City Trade Fair Was Jewel in Our Crown; HISTORY A Quiet Spot of Industrial Birmingham Became a Huge Attraction for Kings, Queens ANDVIPS for 40 Years. Chris Upton Finds out Why

Article excerpt

Byline: Chris Upton

ON the edge of Birmingham, there was once a building, which was officially the most visited attraction in the country.

Or for a fortnight every year it was, anyway. It was not a theme park or a stately home, but a nondescript collection of interlocking hangars, set beside the railway line and surrounded by farm land.

The railway station which served it (at Castle Bromwich) welcomed a remarkable procession of VIPs, including half a dozen Kings and Queens of England, and the heads of state of dozens of others. When the Cold War was at its chilliest (in 1956), even Nikita Khrushchev popped in.

They called it the British Industries Fair, or BIF for short.

For 40 years BIF was Britain's shop window to the world, easily the largest trade fair on the planet, and the place to showcase the products of the UK and its Commonwealth. Even by the mid-1930s there were stands for more than a thousand exhibitors.

Strictly speaking, there were two BIFs, one staged in London and one held simultaneously in Birmingham, the latter concentrating on local strengths in engineering, electricals and heavy industry. Customers and delegates shuttled between the two on specially reduced rail fares (on non-stop trains) or flew in by air to Castle Bromwich. The most prestigious of the guests (including the royals) might well find themselves entertained by the Earl and Countess of Bradford at Castle Bromwich Hall afterwards.

The British Industries Fair was ringfenced in ways that can hardly be imagined in today's multi-national and globally integrated world. Only manufacturers from the UK were permitted to exhibit, along with food producers from the Empire and Dominions. This was decidedly Britain's show, an annually re-occurring Great Exhibition for the 20th century.

The first show at which Birmingham participated was held in 1920, and the city's involvement continued every year until the exhibition halls were demolished in 1960.

But the fair itself had earlier beginnings than this. The first show was held at the Agricultural Hall in Islington in 1915, followed by later shows at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London Docks and Crystal Palace. Given the prevailing circumstances in Europe, 1915 looks like a very curious year in which to stage an international trade show, and that was equally true for the following three years as well. But there was method in this apparent madness, and Birmingham had no little input into the reasoning behind it.

As early as the end of 1914, Birmingham manufacturers were declaring themselves keen to capture German markets. By the beginning of the war, German exports were worth some half a billion pounds annually, and in some areas (notably high-end scientific equipment) the country had a virtual monopoly.

"At the present moment," declared a member of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, "Germany is our most dangerous, most aggressive, and most unscrupulous competitor in the world. …