In transcribing the following passage from the online version I have expanded abbreviations and added paragraphing, subtitles, links, and illustrations. The illuminated initial letter with which the article begins comes from the original, though I have added red to it. — George P. Landow

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he acquisition of full powers of local government by the Corporation in 1851 marks a new tuning point in the history of Birmingham. . . It may be well to divide the history of the corporation from this point into two parts, dealing first with the administrative work which at one time was held to be the whole duty of a corporation — the cleaning, lighting and paving of the streets the formation of new thoroughfares and the improvement of those already in existence, the drainage, sewerage, and water supply, and the erection of public buildings wherein the administration of loral government might be carried on. We propose to deal with these and similar matters in the present chapter, leaving the story of the splendid efforts of the Council, in the direction of civic socialism, such as the provision of public parks, laths, libraries, and museums to form separate chapters.

The Act of 1851 empowered the Corporation to cany out a number of important street improvements, including the making of a new street from Fazeley Street to Heath Mill Lane, altering and improving the approaches to the Town Hall; widening Temple Row from Bull Street to the Royal Hotel; improving Curzon Street; making a new street from Digbeth to Bradford Street; improving Tonk Street; making a new street from Bromgesrove Street to Pershore Street; extending Granville Street to Wood Street; and other minor improvements.

Corporation Street from the Grand Theatre. Drawn by W. Hallsworth Waite.

When the Town Hall was transferred from the Commissioners to the Corporation the surroundings of that noble edifice were not such as helped to set it off to the best advantage. At that lime the northern side of Paradise Street was bordered by mean houses which came came up to the western side of the hall, blocking all approach to it on that side. The footpath in front of these houses was raised several feet above the level of the roadway, and was fenced by posts and rails. The street commissioners had already purchased the adjoining properties for improving the apprroach to the hall; and in accordance with the provisions of the Act. on the 3rd of February, 1852, the Council authorized the removal of the premises, the alteration of the level of the footpath, and the formation of the approach to the hall on the western side, wrhich came to be called Ratcliff Place.

Some of the other improvements for which power was obtained under the Improvement Act were not effected until later years, and some have not yet been completely carried out. The most important of the projected improvements -the formation of Albert Street—was unwisely abandoned for the time, thereby involving the town in considerable loss. The governors of the Free Grammar School had, several years earlier, constructed a short street called by the same name, from Park Street to Moor Street, and had obtained from the street commissioners an undertaking to continue this thoroughfare from Moor Street to Dale End corner, and this undertaking was embodied in the Improvement Act, with the proviso that if the continuation of Albert Street be not made within three years from the passing of the Act “the Council shall make to the said governors full compensation for such loss at may have accrued to the said governors before that period." The Council declined to carry out this undertaking, preferring an alternative scheme of continuing Carr's lane, and in consequence were called upon to pay the sum of £10,123 to the governors of the school for non fulfilment of contract For this piece of extravagance the town obtained no equivalent, and ultimately the scheme of the commissioners was carried out, Albert Street being continued from Moor Street to Dale End in 1862.

Among the other improvements effected during 1851 mention may be made of the reconstruction of Hagley Road and Bristol Road, both of which, at that time, drained into open ditches. In the latter the footpath on one side was, in placet, five feet above the level, and was bordered by a deep and stagnant ditch. Both roads were ordered to be made eleven yards wide in the carriage way.

Congreve Street, Showing the Corporation Art Gallery. Drawn by W. Hallsworth Waite.

The records of the Council during the earlier years of the period under notice are filled with undignified bickerings, arising for the moat part from a spirit of narrow economy which animated many of the members who had been elected to that body after the ‘heroic age' in which it came into existence. In 1853 the borough debt amounted to £300,000, and the rates stood at 3s 9d. in the pound. This so alarmed the economists that they stirred up a bitter feeling in the town against the Corporation, more especially among that unthinking section of the community who, while they gladly hail every public improvement, manifest the keenest hostility towards the slightest increase of the rates. An association of ratepayers was formed to oppose all progress in whatever direction which involved increased rating. Memorials were addressed to the Council, meetings were held, and the annual elections influenced by this body, with the result that the Council was largely reinforced by men of this class, and the progressive movement which had been so happily inaugurated was hampered and hindered for many years. As may be imagined, therefore, much of the work of the Council during this unhappy period was of a make-shift character. That a few good things were done, and the Council itself was saved from becoming contemptible, was due to the leavening influence of a few patriotic townsmen who kept their places as members of the governing body.

In 1852 and 1853 the Council earned out a useful little reform in the removal of the turnpike gates which still existed within the borough, in accordance with the provision in the Act of 1851. The gates thus removed were those at Small Heath, Sparkbrook, Moseley Road, Bristol Road, Pershore Road, and Hagley Road. The clause empowering their removal provided that the toll-houses should he rebuilt, at the cost of the Corporation, at a distance of a quarter of a mile outside the boundary, and they were thus rebuilt, from the designs of Mr. Yeovillc Thomason, and remained in existence until within the last quarter of a century. The cost of removing the old turnpikes, rebuilding toll houses and compensation of the turnpike trusts amounted to £10,866.

Edmund Street (The School of Art, the Medical Institute, and the Parish Office). Drawn by W. Hallsworth Waite.

During 1853 other of the improvements authorised in the Act of 1851 were carried out. The entrance to Temple Row from Hull Street was widened by the removal of some of the out-offices of the Royal Hotel and other premises on the south side of the Row between the hotel and Bull Street; and the land adjoining the Town Hall —afterwards to be the site of the Birmingham and Midland Institute— was purchased by the Corporation. The improvement in Carr’s Lane which had been scheduled in the Act had to be abandoned owing to the price asked for Mr. Watson's warehouse being “much too large."

A second important improvement was effected on the same estate in 1870, when two narrow and dingy streets, Little Charles Street and the portion of Edmund Street lying between Newhall Street and Congreve Street, were re-arranged to form one fairly broad street from the Livery Street entrance of the Great Western Station to Congreve Street. The old dilapidated buildings with which they had been lined were demolished, and in course gf time the greater part of the new thoroughfare (which was at first called New Edmund Street, but is now simply Edmund Street) was adorned by handsome public buildings and substantial blocks of warehouses. It may be interesting, by way of contrast to the full-page view of this street as it now appears, to give an illustration of a portion of old Edmund Street as it appeared prior to the alterations. At a later date (1876) the level of the portion of Edmund Street between Congreve Street and Easy Row was lowered 3ft. 6in., at a cost of £3,178.

Edmund Street as it was in 1870.

Joseph Chamberlain becomes mayor and leads purchase of private gas companies by the city

Among those who came to its councils in 1870 was one who was well fitted to take the lead in a forward movement for the enfranchisement of the borough from the littleness and the narrowness which had so long impeded its progress, and in the election of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain to the Council the history of the borough may be said to have made a new beginning. Three years after his accession to the Council, by which time that body had been largely reinforced by men imbued with the new spirit, Mr. Chamberlain was elected Mayor of the borough, and at the first meeting of the new year following, (January 13th, 1874,) he took the first step towards the acquisition by the town of the two undertakings for the supply of gas to the town and district, by moving “That in the opinion of this Council it is desirable that the manufacture, supply, and sale of gas in the borough should lie under the control of the Corporation, and that the General Purposes Committee be authorised and instructed to negociate terms for the purchase of the Birmingham Gas Light and Coke Company, and to employ such professional and other assistance as they may deem necessary, and to report the result for the approval of the Council, and generally to report on the subject.” This resolution was carried by 54 votes against 2, and as a result of the enquiries and negociations a bill was introduced in the House of Commons in the session of 1875 (this course having been approved by a meeting of the ratepayers held at the Town Hall, April 13th, 1874) and received the royal assent on the 2nd of August in that year, empowering the Corporation to acquire the properties and rights of the two gas companies, those of the old Birmingham company for the sum of £450,000, and those of the Staffordshire company for £103,845. The value and importance of this splendid piece of civic statesmanship was speedily demonstrated. A considerable reduction was at once effected in the price of gas to the consumer, while a net profit was made during the first half-year after acquiring the control of the gas undertakings of £25,338 15s 11d. From that time to the present an annual profit amounting on an average to £25,000 has been paid over from the gas department and appropriated to public purposes, chiefly in aid of the borough rates, while the gas plant has been improved and developed to an immense extent, and due provision has been made for the creation of an ample reserve fund. . . .

Having taken steps to obtain the control of the gas supply, the Corporation next sought to purchase the rights of the Waterworks Company, and on the 4th of December, 1874, Mr. Chamberlain, who had been elected Mayor for the second time, brought forward a resolution instructing the General Purposes Committee to prepare a bill for transfer by agreement, or for the compulsory purchase of the Waterworks undertaking, for the benefit of the town. This was not the first time this important subject had been brought forward in the Council. It had been proposed by the General Purposes Committee to draw up such a bill as early as 1854, but the Council of that day was not sufficiently alive to the importance of obtaining control of this necessary of life; and it was left for Mr. Chamberlain to carry this undertaking to a successful issue. The proposition to apply to Parliament for this purpose was approved by the inhabitants at a town’s meeting, and the bill was considered by a Select Committee of the House of Commons, which held its first sitting on the 26th of April, 1875. Mr. Chamberlain, who was the principal witness in this enquiry, as he had been in the parliamentary proceedings for the acquisition of the gas supply, thus succinctly set forth the case middle of the town and the neighbourhood of Costa Green. Lichfield Street, the chief approach to the central streets was a narrow, filthy, and evil-smelling street, consisting chiefly of common lodging-houses; and its off shoots were still worse, the abode of thieves and other ill-doers. The bold Hausseman-like scheme of clearing away this plague spot, and of driving through it a boulevard worthy of the greatest city in the empire, was calculated to alarm the timid ratepayer, who had vague dreams of an incubus of debt involving the town in ultimate ruin; but heavy as has been the cost of this great scheme one cannot imagine any ratepayer willing to see the improvements which have been effected by it blotted out (if such were possible) and the congeries of filth and crime reinstated, even at the gain of double the amount spent on it.

From Eighteenth-Century Slums to a Victorian Metropolis: Birmingham’s New Streets and New Buildings

Hitherto, most of the public improvements undertaken by the Corporation had been of a piecemeal and patchwork character, yet, in proportion, they had been more costly than the new improvement scheme. “Compared with previous bit-by-bit improvements,” said Mr. Chamberlain, speaking of the portion of the ratepayer willing to see the improvements which have been effected by it blotted out (if such were possible) and the congeries of filth and crime reinstated, even at the gain of double the amount spent on it. and it would get, also, the ultimate reversal of the freehold of a large an valuable property in the very centre of Birmingham.”

Corporation Street. (From a photography by T. Lewis.)

The scheme was approved by the Council on the 16th of October, 1875. Mr. J. Thornhill Harrison was appointed by the Local Government Board to hold a public enquiry in Birmingham early in 1876 as to the propriety of granting an order for carrying out the proposals of the Improvement Committee under the Artisans’ Dwellings Act. This enquiry was opened on the 15th of March, and was carried over six sittings, the scheme being subjected to considerable opposition, chiefly from interested property-owners in the insanitary area. This, however, happily proved futile, and a provisional order was made on the report of Mr. Harrison, and a bill to confirm it brought into the House of Lords, June 19th, 1876. Here again, and in the Commons, it met with further opposition from interested parties, but was passed by both Houses and received the royal assent on the 15th of August. In the meantime, although the committee had as yet no power to purchase, it was deemed advisable to secure as many of the properties affected by the scheme as early as possible; and a number of public-spirited citizens, chiefly meml>ers of the Council, formed a trust to purchase such properties, intending to offer them to the Council at cost price, in the event of the scheme receiving the approval of Parliament. . . . The properties purchased by the trust for this purpose amounted in value to £56,810, and they were duly transferred to the Corporation on the completion of the preliminary negociations.

The scheme as at first projected involved the construction of a thoroughfare, sixty-six feet in width from New Street to Bull Street, sixty-feet in width from Bull Street to Aston Street, and a somewhat narrower thoroughfare in continuation, from Aston Street to the corner of Bagot Street in Aston Road. It was subsequently resolved, however, to make it of a uniform width of sixty-six feet throughout. A street was proposed to be cut from the new thoroughfare to Colmore Row, forming a continuation of Livery Street, but this was ultimately abandoned owing to the refusal of the Charity Commissioners to confirm the terms agreed to by the Trustees of the Blue Coat School and the Eye Hospital, both of which were on the proposed line of street.

Two other streets were to be constructed from the new street, the one into High Street and the other into Dale End. The first buildings removed for the carrying out of the scheme were those fronting to New Street, nearly opposite Stephenson Place, which were pulled down in August, 1878, and cul-de-sac formed —the germ of the new thoroughfare which it was proposed to call Corporation Street - as far as the end of Little Cannon Street. The first lease of land in the new street was granted to Mr. J. W. Daniell in the same year, and the street was carried through to Cherry Street by April, 1879. From this date lettings began to be more numerous, as the street, short as it was, was available for traffic, to the great relief of the many who had formerly been compelled to use Cannon Street as the only communication between New Street and Cherry Street and Union Street for vehicles. In August, 1881, it was continued to Bull Street, and much was being done towards clearing the insanitary more numerous, as the street, short as it was, was available for traffic, to the great relief of the many who had formerly been compelled to use Cannon Street as the only communication between New Street and Cherry Street and Union Street for vehicles. In August, The ancient quietude of the Old Square was broken by the continuation of Corporation Street to the Priory at the beginning of 1882, and a few months later the whole line of the new street as it at present exists was continued as far as Aston Street, the further portion of the street remaining yet to be constructed.

Left: Part of the Old Square and Corporation Street, as Rebuilt Showing the site of Edward Hector’s House. (From a photograph by T. Lewis) Right: The Old Coach Yard, Bull Street. (Froma drawing by A. Freeman Smith)

In the construction of the new thoroughfare not a few old landmarks were destroyed. The first meetinghouse of the Wesleyan Methodists in Cherry Street, and the old Baptist meeting-house in Cannon Street, were removed to make way for new properties on the line of the new street, which passed over quiet, old-fashioned gardens, with retired nooks and corners, the existence of which was unknown to the majority of the inhabitants. It also led, as we have said, to the breaking up of the quiet Old Square, with its rows of formal houses of the time of George the First, and the destruction of one of the most interesting houses in Birmingham, in which “Edmund Hector was the host, and Samuel Johnson was the guest,” during the later visits of the great lexicographer to Birmingham. As a result of the scheme, the names of Lichfield Street, Thomas Street, John Street, Little Cannon later visits of the great lexicographer to Birmingham. As a result of the scheme, the names of Lichfield Street, Thomas Street, John Street, Little Cannon Street, Little Cherry Street, and the Gullet passed into oblivion, and by the formation of the parallel throughfare of Dalton Street, the Coach Yard and London ‘Prentice Street also passed out of existence.

Gradually the line of Corporation Street began to be built upon, fine buildings of real architectural merit taking the place of the mean and dingy houses of the eighteenth century, and as a result of the formation of the new street the standard of shop architecture in Birmingham has been infinitely raised. One of the distinctive features of the new thoroughfare is that the buildings in it exhibit a pleasing variety of angle, height, and architectural style, in marked contrast to the dull uniformity which prevails in some of the great thoroughfares in other cities.

Nearly the whole of these properties are erected on leases of seventy-five years duration, at the end of which period they will become the property of the Corporation. “This,” said Mr. Chamberlain, “will make Birmingham the richest borough in the kingdom sixty or seventy years hence. It is the only occasion for which I wish to live beyond the ordinary term of human life, in order to see the result of this improvement, and hear the blessings which will then be showered upon the Council of 1875, which had the courage to inaugurate this scheme.”

The clearance of the area under the Improvement Scheme necessarily drove out many of the artisan class to find homes further from the centre of the town, and in order to make provision for the erection of suitable dwellings for the housing of this class the Corporation secured a large piece of ground lying between Summer Lane and Newtown Row, which had been the site of the old Infant Asylum which had been erected by the Guardians of the Poor, to which reference has been made in a recent chapter. Part of this land was let on lease, the lessee covenanting to erect a number of suitable dwellings for artisans, but a large portion of the land was required by the School Board as the site for a block of schools. A street was cut through the land from Summer Lane to Newtown Row, and called Cowper Street. Being unable to utilize the whole of this land for the purpose for which it was acquired, the Corporation set aside certain land which had been scheduled under the Improvement Act, in Lawrence Street, for the erection of artisans’ dwellings, and they subsequently erected a number of such dwellings thereon, of a character suited to the requirements of the better class of artisans. The erection of a second block of eighty-two houses in the same neighbourhood was approved by the Council on the 24th of February, 1891, and these have since been built. An interesting feature of these dwellings erected by the Council is that they are each supplied with gas on the penny-in-the-slot system, whereby the tenant is enabled to obtain the benefit of gas-light on the same terms as if he used any other inferior form of illumination, paying in advance instead of running up a quarterly account which he might find a difficulty in meeting.

Related material


Dent, Robert K. The Making of Birmingham: Being a History of the Rise & Growth of the Midland Metropolis. Birmingham: J. L. Allday, 1894. Birmingham: Hall and English, 1886. 398-403. HathiTrust online version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 4 October 2022.

Last modified 14 October 2022