Read CHAPTER I of A Tale of One City: The New Birmingham, free online book, by Thomas Anderton, on


The present century has seen the rise and development of many towns in various parts of the country, and among them Birmingham is entitled to take a front place. If Thomas Attwood or George Frederick Muntz could now revisit the town they once represented in Parliament they would probably stare with amazement at the changes that have taken place in Birmingham, and would require a guide to show them their way about the town now a city they once knew so well. The material history of Birmingham was for a series of years a story of steady progress and prosperity, but of late years the city has in a political, social, and municipal sense advanced by leaps and bounds. It is no longer “Brummagem” or the “Hardware Village,” it is now recognised as the centre of activity and influence in Mid-England; it is the Mecca of surrounding populous districts, that attracts an increasing number of pilgrims who love life, pleasure, and shopping.

Birmingham, indeed, has recently been styled “the best governed city in the world” a title that is, perhaps, a trifle too full and panegyrical to find ready and general acceptance. If, however, by this very lofty and eulogistic description is meant a city that has been exceptionally prosperous, is well looked after, that has among its inhabitants many energetic, public-spirited men, that has a good solid debt on its books, also that has municipal officials of high capabilities with fairly high salaries to match then Birmingham is not altogether undeserving of the high-sounding appellation. Many of those who only know Birmingham from an outside point of view, and who have only lately begun to notice its external developments, doubtless attribute all the improvements to Mr. Chamberlain’s great scheme, and the adoption of the Artisans’ Dwellings Act in 1878. The utilisation of this Act has certainly resulted in the making of one fine street, a fine large debt, and the erection of a handful of artisans’ dwellings. The changes, however, that culminated in Mr. Chamberlain’s great project began years before the Artisans’ Dwellings Act became law.

The construction of the London and North Western Railway station which, with the Midland Railway adjunct, now covers some thirteen acres of land cleared away a large area of slums that were scarcely fit for those who lived in them which is saying very much. A region sacred to squalor and low drinking shops, a paradise of marine store dealers, a hotbed of filthy courts tenanted by a low and degraded class, was swept away to make room for the large station now used by the London and North Western and Midland Railway Companies.

The Great Western Railway station, too, in its making also disposed of some shabby, narrow streets and dirty, pestiferous houses inhabited by people who were not creditable to the locality or the community, and by so doing contributed to the improvement of the town. Further, the erection of two large railway stations in a central district naturally tended to increase the number of visitors to the growing Midland capital, and this, of course, brought into existence a better class of shops and more extended trading. Then the suburbs of Birmingham, which for some years had been stretching out north, south, east, and west, have lately become to a considerable extent gathered into the arms of the city, and the residents in some of the outskirts, at least, may now pride themselves, if so inclined, upon being a part of the so-called “best governed city in the world,” sharing its honours, importance, and debts, and contributing to its not altogether inconsiderable rates.

I do not purpose in these pages to go into the ancient history of Birmingham. Other pens have told us how one Leland, in the sixteenth century, visited the place, and what he said about the “toyshop of the world.” Also how he saw a “brooke,” which was doubtless in his time a pretty little river, but which is now a sewery looking stream that tries to atone for its shallowness and narrowness by its thickness. They have likewise told us about the old lords of Bermingham whose monuments still adorn the parish church who have died out leaving no successors to bear for their proud title the name of the “best governed city in the world.”

These other pens have also mentioned the little attentions Birmingham received from Cromwell’s troops; how the Roundheads fired at Aston Hall (which had given hospitality to Charles I.) making a breakage still unrepaired! in the great staircase of that grand old Elizabethan mansion. My purpose, however, is not to deal with past records of Birmingham, but rather with its modern growth and appearance.

Municipal stagnation.

After the sweeping alterations effected by the construction of the new railway stations in Birmingham, further improvements were for a time of a slow, jog-trot order, although the town, in a commercial sense, was moving ahead, and its wealth and population were rapidly increasing. Small improvements were made, but anything like big schemes, even if desirable, were postponed or rejected. Birmingham, indeed, some thirty years ago, was considerably under the influence of men of the unprogressive tradesmen class many of them worthy men in their way but of limited ideas. In their private businesses they were not accustomed to deal with big transactions and high figures, so that spending large sums of money, if proposed, filled the brewer, the baker, and candlestick maker with alarm. They were careful and economical, but their care in finance was apt at times to be impolitic, and their economy has in several cases proved to have been somewhat costly.

Indeed, until recent years, the leading authorities of the town were anything but enterprising, and their view of future possibilities very limited. Could they have seen a little farther ahead they might have laid out money to the great profit and future advantage of the community. They could have erected new corporation offices and municipal buildings before land in the centre of the town became so very costly; the gas and water interests might have been purchased, probably at a price that would have saved the town thousands of pounds. It is also understood that they might have purchased Aston Hall, with its 170 acres close to the town, on terms which would have made the land (now nearly all built upon) a veritable Tom Tidler’s ground for the town and corporation. But our shopkeeper senators would have nothing to do with such bold and far-reaching schemes, and were given to opposing them when suggested by men more courageous and far-seeing than themselves.

Between twenty-five and thirty years ago it was felt by the more advanced and intelligent portion of the community that the time had come for the town to arouse itself, and that certain reforms should no longer be delayed. It was beginning to be felt that the Town Council did not fairly represent the advancing aspirations and the growing needs, importance, and wealth of the town. Sanitary reforms were required, the growing traffic in the principal streets called for better and more durable roadways, and Macadamised and granite paved streets no longer answered the purposes required. The latter were heavy, noisy, and lumbering; the former were not sufficiently durable. Moreover, “Macadam” consisted of sharply-cut pieces of metal put upon the streets, which were left for cart and carriage wheels to break up and press down into something like a level surface. When this was done it made objectionable dust in dry weather, and in wet weather it converted the streets into avenues of mud and puddle to be scraped up, or to be swept off, by some curiously-devised machine carts constructed for the purpose. Carriage people, I fear, often cursed the stone stuff they had to grind into the roads, and pedestrians anathematized the mud and the dust.

As many people will remember, in some of the less important streets the footways were paved with what were called “petrified kidneys” stones about as big as a good-sized potato, very durable but extremely unpleasant to walk upon. Little or nothing was done to improve the slummy and dirty parts of the town, or to remove some of those foul courts and alleys which were not only disgraceful in appearance but were a menace to the health of the inhabitants.

In fact, for one reason or another, the authorities left undone the things they ought to have done, and possibly they did some things they ought not to have done, and if allowed to go on it is probable there would soon have been no health in us. It may, however, be admitted that Birmingham was no worse governed than many other large towns in the comparatively unprogressive days of which I speak, but a new race of more advanced and energetic men were dissatisfied with the sluggish, stagnant state of local government, and they felt that the hour had struck for the inauguration of some large and important improvements. Such was the state of affairs about the year 1868.