England’s second-largest city may lay claim fairly to the title “Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution”. It was here that James Watt first used the steam engine with success to mine the Black Country. Watt and other famous 18th century members of the Lunar Society regularly met under a full moon in the nearby Soho mansion of manufacturer Matthew Boulton. Together, Watt, Boulton, and other “lunatics”, as Joseph Priestly, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood cheerfully called themselves, launched the revolution that thrust England and the world into the modern era.
The 18th century was a time of change and revolution across the world. Intellectuals and ordinary men alike would gather to discuss anything and everything, from the social order problems of the day, to the latest scientific advances, and the intertwining political and philosophical issues. Clubs were formed in order to allow members the pleasure of enjoying the finest food and wine whilst debating these issues with other like-minded individuals.
The Lunar Society, or Lunar Circle as it was first called, was one such club. It met in and around Birmingham between 1765 and 1813.
The Birmingham Lunar Society was an informal group of friends whose lively meetings and conversations, letters and experiments were to have a global impact on scientific understanding during the late 18th century. The original Lunarmen gathered together for lively dinner conversations, the journey back from their Birmingham meeting place lit by the full moon. Their debates brought together philosophy, arts, science and commerce, and as well as debating and discovering, the Lunarmen also built canals and factories, managed world-class businesses and changed the face of Birmingham.
The Lunar Society was very particular about who was allowed to become a member. An exclusive club, it never had more than fourteen core members, and each member was noted for their special area of expertise including the greatest engineers, scientists and thinkers of the day. Their preferred venue was Soho House in Handsworth, the home of Mathew Boulton who was the heart of the Lunar Society. The society gained its name as its monthly meetings were always scheduled for the Monday nearest to the full moon, the better light helping to ensure the members a safer journey home along the dangerous, unlit streets.
The ranks of the dozen or so regular members of the Lunar Society were often swelled by visits and correspondents from more peripheral members including the likes of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Sir Richard Arkwright, Thomas Bedoes, Anna Seward and John Smeaton.
The historian Jacob Bronowski wrote of the Lunar Society, “What ran through it was a simple faith: the good life is more than material decency, but the good life must be based on material decency.”
The Lunar Society was jointly founded by metalware manufacturer and polymath Matthew Boulton and physician and poet Dr Erasmus Darwin. The members comprised some of the outstanding minds of the day, pioneers that together would bring about the ultimate fusion of science and social change that would fuel the fires and ignite the Industrial Revolution.
Mathew Boulton (1728 – 1809), of Boulton and Watt. The leading industrialist of his day, he developed modern-day industrial practice and introduced the first workers’ insurance schemes and sick pay.
Erasmus Darwin (1731 – 1802), poet, inventor and botanist. He published a theory of evolution 60 years before his grandson Charles. He developed a steering system that was used by Henry Ford and a mechanical copying machine. A visionary, who predicted the use of steam powered propulsion.
James Watt (1736 – 1819), of Boulton and Watt, developed the steam engines that provided the power for the new factories that were springing up across the country.
Josiah Wedgwood (1730 – 1795), the father of English pottery, who was also Charles Darwin’s other grandfather. As an industrialist, he was dedicated to improving everyday life and brought affordable tableware to the masses.
Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804), the rebellious cleric and scientist, famous for isolating oxygen, discovering carbon dioxide and carbonated (fizzy) drinks.
James Keir (1735 – 1820), glass manufacturer and the chemist responsible for making soap affordable to the great unwashed.
Richards Lovell Edgeworth (1744 – 1817), an inventor and agricultural innovator who also published books on educational theory.
William Small (1734 – 1775), a mathematician, philosopher and mentor of Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States of America.
William Withering (1741 – 1799), a doctor and botanist, responsible for discovering the treatment of heart disease with the extract from the foxglove plant, digitalis.
John Whitehurst (1713 – 1788), clockmaker and geologist whose work facilitated the discovery of valuable minerals beneath the Earth’s surface.
Samuel John Galton, Jr. (1753 – 1832), Quaker arms manufacturer.
Thomas Day (1748 – 1789), author, abolitionist and unorthodox educationalist. He was well known for the children’s book The History of Sandford and Merton which emphasized Rousseauvian educational ideals.
The Birmingham city centre walk takes in the surviving historic sites most closely associated with the Society’s members, together with the places where one can still see examples of their work and influence.
The starting point of the walk is St Philip’s Cathedral, designed by Thomas Archer and consecrated in 1715.
St Philip’s was one of the architectural showpieces of Georgian Birmingham. It was the venue for Matthew Boulton’s christening in 1728 and William Small was buried here in 1775. Nearby on Temple Row was the site of Dadley’s Hotel where Joseph Priestley’s speech supporting the French Revolution sparked the Priestley Riots of 1791.
St Philip’s was designed by Thomas Archer and constructed between 1711 and 1715. The tower was complete by 1725, and the urns on the parapet were added in 1756. Archer had visited Rome and his design, in the Baroque style, is influenced by the churches of Borromini, being rather more Italianate than churches by Christopher Wren.
Externally, the tall windows are interspaced by pilasters in low relief, supporting a balustrade at roof level with an urn rising above each pilaster. The western end is marked by a single tower which rises in stages and is surmounted by a lead-covered dome and a delicate lantern. The building is of brick and is faced with stone quarried on Archer’s estate at Umberslade.
St Philip’s Church was planned when the nearby medieval church of St Martin in the Bull Ring became insufficient to house its congregation because of the growing population of Birmingham.
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery has a wealth of collections and displays relating to the Lunar Society and 18th century Birmingham. The new permanent exhibition Birmingham: its people, its history looks at the town through an 18th century visitor’s eyes.
The Museum also has an internationally significant collection of 18th century fine and applied artworks including Joseph Wright’s insightful portrait of Erasmus Darwin.
The main entrance to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is from Chamberlain Square. The gallery first opened in 1885 following more than four decades of campaigns by the people of the city for a municipal exhibition venue. The site was extended in 1912, increasing the number of rooms from four to 40 to provide more space for its expanding collections.
Chamberlain Square with Paradise area is undergoing a major redevelopment so we imagine the statues of James Watt and Joseph Priestley have been relocated somewhere for safe keeping.
The marble statue of Watt was designed by Alexander Munro in 1868. Francis Williamson’s statue of Priestley was originally carved in marble in 1874 but this material deteriorated and the figure was recast in bronze by William Bloye in 1951.
The new Library of Birmingham is home to one of the biggest and best collections of 18th century archive material in the world.
The extensive Boulton & Watt archive consists of several million letters, documents and other original paper records.
On Level 9 of the library is the Shakespeare Memorial Room, an original feature from the city’s Victorian library.
Built in 1882, the room was designed to reflect the Elizabethan age as a tribute to the playwright and poet. Originally designed by John Henry Chamberlain for Birmingham’s Victorian Central Library, the Shakespeare Memorial Room features carvings, marquetry and metalwork representing birds, flowers and foliage. Following restoration by local craftsmen, it now commands an impressive position at the very top of the Library of Birmingham.
The collection includes the library’s smallest books, ‘The Bijou Series’ from 1850 – measuring just 2.5 centres which have been placed in specially made acid-free boxes.
Adjoining the Shakespeare Memorial Room is Skyline Viewpoint, with panoramic views across the city.
The library, which is estimated to have cost £188.8 million, is viewed by the Birmingham City Council as a flagship project for the city’s redevelopment. It has been described as the largest public library in the United Kingdom, the largest public cultural space in Europe, and the largest regional library in Europe.
The Library of Birmingham was the big winner at the 2014 RIBA West Midlands Regional Awards where it took home three of the four prizes.
The landmark building, which was designed by Dutch architecture firm Mecanoo, was named overall West Midlands building of the year by the Royal Institute of British Architects. In addition, Patrick Arends from Mecanoo was named emerging architect of the year while the library’s owner Birmingham City Council was crowned client of the year.
The Library of Birmingham is a transparent glass building. Its delicate filigree skin is inspired by the artisan tradition of this once industrial city. Elevators and escalators dynamically placed in the heart of the library forms connections between the eight circular spaces within the building. These rotundas play an important role not only in the routing through the library but also provide natural light and ventilation.
Francine Houben, founder and director of Dutch architecture practice Mecanoo, who designed the building, said she thinks of the building as an ode to the circle.
Across Centenary Square on Broad Street is William Bloye’s group statue of Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdock. The famously hard working and imaginative Murdock was a gifted engineer and inventor (he invented the oscillating cylinder steam engine), although not a member of the Lunar Society. This was probably because as an employee of Boulton and Watt he lacked sufficient social status – in spite of Enlightenment ideals of equality!
The statue was commissioned in 1939, but was not installed at this location until 1956. The bronze statue was originally gilded, but this gradually faded over the years. It was regilded in 2006 to return it to its original appearance.
Named after the famous engineer James Brindley, Brindley Place occupies the site of the Birmingham Canal wharves from which many Birmingham manufactures were shipped across the world.
Several of the Lunar Society’s members were investors in the town’s early canal system which began with the Birmingham Canal in 1769.
Completed in 1789, the Birmingham and Fazeley canal was one of the catalysts for the development of Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter.
The canal was built close to New Hall, former home to the Colmores, one of the most important families in Georgian Birmingham. New Hall was used by Matthew Boulton as a warehouse for a number of years until it was demolished in 1787.
The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal connects the Old Turn at Brindley Place in the Convention Quarter to the Coventry Canal at Fazeley Junction near Tamworth. The Coventry Canal provides a link to the Trent and Mersey via Fradley Junction and to the Thames via Hawkesbury Junction.
The canal was cut in 1784-89 and it is 24km long. 13km of the 24km and 27 of the 38 locks are in Birmingham.
The Birmingham locks are divided into three flights: the Farmers Bridge Flight of 13 in the Jewellery Quarter; the Aston Flight of 11 and the Minworth Flight of 3. These locks negotiate a difference in altitude of 50.5 metres between the Birmingham Level and the Minworth Level. In order to reach Minworth, the canal must descend 25 metres through the Farmers Bridge Flight, 21 metres through the Aston Flight and 4.5 metres through the Minworth flight. Before locks were invented the only way to get a boat up a hill was to carry it! In the 15th century, Leonardo da Vinci invented the double mitre locks used today, which use the force of water to keep them tightly shut.
The Birmingham Assay Office, one of four assay offices in the United Kingdom, has a statutory duty to hallmark precious metals. Matthew Boulton and Birmingham’s other great industrialists joined forces with silversmiths of Sheffield to petition Parliament for the establishment of Assay Offices in their respective cities. The original premises in Birmingham was the King’s Head Inn on New Street.
The hallmark of the Birmingham Assay Office is the Anchor, and that of the Sheffield Assay Office was the Crown. A story about the origins of this hallmark goes that meetings prior to the inauguration of both Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices in 1773 were held at a public house called the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand, London. It is rumoured that the choice of symbol was made on the toss of a coin which resulted in Birmingham winning the Anchor.
The Newhall Street Building dates from 1877.
Due to lack of capacity in its Newhall Street building preventing expansion, in 2015, a new Assay Office was opened in a purpose-built office off Icknield Street.
St Paul’s Square is a Georgian square in the Jewellery Quarter named after the church in its centre. It is the last remaining Georgian Square in the city. It was built between 1777 and 1779 on the Newhall estate of the Colmore family, an elegant and desirable location in the mid-nineteenth century.
St Paul’s Church was designed by Roger Eykyn of Wolverhampton. The building started in 1777, and the church was consecrated in 1779. It was the church of Birmingham’s early manufacturers and merchants – Matthew Boulton and James Watt had their own pews, which were bought and sold as commodities at that time.
After a big day, a big burger at Handmade Burger Co.