Handsworth Currency Competition

Handsworth Context

Soho House

Soho House was the home of industrialist and entrepreneur Matthew Boulton from 1766 to 1809. Boulton was a key member of the Lunar Society, a group of Birmingham- area men prominent in the arts, sciences, and theology who met at Soho House. Members included James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood and Joseph Priestley. Members of the Society have been given credit for developing concepts and techniques in science, agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and transport that laid the ground work for the Industrial Revolution. Boulton founded the Soho Mint (coin pro- duction, not polos) which he soon turned into the world’s first steam powered mint as he attempted to improve the poor state of Britain’s coinage. Today, Boulton’s image appears alongside James Watt on the Bank of England’s new £50 note. Historically, Handsworth was in the county of Staffordshire and remained a small village from the 13th century to the 18th century when Matthew Boulton who lived at the nearby Soho House set up the Soho Manufactory in 1764 on Handsworth Heath. At its peak, the Soho Manufactory was the largest factory in the world being regularly referred to as ‘the 8th wonder of the world’.


The social and political context of Handsworth is important to understanding the wider project. Dr Malcolm Dick’s introduction to Handsworth, originally written to accompany the digital Handsworth website, gives a good overall introduction to the area.

Handsworth – Dr Malcolm Dick

1. Handsworth Today

Handsworth represents many of the features of contemporary Birmingham:

  • A change in the local economy from manufacturing to service industries. As local manufacturing has declined in recent decades, Handsworth’s economy shifted towards retail, leisure and the arts. New businesses emerged, created by and serving the needs of Handsworth’s and Britain’s diverse communities such as East End Foods, Thandi Coaches and a kaleidoscope of restaurants and shops.
  • An area where different communities have settled. In the 19th century, Handsworth became home to people of Scottish, Irish and Jewish origin. After 1945 Polish refugees and migrants from the West Indies and South Asia settled in the district. In the 1980s Handsworth became the most important local place of settlement for displaced Vietnamese boat people and more recently, it has become a home for asylum seekers and refugees from Afghanistan, Africa, Eastern Europe, Iran and Iraq.
  • Religious activity representing many world faiths and diverse sects. Handsworth has been the location of Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and Christadelphian congregations. The Rastafarians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the New Testament Church of Christ and Asian Christians have places of worship there. There are also Hindu mandirs, Muslim mosques and Sikh gurdwaras in the area.
  • The importance of the arts within the local cultural scene. Musicians such as Ruby Turner, Joan Armatrading, Apache Indian and Steel Pulse hail from Handsworth and the area is a home to British bhangra. Photographers such as Vanley Burke, Pogus Caesar and Sukhvinder Singh Ubhi also reside in Handsworth.

2. Handsworth and the Soho Road

Handsworth is a distinct part of Birmingham, but it has only been within the city’s boundaries since 1911. Before then it was part of Staffordshire. Much of Handsworth parish remained rural into the 20th century, but by 1900 the area around the Soho Road had developed into a wealthy suburb of middle-class dwellings and terraced homes for members of the skilled working class. The Soho Road became Handsworth’s artery. Originally a turnpike route in the 18th century linking Birmingham with the Black Country, it became part of Thomas Telford’s London to Holyhead Road in the early 19th century, bisecting what was still a predominantly rural parish. Large villas were built alongside the road, but as urbanisation developed in the late 19th century, the Soho Road became a major shopping street. The nature of the road changed as the local community developed. By the year 2000, it contained a library, police station, schools, a college, places of worship, advice centres, travel agents, fitness centres and restaurants as well as shops.

3. Handsworth 1945 – 1970

In the first decades after 1945 Birmingham’s geography contained several “zones of transition”. The central commercial core was surrounded by an inner-city ring which the City Council was demolishing and rebuilding. Housing efforts were concentrated on the perceived needs of the largely white working-class inhabitants who were rehoused in council houses and tower blocks in areas such as Ladywood, Lee Bank and Nechells. Outside this inner core was a middle ring of which Handsworth was a part. Meanwhile Birmingham’s population was declining. Between 1960 and 1966 it fell by 50,000, but the local Black and South Asian population grew by the same amount. Handsworth was changing. In the late 19th and early 20th century Handsworth had become a prosperous middle and upper-working class suburb. Between the 1950s and 1970s its population declined as many inhabitants moved to the outer suburbs or nearby towns, including Hall Green, Sutton Coldfield, Halesowen and Solihull. 19th century houses were seen as too large and inconvenient. These homes lacked garages and were expensive to heat and maintain. Difficult to sell, many of them became multi-occupational rented dwellings and the natural homes of migrants to the city who came without capital and were prevented from securing council accommodation. By the late 1960s, 20-25% of Handsworth’s population was made up of Black or South Asian households. Increasingly Handsworth became home to people of West Indian and Punjabi origin, whereas other parts of Birmingham’s middle-ring such as Balsall Heath, Small Heath and Sparkhill displayed different demographic characteristics with large minorities of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.

4. Handsworth 1970 – 1985

By the 1970s local and national politics were increasingly defined in racial terms. In 1964 during the General Election which Labour won, an uncharacteristic swing against the party in the Smethwick constituency which bordered on Handsworth, deprived the party of a leading figure, Patrick Gordon Walker. The victorious local Conservative party openly campaigned on an anti-immigrant ticket. In 1968, Enoch Powell the Birmingham–born MP for Wolverhampton delivered his “rivers of blood” speech in the Midland Hotel in the city centre. For a time he was Britain’s most popular politician and in Birmingham as elsewhere minorities were the target of hostility and discrimination. By 1970, though the living standards of Handsworth’s people were varied, the area displayed many of the characteristics of multiple-deprivation such as overcrowding, high unemployment and low levels of educational attainment. For many the situation worsened with the collapse of several traditional industries in the 1970s and 1980s. People of Indian and Caribbean origin had traditionally secured unskilled and semi-skilled work in Birmingham’s booming metal-bashing trades between the 1940s and early 1970s. Unemployment hit these groups harder than the upwardly mobile white population. Moreover, second generation Blacks and Asians, who were finding it increasingly hard to enter the labour market were likely to be less deferential than their parents. Authority structures such as schools, social services and the police were largely staffed by white individuals. Many of these people had little knowledge of or empathy towards minorities. A combination of political, economic and cultural factors was creating tensions which were reflected in Handsworth’s experience. Bristol, Toxteth in Liverpool and parts of London revealed similar characteristics, but it was Handsworth which attracted the full force of media attention in 1985.

5. Handsworth 1985

Between 9th and 10th September 1985, the area experienced the so called “Handsworth Riots”, even though the “disturbances” centred on one part – Lozells Road – and not the whole of the area. The immediate spark is shrouded in controversy. Was it a lawless reaction to the legitimate apprehension of a car-tax evader by police or an example of police harassment and physical abuse towards a black female resident? In any case, amidst widespread unrest, property and vehicles were burnt, 122 people were injured and two Asians died in the flames of their burning shop. Most of the “rioters” were young men between 16 and 26. Sections of the press were keen to portray the unrest as a “race riot” and represented the events by a dramatic picture of a young African-Caribbean man throwing a fire bomb. The causes of the disturbances were explored in three very different reports which followed the riots. One portrayed them as a “rebellion” against the police, implying that they reflected a meaningful set of actions with a clear set of objectives. Another report presented the disturbances as “riots” displaying mindless lawlessness and a drug-fuelled appetite for destruction. A third, produced by the local Council avoided the terms riot or rebellion and blamed the events on social deprivation, racial discrimination and poor relations with the police. National and local attention was focused on Handsworth. After 1985 considerable energy was directed towards building community relations and institutions and revitalising economic and educational activities.

6. Handsworth after 1985

In 1985 Handsworth was the most deprived district in Birmingham and among the most deprived 10% in England and Wales. Deprivation, according to the Department of the Environment was represented by six indicators: unemployment, overcrowding, households lacking the exclusive use of basic amenities, single-parent households, pensioners living alone and families of ethnic origin. 70% of Handsworth people came within these categories. Its male unemployment rate was 46%. The clear evidence of deprivation focused people’s minds. Development plans and the injection of money to improve the environment led to a physical enhancement in much of the area. Leisure centres were built, training and job opportunities were created and initiatives by local communities and individuals were encouraged. The opening of Matthew Boulton’s Soho House as a Museum commemorated Handsworth’s contribution to science, industry and technology. The Handsworth Carnival became an important celebration of the area, including the creative contribution of the Caribbean to music, dance and textile design. Police training included learning more about local cultures and an increasing proportion of individuals from minority communities were recruited. New building at Handsworth College enhanced educational opportunities. The creation of the Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha Gurdwara provided the Soho Road with a distinguished major landmark. Local people were recognised for their achievements, amongst them Esmé Lancaster, who was awarded an MBE in 2000 for her role in the Young Mothers’ Relief Association. Handsworth’s image began to change and more importantly, the lives of many of its local people improved. By 2001, unemployment had fallen to 21%, higher than the Birmingham and national figures but better than the situation fifteen years before.

Dr Malcolm Dick,Lecturer in Regional and Local History, Birmingham University & Director, Centre for West Midlands History

Reprinted with permission from Dr Malcolm Dick