‘Birmingham Tranquility’: 1776

Birmingham’s last mayor who held the position as a result of being elected to office, was James Smith in 1895. On the appointment of the city’s first Lord Mayor in 1896, in fact (now Sir) James Smith again,  the City Librarian, Charles Scarse oversaw the re-publication of an eighteenth-century trades directory, which was ‘Dedicated to the First Lord Mayor of Birmingham’. The frontispiece of the directory contained a ballad which may have inspired Scarse to choose this particular publication as a suitable dedication. The ballad was by John Freeth, a famous balladeer of the town during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Freeth was also landlord of the Leicester Arms, a public house in Birmingham where men gathered to drink, smoke a pipe and discuss issues of the day. The ballad came to my mind as I picked up the ballot card that had dropped through my letterbox, for the upcoming West Midlands Mayoral election on May 4th (2017), so I thought I’d share it here. It’s also interesting to witness an obvious pride in Birmingham’s industry and an insight into how important work was to the identity of the town. More information on Freeth and his coffee shop at the Leicester Arms can be found at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery – head up to the third floor and check out the fabulous History Galleries there if you haven’t already.

Birmingham Tranquility
John Freeth

In England’s fair capital, every year,
A tumult is raised about choosing Lord Mayor;
Each party engages with fury and spleen
And nothing but strife and contention is seen

Ye wrangling old cits, let me beg you’d look down,
And copy from Birmingham’s peaceable town,
Where souls sixty thousand or more you may view,
No justice dwells here, and but constables two

In no place besides that’s so populous grown,
Was ever less noise or disturbances known:
All hands find employment, and when their work’s done,
Are happy as any souls under the sun.

With hammer and file time is carefully beat,
For such is the music of every street;
The anvil’s sharp sound is the artist’s delight,
And stamps, lathes and presses in concert unite.

Let cities and boroughs for contests prepare,
In choosing of sheriffs, recorders or mayor,
With most kinds of titles they’ve nothing to do,
Nor discord in choosing of officers shew.

The envy and hatred elections bring on,
Their hearty intention is always to shun;
No polling, no scratching, no scrutinies rise,-
Who friendship esteem must such measures despise.

To far distant climes doth her commerce extend;
Her channels of traffic admit of no end;
And Birmingham, whilst there is trade in the land,
In brightest invention unrivalled shall stand.


Report from Samuel Jones, Inspector of Smoke Nuisance


Birmingham had a very different landscape to that other great product of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester.  There were few of those great ‘satanic mills’ that came to characterise  early nineteenth-century Northern England in the popular imagination. Nevertheless, this was a town of remarkable innovation and mass production and Birmingham certainly did have a problem with smoke pollution. When the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1835, he described a town where everything is black, dirty and dark, although every moment breeds gold and silver (‘Journeys to England and Ireland’).

The dirt and the smoke that blighted Birmingham came from the numerous steam engines that drove the town’s metal rolling mills, glass houses and numerous furnaces. In 1818 the Street Commissioners received a letter from Walter Hopper Esq., complaining that the smoke from steam engines at the New Union Mill was exposing his estate, near Five Ways, to ‘volumes of smoke’ which rendered the land ‘quite disagreeable’. When looking through the Street Commissioners minutes this appears as a perennial complaint across several decades and across the town.

By the 1840s there was an increasing interest in issues of health and personal comfort and the Street Commissioners appointed a full time inspector of steam engine smoke in 1844. Jones was responsible to the Steam Engine Committee and would present official reports annually. There doesn’t appear to have been a formal system for measuring smoke at this time, other than timing the emissions and inspecting the engines. This report is taken from the original minute books of the Birmingham Street Commissioners, which can be viewed by appointment at Birmingham Heritage, Archives and Photography at the Library of Birmingham, reference MS 2818/1/8 (please be aware that, as a result of severe staff cut backs, opening times for the archives is now restricted, I would recommend phoning first)

Report of Samuel Jones to the Commissioners of the Birmingham Street Act
February 5th 1849

‘When I commenced my duties in 1844 there were 173 steam engine chimneys, large and small, with 225 furnaces. Several parties had at that time applied means for consuming smoke but they were very seldom used, there being 111 chimneys that emitted dense black smoke from 16 to 35 minutes within every working hour, others varying from 6 to 16 minutes per hour. At the present time there are 224 steam engine chimneys, with 297 furnaces and 2 more now in course of erection. Which makes an increase in the last five years of 57 chimneys and 72 furnaces, the nominal power of the various engines amounting to about 3500 Horse Power. The quantity of fuel used for working of this power alone amounts to about 300 tons per day and most of it of the very commonest description. There are 17 of these chimneys, including some with flues from muffles in them that emit dense black smoke from 12 to 18 minutes within the hour, and 50 others though greatly improved since first under inspection, are still indifferent, they smoke from causes that may be avoided from 6 to 10 minutes within the hour, the others vary from 2 to 6 minutes per hour. There are 50 chimneys used exclusively for muffles, annealing pots and stoves – 22 for puddling and tube furnaces, 6 for glass houses, 2 for gas works – making a total of 304 chimneys (exclusive of smiths forges) from which such a quantity of dense smoke would arise as would envelop the whole town were it not for the many and excellent means adopted for its consumption. This shews that the nuisance is greatly abated but it is not to the extent it could be, as I am convinced that all steam engine proprietors ought to be in such a position, for their own advantage, as would enable them to work their engines without making so much smoke as would either injure the health of or be a nuisance to the Public’

Letter to the editor on the recent visit of Prince Albert

The tour of Birmingham manufactories by Prince Albert in November 1843 included a visit to Armfield’s button manufactory.  The following letter to the editor appeared in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette of December 4th, 1843.

To the Editor of Aris’s Birmingham Gazette
We beg to correct, through the medium of your widely circulated newspaper,  an error which has crept into the reports of Prince Albert’s visit to Birmingham.  The Times of Thursday contains the following statement:- “The button manufactory of Mr Edward Armfield was the next object of interest, &c. It was somewhat singular that the Prince, as if by anticipation, on this occasion wore Birmingham buttons of Mr. Armfield’s make.” This is incorrect; the buttons the Prince wore having been made by us, and presented to his Royal Highness when a deputation waited upon him two years since to solicit his patronage. The mistake in the report arose from his Royal Highness, when looking over the specimens in Mr. Armfield’s warehouse, recognizing a pattern which he occasionally wore.
Your obedient servants
Hardmans and Iliffe

12, Paradise-street December 2, 1843

Beautiful industry: Prince Albert’s tour of local manufacturers in 1843

The royal visit in November 1843 was a great opportunity for Birmingham to show off its pioneering industries. Below are some extracts from Aris’s Birmingham Gazette of December 4th 1843. The enthusiasm for industry is evident as the journalist presents the many mechanised processes as art.



Bacchus glass at V&A

“On arriving at the glass-works of Messrs. Bacchus in Dartmouth-street, his Royal Highness was ushered into the manufactory and inspected the process in every stage. Whilst in the establishment, an elegant cup, with two handles, was blown in the presence of the Prince, and a very chaste centrepiece was produced by the new mode of pressing. The rapidity with which the glass was passed through the different stages from its raw or liquid state to when it was turned out from the mould perfect and fit for use, was regarded by his Royal Highness with great interest. An elegant glass pillar was also manufactured in the Prince’s presence with great rapidity. His Royal Highness was next conducted to the mixing room, where the glass is prepared for the furnace; in this room a large number of ladies were assembled, who cordially welcomed his Royal Highness.”

This was a whistle-stop tour and after a fleeting visit to the glass maker’s show rooms, the royal cavalcade headed off across the town to Water Street and rolling mills belonging to the Muntz brothers. George Henry Muntz, also M.P. for Birmingham, was out of town, so it was his younger brother and local alderman Philip who entertained the royal visitor. The Muntz brothers had patented a metal alloy, which still bears their name and is in use today, particularly in maritime constructions. 

“A most novel, but for the manufactory, a very appropriate sight was here exhibited. Instead of carpeting, a quantity of the patent yellow metal, used for the sheathing of ships’ bottoms, which has been the subject of so much litigation, was laid down for his Royal Highness to walk over. The prince was then conducted through different departments of the mill, where the various operations of the manufacturing the patent metal were being carried on. He was first shown the metal in its liquid state, taken from the furnace and cast in bars, or pigs; next the process of heating the solid mass which, while in this state, was subjected to the operation of powerful rollers turned by steam machinery. The flattened bar, after being taken from the rolls, was again subjected to heat of the furnace and once more passed through the rollers; and in this way, by four operations, the shapeless mass was converted into a fine sheet of metal, cut by circular shears into the required length.”

By the time the prince left Muntz’s it was noon and crowds of workers were filling the streets, “the rush of artizans from the manufactories of St. Paul’s was so great that every thoroughfare was completely obstructed.” The paper reported that there was no disorder, owing to the ‘good humour of the populace’ and the ‘temperate conduct of the police’.

Upwards of an hour was spent at the papier-mache manufacturers of Jennens and Betteridge on Constitution Hill where the prince was shown

“the various stages of the papier mache manufacture, from the first process of pasting the sheets of paper together in the form of trays until the article was turned out in its polished and highly finished state. Prince Albert seemed much interested in the beautiful arts of enamelling, inlaying with pearl and painting, which are carried on in separate rooms, and examined with much apparent gratification the many designs and views which were being transferred from the works of Landseer, Roberts and other artists, to the more costly and highly ornamented articles intended for the drawing-room and boudoir. After examining the process of turning door handles, vases and other ornamental articles, his Royal Highness was conducted to the show rooms where he appeared to be highly delighted with the magnificent and elegant collection of articles which were there displayed.”  Here, further ‘delight and surprise’ was expressed at the wide variety of goods to which the papier mache process had been supplied: “the room containing specimens in every shape, including work-tables, chairs, folding screens, cabinets, work-boxes, desks, and picture frames”. 


After being presented with a gift of a “beautiful papier mache chess table and inkstand”, and meeting with a number of ladies who had been invited to the showrooms of Jennen and Betteridge’s for the occasion, the royal entourage moved on to Charlotte Street, where a tour of Messrs. Sargant Brothers gun  and sword manufactory was conducted. The crowds here were ‘immense’ and the prince was greeted by a gun salute fired by some of the workers who had served at Waterloo. The prince was given a demonstration of the “the process of rolling gun barrels and turning and boring them by steam machinery. The highly finished and perfect style by which the barrel was turned out excited the admiration of his Royal Highness, who very carefully examined a variety of guns turned out by Messrs. Sargant for the Ordnance Department by order of the government.”


The prince was then conveyed to Elkington’s, in Newhall Street. The site of Elkington’s is now a vacant lot, previously occupied by the Birmingham Science Museum. In 1843 the electroplating system which was pioneered by Elkington’s attracted a great deal of attention, much like the interest generated by 3D print manufacturing today. The sense of wonder and excitement that watching the process instilled in the reporter is not lost in this article:

“This new and beautiful invention is carried on most extensively here, the perfection to which the art is brought having superseded, to a great extent, the old system of gold and silver plating. At this establishment are also manufactured solid gold and silver articles, deposited by the same agency as is used in the process of plating, the solid articles merely requiring a longer period for the process of deposition. Large quantities of buttons, rings, bracelets and other light ornaments were placed in a small basked and dipped in a solution of gold, and in less than five minutes they were brought out perfectly and beautifully gilt…one of the most recent applications of this beautiful art is the coating of flowers, leaves and rare plants with gold, silver or copper; birds too are subjected to the same process and form exquisite specimens for cabinets and other collections. The invention, among the infinite variety of purposes to which it is applied, has also been used in coating cloth and canvas with copper, as sheathing or covering for buildings; and by the same process wrought or cast iron can be coated with zinc or copper, thereby preventing oxidation and the continual expense of re-painting. His Royal Highness was very minute in his enquiries, and manifested considerable acquaintance with the principles of the science upon which this manufacture is based.  The prince was especially interested with the operations of the batteries in connection with the solutions of various metals and witnessed not only the coating of various ornaments with gold and silver, but also the production of solid articles manufactured both in silver and copper entirely from solutions.”

The next factory to be visited was Edward Armfield’s button manufactory. Birmingham was well known for its button production, and during his tour here the prince recognised a pattern of some buttons which he owned. Once again, new methods of manufacture were on show “his Royal Highness remained for some time in the stamping-shop, admiring the beauty of the figures which are raised upon the buttons at a single blow.”



A royal visit: November 1843

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children boarding the ro


An ‘Extraordinary Special Meeting’ of the Town Council was called on November 27th 1843 where an imminent visit from Prince Albert was announced. Two letters from Secretary of State Sir James Graham were presented; these were dated November 24th, giving notice of the intended visit on the 29th. The following correspondence was transcribed into the minute books and reveal that this was to be a whistle-stop tour of local businesses and King Edward’s grammar school. The minute books can be found at the Library of Birmingham, Archives, Heritage and Photography, BCC1/AA/1/1/1 


Whitehall, 24th November, 1843


   His Royal Highness Prince Albert has notified to me his intention of paying a visit to Birmingham on the Morning of Wednesday next, the 29th November.

   His Royal Highness will arrive at the Rail Road Station from Drayton manor about half past ten o’clock and is anxious to visit the Manufactories, of which I enclose a list, in the order set forth in the encloseed paper.

   Royal carriages will be in attendance at the Rail Road station to convey His Royal Highness to the Places which proposes to visit, and as the time which the Prince can devote to this excursion is limited it is desirable that the Municipal Authorities should receive His Royal Highness at the Station on his first arrival in the Borough.

   I hasten to give to you the earliest information of the intended visit that in concert with the Corporation and the principal inhabitants you may prepare for the reception of His Royal Highness and may make arrangements which will secure his easy progress from place to place.

   I shall be obliged if you will communicate to the owners of the establishments which His Royal Highness proposes to visit, his gracious intention that they may be ready to receive him, and to show those branches of their Manufactories which are most worthy of observation


  1. Bacchus & Sons – Glass Makers – Ashted
  2. Philip Muntz – Rolling Mill, Boring of gun barrels etc by steam – Livery Street
  3. Jennens & Betteridge – Papier mache manufactory – Constitution Hill
  4. Elkington Electro Type gilding etc. – Newhall Street
  5. Sargant – Sword maker – Charlotte St
  6. Armfield – Button maker – Newhall Street
  7. King Edward’s School    
  8. Town Hall                      
  9. Proof House

return to the Rail Road station


This list is interesting in that it represents some of key industries for which Birmingham was becoming so well known: guns of course, but also buttons, glass and other metal wares. Many of these manufacturers were not only local captains of industry, but were at the cutting edge of technological advances.

The second communication from the Secretary of State, bearing the same date, related to security arrangements, appearing almost as an afterthought:


   With reference to my letter addressed to you this day on the subject of the intended visit of His Royal Highness Prince Albert to Birmingham on Wednesday next, it has occurred to me, that you may require some assistance in addition to the Police to preserve order and to be placed at your disposal

   A Guard of Honor will be in attendance to meet His Royal Highness on his first arrival in Birmingham and the Lord Lieutenant of the County of Warwick, and the Officer commanding Her Majesty’s troops in Birmingham have received orders to afford any assistance which you may require in aid of the Civil Power to keep clear the carriage way and to prevent any obstructions

   I have the honor to be, Sir, your faithful servant

A royal visit was an important endorsement for a town which in recent years had struggled to maintain public order during a period of sometimes violent national unrest. Less than year previously there had been an assassination attempt had been made upon Queen Victoria. No doubt the extra military assistance was welcomed by the town council, who agreed upon the following warm response, to be presented to the Prince by the Mayor:

To His Royal Highness Field Marshall Prince Albert of Saxe Cobourg and Gotha


May it please your Royal Highness,


   We, the Mayor, aldermen and Burgesses of the Borough of Birmingham approach your Royal Highness’s presence with feelings of exaltation and gratitude for the distinguished honor conferred upon us by your Royal Highness’s gracious visit to our Borough – We hail it as a mark of the confidence of your Royal Highness in the loyalty and affection of our Hearts towards our beloved Queen and of your Royal Highness’s appreciation of the high respect and esteem that we entertain for Her Majesty’s illustrious Consort.

   The personal virtues which so eminently distinguish your Royal Highness as a Man, a Husband and a Father, it is our happiness to know and our pride to acknowledge.

   We welcome your Royal Highness to this Seat of Industry and the Arts and we fervently pray the Supreme Ruler of the Universe to vouchsafe to our Most Gracious Sovereign the Queen to your Royal Highness, and to your Royal Offspring a continuance of this special favour and protections, and that you may ever possess and enjoy the affection and esteem of a loyal, a prosperous and a happy people

The unanimously agreed response of Birmingham’s municipal men reveals a great deal about their values, including an emphasis on masculinity and family values.  There is an evident pride in the town’s industry, but also in its arts both are capitalised in the transcription and the council men boldly proclaimed the town as a ‘Seat’ of industry and the arts. Here is an insight into how the town perceived itself and how it wished outsiders to view it. There is also an important reassurance that the people of Birmingham held a loyalty to the Crown and a respect for the current monarchy.