Second City: Birmingham and the Forging of Modern Britain by Richard Vinen - review by Robert Colls

Robert Colls

Brum’s the Word

Second City: Birmingham and the Forging of Modern Britain


Allen Lane 592pp £25

It takes about fifty minutes to travel by train from Leicester, where I live, to Birmingham. It’s a flat ride and we slide into New Street station having seen nothing but fields and sheds. No big natural features. No stand-out architecture. No monumental structures, unless we are talking Spaghetti Junction, and we aren’t because that’s only monumental from the air. The city has nice bits by the canal and Symphony Hall; it has the National Exhibition Centre and even the new Bull Ring, home of the world’s biggest Primark. But on the face of it, Birmingham is just another conurbation too big to go through and too wide to go around.

At the time of Domesday Book, Birmingham consisted of nine households. By the Tudor period, it had grown off the back of the trade in wool and leather, its wealth shown in the foundation of King Edward VI’s grammar school in 1552. By the time William Hutton wrote its first history in 1781, it had a population of around seventy thousand and had become known for the manufacture of metal items – all of them useful, from belt buckles to saucepans. A canal linking Birmingham to Staffordshire opened in 1772 and helped make coal cheap, and when Matthew Boulton and James Watt’s Soho Foundry put that coal to work, it set Birmingham squarely on the map for steam engines and everything else carboniferous. Birmingham elected its first MP in 1832, became a municipal borough in 1838 and was awarded city status in 1889, by which time it had all the hallmarks of English industrial civilisation, including a town hall in the classical style and a lot of smoke and graft.

Birmingham had once hosted a distinguished scientific business elite, who came together in the Lunar Society (1765–1813), but the world had to wait for the Chamberlains, manufacturers of three quarters of the world’s screws, before it could see what the place really stood for. As mayor of Birmingham

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