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Birmingham is a city and metropolitan borough in the English West
Midlands. It is considered by some to be the UK’s «second city». It has
the largest local authority in the United Kingdom, and is the second
largest by urban area population. It is also one of England’s core
The City of Birmingham has a population of 991,900 (2003 estimate).
Along with Wolverhampton, Solihull and the towns of the Black Country,
Birmingham forms the largest part of a large conurbation; the «West
Midlands conurbation», which has a population of 2,275,000.
The metropolitan area of which Birmingham is part is defined by the
government as the West Midlands county, which also includes the city of
Coventry and has a population of 2,575,000, but in practice includes
parts of the surrounding counties of Staffordshire, Warwickshire,
Shropshire and Worcestershire. Based upon commuting and economic
influence, the metropolitan area effecitvely extends over much of the
West Midlands region.
The city is commonly known by its nickname Brum (from the local name
Brummagem), and its people as Brummies. Birmingham is home to the
distinctive Brummie accent and dialect.
Birmingham is an ethnically and culturally diverse city. Around 30% of
Birmingham’s population is of non-white ethnicity; at the time of the
2001 census, 70.4% of the population was White (including 3.2% Irish),
19.5% Asian or Asian British, 6.1% Black or Black British, 0.5% Chinese,
and 3.5% of mixed or other ethnic heritage.
The main article is at History of Birmingham; the following is a
Birmingham has a recorded history going back 1000 years. In this time,
it has grown from a tiny Anglo-Saxon farming village into a major
industrial and commercial city.
The Birmingham area was occupied in Roman times, with several military
roads and a large fort. Birmingham started life as a small Anglo-Saxon
hamlet in the Early Middle Ages. It was first recorded in written
documents by the Domesday Book of 1086 as a small village, worth only 20
In the 12th century, Birmingham was granted a charter to hold a market,
which in time became known as the Bull Ring. As a convenient location
for trade, Birmingham soon developed into a small but thriving market
By the 16th century, Birmingham’s access to supplies of iron ore and
coal meant that metalworking industries became established. In the 17th
century, Birmingham became an important manufacturing town with a
reputation for producing small arms. Birmingham manufacturers supplied
Oliver Cromwell’s forces with much of their weaponry during the English
Civil War. Arms manufacture in Birmingham became a staple trade and was
concentrated in the area known as the Gun Quarter.
During the Industrial Revolution (from the mid 18th century onwards),
Birmingham grew rapidly into a major industrial centre. Unlike many
other English industrial cities such as Manchester, industry in
Birmingham was based upon small workshops rather than large factories or
The Birmingham Canal Navigations between the International Convention
Centre (left) and Brindleyplace (right) in central Birmingham.
From the 1760s onwards, a large network of canals were built across
Birmingham and the Black Country, to transport raw materials and
finished goods. By the 1820s an extensive canal system had been
constructed; Birmingham is often described as having more miles of
canals than Venice.
Railways arrived in Birmingham in 1837, with the opening of the Grand
Junction Railway and later the London and Birmingham Railway the
railways soon linked Birmingham to every corner of Britain. New Street
Station was opened as a joint station in 1854. And this was soon
followed by the Great Western Railway’s Snow Hill station.
During the Victorian era, the population of Birmingham grew rapidly to
well over half a million and Birmingham became the second largest
population centre in Britain. It became known as the «City of a thousand
trades» due to the wide array of industries located there. Birmingham’s
importance led to it being granted city status by Queen Victoria in
Birmingham suffered heavy bomb damage during World War II, and partly as
a result of this the city centre was extensively re-developed during the
1950s and 1960s, with many concrete office buildings, ring-roads, and
now much-derided pedestrian subways. As a result, Birmingham gained a
reputation for ugliness and was frequently described as a «concrete
In recent years however, Birmingham has been transformed, the city
centre has been extensively renovated and restored with the construction
of new squares, the restoration of old streets, buildings and canals,
the removal of much-derided pedestrian subways, and the demolition and
subsequent redevelopment of the Bull Ring shopping centre, which now
includes the architecturally unique Selfridges building.
In the decades following World War II, the face of Birmingham changed
dramatically, with large scale immigration from the British Commonwealth
New Street in central Birmingham
Main articles: Economy of Birmingham, Birmingham transport history
Birmingham is an important manufacturing and engineering centre,
employing over 100,000 people in industry and contributing billions of
pounds to the national economy. Over a quarter of the UK’s exports
originate in the greater Birmingham area.
Birmingham’s industrial heritage predates the Industrial Revolution, and
up until the 20th Century the city maintained a tradition of individual
craftsmen, sometimes working independently in their own back yards or on
piecework rates in rented workshops, alongside larger factories. During
the Industrial Revolution many factories, foundries and businesses
prospered in the city, including the areas known as the Gun Quarter and
the Jewellery Quarter. The Jewellery Quarter is still the largest
concentration of dedicated jewellers in Europe, and one third of the
jewellery manufactured in the UK is made within one mile of Birmingham
city centre. Until 2003, coins for circulation were manufactured in the
Jewellery Quarter at the Birmingham Mint, the oldest independent mint in
the world, which continues to produce commemorative coins and medals.
James Watt improved the Steam Engine while working in the city, and
historically the largest manufacturers in the city have been associated
with the steam, electric and petrol transport and power industries. The
city’s workers designed and constructed railway carriages, steam
engines, bicycles, automobiles and even – unusually for somewhere so far
from the sea – ships, which were made as pre-fabricated sections, then
assembled at the coast. Birmingham was home to two major car factories:
MG Rover in Longbridge and Jaguar in Castle Bromwich. However, the
future for the former looks bleak, as MG Rover went into administration
in 2005, resulting in the plant being mothballed and the loss of 6,000
jobs at the site, plus more in the supply chain.
The city’s present day products include motor vehicles, vehicle
components and accessories, weapons, electrical equipment, plastics,
machine tools, chemicals, food, jewellery and glass. Scientific research
(including research into nanotechnology at the University of Birmingham)
is expanding in the city. Other famous brands from the «city of a
thousand trades» include Bakelite, Bird’s Custard, Brylcreem, BSA,
Cadbury’s chocolate, Chad Valley toys, Halfords, HP Sauce, Typhoo Tea
Birmingham has over 500 law firms, and is Europe’s second largest
insurance market. The city attracts over 40% of the UK’s total
conference trade. Two of Britain’s «big four» banks were founded there.
Lloyds Bank (now Lloyds TSB) began in 1765 and the Midland Bank (now
part of HSBC) opened in Union Street in August 1836.
In recent years Birmingham’s economy has diversified into service
industries, retailing, tourism and conference hosting, which are now the
main employers in the city. Millions of people visit Birmingham every
year, and in 2004 the city was named the second best place to shop in
England after the West End of London. Attractions for visitors include
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, Millennium Point, Bull Ring, Selfridges
Building, Cadbury World, Tolkien Trail, Birmingham Royal Ballet, and the
National Sea Life Centre.
Main article: Architecture of Birmingham
City of Birmingham Council House, with Dhruva Mistry’s ‘The River’ in
the foreground (commonly known as ‘the floozie in the jacuzzi’)
Although Birmingham has existed as a settlement for over a thousand
years, today’s city is overwhelmingly a product of the 18th, 19th, and
20th centuries, as the real growth of the city began with the Industrial
Revolution. Consequently, relatively few buildings survive from its
Traces of medieval Birmingham can be seen in the oldest churches,
notably the original parish church, St Martin’s in the Bullring, where a
church has stood since at least the 12th century. The current church
(begun around 1290) was extensively re-built in the 1870s, retaining
some original walls and foundations. A few other buildings from the
medieval and Tudor periods survive, among them The Old Crown public
house in Digbeth, the 15th century Saracen’s Head public house and Old
Grammar School in Kings Norton and Blakesley Hall in Yardley.
The city grew rapidly from Georgian times and a number of buildings
survive from this period. Among them are St Philip’s Cathedral,
originally built as a parish church, St Paul’s Church in the largely
Georgian St Paul’s Square, Soho House in Handsworth, the home of Matthew
Boulton, and Perrott’s Folly in Ladywood (which is said to have later
inspired J. R. R. Tolkien).
The Victorian era saw extensive building across the city. Major public
buildings such as the Town Hall, the Law Courts, the Council House (see
picture) and the Museum & Art Gallery were constructed, many under the
auspices of Joseph Chamberlain’s reforming mayoralty. Saint Chad’s
Cathedral, built in 1839 by Augustus Pugin, was the first Roman Catholic
Cathederal to be built in the UK since the Reformation. The
characteristic materials of Victorian Birmingham are red brick and
terracotta, and many fine Victorian buildings have been retained on New
Street and Corporation Street in the city centre. Across the city, the
need to house the industrial workers gave rise to miles of redbrick
streets and terraces, many of back-to-back houses, some of which were
later to become inner-city slums.
The new Selfridges building
Continued population growth in the interwar period, saw vast estates of
semi-detached houses being built on greenfield land in outlying parts of
the city such as Kingstanding and Weoley Castle, but the coming of World
War II and the Blitz claimed many lives and many beautiful buildings
too. However, the destruction that took place in post-war Birmingham was
also extensive: dozens of fine Victorian buildings like the intricate
glass-roofed Birmingham New Street Station, and the old Central Library,
were razed in the 1950s and 1960s and replaced with modernist concrete
buildings. In inner-city areas too, much Victorian housing was
redeveloped and existing communities were relocated to tower block
estates like Castle Vale.
The planning decisions of the post-war years were to have a profound
effect on the image of Birmingham in subsequent decades, with the mix of
ring roads, shopping malls and tower blocks often referred to as a
‘concrete jungle’. In more recent years, Birmingham has learnt from what
many see as the mistakes of the 1960s and instituted the largest tower
block demolition and renovation programmes anywhere in Europe. There has
been a lot of new building in the city centre in recent years, including
the award-winning Future Systems’ Selfridges building, an
irregularly-shaped structure covered in thousands of reflective discs
(see picture), the Brindleyplace development and the Millennium Point
science and technology centre.