Birmingham Cathedral

A Response to a Talk on Eighteenth Century Birmingham by Dr Malcolm Dick by John Nightingale

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Eighteenth Century Birmingham as an Industrial Town

As a relative newcomer to Birmingham I had been longing to know what transformed this gawky fledgling into the workshop of the world. How far was Birmingham influenced from elsewhere, and, in return, how had its own industrial development affected the other regions of the UK? So I came with eager anticipation to the illustrated talk by Dr Malcolm Dick.

I was not disappointed. Our speaker began by showing us a picture of the gilded statue in Broad Street, which features three seminal individuals: Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch. It represents something of the differences in the class structure, with Boulton the man of property, Watt the engineer and Murdoch the technician, but also shows how cooperation between the classes was necessary for the success of their business, as of others here. We learnt about the importance of external influence; Watt and Murdoch came here from Scotland in search of better opportunities, as others before and since.

The West Midlands was the Silicon Valley of its time, with congeries of specialised skills in the urban centres around Birmingham – iron-smelting in Derby, ceramics in the potteries, locks made in Wolverhampton and mining in the Black Country – this city itself being an important market since it was given its charter in 1166. It was able to draw upon water from its springs, minerals from the hills and labour from the Black Country. With the road to Bewdley it had a trade route to the sea, subsequently replaced by the canal to Stourport. Hence in the first half of the eighteenth century Birmingham overtook Coventry as the most rapidly growing town in the UK, succeeded by Sheffield in the second. Its hills made it a healthy and attractive place, with civic pride in evidence over its new St Philip’s Church. Poems were penned about the city and it grew without any major recession until the 1970s.

Dr Dick was cautious about how far Birmingham’s often-cited nonconformist culture and freedom from restrictive guilds were economically significant, but agreed that its overall business culture benefited from outside influences and the sharing of ideas, for which, for example, the Lunar Society provided an opportunity. The canal system and the railways gave it trade links with the rest of the country but its direct influence on the course of industry elsewhere, with the exception of Sheffield, was less than is often supposed. The Industrial Revolution in these islands, he told us, can be seen as a sequence of separate regional revolutions, often operating independently of one another, though with one or two common features, most notably in Birmingham’s case, with the development of James Watt’s engine, which became the main source of motive power, for a time at any rate, for the world.

We were treated to a fascinating introduction which answered many of my questions but left me with another: to what extent are regional economies given scope to thrive in the “post-industrial” landscapes of today?

John Nightingale                                                                              27th September 2015

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