Based in Victorian Lancashire, David Bintley’s delightful period ballet Hobson's Choice tells the story of a shoe-shop owner and his three daughters. The Salford setting is a picture of late Victorian England that was mirrored in many cities, including our home town, Birmingham.
Justine Pick from Birmingham University shows us the hidden Victorian gems that still exist in Birmingham, with some surprising connections to Maggie Hobson.
A Birds-eye View of Victorian Birmingham (1886). Three symbols of civic pride that remain today: the Town Hall (begun in 1832), the Museum and Art Gallery (1881-5) and the Chamberlain fountain (1881).
The end of the Victorian era was a time of rapid change in Britain. Growing cities and the expansion of the middle classes increased demand for goods and entertainments, which fuelled the building of retail and commerce districts and grand arcades. Opportunity beckoned.
Social change was also demanded, with many political and social movements for issues such as workers’ rights, votes for women and temperance.
The Victorian era in Birmingham witnessed the Civic Gospel, a philosophy which encouraged municipal action to make improvements for all and led to the rise of Joseph Chamberlain, and water and gas socialism.
Other artistic movements developed in response to the changes of the industrial age, and Birmingham welcomed Pre-Raphaelite art and the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement.
It was a time of great civic pride with a vision that was expressed through Venetian Gothic architecture. In fact, when taking a walk around the city centre, Birmingham’s architectural heritage can give an insight into the period, and the ballet.
1. SHOPPING ARCADES
The influence of Parisian culture on Victorian Britain can be seen in the grand shopping arcades. The best surviving example in Birmingham, with its wonderful Renaissance facade, is the Great Western Arcade, which runs between Colmore Row and Temple Row.
The covered design and type of shops attracted wealthy ladies to enjoy shopping and socialising in comfort, but who were the shopkeepers? Can we find someone like Maggie?
Yes. Miss Alice Mary Moseley was one of the earliest tenants of the arcade with her own boot and shoe shop. Despite the many social inequalities for Victorian women, some grasped the opportunities of the age and bettered their situation.
Alice, a schoolmaster’s daughter, was single and without capital, but she successfully applied for a grant to help start her business. Even after marriage and becoming a mother, she continued to run the business of A.M. Ashmore. The shop traded in the arcade until the mid-1990s, the business always passing down the female line.
The Great Western Arcade attracted other enterprising women, as Kelly’s Directory (1883) also lists, the Misses Amelia and Kate Gell and their ladies’ outfitters shop, at number 26.
Interior and Temple Row façade of the Great Western Arcade (1874-6), designed by W.H. Ward
2. A STREET BUILT FOR RETAIL AND COMMERCE
Clearing away old slum housing, Birmingham's Corporation Street was created as part of the Corporation of Birmingham’s Improvement Scheme (hence the name). Designed to resemble a Parisian boulevard, construction began in 1879 and continued through to the early 1900s.
Built to impress in a variety of architectural designs, stylish shops soon located to this street, with Lewis’s department store opening in 1885.
Those with money to spend could stroll along the wooden pavements to browse the ground floor shop, while professional services could be found in the upper floor offices.
When the Shah of Persia came to Birmingham in June 1889, the local papers reported how his entourage shopped extensively at the clothes and shoe shops.
The street has undergone many changes and continues to do so, but some original buildings do remain. What is now the Gazette Buildings (1885-6), was originally named Lincoln’s Inn Buildings, a name that could not be more apt for the lawyers who rented offices there.
Towards the New Street end are the Victoria Buildings (1879-80), built in French Renaissance style and among the first in the street to be completed. Trade directories tell us they were home to dentists, accountants, and corn merchant offices.
Public buildings also remain, including the impressive terracotta Law Courts (designed by Webb and Bell). This building boasts truly ‘Victorian’ credentials, as Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone in 1887. The courts were officially opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in 1891.
3. LEISURE TIME
Many Victorians enjoyed more leisure time than their forebears; in industrial cities, public parks offered a green oasis to enjoy sports and other recreations.
These parks were hugely popular and attracted hundreds, sometimes thousands, to fairs, shows and competitions.
Beautiful, ornate bandstands became the weekly focal-point for people to listen to music. Around the city, there are several survivors, with the bandstand in Handsworth Park having been recently restored to its former glory. Set within a natural amphitheatre, there is also a listed bandstand in Cannon Hill Park. Another beautiful 1873 example can be found at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, where the tradition of Sunday band concerts continues.
Victorian Bandstand in Handsworth Park (restored in 2006)
4. TROUBLE IN SOCIETY: ‘THE DEMON DRINK’
Alcohol is Henry Hobson’s downfall and represents exactly what the Temperance Movement was all about; alcohol and its detrimental effects on health, wealth and family.
The movement was very active in Birmingham, with many of the non-conformist religions in the town preaching total abstinence. The city was the site of frequent rallies and Band of Hope processions, and Corbett’s Temperance Hotel (originally situated not far from the Town Hall, but long since demolished) catered for those who had made the pledge.
However there are some survivors that to remind us of the movement. The former Methodist Central Hall (1900-3) and the Salvation Army Citadel buildings (1891-2) both remain at the top end of Corporation Street.
A red brick and terracotta building to complement the Law Courts opposite, the Central Hall could accommodate over 2,000 people for the concerts and films it offered as an alternative to the city's many public houses.
Methodist Central Hall, Corporation Street, designed by Ewen and J. Alfred Harper
5. VENETIAN GOTHIC AND ARTS & CRAFTS
For the civic vision that was expressed through Venetian Gothic architecture (recognisable by the pointed arches), the Birmingham School of Art is considered the finest example for the work of John Henry Chamberlain (no relation to Joseph Chamberlain).
Martin and Chamberlain were the Corporation’s architects and so designed many of the schools, libraries and other council buildings during this period of considerable civic progress.
As for the art school, this too became significant. With workshops for individual crafts, it was true to the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, and William Morris came to distribute prizes and address students in 1894.
Wonderfully, this building still serves its original purpose, as Birmingham City University’s School of Art.
Birmingham (Municipal) School of Art (1883-5), Margaret Street
Justine Pick is a Doctoral Researcher with the University of Birmingham
Pevsner Architectural Guides: Birmingham, Andy Foster (2005).
Birmingham 1889, Stephen Roberts (2017).
Images: author’s own, except Birds-Eye View of Birmingham 1886 (Usage Right: CCO – Public Domain).
Don’t miss your chance to see David Bintley's lovable comedy Hobson's Choice this June at Birmingham Hippodrome and Sadler's Wells.