Birmingham’s political establishment came together in a joyous celebration of the life and achievements of Sir Richard Knowles, one of the city’s best-loved adopted sons who died this year aged 90.

More than 400 people from all walks of life – MPs, councillors, captains of industry, Brummies, Sir Michael Lyons, the chairman of the BBC – packed St Philip’s Cathedral to say farewell to Sir Richard, a former Labour city council leader and Lord Mayor.

Born in Kent and apprenticed as a plumber, Dick Knowles was a lifelong Christian and staunch socialist who became a party official in his 30s and moved to Birmingham in 1969.

He did not join the city council until 1972, when he was 55, but by the time he retired could take credit for helping transform Birmingham’s fortunes, moving the city away from a dangerous over-reliance on manufacturing, with the construction of the NEC and the ICC and the establishment of the Royal Ballet.

His ability to talk intelligently and convincingly to Government ministers yet at the same time retain the common touch, and his quirky habit of addressing everyone as comrade while chomping Churchill-like on a large cigar, won him a national reputation. He was the absolute antithesis of political correctness.

During his period in charge of the city council, from 1984 to 1993 he became one of a very few local authority leaders to have anything resembling a national profile, managing to earn a wary respect even from arch-Thatcherites such as the then Environment Secretary Nicholas Ridley.

The order of Monday's service, in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Coun Randal Brew, the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt Rev David Urquhart, Lady Knowles and members of her family, owed much to Dick’s eclectic tastes, working class roots and unrestrained love of life.

Today’s city council leader, Mike Whitby, a Tory, joined in good naturedly with the contemporary Dutch hymn writer Fred Kaan’s Magnificat Now, sung to the tune of The Red Flag, although he may have baulked with one line: "The rich are left with empty hands".

William Knowles, Sir Richard’s son, recalled an idyllic childhood of "serious fun", surrounded by plenty of good books, stimulating conversation and interspersed by family camping trips which more often than not took in the country’s finest churches and cathedrals. Schooldays were as likely as not to be enlivened by his father’s pithy take on life, a particular favourite Hilaire Belloc’s epigram: "It’s the business of the wealthy man to give employment to the artisan."

Former city council leader Clive Wilkinson drew laughter when he recalled how Sir Richard met and courted his second wife on a trip to Russia.

Having determined at first sight to marry her, he proceeded to propose through written manifestos setting out why the two should spend the rest of their lives together.

Mr Wilkinson added: "Dick was a committed Christian and an outstanding political leader who left an indelible mark on this great city of ours."

Sir Adrian Cadbury, whose period as the High Sheriff of the West Midlands coincided with Sir Richard’s year as Lord Mayor, paid a personal tribute to his friend: "Dick’s commitment to Birmingham was total and transparent. The only interests he sought to further were those of his adoptive city. His practical concern for the betterment of life for every citizen shone through along with dignity, devotion to Birmingham and a twinkle in his eye.

"He was a true friend and comrade and he made this world a better place."

Birmingham playwright David Edgar said Sir Richard had shown considerable foresight when leader of the council by recognising the importance of city centre regeneration coupled with promoting culture and the arts, sometimes against the wishes of Labour councillors.

"There was considerable opposition to Dick’s plans to regenerate Birmingham. Left wingers objected to spending on what were dismissed as prestige projects in the city centre," Mr Edgar recalled.

But Sir Richard, as usual, got his own way and Birmingham continues to reap the rewards today.