period would in later decades be regarded as mistaken, especially the large numbers of concrete buildings and ringroads which gave the city a reputation for ugliness.

In 1974, 21 people were killed and 182 people were injured when two city-centre pubs were bombed by the IRA.

In the same year as part of a local government reorganisation, Birmingham expanded again, this time taking over the borough of Sutton Coldfield to the north. Birmingham lost its county borough status and instead became a metropolitan borough under the new West Midlands County Council. It was also finally removed from Warwickshire.


In the years following World War II a major influx of immigrants from the Commonwealth of Nations changed the face of Birmingham, with large communities from Southern Asia and the Caribbean settling in the city, turning Birmingham into one of the UK's leading multicultural cities. As of 2001, 29.7% of the city's population was made up of ethnic minority communities. Amongst the largest minority communities, 10.6% of Birmingham residents are Pakistani, 5.7% are Indian, 6.1% are Black Caribbean or African, and 2.9% are of mixed race.

The developments were not welcomed by everyone however — the right-wing Wolverhampton MP Enoch Powell delivered his famous Rivers of Blood speech in the city on 20th April, 1968.

On the other hand, some arts prospered, such as the formation of the influential musical group Black Sabbath, which was formed by Birmingham natives.

Since the early 1980s, Birmingham has seen a new wave of migration, this time from communities which do not have Commonwealth roots, including people from Kosovo and Somalia.

Tension between ethnic groups and the authorities led to the Handsworth riots in 1981 and 1985.


In the 1970s and 1980s manufacturing industry in Birmingham went into decline, mainly through competition from foreign competitors, and by the early 1980s unemployment rates in Birmingham were amongst the highest in the country. The City Council undertook a policy of diversifying the city's economy into service industries, retailing and tourism to lessen the dependence upon manufacturing. A number of initiatives were undertaken to make the city more attractive to visitors, including:

In the 1970s, the National Exhibition Centre (NEC) was built, 10 miles (16 km) southeast of the centre, close to Birmingham International Airport. Although it is actually just inside neighbouring Solihull, it was instigated, and largely owned by, Birmingham Council, and is thought by most people to be in the city. It has been expanded several times since then.

The International Convention Centre (ICC) opened in central Birmingham in the early 1990s.

The area around Broad Street, including Centenary Square, the ICC and Brindleyplace, was extensively renovated at the turn of the Millennium.

In 1998 a G8 summit was held in Birmingham, and US president Bill Clinton was clearly impressed by the city. He famously had a drink in a canalside pub — though he never paid for his beer!

In September 2003, after a year long redevelopment project, the BullRing shopping complex was opened. In 2003, the city failed in its bid to become the 2008 European Capital of Culture, under the banner "Be in Birmingham 2008".

Development continues, not least in the city's "Eastside" district which is undergoing work which expected to total £6 billion.

October 2005 saw the 2005 Birmingham riots in the Lozells and Handsworth regions of the city between black and Asian gangs, resulting in two deaths and much damage.

Historic population

  • 1901 — 522,204 in the city proper, 630,162 in the urban area.
  • 1951 — 1,113,000 (population peak)


  • Birmingham A Study in Geography, History and Planning, By Gordon E. Cherry (1994) ISBN 0-471-94900-0
  • A History of Warwickshire, By Terry Slater (1981) ISBN 0-85033-416-0
  • Positively Birmingham, By Johnathan Berg (1994) ISBN 0-9523179-0-7
  • The below websites were also used as a reference.

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