Birmingham (locally ) is a city and metropolitan borough in the West Midlands of England. It is the most populous British city outside the capital London with 1,073,000 residents (2011 census), an increase of 96,000 over the previous decade. The city lies at the heart of the West Midlands conurbation, the second most populous urban area in the United Kingdom with a population of 2,284,093 (2001 census). Its metropolitan area is also the United Kingdom's second most populous with 3,683,000 residents.
A medium-sized market town during the medieval period, Birmingham grew to international prominence in the 18th century at the heart of the Midlands Enlightenment and subsequent Industrial Revolution, which saw the town at the forefront of worldwide developments in science, technology and economic organisation, producing a series of innovations that laid many of the foundations of modern industrial society. By 1791 it was being hailed as "the first manufacturing town in the world". 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.
Today Birmingham is a major international commercial centre, ranked as a beta− world city by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network; and an important transport, retail, events and conference hub. With a GDP of $90bn (2008 estimate, PPP), the economy of the urban area is the second largest in the UK and the 72nd largest in the world. Birmingham's three universities and two university colleges make it the largest centre of higher education in the United Kingdom outside London, and its major cultural institutions, including the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, enjoy international reputations. The Big City Plan is a large redevelopment plan currently underway in the city centre with the aim of making Birmingham one of the top 20 most liveable cities in the world within 20 years.
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.
Pre-history and medieval
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.
There is evidence of hominid activity in the Birmingham area dating back 500,000 years, with stone age artefacts suggesting seasonal settlements, overnight hunting parties and woodland activities such as tree felling. The many burnt mounds that can still be seen around the city indicate that modern humans first intensively settled and cultivated the area during the bronze age, when a substantial but short-lived influx of population occurred between 1700BC and 1000BC, possibly caused by conflict or immigration in the surrounding area. Further evidence of subsequent iron age settlement can be found at Berry Mound, a hill fort located in the Bromsgrove district of Worcestershire, near Shirley. During the 1st century Roman conquest of Britain the forested country of the Birmingham Plateau formed a barrier to the advancing Roman legions, who built the large Metchley Fort in the area of modern-day Edgbaston in AD48, and made it the focus of a network of Roman roads.
Birmingham as a settlement dates from the Anglo-Saxon era. The city's name comes from the Old English Beormingahām, meaning the home or settlement of the Beormingas – suggesting that Birmingham was established in the 6th or early 7th century as the primary settlement of an Anglian tribal grouping of that name. By the time of the Domesday Book of 1086, however, the manor was one of the poorest and least populated in Warwickshire, valued at only 20 shillings, with the area of the modern city divided between the counties of Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire.
The development of Birmingham into a significant urban and commercial centre began in 1166, when the Lord of the Manor Peter de Birmingham obtained a charter to hold a market at his castle and followed this with the deliberate creation of a planned market town and seigneurial borough within his demesne or manorial estate, around the site that became the Bull Ring. This established Birmingham as the primary commercial centre for the Birmingham Plateau at a time when the area's economy was expanding rapidly, with population growth nationally leading to the clearance, cultivation and settlement of previously marginal land. Within a century of the charter Birmingham had grown into a prosperous urban centre of merchants and craftsmen. Within another fifty years it was the third largest town in Warwickshire.
As early as the 16th century, Birmingham's access to supplies of iron ore and coal meant that metalworking industries became established. By the time of the English Civil War in the 17th century, Birmingham had become an important manufacturing town with a reputation for producing small arms. Arms manufacture in Birmingham became a staple trade and was concentrated in the area known as the Gun Quarter. During the 18th century, Birmingham was home to the Lunar Society, an important gathering of local thinkers and industrialists.
The Industrial Revolution, innovation, science and invention
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 bulk commodities such as cotton in increasingly large, mechanised units of production, Birmingham's industrial development was built on the adaptability and creativity of a highly-paid workforce, practicing a broad range of skilled specialist trades with a strong division of labour, in a highly entrepreneurial economy of small, often self-owned workshops. Levels of inventiveness were exceptional: 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.
Most significant, however, was the development in 1776 of the industrial steam engine by James Watt and Matthew Boulton. Freeing for the first time the manufacturing capacity of human society from the limited availability of hand, water and animal power, this 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.
Regency and Victorian
Birmingham rose to national political prominence in the campaign for political reform in the early nineteenth 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.
20th century and contemporary
Birmingham suffered heavy bomb damage during World War II's "Birmingham Blitz". The city was also the scene of two scientific discoveries that were to prove critical to the outcome of the war. Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls first described how a practical nuclear weapon could be constructed in the Frisch–Peierls memorandum of 1940, the same year that the cavity magnetron, the key component of radar and later of microwave ovens, was invented by John Randall and Henry Boot. Details of these two discoveries, together with an outline of the first jet engine invented by Frank Whittle in nearby Rugby, were taken to the United States by the Tizard Mission in September 1940, in a single black box later described by an official American historian as "the most valuable cargo ever brought to our shores".
The city was extensively redeveloped during the 1950s and 1960s. This included the construction of large tower block estates, such as Castle Vale. The Bull Ring was reconstructed and New Street station was redeveloped.
Birmingham remained by far Britain's most prosperous provincial city as late as the 1970s, with household incomes exceeding even those of London and the South East, but its economic diversity and capacity for regeneration declined in the decades that followed World War II as Central Government sought to restrict the city's growth and disperse industry and population to the stagnating areas of Scotland, Wales and Northern England. These measures hindered "the natural self-regeneration of businesses in Birmingham, leaving it top-heavy with the old and infirm", and the city became increasingly dependent on the motor industry. The recession of the early 1980s saw Birmingham's economy collapse, with unprecedented levels of unemployment and outbreaks of social unrest in inner-city districts.
In recent years, Birmingham has been transformed, with the redevelopment of the Bullring Shopping Centre and regeneration of old industrial areas such as Brindleyplace, The Mailbox and the International Convention Centre. Old streets, buildings and canals have been restored, the pedestrian subways have been removed and the Inner Ring Road has been rationalised. Future plans include the building of a new Library of Birmingham, the redevelopment of New Street station and the extension of the Midland Metro into the city centre. These are steps in the ambitious plans of Birmingham City Council for the redevelopment of Birmingham, which has become known as the Big City Plan.