World’s First Industrial Town

Monday, 4 July 1881 - Birmingham, England

The Industrial Revolution “officially” started about 1750. Birmingham beat everyone by two centuries! John Leland in 1536 commented on the extraordinary number of smiths and ironmongers in the town. Birmingham is now hailed as the world’s first industrial town! (All right, Manchester makes that claim, too, but they did it using a Birmingham invention.)

John Dudley
How did this happen? In the Middle Ages towns were either incorporated and run by a city council or were ruled by the lord of the local manor. In 1510 Birmingham was a village of about 1000 ruled over by the powerful de Birmingham family. Then in 1530, John Dudley, who was practically running the country for under aged King Edward VI, cheated the de Birminghams out of their manor. John was soon beheaded and his descendants hung onto, but pretty much ignored, Birmingham.

What did Birmingham do when left to its own devices? Did it fall apart without tight control? On the contrary, it thrived! Free enterprise, unshackled by foolish bureaucrats, flourished. By 1700 the population had become 15,000 as merchants and artisans poured into the town. Since it is located close to iron and coal, smiths were especially attracted. The town was a center first of sword making, then guns.

Furthermore, due to the lack of restrictive Trade Guilds, workers could easily trade one profession for another until they found their best niche. Shops could manufacturer more than one item, or even invent new ones. There was a higher degree of social mobility. Luckily the self-made businessmen who came into power were more interested in commerce than land so saw to it that this free enterprise continued.

This atmosphere of free-thinking drew in philosophers, scientists, authors, religious dissenters and political radicals. It became the heart of the Midlands Enlightenment and the subsequent Industrial Revolution. The Lunar Society of Birmingham was the leading scientific association of the 18th century of Britain with members like Joseph Priestley, James Keir, Matthew Boulton, James Watt, William Withering and Erasmus Darwin. They kept close ties with other centers of the enlightenment in Glasgow, Edinburgh, London and even Europe and America, freely exchanging ideas.

1758 Patent Drawing
Roller Spinning Machine
which started the cotton mills
In 1709, Abraham Darby I opened the first successful coke-fired blast furnace in nearby Coalbrookdale. This plant would created the first rails for trains and the world’s first cast-iron bridge. In 1741, Lewis Paul and John Wyatt, using their recent inventions, opened the world’s first cotton mill. John Roebuck, James Keir and Joseph Priestly made great advances in chemistry that could be applied commercially, practically inventing industrial chemistry.

In 1775, James Watt and Matthew Boulton created the industrial steam engine, freeing manufacturers from water mills and horse-power to run their factories with the plentiful local coal. Even though Watt had made his discovery while working at the University of Glasgow improving Newcomen’s steam engine, he came to Birmingham for the iron workers to make his invention practical. The age of steam started in Birmingham. Between 1760 and 1850, Birmingham residents registered over three times as many patents in manufacturing technology than any other city.

Ironically it will be the later developed northern manufacturing centers who will take full advantage of cotton mills and steam engines. In the 18th century Birmingham’s major industries will be small high-priced metal items like button, buckles, guns and jewelry. This means a well trained, higher paid workforce.

Between 1700 and 1750 the population quadrupled. By 1775 it was the third largest city in England. By 1850 it will be second only to London. In the 19th century small workshops still dominate making screws, locks, tools, toys, guns, jewelry, etc. However large factories are becoming much more common. Innovation will continue. In 1856, Birmingham’s Alexander Parkes will invent parkesine--the world’s first plastic!

Birmingham today (1881)
This rapid growth has led to ill thought-out housing that quickly degraded into slums. While Birmingham was one of the first cities to have industrial blight, it was also one of the first to do something about it, largely due to one man--Joseph Chamberlain. Also thanks to the trains, which came in 1837, and the horse-drawn trams, which came in 1873, public transportation has allowed the population to spread out of the overcrowded city, into the surrounding villages as commuters.

Birmingham has not done badly for a city with no port, built away from the major Roman roads. She is a “backwater” village that made the most of her isolation to become the first industrial town when no one was looking.


From Peasant to Pleasant

Friday, 1 July 1881 - Solihull, Warwickshire, England

Downtown Solihull
On my way to Birmingham, I decided to stop off and visit Solihull for a couple of days. Solihull was, and still is, a market town for all the surrounding farms, some of which are quite large. This village was on the road to Birmingham, so became a coach stop in the old days. Even though the railway now goes through the town, Solihull is not an industrial center like neighboring Birmingham or Coventry. And while it’s very charming, it is ignored by tourists who flock to the spas of Leamington, the castle at Warwick or the birthplace of Shakespeare in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Solihull has been ignored.

That is all changing. The railway connecting Solihull to Birmingham is bringing a new “industry”--family homes. Successful businessmen yearn for the country and dream of living on an estate. Now they can buy of those manor houses, live in it and commute to work in the crowded old city--best of both worlds. Just beyond the village are streets lined with Victorian terraces, for those who can’t quite afford an estate, but still want the charm of the country. Right now Solihull has grown to over 3,741. In twenty years it will be 7,500.

New housing in the early 20th century
Commuting is an invention of the second half of the 19th century, but it will really take off in the 20th. As the local estates are split up into plots, more people will come pouring out of Birmingham. Soon the working class will join the middle class in their escape. By the 1960s Solihull will have over 100,000 people. Many of the old Manor houses will be turned into schools, hotels and other things.

A good example of this phenomena is Hillfield Hall, just one mile south of the railway. The estate dates back to the late 12th century, the manor house having been built in 1576. It apparently had a moat around it at one time. By 1660 the estate consisted of five farms on 455 acres. Although it passed from family to family over time as waning fortunes forced owners to sell, it was a successful farm. Then the trains came.

Hillfield Hall
In 1852 the railway was built right through Hillfield Hall’s property, making farming it difficult. Since 1871 has been lived in by a George Beard, a businessman more interested in making pins and needles than farming. He has a staff of six servants as he lives the good life

The property will be sold to others until only 7 acres will remain by 1964. The manor house will then become a night club, and then a restaurant. All the other manor houses in the surrounding countryside will have similar stories to tell. Where once serfs plowed fields, people will tend their flower gardens. Perhaps not as glamorous as a Medieval manor, but much more pleasant for the descendants of those peasants.

We English do love to garden

More on the History of Solihull


Wendell Gets Blitzed

Psst! Thought I would sneak this in while Dr. Howe wasn't looking. A little something from his future?
150th Temporal Tuesday
--Scablander, the web designer


The Victorians Holy of Holies

Thursday, 23 June 1881 - Stratford-Upon-Avon, England

I am at Stratford-Upon-Avon today. If you didn’t know this was the birthplace of William Shakespeare you would figure that out as soon as you stepped off the train. His name and those of his characters are everywhere. While tourism is a major industry in the surrounding towns of Coventry, Leamington Spa and Warwick, here it is THE industry. Stratford-Upon-Avon is more than a tourist spot--this is a place of pilgrimage.

I believe I told you William Shakespeare was more popular in the Victorian Age than his own? This is not to imply that Shakespeare died a forgotten pauper. On the contrary, he became wealthy and had many fans, including King James I himself. Shakespeare was regarded as a successful playwright and stage manager, but not a god.

George Bernard Shaw coined the phrase “Bardolatry” to describe the Victorian obsession with Shakespeare. It combines the word “idolatry” with Shakespeare’s 19th century epithet, “The Bard.” And it’s not just the English who come her to worship. Someone joked that nine out of ten Americans who come to Britain head directly to Stratford-Upon-Avon. No one is considered a real actor, unless he does Shakespeare. His works are ranked next to the Bible. He is to the Victorian not only the greatest writer that ever lived, but the greatest mind the world ever produced. One could learn everything they ever needed to know by reading just his works. Any criticism of his plays is considered blasphemy.

Shakespeare Attended by Painting and Poetry
by Thomas Banks (circa 1789)
Bardolatry really started back in 1769 when David Garrick, actor and theatre manager organized the Shakespeare Jubilee to celebrate the Bi-Centennial of the Bard’s birth (even though he was born in 1564 ) He unveiled a statue of Shakespeare here in town with a poem ending with the line "'tis he, 'tis he, / The God of our idolatry." The Romantics took Garrick seriously.

This idolatry only got worse during the Victorian period. It did produce some fine actors like Sir Henry Irving, Edwin Booth, and Ira Aldridge who now had plays worthy of their talents. It did get people to read things other than “penny dreadfuls.” And most importantly it created the oldest conservation society in Britain, starting a trend to save historic places. Believe it or not, we have P.T. Barnum of all people to thank for that.

In 1846 the house where Shakespeare had been born went up for sale. P.T. Barnum offered to buy it, tear it apart brick by brick, and ship it off to America to be setup for paying customers to admire. Brits were outraged at this sacrilege. They started the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and with the help of people like Charles Dickens, manage to raise the money to buy the house and turn it into a public museum. It went so well they began to raise money to buy other buildings about town that had connections with William Shakespeare and save them too from cold-hearted businessmen.

Shakespeare's Birthplace
Today I visited the birthplace of Shakespeare in in Stratford-Upon-Avon on Henley Street. Now the tiny village of Clifford Chambers, two miles to the south, claims William was really born there. Of course, Stratford-Upon-Avon does their best to ignore them. They argue that the scant records do show that William was baptized at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon and that his father, John Shakespeare owned this house. Actually Dr. Edward Cook, Temporal Anthropologist for University of Oregon and Elizabethan Age specialist, did travel back to 1564 and was able to verify that William Shakespeare was indeed born here, but I digress.

Part of the house is given over to the mementos collected by a Mr. Wheler and contributed by his widow. They include a desk Shakespeare is believed to have used at the local grammar school and a signet ring bearing “W.S.” It costs sixpence to view the museum and another sixpence to view the room the Bard was said to be born.

Room William Shakespeare was born in
It is a small chamber, maybe ten foot square. About all that’s in it is a bust of Shakespeare. What is most remarkable are the walls. They are covered with graffiti! Even though there is a guestbook downstairs to sign, visitors have used the walls here for the same purpose. And this wasn’t the work of teenage vandals. I found the signatures of Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott, Isaac Watts, and Thomas Carlyle here!. I know it seems scandalous to us today, but it was a sign of respect in those days. (No, I did not add my name to the walls.)

There is a garden in back of the house. The caretakers have been planting flowers and trees which Shakespeare mentions in his works. I’m not sure how it survives the souvenir seekers wanting a pansy or sprig of fennel to press in their bound collection of sonnets.

There are dissenters in the cult of Shakespeare. Mark Twain argued that Shakespeare could not possibly have written such great literature, being raised in a small town with a rudimentary education. (Of course one could make the same argument for Mark Twain’s work.) We do know that Shakespeare did collaborate on occasion. The man wasn’t out to write great literature. He simply wanted plays for his production company that customers would flock to see. And if masterpieces came out of that, I‘m sure he would not have minded.

I spent most of my day at the house, not just recording how it looked in 1881, but to record the visitors. The look of awe on their faces was fascinating and occasionally amusing. It is said the ancient Greeks would worship at the tombs of great warriors. Victorians worship at the birthplace of a poet. It’s why I love these people.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website

The true face of Shakespeare?

Mark Twain's 'Is Shakespeare Dead?' -- with Keir Cutler


The Father of the Bicycle Industry

Tuesday, 21 June 1881 - Coventry, England

I took the early morning train from Kenilworth back to Coventry today. I went straight to my time machine, disguised as a huge wooden crate in a currently empty warehouse. I didn’t bother to get a hotel, for I’m only staying the day. I left my luggage there and changed into my black frock coat and top hat I had been storing in the machine just for this occasion. I have to attend a funeral today.

James Starley
If you will remember on Twitter I had commented last Friday that a James Starley was to die that evening? I was not allowed to stop it, and couldn’t anyway. This was no matter of shoving someone out of the way of a train. Poor Starley had cancer and in 1881 there is no cure. The doctors had found the lump just last December. By Easter he was bed ridden. His death came as no shock to anyone. No one wanted to see him die, but they all must feel a sense of relief that he is no longer suffering.

As is the fashion of the day, the funeral was held four days later. The mood of Coventry is subdued. Many mourn the loss, while the more cynical wonder what the loss of the brilliant James Starley will mean to this town. Hundreds lined the street to watch the passing funeral procession, as four black horses pulled the long dark hearse.

I had a devil of a time squeezing into the church where the memorial service was held. The speaker unfolded the rags to riches story of Coventry’s favorite son. James Starley was born on a farm in Sussex in 1830. He however had an inventive mind that loved to tinker. In another age he would have died a farmer who had built a better mousetrap (which young Starley apparently did with an umbrella rib and a willow branch) but this is the industrial age and it needs engineering geniuses.

Starley ran away as a teenager to London and got a job as a gardener. In his spare time he tinkered with watches and gadgets. He even fixed and improved his employer, John Penn’s, expensive sewing machine. Penn introduced him to Josiah Turner, a partner of Newton, Wilson and Company who had manufactured his sewing machine. Turner got Starley a job at the factory, until he discovered the young man was building his own vastly improved sewing machine. Turner talked him into starting their own company in Coventry in 1861.

James Starley's "Queen of Hearts" Sewing Machine
The new sewing machine, named “the Queen of Hearts,” was a big hit. Starley kept tweaking it, coming up with many improvements that others copied. Then he saw his first bicycle. It was a velocipede from France, nicknamed the Bone-Shaker for good reason. Inefficient, uncomfortable, it was little more than a curiosity, Starley saw huge potential and started producing them in 1868.

Velocipede aka Bone-Shaker
Of course, Starley’s bicycles did not stay bone-shakers for long. Bicycles didn’t have chains then, so one had to peddle furiously. Starley decided increasing the front tire would give more momentum. And thus Starley invented the “Penny-Farthing.”

Penny-Farthing bicycle
The Penny-Farthing was more efficient, but it was difficult to ride. It seemed only young athletic men, wishing to impress girls, raced about on them. Starley wasn’t satisfied with it though, and kept trying to develop what he called a “safety bicycle.” He improved the spokes, the tires, indeed he had dozens of patents. He was constantly reinventing the bicycle.

Why there was a need for the Safety Bicycle
Then Starley made a breakthrough when he devised “differential gears” and perfected the chain drive. This led to the “Salvo,” with two huge tires and small wheels to stabilize it. Even Her Majesty could ride one of these (and she did!)

James Starley on his "Salvo" bicycle
Then James Starley was struck down by cancer at the tender age of fifty. All right, life expectancy in England in 1881 is only about 45 years. Still it is far too soon to take away a man who’s life work was not done.

Fortunately his family will carry on the business. And in four years his nephew, James Kemp Starley, will finish his uncle’s dream, creating the Rover. This safety bicycle is the model we think of today as the bicycle. It will revolutionize bicycling by making it available to just about everyone from young ladies riding in the park to working-class men making deliveries or riding to work.

James Starley has been called the Father of the Bicycle Industry. He may not have invented the first bicycle, or the final version, but without all his innovations, James Kemp Starley may never have invented the safety bicycle--at least not in time for the 1890s, the Golden Age of the Bicycle.

The Rover Bicycle
Others will take James Starley’s differential gears and use them to create automobiles. They are still found in hovercars in our own 27th century, allowing cars to land and drive to their parking spots. It is no coincidence that Coventry will also become the birthplace of the British automobile industry.

There is already talk of making a monument to James Starley. It will be very showy in true Victorian fashion. However I think the James Starley Building on the campus of Coventry University is a more fitting memorial to an inventive genius.

Starley Memorial erected 1884
James Starley’s contribution to Coventry’s growth can not be emphasized enough. When its watch industry was all but snuffed out by foreign imports in the 1880s, bicycle manufacturing took up the slack, and then branched off into the automotive and aeroplane industries. This why Coventry University was so keen to have me record the funeral of one of her most important citizens. James Starley will indeed be missed.

James Starley’s story by legendary British Cyclist Horace William Bartleet

More about James Starley’s Sewing Machines

Penny Farthings On the Road
Apparently in the future, brave men will still ride Penny-Farthings to impress ladies

Normally I don't put advertisements in my blog,
but this was too good to ignore.
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