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The Age of George III

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Birmingham in the late eighteenth century

taken from A History of Birmingham (William Hutton 1783)

Trade

I had been before acquainted with two or three principal towns. The environs of all I had seen were composed of wretched dwellings, replete with dirt and poverty; but the buildings in the exterior of Birmingham rose in a style of elegance. Thatch, so plentiful in other towns, was not to be met with in this. I was surprised at the place, but more so at the people: They were a species I have never seen:

They possessed a vivacity I had never beheld: I had been among dreamers, but now I saw men awake: Their very step along the street shewed alacrity: Every man seemed to know and prosecute his own affairs: The town was large, and full of inhabitants, and those inhabitants full of industry. I had seen faces elsewhere tinctured with an idle gloom void of meaning, but here, with a pleasing alertness: Their appearance was strongly marked with the modes of civil life: I mixed with a variety of company, chiefly of the lower ranks, and rather as a silent spectator: I was treated with an easy freedom by all, and with marks of favour by some: Hospitality seemed to claim this happy people for her own, though I knew not at that time from what cause....

Some of the first words after the creation, increase and multiply, are applicable to Birmingham; but as her own people are insufficient for the manufactures, she demands assistance for two or three miles round her. In our early morning walks, on every road proceeding from the town, we meet the Sons of diligence returning to business, and bringing in the same dusky smuts, which the evening before they took out. And though they appear of a darkish complexion, we may consider it is the property of every metal to sully the user; money itself has the same effect, and yet he deems it no disgrace who is daubed by fingering it; the disgrace lies with him who has none to finger.

The profits arising from labour, to the lower orders of men, seem to surpass those of other mercantile places. This is not only visible in the manufactures peculiar to Birmingham, but in the more common occupations of the barber, taylor, shoemaker, &c. who bask in the rays of plenty....

By the poor's books it appears, there are not three thousand houses in Birmingham, that pay the parochial rates whilst there are more than five thousand that do not, chiefly through inability. Hence we see what an amazing number of the laborious class of mankind is among us. This valuable part of the creation, is the prop of the remainder. They are the rise and support of our commerce. From this fountain we draw our luxuries and our pleasures. They spread our tables, and oil the wheels of our carriages. They are also the riches and the defence of the country.

How necessary then, is it to direct with prudence, the rough passions of this important race, and make them subservient to the great end of civil society. The deficiency of conduct in this useful part of our species ought to be supplied by the superior....

It would be difficult to enumerate the great variety of trades practised in Birmingham, neither would it give pleasure to the reader. Some of them, spring up with the expedition of a blade of grass, and, like that, wither in a summer. If some are lasting, like the sun, others seem to change with the moon. Invention is ever at work. Idleness; the manufactory of scandal, with the numerous occupations connected with the cotton; the linen, the silk, and the woollen trades, are little known among us.

Birmingham began with the productions of the anvil, and probably will end with them. The sons of the hammer, were once her chief inhabitants; but that great crowd of artists is now lost in a greater:

Genius seems to increase with multitude.

Part of the riches, extension, and improvement of Birmingham, are owing to the late John Taylor, Esq.. . .To this uncommon genius we owe the gilt-button, the japanned and gilt snuff-boxes, with the numerous race of enamels. From the same fountain also issued the paper snuff box, at which one servant earned three pounds ten shillings per week, by painting them at a farthing each. In his shop were weekly manufactured buttons, to the amount of 8001. exclusive of other valuable productions.

Steel

This art appeared among us in the seventeenth century; was introduced by the family of Kettle. The name of Steelhouse-lane will convey to posterity the situation