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About the City of Birmingham

Birmingham (pop. 934,900; met. area pop. 2,500,400) is the second largest city in Britain. Only London has more people. Birmingham, which is a local government district in the West Midlands, and the communities that surround it form Britain's chief manufacturing area. Birmingham is the richest of Britain's provincial cities. Its success stems from the diversity of its manufacturing industries. But the city is also developing as a regional service centre, and some of its main manufacturing industries are declining. These changes have caused the balance of employment in the city to shift toward nonmanual occupations. Despite some ugly features brought by the Industrial Revolution, Birmingham also contains many beautiful buildings (both old and new), large parks, and some attractive suburbs with tree-lined streets.

Birmingham lies in west-central England on a plateau bounded by the rivers Trent, Severn, and Avon, but no major river runs through the city. Various parts of the city range from 81 to 222 metres above sea level. Birmingham is often called "the heart of England," because it lies close to the centre of the country. It is 110 kilometres away from the nearest coast. London is 174 kilometres away to the southeast, Manchester is 139 kilometres away to the north, and Bristol is 145 kilometres away to the south-southwest.

People and government Return to top of the page

Local government. Birmingham is the largest district in West Midlands, with an area of 26,430 hectares. Birmingham retains its title of city (awarded in 1889), and its 117-member district council exercises important local city functions. Birmingham sends 13 members to Parliament. Several regional bodies are based in Birmingham.

Since the 1700's, Birmingham's industrial and commercial growth has attracted thousands of people from other parts of Britain and from abroad. The resulting population is unusually diverse. Nearly 1 resident in 5 is of Irish descent, and 1 in 10 is a first- or second-generation immigrant from the Commonwealth. Immigrants from Asia and the West Indies, in particular, have created a distinctive culture within the city.

Many Commonwealth immigrants live in crowded districts of older housing in the middle of the city. Most British workers live either in the tower blocks of flats of the Central Redevelopment Area, or in the sprawling suburban estates built since the 1920's by the City Council. More than a third of Birmingham's dwellings are municipally owned. Many white-collar employees, together with some of the higher-paid manual workers, travel daily to work from outside the city boundary.

Religion.The diversity of population has naturally brought together a great many religions in Birmingham. Places of worship for Protestants, Roman Catholics, and members of the Free Churches stand near Muslim mosques, Eastern Orthodox churches, Hindu temples, and Jewish synagogues.

Economy Return to top of the page

Birmingham's factories manufacture a wide range of products. The main items include motor vehicles and components; machinery, equipment, and tools; nuts, bolts, screws, and rivets; metal castings and stampings; electrical goods; jewellery and plate; plastics and rubber goods; bearings and springs; food products; and abrasives. The city's business district, with its towering modern office blocks, is among the most impressive in Britain.

Transport and communications Return to top of the page

Birmingham is a major hub of the national motorway network. The M5 and M6 serve the city. An excellent system of ring roads and link roads speeds access to these motorways.

New Street Station (rebuilt in 1967) provides fast electric services to London, Liverpool, Manchester, and Scotland. A network of regional lines focuses on Birmingham. Bus services operate throughout the region.

Birmingham has a rapidly expanding international airport, with services to the continent of Europe, as well as to London, Scotland, and Ireland.

Birmingham is also the centre of Britain's canal system and a starting place for pleasure-cruising.

Birmingham and its region have two morning papers, the Birmingham Post and the Daily News; an evening paper, the Birmingham Evening Mail; and England's only provincial Sunday paper, the Sunday Mercury. The city is the broadcasting centre of the Midlands, with BBC radio and television studios at Pebble Mill and Central Independent Television studios in Broad Street. The headquarters of the BBC's Radio West Midlands and the independent BRMB Radio are also in Birmingham.

Education and cultural life Return to top of the page

Most primary and secondary education in Birmingham is provided by the City Council, which controls about 500 schools and colleges.

Universities and colleges. The University of Birmingham, founded in 1900, has a campus at Edgbaston. At Gosta Green is the University of Aston in Birmingham. The City of Birmingham Polytechnic has its main campus at Perry Barr. At Northfield, colleges of adult and religious education form a federation known as the Selly Oak Colleges.

Libraries, museums, and galleries. Some of Birmingham's most important cultural institutions were founded in the 1800's. The Birmingham Society of Artists (established 1809) and the Birmingham and Midland Institute (established 1853) have buildings in the city centre. The Central Library (founded 1860) was rebuilt in 1973 as Europe's largest public library. The City Museum and Art Gallery has a collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including works by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, a native of the city. Other paintings are housed in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts at the University of Birmingham. The Museum of Science and Industry, in Newhall Street, has historic machinery and vehicles.

Culture and the arts. A municipal orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, performs regularly in the Town Hall, where lunchtime organ recitals are also given. There are three professional theatres. The Midlands Art Centre for Young People, Cannon Hill Park, offers a varied programme.

Birmingham's accessibility as a city led the national government to set up a permanent exhibition centre close to the city. The National Exhibition Centre (NEC) opened in 1976.

Recreation. Association football and cricket are popular sports in Birmingham. Two leading professional football clubs, Birmingham City and Aston Villa, are based in the city and play in the Football League. The headquarters of the Warwickshire County Cricket Club are at the County Ground, in Edgbaston, which also stages Test matches.

Birmingham offers a variety of annual events in its parks. These events include the City of Birmingham Show and the Bonfire Carnivals. There is also an annual Highland Gathering.

Sightseeing in Birmingham Return to top of the page

Visitors may easily tour the central part of Birmingham on foot. The main public buildings are grouped near Victoria Square, where the colonnaded Town Hall (built 1834-1849) provides the most distinguished architecture. The Council House (dating from 1879) is crowned by one of Birmingham's older landmarks, the Big Brum clocktower, with its distinctive chime. Nearby is the Civic Centre, which includes the Central Library and Repertory Theatre. Beyond are the well-preserved canal installations of Gas Street Basin and Farmer's Bridge. St. Philip's Cathedral (built in 1715) and St. Chad's Roman Catholic Cathedral (built in 1841) have a quiet distinction about them. The giant Bull Ring shopping centre (opened in 1963) is the heart of Birmingham. It is linked to New Street station by a shopping arcade. In the vicinity of the Bull Ring is St. Martin's Church.

The finest mansion still standing in Birmingham is Aston Hall (dating from 1618). It is located 3 kilometres northeast of the city centre and overlooks Villa Park, the home of the Aston Villa football club. Aston Hall is now a museum. The suburb of Bournville, which was begun in 1895 and developed as a model factory town by the Cadbury family, is an early example of town planning, which became famous for its chocolate industry. It is enhanced by two reconstructed manor houses, Selly Manor and Minworth Greaves. Other rescued buildings are in Cannon Hill, the finest of the city's pleasure grounds with a large nature centre, in Edgbaston, which itself is one of Birmingham's prettiest suburbs. Another historic building in the suburbs is Blakesley Hall, in Yardley, a farmhouse of the 1500's. Natural scenery within the city boundaries is offered by Sutton Park, in the northeast, and the Lickey Hills in the southwest.

History Return to top of the page

The area now occupied by the city of Birmingham was in ancient times remote and thickly wooded upland. The region attracted few settlers in the Roman period, and the village of Birmingham appears to have been founded by Anglian settlers in the A.D. 600's.

Birmingham, as surveyed in the Domesday Book (1086), was a tiny hamlet. After the granting of a market charter in 1166, it began to expand as a centre of local trade. By the 1500's, Birmingham was a market town enclosed by forests and farmland. Tanning, weaving and the manufacture of metal products by large numbers of skilled smiths were established industries, and water power was already in use. At this time, most of the houses in the town of Birmingham stood in one long street (Digbeth and High Street), running uphill from the crossing over the River Rea.

During the English Civil War (1642-1651), Birmingham's smiths made thousands of weapons for the Parliamentary forces. By the mid-1700's, Birmingham had become a centre of religious nonconformity, of radical politics, and of scientific research. Its generally liberal and tolerant atmosphere attracted such men as Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of the evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin) to the city. Erasmus Darwin, together with the industrialist Matthew Boulton and the inventor and engineer James Watt, belonged to the flourishing Lunar Society in the late 1700's. Boulton and Watt had a factory at Soho. Another famous Birmingham resident, the scientist Joseph Priestley, discovered oxygen.

Birmingham's industrial expansion received a great boost from the building of its canals. These waterways provided valuable links to Birmingham's sources of coal and iron in the Black Country. During the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700's and early 1800's, Birmingham became one of Britain's greatest industrial centres (see INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION). From the 1830's onwards, the growth of the railways reinforced Birmingham's position as a producer of high-grade metal goods. The job opportunities offered by the new industries attracted many people to the city. The population rose from 70,000 in 1801 to more than 800,000 by the early 1900's.

Birmingham sent its first Members of Parliament to Westminster as a result of the Reform Act of 1832. The city became a borough in 1838 and a city 51 years later. One of its greatest mayors, Joseph Chamberlain, held office in 1875 and 1876.

By 1914, many slums had been demolished for the building of Corporation Street. By 1931, the city boundaries had been greatly extended. Many sections of Birmingham were heavily damaged by German bombs during World War II (1939-1945). After 1945, these areas were rebuilt as part of an urban renewal programme. Slum clearance continued. In five Central Redevelopment Areas, rebuilding went forward on a vast scale. The city centre was largely rebuilt, and an inner road scheme was completed in 1971.

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