A Brief History of Birmingham

The 20th Century


During the 20th century, the population of greater Birmingham continued to increase, while the City Centre gradually became depopulated as demand for office and retail space increased. Industry too began to move outwards, some to surrounding inner-city districts and some to greenfield sites on the edge of the urban area. However, by the end of the century there were concerted moves to bring residents back to the City Centre with up-market apprtments in the Jewellery Quarter and around the Convention Quarter.


The city's first slums were demolished as early as the early 1850s, but this was not done from altruistic motives. The slums were cleared to build New Street and Snow Hill railway stations, and, although the landlords were compensated, no housing provision was made for the displaced tenants. The construction of Corporation Street over 30 years from 1873 also necessitated the demolition of hundreds of decayed slum dwellings; indeed this was in no small measure part of the propose of creating the new street. But again while the owners very recompensed, almost no provision was made for the residents. Birmingham's first council houses were built in Ryder Street and Lawrence Street (now gone under Aston University), and a small estate in Milk Street 1890, but these very small developments were totally inadequate to house the thousands of displaced poor.


By the outbreak of World War I in 1914 most of the city centre had been rebuilt with business and commerce replacing poor housing. At the same time some 200 000 people in Birmingham lived close to the City Centre in gloomy insanitary courts and yards, many consisting of back-to-back houses: the better-off poor lived in tunnel-back terraces in long straight uniform streets.


However, even by the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939 the population density of the central wards was the highest in the city by far. It was not for another twenty years, that the population of the City Centre began to fall dramatically. By then the highest densities were to be found in the inner ring wards around the centre: All Saints, Balsall Heath, Ladywood and Lozells.


Post-First War plans to redevelop the City Centre were interrupted by the outbreak of war. A new civic area was planned which would have seen the present Centenary Square on Broad Street surrounded by council and public buildings in the style of Baskerville House which was built in 1938 to a design by T Cecil Howitt. This building with the Hall of Memory built in 1922 to commemorate the dead of the First World War and Howitt's Birmingham Municipal Bank on the other side of Broad Street are the only parts to be built of this grand scheme.


As a major industrial centre Birmingham was heavily bombed by the German air force during World War 2. Across the city 2241 people had been killed and over 3000 seriously injured: the dead are commemorated by a monument in Edgbaston Street near St Martin's-in-the-Bull Ring. Some13 000 buildings were destroyed and many many thousands more were damaged.


Of necessity a large part of the City Centre had to be rebuilt, giving the City Council the opportunity to implement a revised version of a plan that had been first mooted after the First World War. A 31/2-mile dual-carriage-way known as the Inner Ring Road, later The Queensway, encircled the City Centre and was designed to keep through-traffic out of the central area. Roundabouts were built at the junctions with the main arterial roads, with underpasses and flyovers on the western section, there were traffic-free areas with pedestrians separated from road traffic and enabled to cross the road safely via subways.


Work began in 1957 and the first stretch, Smallbrook Ringway was completed by 1961. This was unusual in that a newly-created shop buildings lined both sides of the road. It took ten years to complete the whole project. As a result of the constrcution of the road many major Victorian buildings were demolished. These are now seen as important losses, but there was little sympathy for their styles after the War. The new white concrete modernist blocks, the flyovers and underpasses the road the road the road represented to people an exciting future at that time. Other parts of the planned post-war development included new shopping centre as the Big Top on the High Street, the new Bull Ring indoor shopping centre, the reconstruction of New Street Station with an Ring indoor shopping centre above and the building of a new Central Library alongside the civic buildings at the top of New Steet.


Building in the City Centre during the 1960s and 1970s is typified by office blocks in the form of large plain cuboids, purely functional in form. Stark examples include the 21-storey McLaren building at Dale End and the Centre City Tower at the junction of Smallbrook Queensway and Hill Street, also 21 storeys high. More controversial was John Madin's Central Library built in 1974 in Chamberlain Square to replace its Victorian predecessor which had to be demolished to make way for the Inner Ring Road. The main part of the building takes the form of an inverted ziggurat with a windy central open court which was enclosed in 1998 and is an example of brutalist architecture inspired by the influence of the French architect, Le Corbusier. The style takes its name from the French for 'raw concrete'; no attempt is made to disguise the marks of shuttering on the finished surfaces. By the 1990s some of the modernist buildings were ready for refurbishment eg. The Rotunda, while others had been demolished eg, The Birmingham Post & Mail building, despite being held as a good example of its type.


Birmingham's manufacturing sector saw serious decline during 1970s and 1980s and the City Council set out to re-brand the city by encouraging the development of the service sector. The National Exhibition Centre, the NEC was opened by the Queen in 1976 on a site outside the city boundary close to Birmingham Airport, the Birmingham-London railway and the M6 and M42/ M40 motorways. It proved to be enormously successful in attracting a wide variety of exhibitions of various sizes. The NEC has been continuously improved, developed and extended to the present. Its success led the Council to bring its influence into the City Centre. In 1991 the National Indoor Arena NIA and the International Convention Centre with Symphony Hall were opened off Broad Street in an area of decaying warehouses and small factories. Following the success in boosting this previously neglected area, a large development at Brindleyplace brought a variety of shops, restaurants and office buildings to canalside location and helped to recreate Broad Street as far as Five Ways as a major entertainment venue. The City Council have designated this area as the Birmingham Convention Quarter. Other developments on this side of the City Centre include the revamping of the old Post Office Sorting depot as a high-class indoor shopping centre, also the home of BBC in the Midlands. The nearby 19th-century Severn Street School has been refurbished as apartments with new blocks opposite on Suffolk Street Queensway and the 40-storey Beetham Tower, Birmingham's tallest residential buildings which houses a hotel and apartments.


By the 1990s the Inner Ring Road was seen as a 'concrete collar' which hindered any expansion of the City Centre. It was unpopular with pedestrians who had to cross it via subways which were perceived as unpleasant and dangerous. Measures were taken to make the shopping streets of the centre more friendly to pedestrians - a number of them had already been pedestrianised, the High Street for example, and traffic other than public service vehicles and deliveries was excluded from much of the centre. Now the Inner Ring Road was to be crossed by ground-level light-controlled crossings as on Smallbrook Queensway at Hurst Street. The raised section at Masshouse Circus was demolished altogether allowing expansion into a run-down district of post-industrial Birmingham renamed as Eastside. This was designated as the Leisure and Learning Zone with the building of Millennium Point, which includes the former Science Museum exhibits in a modern context and the rebuilt Matthew Boulton College. The site, which is to include a new park, extends well beyond the City centre to the Middle Ring Road and is adjacent to the Aston Science Park and Aston University.


By the 1980s the Bull Ring shopping centre was in decline and plans were again made to redevelop the site. The City Council's wanted to create a wide pedestrian street from the High Street to St Martin's Church with indoor shopping centre built around it and with respect to St Martin's Church. The markets were be retained but moved to Edgbaston Street where the Rag Market had been. In 2003 the new indoor centre, known as 'Bullring' was opened. However, the subjugation of pedestrians to cars, which was the opposite of what Buchanan had proposed but which was cheaper to implement, became increasingly unpopular. And the concrete buildings, which had little external attraction, had weathered badly. By the 1980s all the main high-street stores had all moved out of the declining Bull Ring Centre and towards the end of the decade moves were again being made to redevelop the site.


Birmingham has been very successful in attracting visitors to the city. The NEC and ICC now account for almost half of Britain's conference and exhibitions. Development of the city's sporting venues inclusding the NIA, the entertainment area of Broad Street with the city's theatres and shopping facilities have made was was becoming a depressed post-industrial city into a vibrant regional centre.


In the suburbs of greater Birmingham, the 1909 Housing & Town Planning Act gave councils greater powers to plan future development: the Town Planning Committee chaired by Neville Chamberlain immediately took the opportunity to plan housing, highways, transport, amenities and services in Quinton which had amalgamated with Birmingham that year. Between 1913 and 1931 town plans were also made for most of the city's newly-annexed districts: Quinton in 1909, Aston, Erdington, Handsworth, Kings Norton, Northfield and Yardley in 1911, part of Perry Barr in 1928 and in 1931 Castle Bromwich (west), Lyndon, Minworth (west) and Sheldon (north). The city was zoned into residential, business and industrial areas, the aim being to separate factories and housing which would be set in green open space, and also to provide fast cheap public transport from the residential suburbs to the central industrial and business workplaces. Slum clearance was planned to begin as new housing estates were completed. The Housing Committee could, however, enforce its plans only where it was the landowner, and so huge purchases of land were made after the First World War in areas such as rural Yardley.


Following an act of 1919 allowing the subsidised building of council houses, 50 000 homes were built by the City, largely intended for displaced slum dwellers. In contrast to the houses they replaced they were at a much lower density and in blocks of 2, 4 or 6 in contrast to the long terraces or back-to-back courts. Huge areas such as Kingstanding were built up, but the provision of amenities,even bus routes, was sometimes slow in coming.


Needs more on Between the wars a similar number of private houses were also built. These were usually semi-detached houses on estates of straight streets in contrast to the geometrical council estates; Acocks Green has examples of both. Shopping rows such as Hall Green Parade, and large handsome pubs were built at bus terminuses and at major cross-roads such as the Fox & Goose at Ward End. By 1939 half of the city's population lived in houses that had been built after World War I.


By the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939 the piecemeal replacement of poor housing was replaced by the concept of total clearance and rebuilding: a large part of Duddeston and Nechells was designated as the first Redevelopment Area. It was a crowded district with much substandard housing cheek-by-jowl with industry.


After the war the so-called 'Blitz & Blight' Act permitted councils to make compulsory purchases of and enabled redevelopment not only of both bomb-damaged districts, but also slum. In 1947 the whole city was made subject to the council's planning powers and four more redevelopment areas were set up in Highgate, Lee Bank, Ladywood and Newtown. Similar in concept to the Inner Ring Road, the Middleway would circle the city centre jwith a radius of about a mile and link the five redeveloped districts.


From the late-1950s to the late-1970s in Duddeston and Nechells, Highgate, Lee Bank, Ladywood and Newtown clearance was almost total; only churches and the few listed buildings survived, streets became cul-de-sacs and street plans were sometimes completely changed. Districts were rebuilt with local shopping centres with all necessary amenities and services, and were separated from industry and each other by green open spaces with play areas. They were ringed by collector roads such as Nechells Parkway, and there was limited vehicular access to estates to prevent through traffic. The estates were designed to house half the former population and the dwellings included many tower blocks, some 400 by 1970. After 1970 no more were built.


In the late 1960s the old Castle Bromwich aerodrome was built as Castle Vale and beyond the City boundary Chelmsley Wood was built as the largest in Europe to house some 80 000 people. Building continued beyond the boundary elsewhere . . . .


In 1966 part of Hollywood came into the City; and in 1974 Sutton Coldfield was amalgamated with Birmingham under local government reorganisation. Frankley and Kitwell came into the City in 1995.


By the end of the 20th century some the developments from the late 1960s-1970s were refurbished or rebuilt. Tower blocks had proved to be unpopular and some innovative estate and housing designs proved unworkable in practice; the quality of building and design sometimes left much to be desired. By 2000 much of the Bloomsbury area of Nechells Green had been rebuilt, the tower blocks replaced by traditional low-rise housing, some of it private. Most of the tower blocks on Castle Vale have been demolished, other properties systematically refurbished and the estate administered by a housing action trust in place of the council.


Immigration to Birmingham until the 19th century was largely from the surrounding counties, although there have always been people in the town from this country and from further afield. There were Irish people in Birmingham as early as the 17th century, but the town saw a significant influx of Irish immigrants during the Irish potato famine 1845-1849. Irish immigration continued to varying degrees, being particularly high during the economic depressions of the 1950s and 1980s. By the 1990s there were over 70 000 people in the city who had been born in Ireland with very many more of Irish extraction. Although the Irish were never particularly concentrated in any area of the city, Digbeth and Deritend have developed as a focus for the community. Of the 65% of people describing their ethnic identity as white in the 2001 census, about 3% described themselves as Irish.


From the 1700s Italian artists and craftsmen were here, but it was not until the second half of the 20th century that a significant Italian Quarter developed not far from the Bull Ring. With the redevelopment of the area after the Second World War, the community dispersed across the city. There was also a small number of Jewish people in Birmingham in the second half of the 18th century including a Jewish glass-making business. A poor Jewish community existed in The Froggery, a low-lying damp area of poor housing which is now the site of New Street station. During the second half of the 19th century there was an influx of eastern European Jews escaping persecution in their homelands. Census returns show the population more than tripling from 730 in 1851 to 2360 twenty years later. By the 1930s there were some 6000 Jews in the city. However, redevelopment of the City Centre after the war caused the dispersal of many families and by the end of the 20th the number of Jews had fallen to about 2000.


From the beginning of the 19th century a small number of people of Chinese origin lived and worked in Birmingham; there were Chinese laundries in Sparkbrook and Balsall Heath, for instance. During the First World War with the bulk of Britain's male population serving in the armed forces, newly arrived Hong Kong Chinese helped to make up the labour shortage in city factories. There was further immigration during the 1950s from Hong Kong, then a British colony, and it was at that time that the first Chinese restaurants were opened in the City Centre. The Chinese Quarter has provided a focus for a population of some 5000 people of Chinese origin, about 1% of the total, who live scattered across the city.


There was also a small number of Indians living in Birmingham before the First World War, but it was after the Second World War that numbers increased significantly; many were Sikhs from the Punjab. During the 1970s many people of Indian origin expelled from Uganda by the dictator, Idi Amin, came to live in Britain. The 2001 census recorded 6% of people, over 50 000 of Indian origin making them the second largest ethnic minority after those with Pakistani roots.


During after World War 2 Britain was a refuge for many displaced Poles. There are now several thousand people of Polish origin spread across the city, but with a focus in Digbeth where the Polish Community Centre was built in 1958. With the entry of Poland into the European Union in 2004 many Poles have come to Birmingham looking for work.


Also after World War 2 immigrants began to come from British Commonwealth countries, but especially from the Caribbean islands and the Indian subcontinent. The British Nationality Act of 1948 confirmed right of entry to Britain to British subjects, though this right was later repealed. Many came to Britain to make up the manpower shortage after World War 2; British companies actively recruited in these countries. The majority of new immigrants were men many of whom had left their families in their home country, intending to earn a substantial sum which they would later take back home. They found cheap rented housing in the inner-city districts where prices were cheapest. Many later sent for their families to come to Britain where they were to stay and settle. About 5% of the population of the city described themselves as Caribbean in the 2001 census, some 50 000 people.


The Pakistani community is the largest ethnic minority in Birmingham numbering over 100 000 and making up some 13% of the population. Many came to Britain from rural areas in Mirpur and Kashmir after World War 2 and settled in the inner-city districts where housing was cheapest, Balsall Heath being one such district. The community still predominantly lives in the inner-city areas particularly Small Heath, Sparkbrook and Sparkhill, and Washwood Heath. The pattern of immigration was similar to that from the Caribbean: men would first come alone and find unskilled jobs intending to return home with their earnings. Later they would bring their families and settle here permanently. Some Birmingham shopping streets, such as Alum Rock Road, The Rock in Saltley have large numbers of shops run by and for the Pakistani community, while their catering skills also attract people of all ethnicities. The majority of Birmingham's mosques were built to meet the needs of the Pakistani community. Also from the Indian subcontinent is the Bangladeshi community. The first immigrants came in the 1950s from poor rural areas to Birmingham to find factory work. Making up some 3% of the population, about half were born in Bangladeshi and are quite recent immigrants.


The small Yemeni community in Birmingham dates back largely to the 1950s. There is still a concentration of Yemenis living in lower Balsall Heath where in 1943 they set up the city's first mosque in a house in Edward Road. It is still there. Kurdish refugees first came to Britain from Iraq in 1958 but in greater numbers during the 1980s to escape the repression of Saddam Hussain. Some 4000 have made their homes in Birmingham. Vietnamese immigration began after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. During the 1980s increasing instability and in many cases persecution persuaded large numbers of ethnic Chinese as well as Southern Vietnamese to risk a dangerous boat journey to Hong Kong, which was then a British colony. 12 000 came to Britain of which a quarter were settled in Birmingham, largely in Aston, Handsworth, Ladywood, Sandwell and Soho.


Also since the 1980s refugees have come here from Afghanistan, Iran, people of various origins from Somalia, and from Bosnia. With the accession of ten new members states to the European Union in 2004, numbers of eastern Europeans have come to the city for work from the former Communist Eastern bloc countries, especially from Poland, Lithuania and Slovakia.