For several years I have been travelling to Europe and visiting interesting cities but whilst I have been happy to go to Seville and Venice, Prague and Warsaw, Riga and Moscow I have rather neglected to visit towns and cities in my own back yard. This year I have decided that I need to see more of the UK.
Recently whilst visiting friends I had the opportunity to visit England’s second city – Birmingham. Some people wonder why anyone would visit Birmingham, it has a reputation for being dull and grimy, when Queen Victoria was passing through the region by train, she allegedly asked for the blinds to be drawn. For many, the perception is that Brum is a place you either pass through as quickly as possible or escape from as soon as you can but I was keen to go and see.
To try and tempt people the official guidebooks are keen to remind visitors that it has more canals than Venice, more trees than the Bois de Boulogne, it has the Royal Ballet and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. There are also two famous football clubs, a world-famous cricket ground, a Capability Brown-designed golf course in the heart of Edgbaston, and, of course, the Balti belt. It also has towns and cities named after it all over the World including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Ireland and the United States where sixteen of the fifty states have a place called Birmingham with Alabama being perhaps the most well known.
What I wanted to see most was the civic centre and after arriving by train at New Street Station we made our way to Victoria Square where the Council House and the Town Hall dominate a nineteenth century memorial to the glories of industrial Birmingham, the basis of its wealth, power and influence.
This is a square with statues:
It was formerly known as Council House Square but was renamed on 10th January 1901, to honour Queen Victoria, and a statue of her was erected and unveiled. It must have been a shock. She died just twelve days later.
Another highlight is Antony Gormley’s sculpture, Iron Man, a six-ton, twenty foot high statue based on a pharaoh’s tomb. It seems to have dropped out of the sky and thudded into the pavement, lurching at a crazy angle, it is supposed to symbolise the golden age of industrial supremacy that is now rusting away. Not everyone likes it, not all local people appreciate it and, there were rumours that when Diana, Princess of Wales, came to officially reopen Victoria Square in 1994, the statue was covered up and hidden from her view so as not to offend her.
In front of the Council House are two curious statues that seem oddly out of place. A pair of enormous beasts, somewhat sphinxlike, but perhaps more akin to the Abyssinian figures in the British Museum. They are made of stone, and entitled The Guardians.
The statue of economist, reformer and Birmingham Member of Parliament, Thomas Attwood in Chamberlain Square is a brilliant work of art but he sits likes a beggar or a homeless person at the bottom of a set of steps. Nearby is the philosopher Joseph Priestly and a gilded bronze statue of the industrialists Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch.
I was looking for a statue of Joseph Chamberlain who is perhaps the greatest Brummie of all but surprisingly there isn’t one.
In November 1873, the Liberal Party swept the municipal elections and Chamberlain was elected mayor of Birmingham. As mayor, Chamberlain promoted many civic improvements, leaving the town ‘parked, paved, assized, marketed, gas & watered and improved’. Prior to his tenure in office, the city’s municipal administration was notably lax with regards to public works, and many urban dwellers lived in conditions of great poverty.
Chamberlain forcibly purchased two competing gas companies on behalf of the borough even offering to purchase the companies himself if the ratepayers refused. The city’s water supply was considered a danger to public health – approximately half of the city’s population was dependent on well water, much of which was polluted by sewage. Deploring the rising death rate from contagious diseases in the poorest parts of the city, in 1876, Chamberlain forcibly purchased Birmingham’s waterworks creating Birmingham Corporation Water Department.
In July 1875, Chamberlain tabled an improvement plan involving slum clearance in Birmingham’s city centre and purchased fifty acres of property to build a new road through Birmingham’s overcrowded slums. The area was redeveloped and slum dwellers were rehoused in the suburbs where health improved and the death-rate decreased dramatically.
During Chamberlain’s tenure of office public and private money was used to construct libraries, municipal swimming pools and schools. The Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery was enlarged and a number of new parks were opened. Construction of the Council House was begun while the Victoria Law Courts were built on Corporation Street.
There is a statue of Chamberlain in the House of Lords in London but it is not on prominent display and there is currently a campaign to transfer it to the city of Birmingham.
After the civic centre and the statues we moved on to the canals…