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

Then and now.

Great indeed are the changes that have taken place in Birmingham during the past forty or fifty years. I do not speak merely in regard to the growth, appearance, and the commercial progress of the town and city, but in respect to the life and habits of the people especially the better class of the inhabitants.

Half a century ago many of the well-to-do prosperous manufacturers were practical men men who had worked at the bench and the lathe, and, from being workmen, had become masters. There were not so many manufactories then as now, and the leading manufacturers found themselves in the happy position of men who were “getting on” and becoming rich. Men as a rule are, perhaps, more happy when they find they are making money than when they have made it, and have nothing to do but to spend it, or to puzzle their brains as to how they shall do so. “Oh! Jem,” piteously said a man I knew, to his nephew, “what am I to do with that ten thousand pounds a-lying at the bank?”

When “getting on,” men go to their various businesses day after day and find orders rolling in and goods going out, and themselves prospering and becoming better and better off, they are disposed to be contented, well pleased with their neighbours, and well satisfied with themselves. So with these old Birmingham manufacturers. They were well content, genial, and hospitable. They did not give themselves any fine airs or pretensions; indeed, they were often proud of their success and prosperity, and would sometimes delight in openly boasting of their humble beginnings, not always to the joy and delight of their children who might hear them. They were sociable, hospitable, generous-hearted, open-handed men. They gave bountiful entertainments, not of a mere formal give-and-take character in which the feast largely consists of plate, fine linen, and flowers, the eatables on the side table, and too much remaining there. They delighted in welcoming their friends; they liked to put a good spread on the board, and to see their guests eat, drink, and be merry.

In my younger days I knew what it was to enjoy the hospitalities of some of these wealthy manufacturers, and I can call to mind some little I should say large dinners, in which I have participated, the like of which are, I fancy, rarely seen now. Let me briefly describe one of these informal, old-fashioned, friendly feasts.

My host would invite members of his family and some friends to dinner at two o’clock, say. The dinner proper which was a good, substantial, and even luxurious meal being over, we adjourned to the drawing room. There the dessert would be laid out on a large round table around which we gathered. Then would mine host call for his wine book for he had a well-stocked cellar of fine vintages. Turning over the leaves of this book he would propose to begin with a bottle of ’47 port, which was then a comparatively young and fruity wine. This would be followed probably by a bottle of 1840, and then we should come to the great 1834 wine, of which mine host had a rare stock.

Sometimes we should hark back to 1820 port, a wine which I remember to have had a rich colour and a full refined flavour, and once I tasted the famous comet wine, 1811, which, however, had lost something of its nucleus, and only retained a certain tawny, nebulous tone. On one occasion I remember my host said he had some seventeen-ninety something wine in his cellar, which he proposed we should taste, but for some reason, now forgotten, it was not produced, and I sometimes rather regret that I so narrowly missed the opportunity of tasting a last century wine. Perhaps it may be thought from the procession of ports produced on such occasions as I have described that we indulged in a sustained and severe wine-bibbing bout. But it was not so. In reality we only just tasted each vintage, so that we had the maximum of variety with the minimum of quantity.

The wine ended, we betook ourselves into another room, there to enjoy a cigar. Then would come tea and coffee, and a little music. Supper yes, my reader, a good supper would be announced about nine o’clock; after that another little smoke, and about ten o’clock or soon after we should take our departure.

Of course all this made up the sum total of a pretty good snack I mean a good, well-sustained feast but whether it was owing to the excellence of the viands, or to the fact that we took our pleasures not sadly but deliberately, I for one cannot remember ever feeling the worse for my little-indulgences. Perhaps something was owing to the glorious continuity of our feasting and pleasure.

I also remember once being at an unfrugal, old-fashioned, festive dinner at a friend’s house, when one of the guests proposed our host’s health, and finished up by saying, “I shall be glad to see everyone at this table to dinner at my house this day week.” Considering there were about thirty persons sitting round the mahogany this was a fair-sized order. But it was no empty compliment. The dinner came off, and a fine good spread it was, and as for the wine I seem to sniff its “bouquet” now.

Some of the old Birmingham men whose characteristic hospitalities I have just described had, as is pretty well known, certain habits which, looked at by modern light, would seem somewhat plebeian. For instance, there were men of wealth and importance who made it their custom often to go and spend an hour or two in the evening at some of the old respectable hotels and inns of the town. They had been in the habit of meeting together at these hostelries in their earlier days to talk over the news, at a period when daily local newspapers were not published, and they adhered to the custom in their advanced years and wealthier position, and rejoiced in visiting their old haunts and smoking their long clay pipes, and having a chat with old friends and kindred spirits.

All this has died out now. For one thing, most of these old inns and hostelries have disappeared with the march of modern times. We have clubs now and restaurants, also hotels, where visitors “put up,” but the old-fashioned inns and taverns have mostly gone. The present generation of prosperous well-to-do men, too, are of a different stamp from their predecessors. They do not take their ease at their inns after the manner of their fathers. They have been educated differently, and take their pleasures in a more refined way, as is the fashion of the time.

Some of them have been to public schools and to the university, and they naturally live their lives on a more elevated level. As a rule, they are good, practical, straightforward, worthy men, though there are, of course, some who are rather amusing in their little pretentious ways as there are in all large communities. Many of these, finding themselves well off, begin to discover they had ancestors. They name their houses after places where their grandfathers lived or should have lived. They put crests upon their carriages; they embellish their stationery with a motto, and otherwise put on a little of what is called “side.” But Birmingham people are not worse than others in this respect. In fact, I think there is less affectation, pretence, and snobbishness, or at any rate as little as will be found in most places of the standing, wealth, and importance of Birmingham.

Sometimes when I am visiting a newly-risen manufacturing town which has lately blossomed out into a state of thriving progress, I am forcibly reminded of what Birmingham was some years ago, and think of the changes that have come over our city during the past thirty or forty years. The everyday social life is in many respects different from what it was. Young people, with a higher education and more advanced ideas than their sires, keep their parents up to date, and it is the young people who rule the roost in many houses. The hearty but comparatively simple hospitalities of a generation or so ago are regarded as quite too ancient.

Young men who have been to Harrow and Oxford are not likely to look with favour upon suppers of tripe or Welsh rarebits. They must, of course, dine in a proper, decent manner in the evening, and there must be a good experienced cook to give them a fair variety of dainties; or, at least, of well-prepared dishes. Under such circumstances social functions have naturally a tendency to become more formal, ornamental, and refined. Many of the older-fashioned school mourn the decay of the very thorough and hearty hospitality of times back, and have often complained that they saw too many flowers and too little food at modern dinner parties. Still, the knock-down entertainments of our fathers were often a trifle too formidable perhaps, and did not always bring the pleasant reflections that follow the more gentle hospitalities of the present day.

Before I close this chapter, in which I am comparing the present with the past, I cannot help calling to mind features of Birmingham nearly fifty years ago, when I began to look about me with my boyish eyes. I made some general reference to these in the opening chapter of these sketches. I will now just indulge in a few brief details. To go no further than quite the centre of the town, I call to mind some important places that disappeared when the New Street railway station was made.

I remember Lady Huntingdon’s chapel a place of worship that was popular in its day and seem to have a hazy recollection of the King Street theatre (or the remains of it), in which was held the first evening concert of the Birmingham Musical Festival in the year 1768. Cannon Street chapel has been too recently removed not to be remembered by many people, but I can recollect going to this place of worship when it was a real old-type Baptist chapel, and where special disciples or devotees were deeply immersed in religion and water.

Most of us can also remember when some unostentatious private houses occupied the side of New Street opposite the Society of Artists’ rooms, and not a few of us can call to mind the dirty, slummy buildings that so closely blocked up the back of the Town Hall. It was, indeed, an improvement when these wretched houses were removed and the back of the Hall was finished and opened out. It is, I believe, true that what became the back of the Town Hall was really intended by the architect to be its front. However this may be, the proportions of the north side of the Town Hall are, I think, more symmetrical and imposing in appearance than the south side fronting Paradise Street.

It is but yesterday, so to speak, since the Old Square, with its sedate looking houses disappeared, including that of Edmund Hector, the friend of Dr. Johnson, and many of us can readily recall to mind the old-fashioned Birmingham Workhouse standing in Lichfield Street that poor, dirty thoroughfare which doubtless furnished a fair number of occupants for the afore-mentioned institution. Looking forward as I do at least in my sombre moments to the “Union” as being my ultimate home, I feel a sense of satisfaction that the Birmingham workhouse has been removed to a more salubrious and pleasant locality than its unlovely quarters in Lichfield Street.

These are just a few of the more important changes that have taken place, with one exception, namely, the disappearance of Christ Church. I almost shed tears to see the demolition of this church and landmark that had so many old associations. Some of these were not always of a pleasant and joyous character, for in days past the Sunday services were very long, and the sermons anything but short.

I hope my memory has not “berayed” me in making these little reminiscent remarks. I did not make notes in my early days, and now in my later years I may make little mistakes; but I do not think I have tripped very much.