The walk at www.jquarter.org.uk
6. THE CANALS & OLD SNOW HILL
|Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter|
Return to the canal and take the steps on the right that lead down onto the towpath. Turn left, and go under Newhall Street bridge. A hundred yards or so past the bridge, look to your left through the railings and notice how close we are to St Paul's church (this will be important to our story). Follow the canal down until you reach the huge arch carrying the railway over (1). Continue, passing under one further bridge, shortly after which turn left through a hole in the wall. Go left again up to the roadway, cross the dual carriageway and turn right (2), (3), (4).
A. Notice how close St Paul's church is to the canal
B. The arch carrying the former Great Western Railway over the canal. It now carries the Stourbridge Line and the Midland Metro
C. You need to turn left through this hole in the wall
D. The former die sinking works of H B Sale
A steam tram on the Moseley Road
The flight of the middle class
The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal, which here descends through a flight of locks known as ‘the old thirteen’, was opened in the year of the French Revolution, 1789. Though not the prettiest of the inner-city canals this stretch is my favourite (and that of many site visitors, too). With its many bridges of different heights and shapes generating contrasts of light and shade (best seen by looking back up the locks on a sunny day), and often the sound of water cascading over weirs and echoing in the confined spaces, it can be very atmospheric. In its day it formed part of the main transport artery between the West Midlands and London and, looking at the piddling little locks, you won't be surprised to learn that it was every bit as congested as the M6 motorway is today. Even when the canal company obtained an exemption from the Navigation Acts (which prohibited use of the canals during hours of darkness or on Sundays), enabling the locks to be worked 24 x 7, the problem remained unsolved.
The coming of the canal and the almost simultaneous invention by James Watt of the rotary steam engine, which was ideal for powering a wide variety of manufacturing processes, had a very profound effect on the area, and indeed on the centre of Birmingham.
For centuries water mills in the Birmingham area had been used to perform a variety of processes in the manufacture of metal goods, such as rolling, slitting, boring, hammering and polishing. But water mills had to be located where the water power was, and water being scarce on the high Birmingham plateau, that was often several miles out of town. Consequently there was a good deal of carting products around during the manufacturing process. The invention of the rotary steam engine meant that mills could be steam powered and therefore located wherever it was most convenient, and already by the turn of the nineteenth century there were half a dozen steam mills in operation in this area. But the steam mills didn't have it all their own way. They might enable transport costs to be cut, but unlike the water mills they had to pay for their primary source of power, coal, and it seems that the economics of water vs steam were pretty evenly balanced, for whilst the number of steam mills rose steadily, many of the old water mills survived several decades of the nineteenth century.
This competitive situation meant that to be viable at all, the steam mills had to get their coal as cheaply as possible, and that meant they had to be built alongside the canals. Black Country coal delivered into Birmingham by canal was one quarter the cost of coal delivered by road, and canalside mills could take full advantage of that saving, avoiding the costs of double handling and road transport that would have to be borne by mills located elsewhere. So the steam mills clustered alongside the canals, and in the long run there came to be many of them, because although steam may have struggled to compete, it had another factor in its favour: as the town's industry expanded, there ceased to be enough water power to go round, whereas coal was in plentiful supply.
The result of this shift to steam was that by 1839 there were 70 steam engines and 124 factories, many of them boasting tall chimneys that belched out smoke, alongside the canals that virtually encircle the city centre. The concentration of large steam-powered mills and factories along the canal banks is borne out by a ‘bird’s eye view’* of Birmingham published in 1847, which shows over 80 factory chimneys alongside the canals, and virtually none elsewhere.
The development of large, polluting industrial premises along the canals encircling the city centre had a profound effect on the central area, which ceased to be a pleasant place to live and so the prosperous middle classes, who could afford to move out, fled to the leafy new suburbs such as Edgbaston and Moseley, that were growing up at the time. That premier address, the Old Square, was to become a slum - indeed, one of Joseph Chamberlain's aims in building Corporation Street was to clear it - and as we shall see, the flight of the middle class led directly to the establishment of the modern Jewellery Quarter in its present location.
You can click on the link below to see the bird's eye view referred to above. To make it visible I have had to render it as a large file, so please be patient.
(2) Old Snow Hill
Having left the canal, we are now at Old Snow Hill. Although nowadays this area is not part of the Jewellery Quarter, for a while in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was devoted to the manufacture of jewellery making equipment. As we have seen, at that time there was a huge growth in the manufacture of cheap, machine-made jewellery, and this area supplied the machines used in its production. By contrast, traditionally made jewellery requires little in the way of machinery and those machines that are used don't seem to wear out or become obsolete. On the contrary, it is reliably reported that machines of eighteenth century origin are still in use in the Jewellery Quarter today, and that no modern replacement could improve on them. This area therefore declined as machine-made jewellery manufacture declined, but although it is a bit run down at present there are signs of a renaissance, with new luxury flats going up and former factory buildings being converted into expensive apartments.
The superb and immensely striking terracotta building at the junction of Constitution Hill and Hampton Street was built in 1895 - 6 for H B Sale Ltd, a firm of die sinkers. (You can still make out the name above the second storey windows.) Alas, they don’t build die sinking works like this any more! The building, which is in the Spanish Romanesque style, was designed by William Doubleday and James R Shaw. The out-of-character top storey is a later addition, which ought to be removed, as it detracts from the appearance of this wonderful building. H B Sale are still in business, though not in such pretty premises.
A Birmingham cable car
Now, how’s this for a song lyric
I lost my heart in Brummagem
Where hunky cable cars
Climbed a miniscule fraction of the way up to the stars
Do you think that’s got hit potential? You think it needs a bit more development, do you? You think it needs something, but development wasn't the word you had in mind? I see.
Actually the point is, whilst everybody knows they have cable cars in San Francisco, hardly anybody knows there used to be cable cars in Brum, too. From 1888 to 1911 the City of Birmingham Tramways Co (a private company) ran a service of cable cars from Colmore Row out to the New Inns in Handsworth and they came right past here, down Snow Hill and off up Constitution Hill. Unlike San Francisco’s ‘little’ cable cars, most of Brum’s were double deckers.
At one time in the late nineteenth century there was a very wide variety of public transport in Birmingham, including horse trams to Nechells, horse buses to Harborne, steam trams on the Moseley, Stratford, Coventry and Dudley Roads - and probably others - and battery cars on the Bristol Road, as well as the Handsworth cable cars. The steam trams consisted of a big double-deck trailer (with a roof but no glass in the windows upstairs) in which the passengers rode, and which was pulled by a dinky little steam engine. In their day, they were probably the best form of public transport. Certainly they weren’t smoky, running as they did on coke, and they were extremely quiet, as they were designed not to puff. Judging by contemporary reports they just hissed along the road and were quieter and smoother-running than the electric trams that replaced them, and almost certainly quieter, quite possibly cleaner, and undoubtedly smoother, than a modern bus.
But all the other types of transport suffered rather serious defects. The battery cars had the batteries under the seats and they used to leak, so even if you weren’t overcome by toxic fumes you might well find that your shoes had dissolved in acid. They were also painfully slow and unreliable. The horse trams were slow, to the extent that many people didn’t bother with tram stops, hopping on or off as the trams crawled along. As to the cable cars, whenever the cable got worn they were liable to suddenly set off without warning, perhaps when passengers were attempting to board or alight, and subsequently prove unstoppable. By 1911 Birmingham Corporation had taken over the operation of all the tramways and had replaced all these more or less wacky means of travel with plain vanilla electric trams.
© 2001, 2002, 2004 Bob Miles