By Jonathan Berg Our walking tours of Birmingham tell of the development of the city from our medieval past to where we are heading in the 21st Century. We include open and honest discussions about our city and certainly, the more murky aspects of the Industrial and Commercial Revolutions in the 17th and 18th centuries will be more to the fore on future tours. Modern interpretations of Birmingham’s historical development have tended to gloss over the more unsavoury aspects. When we look at our history with new eyes, things are revealed that certainly do not fit the ‘easy read’ of an entrepreneurial environment which became the ‘town of a thousand trades’. Yes, the simplistic history we often tell sees Birmingham starting as a market town in medieval times. Using ingenuity, local Black Country raw materials, and power from water-mills Birmingham developed production skills and made things people wanted such as ceramics, leather, and then metal items. In the 18th century, we became a major centre of the Industrial Revolution. The explosive growth of the town caused all sorts of issues that our famous Mayor Joseph Chamberlain and his Victorian mates sorted out for us from the 1870s. Our stories tend not to dwell on the darker sides of our roles in colonial development and links with the slave trade hardly get a mention. After all, as we learned in history lessons at school, the Commercial Revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries was centred on a trade triangulation based on the ports of London, Bristol & Liverpool with West Africa and the Americas. Produce went to Africa, slaves on to the West Indies and the Americas. Goods such as sugar, hemp, tobacco, and rum came back to England….job done. There is never a mention of Birmingham. We recognise that Birmingham’s production of knives, guns, and more general armaments and wartime materials have been important from medieval wars right up to the 20th century. However, instead of gun production, for which Birmingham and the Black Country were hugely involved in the mid-1700s, we prefer stories of James Watt and his steam engines and the town’s manufacture of buttons and buckles, pen nibs and even celebrated Victorian whistles still made today on the original fly presses. The Black Lives Matter campaign has changed this forever. It has fuelled a desire for us to understand more of our past and ensure the stories we tell give a balanced and less superficial view. The result is an appreciation of the way the past is sometimes sanitized for the sake of a happy ‘touristy’ experience; because of course considering the more difficult aspects of our history is just that…difficult, at a number of levels! So, let’s get on with it. Farmer’s Flight … what’s in a name? I love our full of surprises Sunday afternoon walking tour. It heads down the ‘secret canal’ to the Jewellery Quarter, looking at the development of different aspects of the historical ‘toy’ industry and shows how the coming of the canals was so important in bringing the raw materials needed for the huge expansion in manufacturing. From sole trader artisans working at a rented ‘peg’, to medium-sized family business such as Newman Brothers and their brass works specialising in coffin fittings. Finally, huge industries moving fast to take ideas and inventions into world-scale production at an amazing pace. This is a fascinating and exciting story, and we wonder why the whole of Birmingham does not want to walk with us! We learn so much about the successful enterprises that started the Industrial Revolution and were built upon by Victorian businessmen. The story just unfolds all around us as we walk. As a tour guide I get a feel for the way business, even in today’s city, is to an extent rooted in our past with a ‘got a new idea….come and do it here’ approach to life. Researching the tour to the Jewellery Quarter we wanted to gain an understanding of the Farmer family whose name is given to the canal flight we walk alongside. The Farmers were co-owners of Birmingham’s largest 18th Century gun- making company. Joseph Farmer came to live in Old Square from Bristol in 1702 and set about manufacturing steel wares including gun lock springs, sword blades, gun barrels, and boring tools. His son James took over the family firm and in 1746 his brother-in-law Samuel Galton joined him from Bristol to help take their business forward. Moving to London is never recommended! Perhaps success went to his head as James Farmer made some mistakes. First, he left Birmingham and moved to London – something we always advise on tour is a sign of poor judgment! Secondly, in London, it did not take him long to go bankrupt, though he was well protected by fellow Quaker bankers and soon re-entered Birmingham’s gun- making business. The ‘letter books’ of the Galton and Farmer firm are in the Library of Birmingham archives and give an insight into a company working right at the start of the Industrial Revolution. Today these also tell much about the role of Birmingham guns in the slave trade. These archive materials have been used for several major pieces of research, with an MSc back in 1972 by one W. A. Richards. More recently ‘Empire of Guns’ is a mighty work by Priya Satia, Professor of British History at Stanford University, which takes the Farmer and Galton company as primary evidence of the central role of Birmingham businesses in the slave trade. Farmer and Galton’s main gun factory in Steelhouse Lane became the largest of the Birmingham gun makers. This was and indeed remains, as it still goes on a little in today’s city, a complex trade, with many components manufactured by subcontractors in small workshops in Birmingham and the Black Country. For example, locks were made in Wednesfield and springs in West Bromwich. Wednesbury became a centre for gun barrels which lead to expertise in tubing manufacture still retained today. The complexity of multiple gun designs was to an extent overcome with standard component designs demanded by the Royal Ordinance and the advent of variations of the Brown Bess musket design which came in various forms and lasted over 100 years. On top of all this was the complexity of competing with the protectionist London gun makers. Marketing and sales were complex, with very different customers from the Government right through to slave ship captains who fancied making some private side-deals alongside his major cargoes. Guns for the African trade At times of war demand for Birmingham guns were high, with orders from the Royal Ordinance to keep up their stock in the Tower of London and arm multiple wars. In between wartime production things were difficult for the Birmingham trade, and supplying arms to West Africa became hugely important. In 1752 Farmer and Galton were producing 12,000 guns a year for the African trade and by 1754 the company was overrun with orders and trying to produce 600 guns a week. Around 50% of production headed to Liverpool to ‘fit-out’ slave-trading boats with estimates that 200,000 Birmingham guns a year were being sent to West Africa alone. When the guns arrived in African ports along with Manchester cotton cloth and other products they were used in place of money to trade for the slaves supplied by African tribal leaders. Put simply Birmingham guns were directly exchanged for human beings who had been rounded up to be sold into slavery. No one can deny that Farmer and Galton’s origins, growth, and sales were deeply rooted in the slave trade. The firm was the chief supplier to the formal African Company and also a range of private merchants. ‘Empire of Guns’ eloquently argues that Birmingham guns were used as money to pay for the slaves and fundamental to both the Commercial and Industrial Revolutions. Attitudes to abolition are key It is attitudes to the abolition movement that is perhaps the most revealing. The different views and actions of the Lunar Society members as the movement grew is of interest. Samuel Galton Junior (1753-1832) took the gun making business forward from his father and was one of the younger members of the Lunar Society which were divided in opinion regarding the abolition of the slave trade. By the 1790s the Lunar Society had both abolitionists and those seemingly more ambivalent with their businesses still inextricably linked with the slave trade. In ’The Lunar Men’ Jenny Uglow gently brings out differences in the group. She shows Thomas Day as an early abolition campaigner with his 1773 poem The ‘Dying Negro’ recalling an African slave awaking from sleep on board a slave ship and saying: ‘I woke to bondage and ignoble pains And all the horrors of a life in chains.’ Josiah Wedgwood also comes out as a strong abolitionist and even checked out the support of other Lunar Society members, once writing to James Watt and directly challenging him on his position. In 1789 Olaudah Equiano visited Birmingham to promote his antislavery autobiography called ‘An Interesting Life’. He was welcomed by Lunar Society members Galton, Boulton, and Priestley. However, the visit did not stop Boulton & Watt from working up deals with Liverpool slave trader John Dawson to supply steam engines to Trinidad. Poor quality Birmingham guns ridiculed A section of Birmingham industrialists certainly petitioned parliament against abolition. One reason given by the gun making lobbyists was that they would lose markets for the guns that failed to proof and were turned down by the Royal Ordinance. This caused controversy and a Board of Trade inquiry in 1790 heard that the poor quality Birmingham guns: ‘Kill more out of the butt, than the muzzle’. To suggestions that Birmingham gun makers dumped proof failed guns to the African market, the gun makers retorted somewhat weakly that the Africans loaded too much powder! Luckily the guns sold to Africa were used more for showing wealth and as part of funeral customs than as state of the art weapons. In tribal wars, the guns were there but blades were the weapon of choice. Indeed the guns sold to Africa were of such poor quality that exports were still allowed at times of war. When Galton had a shipment seized he successfully argued that they were simply ‘trade guns for Africa, not arms’. The abolition movement had turned the tables, with poor quality and dangerous Birmingham ‘trade guns’ becoming a scandal as they ‘burst when fired and mangle the person that has purchased them’. Currency not guns… The guns sold to West Africa from England are estimated at 150,000-200,000 a year in the latter part of the 18th century. Their use as a currency was seen across the Empire with the lack of local currency meaning that items such as sugar tobacco and other goods were bartered. Birmingham brass wire was also popular as currency and wire made in Birmingham ended up as ‘Guinea rods’. In return gold and silver as well as cotton and indigo and alcohol were all commodities traded instead of money. The lack of currency around the colonial world, while partially overcome by bartering was a barrier to efficient trade. This was something that one of our ‘Golden Boys’ Matthew Boulton spent the last thirty years of his industrial career doing something about. Boulton set up the Soho Mint alongside his manufactory to address the lack of coinage both at home and abroad. He had to pay his workers with money that was often of dubious origin, with the majority of halfpenny pieces in circulation being forgeries often produced in Birmingham’s back streets. Boulton coupled the new James Watt’s rotatory steam engine with precise and fast coining presses that would revolutionise coin production for the world. Boulton’s coining adventure has clear links with gun makers, the Galtons and others helping with technical expertise and collaboration. While he petitioned parliament to produce coins of the Realm he had to wait until 1797 to get his first contract for George III pennies. In the meantime, he produced tokens and then coins for customers from around the world. His first contract was an order for the East India Company for Sumatran coins where the company had major interests in spice works with workforces of slaves. On our walking tours, we stand by the statue of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch, (or a poster of it while it is in store), using it to describe the origins of the industrial revolution and the manufacture of small metal items known as Birmingham ‘toys’. These three gilded gents have acted until now as a reminder of our industrial roots. We explain that Boulton, the son of a small-town toy manufacturer, thought big and produced a large scale manufactory by a water wheel at Hockley Brook. His entrepreneurial skills and working practices were certainly formative in the way Birmingham approached life, perhaps even to this day. He funded businesses with multiple partners and not one but two dowries from the Robinson sisters from Lichfield. When it suited he ruthlessly dropped partners and moved on. He spotted opportunities, such as the world-beating steam engine design and manufacturing, persuading James Watt to come and join him in Birmingham to ‘power the world’. He was astute enough to see the importance of political decisions on his businesses. Directly or through intermediaries he exerted his influence on Parliament to help with projects as diverse as routes for a new canal from the Black Country and the establishment of an assay office for Birmingham. Of course, these Georgian industrialists that we so revere today lived in times where commercial and industrial development was interlinked with the expansionist activities of the wider nation. Birmingham business could hardly avoid being involved in the slave trade as it supplied much-needed goods for the colonialists’ across the developing world. We know that James Watt senior was involved with the slave trade with his activities at the Scottish port of Greenock. As a young man James is recorded as selling at least one imported slave to a country house and it is suggested funding for his training as an instrument maker in London came from the proceeds of slavery. Meanwhile, Matthew Boulton certainly entertained those employing slaves in the West Indies at Soho and this culminated in the purchase of over 120 steam engines for use in sugar cane plantations with export starting in 1803. While some suggest that the Boulton family archives have been sanitized there remains evidence that Bouton’s businesses were involved with contracts to slave traders. ‘Golden Boys’ reflect on different times To see the statue of slave trader Edward Colston pitched into Bristol’s floating harbour was certainly a dramatic moment in the Black Lives Matter campaign. What then of Birmingham’s memorials and pointers to historical links to the slave trade in today’s city? Certainly, Farmer’s Flight should be used to open up a discussion on the role that the Birmingham gun trade played in supporting the slave trade. Renaming the flight of locks or keeping the name serve equally as a basis for Sunday afternoon and weekday school group discussion on roles of Birmingham in things of which we are not proud. What to do about the much loved ‘Golden Boys’ statue of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch to be placed on a brand new plinth outside an extended Symphony Hall later in 2020 beside the modernism of the reflective pool? Certainly, we will use the statue to look at the huge advances during the so-called ‘Age of Enlightenment’ that these pioneers of the Industrial Revolution represent. However, we will also point to the Boulton & Watt business dealings with both gun makers and slavers, and the production of hundreds of steam engines for West Indies’ sugar plantations, and what of complex interactions with the provision of coinage with contracts with slave trading companies. Much to consider as we walk this city No longer will we introduce the ‘Golden Boys’ as “the non- controversial statue in Centenary Square” contrasting it to ‘A real Birmingham family’, Gillian Wearing’s impressive study of contemporary family life in the city. Yes, the ‘Golden Boys’ statue will now open up a different discussion than perhaps William Bloye envisaged when it came out of his Small Heath factory in 1956. Black Lives Matter is confronting our interpretation of Birmingham’s history and this can only be good for us all as we work to take one of Europe’s most progressive and exciting multicultural cities into the future. Comments welcome: Other websources on Birmingham and the slave trade: BBC article: ‘Abolition - did Birmingham profit?’ Read here…… History West Midlands podcast: James Watt and slavery: The untold story. Dr Malcom Dick talks to Dr Stephen Mullen, looking in detail at slave trade links of the Watt family. Stephen concludes that the profits of slavery can influence industrial development in ways not at first obvious and that we should take more note of slave trade links of ‘dead white men that we celebrate still today’. Listen here….. The Birmingham gun manufactory of Farmer and Galton and the slave trade in the eighteenth century. Richards W.A, MA thesis abstract - University of Birmingham. Full thesis PDF available upon request. Read here…..
Conditions below a slave trader making its ‘middle passage’ from Africa to the Americas were horrendous. We did at least get taught that at school. Triangular Trade London, Bristol & Liverpool to West Africa: goods included guns, alcohol and cloth. West Africa to West Indies and Americas: Humans sold into slavery West Indies/Americas to England: Products of slavery such as sugar, tobacco and hemp Lock mechanism of a 1747 James Farmer Brown Bess musket Joseph Sturge (1793-1859) was a Birmingham businessman and Quaker who formed the Anti-Slavery Society Olaudah Equiano (1745 –1797) taken from Nigeria to the Caribbean and purchased his freedom in 1766. He visited Birmingham in 1789 with his book: ‘The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano’ which was influential in parliament finally passing an act to ban the slave trade in 1807. The Brown Bess was a muzzle-loading flintlock and became a standard-pattern British infantry firearm for over 100 years. Guns sent to Africa were often of poor quality. In 1806 Samuel Galton Jnr. told  the Ordinance committee that abolition blocked the market for gun barrels that had been rejected by the Ordinance. Priya Satia takes a hard look at the Birmingham gun industry and shows the central role of Birmingham guns as a currency for the slave trade. The Lunar Society Included evangelistic absolutionists but also those whose profits derived in part from slaving. Not surprisingly Jenny Uglow suggests feelings in Birmingham on abolition could be ‘equivacol’. A standard issue military pistol supplied to the Board of Ordinance by James Farmer in 1745. He would have sent it in parts to be assembled at the Tower of London Josiah Wedgewood became involved in the abolition movement in the 1780s. He wrote to Watt: “I take it for granted that you and I are on the same side of the question respecting the slave trade” and his firm produced the ‘Slave Emancipation Medallion’. On our tours we used to suggest ‘Boulton, Watt & Murdoch’ (Bloye, 1956) was non-controversial public art compared to ‘A real Birmingham Family ‘ (Wearing, 2014). Now this will certainly be up for  debate! A walking tour sets off down the Farmers Flight of locks on the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal towards the Jewellery Quarter.
A not so pretty story: Birmingham and the Slave Trade
Do come along to one of our tours. They restart with full Covid-19 secure measures in place in July. Jonathan Berg, author of this article will be taking many of them for the first month or so. Click here to book……