29 Apr 2020 - 3 minutes

International Worker’s Day 2020: Birmingham’s industrial history

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Every year, the 1st May sees annual May Day celebrations around the world, a traditional holiday in many cultures to bring in the new Spring season. The day has also been known as International Workers Day since 1904 when trade unions chose the occasion to demand an eight-hour working day and universal peace.

With that in mind, we have taken this opportunity to look at the history of worker’s rights and highlight Birmingham’s role in the Industrial Revolution. Known as “the city of a thousand trades”, Birmingham benefited from an extraordinarily wide base of industries including metalwork, guns, toys, pens, buttons, coins, medals, jewellery, tools and electroplating.

So far, so similar to many other industrial towns and cities across the country – but Birmingham had much to distinguish it from the likes of Manchester and the other ‘cotton towns’ which are associated most strongly with the Industrial revolution.

The Boulton Watt Steam Engine which powered the aforementioned factories was largely designed and built in the Smethwick area of Birmingham – and you can see a golden statue of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch on Broad Street today – but the city didn’t adopt it on a large scale for many years.

Rather than depending on steam-powered mills or other types of large factories, Birmingham was instead defined by its network of smaller workshops. The vast majority of the brassfounders, gunsmiths, toymakers, jewellers and everyone else involved in Birmingham’s industries were set up in a way reminiscent of how small businesses operate in the modern world.

If you are interested in seeing exactly how the city’s workshops operated, you can visit a perfectly preserved example in the Jewellery Quarter as soon as lockdown is over.

Click here for more information >>

As well as being the base of Birmingham’s economic success during the Industrial Revolution, the workshops also provided the conditions for an unusual case study in the history of worker’s rights in the UK.

Like all industrial cities, Birmingham grew rapidly during the 18th and 19th centuries. The increased population were forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions, leading to widespread poverty and deprivation. Those long working hours soon became untenable, and people demanded change.

The Factory Act 1844 was introduced to cut down the maximum working hours that people were allowed to work to 12 hours per day, and uniquely for the time, it also included a cap on the number of hours women could work. The Act also mandated other improvements like the installation of fences around dangerous equipment and a ban on cleaning machines while they were in motion. By today’s standards, working conditions remained horrific following the Factory Act 1844, but it was a start.

Unfortunately for the people of Birmingham, the clue was in the name of the Act, and the restrictions only applied to those working in factories. As mentioned previously, workshops dominated the city’s industrial scene and provided the majority of work for women in particular, leaving them largely unprotected by the new employment laws.

It would take almost 20 years for this to be solved with the Factory Act Extension Act 1867 giving the same protections to those in workshops. From then on, the women who kept Birmingham’s workshops moving were allowed to work a maximum of 10.5 hours a day and only between the hours of 6am and 7pm.

This was a huge leap forward for worker’s rights in the UK, and it represents the influence of Birmingham’s unique history in our collective past. Since then, Birmingham has continued to play a central role in our national story, and the modern city is one of the most dynamic in the country.

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