'The Bull Ring' is the name now applied to the ancient green of
the 'Borough' of Birmingham. But this, though old enough to be acceptable,
is still a misnomer. The 'ring' was a hoop of iron to which bulls
were tied for baiting before slaughter, set in the cobbles of Corn
Cheaping above the parish church. It is shown in an early C19th
sketch of the green by Sam. Lines. A similar ring survives at Much
Originally the green was an isosceles triangle of about 1½acres
pointing west up the slope of the Rea valley side. Villeins' cottages
bordered it, backed by long narrow crofts. A small sandstone church
was built at the base of the triangle, above the manor house. St.
Martin's was rebuilt, enlarged, encased in brick, and rebuilt again:
the great besooted church of today is little more than a century
old, though built in antique style. Sermons used to be preached
from the outside pulpit which faces the open market: earlier this
century the area above the churchyard was much used by haranguers
spiritual and political, who were often unheard amid the noise of
trams, 'buses, barkers and buskers. Effigies of members of the de
Birmingham family, who did well for themselves and the town by obtaining
market and fair charters, may be seen within the church. Even with
periodic clearance of bones, the graveyard became over-full especially
in the plague years: loads of earth were dumped upon the surface,
so that the level rose steadily. 'The dead are raised up' Hutton
quipped: by late Georgian times access to the brick-clad church
was by steps down, and the retaining wall in Edgbaston Street had
become a 25-foot cliff.
The once-clear green, where a market may have been held before
the Conquest, but was first licensed in 1166, became cluttered with
buildings, half-timbered, stone, and later brick. Cottage rows at
the churchyard edges were called the Roundabout Houses: similar
ones may be seen at Alcester. A line of butchers' shops, the Shambles,
was stepped up the green beside the highway from the river: after
baiting the bulls were slaughtered there. Grain was bought and sold
in Corn Cheaping, its site now partly covered by the city-bound
carriageway of Digbeth, which was the only clear space. There stood
the parish pump. It was replaced in 1807 by 'the Egyptian Conduit',
a pyramidal object of derision called 'Pratchett's Folly' after
its donor the then Bailiff. In Mercer Street luxury goods, silks,
sugar, spices (hence the later name, Spiceal Street) were sold.
Near the crest of the slope stood the Old, High, or Butter Cross-Old
to distinguish it from the later Welch Cross, High because it stood
in High Street, and Butter because farmwives sat beneath its arches
with baskets of dairy produce for sale. A first floor was added
to this square building in 1703 for public business: the Debtors'
Court was held there until the Cross was demolished in 1784. The
town's pillory stood beside it.
At the entrance to New Street stood the Tollbooth. Wheeled traffic
had to go through an arch beneath the building, where market tolls
were paid and leather from Reaside tanneries was inspected. Prisoners
were incarcerated in the cellar. New Street had not been new since
the C14th. Upon it stood the timbered hall of the Gild of the Holy
Cross with almshouses beside: at Stratford are a range of buildings
of like function and probably of appearance, save that Birmingham's
hall boasted a bell and clock tower. The Gild's property about the
town was seized by Henry VIII, but his son returned some plots whose
income (which has risen astronomically) was thenceforward devoted
to the King Edward VI School held in the Gild Hall. After two rebuildings
the school moved to Edgbaston in 1936: King Edward House stands
on its site.
For centuries sheep and cattle were sold from pens in upper High
Street. English Market was at the south end, and Welch Market (Welch
for the drovers from the Marches who passed through Birmingham)
towards Dale End. Welch Cross, 1723, stood at the foot of Bull Street,
complete with guard room above and whipping post outside. The Bull
Inn gave its name to Bull Street, as the Castle Inn to Castle Street.
Entrances to these and other side-streets were narrow if not through
archways, because they had originally been access paths to yards
Through traffic up and down High Street suffered great delay: encroachments
on both sides, stalls, piles of produce and refuse, unloading and
loading, always prevented easy passage. Market and fair days were
only worse than usual. All roads led to Birmingham and its two stone
bridges across Rea. From 1769 the Streets Commissioners and several
Improvement Acts gradually removed all the obstructions, widened
and cleaned the streets. By 1806 bull-baiting had been outlawed,
both Crosses, Roundabout Houses, the Shambles, and other buildings
on the green and at the junctions had been removed. Cattle sales
were moved to Dale End, horses to New Street, fruit and flowers
to Worcester Street, and all other market traders to the cleared
Bull Ring. Thenceforward Birmingham's rioters always had a large
open space in which to gather and begin their orgies of destruction.
Public Offices were opened in Moor Street in 1807, with a prison
in the basement, The Nelson Monument was unveiled two years later.
Smithfield Market opened on the cleared Moat House site in 1815.
Edge's fine Doric Market Hall was successful from its opening in
1835. Apart from some rebuilding on old sites, the Bull Ring changed
little until World War Two, when the Hall was burnt out and buildings
on the east side were destroyed. Moor Street Station yard had replaced
the Public Offices before World War One.
From the widening of Digbeth in 1955 the Bull Ring was transformed
until only the church, too fragile to be cleaned, remained. A multi-storey
carpark on the north and the Shopping Centre on the south side,
Spiceal Street a walkway, the Inner Ring Road sweeping over the
open market, the Rotunda looming over all on the site of the Tollbooth-all
were products of the Golden Age now past, the booming Sixties. Manzoni
Gardens have replaced the shell of the Market Hall. Buildings on
High Street still look surprised by the exposure of their rear elevations
in the making of Moor Street Queensway. Everywhere stained concrete
has been substituted for grimy brick. But still the open market
stalls flourish as they have done for a thousand years, and the
dimensions of the ancient green are unchanged.