If no-one else knew it at the time, a local poet and innkeeper called John Freeth certainly knew. However modest the 10-mile stretch of canal linking the Black Country coalfields to Paradise Street in the centre of Birmingham may have looked when it first opened in 1769, this was going to be the tipping point. This unremarkable line of water would open up a world of trade for his hometown, Freeth insisted in a poem called Inland Navigation – a world of trade stretching all the way ‘from the Tagus to the Ganges’.
Nor was his gushing optimism back in the eighteenth century unfounded. Soon the barges shuffling into the sooty wharves of Birmingham laden with rough metals and coal from the Pennines and North Wales were feeding ‘the city of a thousand trades’ with the raw materials it needed to make the machinery and the finished metalware products it was now beginning to export all around the British Empire.
Despite the later arrival of the railways and road haulage, it was the beginning of a long relationship with the wider world that in many ways was built around the canals, the twists and turns of which can be traced by taking a journey around them.
A good starting point would be the Old Turn Junction sitting on the ‘cut’ (as Brummies often call their canals) leading northwards from the Gas Street Basin, the hub of the Midlands canal network. Here you will find a signpost sitting on an odd little island in the middle of the waterway ushering you in two different directions.
Take your narrowboat left and you will arrive at the Soho Loop where in the late eighteenth century industrial pioneers Matthew Boulton and James Watt started building the industrial steam engines soon to be found in manufacturing mills all around the world, not least two huge coin-minting foundries in Calcutta and Bombay.
Alternatively, if you head right, along the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal, you will come across a less savoury aspect of Birmingham’s industrial heritage, but one that nonetheless needs to be faced. Backing onto the water here is Shadwell Street, once the centre of the old gun-making quarter which for centuries supplied British troops in various fields of conflict including the two world wars, but also notoriously provided slave merchants in Bristol and Liverpool with arms, thus profiting from the transatlantic slave trade.
Carry on round the cut, however, and you will find the disused sites of Birmingham firms that make for easier reading. At Saltley, there are the old works of famous railway carriage maker Metro Cammell, which, in its heyday, exported coaches to just about everywhere – from Jamaica and Brazil on one side of the globe to Borneo and New Zealand on the other. Take a detour down the Digbeth Branch Canal, too, and, at the end of it, your barge will slip into the Typhoo Basin, where once upon a time a weekly relay of boats packed with chests of Sri Lankan tea would arrive, waiting to be unloaded at the Typhoo Packing Factory. Typhoo was set up by Birmingham businessman John Sumner in the early 1900s.
There was no shortage of Midlands entrepreneurs on the other side of town either. Over at Longbridge, Herbert Austin built a worldwide motor empire on the back of a cute little car called the Austin Seven, while on the banks of the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, George Cadbury built a chocolate empire based on ‘Dairy Milk’ bars and successful sales operations in India, South America and elsewhere.
The entry of Quaker George Cadbury into our story points to another ‘global’ aspect of Birmingham. Due to its lack of city status, which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries placed restrictions on freedoms of worship, Birmingham had become a magnet for people of nonconformist creeds who faced discrimination elsewhere; and it was these communities – Quakers, Baptists and so on – who brought with them a strong sense of social justice and, in particular, a sense of outrage over the evils of the slave trade. In the 1820s and 1830s, the Female Society for Birmingham – a union of women, many of them Quakers – took to the international stage to wage a successful campaign to raise awareness of the appalling suffering of Caribbean slaves. In 1833, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire.
Later on, George Cadbury took up the campaigning baton by using his newspaper ownership of the Daily News to lead the charge against the British use of concentration camps in the South African war against the Boers. A decade or so later, another Birmingham maverick, Charles Freer Andrews – an Anglican minister but nonetheless showing a very Brummie spirit of non-conformity – befriended Mahatma Gandhi and joined him in the civil rights struggle against the British Raj in India.
His alma mater in Birmingham, King Edward’s School, sitting in the vicinity of the Worcester and Birmingham cut in Edgbaston, now has a significant number of pupils of Indian descent. They are the descendants of the generation of Indians who arrived in boomtown Birmingham after the Second World War to seek work and stayed on, part of a Commonwealth diaspora which also saw African-Caribbeans settle in the city.
One in ten people now living in the city was born in an overseas Commonwealth country, and many more have family in countries such as India, Jamaica and Pakistan. Alongside Birmingham’s old non-conformist chapels and Quaker meeting houses, there are now mosques, gurdwaras and mandirs, all playing their part in the vibrant patchwork of a city that has become truly intercultural and global.
And never too far away, there is always an old Birmingham canal, lines of waterway which once reached out to the world, and then brought the world back to Birmingham.
By Simon Wilcox