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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

(995,000 in 1991)
City in the West Midlands, the largest in Britain after London. From a small medieval town, specializing by the 16C in metal work, it grew at astonishing speed from the late 18C. It had always had natural advantages – an abundance of local coal and iron – but these could only be fully exploited once a transport system existed to make the most of Birmingham's geographical position at the very centre of England. This was achieved with the development of *canals in the 18C and *railways in the 19C. Three of the greatest figures of the early *Industrial Revolution – *Watt, *Boulton and *Priestley – all worked in the town. Together with other leading scientists and industrialists (including *Herschel, *Smeaton and *Wedgwood) they were members of the famous Lunar Society, which met to discuss scientific and philosophical questions.

Birmingham's 19C prosperity was matched by new municipal standards, introduced in the 1870s by a pioneering mayor, Joseph *Chamberlain, whose reforms made it the best run city in the kingdom. From this period dates the great Council House (1874–9, by Yeoville Thomason), with its 49m/160ft clock tower known locally as Big Brum. Adjacent on the city's central Victoria Square is the slightly earlier Town Hall, in the style of a Greek temple (1831–3, by Joseph Hansom). Corporation Street, reflecting in its name the new civic pride, replaced in 1875–82 an area of slums; it is now largely redeveloped, but there are still at the north end the splendid Victoria Law Courts (1887–91, by Aston Webb).

After World War II the city centre was not treated with the respect the Victorians gave it. Birmingham led the field in the 1950s in tearing down old streets to make way for traffic. The central area, known as the Bull Ring, became notorious as an example of brutalist architecture (though for a while it made an unexpected contribution to the city's sporting life as the track for an occasional motor race). The Bull Ring shopping centre was demolished in 2000 for a new attempt at redevelopment.

The city became a diocese only in 1905. St Philip's, previously the parish church of the High Town, was made the cathedral. It is a baroque building of 1708–15 by Thomas Archer (c.1668–1743), with its interior now much enlivened by the stained glass windows of Burne-Jones, born nearby. When Birmingham's first Roman Catholic bishop was appointed in 1850, St Chad's (1839–41 by *Pugin) was designated the cathedral.

The Museum and Art Gallery are in a building of 1881–5 by Yeoville Thomason. Among the decorative arts there is special emphasis on silver (an important product of Birmingham in previous centuries) and ceramics, with excellent examples of William *De Morgan. The art gallery's greatest strength is the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, of which Ford Madox *Brown's The Last of England is one of the best known.

Birmingham played a leading part in the 20C repertory theatre movement, with the establishment by Barry Jackson (1879–1961) of a permanent company in 1913; the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was founded in 1920; and in 1990 the city became the home of the Sadler's Wells Royal Ballet, known since then as the *Birmingham Royal Ballet. In the past two decades Birmingham has recovered its ancient civic pride and has constructed a series of major public buildings. The National Exhibition Centre was opened in 1976 to the southeast; and at the heart of the city a new complex includes the International Conference Centre, the National Indoor Arena and the Symphony Hall.

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