The history of Birmingham

Once famous as a 'City of a Thousand Trades', Birmingham was a world leader in the production of pens, buckles, buttons, jewellery and guns.

The ideas of The Lunar Society, a group of genius industrialists, philosophers and intellectuals not only changed Birmingham's history, but the history of the world.

The beginning

Birmingham’s fascinating history goes back as far as 10,500 years ago, when Stone Age hunters roamed the grasslands and forests along the River Rea valley. The Romans also left their mark on the city’s landscape, with a major fort near Harborne and many roads that cross the area.

Although evidence is scant, it is believed a small Anglo-Saxon settlement existed close to the River Rea in Digbeth. The name of this settlement was Birmingham. The original meaning of the name is the settlement (ham) of the followers (ing) of Beorma, who is believed to have been a Saxon warrior or nobleman.

In July 2009 incredible Anglo-Saxon artefacts were unearthed in the Birmingham region. The 3,500 pieces of gold and silver items date back to the 7th century Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia and amount to the most valuable treasure hoard ever discovered in the UK. A selection of this now famous Staffordshire Hoard is currently displayed in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and has been the subject of international attention from as far as the Smithsonian in Washington and the Louvre in Paris.

Birmingham’s early history as a major settlement dates back to the early 12th century when Peter de Bermingham, holder of the manor of Birmingham, gained the right to hold a weekly market. In the Doomsday Book of 1086, Birmingham was valued at the modest sum of £1 with a total of 9 houses! The 1166 market charter helped Peter de Bermingham to lay the foundations for Birmingham to develop as a market town, and transformed the prospects of the small settlement forever.

The central heart of Birmingham’s geographical expansion was St Martin’s church, one of Birmingham’s oldest buildings. The earliest record of a church dates back to 1290, but an earlier place of worship was likely to have been here. Birmingham’s markets were located around the church, and still exist in the same location 850 years later! Today, St Martin’s Church contains a number of historical treasures and offers an enlightening perspective on the city’s exciting history.

From the 16th century Birmingham was transformed from a market-orientated town to an industrial centre. Blade-making industries such as cutlery, weapons and ultimately guns were drawn to Birmingham owing to its central location, good transport links and natural resources.  

Birmingham or Brummagem? Find out more about the name of the city.

'City of a Thousand Trades'

By the 18th century, the city had become the main European producer of buckles, buttons and a range of small boxes, jewellery and accessories often called “Brummagem toys”. The ‘Toy Industry’ was dominated by the manufacturers John Taylor and Matthew Boulton. Boulton, together with James Watt and Erasmus Darwin were co-founders of the Lunar Society which gained worldwide recognition for innovative, pioneering ideas in science, arts, philosophy and commerce.  The Lunar Society met during the full moon at Soho House which is today converted into a museum and open to visitors from April to October.

During this period, the canal network was extended to Birmingham and provided an essential link to the global export markets. Raw materials could be quickly brought in to the town and finished goods could be sent back out, helping to give Birmingham a competitive edge on other rival manufacturing centres.

Birmingham gained a worldwide reputation as a powerhouse of manufacturing and invention, gaining the reputation as a “City of a Thousand Trades’ and the “Toyshop of Europe”. From the production of medals and coins at the Birmingham Mint to the production of steel pen nibs by the million, Birmingham could claim with pride that 75% of everything written in the world at the time was written with a ‘Birmingham’ pen. Original machinery, pens and collections are exhibited at the critically-acclaimed Pen Museum in the historic Jewellery Quarter. To this day, over 40% of all the UK’s handmade jewellery is produced in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, with its award winning Museum of the Jewellery Quarter.

Rapid economic growth led to a boom in the city’s population. The construction of Back to Back housing was a response to the rapidly increasing population by the mid-19th century. The courtyard houses were not the sole-preserve of the working-classes, but many middle-classes too. Whilst economic growth brought prosperity to some, not everyone in society benefited. Housing conditions worsened as population density increased, with poor health and education worsening during the Industrial Revolution. In Birmingham, there were reformers who believed this was unacceptable and set out to make changes. Reform had already begun by 1779 when the first free hospital in Birmingham was opened by Dr John Ash and was funded by wealthy individuals like Matthew Boulton. Later under the leadership of Joseph Chamberlain, Birmingham became an international model for “municipal socialism”. During his tenure, clean water and gas was supplied to more people, public board schools were built and slum clearances were carried out.

At the end of the 19th century chocolate maker George and Richard Cadbury opened their chocolate factory at Bournville and built houses and amenities for the factory workers. Visitors can find out more about Cadbury's history at Cadbury World.

Post-war boom

At the beginning of the 20th century Birmingham adapted to the new way of life as electrical engineering and car manufacturers became the dominant industries in the city.  Some of the great old vehicles and machines are displayed at the Motor Heritage Centre, Coventry Transport Museum, National Motorcycle Museum, ThinkTank Birmingham Science Museum and the Museum Collections Centre. The First and Second World War resulted in the increased production of munitions in the West Midlands, particularly in Birmingham and Coventry.

Being an important manufacturing centre, Birmingham was a major target during the Second World War, and suffered heavily from bombing raids. Targets included the Castle Bromwich aerodrome plant where the Spitfire and Lancaster planes were made and the Austin factory at Longbridge which was producing military vehicles and airplanes. After London and Liverpool, Birmingham received the most damage from air raids and 2,241 people in the city died. Their names are commemorated on the Tree of Life Memorial near to St. Martin’s Church.

The ‘Post-war boom’ in the 1950's caused a growth of employment in the engineering and motor vehicle industry in the West Midlands, as Birmingham’s population grew and new communities from the Indian sub-continent and Caribbean made Birmingham their new home.


The economic changes of the 1970s had a significant impact on Birmingham’s economy.  Over the last 30 years however, the city’s focus has shifted from being predominantly a manufacturing industry to a service economy.  Former industrial properties such as the Custard Factory have been transformed into some of Birmingham's most exciting art and nightlife venues.

Birmingham has experienced a healthy level of economic growth over the last two decades, benefiting from being the regional capital and centre for employment and commerce.

Innovative new industries are rapidly making Birmingham their home, from graphic designers to computer game programmers, and are supported by our world-renowned universities and colleges.

The Birmingham spirit of innovation, improvement and renewal is encapsulated in the city’s motto: Forward!


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