The Age of George III

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Birmingham in the late eighteenth century

taken from A History of Birmingham (William Hutton 1783)


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.


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 of the works, the commercial spirit of Birmingham, will convey the produce to the Antipodes.

From this warm, but dismal climate, issues the button, which shines on the breast, and the bayonet, intended to pierce it; the lancet, which bleeds the man, and the rowel [spur], the horse; the lock which preserves the beloved bottle, and the screw, to uncork it; the needle, equally obedient to the thimble and the pole.


We cannot consider it a trade in, so much as of Birmingham; for we have but few nail -makers left in the town: our nailers are chiefly masters, and rather opulent. The manufacturers are so scattered round the country, that we cannot travel far, in any direction, out of the sound of the nail-hammer. But Birmingham, like a powerful magnet, draws the produce of the anvil to herself.

When I first approached her, from Walsall, in 1741, I was surprized at the prodigious number of blacksmiths shops upon the road; and could not conceive how a country, though populous, could support so many people of the same occupation. In some of these shops I observed one, or more females, stript of their upper garment, and not overcharged with their lower, wielding the hammer with all the grace of the sex. The beauties of their face were rather eclipsed by the smut of the anvil; or, in poetical phrase, the tincture of the forge had taken possession of those lips, which might have been taken by the kiss.

Struck with the novelty, I enquired, "Whether the ladies in this country shod horses?" but was answered, with a smile, "They are nailers."

A fire without heat, a nailer of a fair complexion, or one who despises the tankard, are equally rare among them. His whole system of faith may be comprised in one article - That the slender twopenny mug, used in a public house, is dece4ful above all things, and desperately wicked.

While the master reaps the harvest of plenty, the workman submits to the scanty gleanings of penury, a thin habit, an early old age, and a figure bending towards the earth. Plenty comes not near his dwelling, except of rags, and of children. But few recruits arise from his nail -shop, except for the army. His hammer is worn into deep hollows, fitting the fingers of a dark and plump hand, hard as the timber it wears. His face, like the moon, is often seen through a cloud.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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