Vivid Impressions



Most travellers carry with them a mental frame of reference designed to integrate new experiences within comfortable systems of belief.

But there was nothing comfortable about the West Midlands as it stood on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. The notion of the ‘picturesque’ provided no explanation of the awesome power of the steam engine or of labour division in the workplace. A visit to Birmingham and the Black Country came as a shock to domestic and foreign travellers alike.

To the traveller of the 1770s and 1780s Birmingham represented a new type of town. Its novelty and power of attraction lay chiefly in its workshops where metallic consumer goods known as ‘toys’ (buttons, buckles, watch chains, snuff boxes, etc) were manufactured en massefor distribution to retail merchants throughout Europe.

In coming to Birmingham the visitor was promised a glimpse of the future: of a world transformed by labour-saving mechanised industry. A detour into Birmingham’s westerly hinterland (the rapidly urbanising Black Country) with its mines and foundries and groaning steam engines merely heightened the impact of the vision. In this ‘land of the vulcans’ connected to Birmingham by canals, turnpikes and a near-continuous ribbon of industrial cottages, it was plain that the Industrial Revolution had arrived.

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Books from History West Midlands

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