How Birmingham grew, and how it affected my family

Birmingham Canal at Brindley Place
The Birmingham Canal – the city couldn’t have grown without it

The history of Birmingham

My own ancestral research started by looking at my mother’s family in Birmingham. Everyone sees this now as a place of heavy industry and multiculturalism. But was it always like this? How has Birmingham grown?

By the end of the 13th Century there were many smithies in Birmingham, attracted by its position as a crossing point of the River Rea and on the road from the 2 powerful centres of Worcester and Lichfield. This small village just grew and grew, aided also by being in the centre of an area that produced both coal and iron, both huge and vital industries at the time.

This growth was only possible because of immigration, from “local” areas and from wider afield. Birmingham grew exponentially, aided in the main by those who came from elsewhere to make lives and fortunes in Birmingham. This can be illustrated very well by looking at the statue that stands outside what used to be the old Registry Office in Broad Street. It depicts 3 industrialists whose influence is still felt today. James Watt was born in Greenock, Scotland and moved to Birmingham around 1774. He came to enter into a partnership with Matthew Boulton, who was born in Birmingham, with a family from down the road in Lichfield. The third of the trio, William Murdock, was born in Lugar, East Ayrshire. He moved to Birmingham in 1777 after walking from Scotland, a distance of about 250 miles! And he came because he wanted to work for Watt, who was known even at that distance as a great industrialist.

So we have two Scots and a first -generation Staffordshire man. These men continued to build on the manufacturing base that was already developing. But of course they weren’t the first or last people who’d pin their dreams on moving somewhere new: since the early days Birmingham has relied on immigrants.

I can see this in my own family. A number of years ago (I won’t say quite how long!) I looked at the 1881 census, which includes my Great Grandfather Joseph Billingham. Of course, a large number of the inhabitants were born in Birmingham, but you can also find people from almost every other county of England. Joseph’s own mother was from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire!. I even found a page full of Welshmen, and there were Irish and Scots aplenty. Oh, and 3 French-born souls!

Joseph Billingham Mark Kite
Joseph Billingham himself, with his wife Mary Kite

As that century ended, immigration from the Empire greatly increased. In the 1911 census in Birmingham there are a large number of people born in India, many with names originating on the subcontinent. There are also many from Italy, Spain and Germany, and all of them contributed to the great explosion of wealth which was happening at the time. Birmingham was a great source of the Arts & Crafts movement, with the Jewellery Quarter being a great part of that, and it couldn’t have happened without the influx of ideas from all those immigrants. Birmingham is what it is because it has always accepted people from all over.

So what does this mean for those researching family history? It means that what starts in Birmingham may very well not end there, and vice versa! I had my ancestral DNA tested a while ago, and whilst there was the expected preponderance of Irish and British genes, over a quarter of me is non-British. The rest covers most of Europe, and a tantalisingly small amount from the Indian sub continent. Whilst my research hasn’t found these ancestors yet, I am still looking for them. My mother’s ancestors I have found are from various parts of England. I look forward to taking them out of the country!