Birmingham was a small town specializing in metal work during the Middle Ages. The area was rich in coal and iron but a poor transport system undermined the growth of this settlement in the very centre of England. For two hundred years craftsmen had been attracted to the the area. Small workshops produced a range of metal goods and with the development of the canal system in the late 18th century, Birmingham became one of the most important trade centres in Britain. The main industries included the making of guns, jewellery, pins, buttons, screws, buckles and toys and by 1790 the population had reached 90,000.

In the late 18th century three of the most important figures in the industrial revolution, James Watt, Matthew Boulton and Joseph Priestley, worked in the town. Together with other leading scientists and industrialists, they were members of the Lunar Society, which met regularly to discuss scientific and philosophical questions.

By 1830, Birmingham was sending over one thousand tons of goods every week by canal to London. In 1833 the London & Birmingham Railway Company appointed Robert Stephenson as chief engineer of the project that would dramatically reduce the cost of transporting these goods.

The London to Birmingham line took 20,000 men nearly five years to build. The total cost of building the railway was £5,500,000 (£50,000 a mile). The railway was opened in stages and finally completed on 17 September 1838. The line started at Birmingham's Curzon Street Station and finished at Euston Station in London. As the Grand Junction Railway had been finished in July 1837, the four major cities in England, London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool were now linked together by rail.

The development of the railway system stimulated economic growth and attracted more people to the area. In 1801 there were 71,000 inhabitants but this figure had doubled by 1841. Twenty years later, the population of Birmingham had reached 296,000.

Low standard working-class housing was built quickly to meet this increase in demand. A report published in 1836 by local doctors stated that the working population of Birmingham lived in 2,030 courts which contained 12,254 tenements. Each court had a wash house, an ash pit, a communal toilet and pig-sties. The report pointed out the health dangers of this type of housing but the tradition of court development was not ended until the passing of the Birmingham Improvement Act in 1876. After the election of the pioneering mayor, Joseph Chamberlian, Birmingham became the best run city in Britain.