Where’s the oldest part of Birmingham?

A detail from the 1731 Westley map of Birmingham. North is left. Image: public domain.

Continuing our occasional series of working out where major cities actually started.

Birmingham, if you like that sort of thing or frankly even if you don’t, is pretty big these days. The city council covers an area stretching for over 15 miles, from Four Oaks in the North to Longbridge in the South. But the built up area bleeds into neighbouring councils, in Solihull and the Black Country, and the conurbation as a whole is closer to 25 miles from north west to south east.

The central business district is a lot smaller than that, of course, but even that is a couple of miles across.

Central Birmingham today. Image: Google Maps.

Not all of that would have been part of Ye Olde Brumme, though. So where was the original Birmingham?

Infuriatingly, since this is only the second time I’ve bothered writing one of these, nobody seems to know. The city’s name comes from the Old English “Beormingaham”, meaning the home of Beorma’s People, although the identity of Beorma is similarly shrouded in mystery. At any rate, a settlement by this name predates the Domesday Book, and might even date back as far as the 7th century.

Where it was, though, we’re not entirely sure. The traditional theory was that it was a village next to a crossing of the River Rea at Deritend, slightly to the east of the city centre today. But remarkably little evidence for such a settlement has been found.

Local historians have proposed other possible sites: Old Square, just behind Snow Hill station; or to the west, on Broad Street, or even in the Jewellery Quarter. It’s even possible the name didn’t even refer to a single settlement, but was a label for a collection of farms, spread across a relatively wide area. The point is, we don’t know.

Possible sites of Anglo-Saxon Birmingham. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

The first definite appearance of a settlement called Birmingham (“Bermingeham”) is, as so often, in the Domesday Book of 1086. At that point, it was tiny, smaller than a number of other local villages including Aston, Sutton (today Sutton Coldfield), Erdington and Edgbaston.

The town appears in the record again in 1166, when the local lord, Peter de Birmingham, got himself a royal charter to hold a market there. Actually, it’s likely the market pre-dated the charter:  lawsuits later in the Middle Ages suggested the market had run continuously since before the Norman Conquest.

Nonetheless, Peter’s charter regularised things and turned a tiny settlement into the local market town, a regional centre of commerce. The market took place on a triangular open space in front of the new parish church of St Martin in the Bull Ring.

So, until someone finds Anglo-Saxon Beormingaham, that seems to be our answer. The original Birmingham lay here:

Huzzah! Image: Google Maps.

Birmingham continued to mostly be a Warwickshire market town for several centuries after that. By the 14th century it was the third largest town in the county, behind only the county town of Warwick itself and Coventry (which, slightly surprisingly from a modern point of view, was one of the great cities of Medieval England).

It was one of the country’s earliest industrial hubs, beginning its boom as early as the 1680s, until by the late 18th century it was bigger than any English city except Bristol and London. Then the canals arrived, and then the railways, so whatever competitive advantage had caused Birmingham to boom was locked in: a couple of centuries later, it’s still at the centre of the Midlands economy today.

The full Westley map of Birmingham in 1731. North, confusingly, is on the left. Image: public domain.

The Bull Ring is still at the heart of Birmingham life, too, only now it’s a great big shopping centre. St Martin’s Church is still there, too. Here they are together, looking lovely:

Image: Andy G/Wikimedia Commons.

If you’d like us to investigate the historic roots of your city, get in touch.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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Where actually is South London?

TFW Stephen Bush tells you that Chelsea is a South London team. Image: Getty.

To the casual observer, this may not seem like a particularly contentious question: isn’t it just everything ‘under’ the Thames when you look at the map? But despite this, some people will insist that places like Fulham, clearly north of the river, are in South London. Why?

Here are nine ways of defining South London.

The Thames

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

It’s a curvy river, the Thames. Hampton Court Palace, which is on the north bank of the river, is miles south of the London Eye, on the south bank. If the river forms a hard border between North and South Londons, then logically sometimes North London is going to be south of South London, which is, to be fair, confusing. But how else could we do it?


You could just draw a horizontal line across a central point (say, Charing Cross, where the road distances are measured from). While this solves the London Eye/Hampton Court problem, this puts Thamesmead in North London, and Shepherd’s Bush in South London, which doesn’t seem right either.

Image: Google Maps/CityMetric.

And if you tried to use longitude to define West and East London on top of this, nothing would ever make sense ever again.

The Post Office

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Some people give the Post Office the deciding vote, arguing that North and South London are defined by their postcodes. This does have some advantages, such as removing many contentious areas from the debate because they’re either in the West, East or Central postcode divisions, or ignoring Croydon.

But six of the SW postcodes are north of the river Thames, so we’re back to saying places like Fulham and Chelsea are in south London. Which is apparently fine with some people, but are we also going to concede that Big Ben and Buckingham Palace are South London landmarks?

Taken to the extreme this argument denies that South London exists at all. The South postcode region was abolished in 1868, to be merged into the SE and SW regions. The S postcode area is now Sheffield. So is Sheffield in South London, postcode truthers? Is that what you want?

Transport for London

Image: TfL.

At first glance TfL might not appear to have anything to add to the debate. The transport zones are about distance from the centre rather than compass point. And the Northern Line runs all the way through both North and South London, so maybe they’re just confused about the entire concept of directions.


Image: TfL.

But their website does provide bus maps that divide the city into 5 regions: North East, South East, South West, North West and the Centre. Although this unusual approach is roughly speaking achieved by drawing lines across and down the middle, then a box around the central London, there are some inconsistencies. Parts of Fulham are called for the South West region, yet the whole of the Isle of Dogs is now in North East London? Sick. It’s sick.

The Boundary Commission

One group of people who ought to know a thing or two about boundaries is the Boundary Commission for England. When coming up with proposals for reforming parliamentary constituencies in 2011, it first had to define ‘sub-regions’ for London.

Initially it suggested three – South, North East, and a combined North, West and Central region, which included Richmond (controversial!) – before merging the latter two into ‘North’ and shifting Richmond back to the South.

In the most recent proposal the regions have reverted to North Thames and South Thames (splitting Richmond), landing us right back where we started. Thanks a bunch, boundary commission.

The London Plan

Image: Greater London Authority.

What does the Mayor of London have to say? His office issues a London Plan, which divides London into five parts. Currently ‘South’ includes only Bromley, Croydon, Kingston upon Thames, Merton, Sutton, and Wandsworth, while the ‘North’ consists of just Barnet, Enfield, and Haringey. Everywhere else is divvied into East, South or Central.

While this minimalist approach does have the appeal of satisfying no-one, given the scheme has been completely revised twice since 2004 it does carry the risk of seismic upheaval. What if Sadiq gets drunk on power and declares that Islington is in East London? What then?



Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

The coordinates listed on the South London article lead to Brockwell Park near Herne Hill, while the coordinates on the North London article lead to a garden centre near Redbridge. I don’t know what this means, so I tried to ring the garden centre to see if they had any advice on the matter. It was closed.

Pevsner Guides

Image: Wikimedia Commons/CityMetric.

Art historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner might seem an unlikely source of help at this juncture, but we’ve tried everything else. And the series of architectural guides that he edited, The Buildings of England, originally included 2 volumes for London: “The Cities of London and Westminster”, and “everything else”. Which is useless.

But as his successors have revised his work, London has expanded to fill 6 volumes: North, North West, East, The City, Westminster, and South. South, quite sensibly, includes every borough south of the Thames, and any borough that is partly south of the Thames (i.e. Richmond). And as a bonus: West London no longer exists.


I rang a McDonald’s in Fulham and asked if they were in South London. They said no.

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