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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CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

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The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

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Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.