The Little Book of Birmingham

The Little Book of Birmingham

by Norman Bartlam


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The Little Book of Birmingham is a funny, fast-paced, fact-packed compendium of the sort of frivolous, fantastic, or simply strange information which no-one will want to be without. Here we find out about the city's most unusual crimes and punishments, eccentric inhabitants, famous sons and daughters, and literally hundreds of wacky facts. Norman Bartlam's new book gathers together a myriad of data on Brum. There are lots of factual chapters but also plenty of frivolous details which will amuse and surprise. A reference book and a quirky guide, this can be dipped in to time and time again to reveal something you never knew. This is a remarkably engaging little book, and is essential reading for visitors and locals alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752463490
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 01/01/2012
Series: Little Book Of
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Norman Bartlam works as a teacher in the Ladywood area on local history, geography, and citizenship projects. He is heavily involved with local history (he runs the Ladywood Local History Group) and is the author of several titles in the Britain in Old Photographs series.

Read an Excerpt

The Little Book of Birmingham

By Norman Bartlam

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Norman Bartlam
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7509-5390-0




The name Birmingham came from the Anglo-Saxon words 'ham', or homestead, of the family, 'ing', of 'Beorma', or Birm.

Birmingham consisted of just nine families and the household of the Lord of the Manor when the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086.


Sutone: Sutton Coldfield

Celboldstone: Edgbaston
Selly Oak
Kings Norton
Perry Barr
Marston Green

The Bullring is often a disappointment for our Spanish visitors as it is not the place to see bulls being attacked with swords, and never has been. Neither is it a place for particularly good tapas, but that's beside the point. The Bullring was a metal ring in the ground where farmers tethered their bulls at the market.

Peter de Birmingham gained a charter to have a market in Birmingham in 1166. At that time the small settlement was clustered around his moated manor house at the present-day Bullring.

In 1250 William de Birmingham was granted 'de right' to have a four-day fair at 'Ascension tide'.

The 'oldest piece of work done by men's hands in the town' is thought to be the tomb of one of the de Birmingham family members who died in 1306.

The last of the de Birmingham family, Edward, was born in 1497 and was only three when he succeeded his grandfather to the manor of Birmingham.

Edward de Bimingham was arrested over an incident with John Dudley, 1st Duke of Northumberland, and imprisoned in the Tower of London for four years until being pardoned in 1536.

The name Bullring appears as 'LeBulrynge' in a document related to land owned by the King Edward Schools in 1552.

When new building plots were put up for sale on Temple Street in 1743 the accompanying blurb noted they had, 'adjoining fields with a prospect of four miles distant.'

Birmingham-born John Rogers was burned at the stake in London in 1555 after condemning the religious views of the new Queen Mary. A plaque in his honour can be seen in Digbeth.

Northfield still keeps the pound, but it can't be spent in the nearby pub, although it is attached to it. This pound is the one where stray animals were locked up and released when the owner paid a suitable fine and it has been there for over 500 years.

Anne Boleyn, the queen who lost her head over Henry VIII, was a notable parishioner of St Leonard's Church at Frankley.

The stump of the Selly Oak tree was placed in the nearby park after being felled by a fella, or maybe tree fellas, in 1909 at the junction where the main roads met in Selly Oak. This is the tree from which the name of the suburb derives.

Bartley Green is also linked to the local flora and fauna. It was known as Berchelai Whein, which means a clearing of birch trees.

In the autumn of 1642, with the outbreak of Civil War between Parliament and King Charles I, the first great clash took place at Edgehill, around 30 miles from Brum. The king passed through Birmingham and addressed his troops. The place where he stopped off became known as Kingstanding, which somehow sounds better than Kingsittingdown. It has, however, been suggested that a 'Standing' was another name for a hunting lodge but that doesn't make such a good story!

Many people assume that Alum Rock is so called because a local company, Southall's, dug artesian wells beneath their premises and came across a layer of rock, a whitish mineral salt which was known as Alum Rock. Historian Carl Chinn points out that the name of the area actually dates back to at least 1760, many years before Southall's were established. So who knows?

Bishop Vesey, even though he's been dead since the sixteenth century, has the honour of having a council ward (Sutton Vesey) named after him – probably the only ward ever to be named after a person. He'd obviously made an impact on the area; he was after all responsible for the town of Sutton becoming a royal town and for one of the largest parks in Europe.

Kitwell near Bartley Green is named after a small well. The waters contained iron which was supposed to have health-giving properties, although it wasn't too healthy for a lad called Christopher, or Kit for short, for he fell in and drowned – but at least he had the place of his death named after him!

Nearby is the area of California named by Issac Flavel when he returned from the California gold rush in the 1840s. The stones he found here were not gold but were used to manufacture bricks. An earlier brickworks in the locality was set up by John Barnes, hence Barnes Hill, and the famous local youth club is called the Stonehouse Gang.

Sarehole Mill, a restored eighteenth-century water-powered cornmill at Hall Green is a direct link with Birmingham's past. The current building was rebuilt in the 1760s and was in use commercially until 1919.

Birmingham does have its own castle, Weoley Castle, built in the twelfth or thirteenth century. It was officially a fortified moated manor house that dates back to 1264. It was in the hands of the de Somery family and later the Jervoises. Daniel Ledsam bought it in 1809 and Birmingham City Council purchased it in 1930. However, it deteriorated to such an extent that it was closed to the public in 1996. Well done Birmingham City Council!

Birmingham does have another castle; it's the Clun Castle, a steam locomotive named after the Shropshire town.

The Artisans Dwellings Act of 1875 gave local authorities the power to buy and redevelop areas of land. A new street was subsequently cut through a slum area in the town centre and 16,000 people were displaced. Roads such as The Gullet were demolished. The new road was 22 yards wide and resembled, at that time at least, a Parisian boulevard. As this road was a magnificent thoroughfare designed by the Corporation, it became known as Corporation Street.

In July 1938 two dinosaurs were spotted roaming around Aston Park; they were part of the historical recreation of the centenary of Birmingham being granted a charter of incorporation in 1838. The pageant in the park included numerous floats and exhibitions.


Thimble Mill on Aston Brook, Nechells.
Sarehole Mill near the River Cole.
Heath Mill on the River Rea.
Duddeston Mill on the River Rea.
Pebble Mill was on the Bournbrook.
Titterford Mill on the River Cole.


The Court Leet was a council of the free men of the Manor.

The High Bailiff. He saw order was kept at markets and fairs and that weights and measures were true.

The Low Bailiff. He had to summon the jury.

The Constable or Headborough. He had similar duties to the constables of today.

The Ale Connors or High Tasters. They had to check beer tasted good – a nasty job, but someone had to do it.

The Fish Connors or Low Tasters. They checked to see if food offered for sale was good.

Searchers and sealers of leather. They examined leather to check it was tanned.


Sutton Park

Woodlands Park Prehistoric Burnt Mounds

Fox Hollies Prehistoric Burnt Mounds

Moseley Bog Prehistoric Burnt Mounds

Peddimore Hall

Kent's Moat

Gannow Green Moat

Birmingham's Roman Fort, Metchley

Hawkesley Farm Moat

Kingstanding Mound

Weoley Castle

Perry Bridge

Gullitone Lock



Sutton Coldfield TV transmitter, 1959, 245 metres, 804ft

BT Tower, 1966, 152 metres, 498ft high

Radisson Hotel, Holloway Circus, 2005, 130 metres, 427ft

Alpha Tower, 1973, 100 metres, 328ft, over 28 floors

Joseph Chamberlain Clock, Birmingham University, 1909, 100 metres, 328ft

Orion Office and residential block, 2007, 90 metres, 295ft

Clydesale Tower residential block, Holloway Head, 1972, 90 metres, 295ft

Cleveland Tower residential block, Holloway Head, 1972, 90 metres, 295ft

The Rotunda office block now residential, 1965, 81 metres, 266ft

103 Colmore Row former Nat West office block, 1976, 80 metres, 262ft


The highest point in the city is the roadway around Quinton High Street at 736ft above sea level. You can aspire to a higher view, but sitting on top of Quinton parish church spire would be a rather uncomfortable place to position yourself.

The Lickey Hills reach 956ft above sea level, and Barr Beacon is 744ft, but they are technically over the Brummie border.

The other high points are Frankley at 604ft, Kings Norton old golf course at 550ft, Great Barr at 500ft and Victoria Square in the city centre is 450ft above sea level.

It is said that the next highest point from Quinton High Street in an easterly direction is to be found overseas in the Ural Mountains, or as locals have been known to say, 'Next highest place from here is the urinals.'

As any discerning football fan will know, The Hawthorns, home to West Bromwich Albion, is the place where football is played at the highest level. At 550ft above sea level, the stadium is the highest professional football ground in the country.


Birmingham City Council is the largest local authority in the UK and the largest council in Europe with 120 councillors representing 40 wards.

The city's largest single-day event is its St Patrick's Day parade. Indeed, it is Europe's second largest, after the one in Dublin.

By 1889, the Birmingham Mint had become the largest private mint in the world, and was the oldest continuously operating mint.

Sutton Park is one of the largest urban parks in Europe, and is the largest outside a capital city, at 24,000 acres.

When it was built in 1916 the tyre store, which became known as Fort Dunlop, was the largest concrete and steel erection in Europe and at one time it was the world's largest factory, employing 3,200 workers.

The largest peace pagoda in Europe, the Dhamma Talaka Pagoda in Osler Street, opened in 1998. It was topped with a 60ft-high golden dome guarded by two lions, and it is modelled on the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) in Myanmar. The dome was described in the local press as looking like 'a caramel flavoured Angel Delight or a 99 ice cream without the chocolate flake'.

In 1930, Birmingham Corporation had a fleet of 843 trams, the largest of any city in the world.

The IMAX Cinema at Millennium Point has the largest screen in the Midlands. It is 22 metres wide and 16 metres high. IMAX says it is as tall as a five-storey building and as wide as four buses parked nose to tail.

The largest Sikh temple in Europe was built in 1991 on Soho Road, Handsworth. Its 100ft high dome certainly stands out.

When it was first mooted that it was about to be sold in 1997, the Royal Mail sorting office in central Birmingham was the largest of its type in Europe, with around 1,000 employees processing over three million items per day.

Daniel Lambert, 1770–1809, was the largest man in the country. For a while he worked as an apprentice at an engraving and die casting works in Birmingham. At the time of his death he weighed 52 stone 11lb, and his coffin required 112sq ft of wood.

St Philip's Cathedral in Colmore Row is the third smallest cathedral in the country, at 13,720sq ft with seating for around 1,000 people. It was built in 1715 as a parish church and did not become a cathedral until 1905. I bet like me you're keen to know the two cathedrals that are smaller than Brum's? Well, right on pew here's the answer. Derby and Chelmsford cathedrals are both smaller than St Philip's.

The Prince of Wales visited Birmingham in November 1926 and at the Livestock Show at Bingley Hall he saw a huge 68lb cabbage, which was probably a record size and never eaten or beaten again.

The Frankfurt Christmas Market, held annually since 2001 has become the UK's largest outdoor Christmas market, and the largest German market outside of Germany itself. Last year it attracted 3.1 million visitors.

Birmingham-born microsculptor Willard Wigan creates microscopic works of art, using some of the tiniest but strongest materials known to man, from nylon, gold, one grain of sand, human hair to the shortest eyelash. In recognition of his service to the arts, Wigan received an MBE in 2007. No doubt it was a full-sized one!

In 1875 a member of the Harborne Gooseberry Growers' Association made headline news when he grew the largest gooseberry in England. The gooseberry in question weighed in at 11/2 ounces and was apparently called Bobby. The gooseberry wasn't preserved but the scales were – they are said to be in the collection of Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.


The longest-serving driver with Birmingham Corporation Tramways Department, Frank Bissell, was in charge of the last tram in Birmingham on 4 July 1953. Tram no. 616 left the depot for the final time with the lord mayor among the passengers.

The Lapal canal tunnel was the fourth longest in the country but a roof fall 20 yards from the Halesowen end closed it in 1917.

This isn't a tall story, it's true: Birmingham's City's Serbian striker Nikola Zigic, 30, was the tallest player in the Premierhip until Brum's relegation in 2010/11, standing at 6ft 8in. Stoke City's Peter Crouch is only 6ft 7in tall.

The shortest street name in Birmingham is AB Row, so called because it was at the boundary of the parishes of Aston and Birmingham.

In early 2011 the city council built Birmingham's shortest bicycle lane on Watford Road, Cotteridge, it stops almost as soon as it has started because it is less than 15 metres long! A bicycle spokesman said it was 'pathetic'.


The oldest rocks found in Birmingham are located in the south-west near Rednal where there is what is officially described as 'unfossiliferous quartzites of Lower Cambrian age'.

The Electric Cinema, opened on 27 December 1909, is the UK's oldest working cinema. It was Birmingham's first cinema and predated the introduction of the 1909 Cinematograph Act that commenced in January 1910.

Birmingham's longest established business Firmin & Sons Ltd in New Town Row, which manufactures badges and buttons, was thought to have been established by 1677, but recent research has uncovered a document showing the firm was in business in 1655, so the oldest business is even older than we thought.

In 1997 Karren Brady, at Birmingham City FC, became the youngest managing director of a UK plc.

Curzon Street station, which closed to trains in 1966, is said to be the world's oldest surviving piece of railway architecture.

The Lad in the Lane pub has been recognised as Birmingham's oldest house, once known as the Old Green Man. The pub has a long history with some beams dating back to 1306. Dendrochronology has verified the age of the pub, thanks to local historian Peter Leather and his team. The Old Crown, dating back to 1386, was until recently said to be the oldest pub in Birmingham as well as the oldest example of a timber-framed house still standing in the city.

The world's oldest press club can be traced back to 1865 when a small group of journalists met at a hotel in the centre of Birmingham. The original minutes book records, 'meeting, held for the purpose of establishing a Club for promoting social enjoyment and literary recreation among Reporters and others connected with the Newspaper Press of Birmingham, held at Suffield's Hotel, Union Passage, on Saturday, the 16th of December, 1865.' Among its first rules was the edict that the reporters connected with the Daily Post, the Daily Gazette and the Midland Counties Herald should be its first members.

In October 2010 when Susannah Rudge became curate at St Francis', Bournville's parish church, she became the youngest person to enter the priesthood in the Church of England Diocese of Birmingham. She was twenty-six.

Birmingham is the youngest city in Europe with a higher proportion of people aged under fifteen than any other city in the European Union, with 37 per cent of the population aged under twenty-five.




On 7 July 1909 King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited the city to open Birmingham University. Shops and factories shut and thousands of people lined the streets. Industrial concerns showed off their wares in the form of triumphal arches. The arches were:

The School of Art's turreted gates decorated with the coat of arms

Water Department Arch on Broad Street outside the Water

Department offices, showing off the success of the Elan Valley

water supply system

Fireman's Arch

Gas Department's Arch

Cycle Manufacturers' Arch

Metallic Bedstead Makers' Arch

In March 1887 Queen Victoria visited Birmingham to lay the foundation stone for the Victoria Law Courts on Corporation Street. This was in fact the day before her birthday and was her golden jubilee year.

In July 1915 King George visited the city and toured factories involved in the war effort, including BSA, where he is said to have been interested in the firing of the Automatic Lewis guns.

The Duke of York, later to become King George VI, officially opened Aston Villa's magnificent red-brick main stand on Trinity Road in 1924. He said that he had no idea that a ground so finely equipped in every way and devoted to football existed. Shame they demolished it recent years!


Excerpted from The Little Book of Birmingham by Norman Bartlam. Copyright © 2013 Norman Bartlam. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Early Days,
2. Longest, Tallest & Oldest,
3. Events & Happenings,
4. Birmingham in Numbers,
5. Firsts & Lasts,
6. Leisure,
7. Streets & Roads,
8. Transport,
9. Education Matters,
10. The Industrial Scene,
11. Sport,
12. And Another Thing ...,

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