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Birmingham 1789-1906

Today Birmingham is home to almost a million people, but less than 300 years ago it was still a small manorGlossary - opens new window and parishGlossary - opens new window. And yet by the early 19th century it had grown to such an extent that in 1807 the writer Robert Southey commented: 'Probably in no other age or country was there ever such an astonishing display of human ingenuity as may be found in Birmingham.'
Petition to Queen Victoria - opens new window
Petition to Queen Victoria
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Birmingham becomes a city, 1889 - opens new window
Birmingham becomes a city, 1889
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Birmingham's growth and development was, like that of most towns and cities, due to a combination of the activities of business entrepreneurs, political reformers and ordinary people. Although it had its share of exploitation and poverty, this city was a model of transformation from rural marketplace to thriving industrial centre. It was also an example that other towns and cities across Britain followed to achieve similar progress.

Major changes

In its early days as a manor Birmingham had no trading laws restricting merchants and craftsmen, so they were able to sell their goods freely. People from the surrounding area were attracted by this lack of restrictions and increasingly set themselves up as traders in Birmingham.

Making gunbarrels
Making gunbarrels By 1789 Birmingham was an expanding industrial centre, with a population of around 50,000. It was run with the small-scale methods of the manor and the parish. There had been attempts to change this unusual position as early as 1716, and the Improvement Acts passed in 1769 and 1773 gave limited powers to a Board of Street Commissioners. The Board was responsible for keeping the streets clear, safe and convenient. These Acts were also a recognition of the fact that Birmingham was becoming a town and therefore needed greater management.
Further Acts in 1801, 1812 and 1828 widened these powers, and improvements such as the building of the Public Office, the opening of Smithfield Market and the introduction of gas street lighting followed. Birmingham was well on its way to becoming a major town, but more was to come. Making gunbarrels
Making gunbarrels


In 1838 the London to Birmingham railway was finally completed, after almost five years of construction and with the labour of around 20,000 men. The railway had an enormous impact on the city. Economic growth was hugely stimulated; during the next decade Birmingham's population increased to over 140,000, and by the 1860s the figure had rocketed to more than a quarter of a million.

From slums to sanitation

The effects of the sudden massive growth in Birmingham's population were obvious. Already by the 1830s most people were housed in dirty and sewage-ridden slum areas. Thousands were living in tenement buildings, often sharing a washhouse and just one communal toilet. Disease and squalor were rife and it became crucial to introduce clean and sanitised housing, but this would not happen until the 1860s.

Birmingham redevelopment plan, 1861 - opens new window
Birmingham redevelopment plan, 1861
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Widening of New Street, 1861 - opens new  window
Widening of New Street, 1861
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As well as protesting about the issue of slums, ordinary people were also calling for the ending of 'rotten boroughs'. These were so called because they had very few voters in them, yet could still elect members of the House of Commons (who often used bribes to guarantee their success). At the same time, Birmingham, a large city, did not have any MPs at all until 1832, when Thomas Attwood and Joshua Scholefield were elected to Parliament.
Birmingham was a strong centre of support for the Reform Bill, passed in the same year, which brought these changes about. Rotten boroughs were finally wiped out with the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act in 1835. This Act also paved the way for Birmingham's incorporationGlossary - opens new window as an industrial town with its own council. In 1838, the town finally received its charterGlossary - opens new window and its first elected council took office. Making gunbarrels
Chartist activity, 1839 - opens new window
Chartist activity, 1839
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Political change, public order

With the growth of the population came poor living conditions, dissatisfaction and an increase in public disorder. This unrest culminated in the ChartistGlossary - opens new window disturbances of 1839. The Council therefore needed to create an effective police force: although attempts at policing the streets had been made in the past, they had not been very successful because of lack of funds.

However, before the Council could act, matters were taken out of its hands and the Birmingham Police Act of 1839 was passed. The Act took control of the police away from the Council. It authorised the Home Office to establish a force of around 250 constables and 50 officers to begin policing the streets, and a commissioner answerable to the Home Office was appointed to manage the force.
picture of Joseph Chamberlain - opens new window
Joseph Chamberlain and
'municipal socialism'
Joseph Chamberlain's evidence for the Birmingham (Corporation) Gas Bill, 1875 - opens new window
Joseph Chamberlain's evidence for the
Birmingham (Corporation) Gas Bill, 1875
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In 1842 the Council took back control of the police; and gradually the Council's other powers increased, enabling it to make significant improvements in public services. One of the leading figures in these reforms was Joseph Chamberlain, who joined the Council in 1867 and held the office of mayor between 1873 and 1876. His major achievements during this time included making the gas and water supplies public and demolishing many of Birmingham's slums.

In 1889 Birmingham was awarded city status. The remarkable transformation from manor and parish to local government was complete, setting the standard for the development of other towns and cities across Britain.

Making gunbarrels
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