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 ring-fenced 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.”
In a time of free trade and healthy competition, such remarks would only have been muttered behind the hand. But war had rendered such politeness redundant; if Germany was an enemy on the battlefield, she was also an enemy in commerce.
An executive member of the Association of Iron and Steel Workers put it in even stronger terms. “We must beat the Germans in the trade fights”, he thundered, “as Tommy will beat them in the military struggle.”
With much of Europe closed to German exports, here was an opportunity for the UK in general, and Birmingham in particular, to turn back the tide and regain those lost markets. And if markets were there to be stolen from under the Kaiser’s nose, why stop there?
The keystone to Germany’s export drive was the annual Leipzig Fair. The fair had medieval origins, but from the 1890s onwards had become the platform for the country’s economic revival.
Just as war broke out, the fair was being expanded and reconfigured as the Muster-Messe, an enormous set of 30 or so interlocking trade halls in the city centre.
From December 1915, with the European War set to continue for at least a few more Christmases yet, the Chamber of Commerce began seriously to canvass for a Leipzigger Messe for Birmingham.
Now there were, it has to be admitted, one or two local difficulties in turning the Second City into a trade show destination. For one thing, where were the delegates going to stay?
Leipzig had something like 100 hotels in and around the city; Birmingham could muster half a dozen. And where were all those trade halls, ready to accommodate the miles of stalls?
The city’s restaurants – the place where deals would be struck, and clients courted – also left something to be desired. You could hardly take European delegates out for a plate of faggots and peas.
In the end, the Birmingham Chamber and city council had to be somewhat more modest in their attempt at global domination. A Leipzig Fair could only be achieved on a national scale, and with the help of the Board of Trade. And at that point the focus shifted inevitably from Birmingham to London.
The capital, at least, had all the hotels and trade halls and expensive restaurants you could want. So Birmingham lost out in the short term.
But it would not, I think, be fanciful to say the NEC, as well as the ICC, had their origins in those conversations first held in 1915.
Like it or not, war has always been a catalyst for innovation.