Although Birmingham was incorporated in 1838, until 1851 the majority of the management of the fabric of the town still fell under the control of the self-elected Street Commissioners. Over the course of some 80 years they oversaw the transformation of the town from a few puddled streets into a thriving commercial centre. They held administrative responsibilities not dissimilar to our current council, including paving, draining, lighting but also street cleansing, licensing of cabs, managing the markets and filling in potholes. They also had to oversee some seismic changes, particularly the coming of the railways. Overall, reading through the minute books of the Commissioners, there is an impression of a pretty impressive system. However, just like today, the management of a large and dynamic infrastructure came with many difficulties and the Commissioners came under fire, particularly over issues of drainage and smoke pollution. In the letter below, taken from the Birmingham Journal of September 24th, 1842, a local resident is complaining about something which must have been quite an issue to those living and working nearby, that is the smells of managing Birmingham.
Law Makers, Law Breakers,
Sir,- if I mistake not, our commissioners have made a bye law to prevent persons removing manure &c. between a certain hour in the morning and a stated time at night. Now, at their own premises in Shadwell-street, manure is often removed during the day, causing such a stench as cannot be conceived, far different to stable manure generally. In fact, it is quite a nuisance.
Birmingham, September 17th, 1842