Birmingham Platinum Jubilee Walkway

England / Europe

Birmingham began as a small Anglo-Saxon settlement, as indicated in the Domesday Book of 1086, emerging as a town after 1166, when the lord of the manor gained the right to hold a weekly market.  The later 12th century witnessed a rising population and urban growth and the new town of Birmingham was a success, becoming a major cattle market and iron-working centre as well as a marketplace for the iron goods made in its hinterland.  The town’s reputation for metalwork was made clear in 1538 by the Tudor traveller, John Leland (1503-52).  In giving the first description of Birmingham, he was impressed by the many smiths who made knives and all manner of cutting tools, the lorimers making bits for horses, and the great many nailers.  Leland asserted that a great part of the town was maintained by smiths, and about 50 years later, William Camden (1551-1623) formed a similar impression, stating that Birmingham ‘resounded with hammers and anvils for the most part of its inhabitants they were smiths’.  Other evidence indicates that cloth production and the tanning of hides were also important, but they began to decline during the 16th century.  By contrast, the small-scale metalworkers increased.  They benefitted from a number of factors: it was much cheaper to set up as a smith than as a tanner or cloth merchant; the raw materials of iron and coal were readily available nearby in what would become the Black Country, and water mills on the small local rivers facilitated smithing by the sharpening of blades and the slitting of metal into bars of iron. From the later 17th century, Birmingham emerged as a national marketing and credit centre for ironware.  Its entrepreneurial ironmongers supplied smiths and nailers with bar iron and then bought back the finished products to sell on. Such business accelerated growth, leading to a period when ‘the curious arts began to take root and were cultivated by the hand of genius’, according to William Hutton (1723-1815), Birmingham’s first historian, in 1782.  From the early 18th century, the town had begun to be noticed for the diversity of its manufacturing base with the ‘curious arts’ of guns, toys (small metalware), shoe buckles, buttons and steel goods supplanting the production of swords, scythes and nails. Soon to be acclaimed as the ‘city of a thousand trades’, its diverse economy differentiated it from other industrial centres which were dependent on one industry, such as Sheffield with steel. Birmingham was also associated with the sub-division of labour, whereby the making of a button, for example, could be split up to ensure much faster and cheaper production by the use of many pairs of hands rather than one.  The labour of poorly-paid women and children were essential in these processes but too often their contributions have been overlooked as attention has focused on the ‘princes of industry’ of the later 1700s. Amongst them were John Baskerville (1707-75), the typographer and printer whose name lives on through Baskerville typeface; Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), one of the most famous industrialists of the age whose Soho Works was the largest factory in the world; and James Watt (1736-1819), the inventor and engineer whose improvements to the steam engine were crucial for powering the Industrial Revolution. Boulton was also the key figure in the Lunar Society, an eclectic mixture of industrialists, scientists and others whose free-thinking and inventions positively affected the development of the modern world.   The Industrial Revolution in Birmingham was accompanied by a banking revolution, leading to the establishment of major banks which financed manufacturing growth, and a transport revolution.  From the later 18th century, canals and then railways made vital connections to England’s ports, so enabling goods to gain a worldwide market.  Birmingham was also at the forefront of the democratic movement, with the banker, Thomas Attwood (1783-1856), ensuring that the Birmingham Political Union played a crucial role in the campaign leading to the Great Reform Act of 1832. Famed for the remarkable ingenuity of its workers, the town was as noted for its small ‘gaffers’, skilled men and women who set up their own small businesses. However, from the mid-nineteenth century, larger works for the production of brass, railway carriages and pen nibs became more noticeable. Hailed as the ‘Pen Shop of the World’, the town impacted positively on the rise in literacy through the mass production of cheap pen nibs by manufacturers such as Joseph Gillott (1799-1872).  Formerly noted for the inaction of its local government, from the 1870s, Birmingham was praised as ‘the best-governed city in the world’ because of the municipal activism initiated under the mayoralty of Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914).  Later an influential national politician, in 1900 he was instrumental in the founding of the University of Birmingham, England’s first civic university, where students from all religions and backgrounds were accepted on an equal basis.  A city from 1889, in 1911, Birmingham became the second biggest in the UK when it took over a number of adjoining towns. Four years later, with the outbreak of the First World War, its multiform industries moved over to munitions. This rapid and essential transformation highlighted the adaptability of the city’s workers and escalated the growth of emerging trades. These included electrical engineering, the making of motorbikes, and the manufacture of cars like the Austin Seven, the ‘motor for the million’ which democratised car ownership. Birmingham was also noticeable in food and drink production through Cadbury cocoa and chocolate and HP Sauce. As Britain’s biggest industrial centre, it was targeted heavily by enemy bombers in the Second World War, and more than 2,000 people were killed. After the war, the making of cars and their components boomed and through the 1950s, 60s and 70s, the ready availability of work drew in people from Ireland, the West Indies, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Yemen. During these decades, wide-scale redevelopment radically changed the city’s landscape as swathes of older buildings were swept away and replaced by high-rise towers and ring roads.  Then from 1979, the city was badly affected by the nationwide decline in the manufacturing industry.  Many factories closed, precipitating high levels of unemployment.  In response, the Council worked with business to encourage inward investment by expanding Birmingham Airport and building modern conference and leisure facilities such as the NEC and Symphony Hall.  Now having the most diverse population in Britain after London, Birmingham is a leading centre of professional and financial services as well as a shopping destination and hub for advanced manufacturing. It also has the most important collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings in the world, claims the world-renowned author, J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) as one of its own, and boasts many Grade 1 and Grade 2 listed buildings, some of which are celebrated along the Walkway. In 2022 Birmingham plays host to the Commonwealth Games, the year that Her Majesty The Queen celebrates 70 years on the throne.  

Professor Carl Chinn, MBE

11.8 miles / 19 kilometres

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What to see

  • The Birmingham Walkway team
  • PebbleMill are of the Birmingham Walkway
  • Warstone Lane Cemetery
  • The Birmingham canal
  • Good afternoon, We're excited to see that Artisan Alchemy Gallery (84 Caroline Street) is on the Birmingham Platinum Jubilee Walkway. We'd love an image of the Gallery to be included on the website. Kind regards,LeahArtisan Alchemy Gallery
  • This was a great way to see our city. We'd definitely recommend others to this in this most special of years with the Jubilee but also the Commonwealth Games.

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