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Birmingham 1625-1789

The period between 1625 and 1789 saw Birmingham develop from a small market town to a bustling industrial metropolis. An indication of the scale of this expansion can be seen by comparing the estimated population of 2-3,000 in 1625 with that of 50,000 in 1780. The growth of Birmingham was not, however, an entirely smooth process. There were several outbreaks of plague during the first half of the 17th century and, although the Civil War brought prosperity to the area's gun manufacturers, the town returned to less affluent conditions when the war ended.
Hearth Tax return, 1684 - opens new document
Hearth Tax return,1684
Document (486k) | Transcript
'So great a branch of his Revenue endangered' - opens new window
'So great a branch of his
Revenue endangered'
Document (188k) | Transcript
After this slightly shaky start, the last third of the 17th century saw a steady upturn in trade and population. Evidence of this can be seen in the Hearth Tax returns of the 1660s and 1680s, which show ever-increasing numbers of hearths and forges in Birmingham and its environs. For example, the return included here gives the number of hearths in new houses and smithies surveyed since 29 September 1683. It was probably drawn up to aid the collection of the next and subsequent payments of the tax. The letter to Sir Robert Holt reproduced here seems to indicate that there had been some problems with the collection of the tax in the past.

What triggered this growth?

Many reasons are put forward as to why Birmingham developed at such a rapid pace. One factor often mentioned is the relative religious freedom enjoyed by the inhabitants of Birmingham, which encouraged the migration of nonconformists to the area.

'Mischief so scandalous and flagrant' - opens new window
'Mischief so scandalous and flagrant'
Document (139k) | Transcript
During the Civil War Birmingham had exhibited definite ParliamentarianGlossary - opens new window and PuritanGlossary - opens new window leanings, and it would appear from the letter to another member of the Holt family - Sir Charles Holt - shown here that its reputation as a centre for nonconformity continued after the war. One reason for this may have been the fact that Birmingham was not an incorporatedGlossary - opens new window town and so was not subject to some of the strictures of the Clarendon CodeGlossary - opens new window - such as the Five Mile Act, which banned nonconformist ministers from going within 5 miles of corporate towns.
Recently, however, historians have questioned the degree to which there was religious freedom in Birmingham at this time, and its importance in the growth of Birmingham is very much open to debate. Nevertheless, it is clear that nonconformist communities continued to grow throughout the 18th century - as can be seen from the baptism register shown here, which gives the names of children baptised by Samuel Blyth, minister at the New Meeting House in Moor Street.
List of baptisms - opens new window
List of baptisms, 1756
Document (433k) | Transcript
Birmingham Enclosrue Bill, 1798 - opens new window
Birmingham Enclosure Bill, 1798
Document (326k) | Transcript

Canals, banking and steam

Throughout the 18th century Birmingham continued to grow. Industry was helped by the development of better communications (the first canal arrived in 1770), improvements in the availability of credit and capital (the first bank in the town was founded by John Taylor and Sampson Lloyd in 1765), and ever-increasing mechanisation (the pioneering work of Matthew Boulton and James Watt with steam took place in Birmingham). Birmingham's growth did not continue completely unchecked, however, and the French and American wars at the end of the century led to some difficult times as the 19th century dawned.

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