At the Midland Metro Alliance, we’re dedicated to building the best integrated transport system for the future which helps to aid social and economic regeneration across the region. Whilst we are working towards delivering the five Metro extensions that make up our works, we’re also delving into the past in the areas where we are working. This helps us be aware of items that we might discover during the tramway construction, but equally it is important to ensure that the past of the diverse region that we live and work in is documented and shared.
With this in mind, our historian in residence, Jamie Harris, has compiled a fascinating lookback on the history of Digbeth as we prepare to bring trams back to its streets in the area with the Birmingham Eastside extension.
In his 1902 ‘History of the Corporation of Birmingham’, the historian Charles Anthony Vince wrote how Digbeth High Street was the ‘most ancient street in the City’. He was right and as the Midland Metro Alliance is building a tramway through the area we are learning and uncovering much about its hidden history. Digbeth has changed a lot over the years going from being the most prosperous area of Birmingham to today’s prominence as the Creative Quarter of the city. There is a fascinating history to uncover before, during and after these milestones.
With the Birmingham Eastside extension of Midland Metro we will be building 1.7km of tram track through Digbeth connecting the area to the rest of the city and beyond. Our values of sustainability, safety, being respectful, to name but a few will be reflected in our work as we build this convenient and sustainable mode of public transport.
Where is Digbeth and where will our tram go?
Digbeth was the first area of Birmingham to be settled in the 7th century. It was a prime location because of the fertility of the land and its proximity to the River Rea ensured a source for drinking water, watering crops and developing industry. This proximity to a water source meant that the settlement was called ‘Dyke Path’ and even ‘Ducks Bath’ before eventually becoming what we now call Digbeth.
In 1156, Birmingham, which, at this time was largely made up of Digbeth, was awarded a market charter by King Henry II (1133-1189). This enabled it to become an important trading hub for the country. However, this status had not always been the case. After England was invaded by the Normans in 1066, King William I (1027/8-1087) wished to know the wealth of all the lands in the country. So, in 1085, he commissioned the Domesday Book which reported that Birmingham ‘was and is worth only twenty shillings’.
During this time, a moated manor house stood to the immediate southeast of St Martin’s Church. For centuries the house was held by the appropriately named Birmingham family.
Regretfully, John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (1504-1553) acquired it ‘dishonestly’ in 1537. Knowing that head of the manor Edward Birmingham had no wish to sell the property, the Duke hatched a scheme to ensure its acquisition.
He hired three criminals to follow Edward to learn his usual routine. The criminals, after discovering Edward’s route one day set out in two groups, both ahead of Edward’s path. When Edward caught up to the first group of two men, they engaged him in conversation. Together, they reached the third man whereupon the two men with Edward drew their pistols on this third man and assaulted him.
In the confusing aftermath, Edward, who had been an innocent bystander was wrongly accused of the assault. Privately, he was told that the criminal allegations against him would be dropped if he sold the manor to the Duke. Sadly, he relented and sold the property, yet despite this action, he was still wrongly convicted for the crime. Years later, the Duke’s deeds caught up with him when he was executed for treason in 1553.
Civil War and Georgian Digbeth
Digbeth continued to grow over time into an increasingly important industrial area which led to it playing a significant role in the English Civil War (1642-1651).
Birmingham had sided with Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) on Parliament’s side against the Royalists under King Charles I (1600-1649). By 1643, local manufacturers had produced thousands of swords for Parliament’s armies. In response to this, on Easter Monday (3 April 1643), Royal Forces under Prince Rupert (1619-1682), nephew to the King marched onto Digbeth. With 2,000 men on his side, he killed 17 townspeople and set fire to 80 properties. After this event, the Prince was known ironically for his ‘Burning Love of Birmingham’.
As the decades passed, Digbeth entered into the Georgian era with lush gardens, beautiful architecture and some interesting characters.
John Roberts (1689-1792) is interesting, not because he lived for over a hundred years at a time when dying at 30 would have been considered normal, but for having 28 children from three wives (with six of these children being born after he was 79 years old!)
Philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) in 1835, wrote that the people of Birmingham ‘work as if they must get rich by the evening and die the next day’. He was not wrong as Digbeth fulfilled a key part in the industrial centre that Birmingham had become, producing everything from buttons to cogs.
The Industrial Revolution had a notable and visible impact on Digbeth. In 1817, the aforementioned Medieval moated manor house was demolished and replaced with Smithfield Market. This helped to maintain Digbeth’s growing economy.
In truth, by 1889, you would have had difficulty finding a street in Digbeth that did not house an industrial warehouse or factory of some sort. For example, the land surrounding the northern part of Digbeth High Street included large industrial premises such as Phoenix Works, Birmingham Battery and Metal Works along with Devonshire Works (now known as the Custard Factory).
The land around the southern section included a weighing apparatus manufactory, a brass foundry and a patent enamel works. Industries like these provided thousands of jobs for the residents of Digbeth for decades (and meant that those from further afield came to Digbeth for their employment).
As urbanisation increased, floods became more prominent to such an extent that the city set about culverting the River Rea. In the Digbeth/Deritend area, this occurred in the 1890s. Today, you would be forgiven for not realising that the river, once known as the ‘Mother of Birmingham’, still flows beneath Digbeth.
It is perhaps strange to think that Digbeth was once famous for its pure water hidden beneath the ground. Some of this water, until 1873, was accessed from the ‘Old Cock Pump’ located under St. Martin’s churchyard wall. In one instance, Digbeth residents came to the pump only to find the metal handle missing. Later, it was revealed that a local blacksmith had stolen the handle to make some horse shoes though thankfully, the handle was eventually replaced.
Industrial Birmingham needed an efficient transport system so the Victorians introduced trams to the city in 1872. By 1889, Digbeth was connected to vast areas of the city as the map below demonstrates.
20th Century Digbeth
Like in the rest of the city, after years of continued growth, Digbeth’s tram network was at its greatest extent during the 1920’s ‘Golden Age of Trams’.
Sadly, this network, which connected Digbeth to the rest of the city and beyond, began to decline in the 1930s. This network was most notably reduced with the closure of the Stechford tramline (via Albert Street and Fazeley Street) on 2 October 1948. The OS map for 1952 helps to show the extent of this decline. Indeed, just one year later, Birmingham would be rid of the entire tram network.
Historian Chris Upton wrote that ‘at some point in the early 20th century, Birmingham decided to abolish the past’.
In addition to the abolition of the tram network, by 1955, the south side of Digbeth High Street had also been demolished. This saw the loss of unique buildings such as the ‘Digbeth Tripe House’ and the ‘Golden Lion’ pub.
During these years, as part of deindustrialisation, much of Digbeth’s former industrial centres were lost too.
Taking Digbeth into the 21st Century
The team at the Midland Metro Alliance who are working to design and deliver the five tram extensions are as diverse as the area of Digbeth itself. The team is made up of people from more than 17 different nations.
Today, as well as being the Creative Quarter, Digbeth is also known as the Irish Quarter of the city but in the past it had a notable Italian and Chinese populations too. Our trams will help to connect today’s thriving Digbeth community to the rest of Birmingham, Solihull and the Black Country.
With the return of the trams with the Birmingham Eastside Extension, Digbeth will become much more accessible allowing more people to come to this unique area of the city.
As our development of this tram route continues, who knows what else we’ll discover about this historic part of the city?
We are thankful to Eric Armstrong author of Seeing Birmingham by Tram: Volume One (Gloucester, 2003) and Seeing Birmingham by Tram: Volume Two (Gloucester, 2010) for permission to use his historical tram images.
‘Old Maps’, https://www.old-maps.co.uk
‘Oxford Dictionary of National Biography’, http://oxforddnb.com
Armstrong. E, Seeing Birmingham By Tram: Volume One (Gloucester, 2003)
Armstrong. E, Seeing Birmingham By Tram: Volume Two (Gloucester, 2010)
Bunce. J.T, Vince. C.A, History of the Corporation of Birmingham: Volume 3 (Birmingham, 1902)
Chin. C, Dick. M (ed.), Birmingham: The Workshop of the World (Liverpool, 2016)
Hardy. P.L, Jacques. P, A Short Review of Birmingham Corporation Tramways (Walsall, 3rd. ed., 1974)
Harman. T.T, Showell’s Dictionary of Birmingham: A History and Guide (Birmingham, 1885)
Harvey. D, A Nostalgic Look at Birmingham Tramways 1933-53: Volume Two (Peterborough, 1994)
Hutton. W, The History of Birmingham (London, 6th ed., 1835)
Jones. J.M, Bordesley and Deritend (Birmingham, 1968)
Langford. J.A, A Century of Birmingham Life: or, a Chronicle of Local Events from 1741-1841, Volume 1 (Birmingham, 2nd ed., 1870)
Morfitt. J, A Concise History of Birmingham (Birmingham, 4th ed., 1808)
Rudge. T, Clenton. K, Digbeth, Deritend and Highgate Through Time (Gloucestershire, 2011)
Upton. C, A History of Birmingham (Chichester, 1993)