By the nineteenth century, Birmingham had made outstanding contributions to the first half of the Industrial Revolution [c. 1760-1840] and the Enlightenment [c. 1620-1780]. Its geographical connection to the Black Country and its surrounding towns, positioned Birmingham as the economic heart of the West Midlands, establishing itself as the banking and cultural capital of the region. In the second half of the industrial revolution [c. 1840-1914] the town was an important centre in the global economy. Its reputation was built on its manufacturing, politics, religion, social reform and cultural activity.

There are four interconnected factors that make Birmingham unique in comparison to the other British industrialised towns. The diversity of occupation within the town was extensive; the scale of its workshops was small, intimate and connected; a skilled artisan labour force drove its industry; and it presented opportunities for social mobility.

The town of Birmingham saw rapid expansion during the early nineteenth century; its economic success and growing reputation was an attractive proposition to migrant workers. Between 1801-51, its density of population grew from 75,000 to 247,000 people, and in the second half of the nineteenth century; it doubled in size to 522,000 inhabitants, becoming the second largest urban centre outside London. [1] Known locally as the ‘Midland metropolis’ [2] and celebrated as a ‘city of a thousand trades’ [3] its industry was built on metalworking through the production of small-wares known as ‘toys’ [4], such as the production of nails, screws, buttons, pins and nibs, with trajectories into the specialist trades employed by gunsmiths and jewellers. Birmingham wares were famous around the world, [5] and its wealth contributed towards its economic expansion, [6] celebrated through the title of ‘workshop of the world’. [7] The global impact of its goods reflects British imperialist cultural values, [8] expanding its colonial dominance through trade and stimulating the demand for mass-produced and crafted wares, extended the reach of British democratic principles, and ideals of social reform and modernity.

Strengthened by the Black Country’s industrial outputs of chain making, brickwork, fine glass, tanneries and nail making. Birmingham represented a wide diversity of occupation and economic prosperity.  As the seat of governance for the powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution (fueled by Coal and Iron), it welcomed Industrialists like Matthias Attwood in diversifying their commercial interests (from manufacturing to banking) and by the close of the Victorian era it escalated into the foremost city of the West Midlands.

At the start of the second industrial revolution [c.1840-1914] it was said that all roads led to Manchester. [9] ‘Cottonopolis’ was known for manufacturing its textiles on an industrial scale, [10] maximising the economic benefits of mass production through its large factories (mirrored through the wool industry in Leeds). Extensive industrialisation through the factory model required less skilled workers and paid lower wages, and was the primary employers of women and children. Manchester’s factory workers were poorly remunerated, living in unsanitary conditions and easy to replace.

In contrast to Manchester, Birmingham’s industry capitalised on small-scale workshops, and the ingenuity and enterprise of its skilled specialist artisans, empowering the independence of small masters up to the 1830s. Home to a diverse workforce with over five hundred classes of trade, this created a unique economic advantage for the town, enabling an ‘elasticity’ between trades to diversify their output in collaboration with other small manufacturers, to respond (and initiate) to new business opportunities, contributing to the towns spirit for innovation. [11]

Birmingham expanded through its small workshops, as a centre for regional trade and artisan enterprise, facilitating the manufacture of ‘Brummagem’ wares and small-ware industries. In contrast to Manchester, the town’s small workshop culture engendered a closer link between men and masters, bringing together a shared philosophical cohesion.

 It had its share of larger factories including Matthew Boulton [1728-1809] and James Watt’s [1736-1819] Soho Foundry (producing steam engines that powered the industrial revolution and supplying coins for the Royal Mint) [1795], in 1808 employing over ninety skilled artisans. [12] Reflecting the workshop model of Birmingham, their factory was structured through interdependent smaller units of production, which helped to organise the division labour and productivity. The foundry passed to their sons Matthew Robinson Boulton [1770-1842] and James Watt Jr. [1769-1848] in 1840.

Overall, this scale of industrialised production was represented by a relatively small proportion of the diversity of trades, contributing to its economic growth and reputation. Birmingham’s small workshops were manned by a small group of workers who 'used hand rather than steam power to operate presses, stamps and lathes’. [13]  Smaller workshops also led to opportunities for social mobility, with self-employed journey men becoming their own masters. [14]

 The array of associated Trades in the town and the scale of production in its small workshops created a demand and attracted a skilled artisan labour force. The specialist knowledge of Birmingham’s workers generated higher wages for its people, in stark contrast with the factory workers of Manchester. The cost of labour was relative to that of capital (raw materials), the cheaper the capital (as in the industrial cities built on coal fields) the higher the wages. [15] Birmingham was one of these towns, applying their cheaper coal to industrialised processes. The economy of the town expanded through metal refining and fabricating industries, resulting in high paid labour for a skilled workforce.

An economy of higher wages determined the social priorities of the industrialised towns workers. In Birmingham, this is reflected in the development of friendly societies, over trade unions, an emphasis on education and better living accommodation. At the start of the nineteenth century, its families lived and often worked independently in separate houses, with political representation by likeminded liberal politicians, leading to the Civic Gospel of Birmingham under the administration of Joseph Chamberlain [1836-1914]. These factors contributed to the attractive possibilities of social mobility in the town, where men became masters.