A Brief History of Birmingham

Stuart Birmingham & the Civil War

 

Stuart Birmingham 1603-1714
and the English Civil War 1642-1652


Despite a significant population increase by the beginning of the 17th century, the built-up area of the town remained much the same as in the previous century. The old streets had new houses built in every available space which were accessed by countless narrow alleys. The population of the town at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 is reckoned at about 5 500. By 1731 it had quadrupled to over 23 000.


Many Birmingham people supported Parliament in the Civil War and local blade mills made arms for the parliamentary forces: Robert Porter's Town Mill alone supplied 15 000 swords to Lord Essex, the parliamentary commander. The effect of the war on Birmingham and its surrounding area must have been sporadic but none the less terrible for that. A major event, however, was the Battle of Birmingham, 4 April 1643, as a result of which about a tenth of the town, some 80 houses were burnt and some 400 people were made homeless, though there were very few casualties. Complete disaster was averted by a fortuitous change in the wind direction.


The Great Plague of 1665 was believed by William Hutton to have come to Birmingham in a box of clothes brought by carrier's cart from London. The carrier is said to have stayed at the White Hart Inn which stood until the 18th century on Digbeth between Park Street and Allison Street. It was said to have spread rapidly in the densely built-up town. Plague houses would have been marked with a red cross and the victims were said to have been buried outside the town on wasteland at Ladywood Green, later known as the Pest Ground or Pest Heath. However, when the site was developed for housing in the mid-19th century no evidence of burials was reported. Neither has evidence been found of a sudden increase in death rate in local parish registers or in county records. The plague may have followed the route of Watling Street, thus by-passing Birmingham and Coventry. Hutton was writing over a hundred years later and his account may record a memory of one of many earlier outbreaks; there were plagues in 1631 and 1637, for instance.


At the end of the Stuart period the built up area had expanded pretty much to fill the borough. This was the area roughly within the bounds of the present Inner Ring Road, the Queensway, with especially dense ribbon development around Digbeth, Deritend High Street and Bordesley High Street.

 

Birmingham 1640 (viewed from the south-east) from William Dugdale 1656 'Antiquities of Warwickshire' reproduced in Dent 1880 'Old & New Birmingham' courtesy of Sally Lloyd on flickr. For a link to her Parishmouse website see Acknowledgements.
Birmingham 1640 (viewed from the south-east) from William Dugdale 1656 'Antiquities of Warwickshire' reproduced in Dent 1880 'Old & New Birmingham' courtesy of Sally Lloyd on flickr. For a link to her Parishmouse website see Acknowledgements.