Stobart, J. (2008) Making the high street: William West's walking tours of Birmingham, 1830. Panel Presentation presented to: Centre for History of Retailing and Distribution (CHORD) Conference: Clone towns? The High Street in Historical Perspective, Telford, 10-11 September 2008.
Guidebooks have long been used as a way of directing the visitor through the town. Some, like John Gay’s Trivia, formed a general introduction to the social mores of street life. Others offered detailed itineraries for tours through the town, directing the walker along the improved streets of the town and calling at the most important locations including civic and ecclesiastical buildings, leisure facilities, charitable institutions and increasingly shops. As both practical guides and a form of armchair tourism, these books were important in constructing and broadcasting the image of the town as sites of modern consumption, be it of culture, leisure or material goods. It is perhaps then that they have received relatively little attention: the gaze of historians falling instead on the more serious town histories or guidebooks for tourist destinations such as the Lake District (Sweet, 1997; Whyte, 2000). In this paper, I want to focus in detail on the itineraries of Birmingham presented in William West’s History of Warwickshire (1830). He traces six circuits of the town, each centred on the Royal Hotel and each accompanied by a rhetoric of modernisation which highlights the achievements of the town. In particular, I want to focus on his treatment of New Street – the principal shopping street of the town, lined with ‘well stocked shops, in articles of taste, of luxury, and of general consumption’ (p.210). My purpose is partly to compare his descriptions with the listings appearing in contemporary trade directories. More particularly, though, I consider the ways in which he constructed the high street as a site of consumption: in highlighting certain features and obscuring others, he both emphasised the grandeur of the street and dressed shopping in a cloak of cultural and architectural respectability