Humble beginnings to beating heart of Industrial Revolution

Now England’s second largest city, Birmingham started life as a small Saxon settlement before developing into a market town in the 12th century.

Back then, Birmingham was home to just 1,500 residents.

During the 1700s, Birmingham’s population is said to have grown from 11,000 to 73,000 before the town began to expand.

Balsall Heath, Castle Bromwich, Erdington, Harborne, Handsworth, Kings Norton and Perry Barr were among the areas to fall within the new Birmingham boundaries as it gained city status in 1889.

The number of people living in Birmingham now stands at around 1.2 million, making it the biggest city outside of London.

As its population swelled, the industries flourished as Birmingham became known as the “city of a thousand trades” and “the engine room of the UK”.

It played a major role in the Industrial Revolution, leading the way in manufacturing thanks to its bustling factories and workshops.

Ammunition, guns, metalware, tools and watches were among an array of products that were produced in Birmingham. 

The Lunar Society of Birmingham was formed in 1765 which was a centre for industrialists and intellectuals including Matthew Boulton and James Watt.

In 1766, Boulton opened the Soho Manufactory, which pioneered the idea of mass production and became one of the largest manufactories in Europe.

Able to accommodate up to 1,000 workers, the Soho Manufactory produced buttons, buckles, watch chains and medals.

Boulton then teamed up with Watt in 1795 to create the Soho Foundry in Smethwick which was one of the most advanced factories of its time.

They produced the Boulton and Watt steam engine which helped to drive the Industrial Revolution and put Birmingham on the map as a city of innovation.

Workers grinding gun barrels in a Birmingham small arms factory, during the  Industrial Revolution ©Getty Images
Workers grinding gun barrels in a Birmingham small arms factory, during the Industrial Revolution ©Getty Images

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Canal network and the region’s car industry

Birmingham has 35 miles of canals within its boundary, which connect the beating heart of the city centre along nature corridors, through fascinating suburbs, to the beautiful countryside on its doorstep. These are the city's secret highways welcoming walkers, anglers, boaters, SUPs, kayakers and cyclists in a traffic-free haven.

The canal network was key to the Industrial Revolution with many of the routes created during the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, it remains as an integral part of the city.

Engineer James Brindley oversaw the development of the Birmingham Canal which later became the main line of the Birmingham Canal Navigations.

The waterways allowed heavy goods including coal and iron to be transported to different parts of the city, notably linking up with the Grand Union Canal which starts in London and ends in Birmingham.

The use of canals declined in the 20th century, but Birmingham and the West Midlands continued to play an important role in transportation courtesy of the region’s automotive industry.

At one stage, the UK was the second-largest car manufacturer in the world with the West Midlands central to that success. To this day, iconic names continue to produce their vehicles in the area.

Aston Martin - a brand loved around the world which has become synonymous with the James Bond films - produces luxury sports cars in Gaydon.

Jaguar Land Rover vehicles continue to be manufactured in Castle Bromwich and Solihull.

In Castle Bromwich, a factory tour and driving experience is on offer - providing the chance to put Jaguar's high-performance vehicles through their paces.

Solihull's state-of-the-art production facility, which is home to some of the most technologically advanced cars in the world, is open for tours. There is the chance to test drive off-road Land Rovers in their natural habitats.

Coventry was nicknamed "motor city" in the 1950s due to the large number of car production plants.

Alvis, Daimler, Humber, Jaguar, MG, Peugeot, Rover, Standard, Talbot and Triumph were all produced in the city.

The Longbridge factory, which once employed 25,000 workers, made more than 14 million cars over the course of 100 years.

Malvern's Morgan Motor Company is still going strong, 111 years after it first opened. It is an icon of British motoring and makes around 850 hand-crafted vehicles a year. You can experience their classic cars with test drives in the Malvern Hills, an area of outstanding natural beauty. 

Looking to the future, the West Midlands has become the UK's first Future Mobility Zone due to its automotive innovation. It is home to self-driving testbeds and the latest technology for electric vehicles, including large-scale battery manufacturing at the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre in Coventry.

Land Rover is a crucial part of Birmingham's famous car industry ©Getty Images
Land Rover is a crucial part of Birmingham's famous car industry ©Getty Images

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The jewel in the city’s crown

Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter is home to more than 700 jewellers and independent retailers, establishing itself as a global destination.

Considered Europe’s largest concentration of manufacturing jewellers, the Quarter produces more than 40 per cent of the United Kingdom’s jewellery output.

It has 200 listed buildings in one square kilometre - the highest concentration in the UK with English Heritage hailing the area as a “national treasure”.

Goldsmiths and silversmiths have been working in the Jewellery Quarter for more than two centuries after manufacturing companies began to congregate in the area.

London became reliant on the supply of jewellery from Birmingham in the early 20th century as the industry flourished.

The Birmingham School of Jewellery was founded in 1890 which is part of Birmingham City University’s Arts, Design and Media Faculty. 

By 1914, more than 20,000 people were employed in the Jewellery Quarter before the industry was hit by the Great Depression and the area was damaged during the Second World War.

Since the 1970s, jewellery shops have opened their doors and several regeneration schemes have been implemented to help revitalise the area.

In February 2020, plans were unveiled to transform part of the Jewellery Quarter into a creative hub featuring digital, film, music, photography and jewellery studios along with commercial space, shops and homes.

The plans for “Key Hill Studios” include the refurbishment of two grade II listed buildings and the creation of a new restaurant.

Prince Charles on a tour of the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham ©Getty Images
Prince Charles on a tour of the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham ©Getty Images

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Theatrical Birmingham and "The Bard"

Just 21 miles south-east of Birmingham lies the town of Stratford-upon-Avon - the legendary birthplace of William Shakespeare.

Born in 1564, "The Bard" is regarded as the most influential playwright and poet in history, producing 38 plays, 154 sonnets and two narrative poems before his death in 1616.

Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth are among his greatest pieces of work and are revered across the world.

Known as the Shakespeare Memorial Company from 1875 to 1961, the Royal Shakespeare Company produces around 20 theatre productions a year.

Stratford’s Royal Shakespeare and Swan theatres underwent major renovation, costing more than £100 million before reopening in 2010, and continue to attract well-known actors to perform on stage. The renovation work lasted nearly four years and the end result was a stunning facelift. A third theatre, The Other Place, is also located in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Outside of London, the West Midlands has become a centre for theatre with top venues such as the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the Old Rep Theatre and the Birmingham Hippodrome - the home of the Birmingham Royal Ballet which is one of only six major ballet companies in the United Kingdom.

Birmingham Royal Ballet is regarded as the premier touring ballet company in the country and was originally founded at the world renowned Sadler's Wells Theatre in London in 1931.

The University of Birmingham established the Shakespeare Institute in 1951, providing postgraduate students with the opportunity to study Shakespeare's work and Renaissance drama in detail.

As well as Shakespeare, the region has been the home of many other famous literary figures including JRR Tolkien, Samuel Johnson and Philip Larkin. Following in their footsteps, more recent writers include Caitlin Moran, Sathnam Sanghera, Kit de Waal, Lee Child, Meera Syal and the poet Benjamin Zephaniah.

Birmingham annually holds a 10-day literature festival and opened The Library of Birmingham in 2013 - considered the largest public library in the United Kingdom and was one of six buildings nominated for the Stirling Prize in 2014.

Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of William Shakespeare, is in easy reach of Birmingham ©Getty Images
Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of William Shakespeare, is in easy reach of Birmingham ©Getty Images

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Black Sabbath to Bhangra Beats

Birmingham has a diverse music scene, ranging from classical melodies produced by the city’s world-class symphony orchestra to Bhangra beats inspired by its Asian community.

But it is heavy metal where Birmingham made its name thanks to bands Black Sabbath and Judas Priest which were both formed in the city and rose to prominence in the 1970s.

Ozzy Osbourne became known as the “Prince of Darkness” as the lead vocalist for Black Sabbath which achieved 13 platinum and six gold albums in the United States.

Birmingham-born Osbourne gained worldwide stardom, selling 100 million albums as a solo artist and as a member of Black Sabbath. He has been honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Another rock star associated with the city is Robert Plant, who was born in West Bromwich and went on to become the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, with his high pitch vocals giving them a unique sound.

The West Midlands is known for the two-tone music genre which married aspects of punk with the rhythms of Jamaican ska.

Coventry bands The Specials and The Selector were behind the second wave of ska music in the late 1970s along with Birmingham’s The Beat.

UB40 was another multiracial band from Birmingham which produced a series of hits, selling more than 70 million records worldwide. They were nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album on four occasions.

The band took their name from a form filled out by people seeking unemployment benefits - Unemployment Benefit Form 40.

ELO - which stands for the Electric Light Orchestra - is a Birmingham band which has already left its mark on the Commonwealth Games after their hit Mr Blue Sky was featured during the Gold Coast 2018 Closing Ceremony as part of the handover to Birmingham 2022.

A link-up between Australia and England saw dancers in Birmingham's Victoria Square perform to the track, with the routine reportedly seen by a television audience of one billion. The handover in Birmingham took place in the morning, in order to be part of the Closing Ceremony in the Gold Coast evening.

Duran Duran have sold hundreds of millions of records worldwide and emerged in Birmingham in 1978. They are known for their smash hit Rio and broke barriers on both sides of the Atlantic. The Moody Blues are another band which went on to global success after forming in the city. Popstars that have graduated from the region include Jamelia and One Direction's Liam Payne, while soul artists Laura Mvula, Jorja Smith and Beverly Knight have all climbed the charts. Coventry rapper Pa Salieu won BBC Music's Sound of 2021.

Birmingham is recognised as the centre of Bhangra music in Britain which fuses Punjabi with other genres including house, reggae and hip-hop.

The annual Sandwell and Birmingham Mela, Europe’s biggest South Asian music festival, is staged in Smethwick while the BBC Asian Network is based in the city.

Black Sabbath are part of Birmingham's iconic music scene ©Getty Images
Black Sabbath are part of Birmingham's iconic music scene ©Getty Images

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The UK’s most culturally diverse city

Birmingham 2022 organisers have pledged to create a “Games for everyone” - a vision inspired by the city’s diverse communities.

According to 2017 figures from the Office for National Statistics, more than 800,000 people in Birmingham are from an ethnic minority.

These statistics back up Birmingham’s status as the most culturally mixed city in the United Kingdom.

The ethnic make-up of Birmingham changed significantly in the 1950s and 1960s courtesy of immigration from Commonwealth counties.

Birmingham developed large Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afro-Caribbean communities, with migrants settling in areas including Small Heath, Handsworth and Washwood Heath.

There is a strong Chinese population in Birmingham, largely as a result of post-war migration from former British colony Hong Kong.

The Chinese Quarter in the city centre was established in the 1980s when Chinese businesses and community organisations emerged around the Hurst Street area.

A range of colourful festivals and events take place throughout the year to shine a light on Birmingham’s different cultures and religions.

Birmingham Pride, the UK’s largest two-day gay pride festival, creates a carnival atmosphere through the city’s Gay Village on Hurst Street to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community.

The Arts Council England and National Lottery Heritage Fund awarded £3 million ($4.2 million/€3.5 million) each to the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games to help stage a cultural festival that is set to run from March to September in 2022.

The festival is set to reach 2.5 million people through a range of high-profile events and participatory projects that will be held in the West Midlands.

Birmingham is a proud multicultural city ©Birmingham City Council
Birmingham is a proud multicultural city ©Birmingham City Council