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

The act and the dwellings.

Considering how many interests were affected by the Birmingham Improvement Scheme and the adoption of the Artisans’ Dwellings Act, it may be doubted if the scheme would have passed as it did had its full purport and meaning been fully considered and understood. Some persons saw that they would be grievously injured, and they offered strenuous opposition, but there were many others who only found out when it was too late what extreme and arbitrary power was conferred upon the authorities who put the Act into operation.

Of course the scheme was laid before the rate-payers in the usual manner, but few realised the importance of studying it well, or grasped the far-reaching character of its operations till too late.

Let me explain more especially what is meant by this. When it was decided to adopt Mr. Chamberlain’s scheme and make the new fine street, land was cleared and was let on leases by the Corporation. In letting this land, agreements were made that the new buildings, when consisting of shops, offices, &c., should be so many storeys high, the object, of course, being to make the properties, which would in due course revert to the city, the more valuable. When, however, these tall buildings were erected, adjacent premises were robbed of light and air, and when the owners or tenants of these injured premises asked for compensation they found out, at least in some cases, that the authorities were not liable. I believe I am right in saying that the powers conferred by the Act absolved them from indictments on the part of those whose property was damaged by diminished air or light. The result was that certain sufferers found to their mortification that they had no redress, but must raise their chimneys at their own cost, if necessary, and in other cases endure the inconvenience of a decreased supply of light. This was an unpleasant revelation that caused much gnashing of teeth among the owners of, and the dwellers in, the properties surrounding the tall buildings erected by the leaseholders of the Corporation.

As for those whose property was required and taken under the Act, it was all very well for owners and for those who had leases: they could not be molested without fair and proper payment. Shopkeepers and others, however, who were only annual tenants, had, I fear in many cases, to go empty away. Some of these had good, old-established businesses that had for years become identified with certain premises. It was nothing short of ruin to them to move, but they had to take up their goods and walk. This is the way that authorities often have to deal with the more or less helpless in view of what they consider to be the greatest good of the greatest number.

It will, of course, be said that some of these traders were extremely short-sighted not to have had leases of premises that were so all-important to them. In many cases, however, they were unable to obtain such agreements, the landlords being unwilling or unable to grant them. The result was that many a prosperous tradesman had his successful career cut short and passed into a retirement he did not desire, probably with a few warm curses upon the Town Council, the Improvement Scheme, and the schemers.

It is not very easy to understand the just laws that should govern compensation. When there is talk of disestablishing public-houses, certain statesmen approve of compensation. The argument is that as public-houses are licensed by law, their owners have been given a sort of status and sanction, which should be properly and considerately dealt with in case their businesses are taken away from them. But other people also take out licences, such as tobacconists, pawnbrokers, grocers, and wine sellers, yet when these traders are disturbed or disestablished, compensation is never suggested.

Let us see what has happened in Birmingham. When the grand new street was made the traffic to the northern part of the town was largely diverted from other thoroughfares, and the consequence was that streets and passages that were once busy highways and byways were soon comparatively deserted. Shops became tenantless, or had to be let at greatly reduced rents. Indeed, the depreciation of property in the localities referred to is said to have been at least thirty per cent. Yet the owners had no redress.

Of course it usually happens that when large reforms are effected the noble work is done at somebody’s inconvenience or cost. It is the inevitable result, and people who are not sufferers shrug their shoulders and complacently remark that the few must be sacrificed for the benefit of the many. It is delightfully easy to be philosophical and even philanthropic when our own pockets, feelings, and interests are not concerned. The last new great Improvement Scheme would, of course, be a great thing for Birmingham; it would also shed a considerable amount of glory on its authors; it would likewise put a good deal of power into the hands of its administrators, and not a little money into the pockets of professional men. If some few persons had to suffer in order to bring about such splendid results they must try to be patriotic, noble citizens, or else grin and bear their discomfiture! Those, however, who were despoiled of their businesses, or who found their property seriously depreciated, were not likely to be consoled by such buttered comfort. They raised their voices in impotent protest, and denounced Mr. Chamberlain and all his works.

We do not hear very much of the Artisans’ Dwellings Act now, but any towns that contemplate adopting it should profit by the experience of Birmingham, consider its full scope and meaning, and count the cost. The city of Birmingham has applied the Act in connection with its last great Improvement Scheme, and it now remains to be seen what the results, in a commercial sense, will be. The present and succeeding generation, at least, will have to pay off some heavy obligations in the next sixty or seventy years, and then the city should he immensely the richer for its enterprising policy. I say it should be, and probably it will be, but there is a fair-sized “if” to be considered.

It seems to be taken as a matter of course that Birmingham will go on developing and prospering in the future as it has in the past. And it may be fairly presumed that it will do so. This, however, must not be taken exactly as a matter of positive certainty. There are some indications that there may be a pause in the material prosperity of the city by and by a limit to its progressiveness. If so, the enterprises of our authorities may not prove so advantageous as has been reckoned upon. Partly owing to high rates and the cost of carriage, manufacturers are removing factories outside the city, and in some cases, where they have a large foreign trade, nearer to the seaboard. If this exodus continues and increases it is easy to see that the effect will be to diminish the population, and this in time will affect the value of property. The manufactures of Birmingham are, however, so numerous and so varied there is reason for hope that any circumstances that may apparently show a standstill condition will only be temporary, and that in all general revivals of trade the city will participate.

Whatever may happen, we know the city in the middle of the next century will come in for a fine heritage of reversions, and it is fair to presume that posterity will greatly benefit by the Improvement Scheme fathered by Mr. Chamberlain. In the meantime the citizens at least, those who bestow much thought upon such matters shake their heads at the load of debt Birmingham bears upon its shoulders, and chafe at the high rates. It is, however, pointed out to the malcontents that they live in a healthier place than Birmingham used to be, and, further, that the city, owing to its improved character and appearance, attracts more visitors, and this increases local trade.

Of this latter fact there can be little dispute. The new order of things has led to a new and, in some cases, better class of shops being established, and these attract a better class of customers. At one time residents in the adjoining counties looked down upon Birmingham shopkeepers, and would say rather contemptuously that they never “shopped” in this city, but went to Leamington, Cheltenham, or London to make their purchases. But we do not hear so much of this now. On the contrary, I have heard of people even aristocratic people who actually say that they now, for many reasons, prefer to “shop” in Birmingham rather than go to London. Of course this is not an ordinary circumstance for Birmingham has not yet a Bond Street or Regent Street; still, exceptional though it may be, it indicates a change of feeling and shows that, in one sense at all events, Birmingham is on the rise.

The increased number of large and important shops in central Birmingham has led to the formation of trading establishments and Stores of the latest order of development. There are now large shops of the “universal provider” type, where they sell everything from blacking to port wine, and where you see silk mantles in one window and sausages in another.

Some of us rather preferred the old order of things. We liked and still like to go to shops kept by tradesmen who have been brought up to certain lines of business, and who know from actual knowledge and experience what they are buying and selling. But in these large new shops and Stores people sell you almost everything without having any special knowledge of anything. They recommend this, that, and the other, but you have often good reason to know that it is not from any experience of the commodities they offer, but only the tradesman’s instinct and desire to dispose of what he wants most to sell rather than what his customers may most wish to buy.

Such is the new style of large shopkeeping, and it is not, of course, peculiar to Birmingham. It must be owned, however, that it means cheapness, and also that it has been largely developed by the new order of things brought about by the recent street improvements in the city.