In Birmingham, Britain’s second city, the Art Gallery celebrates the civic heritage of a place which became rich in the nineteenth century.footnote1 The gallery itself is a beautiful Victorian building. It was a part of the new town centre designed by Joseph Chamberlain, at that time the Liberal mayor of Birmingham, before his later metamorphosis into Tory imperialist. It was designed to stand as witness to the ways in which Birmingham had been transformed from a commercial and industrial mecca to a place of culture. In what is now called Chamberlain Square stood the Town Hall, the Free Library and the Art Gallery. The Town Hall, constructed in the 1830s, is a splendid classical building and was designed to house the town’s Music Festival. It was the site of all major public debates throughout the nineteenth century. Next to the Town Hall was the Free Library, the first free municipal library to be built in the country, following a campaign which focused on the importance of reading and knowledge to any true civic culture. Completing the triangle was the Art Gallery which held Birmingham artefacts—the elaborate brass, iron and silverwork for example—together with paintings which had been mainly collected by well-to-do Birmingham families and given to the Gallery to demonstrate how pride in their city was as important to them as their attachment to private domestic spaces.

The Art Gallery now has a local history section. This is devoted to telling the story of Birmingham’s rise from its relative obscurity as a small centre of metal production in the early modern period, famous, for example, for the swords it provided to both sides in the Civil War, to its status as major industrial city by the end of the nineteenth century. The city’s wealth was rooted in all branches of the metal trades. Birmingham’s pots and pans, kettles and candlesticks, needles and screws were sold across the United Kingdom and the Empire, providing both everyday and more elegant ware for working and middle-class families in the United Kingdom, freed slaves in the Caribbean, farmers and overlanders in Australia.

But Birmingham’s claim to fame does not rest only with its manufactured goods, for it also became a place of political power. In 1830–31 the radical demand for the extension of the suffrage led to huge demonstrations in the town in favour of reform: demonstrations which were said to have focused the fear of revolution in their opponents to the point where it was necessary to make substantial concessions to popular opinion. In the minds of Birmingham patriots, Thomas Attwood, who led those demonstrations, and the Birmingham Reformers were responsible for the Reform Act of 1832 which gave middle-class men the vote. Furthermore, the first major act of the new reformed Parliament, the emancipation of slaves in British territories, had significant Birmingham support. And the successful campaign of 1838 to end apprenticeship, the iniquitous system of forced labour introduced by the British government to appease the planters in the Caribbean for the loss of their slaves, was spearheaded from Birmingham and led by Joseph Sturge, a wealthy corn merchant who devoted his time to anti-slavery and other radical causes.

Birmingham’s pride in its reputation as a forward-looking, liberal and tolerant industrial town (for there were numerous dissenting churches and a powerful nonconformist presence) was reaffirmed in the 1850s when John Bright, a staunch liberal Quaker and pacifist, architect with Richard Cobden of the Anti-Corn Law League which had successfully defeated the landowning interest in 1846, was invited to represent the town in Parliament. As the leader of the campaign to extend the franchise in the 1860s Bright’s speeches in Birmingham, which regularly attracted audiences of up to seven thousand in the Town Hall, were crucial to the articulation of the successful demand for the vote for ‘registered and respectable’ working men. Meanwhile the town became the site for the development of the notion of the ‘civic gospel’—a discourse of pride in the town as the basis for true patriotism. The ‘civic gospel’ mobilized a new town council and delivered not only a free library but Joseph Chamberlain’s ambitious plan to revitalize and regenerate the town socially and culturally. This was achieved through extensive rebuilding combined with the purchase and subsequent running of previously privatized services in gas and electricity by the municipality. Chamberlain’s successful transformation of Birmingham provided the power base for his development of a Liberal caucus which launched him into a glittering Parliamentary career. This was only to be interrupted by his own transformation from Liberal to Unionist on the issue of the Empire, a shift which was critical to the expansion of popular imperialism in the late nineteenth century.

To this time Birmingham remained pre-eminent within the metal industries. Its industrial base was substantially reorganized in the early twentieth century with the era of the new electrical industries, and more significantly and a little later, the car industry. By the 1950s the West Midlands was the heartland of that industry and the old Birmingham metal workshops had largely turned over to the production of parts while Longbridge, on the south-western edge of the city, became the site for the largest assembly line in the uk. The city grew and prospered until the recession of the 1970s decimated British car production and made unemployment a serious issue.

Prior to this industrial demise, however, the growth of the city meant increased demands for labour both in manufacturing and services and Birmingham provided one of the first places of settlement for Caribbean and South Asian migrants from the 1950s onwards. Unlike the great ports of the nineteenth century such as London, Glasgow, Bristol and Liverpool, the centres of the slave trade and of colonial and imperial trade, Birmingham had had no significant black population. Indeed the area to the north-west of the town known as the ‘Black Country’ was so called because of the ways in which metal production blackened land and people. It was the demand for labour in postwar Britain which brought significant numbers of colonized—and then decolonized—peoples into the area for the first time. Jamaican, Barbadian, Trinidadian, Indian and Pakistani men began to drive the buses, work in the factories, open restaurants, while the women serviced the hospitals, cleaned factories and public buildings and worked in food production. Together they began to transform the face of the West Midlands, a difficult transformation which has been characterized by periodic eruptions of racial tension.

In the late 1960s Enoch Powell in nearby Wolverhampton was the first senior Conservative politician to articulate publicly the fears generated by this change within sections of the English population. In April 1968, at the Midland Hotel, just down the road from Chamberlain Square, he called for migrants to ‘go home’.footnote2 They had no place in England since they could not culturally belong to ‘a white nation’. A period of acute hostilities followed and subsequently major efforts were made by the growing ‘race relations industry’ to intervene, particularly in housing and education. In 1981, with an established second-generation black population and overwhelming evidence of systematic forms of racism in employment, policing, education, social services and housing, tensions erupted in Handsworth, a long established Afro-Caribbean area, and the riots there which coincided with a wave of similar events in other English cities, brought much attention to black/white relations.footnote3 Now Birmingham, which has for some time had a Labour administration, prides itself on its reputation as a multiracial city and inner-city areas such as Balsall Heath, with its predominantly South Asian population, have had some money and effort put into them by the state, the city and voluntary organizations, in an effort to alleviate the cycle of connections between ‘race’, unemployment and poverty. The city’s black population now constitutes 21.5 per cent of the total population (across Britain as a whole the figure is 6.3 per cent), heavily concentrated in particular areas and composed largely of Afro-Caribbean and South Asian men and women who came from Britain’s erstwhile Empire.footnote4 But structural inequalities continue to increase and while Birmingham is a visibly multiracial and multi-ethnic city new racisms flourish.