It’s been a symbol of Birmingham’s manufacturing excellence for 250 years, but the city’s Gun Quarter has lost its biggest battle of all.
One of Britain’s oldest industrial areas has been renamed after council leaders claimed local people no longer wanted to be associated with the weapons of war.
The streets where highly skilled tradesmen produced two million muskets to fight Napoleon are to be known in future as St George and St Chad in recognition of a church and Birmingham’s Roman Catholic cathedral.
Opponents of the name change say the Gun Quarter has been sacrificed on the altar of political correctness.
But the move has been approved by council cabinet member for regeneration, Tim Huxtable, who said he was simply responding to public opinion.
The council received a petition signed by just 50 people objecting to the name.
Consultation into the future development of Birmingham resulted in “significant objection” from the local community to the use of the word ‘gun’, according to the final draft of the Big City Plan, setting out a 20-year vision for the city centre.
Evidence produced by the council to back the move included a report from the Newtown Neighbourhood Forum claiming that “it is not wise” to retain the Gun Quarter because the area has suffered from gun crime and the name is also associated with the arms trade.
The decision resulted in Coun Huxtable, a Conservative, being accused of political correctness by Sir Albert Bore, leader of the opposition Labour group.
Sir Albert (Lab Ladywood) said: “What kind of nonsense is it when we replace the Gun Quarter with St George and St Chad?
“Like it or not, and I am not into the arms trade myself, the Gun Quarter has a historical connection with this city. This is just political correctness.
“We haven’t got a big vision for this area, we haven’t got it right and we are not going to get it right if we call it St George and St Chad because it doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t convey anything.”
Sir Albert was backed by an unlikely ally, prominent Tory cabinet member Alan Rudge, who accused Coun Huxtable of “attempting to re-write history”.
Coun Rudge (Con Sutton Vesey) added: “The manufacture of guns by thousands of traders is what created this area.”
Coun Huxtable (Con Bournville) remained unrepentant.
He said: “We listened to the local community, which is the whole point of consultation. The views of local people seem quite clear.
“It wasn’t done for political correctness, but if it had been I would hardly name the quarter after two Christian saints.”
He pointed out that the gunsmith trade accounts for only a very small part of the area known as the Gun Quarter.
The decision was described as “a terrible shame” by the owner of Birmingham’s best known surviving gun maker, Westley Richards & Co.
The company, based in Pritchett Street, which was responsible for manufacturing the British army’s Lee Enfield rifles, celebrates its 200th anniversary next year.
Managing director Simon Clode said: “This is an important part of Birmingham’s history and provided the biggest sector of employment in the early days.
“The area is not well occupied by gun makers now, but it’s still the Gun Quarter. It’s a terrible shame that they are in a sense denying history, but I suppose like a lot of things there is nothing you can do about it.”
A council spokeswoman insisted that the gunsmith area would live on as a separately defined part of the new St George and St Chad quarter.
The Big City plan defines seven distinct Birmingham zones – the City Core, Southside and Highgate, Digbeth, Eastside, the Jewellery Quarter, Westside and Ladywood and St George and St Chad.
Gun manufacturing began in Birmingham at the beginning of the 17th century, but was largely confined to Digbeth.
Production moved to the tightly-knit streets to the north-west of the city centre and by the beginning of the 18th century the area now known as the Gun Quarter catapulted Birmingham into one of the world’s leading producers of small arms.
By the end of the 18th century the Gun Quarter had become a thriving manufacturing community. Government viewing rooms were opened in Bagot Street in 1798, employing 60 or 70 people to ensure that guns produced were of the necessary standard to provide for the British army.
Between 1804 and 1817, during the Napoleonic Wars, a total of 1,827,889 muskets, rifles, carbines, and pistols were manufactured for the Government.
The number of firms in Birmingham’s gun industry was 125 in 1815, 455 in 1829, and by 1868 there were 578 gun firms in the city. The trade employed 2,867 people in 1851, out of a total of 7,731 in the whole of England and Wales.
The Crimean War brought more business, and from 1854 to 1864 more than 4,000,000 barrels were manufactured in Birmingham. About 800,000 weapons were shipped from Birmingham to America during the Civil War.
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