Birmingham's distinctive economic profile, with thousands of small workshops practising a wide variety of specialised and highly skilled trades, encouraged exceptional levels of creativity and innovation and provided a diverse and resilient economic base for industrial prosperity that was to last into the final quarter of the 20th century. Its resulting high level of social mobility also fostered a culture of broad-based political radicalism, that under leaders from Thomas Attwood to Joseph Chamberlain was to give it a political influence unparalleled in Britain outside London, and a pivotal role in the development of British democracy. People from Birmingham are called 'Brummies', a term derived from the city's nickname of 'Brum'. This originates from the city's dialect name, Brummagem, which may in turn have been derived from one of the city's earlier names, 'Bromwicham'. There is a distinctive Brummie accent and dialect.
Birmingham's early history is that of a remote and marginal area. The main centres of population, power and wealth in the pre-industrial English Midlands lay in the fertile and accessible river valleys of the Trent, the Severn and the Avon. The area of modern Birmingham lay in between, on the upland Birmingham Plateau and within the densely wooded and sparsely populated Forest of Arden.
Within a century of its charter of 1166 Birmingham had grown into a prosperous urban centre of merchants and craftsmen. By 1327 it was the third-largest town in Warwickshire, a position it would retain for the next 200 years. By 1700 Birmingham's population had increased fifteen-fold and the town was the fifth-largest in England and Wales.
The importance of the manufacture of iron goods to Birmingham's economy was recognised as early as 1538, and grew rapidly as the century progressed. Equally significant was the town's emerging role as a centre for the iron merchants who organised finance, supplied raw materials and traded and marketed the industry's products. By the 1600s Birmingham formed the commercial hub of a network of forges and furnaces stretching from Swansea in Wales to Cheshire and its merchants were selling finished manufactured goods as far afield as the West Indies. These trading links gave Birmingham's metalworkers access to much wider markets, allowing them to diversify away from lower-skilled trades producing basic goods for local sale, towards a broader range of specialist, higher-skilled and more lucrative activities.
By the time of the English Civil War Birmingham's booming economy, its expanding population, and its resulting high levels of social mobility and cultural pluralism, had seen it develop new social structures very different from those of more established areas. Relationships were built around pragmatic commercial linkages rather than the rigid paternalism and deference of feudal society, and loyalties to the traditional hierarchies of the established church and aristocracy were weak. The town's reputation for political radicalism and its strongly Parliamentarian sympathies saw it attacked by Royalist forces in the Battle of Birmingham in 1643, and it developed into a centre of Puritanism in the 1630s and as a haven for Nonconformists from the 1660s.
Birmingham's explosive industrial expansion started earlier than that of the textile-manufacturing towns of the North of England, and was driven by different factors. Instead of the economies of scale of a low-paid, unskilled workforce producing a single bulk commodity such as cotton or wool in large, mechanised units of production, Birmingham's industrial development was built on the adaptability and creativity of a highly paid workforce with a strong division of labour, practising a broad variety of skilled specialist trades and producing a constantly diversifying range of products, in a highly entrepreneurial economy of small, often self-owned workshops. This led to exceptional levels of inventiveness: between 1760 and 1850 – the core years of the Industrial Revolution – Birmingham residents registered over three times as many patents as those of any other British town or city.
The demand for capital to feed rapid economic expansion also saw Birmingham grow into a major financial centre with extensive international connections. Lloyds Bank was founded in the town in 1765, and Ketley's Building Society, the world's first building society, in 1775. By 1800 the West Midlands had more banking offices per head than any other region in Britain, including London.
Innovation in 18th-century Birmingham often took the form of incremental series of small-scale improvements to existing products or processes, but also included major developments that lay at the heart of the emergence of industrial society. In 1709 the Birmingham-trained Abraham Darby I moved to Coalbrookdale in Shropshire and built the first blast furnace to successfully smelt iron ore with coke, transforming the quality, volume and scale on which it was possible to produce cast iron. In 1732 Lewis Paul and John Wyatt invented roller spinning, the "one novel idea of the first importance" in the development of the mechanised cotton industry. In 1741 they opened the world's first cotton mill in Birmingham's Upper Priory. In 1746 John Roebuck invented the lead chamber process, enabling the large-scale manufacture of sulphuric acid, and in 1780 James Keir developed a process for the bulk manufacture of alkali, together marking the birth of the modern chemical industry. In 1765 Matthew Boulton opened the Soho Manufactory, pioneering the combination and mechanisation under one roof of previously separate manufacturing activities through a system known as "rational manufacture". As the largest manufacturing unit in Europe this came to symbolise the emergence of the factory system.
Most significant, however, was the development in 1776 of the industrial steam engine by James Watt and Matthew Boulton. This freed for the first time the manufacturing capacity of human society from the limited availability of hand, water and animal power, and was arguably the pivotal moment of the entire industrial revolution and a key factor in the worldwide increases in productivity that would follow over the following century.
By the 1820s, an extensive canal system had been constructed, giving greater access to natural resources and fuel for industries. Birmingham was the terminus for both of the world's first two long-distance railway lines: the 82 mile Grand Junction Railway of 1837 and the 112 mile London and Birmingham Railway of 1838.
Many companies in the motor industry built their plants and factories around Birmingham between 1900 and 1970. Other technological discoveries were made during the 20th century, particularly during World War II. This is covered in greater detail in Wikipedia.
Growth of the city
During the Victorian era, the population of Birmingham grew rapidly to well over half a million and Birmingham became the second largest population centre in England. Birmingham was granted city status in 1889.
In the decades following World War II, the ethnic makeup of Birmingham changed significantly, as it received waves of immigration from the British Commonwealth and beyond. The city's population peaked in 1951 at 1,113,000 residents.
Birmingham was originally part of Warwickshire, but expanded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, absorbing parts of Worcestershire to the south and Staffordshire to the north and west. In 1912 Birmingham absorbed the whole of the neighbouring civil parishes of Aston, Aston Manor, Balsall Heath, Edgbaston, Erdington, Harborne, and Yardley from Warwickshire and Kings Norton, Quinton from Worcestershire. All these parishes had been part of the municipal or county borough of Birmingham previously. In 1930 Handsworth was added from Staffordshire, followed the following year by Minworth and parts of Castle Bromwich, Sheldon and Solihull.
In most large and medium-sized English cities ecclesiastical or ancient parishes were made into civil parishes during the 19th century. This did not happen in Birmingham. The various sections of the city were given secular names. A Vision of Britain through Time gives a list of the Birmingham ecclesiastical parishes. English Jurisdictions 1851 provides outline maps showing the boundaries of the parishes.
The City of Birmingham now forms a conurbation with the largely residential borough of Solihull to the southeast, and with the city of Wolverhampton and the industrial towns of the Black Country to the northwest, which form the West Midlands Built-up Area covering 59,972 ha (600 km2; 232 sq mi). Surrounding this is Birmingham's metropolitan area – the area to which it is closely economically tied through commuting – which includes the former Mercian capital of Tamworth and the cathedral city of Lichfield in Staffordshire to the north; the industrial city of Coventry and the Warwickshire towns of Nuneaton, Warwick and Leamington Spa to the east; and the Worcestershire towns of Redditch and Bromsgrove to the southwest.
Birmingham rose to national political prominence in the campaign for political reform in the early 19th century, with Thomas Attwood and the Birmingham Political Union bringing the country to the brink of civil war during the Days of May that preceded the passing of the Great Reform Act in 1832. The Union's meetings on Newhall Hill in 1831 and 1832 were the largest political assemblies Britain had ever seen. Lord Durham, who drafted the Act, wrote that "the country owed Reform to Birmingham, and its salvation from revolution". This reputation for having "shaken the fabric of privilege to its base" in 1832 led John Bright to make Birmingham the platform for his successful campaign for the Second Reform Act of 1867, which extended voting rights to the urban working class. Joseph Chamberlain, mayor of Birmingham and later an MP, and his son Neville Chamberlain, who was Lord Mayor of Birmingham and later the British Prime Minister, are two of the most well-known political figures who have lived in Birmingham. Birmingham University was established in 1900, followed by others during the 20th and 21st centuries.