Made in Birmingham

The formalities of the AGM concluded, the February meeting welcomed our speaker, Ian Braisby, a Birmingham Blue Badge guide, who provided us with an electrifying hour's sprint through the manufacturing history of Birmingham.

The City's growth in prominence as a world leader in manufacturing came from the most inauspicious of beginnings. Marooned in the middle of England, with little in the way of tolerable transport links in the Middle Ages, few would have put their money on the City's potential as England's future second city. The spark was indeed its very centrality. A market charter was awarded to this large village on the tiny River Rea in 1166. People beat a path to this central location and its market to sell, buy and exchange food and goods. Household items, agricultural tools and then weapons were in demand and so began to be crafted there. All relied on local craftsmen for their manufacture. Jewellery was also known to have been sold at those early markets. Raw materials were available locally so the industrious Brummies decided to manufacture more items for sale. A good dose of warfare meant a demand for weapons of all kinds and the local manufacturers cashed in on the demand. Yet Birmingham, right up to the eighteenth century, was not a city of large industrial concerns. The dark satanic mills were destined to be built elsewhere. Birmingham was a city of smaller, specialist, concerns - often producing precision items. There was no guild structure and no strong religious presence (hence the relatively modern Cathedral), so there was little constraint to innovation. Anyone could set up as a small manufacturer.

Trade grew as did the demand for Birmingham's products (Birmingham "toys"), backed by the huge expansion of the British Empire. A local man, Matthew Boulton, already a prominent manufacturer of decorative metalware, decided that he could do better. He needed to expand production. The answer lay in the further development of the steam engine by his partner - the dour Scot, James Watt. They, together with the often forgotten James Murdoch, created at Soho one of the first great manufacturies in the world. Soon, land transport was overwhelmed by the scale of production. The question was how to get raw materials to Birmingham and how to ship out the finished goods? The answer was the extension of the nascent canal system into and through Birmingham; and the canals were constructed by another eighteenth century genius - James Brindley. It was upon this tide of growing skills that Birmingham "took off". Even today, 40% of British manufactured jewellery is made in Birmingham in no fewer than 450 workshops.

Birmingham has many other claims as a world manufacturing leader. John Baskerville, a Birmingham printer, revolutionised the printing process; inventing along the way the Baskerville font that is still with us today - the first of many hundreds of new fonts. Ellington perfected the electroplating process and the nineteenth century saw Parkes develop the first plastics - which led to the production of celluloid for film use. Cadbury moved from his coffee shop on Broad Street to create a new chocolate factory and garden suburb beside the Bourne Brook. In the early twentieth century Henry Austin returned from Australia, where he had had a business manufacturing sheep shearing equipment, to set up a "luxury car company" with his friend Wolseley; later setting off on his own account to build a new factory in the countryside at Longbridge where, in 1922, he built the first successful cheap family car - the Austin 7. John Dunlop arrived to provide tyres for these new cars rather than just for bicycles. Other component manufacturers also clustered around, as they still do today, providing parts for companies like Jaguar Land Rover.

Few people know the name of Hudson & Co in the Jewellery Quarter but, as manufacturers of the Acme Thunderer Whistle, they are still pre-eminent worldwide; providing whistles for many sports and for maritime use. (Members will recall a particularly enjoyable talk from the company's managing director, Simon Topman, in November 2011, accompanied by all manner of whistles). Major Harry Gem, a Birmingham man, developed the modern game of lawn tennis from the nineteenth century game of raquets, codifying the new rules. The women's trophy, which is still awarded annually at Wimbledon, was manufactured in Birmingham and the FA Cup was also designed there. Ty-phoo tea was the first pre-packed tea to be marketed in attractive packets; an idea of a Birmingham pharmacist John Sumner who, in 1903, spotted its "medicinal" benefits (Ty-phoo is Chinese for doctor). It is still manufactured today but sadly not in Birmingham. In World War II over 11,000 Spitfire planes were built at Castle Bromwich. Finally, Ian could not avoid the temptation of bringing us right up to date with Birmingham's latest contribution to the world - the Birmingham Balti which was devised by the City's Asian community!

Ian's quick sprint through Birmingham's manufacturing history gave us one important message: that the workforce is highly innovative and entrepreneurial. As he said at the end of his talk: if there's a demand for a product then Brummies will make it or, if they can't, then they'll make the machines that make it!

Roger Hockney
February 2014