Birmingham—A Remarkable City
G. BENYON HARRIS IN FORTNIGHTLY REVIEW
The home of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain is a mode'n city, possessing several unique features. Among them the most pronounced is the unity which characterizes the actions of the men of the city—a unity which was most clearly demonstrated in the British general elections. This close relationship between Mr. Chamberlain and the men of Birmingham is a riddle to many.
FOR a long time now it has been the habit of some writers and speakers to refer to the municipality of Birmingham as having always been the great pioneer of municipal progress. It is to be hoped that those writers and speakers are not equally incorrect in the other statements they make, or it is feared they are not much to be relied on. For whatever may be the position which the municipality of Birmingham today holds in relation to other municipalities—and that position is a very high one—its title to distinction has only accrued within times which are too recent to be complimentary. Until recently its public buildings were barns and its shops warehouses ; and when, at last, inspired by a sudden and eccentric aspiration to do something really great in the way of building — something that should at once stagger and appease criticism — they told their architect to build a town hall, it stood for years, as the Parthenon on a modern coal-tip would stand, as a Puritan in Paradise, or an undertaker at a wedding
would stand, anachronistic, whileelephantine and alone. Men are yet quite young who saw their council house, their law courts, and their general hospital built, and their Corporation street driven through a collection of fetid courts and hovels to which even a cottage-property owner would have hesitated to give the name of houses, and these are the only notable public buildings the city possesses, though there is now fast rising into communion with the incumbent clouds, the domes and spires of a fane that will banish shame from the brow of the city for ever, and render imperishable the memory of the splendid and judicious energy of the illustrious personality with whom its foundation will ever be associated —the beautiful and imposing university buildings. Both in its business methods and in its buildings the City of Birmingham was without display of any kind. Display, even now, is invariably in inverse ratio to production. The most lucrative of the businesses are hidden away behind rows of cottages at four shillings a week
rent ; and the only apparent approach is through narrow passages, in which two people could not pass with comfort. The expedient of municipalization, as applied to public works, was a gothic and unknown thing to Birmingham, even so recent lv as just before the time when, stung by the Aston riots, Lord Randolph Churchill thundered against the “Russian despotism,” the “Venetian Espionage,” and the “Oligarchy” of the city. Scarce a dozen moons have waned since the one primary essential — an exhaustless water supply—has been amply secured to the city, and the age of its open spaces may be told by the immaturity of their verdure. A pedestrian is still in imminent danger of his life in one of the busiest parts of its main street, a spot where five streets converge, from prehistoric things, dignified by the name of tram engines, which exhale pestiferous fumes, make an ash-heap of the street and exude oleaginous secretions which render the foothold of men and of horses alike always extremely precarious, and sometimes deadly. Even their tram-systems have not yet been municipalized. The city still refuses to give its lord mayor a salary, and thus exhibits to the world the unparalleled spectacle of a community, the most democratic of democracies, placing the lodestar of all civic ambition far beyond the reach of those of its units, however worthy, who do not happen to be rich men. In an age of municipal progression Birmingham, as a city, remained stationary. In an impressionable age Birmingham, as a municipality, remained impervious. It called itself democratic, and exhibited, both in its general civic inaction, and in its extreme deliberation over the few civic motions it had ever made, a conservatism
deeper rooted than its own industries; a conservatism the more implacable and unrelenting, because it hobbled along in the vestments of democracy. By nothing had it ever justified the assumption on its heraldic shield of the majestic apophthegm of “Forward.” In almost every salient feature unique amongst the great municipalities of the empire, the City of Birmingham, as a corporate thing, was only resoued from derision and obloquy by the refracted glory it derived from the unofficial enterprise of the men of Birmingham.
Birmingham men were all born to business, and to politics, as the sparks fly upwards. They were cradled in business-like cradles. They were nurtured on methodical and business principles. They wore business-like clothes. Everything they touched was touched with an eye to business. Thev wooed without sentiment, married for, lived to make, and died to leave, money. That was always the way in Birmingham. During their lives thev interfered in nothing but their business, their religion, and their politics. Indeed, even their religion and their politics were as much matters of business as were their means of livelihood. The affairs of their religious denominations were conducted on strictly business lines. The balance sheet was as much an article of their religious, as of their secular, rubric. Should the morning lessons from the pulpit refer to the passage of the Red Sea, their practical minds insensibly conceived a much easier mode of transit by means of ferry boats, worked by their own turbine boilers. Should any portion of the service refer to the construction of Solomon’s temple, visions of lost contracts for iron girders danced before their chagrined eyes. But it
was on politics that they more especially brought their business instincts to bear. Even in ordinary times, when the political affairs of the nation were going forward, calmly, under a blue sky, the local organizations proceeded in a rhythmic, business-like way. Committee meetings were held at regular intervals, and the pulse of the citv was always under the forefinger of a vigilant, but unobtrusive, executive. When the blue sky became dotted with drifting storm-clouds, the strings of organization began to vibrate and to tighten automatically. The subsidiary committees in the wards heard the tinkle of the bells, for danger had been scented at the “central.” If it turned out to be only a false alarm, or an insignificant disturbance, there was a low grumble, of which the correspondence columns of the local press became the safety valve ; and it was all over for the time. But if their political programme or their industries were hit, or likely to be prejudiciallv affected, the country heard about it in double-quick time. Their protests were not confined to talking. The verb “reform” was, with them, a very active verb, and when they did begin to conjugate it, it always ran into the future tense. They never looked back after they had once started. They reflected first, and being convinced of the justice of their demands, they suppressed all wild and wanton opinions, and moved slowly forward with determination, honesty, and zeal, for from long experience of political agitation they had realized that—
“Self-reverence, self-knowledge, selfcontrol :
These three alone, lead life to sovereign power.”
And history is not silent of how the
Parliaments of England, not once or twice, but many times, in this “rough island-story,” have shrunk from collision with the grim visages of the democracy of Birmingham. In times of crisis, a Birmingham political demonstration was not a matter that could be lightly treated. Inspired by no other motive than zeal for their cause, employers voluntarily closed down their works, toilers offered to give up their day’s wages, great industrial enterprises marked time, the pyrotechnic genius of Brock and the resources of railwav companies were enlisted, and special trains were run in order that the men of Birmingham might demonstrate in a manner that should be national in its proportions. Lord Randolph Churchill, Colonel Burnaby, Sir Stafford Northcote, Lord Llandaff, Sir Charles Darling, Mr. Lloyd-George, and many other courageous but intrusive strangers could all have told what a business-like proceeding a political demonstration in Birmingham was.
Most of the representative Birmingham men at one time or another have served on some kind of public body, and possess slightly more than a citizen’s knowledge of local administration. But thev never allowed that to interfere with their legitimate businesses. The meetings, therefore, were held in the evenings, and were attended bv them on their wav home from business before thev had washed the dust of the day from their faces and hands. They generally reached home about ten o’clock, and going straight to bed, slept until six the next morning. It has always been a peculiarity of their commercial life that their nearest friends are never quite sure what their particular businesses really consist in. Often, indeed, they themselves are not quite
sure. The general impression is that they “have something to do” with iron, brass or gold. That is to say, they are, in one undefined way or another—often in more ways than one— pecuniarily interested in the process of melting, burning, and twisting this raw material into shapes recognizable by the wayfarers of life. It may be pens, pins, needles, or toy pistols. It may be the chaste setting of orient pearls for the white bosoms of civilization, or the rude welding of polished steel for the dusky nostrils of barbarism. It may be the molding of a lectern for the rites of Christendom, or the bronzing of a fetish for the eye of Idolatry. A gossamer wire, or a tubular bridge, pop-guns or heavy ordnance, tubes drawn or weldless, a steam engine, or a dog collar ; it may be all or anv of these, or it may be something else. Nobody knows for certain, and nobody cares. The businesses also by which they make their monev are invariably not the businesses in which they started life. The most successful of the businesses arc carried on by men who, in their early days, learnt some other business. Being, however, thoroughly versed in general commercial methods, they are able with unconcerned volition to vary their occupations, according to the exigency of the moment. If they are beaten in the open market by rails from Belgium, they are able by a quick transition, and often apparently without change of plant, to turn out iron sheets for corrugated roofing. If American or German competition makes it not worth their while to continue the manufacture of tubes for cycles, they turn to bedsteads, collar-studs, or hairpins. Iron and brass are their staple material. Anything that it is humanly possible to make out of that
material the men of Birmingham can and do make ; and the kind of thing they make out of it depends entirely upon whether the demand at the moment is for a tubular bridge or a trumpet, a toy for the hand of a lady, or sheet armor for a belted cruiser.
Their wealth is not realized so much by what may be called profits in market overt as by their capacity to “buy” well, in devising means for reducing the cost of production, and on discount for ready cash. Social consequence is the corollary of a big banking account and a big house. Even a big banking account, however, unaccompanied by a big house, gives little social consequence to a man in Birmingham ; and men are continually dying there with a probate-record of £100,000 whose existence, if it had ever been known, had been forgotten until it ceased. Genealogy they care nothing about ; for uniformity of occupation breeds no class distinctions during life, nor violates the levelling democracy of the grave after death. They are all manufacturers ; and if some manufacture in a little shed at the back of their dwelling-house they are equally manufacturers with those who cover acres with their groaning machinery and employ five thousand hands in the canal-bisected expanses of the adjacent Black Country. All interests are identical. The touch of occupation makes the whole race kin. A sympathy in toil insures a fellowship in danger. If, therefore, a stranger hit one he hits the lot ; and the outrage is resented down to the latest dusty'neophyte at the anvil. Withal, thev are a very proud, independent, and virile race. What though they wear monkey-jackets, and are, in working hours, scarcely distinguish-
able in outward appearance from the artisans they employ, they hold in very slight estimation the silk hat and frock coat of the outer world. The homogeneity that distinguishes their occupations, their facile volition in commercial resource, extends also to their modes of thought, their .motives, and, their conduct. The same qualities in a public man that appeal to anv of them appeal to all of them. The same impulses that move the individual move the multitude. Hence, though they are often engaged in fierce trade disputes and competitions amongst themselves, thev always present a common front to an outside enemy. The expression, “the men of London,” “the men of Liverpool,” “the men of Glasgow,” as designations of the inhabitants of those cities, possesses a wholly different meaning from the expression, “the men of Birmingham,” as applied to the inhabitants of the capital of the Midlands. The “men of Birmingham” are bv birth, instinct, training, associations, and interest Birmingham men. This doubtless accounts to a great extent for their racial insularity. Hence when they speak to the country and when they demonstrate they do so, not as Englishmen merely, but more particularly as Birmingham men, with one aim and with one voice, strident and unmistakable.
While they have always been, and still are, in their own affairs the most conservative body of men it is possible to meet, in politics they are the most democratic. But they have always been loyal and true, except, when unwarrantably attacked by irresponsible buccaneers like Rupert. It is true that the men of Birmingham do not think deeply. They are inspired, controlled, and protected by a kind of natural instinct or sagacity
that is congenital in them, and which, when applied to the scrutiny of political propositions, enables them unerringly to distinguish the practical from the chimerical. Having always been in the van of politics in the past, their knowledge is not of the ad captandum kind which makes men unduly elated or dejected over political questions. Their political knowledge is sound, their political traditions are historical. They understand that there are principles even in politics, and so they are able to look upon the undulations of politics with a due regard to the rules of perspective. Hence they have invariably been the first to realize political possibilities, and to agitate for them, as is evidenced by the saying, “What Birmingham demands today the country will want to-morrow.” Their actions are always straightforward and their methods are never devious. They always know what they want, and go for it as one man, without pausing to consider those side-issues which often obscure the vision of more subtle but less practical minds. As for altruism, though they may not know the meaning of the word, they practice the thing. They are, alike in their business and in their public aims, absolutelv unselfish. Utilitarianism has never been better illustrated than in their methods. That there may be men outside Birmingham possessing a certain kind of artistic or “flash” ability, men who arrive at just conclusions by means of rigid logic, men who, when they go wrong, do so with great ingenuity, Birmingham men would be the first to admit. But with Birmingham men the only indication of sterling, abiding talent is the rapid accumulation of wealth from business. To them there is on-
ly one raison d’etre of talent : to
amass wealth quick and early. The abstract kind of talent which leaves its possessor in a small house they not only do not understand but entertain great contempt for. They only look at material . results. Whether those results are really due to what is known as talent or to a fortuitous combination of negations they do not stop to inquire. The tree is judged by its fruit.
This unrelieved materialism obtrudes itself even in the nomenclature of their thoroughfares—Corporation street, New street, Bristol road, Wheeleys road, Carpenters road, Arthur road—no poetry, no sentiment, no imagination ; stern business to the
end of the chapter. Truly a race of ironsides—grave, determined, and insular ; possessing little, if anything, in common with the rest of the nation ; a race with whom Plato would have delighted to hold communion, and such, probably, as he would have chosen for the experiment of his model republic. That, then, was the character of the municipality ; and these the characteristics of the men of Birmingham. In the case of the one it was distinguished by its immutability in a period of endless mutation ; and in the case of the other by a rugged independence and an implacable materialism to the exclusion of the sentimental and the imaginative in every shape and form.
Making the Best of Things
There is scarcely anyone who does not think but that he has been unjustly dealt with, in some respects, either by nature or fortune. What is to be done? If these individual imperfections can be remedied let us strive in every legitimate way to help ourselves. If not, why not make the best of them ?
It is not so much our own actual condition of life that breeds happiness as the use which we make of our ] opportunities. Some people will be cheery and useful anywhere, and under any livable conditions. Others are I correspondingly dismal. Therefore, as a matter of self| convenience at least, let us make the best of things.