A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 7, the City of Birmingham. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1964.
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SOCIAL HISTORY SINCE 1815 (fn. 1)
It is often thought that the social history of modern industrial communities varies little from place to place. (fn. 2) Social conditions in 19th-century Birmingham, the biggest of English industrial cities, were, however, unique and distinctive. When de Tocqueville visited Birmingham in 1835 he began by noting that there was 'hardly any likeness' between Birmingham society and that of London. (fn. 3) A comparison which was more frequently drawn was that between Birmingham and Manchester. In its classic form it was stated by Cobden: 'The social and political state of that town [Birmingham] is far more healthy than that of Manchester; and it arises from the fact that the industry of the hardware district is carried on by small manufacturers, employing a few men and boys each, sometimes only an apprentice or two; whilst the great capitalists in Manchester form an aristocracy . . . There is a freer intercourse between all classes than in the Lancashire town, where a great and impassable gulf separates the workman from his employer.' (fn. 4) The political consequences of this state of affairs are noted elsewhere. (fn. 5) Socially the comparison is basic but not exhaustive. Although there were closer relations between classes in 19th-century Birmingham than in most other industrial areas of the country and there was marked distaste for aristocratic attitudes and pretensions, class conditions were not the only relevant factors in shaping local social history. Religion, particularly Protestant nonconformity, was an important influence in a large number of different ways. (fn. 6) Moreover, while there was no local aristocracy, there was a prominent middle-class leadership locally. The presence of constructive leaders of opinion and initiators of new policies, particularly in relation to what is usually described as the 'civic gospel', (fn. 7) distinguish Birmingham from Sheffield, where economic and social relationships had something in common with those in Birmingham. (fn. 8)
De Tocqueville, like most visitors to Birmingham, began with conditions of work before he turned to society. 'These folk', he wrote, 'never have a minute to themselves. They work as if they must get rich in the evening and die the next day. They are generally very intelligent people, but intelligent in the American way. The town itself has no analogy with other English provincial towns; the whole place is made up of streets like the rue du Faubourg St. Antoine [in Paris]. It is an immense workshop, a huge forge, a vast shop. One only sees busy people and faces brown with smoke. One hears nothing but the sound of hammers and the whistle of steam escaping from boilers'. (fn. 9)
Four conditions of work in early 19th-century Birmingham provided the foundation of local social history. First, work was carried on in small workshops rather than in large factories. Economic development multiplied the number of producing units rather than added to the scale of existing enterprises. (fn. 10) R. D. Grainger, the Factory Commissioner, who made an exhaustive investigation of industrial conditions in Birmingham in 1840 and 1841, described the large number of small workshops 'usually adapted for a limited number of machines, varying from six to eight to twenty or thirty within each shop'. He added that 'there are no large and crowded factories such as abound in the other districts'. (fn. 11) The point was not lost on local working men. John Collins, the local Chartist, argued, for example, that 'large manufacturers [in Birmingham] cannot shut up their men as they did in Manchester'. (fn. 12) Within the workshop, social relations were often close and friendly, although there was no doubt where ultimate power lay. (fn. 13)
Secondly, a large proportion of the Birmingham labour force was skilled. (fn. 14) The Census of 1841, for example, assigned only 11 per cent. of adult males in Birmingham to the unskilled labour group: the skilled workers included not only traditional handicraftsmen, who could be found in all parts of the country, but representatives of the large number of highly developed Birmingham 'trades'. (fn. 15) Machinery did not serve in Birmingham, as it did in many other industrial communities, to throw workers out of their jobs but rather further to sub-divide the range of skills. 'The operation of mechanism in this town, is to effect that alone, which requires more force than the arm and the tools of the workman could yield, still leaving his skill and experience of hand, head and eye in full exercise; - so that Birmingham has suffered infinitely less from the introduction of machinery than those towns where it is, in a great degree, an actual substitute for human labour.' (fn. 16) Basic machines were worked by hand and the application of power came relatively late. (fn. 17)
The emphasis on skill affected attitudes to education. The superior Birmingham artisans were renowned for their interest in cultural as well as technical matters. In 1838, for instance, it was noted that 'the children of the working classes are found in superior schools, in cases where the parents appreciate the importance of a liberal education, and, perhaps, make some sacrifices to secure it for their children'. (fn. 18) The use of the word 'perhaps' points to the fact that it was not always thought that sacrifice was needed. The income of Birmingham artisans was higher than in most other parts of the country, and this in itself helped to shape the local social pattern. Detailed evidence relating to wage rates is fragmentary, but in the last years of the Napoleonic Wars Thomas Attwood told a Select Committee of the House of Commons that Birmingham workmen had been 'in the habit of earning more wages than fall to the lot of labouring men in general'. (fn. 19) In 1840 a survey was made of the wages of six hundred members of a Birmingham provident society. It showed that the six hundred, who included artisans from over a hundred trades, were paid an average weekly wage of 24s., a figure which was deemed 'adequate for the necessaries of life'. (fn. 20) Hours of labour also were often shorter than in other places - although in periods of peak trade a great deal of overtime was worked. 'On the whole', Grainger wrote, 'it may be stated that the hours of labour in Birmingham are probably shorter, and less fatiguing, than in any other large manufacturing town in the kingdom'. (fn. 21)
Thirdly, there was considerable social mobility or at least an atmosphere which encouraged optimism about social mobility. Because of industrial fluctuations, which provide the rhythm both of political and of social life, (fn. 22) small masters might fail in their enterprises and become journeymen again. 'On voit bien vite', commented Faucher, another distinguished and perceptive foreign observer, 'que la bourgeoisie, qui fait partout la base des populations urbaines, ne s'élève guère à Birmingham au-dessus des régimes inférieures de la société'. (fn. 23) Social mobility depended in considerable measure on the technical features of Birmingham industry described earlier. Only a small amount of capital was needed to set up business in many of the Birmingham trades. (fn. 24) Other factors were relevant too, education being one of them, although it is difficult to measure its precise implications. Whatever the causes, the consequences were obvious. 'With the exception of the metropolis, there is perhaps no town in England where there are so many persons combining in themselves the character of masters and workmen as in Birmingham, and none in which there is more desirable a chain of links connecting one with another.' (fn. 25) And the chain of links permitted a considerable degree of independence. 'It was always a peculiarity of Birmingham that small household trades existed, which gave the inmates independence, and often led - if the trade continued good - to competence or fortune . . . I could see then that excellence of workmanship on the part of a man intelligent enough to know its value gives a sense of independence.' (fn. 26) Fourthly, many women (and some children) found employment in the Birmingham 'trades' although their numbers were proportionately smaller than in Manchester and the textile districts of the north of England. (fn. 27) In some trades such as screw, steel and brass nail-making women were employed as an important part of the labour force: in 1841 4,061 women were employed in the country as a whole in nail-making out of a total work force of 20,311. (fn. 28) Writers sometimes levelled criticisms at the bad working conditions of women operatives in Birmingham similar to those which they directed against working conditions in the factory districts proper. (fn. 29) There were also local complaints (as well as complaints by outsiders) of consequent immorality, high illegitimacy rates, and squalid living conditions. (fn. 30) These complaints were not always substantiated. (fn. 31)
Given these four features of working conditions in early 19th-century Birmingham, the emergence of characteristic new institutions and relationships in local society is more easily explicable. The closeness of workshop relations facilitated not only a political alliance between working classes and middle classes, (fn. 32) but various forms of social and cultural co-operation. The middle classes were expected to provide leadership, but there was to be genuine co-operation not dictation. J. C. Miller, appointed Rector of St. Martin's in 1846, awarded prizes for essays submitted by members of his St. Martin's Workingmen's Association, on the subject of 'co-operation of the working classes and the other classes of society for the elevation of the former'. (fn. 33) 'It was pleasant', he said, 'to see the working men of the parish, not standing alone in a class distinct from the others but going hand in hand with the higher order'. (fn. 34) Belief in 'improvement' was shared by both small masters and skilled artisans: in both groups there was emphasis on 'respectability'.
The skilled and relatively highly paid labour force organized itself naturally into
trade clubs, (fn. 35) more moderate in tone and more cautious in outlook than organized
labour groups in the Black Country. The motto of the Brushmakers, as it was stated
in 1832, was characteristic:
'In love and unity we support our trade
And keep out those who would our rights invade'. (fn. 36)
in 1845 the secretary of the Operative Wire Drawers advised members of his trade to refrain from 'uttering anything of an irritating nature, as their only object was that of securing justice and obtaining the honourable fulfilment of all arrangements entered into between them and their employers'. (fn. 37) Only the skilled trades were organized, and when the Birmingham Trades Council was formed in July 1866 it advocated from the start 'harmony that should always exist between employers and employees'. (fn. 38) The meeting at the Tamworth Arms which brought the council into being cost only 1s. in postal charges to summon (fn. 39): it consisted of 25 representatives of a number of old trade clubs - the basketmakers, cabinet makers, cordwainers, mill sawyers, painters, tailors, wood turners, and fire-arm makers along with a number of trade unionists, including representatives of the new 'model' union, the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners. (fn. 40)
Just as important as the trade clubs in local life were the friendly societies. The prevalence of these in the 18th and early 19th centuries has already been noted. (fn. 41) The 1835 edition of Hutton's History of Birmingham estimated that there were then 400 friendly societies and other similar clubs in Birmingham with a total membership of 40,000 people: (fn. 42) another estimate at a slightly later date was 30,000. (fn. 43) A London reporter, Charles Mackay, who wrote a series of articles on Birmingham working-class life, noted in 1851 that 'there is perhaps no town in England in which the principle of association for mutual benefit, real or supposed, is carried to so great an extent as in Birmingham'. (fn. 44) The same point was made in the report of the Royal Commission on Friendly Societies in 1874. 'It is certain that [in Birmingham] there is a larger development of Friendly Societies conducted as a mere matter of insurance, and also of rich sick clubs . . . than in most towns.' (fn. 45)
Trade clubs and friendly societies were intimately associated in their origins. (fn. 46) During the early 19th century, however, religious initiative was also imported in the formation of new friendly societies in Birmingham. The old trade-clubs-cum-friendly societies had a reputation for conviviality. Although their rules often proscribed gambling, swearing and drunkenness, they usually met in public houses. (fn. 47) During the 1830s there was a growth of 'more scientifically' conducted provident societies, 'which are based on superior calculations, and usually hold their meetings in the vestries or schoolrooms of the chapels and churches to which they are attached'. (fn. 48) In addition the great 'national orders' of friendly societies began to establish themselves in Birmingham.
Social mobility as well as social security were the accepted goal of some of the newer of these societies, which not only enrolled the artisan to protect himself and his family against the crises of unemployment, sickness and death, but inculcated the values of self-help. Qualities of character and 'the strictest moral discipline' were stressed as qualifications for membership. (fn. 49) Independent and provident workmen were encouraged to believe that they could become manufacturers: (fn. 50) often only a limited amount of initial capital was necessary.
Adult education assumed a special significance against this background. Religious bodies led the way. The Birmingham Brotherly Society (fn. 51) continued to inculcate, in its lectures and social activities for adults, values similar to those inculcated in the Sunday schools. The artisans continued to send their children to Sunday schools in increasing numbers in the 19th century. They were regarded with favour as 'improving' institutions which provided an element of continuity from generation to generation. (fn. 52) In 1831, the fiftieth anniversary of the foundation of Sunday schools in England, it was estimated that at a great rally there were 4,000 pupils in Church of England Sunday schools in Birmingham, 5,000 in schools associated with the Sunday School Union, 1,400 in schools associated with the Old and New Meeting, and 3,000 in Wesleyan Methodist Sunday schools. (fn. 53) Many of these Sunday schools had auxiliary clubs and societies associated with them, such as lending libraries and discussion groups.
In addition to the work with adults of the Birmingham Brotherly Society, a number of adult classes were held on Sunday evenings as early as 1818 at Edgbaston Hall, the home of Dr. Johnstone, a consulting physician: a few years later a similar class was started at Christ Church in New Street by the vicar. (fn. 54) Progress in organizing such classes was slower, however, than in Bristol, the home of the movement, and it was not until the 1840s when Joseph Sturge set up an adult class in Severn Street, led by members of the Society of Friends, that the religious adult-school movement genuinely established itself.
By then there had been other signs of initiative. The Birmingham Mechanics' Institute was established in 1825. It was a 'voluntary association of mechanics and others' and had as its chief object 'the instruction of the members in the principles of the arts they practise'. (fn. 55) At the first public meeting in February, 1826, Richard Spooner was elected president, Thomas Attwood treasurer, and Joseph Parkes one of the two secretaries. Of the committee of twenty, two-thirds by regulation had to be 'mechanics'. The Institute was formally opened on March 21st 1826, when Benjamin Cook, the vice-president gave an address from the pulpit of Zion Chapel, Newhall Hill. 'The place was filled by mechanics and others . . . and the address appeared to give very general satisfaction.' (fn. 56)
The Mechanics' Institute soon had many members (estimated at 'upwards of one thousand') subscribing 3s. a quarter. There was both a good attendance at weekly lectures, including lectures on scientific subjects such as pneumatics and hydrostatics, and an encouraging use of the small scientific library which was quickly collected. In 1828 it had 445 volumes. 'The Birmingham Mechanics' Institute', the committee stated in its report for that year, 'has triumphed over all the difficulties which opposed its establishment: hopes which were advanced but by the most sanguine have been raised'. The members were 'elevating' themselves in society, 'more respected as men - valuable as artisans - and influential as citizens'. (fn. 57) A year later proposals were made for the construction of a new building to house the Mechanics' Institute. It was claimed then that the Institute had enrolled 1,550 members, including junior members, among whom the 'distribution of medals and prizes had excited a valuable spirit of emulation'. 'The obstacles usually opposed to the first formation and success of new establishments have been surmounted by the obvious and acknowledged utility of the Institution, and by the zeal of the members.' (fn. 58)
The proposal to build under the same roof a library, class and model rooms, and a new lecture room big enough to seat 1,000 students, was never put into effect. The main reason was the switch in Birmingham in 1829 from educational to political action. The Mechanics' Institute brought together men like Parkes and Redfern from whigradical circles and Spooner and Attwood, who had closer links with toryism: it thus rested on the kind of support which was given to the Political Union after its formation in 1829. (fn. 59) Apart from political diversions, the Mechanics' Institute is also said to have lost ground as a result of the raising of the subscription to 4s. a quarter, a decision which was rescinded in 1831. (fn. 60) It was only after the excitement of 1832 had subsided that the Institute came into prominence again. By 1835, when there were about 350 full members, it was claimed that 'the classes more than ever are suitably conducted; the library [of 1,100 volumes] gradually increasing and its utility recognized'. (fn. 61) Ninety members attended evening classes in writing, grammar, arithmetic, drawing, mathematics, French and Latin; science was pushed somewhat into the background. (fn. 62) Other agencies in Birmingham, notably the Philosophical Institution, (fn. 63) were specifically concerned with science but they had no particular appeal to working men.
With the stormy political background after the financial crisis of 1836, the local depression in trade, and the rise of Chartism, there were signs even in Birmingham that working-class education might be regarded as politically dangerous. The opposite point of view was put very clearly, however, by W. Hawkes Smith, then Vice-President of the Mechanics' Institute. He gave a lecture at the Institute in 1835, before the storm broke, on 'The Tendency and Prospects of Mechanics' Institutions', and in a letter to the Birmingham Journal added eloquently, 'I hear and read assertions . . . that the great bulk of the population . . . are oppressed by existing circumstances . . . that their condition is far inferior to what it ought to be, speaking as philanthropists. I may be told that I am querulous and fanciful; that the condition of the population generally . . . has in fact greatly improved over the last half century: that the workers were never better, never so well taught, fed, clothed and housed as at present. It may be so, and I believe it is so, but the improvement is comparatively trivial, and the complaints continue. Men have not their due, and they are, and ought to be, discontented. The prevalent discontent, in truth, properly considered, so far from being an evil to be deprecated, is one of the most favourable signs of the times . . . The workman has more knowledge, more mind - he wants more. He believes that more is to be had, and eventually he will have it. Very silly it is to lecture him out of his craving. It is nature's provision for the progress of society.' (fn. 64)
Whatever nature's provision for the progress of society, the financial provision afforded by the members of the Institute was inadequate to keep it in existence during the Chartist phase of local history. In 1840, when there were 3,000 books in the library, the Institute had 487 members. Only 240 of them, however, were men 'receiving weekly wages, and young persons under age'. (fn. 65) The policy of trying to attract new members by staging an exhibition was unsuccessful, (fn. 66) and in June 1842 it was resolved to suspend operations for three months. The suspension, though soon terminated, was almost the final stage in the dissolution of the organization. (fn. 67) The failure of the Mechanics' Institute was followed soon afterwards by the establishment of the Polytechnic in 1843. (fn. 68) It was said to be designed 'upon the principles of the Mechanics' Institute', but it was hoped that it would have a somewhat wider appeal. As a result of the generosity of Joseph Sturge it acquired the library of the Mechanics' Institute. (fn. 69)
One of the first writers on adult education cited Birmingham experience to reveal the existence of a cycle of activity whereby institutions were 'auspiciously commenced' only to be 'readily abandoned when the novelty of their first proceedings had passed away'. (fn. 70) Certainly the experience of the Mechanics' Institute was not unique. Another society called the Athenaeum also failed. (fn. 71) So too did the most ambitious of the popular educational ventures in Birmingham - the People's Hall. In 1840 a group of Birmingham artisans announced that they intended to build a People's Hall of Science 'containing a library, a lecture room, school rooms, reading rooms, committee rooms, dinner and tea or refreshment rooms, and kitchen and other conveniences for the use and instruction and amusement of the people and the improvement of their understanding, morals and health and for promoting their rational enjoyments'. (fn. 72) Progress was slow, and it was not until 1846 that a modest structure was completed and opened by William Scholefield. A toast was proposed to 'the People's Hall, and may it ever be preserved to carry on its great object - the education, moral and political improvement of the people'. (fn. 73) The language was more eloquent than the organization merited. Of the two thousand shares of £1 originally issued - they could be bought in weekly instalments of as little as 6d. - 1,400 shares were never taken up. 'The entire sum raised from the donations and shares of the wealthy, was only one hundred and fifty pounds.' (fn. 74) Even when the building was opened the real difficulties were only just beginning. The Literary and Scientific Institute which was the organization controlling the use of the Hall had a clause in its constitution restricting religious and political party discussion, but a 'religious feud' broke out, which destroyed the Institute from within. In 1849 the Hall had to be sold. (fn. 75)
In 1846, the same year that the People's Hall was opened, the People's Instruction Society was also founded. For 1d. a week the Birmingham workingman was given access to a reading room (the latest version of the Birmingham news rooms which already had a long history), (fn. 76) a library, a chess room, a refreshment room, a discussion and debating society, and a weekly lecture. For an additional penny instruction was afforded in evening classes in reading, writing, arithmetic, elocution, and singing. There were 600 readers in 1846, 500 of whom were claimed to be working men. (fn. 77) This society also withered away after 1850.
The organization which was ultimately successful - the Birmingham and Midland Institute - was founded in 1854. The kind of appeal it made is only understandable in terms of the close association in Birmingham between middle and working classes. Eleven years earlier in 1843 the Polytechnic Institution was created out of the ruins of the Mechanics' Institute. A meeting in 1843 set up a committee to form a new organization 'for the intellectual recreation of the operative classes'. It devised a constitution whereby membership of the new Institution should be of three types. There were to be honorary members, those paying small annual subscriptions, and those paying larger subscriptions. The amenities were to include baths as well as reading rooms: later a coffee house was to be added. Lord Brougham was invited to deliver the inaugural address, and, when he stated with regret that he was unable to do so, Dr. Samuel Wright, a physician at the General Infirmary, took his place. Charles Dickens lent his support to the new body and delivered one of his most effective public speeches in 1847 at a Town Hall meeting held to advertise and sustain it financially: he was the only honorary life member. (fn. 78) The new institution did not gain much working-class support and even the local middle-class intellectual elite was not very forthcoming. In 1846 and 1847 expenditure exceeded income, and a warning was given that an additional revenue of £50 a year was needed to carry on the institution. (fn. 79) Attempts to co-ordinate the activities of the various intellectual societies in Birmingham were started in 1846, but soon failed. A special meeting of the Polytechnic had to be called in January 1848, when the Institution was given notice to quit its premises in Steelhouse Lane. (fn. 80) A year later there was talk of creating yet another new body, and in December 1849, exasperated by all these difficulties, a Birmingham meeting of a 'few friends of education' sent a memorial to Lord John Russell urging public assistance from government funds for adult education. 'It is highly important to the welfare and character of all large towns, that every opportunity should be afforded to the inhabitants for the occupation of their leisure hours in intellectual and elevating pursuits; and that for this purpose, as well as for promoting improvements in the arts and manufactures, ample and permanent provision should be made for facilitating the instruction of all classes in science, literature and the arts. That the literary and scientific institutions which have hitherto existed in Birmingham, although they have been productive of much general benefit, and have evinced the public spirit and liberality of individuals, have manifested in their decline the insufficiency of private support for such objects . . . That your lordship may be pleased . . . to sanction the introduction of a Bill into the House of Commons during the ensuing session to extend the [Public Libraries] Act so as to enable town councils to erect and provide, and maintain institutions containing museums of art and science, libraries and reading rooms, with the necessary accommodation for classes, lectures, and laboratories; the whole to be considered public property, but applicable, under proper regulation to the use of private societies and individuals.' (fn. 81)
This memorial did not produce the results anticipated. It was, however, the starting point in the history of the Birmingham and Midland Institute. In 1852 Dickens on a further visit to Birmingham saluted the venture as a 'noble example to the whole of England'. (fn. 82) There was much consistent, if limited, support in Birmingham, and W. P. Marshall was secretary both of the Memorial Committee of 1849 and (along with W. Mathews the younger) of the initiating committee of the Institute, set up in 1853. Behind both endeavours was the determination to create in Birmingham 'a general scientific and literary association with an industrial institute, which would economize buildings, attendance, management and expenses of lectures, and concentrate into the Institution the energies of those who would support either'. (fn. 83) Middle classes and working classes were to be associated with the new venture as with the old. An Artisans' Committee helped to raise funds, and one of its members proudly stated, 'as an artisan and as a man, I desire the Institute and all similar projects to succeed, because they will open up sources of intellectual enjoyment to those whose small leisure is spent either monotonously or wasted in degrading pursuits'. (fn. 84) At the opposite end of the social scale the new Institute was warmly supported by some members of the neighbouring aristocracy: Lord Lyttelton, for example, moved the resolution at a meeting in January 1853 that it was 'highly important to the welfare of this town and neighbourhood to establish a scientific and literary institution upon a comprehensive plan, having for its object the diffusion and advancement of science, literature, and the arts in this important community'. (fn. 85) An element of strong civic and regional pride can be seen in this endeavour. The town council, with little opposition, made a free grant of land. Moreover the project prompted favourable reactions from outside. Dickens once more lent his willing support, while Dr. Lyon Playfair, one of the Commissioners of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and Secretary for Science in the new government Department of Science and Art, told a group of Birmingham supporters of the scheme that 'the promotion of the projected Institute was regarded with peculiar interest by Prince Albert and the government, who were very desirous to encourage establishment of such an industrial college in this important seat of industry'. (fn. 86)
The library and lecture room of the Institute were soon put to good use, and a whole network of Birmingham voluntary societies became associated with the drive to build worthy and, it was hoped, handsome premises. The Birmingham Amateur Dramatic Association and the Birmingham Flute Society, for instance, staged performances in the Theatre Royal to collect funds. (fn. 87) Soirées were held in the music hall. Donations of pictures, scientific equipment and capital sums for prizes were made. National bodies were encouraged to visit Birmingham - the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science (1857), for example, and the British Association (1865). The Prince Consort laid the foundation stone of the main part of the Institute's buildings in 1855. They were opened in 1858, (fn. 88) and were subsequently extended as the range of activities widened. Broadly speaking the early activities fell into two categories - general and industrial. In the general department weekly lectures on scientific or literary subjects, a news room, a yearly conversazione, and occasional courses of afternoon lectures were provided: these facilities were available to subscribers of a guinea a year. The industrial department consisted exclusively of classes for the study of science, mathematics, languages, history, literature, grammar, composition, and singing. The fees for admission to these classes were 9s. a year. A School of Design, which had been started in 1826 by the Birmingham Society of Arts, became associated with the Institute and by 1865 had over a thousand students. (fn. 89) In 1885 it was taken over by the town council and became the Municipal School of Art. The Municipal Technical School was started in 1891 and both it and the School of Art soon developed branch schools. The extension of the city boundaries in 1911 resulted in other technical and art schools coming under the control of the city council. The 20th century has seen the further extension of technical education of evening classes and the establishment of the Selly Oak Colleges. (fn. 90)
In 1900 Birmingham University received its charter. (fn. 91) The first principal, Oliver Lodge (knighted 1902), who held the position until 1919, presided over the beginning of the removal of the university from its old buildings in Edmund Street to a new site at Edgbaston. This task was a gradual one and was not finally completed until 1961, being dependent on the erection of new buildings and the expansion of the Edgbaston site.
Building operations took place in three stages. The Great Hall, the Chamberlain Tower, the Harding Library, and some of the buildings for the science faculty were completed in 1909. During the First World War the Edgbaston buildings became a military hospital, and it was not until 1926 that the second stage of major building operations began. Between then and the outbreak of the Second World War the Biological Block, the Union Building, the Hills Chemistry Block, the Nuffield Physics Laboratory, and the Barber Institute of Fine Arts were all completed at Edgbaston.
Another important development during this period was the completion in 1938 of the Birmingham United Hospital (named the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in 1939) on a site adjoining the university, and comprising also a new medical school, the old school being transferred from Edmund Street to the new buildings in 1938. (fn. 92)
After the Second World War the extent of the Edgbaston estate was greatly enlarged and a third stage of building was begun and still (1962) continues. New erections include more science buildings, the university library, an arts building, and additions to the medical school and the Union.
The university which had 189 registered undergraduates and an academic staff of 70 in 1900, had 1,472 full-time students and 171 staff in 1945, and over 4,000 students and 605 staff in 1960. These figures reflect both expansion within the departments and the expanding nature of the range of studies. In 1902 a faculty of commerce (later of commerce and social science) was added to the original faculties of arts, medicine, and science, and in 1928 a faculty of law was established. There was also an expansion within the faculties of the number of departments and chairs.
The establishment of free public libraries was another development in Birmingham's cultural life. The Birmingham and Midland Institute marked the climax of the 'age of improvement'. The same people who supported it were enthusiastic supporters of the free library movement. In 1850 the town council failed to get public support, through a town poll, for a plan to implement Ewart's Museums and Libraries' Act of 1850 through rates. In 1860, however, the decision was reversed and the council chose its first Free Public Libraries and Museums Committee. (fn. 93) A first library building, in Constitution Hill, was opened to the public in 1861. 'Crowds of persons presented themselves for tickets and so great was the excitement that for several weeks applicants had to wait upwards of an hour before their turn arrived to be attended to, as many as 200 persons applying at one time.' (fn. 94) The pressure was exceptional but symbolic. The annual report of the libraries committee for 1863 produced statistics to show that the Birmingham Library had circulated more books in its brief history than any other provincial city during the same period. The other cities included Manchester, which had led the way in putting into effect Ewart's Act in 1852. (fn. 95) By the time that the new buildings of the Central Lending Library and Art Gallery in Ratcliffe Place were opened in 1865 the Library had become an accepted local institution. The opening was impressive. The day chosen coincided with the first meeting of the British Association in Birmingham, and in the inaugural address George Dawson, one of the pioneers of the 'civic gospel', made a most eloquent plea for high ideals in civic life. Speaking of the town librarian, he said that he envied him. 'I am glad', he went on, 'the corporation has given itself an officer who represents intellect - that it looks upward deliberately and says, "we are a Corporation who have undertaken the highest duty that is possible for us; we have made provision for our people - for all our people - and we have made a provision of God's greatest and best gifts unto men" '. (fn. 96) Dawson's eloquence was to be a moving force behind the transformation of civic policies during the next ten years: the nonconformity, for which he stood, passed direct from religion into politics. (fn. 97)
A fire in 1879 destroyed almost all the books in the Reference Library (opened 1866) and many in the Lending Library. Funds for replacing what was lost were, however, plentiful, for, apart from money received from insurance, £15,000 was raised by subscription. The restored libraries were opened in 1882. (fn. 98)
The first branch library was opened, at Deritend, on the same day as the Reference Library. By 1868 there were three branch libraries, and five more were opened between 1885 and 1900. The number of branch libraries rose to 21 in 1911 as a result of the extension of the city, and was 28 in 1950. The number of volumes in the Reference Library rose from 148,000 in 1900 to 601,000 in 1950, and in the lending libraries from 103,000 to 782,000. (fn. 99) In 1868 the Shakespeare Memorial Library was opened in a room at the Central Library specially set aside for this purpose. (fn. 100)
The Municipal Museum and Art Gallery in Congreve Street was not opened until 1885. Interest in art in the 18th and early 19th centuries had not resulted in the establishment of an art gallery. (fn. 101) In 1829 however, the Society of Arts, founded in 1821, (fn. 102) completed an exhibition building in New Street: 'when filled with well painted pictures', it was claimed, it would be considered 'the first room of its kind in the kingdom'. It was also used for conversazioni. (fn. 103) There was no public room for exhibitions, however, until 1864 when the Society of Artists and other donors presented 64 pictures to the council which were housed in the Free Library building. As the library grew, pressure for space forced the pictures out and they were moved to Aston Hall. A gift of £10,000 by the Tangye brothers marked the beginning of a new drive for an art gallery, and after other donations had been collected, the town council allotted the exhibition gallery which was opened by the Prince of Wales in 1885, above the new offices of the municipal gas committee. The gallery cost the town £40,000. The costs, it was said, were borne by the profits on municipal gas, and there was a motto on the memorial in the entrance hall reading 'By the gains of Industry we promote Art'. (fn. 104) There were, however, no rate-aided funds for the purchase of pictures. [Sir] Whitworth Wallis, the first keeper, was responsible for the building up of a collection, the cost of which was met largely by local businessmen. One of them, John Feeney, who was a generous subscriber in his life-time, left £50,000 in 1905 to build a new gallery which was completed in 1914. (fn. 105) Further enlargements were made in 1919. Seven galleries were destroyed by a bomb in 1940, but were subsequently rebuilt. Until 1946, when a grant for purchase was voted from the rates, every item in the collection, of which the most notable feature is the group of pre-Raphaelite drawings and paintings, had been a gift or loan to the corporation. (fn. 106)
Art interested the working classes of Birmingham and most of the middle classes less than entertainment. A picture of the social life of Birmingham in 'the age of improvement' would be one-sided and incomplete if it concentrated only on 'improvement' or 'taste'. The forms of entertainment changed while the apparatus of improvement was being perfected. Moreover, there were large numbers of Birmingham citizens who were either left relatively untouched by the pressures described above or were even hostile to them. The superior artisan, who was drawn into common cultural activities with the local middle classes, felt 'superior' because below him there were 'inferiors' in other sections of working-class society. His higher earnings gave him a superior standard of living: his better education gave him a wider range of interests. He was often more amenable to his employers. 'The ignorant are less respectful, and not so well disposed towards their employers', one button-manufacturer reported in 1843. (fn. 107) Another praised educated workers on the grounds that 'they do not indulge in low amusements and drinking'. (fn. 108) At the same time artisan respectability was not simply imitation of the social virtues of 'superior' people, including employers: it was often a revulsion from the way of life of 'inferiors'. The consciousness of pits down which to fall was at least as real as the awareness of ladders to climb. Low life in early Victorian Birmingham has been vividly depicted by T. A. Finigan, a town missionary. He described idling and tippling, prostitution (with its 'bully' organization), illiteracy, and squalor. His preaching, he said, was received with 'ruffianly sarcasm' or 'levity', the latter particularly from women. (fn. 109) Another preacher described the streets round Ebenezer Chapel as 'sunk in the depths of ignorance and vice'. (fn. 110) Prostitution, particularly juvenile prostitution, remained a serious problem: it was reported so common in 1843 that it had to be regarded as 'a not unusual mode of obtaining money, like other employments'. (fn. 111) Religion itself was completely alien to many people. Some of the people Finigan met grumbled, for example, that 'ten or twelve times a day we have religion crammed down our throats as if it were with a drum-stick'. (fn. 112) 'Improvement' was even more alien to them, and to some disgruntled but articulate labourers it was merely designed to separate them still further from their better-paid fellow workers. One of the opponents of the town council's decision to give land to the Birmingham and Midland Institute, B. Hill, complained specifically that 'it would create an aristocracy amongst the working classes'. (fn. 113)
Despite the cleavages in working-class life there were signs that even amusement was becoming far less rough in the early years of Victoria's reign. Certainly this was the conclusion of Charles Mackay, who contrasted 'the rougher' sports of the past with 'present-day sports' in his articles on Birmingham in the Morning Chronicle in 1851. (fn. 114) As early as 1815 bull-baiting and cock-fighting were diminishing, although they were not entirely abolished. (fn. 115) An advertisement in a local paper in 1817 openly advertised 'a Main of Cocks' to be fought at the New Cock Pit, Coleshill Street, 'on Easter Monday and the three following days between the gentlemen of Warwickshire and the gentlemen of Staffordshire, for one hundred guineas the Main, and two guineas each battle'. (fn. 116) Similar battles between the 'gentlemen' were being waged in 1824, (fn. 117) a year when there were a number of convictions for bull-baiting. At Handsworth 'immense assemblies of persons' were mentioned 'in uninterrupted enjoyment of the cruel sport'. (fn. 118) Ten years later there was a 'feast of blood' at Brierley Hill. (fn. 119)
After national legislation had been passed in 1835 banning cruel sports, both these forms of amusement were forced underground, and new sports, like cricket, began to be advertised. Cricket was played in Birmingham as early as 1760, (fn. 120) and a number of clubs (Albion, Birmingham and Handsworth, and others) were mentioned in the newspapers in the late 1820s and early 1830s. (fn. 121) In 1834 a public meeting was held with the High Bailiff in the chair. It was well attended by local inhabitants 'friendly to the project of providing ground for the encouragement of cricket, racket and other games'. (fn. 122) There was still a shortage of available grounds much later in the century, when a network of local clubs had come into existence. (fn. 123) One curious early example of an early club to be devoted to both physical and intellectual well-being was the Athenic Institute, founded in 1842, with Lord John Manners as president. Gymnastics were pursued in winter (along with mutual improvement classes) and in summer the members participated in 'cricket, quoits, and other health-inspiring sports in their own field at the outskirts of the town'. (fn. 124) Such general activities quickly gave way to concentration and specialization, cricket being the first game to be established. A team calling itself the Warwickshire Cricket Club (not the direct ancestor of the present club) was playing in 1826, (fn. 125) but the Birmingham Cricket Club was not founded until the 1870s: it was an amalgamation of other clubs, the Britannia and Aston United, and from the start it engaged professionals. (fn. 126) The Edgbaston ground was opened in 1886. (fn. 127) When Warwickshire was recognized as 'first class county' in 1894, Birmingham became one of England's provincial cricket centres.
Cricket was only one of the new 'codified' games. Football developed relatively late in Birmingham, unlike Derby and Nottingham, (fn. 128) and it was not until after the formation of the Football Association in 1863 that the now well-known Birmingham clubs came into existence. The Aston Villa Club was founded in 1874 by youths connected with Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel: (fn. 129) the club won the English Football Association Cup in 1887, 1895, 1897, and 1905, and were League champions five times between 1894 and 1900. (fn. 130) The Birmingham City Club, first called the Small Heath Alliance, was formed in 1875 by members of the Holy Trinity Cricket Club: it was the first football club in Britain to organize itself on the basis of limited liability in 1888. The first gate receipts amounted to 4s. 3d.: the annual admission receipts had reached £3,971 by 1896. (fn. 131) West Bromwich Albion, first called the West Bromwich Strollers, was founded in 1879 and joined the Football League eight years later. (fn. 132) By the end of the 19th century football was well established in Birmingham both on a professional and an amateur basis, and there were many local teams, brought together in local leagues and by bodies like the Birmingham and District Works Amateur Football Association founded in 1905. (fn. 133) Playing football was, of course, less popular than watching it. The 1890s was the great decade of advance in all the 'spectator sports'. As one writer put it in 1894, 'there can be no doubt that football will have a greater hold upon the public this year than in any preceding one [and]... the financial condition of the leading clubs should improve vastly'. (fn. 134)
Social factors influenced the development of football. While association football became Birmingham's major winter game, Rugby football was played in grammar schools and was taken over by school old boys' teams. Aston Old Edwardians, for example, was founded in 1889. A Midland Counties senior cup competition was played by these amateur clubs in the 1890s. (fn. 135) Other middle-class sports, like golf, had established themselves locally by 1900.
Indoor amusement was also influenced by social factors, and there were marked differences in social texture and social tone in the network of voluntary associations which sprang up in Birmingham during the middle and later years of the 19th century. A comparison of early 19th-century with late 19th-century city directories reveals these differences along with the wide range of activities represented. Between 1815 and 1870 the number of voluntary bodies concerned with both 'cultural' and 'hobby' activities increased enormously, particularly secular bodies unattached to church and chapel. Among them were the Birmingham and Edgbaston Debating Society (founded 1846), the society in which Joseph Chamberlain made his debut, (fn. 136) the Birmingham Architectural Society, the Birmingham Athletic Club, the Festival Choral Society, and the Natural History and Microscopical Society. (fn. 137)
Music was almost as much of a local preoccupation as science. Indeed the Birmingham Musical Festivals, begun in 1768, had preceded the foundation of the Lunar Society. (fn. 138) After the building of the town hall and the opening of the organ in 1834 there were regular musical performances, although the Birmingham Musical Festivals, which became triennial in 1796, captured so much public attention that regular performances were overshadowed. Sullivan once said that from a musical point of view Birmingham resembled a huge boa constrictor which gorged itself enormously every three years and fasted in between. (fn. 139) The Festivals were certainly designed on a large scale, and 'the band and chorus' were advertised 'as the biggest outside London'. Well-known works were usually preferred to new ones, although Mendelssohn was given a warm welcome from the start. (fn. 140) He first appeared in Birmingham in 1837, and appeared again in 1840 and 1846. After the first performance of Elijah he wrote to a friend praising 'the rich full sounds of the orchestra and the huge organ' and appreciating his 'kindly, hushed, and enthusiastic audience'. (fn. 141) There was one young local Birmingham composer, Francis Edward Bache, who died in 1858. (fn. 142) Among the highlights of the Festival performances were Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in 1852, Verdi's Requiem in 1887, Dvorák's Stabat Mater, Sullivan's Golden Legend, and Berlioz's Messe des Morts in 1888, Dvorák's Requiem Mass in 1891 and Elgar's Dream of Gerontius in 1900. The Elgar work fell a little flat, however, despite the fact that it had been specially commissioned. (fn. 143)
Associated with the Festival was the Festival Choral Society, originally the Birmingham Oratorio Choral Society when founded in 1811. From 1855 it was conducted by W. C. Stockley, who in 1873 launched a series of orchestral concerts which lasted for almost 25 years. (fn. 144) There were smaller choral societies, such as the Apollo Glee and Musical Society (1842), and a number of orchestral societies, of which the Birmingham Amateur Harmonic of 1855 was the pioneer. The Birmingham Musical Association was founded in 1880. (fn. 145)
The theatre in Birmingham also has a long history. The Theatre Royal (fn. 146) was again destroyed by fire in January 1820, by what was thought to be a sinister coincidence on the same day of the week, at the same hour and being burnt-out within the same period of time as in 1792. (fn. 147) Within seven months a new theatre was built on the same site. 'On entering the House', it was claimed, 'the eye will be attracted by a brilliancy of light and ornaments of the most splendid appearance . . . the form of the theatre is that of a lyre, united to the stage by an elliptic core, which forms the proscenium. . . . The establishment, in the opinion of every person who is able to judge on the subject, may vie with any in Great Britain'. (fn. 148) The new theatre, which was under the direction of Alfred Bunn, who had taken over the old theatre in 1819, opened with The Rivals and a new farce called The Promissory Note, written by the architect, S. Beazley. (fn. 149) Bunn remained at the Theatre Royal until 1825. The going was never easy. His predecessor, Robert William Elliston, had already discovered, like the Macready family, from whom he took over the theatre in 1813, that Birmingham did not respond even 'to the best efforts of the managers'. 'To so large and populous a town as Birmingham with a neighbourhood so crowded with opulence and distinction, a theatrical establishment is obviously necessary, in point of policy as well as of national recreation.' (fn. 150) Necessity, however, did not guarantee support. In 1823 and 1824 a number of nonconformists, led by John Angell James, (fn. 151) minister of Carrs Lane Chapel, launched a violent attack on the theatre and on theatre-goers. The results were perhaps not what were intended. The fierce controversy which raged round two eloquent sermons by James, Youth Warned and The Scoffer Admonished, and his book A Christian Father's Present to His Children, provoked more local interest in the theatre than any other topic until Catholic emancipation. (fn. 152) Bunn replied to James, (fn. 153) and other figures who were later to become prominent in Birmingham life were drawn into the controversy. Joseph Parkes, for example, made his literary debut in 1825 with an anonymous reply to James called The Plagiary "warned". A vindication of the drama, the stage, and public morals, while Joseph Allday, son of a Digbeth butcher and later editor of the notorious local scandal paper, The Birmingham Argus, started his colourful journalistic career with the Theatrical John Bull in 1824. (fn. 154) The impact of the Theatre gave a big fillip to the publication of periodicals, many of which were specially designed to cover the theatrical season. (fn. 155) The first of them was the Theatrical Looker On (1822), but it was succeeded by many others, some of which were bitterly hostile to each other. (fn. 156) In the meantime a number of managers succeeded Bunn until in 1838 Mercer Simpson became stage manager. He and his son remained in control thereafter until 1891. (fn. 157)
The fare provided at the Theatre Royal was designed to satisfy reasonably prosperous Birmingham families. (fn. 158) J. A. Langford was careful to select in his chronicles of Birmingham history the most interesting local episodes in theatre history, and his own comments indirectly mirror local middle-class taste. In addition to opera and plays, which included a sprinkling of Shakespeare, there were recitals, concerts, circuses, and visits from prodigies, dwarfs, and acrobats. When Madame Tussaud's exhibition visited the Theatre in 1822, 'many of the most respectable families of the town and neighbourhood' were attracted. (fn. 159) In 1841 the first Victorian-style pantomime, Harlequin and the Knight of the Silver Shield, or the Golden Mill, (fn. 160) was produced at the Theatre. It became a regular annual feature. In 1892, however, the Harlequinade, which had once been a great source of laughter, was dropped.
It was not until the second half of the century that Birmingham got its second established theatre, although there was a Minor Theatre which survived for two years from Allison Street in 1836-8. (fn. 161) Holder's Concert Hall (later the Gaiety Music Hall) was opened in 1846, (fn. 162) and the New Theatre, formerly a circus (Tonk's Colosseum, Bingley Hall), was used as a theatre in 1854. (fn. 163) Other companies of entertainers visited Birmingham during this period, however, appearing at the Royal Hotel, taking over the town hall, where Jenny Lind sang for the first time in 1847, (fn. 164) or playing on temporary circus and exhibition sites. Many of the visiting companies were 'strollers' and 'vagabonds' of a pre-industrial age. Writing of the decade 1821 to 1831 Langford writes that 'there were the usual public and private subscription concerts at the Royal Hotel; the usual panoramas, musical glasses, exhibitions of wax works, dwarfs and giants, Vauxhall galas, and fireworks; for whatever else may fail, amusements and attractions for sight-seers never fail; and Birmingham has always been especially well catered for in this respect'. (fn. 165) The local Vauxhall Gardens were at their height in the next decade, when there were visits from well-known singers as well as galas and fireworks. (fn. 166)
Music hall developed later in the century. The Prince of Wales Theatre in Broad Street, which cost £12,000 to build and included a magnificent organ, was opened for 'high-class concerts' in 1856. It was licensed as a theatre in 1862 as the Royal Music Hall Operetta House, changing its name to the Prince of Wales Theatre shortly afterwards. It was reconstructed in 1876. (fn. 167) In 1861 the New Theatre, Moor Street, was licensed. Although it survived for only five years, it had at least four names in its short existence - the Amphitheatre, the New Theatre Royal, the New Adelphi Theatre, and the Royal Grecian Theatre. (fn. 168) The Empire Theatre was opened in 1862 as Day's Music Hall, being known from 1864 until 1875 as Day's Crystal Palace Music Hall. (fn. 169) These theatres gave the people of Birmingham more regular choice of entertainment. At Christmas 1862, for instance, there were three pantomimes - Royal Harlequin and Puss in Boots at the Theatre Royal, Jack the Giant Killer at the Royal Masonic Hall Operetta House, and Sinbad the Sailor at the New Theatre, Moor Street. (fn. 170)
There was a spate of building in the 1880s and the 1890s. The Grand Theatre, opened in 1883, was the largest in Birmingham. It held over 3,000 people, and specialized in melodramas and light opera. (fn. 171) The Queen's Theatre was also erected in 1883: it was known for the first three years of its existence as the Star Music Hall. (fn. 172) The Theatre Royal, Aston, was opened in 1893: it presented popular drama and plays 'at prices within the means of the working class'. (fn. 173) The Imperial, opened in 1899 and providing room for an audience of 2,500, served the needs of Sparkbrook, Sparkhill, Small Heath, Moorley, Camp Hill, and Bordesley. In the same year the Hippodrome was opened. It changed its name a year later to the Tivoli, and changed it back again to the Hippodrome after it had become successful. Its prices for admission were as low as twopence. (fn. 174) The Carlton, in the suburb of Saltley, was opened in 1900: one of its novelties was a ladies' orchestra. (fn. 175) Finally, in 1901, the Alexandra Theatre was built at a cost of £10,000. It was known at first as the Lyceum, and specialized, though not exclusively, in popular melodramas and pantomimes. (fn. 176)
This factual account of the local theatre has omitted amateur performances, which drew people into the theatre as players rather than spectators. By 1900 there were a number of flourishing local theatrical societies, some associated with areas, others with churches or schools. The Birmingham Amateur Dramatic Association was founded as early as 1856. The subscription was one guinea a year, and plays were first performed in 1857. In 1859 a performance was given at the Theatre Royal in aid of the Midland Institute building fund. The theatre was crowded, and £92 4s. 5d. was handed over to the sponsors of the fund. (fn. 177) By the end of the century there were regular shows by amateurs to raise sums for charity.
No account of the leisure life of 19th-century Birmingham is complete without reference to what was still in many ways, leaving on one side Church and Chapel, the most important of all social institutions - the public house. It had been attacked since the 1830s by temperance reformers, (fn. 178) but it had survived all attacks. In 1890 there were 2,178 licences in Birmingham, 653 for licensed victualling selling on and off the premises, 1,026 for beer-houses (on and off), and 499 off-licences. The public houses varied from grim back-street premises (often centres of neighbourhood drinking) to up-to-date 19th-century bars, glittering with polished brass and bright lights. The number of disorderly places was small. In 1890 only 78 charges were made by the police against public houses and beer shops, and of these 32 were dismissed. (fn. 179) Most of the licensed premises were still within a radius of 1½ miles of New Street Station: only 200 of the 2,178 were further out. (fn. 180) The town centre, indeed, small in area in comparison with the centre of some of the other industrial cities, was still the real centre of Birmingham's social life. The trams brought people in, and although the motor car was being locally produced it had not yet served as the agent of significant social transformation. The real portent of the future was the continued growth of suburbia. From 1896 to 1911 the number of occupied houses in the twelve innermost wards of Birmingham fell by 9½ per cent., while the number in the six outer wards rose by nearly 30 per cent. (fn. 181) This change in topography (and with it in total city size) was beginning to change the social life of the community. Some of the changes were described in T. Anderton's A Tale of One City (1900).
Parallel to these changes were important developments in economic and social relationships, which altered the social pattern as it had existed for most of the 19th century. First, there was a growth of large factories. (fn. 182) The small local workshops did not disappear, but a large section of Birmingham workers no longer worked in them. (fn. 183) Secondly, in some trades at least the relatively late introduction of new techniques (and new forms of power) led to a shift in the demand for special skills. The power press, for example, took the place of the hand press and drilling machining the place of punching. The old handicraft trades were being undermined. (fn. 184) Thirdly, there was less talk of social mobility, at least of workshop mobility, and inevitable pressures on the traditional relationships between 'masters' and 'men'. As late as 1895 a French visitor was impressed by the easy industrial relations of the small workshop, but management patterns were changing. (fn. 185) Fourthly, Birmingham was drawn, although for many years incompletely, into the bigger national economic and social mould. Local life was increasingly bound up with national life. Consequently local social history in the 20th century may be examined, although with a lag, in the terms of national social history. Some of the most powerful mainsprings of late Victorian Birmingham, such as religion, became significantly less powerful, and as early as 1902 there were warnings that 'the same degree of credit can no longer be got out of local administration by the leisured or aspiring citizen, as was the case especially in Birmingham a few years ago'. (fn. 186) It is true that cultural activities increased rather than contracted and the number and range of voluntary associations catering for the minority actually increased. In 1939, for example, there were thirteen art clubs in the city, and 22 musical societies. (fn. 187) Yet the great majority was drawn increasingly into activities common to the bulk of the nation's population.
The cinema was the characteristic new form of entertainment in the pre-television
age. The first cinema shows in Birmingham had been presented in the Curzon Hall,
Suffolk Street, a hall originally designed in 1864 for dog shows. It held 3,000 people,
and in 1915 it became known as the West End Cinema. (fn. 188) Its proprietor, Walter Jeffs,
had originally included films as a subsidiary part of a show: in time, they became the
main attraction. 'Mr. Jeff's pictures', the Birmingham Daily Mail noted before 1914,
'are now established as one of the recreation institutions of the city, and the fact that
they never fail to attract large audiences is due to their artistic merit'. (fn. 189) Jeffs included
films of local interest, such as films of the royal visit to Birmingham in 1909 or
'Shakespeareland' (1908). One satisfied customer wrote to him in 1909:
'Dear Mr. Jeffs, I must confess
Your pictures are a treat
And all who come, both old and young
Can always have a seat.' (fn. 190)
After the passing of the Cinematograph Act of 1909 a number of regular commercial cinemas was opened, such as the Electra Theatre in Station Street, and the Picture Theatre in Handsworth. (fn. 191) By 1911 there were seven cinemas, and by 1914 fifty-three. (fn. 192) The First World War did not halt the trend: indeed by severing the strands of continuity in church, chapel, and local voluntary organizations, it gave a fillip to more standardized and nationalized forms of entertainment. During the years between the First and Second World Wars the number of cinemas continued to rise. There were 83 in 1930 and 99 in 1940. (fn. 193) 'Talkies' first came to Birmingham in 1929, with the Futurist Cinema leading the way. A 30 per cent. increase in box receipts was reported. During the 1930s, when the Birmingham cinemas catered for at least 80,000 customers, (fn. 194) they were of all shapes and sizes, ranging from central 'super-cinemas' with neon lights, thick carpets, and expensive foyers to old picture palaces, still surviving, as some of the old inns survived in an age of great suburban public houses, as monuments to a not very distant past. (fn. 195)
The cinema met the demand for indoor entertainment from large masses of Birmingham people. At the same time, characteristically, a more percipient cultural minority developed within the mass. The first informal meeting of what later became the Birmingham Film Society was held in 1930, one year after the introduction of the 'talkies'. (fn. 196)
Cinemas have already risen and fallen in Birmingham. In 1945 there were 88 cinemas in Birmingham, in 1960 only seventy. (fn. 197) Between 1955 and 1960 as many as 22 cinemas were closed, (fn. 198) including the News Theatre, which, when it was opened in 1932, gave Birmingham a lead over all other provincial cities. (fn. 199) The decline was associated in part with the growth of a new competitor, television. Sound radio had checked the growth of the cinema in the 1920s, but the introduction of 'talkies', cinema organs, and continuous performances, along with greater opulence in cinema design and greater comfort within, had checked the decline. (fn. 200) There were 280,000 wireless-licence holders in Birmingham in 1938. Some of them had listened as early as 1922 to 2 WR broadcasting from the General Electric Company's works at Witton (fn. 201) and they had come to accept both wireless and cinema as complementary to each other. Television still figures in the guise of a competitor.
It was the theatre proprietors who were most afraid of the competition of the cinema during the years between the two World Wars. 'The theatre today', wrote Sir Barry Jackson, the founder of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in 1930, 'is suffering from the advent of the film and the talking film. The films are a branch of the theatre, and a bad branch that leads nowhere'. (fn. 202) In fact, thanks largely to Sir Barry Jackson, the son of a Birmingham merchant, new theatrical ventures had started in Birmingham which marked a considerable advance on the 19th century.
The Birmingham Repertory Theatre opened in February 1913 with Jackson's production of Twelfth Night. The origin of the idea lay in the local amateur repertory theatre and above all in Jackson's creative imagination. Its purpose was plain - 'to enlarge and increase the aesthetic sense of the public in the theatre, to give opportunity for new plays and revivals of classics, and to serve art instead of a commercial purpose'. (fn. 203) Many of the inhabitants of Birmingham thought of it as a 'freakish hobby', (fn. 204) but Jackson as director and patron from 1913 to 1934, was indefatigable in his enthusiasm. He contrived to remain firm even when the local inhabitants were hostile as well as apathetic, and the story of the theatre was one of 'Barry Jackson versus Birmingham'. (fn. 205) His efforts were rewarded. When there was a severe financial crisis in 1924 and he had to threaten that the theatre would close, the Birmingham Civic Society, founded in 1918, (fn. 206) moved in to guarantee that performances should continue. (fn. 207) In 1934 there was a further financial reorganization. The backing, however, was entirely private. In all this story the city council remained aloof. In 1939 £94,000 was being spent by the city on the public library, and £1,338,799 on education. (fn. 208) The Theatre had to fend for itself. Yet its influence on the life of the city was persistent and genuine. By the time of its fortieth anniversary in 1953 715 plays and operas had been presented. A local newspaper commented then that it had 'set the citizens standards of taste and an example of single-minded devotion to an ideal'. (fn. 209)
The history of music in Birmingham followed a different course. The triennial musical festival, which had for long been a highlight of local cultural life, was killed by the First World War. Even before 1914 there were threats that it might disappear unless more public support were forthcoming, but a festival was held as late as 1912 when Henry Wood was the chief conductor and Sibelius's Symphony No. 4 in A was one of the works played. (fn. 210) The Festival Choral Society outlived the festival, and from 1918 onwards gave four concerts a year, and in 1921 the City of Birmingham Choir was founded. (fn. 211) In the same year that the triennial festival died, a competitive music festival began. There were 758 competitors in 1912 and 11,000 in 1922. This festival too was discontinued, however, after 1933. (fn. 212)
To counterbalance these losses there was one very substantial gain, and in this case the new venture did receive the public backing of the city authorities. A city orchestra was set up in 1919 with the support of the council. This venture was more in tune with 20th-century society than the triennial festival, which had about it first an element of 18th-century patronage and later of Victorian middle-class cultural display. During the First World War there was a public demand for good orchestral concerts in Birmingham, and three concerts given by the Hallé Orchestra in 1916 were well attended: Ernest Newman thought that this provided evidence that at least some Birmingham people were interested in the local provision of music. (fn. 213) He went on a year later to attack the old idea of the Festival 'with its Elijah and Messiah and the usual complement of German religious works'. (fn. 214) In the later stages of the war Thomas Beecham conducted a number of concerts in Birmingham, but they failed to attract a large enough audience to cover their costs. It was against this background that the idea of a civic orchestra took shape. Fortunately it had powerful backing. Besides the music critics of the press, such as Newman who was the critic of the Post from 1913 to 1919, (fn. 215) and the local musical societies (the Philharmonic Association was founded in 1910), (fn. 216) there were distinguished and influential local citizens whose vision made them support the venture. Neville Chamberlain, Lord Mayor of Birmingham from 1915-16, was the chief of them. (fn. 217) He agreed with Newman that the orchestra should be subsidized from the rates. Appleby Matthews, who had given a number of Sunday concerts in 1918, (fn. 218) was the obvious choice as conductor, and in 1920 the Birmingham City Orchestra was formed with a guarantee of £1,250 from the rates. It was planned to give six symphony concerts a year (this figure was later raised to eight), six Saturday popular concerts, 24 Sunday concerts, and six Saturday afternoon concerts for school-children. (fn. 219) There were large deficits at first, but from 1924, when Adrian Boult became conductor, it succeeded in doing what its sponsors had hoped - namely making Birmingham the musical centre of the surrounding region. Neighbouring towns were visited, and audiences gradually increased, particularly during the 1930s. (fn. 220) In 1944 it was made permanent: the city council at this date made a grant of £14,500 a year. (fn. 221) During the post-war years its services increased still further. In 1949, for instance, the orchestra travelled nearly 7,000 miles, while in the Birmingham Town Hall alone it played over 279 different works. (fn. 222) It was one of the local institutions around which the Festival of Entertainments of September 1960 was organized. (fn. 223)
The story both of the repertory theatre and of music illustrates the influence (still limited) of powerful minority groups and of outstanding personalities. Not all new ventures, however, established themselves, however strong the pressure. Resident opera, for example, failed completely - Jackson tried out repertory opera in 1921 (fn. 224) - and even visiting opera was sometimes so little appreciated that Birmingham drew caustic comments from Thomas Beecham. (fn. 225) Jazz had its devotees in the 1920s, but it was not until 1946 that the first official jazz concert was held in the town hall. It was a great success. (fn. 226) A Rhythm Club was formed in February 1948, and a Hot Club in May. (fn. 227) There were vicissitudes in the subsequent history of jazz, but it, too, figured in the Festival of Entertainments in 1960.
Theatre history was one of continued challenge and decline. The Theatre Royal, taken over by a national concern, Moss Empires, in 1929, (fn. 228) was closed and demolished in 1956. Its demolition not only marked the end of a long stay, but left 20th-century Birmingham without a theatre which could adequately house opera or ballet. The Prince of Wales Theatre, taken over by Emile Littler in 1939 after a number of changes of ownership, was bombed during the Second World War. (fn. 229) The Grand Theatre was converted into a music hall in 1907 as the Grand Theatre of Varieties and was closed in 1933. (fn. 230) Many of the smaller theatres and the suburban theatres were either closed or converted into cinemas between 1914 and 1939. (fn. 231) The only survivals were the Hippodrome, a variety theatre, and the Alexandra Theatre, which was re-built in 1925 by Leon Salberg. (fn. 232) Although it had specialized during its early years in melodrama and pantomime, it was renowned for the high standard of its plays in the late 1930s and was used by visiting companies, including touring opera companies. There were a number of ventures after the Second World War, including the opening of the Arena Theatre for serious plays in 1949, and the development of a number of 'little' suburban theatres where amateur plays could be staged. (fn. 233)
If the history of indoor entertainment raises not only questions of taste but of the
relationship of minorities and 'masses', the history of sport raises the second kind of
question in different form. The number of 'players' remained small in relation to the
number of 'spectators'. In 1947 the Birmingham membership of tennis, golf, bowling,
and cricket clubs was estimated at less than five per cent. of the inhabitants. (fn. 234) Some
of the clubs were old. The Pickwick Club, a cricket club, was founded in 1858, and
Moseley, the Rugby club, in 1873. Others had a short, if active, life. The great
professional association football clubs continued to hold audiences - indeed 'gates'
increased substantially during the years between the two World Wars. Aston Villa,
which moved its ground to Villa Park in 1896-7, had a particularly successful playing
record. By 1938 it had gained most of the honours the game had to offer, being six
times winners of the Football Association Cup, six times winners of the League
Championship, and six times runners-up to the League Champions. (fn. 235) Pride in victory
even kept the ballad tradition alive. When Birmingham had a long run of cup victories
in 1931 which ended in the semi-final at Leeds, one local poet sang their praises in
verses which ended unhappily:
'And then at Leeds, in further deeds, with men of all the talents,
A sturdy band from Sunderland, a hefty lot of gallants,
There Curtis scored two goals that floored their foes and ends the story
How in their stride the Blues have tried to earn a Final's glory.' (fn. 236)
Cricket increased in popularity during the 20th century although Birmingham was 'not a cricket centre, as were Manchester, Leeds, Nottingham, Sheffield, and Bradford' (fn. 237) and local loyalty, in this if in no other activity, centred on the county, Warwickshire, rather than the city, Birmingham. (fn. 238) The county club had mixed fortunes, measured both in terms of playing record and finance. Between 1927 and 1939 gate money and subscriptions were inadequate to keep the club efficient, but there was a marked revival after 1945. (fn. 239)
This record of changing social life in 20th-century Birmingham is necessarily incomplete, for during the years between the two World Wars in particular the spectacular growth of new housing in Birmingham forced large numbers of Birmingham people not only to change their location and their journeys to work but to modify older ways of life. Between 1919 and 1939 a total of 50,268 municipal houses (leaving on one side private-enterprise houses) was built in Birmingham, housing about 200,000 people. (fn. 240) It is hardly surprising that a great deal of local energy went into the tasks of moving and settling, above all of creating gardens. The new housing areas built by private enterprise were much smaller both in size and population. Even in the outer ring of Birmingham in 1938 owner-occupiers were few and accounted for less than a quarter of the houses. (fn. 241) In such areas cars became an increasingly popular private possession. Social life on the new estates, however, sometimes seemed bleak to the new inhabitants. 'In winter', it was complained in 1938, 'the estates are colder than the concentrated living quarters in the older districts, and not uncommonly the tenants on the windswept roads and shopping centres compare their new homes to Siberia'. (fn. 242)
At first amenities were few, particularly basic amenities, like public houses and clubs. Perry Barr, for example, had no more than thirteen licensed premises, including clubs, for its 64,000 inhabitants. This was one licence for nearly 5,000 people, whereas there was one licence for every 350 to 700 people in the central and middle ring districts. (fn. 243) There was a lag in the building of churches and chapels, (fn. 244) and it was not until 1936, six years after the project had been first agreed to in principle, that the first Council Community Centre was opened on the Billesley Farm Estate. (fn. 245) The centre of Birmingham thus continued to exert a pull on the periphery. Yet it was a diminishing pull as the estates developed their own life, and after 1945, in particular, television and the enormous increase in private ownership of motor cars focused life more and more on the home. Even before 1939, however, there was one sign of change in the growth of large and imposing suburban public houses on the outskirts of the city. 'Over the years', wrote a local commentator in 1930, 'there has gradually evolved a new type of house; it is neither ale house, nor "pub", nor inn, nor tavern. It is a so far un-named place of public refreshment and public entertainment'. (fn. 246) The 'new type of house' is still un-named, but its popularity has not thereby diminished.
It is increasingly difficult, as Birmingham spreads and as social life retreats from its old 19th-century bases, to identify the social atmosphere of the city in the same way that it was identified in the early years of the 19th century. In 1957 a university professor, who knew Birmingham extremely well, summed up his experiences in Birmingham since 1930. He described the absence in the city of 'sociability except in the home'. And went on 'after 25 years we still find Birmingham's centre deserted as a graveyard from seven o'clock onwards. Yet most civilized countries and England's metropolis act on the principle that man is a social animal and that city life has compensations. Here we get the worst of both worlds. No rural amenities; no urbanity - just a wild dash to, and especially from, one's work out to the suburbs. There are occasions when I have to come in to Birmingham between five and six. Men and women at this hour run blindly, as though from a plague spot, to catch their buses and trains'. (fn. 247) There would be no general agreement on this verdict - there never is in verdicts on cities - but it deserves to be set alongside the verdicts of the 19th century as an indication of at least one type of impression.