Birmingham: The Great Working City

The heroine of my Victorian novel set in Birmingham has been out job-hunting recently. I have been her guide, with the help of an 1839 map, an 1839 Directory of Birmingham and Sheffield, a favourite blog:  Mapping Birmingham, a couple of back numbers of Aris’s Birmingham Gazette from the British Newspaper Archive, Edmond Chadwick’s Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Britain and Carl Chinn’s wonderful book ‘Birmingham: The Great Working City’.

My heroine is encumbered by having been involved in a scandal, and by a lack of useful experience other than as a domestic servant. She heads down from Newhall Street, past St Martin’s in the Bullring and the Court of Requests debtors’ prison, along the High Street towards Bordesley. All of this street is lined with shops and small businesses: tea dealers, basket makers, bookmakers, cheese factors, bottle merchants, hardware men, woollen drapers, printers, chemists, brewers hop merchants, seed and corn factors, hatters, confectioners, auctioneers, wine and spirit merchants, glovers, hosiers, lace manufacturers, jewellers, engravers, tobacconists. In a courtyard near Smithfield is a slaughterman’s shed with a crowd of urchins trying to peek through chinks in the wall as a bull is butchered. The 1839 Directory bears evidence to thousands of small businesses jostling for space in the streets of the town – this is the High Street:

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My heroine applies for work in a fruiterer’s, a tailor’s and a pin and needle manufactory (relocated for the purposes of my chapter from Bordesley Street) and is turned away. With a sinking heart she finds her way through a slum area to a dairy, an urban cowshed where the TB – ridden cows are fed on brewer’s grains, the atmosphere is rancid with the animals’ excrement and open milk pans are left on the dirty floor (thanks, Mr Chadwick!). It’s not her day.

Carl Chinn’s book was handy for details of factory life in Birmingham and along the way I discovered some nuggets of information that I can’t use in my novel as they happened too late:

Elkington’s – the first industrial electroplaters in the world – had a factory on Newhall Street, Birmingham, which later became the Museum of Science and Industry. One of their early employees was one Joseph Lucas (1834-1902). After leaving Elkington’s, he sold paraffin for lamps from a handcart. He then decided to manufacture oil-lamps and persuaded some of his former colleagues from Elkington’s to join him. Branching out into bicycle lamps and accessories made him successful. His company has become Lucas Aerospace.

Joseph Chamberlain (1836 -1914), MP and mayor of Birmingham, made his money in the screw-making firm of Nettlefold and Chamberlain on Broad Street which turned out 130,000 gross of screws a week. Nettlefold and Chamberlain became part of GKN (Guest, Keen and Nettlefold).

Sam Goldwyn (1879 – 1974) of MGM began life as Samuel Goldfisch, a penniless Polish-Jewish migrant who at an early age travelled from Warsaw to Birmingham. He too had a handcart, in the employment of Charles Henry Whittingham, a manufacturer of safes. He went to America and made his fortune in the Hollywood film industry. Mr Whittingham meanwhile perfected ‘steel fire proof Cinematograph Storage Film Boxes.’

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