ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL HISTORY
MEDIEVAL INDUSTRY AND TRADE
The 'Borough' of Birmingham, p. 73. The Market and Birmingham Merchants, p. 75. The Effects
of Growing Prosperity, p. 77. Industries, p. 78.
THE 'BOROUGH' OF BIRMINGHAM
The 'borough' of Birmingham is mentioned in the 16th-century surveys made by
the Crown after the manor was forfeited by Edward Birmingham. (fn. 1) Study of the
well-known survey of 1553, (fn. 2) which was the most detailed, reveals a structure of local
government that was still entirely manorial in character. No part of the town is
considered as extra-manorial; all the tenants owe suit at the manor court; affairs are
controlled by the manorial officers, the bailiff and the steward. The survey divides
the lordship into two parts: the 'borough' and the 'foreign'. The borough consisted
for the greater part of crofts and tenements, very often described as burgages, all
lying in a dozen or so named streets and places, many of which are now to be found
in the city centre. The foreign was made up of pasture lands, crofts, messuages, closes,
and meadows. Arable land lying in the common fields is not mentioned in either part
of the survey. (fn. 3)
The division of the manor into borough and foreign was probably made as early
as the mid-13th century: a deed of c. 1250 not only grants land in the foreign (terram
forincecam), thus implying the existence of the borough, but also mentions a burgess
of Birmingham. (fn. 4) Unfortunately, evidence has not been found for the use of the term
'foreign' again until the 15th century. Five deeds dated between 1436 and 1499 are
concerned with the conveyance of land in the foreign: (fn. 5) one of 1475 has been found
granting property within the borough (burgum). (fn. 6) Deeds of 1322 and 1379 call it the
township (villa); (fn. 7) another of 1434 leases land within the parish (infra parochiam); (fn. 8)
yet another, of 1503, granting a burgage, says it is within the township (infra vill) of
Birmingham; (fn. 9) another of the same date speaks of a burgage in Edgbaston Street as
being in the demesne manor. (fn. 10) In one deed of 1366 messuages are described as in villa
burg' of Birmingham; (fn. 11) three years later the same property was said to be in the
township (in vill'). (fn. 12) In the 16th century the division between borough and foreign
is quite clear. The survey of 1553 was made separately for each part; (fn. 13) the survey of
1529 speaks of separate courts for borough and foreign and, incidentally, provides the
only reference to the medieval manorial courts of Birmingham. (fn. 14) Despite these clear
indications of a division between the urban and rural parts of the manor there is no
evidence to suggest that the borough formed an enclave within the manor to which
pertained legal, economic, or social privileges. The use of the terms 'borough' and
'foreign' with no further implications than 'those parts which lie close to or far away
from the administrative or topographical centre of the manor', is not uncommon.
The distinction is found in many of the larger midland villages. (fn. 15)
These distinctions and the names given to them are perhaps no more than a hint
of the urban character of Birmingham. There is, however, further evidence that from
quite early times the growing prosperity of the place, its marketing activities and its
small but persistent industries lent an urban character to Birmingham that might
often lead to the use of the term 'borough' or its derivatives when speaking about it.
The deed of c. 1250 already cited (fn. 16) grants land to John de Stodely, burgess (burgens')
of Birmingham. Stodely seems to have achieved some prominence in the town for by
1284 he was chief bailiff. (fn. 17) Another deed, which is undated but probably of c. 1280,
and which conveys land in King's Norton, has Richard de Aldeport, burgess (again
burgens') of Birmingham as a witness. (fn. 18) If we judge by their names, neither was a
Birmingham native. Studley is a few miles south of the modern city boundary;
Aldeport has not been identified but does not appear to have been part of Birmingham.
Thirteenth-century eyre rolls mention some tradesmen jurors: in 1247 appear Thomas
le Taylur (who was also chief bailiff) and Hugh le Mercer and in 1285 William le
Teynturer and William le Porveur - names which at this date probably indicate their
holders' actual trade. (fn. 19) In 1232 the holders of messuages in Birmingham, paying 8d.
a year for rent, included a smith, a mercer, a purveyor, a tailor, and four weavers. (fn. 20)
In 1275 representatives of the merchants of the town were summoned to the first
parliament of Edward I's reign. (fn. 21) As is well known, this was a unique occasion and
Birmingham, like many other towns represented in 1275, received no further summons
although some members of the Birmingham family later represented the county. (fn. 22)
Nevertheless, the summons establishes Birmingham as a town of merchants in the
late 13th century.
It is the evidence relating to tenure that most clearly emphasizes the urban character
of Birmingham in the Middle Ages. The description of a holding as a 'burgage' occurs
probably as early as the mid-14th century, for a burgage listed in the 1553 survey is
said to have been held by a deed dated 1351: (fn. 23) the text of the original deed is not
known. (fn. 24) In 1455 a deed occurs granting a croft in the borough of Birmingham 'to
be a burgage' (esse burgagium) with all services rendered by the burgesses of the town
of old (de antiquo). (fn. 25) Burgages are mentioned in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. (fn. 26)
In the survey of 1553 most of the borough tenements are held in what is described
as 'free burgage by fealty' and by suit of court and relief. (fn. 27) One is said to be held by
free socage or by burgage by fealty. (fn. 28) To judge by the small size of the rents, the
borough freeholds of the 16th century were of long standing. In 1553 leaseholds
granted in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, which formed a very small proportion
of the tenements, yielded more than four times the total rent of the freeholds. (fn. 29)
There is no evidence of a standard burgage rent of 1s. such as is found in Manchester
or Leeds; (fn. 30) only four rents of this amount occur and only one of these is said specifically
to be for a burgage. Rents of 8d., 9d., and 18d. are fairly common; all the leases by
indenture are charged at multiples of a shilling. (fn. 31) A list of rents in the manor for a
very much earlier date - 1270 - shows similarly no scale or pattern of charges but
the document can hardly be used as evidence in this connexion since it is not clear
what holdings are referred to or whether the rents are for single holdings. (fn. 32) But if
burgage tenure was, in Birmingham, an early development, there is yet no evidence
to suggest that the land was ever laid out in burgages as in Liverpool or Leeds. (fn. 33) If
any one street like Briggate in Leeds or any area like the castle environs in Liverpool
had ever been explicitly divided into burgages, it is reasonable to suppose that traces
of such development would appear in the 1553 survey. None such can be found. By
that time the borough was formed principally of the line of streets leading north-west
through the town from the river crossing at Deritend to the Shrewsbury and Lichfield
roads. (fn. 34) This has been said to consist 'mainly of one long street' (fn. 35) but it is essentially
the main causeway through the town, not a new creation like Briggate in Leeds.
It has been suggested that this quasi-burgage tenure grew up in the 14th century
after the plague but the thesis seems to be based upon the deed of 1351 cited in the
1553 survey; as has been said, the text of the deed is not known. (fn. 36) Against this there
is the evidence of another document indicating that some of the socage or burgage
tenures may have their origin in a transaction completed more than a century earlier.
In 1232 a number of craftsmen and tradesmen, including a smith and four weavers,
commuted the hay-lifting services they owed William de Birmingham, then lord of
the manor, in respect of 17 messuages in the town, for money rents. (fn. 37) The letters
close of 1270 already cited, (fn. 38) which assigned property in the manor to the widow of
William of Birmingham (who lost his life at Kenilworth), lists 29 rent-paying tenants
of the manor. Unfortunately the document does not recount the nature of their
holdings or the conditions of their tenure. At the end of the 13th century, land in
Solihull was being held 'according to the liberties and customs merchant of the market
of Birmingham.' (fn. 39)
Of the communal activity often associated with a borough little or no trace can be
found. The action that brought about the 13th-century commutation of services
probably originated with the lord of the manor. Only one pre-16th-century document
has been found that mentions the community. The letters patent of 1392 founding
the guild of Holy Cross grants the privileges to the 'bailiffs and commonalty' (communitas), thus linking the 'citizens' and the manorial officers. (fn. 40)
THE MARKET AND BIRMINGHAM MERCHANTS
It is very unlikely that Birmingham was first settled as a mercantile centre. It lay
off the main trade routes of Roman and medieval England, and lacked both a navigable
river and its own raw materials. (fn. 41) Two topographical factors may, in a later period,
have outweighed these disadvantages. Between Birmingham and the edge of the Coal
Measure outcrop near Oldbury and Wednesbury, an expanse of glacial boulder clay
overlying the rock provides an ill-drained, featureless landscape and a heavy infertile
soil unsuitable for settlement. (fn. 42) The late development of Birmingham Heath and of
the towns of Smethwick and West Bromwich illustrates the inhospitable nature of the
countryside. On the west, therefore, the town proved to be the only suitable trading
centre for the south Staffordshire iron and coal district. (fn. 43) On the east, certain trade
routes of a minor character which developed long after the period of settlement had
to cross the Rea valley and it has been convincingly suggested that much of this traffic
would use the crossing of the river at Deritend. (fn. 44)
If indeed these factors operated as has been suggested it is to be expected that a
trading centre would develop on the dry side of the crossing in the village. The grant
of a market in the mid-12th century (fn. 45) probably confirmed an existing situation rather
than established a new centre. In 1250 the town was also granted a yearly four-day
fair at Ascensiontide. (fn. 46) In 1275 Birmingham was sufficiently prominent to receive
the summons to Parliament already mentioned, (fn. 47) so that the town may be ranged
alongside such towns of merchants as Tamworth, Coleshill, Alcester, and Stratford. (fn. 48)
In 1340 the town contributed towards the subsidy of a ninth of merchants' goods; (fn. 49)
at the same time Coventry compounded for 100 marks, Stratford was assessed, like
Birmingham, at 40s., Warwick at 10 marks, Tamworth at 30s., and Coleshill at 10s.
In the late 14th and early 15th centuries it was an aulnaging town. (fn. 50)
In the light of this evidence it seems likely that the growth and prosperity of
Birmingham in the Middle Ages begins with the establishment of its market. Moreover
there is evidence to suggest that the market was not only serving the needs of the
villages immediately surrounding the town. In 1218 Roger de Somery, who was the
de Birminghams' overlord, granted his burgesses of Dudley freedom from toll in
Birmingham amongst other places. (fn. 51) In 1308 and in 1403 the de Birmingham family
were guarding their rights of toll from the depredations of traders from King's Norton,
Bromsgrove, Wednesbury, and Tipton. (fn. 52) Early in the 15th century William de
Birmingham even became involved in a lawsuit because he had assaulted the bailiff
of Wednesbury who had obtained a Chancery writ exempting his townsmen from
payment of toll in Birmingham. (fn. 53)
No doubt the market was in earlier times entirely one for raw produce; it probably
remained primarily so until the 16th century. One of the cases concerning tolls already
cited (fn. 54) shows, however, that in 1403 linen and woollen cloth, iron, 'calibe', (fn. 55) and brass
besides many cattle were being bought and sold at the Thursday market. Tenements
called Butchery, Mercery, and Drapery were mentioned in 1423. (fn. 56)
Birmingham merchants occur in deeds and other documents from the early 13th
century onwards and are often named in the earlier deeds as mercers or purveyors. (fn. 57)
It is clear that by 1322 some of the principal Birmingham merchants were marketing
wool: two of them, Walter de Clodeshale and William le Mercer, were among the
majores mercatores lanarum selected by the sheriff to represent Warwickshire at the
Council held at York in that year to discuss the establishment of wool staples. (fn. 58)
Others, including John atte Holte of Birmingham, (fn. 59) evidently a member of the Aston
manorial family, (fn. 60) were summoned to the wool merchants' assemblies held at West
minster in 1340, 1342, and 1343. (fn. 61) Holte was shipping wool to the continent on a
considerable scale during the forties. (fn. 62) Besides the names of Clodeshale, Holte, and
Mercer that of Deyster seems also to have been prominent and there is abundant
evidence that the members of all four families were substantial men of the town. (fn. 63)
Deysters are never specifically mentioned as wool merchants but John le Deyster
together with John le Mercer and John Michel (whose name has not been encountered
elsewhere) answered for the merchants of Birmingham to the assessors of the 1340
subsidy. (fn. 64) The name occurs many times throughout the 14th century. (fn. 65) In c. 1390 a
Thomas de Birmingham is mentioned as a cloth-merchant, (fn. 66) and Henry Hopwas, late
of Birmingham, woolman, in 1475. (fn. 67)
Similar evidence has not been found for the 15th century; nor is there evidence to
suggest that these families, if families they were, remained merchants. By 1553 other
names had sprung into prominence. (fn. 68)
THE EFFECTS OF GROWING PROSPERITY
As might be expected, Birmingham's growing prosperity is reflected in other than
purely economic activities. The parish church of St. Martin seems to have been entirely
rebuilt in the latter part of the 13th century, though this perhaps reflects the prosperity
of the lord of the manor rather than that of his tenants. (fn. 69) Another religious endowment,
the foundation of the Hospital of St. Thomas of Canterbury, occurs in the earlier part
of the 13th century. (fn. 70) From 1286 to the mid-14th century there were several gifts of
property to the hospital. (fn. 71) It has been suggested that because by the mid-13th century
the manor of Birmingham was assessed at 8¾ knight's fees within the barony of Dudley,
it had grown very considerably in size and prosperity since the 11th century. (fn. 72) In
the subsidy returns of 1327 and 1332 only Coventry and Warwick returned a greater
number of taxpayers than Birmingham. Sutton Coldfield, Alcester, Stratford, (fn. 73) and
Solihull are close to Birmingham in both numbers and assessment. Tamworth, in
these terms, was only half as important. It has been suggested, too, that the naming
at this time of the great parish and series of manors of Aston as 'Aston-juxtaBirmingham' indicates a rise in the status of the town. (fn. 74) It seems, however, equally
likely that some distinctive form was needed to identify the common name 'Aston'.
Nevertheless, Birmingham was chosen rather than the equally close Sutton. The
grants of paving licences in 1319 and 1333 have hitherto been cited as further evidence
of expansion but do not appear to refer to Birmingham. (fn. 75)
In 1330 and 1347 two chantries were endowed in the parish church, both by
members of the Clodeshale family already mentioned as merchants. (fn. 76) In or about 1381
a new chapel was built and endowed in Deritend: the need for this chapel had probably
been felt for a long time and its foundation at this time has been taken to suggest the
growing wealth and numbers of this tithing of Aston that was topographically part of
Birmingham itself. (fn. 77) A religious guild was founded in association with the chapel and
in 1392 the Guild of the Holy Cross was founded in Birmingham itself. (fn. 78)
The effect of the growth of Birmingham on the villages surrounding the town was,
so far as there is evidence to show it, slight. In Erdington, for which most records have
been preserved, there is a rural economy throughout the 15th century. (fn. 79) Grants early
in the century speak of holdings in the township and fields (in villa et campis); (fn. 80) by
1495 much property is leased on quit rents or rents of assize but there is no mention
of any urbanization. (fn. 81) How far these conditions were in operation for those parts of
Aston that lay closer to Birmingham cannot be determined. Grants of land in the
south-western districts, Saltley, Bordesley, and Duddeston, occur as early as 1310 in
a grant to the Hospital of St. Thomas. (fn. 82) On the other hand the common field of the
township (communem campum ville) is mentioned in 1336 in the grant of a small
tenement. (fn. 83) In the remoter villages there seems to have been no urbanization in the
Middle Ages. A parliamentary survey of King's Norton in 1649 sets out customs for
an entirely agricultural and rural manor, (fn. 84) and late-15th-century evidence for Yardley
shows a similar picture. (fn. 85)
It seems clear that the original impetus which carried Birmingham to its size and
prosperity in the 17th century derived, in the Middle Ages, from trade rather than
industry. Against this it has been argued that the natural advantages of the area (fn. 86)
promoted manufacture and that industry rather than trade provided the impetus for
growth. (fn. 87) This view seems unreasonable on three counts: first, the natural advantages
were shared by other midland villages which did not grow to the size of Birmingham
Secondly, though iron ore and coal were near, they were not on the spot, and thirdly
there is no evidence of extensive industry in medieval Birmingham.
Nevertheless although evidence of manufacture before the late 15th and early 16th
centuries is fragmentary, it is sufficient to suggest that Birmingham's industries did
not spring up fully-armed about 1500. (fn. 88) In 1332, for which year taxation assessments
make comparison possible, Birmingham numbered amongst its citizens as many
craftsmen as Tamworth, Henley, Stratford, and Alcester - other Warwickshire towns
usually associated with industry. (fn. 89) Unfortunately the only surviving poll-tax record
for medieval Birmingham is an almost illegible corner of one membrane, (fn. 90) but evidence
drawn from the occurrence of craftsmen's names in all other available documents
indicates that the three industries which were important in 16th-century Birmingham (fn. 91)
- cloth manufacture, leather-working, and iron-working - were at least in evidence
in the town in the Middle Ages.
That is not to say, however, that they were then extensive. Birmingham's share of
the cloth industry does not seem to have been considerable. Apart from the four
weavers mentioned in 1232 - whose identification as craftsmen is in any case uncertain - Birmingham could claim no more clothworkers than the surrounding
villages, and the number concerned in no sense represents an industrial concentration. (fn. 92)
Cloth finishers are recorded in 1448 and 1475, (fn. 93) and there were fulling mills at
Holford and Erdington in the late 14th century and early 15th century. (fn. 94) The aulnage
accounts for the fiscal years 1397-8 and 1405-6 show that 44 and 21 cloths respectively
were exposed for sale in Birmingham. These numbers were far below those for
Coventry in the same years (3,105¾ and 1,108½), and were not much greater than
those of other Warwickshire markets. (fn. 95)
Towards the end of the 14th century there is some evidence for the beginnings of
the iron industry. Four smiths occur in the extant fragment of the 1379 poll-tax
return (fn. 96) and seven more have been found in 15th-century records. (fn. 97) The occurrence
of two ironmongers in 1449 (fn. 98) is perhaps some indication that by then iron-working
had become more than a local and domestic industry. The existence of a saddler in
1429, a skinner in 1455 and a tanner in 1483 suggests that in the 15th century there
may have been a leather industry, (fn. 99) which possibly had earlier origins, founded on the
pastoral nature of the neighbourhood. (fn. 1) The evidence, however, is so slight that no
clear indication of an organized industry in the Middle Ages can be claimed.
One goldsmith is recorded in 1460; whether he practised his craft in the town, or
to what extent, is not certain. He does not appear to be connected with the many
persons called Goldsmith who occur in 15th-century deeds and who were in all
probability members of a merchant family. (fn. 2) A century earlier, in 1343, three men,
Walter de Warwick, John de Pershore, and Roger le Barker of Birmingham were
ordered to be attached for having made and sold base metal goods which they asserted
to be pure silver. It is not clear what the goods were or where they were made. (fn. 3)
BIRMINGHAM MERCHANT FAMILIES IN THE
The following names occur frequently in Birmingham records. Some of these persons are known to have been merchants; some possessing the same names are known to have been members of one family. Minor variations in spelling
have not generally been noticed.
Ralph (le Purueur), 1232: Feet of F. (Dugd. Soc. xi),
William, 1285: T.B.A.S. xii. 78; (le Purveyr) 1306:
T.B.A.S. xii. 79.
Alexander, 1310: Cal. Pat. 1307-13, 305.
Geoffrey (I), 1232: Feet of F. (Dugd. Soc. xi), no. 479;
1270: Close R. 1268-72, 263.
Geoffrey (II), 'flesh-hewer', 1330: Cal. Pat. 1327-30,
Hugh, 1247: T.B.A.S. xii. 78.
John, 1323: Warws. Lay Subs. (Dugd. Soc. vi), 99; 1327:
W. B. Bickley, Inhabitants of Birm. . . . in 1327 (Birm.
1885); 1332: Warws. Lay Subs. 71.
Richard, 1341: see under William; 1350, 'parson of Great
Baddeley, Norwich Dioc.': Cal. Pat. 1348-50, 569;
1354: Feet of F. (Dugd. Soc. xviii), no. 2052.
Thomas, 1341: see under William; 1347: T.B.A.S. xii. 81.
Walter of King's Norton, 1327: Lay Subs. Roll Worcs. I
Edw. III (Worcs. Hist. Soc. 1895), 17-18.
William, 1306: T.B.A.S. xii. 79; 1322: B.R.L. 249981;
(also cited T.B.A.S. xii. 80), and at same date as wool
merchant: T.B.A.S. lxiii. 42 (citing E.H.R. xxxi. 603);
1323: Warws. Lay Subs. 99; 1327: Bickley, Inhab.
Birm. . . . 1327; 1332: Warws. Lay Subs. 71; William
also occurs in 1341 with 'Thomas his son, Richard and
Roger, brothers of the said Thomas' and Simon,
another son: Cal. Pat. 1340-3, 320.
Adam, 1322: T.B.A.S. xii. 80 (citing B.R.L. 249981);
1323: Warws. Lay Subs. 98; 1327: Bickley, Inhab.
Birm. . . . 1327.
Henry of Erdington, 1392: T.B.A.S. (1884-5), 85.
John (I), 1332: Warws. Lay Subs. 70.
John (II), 1365 and 1369: Feet of F. (Dugd. Soc. xviii),
no. 2119; 1382: B.R.L. 584309.
Richard, son of Richard, 1322: T.B.A.S. xii. 80 (citing
Richard, son of Richard, 1380: B.R.L. 249980.
Edekin, 1405-6 (aulnaging cloth): T.B.A.S. lxvi. 141.
John, 1369: B.R.L. 429185; 1374: Feet of F. (Dugd. Soc.
xviii), no. 2210; 1379: B.R.L. 120823; 1382: Cal. Pat.
1381-5, 184; (also cited T.B.A.S. lxii. 36); 1389: Cal.
Pat. 1388-92, 38; 1392: T.B.A.S. xii. 85; 1397: Rolls of
Sess. of Peace (Dugd. Soc. xvi), 78.
William, 1397 (aulnaging cloth): T.B.A.S. lxvi. 137.
John, son of Walter, 1330: Cal. Pat. 1327-30, 555; 1332:
Warws. Lay Subs. 70.
Richard, son of Walter, 1327: 1330: Cal. Pat. 1327-30,
555; 1342 (collector of wool): Cal. Close 1341-3,
Roger, 1330: Cal. Pat. 1327-30, 555; 1332: Warws. Lay
Walter, father of Richard, 1322 (called to wool merchants'
assembly): T.B.A.S. lxiii. 42, citing E.H.R. xxxi. 603;
1327: Bickley, Inhab. Birm. . . . 1327; 1330: Cal. Pat.
1327-30, 555; 1332: Warws. Lay Subs. 70; a Walter de
Clodeshale was also assessed for subsidy under Water
Orton: Warws. Lay Subs. 69.
Walter and Richard both founded chantries in St. Martin's
Church: see p. 366; for further details of the family see
Gill, Hist. Birm. 20, and T.B.A.S. lxiii. 59.
John atte (I), wool merchant: mentioned 1327, 1330, 1332,
1338, 1342, 1343, 1352: T.B.A.S. lxii. 34-35 and lxiii.
John (II), 1390: Cal. Pat. 1388-92, 189.
Simon, 1330: Cal. Pat. 1327-30, 555.
Walter, father of John (II), escheator in Warws. 1377:
Cal. Pat. 1377-81, 82; and in Leics. 1378: Cal. Pat.