50 Fascinating Facts about Birmingham

We are mightily grateful to Keith Bracey, local history buff for putting this stunning and informative feature together.  This is part two - please see part one here.

26. PENS

In the 1850s, Birmingham was a world centre for the pen trade. More than half the steel-nib pens manufactured in the world were made in Birmingham, where thousands of skilled craftsmen and craftswomen were employed in the industry. In 1828 Birmingham manufacturer Josiah Mason developed a cheap, efficient slip-in nib that could be added to a fountain pen. Mason became the largest pen-maker in England and in 1875 he founded Mason Science College, which became Birmingham University. Making pens more efficiently and cheaply encouraged the development of education and literacy around the world

27. PLANES

In 1940, just after the start of the Second World War, Castle Bromwich Aircraft Factory started production of the Spitfire fighter plane and became the largest Spitfire factory in the UK, producing up to 320 aircraft per month. When production ended at Castle Bromwich in June 1945, a total of 12,129 Spitfires had been built - more than half of the 20,000 ever produced.

  1. WEATHER MAPS

Sir Francis Galton, born in Birmingham in 1822, is credited as the first to apply statistical methods to science. In doing so, he gave birth to the science of meteorology by creating the first weather map, compiled using data from all of Britain's weather stations in October 1861. A half-cousin to Charles Darwin, whose grandfather Erasmus Darwin from Lichfield near Birmingham had been a prominent member of Birmingham’s Lunar Society, Galton also coined the term Eugenics (improving human genetics through controlled breeding), devised a method for classifying fingerprints and introduced the use of questionnaires and surveys for collecting data on human communities.

29. THE MINI AND THE MOTOR CAR

The Mini, an icon of the swinging Sixties, was manufactured at Birmingham’s Longbridge plant from 1959 to 2000. In 1999 the Mini was voted the most influential car of the 20th century, and in 2014 it was named Britain’s favourite car of all time in a survey by motoring magazine Autocar. By the late 1960s, Longbridge was the biggest car plant in the world and employed around 250,000 workers.

And it all started here in Brum. It was in 1895 in Birmingham that Frederick William Lanchester built the first petrol-driven four-wheeled car in Britain. He also invented the accelerator pedal.

Lanchester, who had been working at the Forward Gas Engine Company in Saltley, Birmingham, had first devised an engine that ran on petrol rather than gas. As part of that, he invented the carburettor to get the correct mix of air and fuel.

Having tried the new engine in a boat and created Britain's first motorboat, he decided to design a four-wheeled vehicle that would run on petrol. He worked on the car at workshops in Ladywood Road, Fiveways, and then he and his brothers set up a factory in Montgomery Street, Sparkbrook, to make the cars so they could be sold to the public.

  1. GUNS

Birmingham's Gun Quarter was for many years the centre of the world's gun manufacturing industry. In 1865 nearly 10,000 people were employed in the city's gun industry.

During the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), production soared as more than three million guns were made in the city, with Birmingham supplying two thirds of the guns used by the British army.

  1. BIKES & MOTORBIKES

Hercules Cycle and Motor Company, founded in 1910 in Aston, had become the world’s biggest manufacturer of bicycles by the end of the 1930s, when six million had been made.

Evolving out of Birmingham’s bicycle industry, firms such as Norton and BSA made Birmingham an international centre for motorbike manufacture.

BSA - the Birmingham Small Arms Company - began as a gun-maker founded in Birmingham's Gun Quarter in 1861 before venturing into bicycles, motorbikes and cars. BSA was at one time the largest motorcycle producer in the world and Birmingham bikes won many awards for speed and quality. The BSA Bantam was a popular small motorcycle made in Birmingham which is still produced under licence in India today.

  1. CUTLERY

Birmingham firm Arthur Price was the first company to make spoons and forks from chromium plate, the forerunner of stainless steel. By the 1950s, it had become the largest manufacturer of stainless steel cutlery in the UK.

In April 1912, A. Price & Co. Ltd, as the company was then known, was based in a small factory in Conybere Street, Birmingham. The firm was celebrating its 10th anniversary with a commission to supply premium cutlery for use on the world’s newest and most luxurious ocean liner, the S.S. Titanic.

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s tragic maiden voyage, Arthur Price recreated the Panel Reed cutlery that was used in the ship’s First Class accommodation. In 1976, the firm was commissioned to design and produce the cutlery for Concorde.

  1. CHARLES DICKENS

Famous novelist Charles Dickens gave the first public performance of A Christmas Carol in Birmingham Town Hall in December 1853, 10 years after its publication. He performed it over three hours 15 minutes in front of a crowd of 2,000 local people - taking only a 10-minute break for a quick swig of beef tea.

  1. ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE/SHERLOCK HOLMES

Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, lived and worked in Aston for several months each year from 1879 to 1882. He was working as a pharmacy assistant in the breaks between his studies at Edinburgh University.

Birmingham's Sherlock Street - where Doyle is said to have bought a violin - and the surname of Birmingham printer John Baskerville were obvious influences on his later literary works, with the first Sherlock Holmes story (A Study in Scarlet) published in 1886 and The Hound of the Baskervilles appearing in 1901. Doyle’s time here is commemorated by a blue plaque on the building on the site of his former home at 63 Aston Road North.

  1. THOMAS THE TANK ENGINE

The Reverend Wilbert Vere Awdry, creator of The Railway Series about Thomas the Tank Engine, was a curate at King’s Norton, Birmingham, from 1940 to 1946. While living there in 1943, he invented stories featuring trains - based on his experiences hearing the engines puffing along the railway line at Kings Norton - to entertain his son during a bout of measles.

In 1945, Awdry wrote his first book featuring his locomotive characters. He made a model train for his son and decided to call it Thomas. His son wanted to hear stories about Thomas, and these were published in his book Thomas the Tank Engine in 1947.

  1. WASHINGTON IRVING

The American-born author of ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ which was made into a film starring Johnny Depp and ‘Rip Van Winkle’ lived and wrote for a time in Birmingham during the early 18th century.

  1. BARBARA CARTLAND

The incredibly prolific author of romantic novels was born in Edgbaston in Birmingham. She wrote hundreds of books, mostly of the romantic fiction variety.

  1. LEE CHILD

The former King Edward’s School Edgbaston schoolboy lost his job with Granada TV in Manchester in 1994 and became an author. His books about his hero Jack Reacher, the 6 feet 5 inch and 250 pounds one-man war machine have sold over 100 million copies. The books have become a film franchise with the diminutive Tom Cruise playing the giant Reacher.

39 RJ ELLORY

A spell in a Young Offenders Institution with his brother for stealing a chicken from a convent convinced Roger Ellory to turn his life around and become a writer. He gleaned most of his knowledge about America, which plays host to his crime novels from 1970’s TV shows like Starsky & Hutch, The Rockford Files, Cannon and Cagney & Lacey. His most famous crime thriller is ‘A Quiet Belief in Angels’ and he has written 21 books.

  1. JONATHAN COE

Another former King Edward’s School Edgbaston pupil, albeit somewhat older than Lee Child, Coe’s novel of growing up in 1970’s Birmingham: ‘The Rotter’s Club’ with its background of the Birmingham pub bombings and the strikes at the Austin Rover car plant at Longbridge struck a chord with readers and was turned into a successful BBC TV series. Other novels such as ‘The Closed Circle’ have been equally successful.

  1. JIM CRACE

Moseley author Jim Crace has enjoyed great literary success and has been nominated for The Booker Prize, the best known literary prize in the UK.

  1. LAND ROVER

Four wheel drive vehicles began with the great Land Rover Defender in the 1950’s and the success of the company continues today now it is owned by Indian conglomerate TATA with premium products like The Range Rover Sport and The Range Rover Evoque.

  1. KASH THE FLASH GILL

Handsworth-born Kash Gill was the very first Asian fighter to become a World Champion in a Contact sport in his chosen discipline of kick-boxing where he is a four-time World Champion. Kash’s titles pre-date those of British-born Asian World Boxing Champions Naseem Hamed and Amir Khan.

  1. SIR MICHAEL BALCON

Birmingham’s 'Film Triumvirate' is made up of Sir Michael Balcon, Brummie Grammar Schoolboy and Britain's first 'Film Mogul' who at one point worked for Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Victor Savile, who bankrolled Balcon and Oscar Deutsche who founded the ODEON Cinema Chain in Birmingham in the 1930's were Brum’s three film ‘movers and shakers’ All three could at one time be found on a ride on the Inner Circle number 8 'Corporation Buzz' in Birmingham's inner city!

Birmingham Grammar School Boy Sir Michael Balcon founded The Ealing Studios which gave us those great 'Ealing Comedies': 'Kind Hearts and Coronets', 'The Lavender Hill Mob', 'Passport to Pimlico', 'The Ladykillers' and ‘Whiskey Galore’ should be more celebrated in Birmingham as possibly Britain’s greatest film maker, the man who discovered Alfred Hitchcock, whom many think is Britain’s best film maker…..?

Balcon went to my old school George Dixon Grammar School for Boys from 1906 when the school opened until 1912 when he left after his father a Jewish tailor at 116 Summer Lane, Aston became ill and could no longer afford to send the young Balcon to school

After leaving school in 1912 Balcon joined up in 1914 at the outbreak of The Great War and tried to establish some of the early 'Birmingham Pals' Regiments in The Great War but ironically could not fight and serve himself due to defective eyesight..........

Balcon also named his 'Everyman Copper Hero' and most enduring character PC George Dixon of 'Dixon of Dock Green' after his old school which was named after Education Reformer and the founder of Edgbaston High School for Girls: George Dixon MP, a direct contemporary of Joseph Chamberlain MP the founder of municipal Birmingham.

PC George Dixon first appeared in the 1949 Ealing Studios film: 'The Blue Lamp' where he was shot in a bungled cinema robbery by a young Rank Starlet on loan to the Ealing Studios Dirk Bogarde....remember him?

PC George Dixon was miraculously reincarnated in 1952 in the first 'Police Procedural': 'Dixon of Dock Green' where the young PC Dixon pounds a tough East End Docklands Beat around 'Dock Green' keeping law and order with his own brand of homespun bonhomie and gentle kindness and good sense, with a ‘clip round the ear’ for young urchins rather than a spell in ‘The Blue Brick’ (‘nick’)

PC Dixon's cheery Saturday evening greeting: 'Evening All' has gone down in TV folklore.

'Dixon of Dock Green' ran from 1952 until 1976 when Jack Warner, the actor who played PC Dixon for all those years became too old for the role.

Sir Michael Balcon would premiere his Ealing Films to the Cinema Club at his old school.

There are also links to Hollywood as his Grandson is possibly the greatest ever screen actor the three-time Oscar winner for 'Best Actor' Daniel Day-Lewis.

  1. GEORGE DIXON

George Dixon was a former Lord Mayor of Birmingham of the 1870's and a renowned educational pioneer in the city. He founded Edgbaston High School for Girls in Westbourne Road to educate young women, the daughters of artisans and craftsmen in Birmingham.

The George Dixon Grammar Schools were built in 1906 to honour his memory on the mile-long City Road, built at the turn of the 20th century during the municipal boom in Birmingham inspired by Joseph Chamberlain who at that time founded the University of Birmingham also in Edgbaston.

George Dixon to those 'Baby Boomers' who grew up in 1960's Britain meant a kindly, avuncular copper who pounded the beat in Dock Green in East London on black and white TV on BBC1 on Saturday evenings.

Did you know how PC George Dixon got his name...?

Sir Michael Balcon, then Head of the Ealing Studios was a former pupil of the George Dixon Grammar School for Boys in City Road, Edgbaston in Birmingham.

Ealing Studios released a film called: 'The Blue Lamp' in the early 1950's starring Jack Warner as PC George Dixon. PC Dixon was shot dead by a very young actor named Dirk Bogarde (remember him...?) who played a petty villain on PC Dixon's beat in bomb-damaged London.

PC George Dixon's name was inspired by Sir Michael Balcon's former school George Dixon Grammar in Birmingham.

PC Dixon was reincarnated for the very successful 'Police Procedural' TV show of the 60's and 70's on BBC1, still played by the original actor from 'The Blue Lamp': Jack Warner.

Sir Michael Balcon's daughter Jill Balcon established links with her father's old school in Birmingham some years ago. Jill was part of an acting dynasty and married into the Day-Lewis theatrical family which includes Jill Balcon’s double-Oscar winner son Daniel Day-Lewis whose grandfather is Birmingham-born Sir Michael Balcon.

Daniel Day-Lewis has also been nominated for a ‘Best Actor’ Oscar in 2013 for his appearance as ‘Lincoln’ in the Steven Spielberg biopic.

There is another Birmingham link to Abraham Lincoln. One of Lincoln’s greatest friends and influences was Birmingham MP and anti-slavery campaigner John Bright.

Bright encouraged Lincoln to adopt the abolition of slavery as a central aim of his war against the Confederacy and for many years a bust of John Bright MP stood in The White House.

Birmingham therefore is linked via Sir Michael Balcon and his Ealing Studios films to Hollywood and the Oscars won by his grandson Daniel Day-Lewis. Birmingham also has several other links to the early British film industry. The first ODEON ‘picture house’ was built in Birmingham by Oscar Deutsch.

The acronym ODEON was coined by Oscar Deutsch and stood for: ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation’ and the first ‘ODEON’ was in Birmingham. The word ODEON has become a by-word for a cinema in the British film industry.

Birmingham also has the oldest continuously operating cinema in Britain in ‘The Electric Cinema’ in Station Street near the ‘Old Rep’ having first shown news reels and short films since 1909. Current owner Tom Laws has reinvented and reinvigorated ‘The Electric Cinema’ as a Art Deco cinema with a bar, double armchair-style seats which movie-goers can enjoy, creating an enjoyable personal cinema experience, totally different to the multiplex.

The fact that Celluloid was invented in the city too makes Birmingham a very important place in the history of the British film industry.

  1. WEBSTER & HORSFALL

Birmingham rope and wire-making company Webster and Horsfall based in Small Heath have two claims to fame. Firstly they provided most of the ropes for the British Naval Fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and for Admiral Lord Nelson’s Flag Ship HMS Victory. Another surprising Birmingham link as the British city furthest from the sea is that around 120 of the sailors on HMS Victory hailed from land-locked Birmingham! In 1865 Webster and Horsfall made the very first Trans-Atlantic Telecommunications cable which Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s great steam ship the SS Great Eastern laid at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Webster and Horsfall is one of the few companies in the country with its own dedicated church onsite….St Cyprians of Small Heath.

47 JOHN BRIGHT MP & PRESIDENT LINCOLN

John Bright MP who played a pivotal role in the 1867 Reform Act which helped enfranchise the ordinary working man was a friend of the great US President Abraham Lincoln. When, early in The American Civil War (1860 – 1865) Lincoln was wavering as to whether he wanted to retain the Abolition of Slavery as one of his key war aims. Bright wrote to Lincoln to bolster his resolve and plead that he continue his abolitionism. Lincoln kept this letter and when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth at The Washington Theatre in 1865 the letter was found in one of the pockets of his frock coat. Many years later First Lady Hillary Clinton found a politician’s bust in a dusty White House storeroom. After some research it was discovered that the bust was of Birmingham MP John Bright and the bust was placed on display in The Oval Office of the Clinton Presidency.

  1. THOMAS ATTWOOD MP

The Birmingham MP Thomas Attwood, whose reclining statue can be found in Birmingham’s Chamberlain Square was one of the MP’s who played a great role in the enfranchisement of the ordinary working man with the 1832 Reform Act which abolished ‘Rotten Boroughs’. Attwood held a huge political rally at Newhall Hill in 1830 of his Birmingham Political Union which was one of the precursors to the Trade Union Movement and was instrumental in the formation of the unions. The establishment felt under threat by events like the huge Birmingham Rally at Newhall Hill and for a time it was felt that revolution maybe in the air with events in Birmingham.

  1. THE ELAN VALLEY PROJECT

Joseph Chamberlain, the Birmingham Lord Mayor and Birmingham MP and former Colonial Secretary was the man who made Birmingham into the ‘workshop of the world’ and ‘the city of a thousand trades’ was instrumental in providing clean water for Birmingham artisans and workers through his plan to pipe clean water over 70 miles from North Wales to Bartley Green Reservoir in South Birmingham. This was known as The Elan Valley Project and eradicated water-borne illnesses in the city of Birmingham and continued the city’s exponential industrial growth under Chamberlain.

  1. OLD JOE

Joseph Chamberlain was also instrumental in the establishment of The University of Birmingham which was the first of the ‘Redbrick’ Universities established in the great Victorian cities. Birmingham University was formed from Mason College and Chancellor’s Court is a tremendous example of Edwardian architecture. Old Joe, the Clock Tower or Campanile is the tallest free-standing clock tower in the world and is named after Birmingham Lord Mayor and MP and founder of Birmingham University Joseph Chamberlain. Another Birmingham hero JRR Tolkien was growing up in Edwardian Birmingham at this time when the Birmingham University clock tower was being constructed and some think that ‘The Eye of Sauron’ from the second part of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy: ‘The Two Towers’ was inspired by the building of ‘Old Joe’.

Words and photos supplied by Keith Bracey,  Birmingham History Buff.

Find out more on his blog or tweet on @1truclaretnblu