Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page


Birmingham

T

HOSE who know the Birmingham of the present time will probably be interested in reading some account of its early days, when it presented much the same appearance as in the engraving we give opposite.

In the year 585 the Saxon Cridda, a military adventurer who founded the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, gave the Manor of Birmingham to one of his lieutenants named Ulwine, from which the modern name Allen is derived.

The Conquest, however, deprived. the Ulwines or Allens of their property, which they were compelled to resign to the Norman Baron, Fitz Ausculph; to whom, henceforward, they became vassals; holding the lands that had been their own inheritance for nearly five hundred years under feudal tenure; yet residing on the estate. Can we not imagine what the Saxons mast have felt at being thus robbed and degraded by the Conqueror, and can we not sympathise with the efforts made by Hereward le Wake, and by Morcar and Edwin, the brother-earls of Mercia, to free their native land from these Norman plunderers?.

The Fitz Ausculphs were lords of Birmingham for more than four hundred years, and were dispossessed by a most infamous crime, related in Dugdale's "Antiquities of Warwickshire."

John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, an ambitious and rapacious man - the father of Queen Elizabeth's Leicester - had fixed a covetous eye on the pretty town and its lovely Warwickshire surroundings, and asked Edward de Birmingham, its lord, to dispose of it to him. Happy would it have been for him had he consented to sell it! But De Birmingham loved his fair inheritance, and declined to part with it. The remainder of the story is like a romance. The Duke, resolved to have it, devised a villainous stratagem. He hired a gang of bravoes, who were ordered to commit a highway robbery on one of their own companions, at a moment when De Birmingham should be near the spot. The highwaymen watched for a favourable opportunity, and at length one evening in a lonely road near Birmingham, they saw Edward de Birmingham coming. Their play was immediately begun; two of the villains attacked their companion, who pretended to be a lonely traveller, and De Birmingham, like an honest and brave Englishman, hastened to the rescue. It must have been to his great amazement that as the apparent robbers retreated, two other men issued from an ambush, and on the accusation of the soi disant traveller arrested him - De Birmingham - for highway robbery. He was taken to prison, tried for the alleged crime, and condemned to death. Then it was suggested to him that if he would give Birmingham to the Duke of Northumberland (who was at that time all powerful with the dying Edward VI.) the duke would use his influence with the king to obtain his pardon.

De Birmingham preferred poverty to a felon's death; he made over the town to his enemy, and retired to obscurity with his wife, with only 40 a year for their subsistence.

The wicked duke did not long enjoy his ill gotten manor. He succeeded in making the dying king leave his crown by will to Lady Jane Grey, the daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, and therefore cousin to Edward VI. He married her to his son, Lord Guildford Dudley, a month before the poor young Edward expired, and on his death forced his charming and reluctant daughter-in-law into the place of Henry VIII.'s daughter Mary. This act of treason brought her innocent head to the block; for, as we all know, his crime failed, and he also paid for it by dying on the scaffold, regretted by no one.

Birmingham, by his death for treason, fell to the Crown, and a survey was taken of it before the duke was dead.

The manor passed by favour of Queen Mary to the Marrow family, no restitution being made to the dispossessed owner. The Marrows sold it at the beginning of the last century.

The residence of the Lords of Birmingham was a moated and castellated manorhouse, the site of which is now occupied by a cattle market It was situated at the southern extremity of the town, below St. Martin's Church.

In 1538, Leland thus describes Birmingham:-

"The beauty of Birmingham, a good market town in the extreme parts of Warwickshire, is one good street going up along, almost from the left ripe (shore) of the brook up a meane (small) hill by the length of a quarter of a mile. I saw but one parish church in the town. There be many smiths in the town that used to make knives and all manner of cutting tools, and many lorimers that make bitts, and a great many naylors, so that a great part of the town is maintained by smiths, who have their iron and coal out of Staffordshire."

A hundred years passed, and Birmingham was little changed; for progress was slow in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

View of Ancient Birmingham

In 1640 (the date of the engraving) the men of Birmingham were following the lead of Hampden, and refusing resolutely to pay the illegal tax called Ship-money. They were employed by the Parliament in making the swords and other arms required by the army.

After the Restoration, the luxurious tastes of Charles II.'s court, and the growing refinement of the people, induced the energetic and industrious townsmen to devise and make new and costly metal articles, for which there grew a great demand.

The Revolution of 1688 was most fortunate for Birmingham.

At one of his levees William III. expressed regret that it was so difficult and expensive to get arms for the troops from Holland. Sir Richard Newdigate, a member for Warwickshire, replied that His Majesty need not go further than Warwickshire for them, since his Birmingham constituents were quite equal to making them. William instantly despatched Sir Richard to the town with a large order, and it was so well executed that he never again sent to Holland for arms; nor has any sovereign or minister found it a necessity to do so from want of skill in his people. William III., who introduced shoe buckles into England, was also, by means of this fashion, a benefactor to the town; for no less than 5,000 Birmingham workmen were employed for many years annually in making them.

The discovery of the steam engine brought still more work and wealth to the Warwickshire town. It has made guns, cast-iron and plated articles, toys (Burke called Birmingham the "toy-shop of Europe") glassblowing and steel pens. Great, indeed, is the wealth of the modern town, which presents a very different, if less picturesque, appearance than when its owner was so cruelly wronged by the potent and wicked noble of the Tudor days. It has many streets and fine buildings; and we must especially mention the Town Hall, built between the years 1832 and 1850. It is in the form of a Greek Temple; its columns stand upon an arcade basement, twenty three feet high, and themselves measure thirty-six feet in height without the capitals. The interior contains a fine hall, richly decorated, and capable of containing more than 3,000 persons.

Town hall Birmingham

Birmingham and its immediate district are remarkable for the attention paid by them to the education of the poorer classes of society As an instance of this we may mention that the Adult School Movement is, perhaps, more largely developed there than in other parts of the kingdom.

"At the time of the survey made on the death of the Duke of Northumberland, the houses of Birmingham were few and scattered From St. Martin's Church the houses then extended only along Edgbaston Street. Down Digbeth there were scarcely any beyond the bridge. St. John's Chapel, Deritend, was then surrounded by trees, and a little further on an enclosure (marked on the survey as the Great Buckstalls and Little Buckstalls, and the Birchhills Pastures) is now the site of Birchall Street. The site of Deritend Pool is marked 'Lake Meadows' and 'Oak Meadows,' and here were rows of trees."

The solitary church that Leland saw in 1538 was, we see, still standing at the time of the survey. It dated probably from the thirteenth century, and may have been the successor of an earlier building on the same site. It exists no longer, but on its site a new and elegant church - another St. Martin's - replaces it; and contains its old and interesting monuments of the Birmingham family. That of Sir William de Birmingham dates from Edward I.'s time, and there is another that is to the memory of John de Birmingham, who built the two western towers of York Cathedral at the beginning of the fifteenth century, at his own expense.

"The grounds of the Priory of St. Thomas are well marked in the survey, and had many large trees in them; the land is now bounded by Bull Street, Dale End, Stafford Street and Steelhouse Lanes. Nearer Dale End stood the priory.

"The topmost house in Bull at the time of the survey was the Bull Inn, opposite the Free Chapel. At the bottom of Bull Street was a large well, lined with wrought stones; this was exposed to view and filled up when the Lamb House was taken down. It was in the nook at the bottom of Crooked Lane, and close behind the old Lamb House, that the well was placed. The outline of Crooked Lane and its divergence to the right into the Cherry Orchard, and what was Little Cherry Street, shows that Crooked Lane existed three centuries and a half ago, and the Lamb House was probably much older." 1

Some account of this old house and its inmates may not be uninteresting. It was pulled down in 1886; and scarcely had they removed some of the rough stucco of the front when the ornamented and massive beams and timbers of an ancient and fine half-timbered house were found. It had been plastered over, though its overhanging projections and stuccoed front gave it always an air of antiquity. Many of the old windows had been bricked up inside, and the massive frame-work had been terribly injured by hacking to fix the plaster.

One of the small bricked-up windows upstairs had an old-fashioned lead light with diamond-shaped panes, such as were in use when glass was thick, greenish, and not equal in quality even to the bottle glass of the present day.

"The house was a fine example of the fifteenth or sixteenth century mode of building with half timber and brick. At the back of it might be seen a rather angular nook in Crooked Lane, as it was then called Lamb's Yard, rather wider than the rest; here was the public well we have just mentioned, which was then uncovered and filled in. Further up the lane, and adjoining Suffield's warehouse, was the watch house, a small building to which the watchmen, or old 'Charlies' of that time, conducted any disturber of the night as prisoners.

"A certain Sarah Stevenson possessed the Lamb House in 1176, when it was demised to her by Thomas Walker. She resided here for more than twenty-five years, and was married to a Mr. Francis Skidmore.

"There is a tradition in the family of the Scudamores, or Skidmores, as the name is variously written, that this Francis Skidmore was a Herefordshire baronet of that name, who left his home and his estates about the time, and that it was he who married Sarah Stevenson, the successor to Thomas Walker in the Lamb House estate." 2

This singular conduct of Mr. or Sir Francis Skidmore might have been caused, it is suggested, by his desire to be with the leaders and enthusiastic followers of John Wesley's awakening Methodism, and this is highly probable if we reflect on the enthusiastic zeal existing amidst his followers. It was quite possible at that period that a man of wealth and position may have been willing to lay aside his hereditary property and rank, and join the humble but earnest followers of a spiritual religion.

Miss Sarah Stevenson was also a religious enthusiast, and they both attended Cherry Street Meeting; thus he learned to love her for her goodness and sincerity, and we can well believe that the ancient house was then a very happy home. They had two sons, of whom some laughable anecdotes are told in "Birmingham Places and Faces," but we have not room to relate them here. A grandson of Mr. or Sir Francis Skidmore is, we hear, still living. He is the celebrated ecclesiastical and secular art metal worker of Coventry and Birmingham; a Mr. Tonks, of Birmingham, is also a descendant of the Skidmores by a daughter.

It is amusing to learn that some of the Birmingham people objected in 1708 to lighting the streets, urging "that the necessity for lamps did not appear, from the experience of the town having hitherto subsisted without lamps, and that perhaps fewer robberies and accidents had happened to its inhabitants than in any other town for its size and number of people, which might perhaps be in part ascribed to the want of lamps!"

The objectors, however, formed the minority of the sagacious townsmen, and in 1769 fifty commissioners were appointed with powers for lighting and cleansing the town, etc., etc.

The perfection to which the arts have attained in Birmingham is proved by the extreme beauty of the famous Elkington shields. The subjects of one - that perhaps is the finer of the two to which we allude - are taken from Milton's "Paradise Lost;" the other repeats finely the scenes in the "Pilgrim's Progress."

St Martins Church

Turn the page
Picturesque England
Turn the page
Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004