In the words of the Birmingham Civic Society’s first President, the Earl of Plymouth, at the inaugural meeting on 10 June 1918, the intention was to “bring public interest to bear upon all proposals put forward by public bodies and private owners for building, upon the laying out of open spaces and parks, and generally upon all matters concerned with the outward amenities of the city and district. It will insist that taste is a thing that matters, and if any offence against taste is challenged at the outset, great good will be done and converting of mean and unlovely parts of the City will follow.”
In its early years, under the guidance of Honorary Secretary William Haywood, son of a silversmith and a trained architect, the Civic Society focused its efforts accordingly, using an initial donation to buy land to create open spaces. Northfield was the first area to benefit; the Society bought 10 acres and created Daffodil Park in Northfield. The Park was given to the City Corporation in February 1920 on the condition the Society would be consulted about any future development on the land, setting the pattern for the next few years. 25.5 acres was purchased at Kings Norton in October 1920 and handed to the City; Muntz Park in Selly Oak, the Henburys adjacent to Highbury Park, Aston Hall Park and Handsworth Park, amongst others, all followed.
Three other initiatives began in 1919.
Firstly, a deputation from the Society met with the Town Planning Committee to argue for better and more comprehensive planning of the physical environment, culminating in the Society presenting a plan for the redevelopment of Northfield village. Similar initiatives followed in relation to Pebble Mill Road and the entrance to Canon Hill Park.
Secondly, the Society published a pamphlet, containing maps and photographs, outlining a scheme for the public use of the Lickey Hills. It was so popular it ran to a third edition and a similar guide was published for Sutton Park.
Thirdly, the Society became involved in submitting designs for street furniture and telephone boxes, ultimately leading to its designs for street lamps being used in 1937 and playing a part in a national design competition for telephone boxes.
In the 1920s Haywood began to expand the work of the Society, forming the Gardens Guild to promote better gardening cultivation and creating campaigns to save Stratford House and the Aston Almshouses from demolition. Through the Society, he also led the successful campaign to keep the Repertory Theatre open in 1923, proposing a programme of productions and setting up a committee designed to boost audiences. He was instrumental in the theatre being given by the owner, Sir Barry Jackson, to the Sir Barry Jackson Trust, which improved the theatre’s financial viability and still continues today with a representative of the Society as a Trustee.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Society recognised Birmingham was likely to be a target for bombing and took action to protect, amongst other things the Burne-Jones designed windows in the Cathedral. They were right to do so as all the remaining windows were destroyed.
William Haywood retired in 1947 and was appropriately honoured with the Society’s Gold Medal.
After the war the Council embarked on an ambitious programme of re-development, which resulted in the demolition of many fine old buildings. The Society noted in its annual report of 1956 that:
“The swift pace of post-war development in Birmingham coupled with the acute shortage of undeveloped land is leading to the clearance and rebuilding of old sites. In this process a number of interesting buildings are being removed.”
This modest response may have been symptomatic of the time, as was the decision to reward the City’s engineer, Sir Herbert Manzoni, with a Gold Medal.
In 1953 the Society erected the first of its Blue Plaques, which honour the great and the good who have lived and / or worked in the City.
Subsequent decades saw less intense activity, though the Society continued to lobby for better planning and facilities for residents, sponsored post-graduate work and ran events for its members. In particular, under the leadership of then chairman Sir Joseph Pope, the Society secured the reinstatement of the pools around Chamberlain Fountain in Victoria Square.
The Society was rejuvenated in the 1990s under the leadership of Bruce Tanner. At this time the Heritage Buildings Guide was published and a new perspective on the Society’s role evolved; it was recognised that the social as well as physical environment is important. As a consequence, under the leadership of Dr Freddie Gick in 2004 the Society established programmes in Planning, Heritage and Citizenship, supporting all with an active events calendar. This has subsequently been supplemented with a tree-planting programme, Birmingham Trees for Life, and a campaign to extend the reach of the Society, taking it into the many and varied communities within Birmingham.
The celebration of the Society’s 90th anniversary on 10 June 2008 was marked by the award of a Grant of Arms, a first for Birmingham among the country’s civic societies.