History museums in Birmingham, UK, you should visit

In the bustling city of Birmingham, United Kingdom, lies a captivating array of history museums, each a gateway to a bygone era. From the grandeur of Aston Hall, a Jacobean mansion steeped in aristocratic heritage, to the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, showcasing the city’s craftsmanship, these sites invite visitors on a compelling journey through time.

The Birmingham Proof House Museum unravels the secrets of firearm history, while Soho House echoes the industrial legacy of Matthew Boulton. Aston Manor Road Transport Museum celebrates transportation milestones, and Minworth Greaves whispers tales of medieval life.

The Pen Museum showcases Birmingham’s writing legacy, and the Birmingham Museum Collection Centre houses an eclectic tapestry of artifacts. Sarehole Mill resonates with literary charm, drawing inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien’s childhood.

The West Midlands Police Museum, Selly Manor, Birmingham Back to Backs, and Blakesley Hall stand as living testaments to the city’s diverse and rich historical narrative, awaiting exploration and discovery.

If you want to read more about other heritage buildings worth visiting in Birmingham, we have another article for you.

The Aston Hall

Aston Hall – digital painting
Aston Hall – digital painting

Aston Hall, an esteemed Grade I listed Jacobean house in Aston, Birmingham, stands as a testament to the architectural magnificence of the Jacobean era. John Thorpe’s design and construction between 1618 and 1635 yielded a remarkable Jacobean prodigy house.

In a unique historic turn, Birmingham Corporation acquired the house in 1864, becoming the first country estate under municipal ownership. Presently, it serves as a community museum managed by Birmingham Museums Trust after an extensive renovation in 2009, offering an immersive experience to the public.

The Hall’s history reflects its resilience amid adversities. The attack by Parliamentary troops in 1643 left visible scars, evidenced by cannonball damage that still remains. Despite changing ownership—from the Holte family to the Aston Hall and Park Company Ltd in 1858—the house retained its allure.

Its significance even found literary recognition in Washington Irving’s tales, painting a vivid picture of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall, derived from Aston Hall’s setting and traditions.

Aston Hall’s legacy expands beyond its architectural prowess. Hosting Birmingham’s art collections in the late 19th century and witnessing the vibrant Pageant of Birmingham in 1938, the estate embraces a dynamic role in the city’s cultural heritage.

Today, as a community museum adorned with period rooms featuring remarkable collections, Aston Hall stands as a captivating portal into Birmingham’s history, welcoming thousands of visitors annually. Yet, nestled amid the modern landscape, Aston Hall preserves its haunted tales, earning accolades as the UK’s top haunted heritage site.

The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter

The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, situated on Vyse Street in Hockley, Birmingham, stands among the distinguished Birmingham Museums Trust’s nine venues, renowned as the largest independent museums trust in the UK.

The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter
The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter

Initially heralded as the third best free tourist attraction in Europe by TripAdvisor in 2008, it has transitioned to implementing an entry charge since then.

The museum’s rich historical narrative emanates from its origins as the former workshop of Smith and Pepper, a family-run gold jewelry firm for over 80 years. Upon the owners’ retirement in 1981, the workshop became a time capsule, frozen in time with tools, workbenches, and personal items like tea cups left undisturbed.

Established in 1992 as the Jewellery Quarter Discovery Centre, it serves as a testament to the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter’s legacy, encapsulating its 200-year history as the hub of the British jewelry industry.

This time capsule not only showcases the craft skills and industry evolution but also exhibits an array of jewelry collections, including intriguing coffin fittings. The museum stands as the perfect introduction to a self-guided exploration of the Jewellery Quarter.

The Birmingham Proof House Museum

The Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House, an architectural gem designed by John Horton, has stood on Banbury Street since 1813, pivotal in certifying firearms’ quality for the thriving gun trade. Legislative acts like the Gun Barrel Proof Act 1868 mandated this testing before sales, ensuring safety and quality.

Firearms endure rigorous testing at the Proof House, subjecting them to extreme conditions with overcharged cartridges. Those passing receive a stamped proof mark, signifying quality. Alterations render them “out of proof,” requiring re-testing before sale—a legal requirement.

The operational establishment provides ammunition testing and investigates firearm accidents. Its museum showcases arms and small arms’ historical evolution in Birmingham, preserving the city’s heritage.

The Proof House Museum’s history dates back to the mid-19th century, evolving into a comprehensive repository documenting the Birmingham Gun Trade’s evolution. Aided by the visionary Roger Hancox, the museum expanded its Ammunition Pattern Rooms, preserving not only the industry’s heritage but also housing original Count Calandra collection items.

Organized tours of the Proof House, Pattern Rooms, and Museum offer a deep dive into Birmingham’s gun heritage, providing educational talks and visual presentations. While these tours accommodate up to 10 visitors, security measures like visitor lists and age restrictions ensure a focused and safe experience.

For those unable to visit, a documentary CD offers an immersive virtual tour, preserving the Proof House’s historical narrative. Through these measures, the museum continues its commitment to preserving and sharing Birmingham’s gun heritage while maintaining safety protocols and historic preservation standards.

The Soho House

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Soho House, managed by Birmingham Museums Trust, commemorates Matthew Boulton’s legacy, highlighting his ties to James Watt, the Lunar Society, and his role in the Midlands Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.

This Grade II* listed 18th-century residence in Handsworth, part of Birmingham since 1911, was Boulton’s home from 1766 to 1809, serving as a meeting hub for the Lunar Society.

Boulton’s entrepreneurial journey began in 1761 when he transformed Soho Mill into Soho Manufactory, expanding the adjacent cottage into Soho House. The house’s facade, crafted from painted slate, mimics large stone blocks. Boulton relocated to Soho House upon completing the Manufactory, later demolished in 1863.

A founding member of the Lunar Society, Boulton expanded Soho House in 1789, engaging Samuel and James Wyatt to revamp the structure and gardens. Samuel Wyatt contributed to the main entrance and the grand dining room, often hosting Lunar Society meetings.

The property underwent subsequent ownership changes until acquired by Birmingham City Council in 1990 and opened as a museum in 1995.

Restored to its 18th-century grandeur, Soho House exhibits exquisite collections of ormolu, silver, furniture, and paintings, including creations from Boulton’s manufactory. The site, with a Blue Plaque honoring Boulton, features a garden walk adorned with sphinxes dating back to 1795.

The museum, a branch of the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery, offers exhibitions of local significance, now requiring admission since April 2011 for adults while remaining free for under 16s, with open gardens for all visitors.

The Aston Manor Road Transport Museum

The Aldridge Transport Museum, previously known as the Aston Manor Road Transport Museum, is an independent museum nestled in Aldridge, Walsall, England, showcasing the Aston Manor Road Transport Museum’s array of vehicles.

Originally situated in the former Birmingham Corporation Tramways Witton Tram Depot in Aston, it operated under a registered charity until December 2011.

Notably, the museum played host to Prince Charles’s 40th birthday celebration on November 14, 1988, marking its significance. Due to the decision by Birmingham City Council to halt funding for the Witton Tram Depot, the museum ceased its operations in October 2011.

The entire collection found a new home at the Beecham Business Park in Aldridge by December that year, formerly the site of the Jack Allen dustcart assembly plant. Eventually, it relocated within Aldridge itself, settling in Shenstone Drive, welcoming visitors from July 2013 onwards.

Run solely by volunteers, the museum warmly welcomes visitors on Tuesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays from 10:30 to 16:00 throughout the year, except during the Christmas Holiday period.

Various special events take place throughout the year, featuring a free bus service from Walsall to the museum and back, utilizing classic buses. Additionally, the museum’s classic buses offer free rides on select event days to destinations like the Chasewater Railway, Lichfield, and around Barr Beacon.

The museum rotates its exhibited vehicles, ensuring a diverse display by swapping them with those in secure off-site storage.

The Minworth Greaves

Minworth Greaves, a timber cruck-framed structure, holds Grade II status and resides in Bournville, Birmingham. Its origins likely stretch back to the 14th century or possibly as early as 1250.

Owned by the Bournville Village Trust, the building, situated adjacent to Selly Manor, operates as part of the Selly Manor Museum. Initially constructed in Minworth near Sutton Coldfield, it endured severe dilapidation until George Cadbury acquired and relocated it to the Selly Manor grounds, rebuilt in 1932.

Crafted with timber framing and plaster infill, the original structure comprised a two-bay cruck-framed hall, featuring a main roof fashioned from a split oak tree forming cruck blades. A modern addition includes a slender bay with a gallery. Originally, the windows were smaller and higher, constructed with cloth soaked in animal fat instead of glass.

Once situated in Minworth, the building fell into disrepair, prompting its acquisition and restoration by the Cadbury family. The reconstruction in 1932 at Selly Manor salvaged elements like the cruck-beamed great hall and primary timbers, revealing the semblance of a cruck-beamed hall. Architect William Alexander Harvey spearheaded this restoration effort.

An 18-foot oak table, bearing inscriptions and dating back to 1630 from Crook Hall in Lancashire, found a home at Minworth Greaves in 1921. This historic table, commemorating the house, became part of the displayed heritage.

Designated as a Grade II listed building in 1952, Minworth Greaves now serves the public, housing exhibitions that enrich its historical narrative.

The Pen Museum

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The Pen Museum in Birmingham, England, delves into the rich history of the city’s steel pen trade, being the sole museum in the UK dedicated to this industry.

Managed by the Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association, established in 1996, the museum elucidates how Birmingham rose to prominence as the global hub for pen manufacturing.

Situated within Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter at the Argent Centre, a Grade II* listed building that once housed a pen factory, the museum opened its doors in April 2001.

It expanded in 2016, incorporating the Philp Poole Room gallery. Initially boasting about 100 companies in the 19th century, Birmingham was a major distributor of steel pens worldwide until the advent of fountain and ballpoint pens eclipsed this trade.

Exploring the lives of employers and workers in the pen industry, the museum showcases the manufacturing process of steel pen nibs and provides insights into various writing equipment and techniques.

Visitors engage with interactive displays, guided tours, and hands-on activities like using vintage typewriters, Braille machines, and creating pen nibs with original factory presses.

Beyond historical artefacts, the museum fosters community engagement through workshops, talks on pen trade history, and genealogy research, aiming to present an immersive and educational experience across its three galleries.

The Birmingham Museum Collection Centre

Fire engines at Birmingham Museum Collection Centre
Fire engines at Birmingham Museum Collection Centre

The Museum Collection Centre (MCC) in Nechells, Birmingham, houses a staggering 80% of Birmingham Museums Trust’s extensive collections within its 1.5-hectare building.

This expansive space is one of the largest museum stores in the UK, encompassing an eclectic array of artifacts, including steam engines, sculptures, vintage motor cars, and unique items like a red phone box and a Sinclair C5.

While primarily a storage facility, the MCC periodically opens its doors to the public, offering monthly access or by special arrangement. It hosts open days during Spring and Summer Bank Holidays, providing glimpses into Birmingham’s rich heritage.

The MCC also serves as the base for The Museum in a Box initiative, enabling schools and community groups to borrow genuine artifacts for educational purposes.

This site is vital, housing over a million items that shed light on Birmingham and the West Midlands’ history. With only a fraction displayed in Birmingham Museums, it’s the sole location to explore the vast collection not typically showcased.

The warehouse-style storage facility accommodates diverse objects, ranging from aircraft engines to zoological specimens. Vintage motorcycles, sculptures, cars, and a variety of intriguing artifacts fill the expansive space.

Not just a storage hub, the MCC is a bustling workplace for staff and volunteers dedicated to preserving, researching, and documenting these collections. It offers glimpses behind the scenes, inviting visitors to explore its treasures during limited Explore Afternoons on Fridays or designated Open Days in April and September, featuring engaging activities and themed tours.

The Sarehole Mill

Sarehole Mill, nestled on the River Cole in Hall Green, Birmingham, is an esteemed Grade II listed water mill turned museum under the care of Birmingham Museums Trust. Dating back to 1542 and once dubbed Bedell’s or Biddle’s Mill, it has a rich historical tapestry interwoven with Birmingham’s industrial evolution.

Its storied past saw it leased by Matthew Boulton, a pivotal figure in the Industrial Revolution. The mill’s machinery transitioned from grain milling to versatile roles such as metalworking, bone grinding, and tool sharpening.

Though the present structure dates to 1771, its operation ceased in 1919, facing disrepair until its resurrection in 1969, championed by a community initiative to rescue it from demolition.

The mill’s revival didn’t stop there; meticulous restoration work in 2012-2013 revitalized its machinery, enabling flour production and bread baking on-site. Despite setbacks like 2019’s flood damage, ongoing repairs aim to reinstate its flour milling capabilities.

Sarehole Mill carries literary significance too, bearing connections to J.R.R. Tolkien, who drew inspiration from its idyllic surroundings, referring to it as a paradise lost and immortalizing it as the Mill at Hobbiton in “The Lord of the Rings.”

Visitors can explore this enchanting site through guided tours, including excursions delving into Tolkien’s ties to the area in Origins of Middle Earth tours. Additionally, a restored Victorian bakery and modern bakery offer delectable treats in the Millers Tea Room, preserving traditional baking techniques for enthusiasts.

The mill stands as a cherished part of the Shire Country Park, a testament to Birmingham’s industrial legacy and literary allure.

The West Midlands Police Museum

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Nestled within the heart of Birmingham, the West Midlands Police Museum, housed in the Victorian cell block on Steelhouse Lane, offers an immersive journey through the annals of policing history.

This exceptional museum, operational from 1891, presents a unique perspective on law enforcement on both sides of the bars.

Comprising artifacts and archives dating back to pre-1839, the museum unveils the evolution of the West Midlands Police and its predecessors.

A portrait gallery includes Sir Charles Horton Rafter, Birmingham’s longest-serving Chief Constable. Archives hold valuable records for genealogists, documenting the dedicated officers who served in the West Midlands Police area.

Following a heritage lottery-funded refurbishment, the museum re-opened in April 2022, inviting visitors to step into the authentic Victorian lock-up.

This remarkable piece of history allows exploration of policing over two centuries, shedding light on the individuals who championed equality, served during wars, and maintained their duty with unwavering dedication.

For an unforgettable experience, visitors can become detectives in the forensics lab, follow the Lock-up Mouse trail designed for young investigators, and explore interactive displays. Dressing up in police uniforms, taking mugshots, and engaging with attractions like a genuine police box and life-sized police horse promise a captivating day for all ages.

The Selly Manor

Selly Manor, an exquisite timber-framed building with a 500-year history, stands in Bournville, Birmingham, relocated to its current site in 1916 by the philanthropic George Cadbury. Together with Minworth Greaves, it forms the Selly Manor Museum, managed by the Bournville Village Trust, serving as a heritage site and community museum.

The house, originally known as Smythes Tenement in 1476, changed hands through various owners until John Setterford’s family acquired it in 1561. In 1608, Phylis Setterford’s inventory revealed a medieval hall. By 1664, the structure transformed, incorporating a three-story brick section. However, neglect by absentee landlords led to its decline from 1699 onwards.

Renamed The Rookery in 1853 and divided into cottages, it deteriorated further, housing multiple families by 1861. Saved from destruction by George Cadbury in 1907, the building was meticulously relocated, overseen by architect William Alexander Harvey, and opened as a museum in 1917.

The Selly Manor Museum houses the Laurence Cadbury Collection, a fascinating assemblage curated by George Cadbury’s son. This collection, showcasing 17th-century domestic objects and furniture, includes an 18-foot table dating back to the 1630s, originally from Crooke Hall in Lancashire.

Visitors can explore this rich history, appreciating the intricate carvings, oak chests, tapestries, and more, while delving into the life and times of the area.

With a detailed collection catalogue available, the museum offers an immersive journey into the past, complemented by Laurence Cadbury’s archived papers held at the Cadbury Research Library, University of Birmingham.

The Birmingham Back to Backs

The Birmingham Back to Backs, known as Court 15, symbolize historical housing, the city’s last surviving court of back-to-back houses. These homes, in shared courtyards, accommodated the industrial town’s population.

Situated at 50–54 Inge Street and 55–63 Hurst Street, it’s now a historic house museum under the National Trust.

During the 19th century, Birmingham had numerous back-to-back houses in areas like Ladywood and Handsworth. Most remained intact until their eventual demolition by the 1970s.

Initially owned by different families, the court’s land was leased to a toymaker, John Willmore, in 1789. Construction created Court 15 and Court 14, standing between 1802 and 1831 with varied layouts.

Throughout the 19th century, Court 15 housed craftsmen from diverse industries. Families like the Mitchells, locksmiths and bellhangers, resided there for decades.

Over time, these structures turned into shops, offering services from cycle makers to hairdressers by the early 20th century. Sadly, by 1966, these houses were considered uninhabitable and evacuated.

Given Grade II listed status in 1988, the Birmingham Back to Backs underwent extensive restoration. Since reopening in 2004, these houses, reflecting different historical eras, welcome visitors on guided tours, capturing the essence of life within these vital spaces.

The Blakesley Hall

Blakesley Hall, a Tudor masterpiece in Yardley, Birmingham, showcases classic architecture, boasting darkened timber and a white lime-rendered exterior. Elaborate studding and herringbone patterns exhibit opulence, reflecting the owner’s status. Its 1650 brick kitchen block adds historical depth to this architectural gem.

Blakesley Hall - watercolor painting
Blakesley Hall – watercolor painting

Built in 1590 by Richard Smalbroke, the hall symbolized the Smalbroke family’s farming legacy. Passed to the Greswolde family in 1685, it thrived as a tenant farm for two centuries. Converted into a museum in 1935, it aimed to share Birmingham’s medieval history.

Severely damaged in 1941 by a bomb, the hall underwent renovations and reopened in 1957. The 1970s restoration restored its period appearance using 1684 inventory furnishings. Its 2002 refurbishment introduced a visitor center, removing intrusive modern elements.

Preserving original features like the herringbone floor, the hall exhibits treasures like candlesticks and wall paintings from 1590, uncovered post-bomb damage. The Bedchamber’s hidden Moorish design, discovered during postwar cleanup, adds to its historical allure.

Part of the Birmingham Museums Trust, Blakesley Hall serves as a Community Museum. Adjacent, a renovated barn hosts exhibitions and events. Grounds hold the Gilbertstone, steeped in local folklore, adding to the site’s rich heritage.

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