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.

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