Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce

It can be seen that the origins of business networking as we know it today began as ‘The British Industries Fair’: a large exhibition held in key centres of the country, including both Birmingham and London, where hundreds of businesses would have the chance to present their products to thousands of consumers.

After the outbreak of the First World War, the first British Industries Fair was held in London in 1915 as there became a greater need to connect industries and businesses nationally. Its aim was to encourage people to produce and sell goods domestically as previously the majority had been imported from Germany instead.

Immediately, the Birmingham Chamber began to generate ideas about a similar event taking place in Birmingham ‘to facilitate the development of commerce’ (as written in the Chamber’s preliminary memorandum).

Framed Royal Address 1929 from Chamber Archives

By 1920, their appeal had come to fruition and the British industries fair was held in Castle Bromwich for the first time. It amassed huge amounts of success and its approximated that in its first year between 5 and 10 million pounds of business was accepted by the exhibitors; this is equivalent to between 170 million and 350 million in today’s money.

In 1923, the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce had taken over direct control of the fair which took place for two weeks in May every year until 1957. Over 34 years, the buildings and grounds expanded through 10 extensions until it covered over 11 acres.

It grew to include new restaurants and dining areas, lounges, and a car park with a capacity of over 5000. By the 1930s, more than 1000 exhibitors displayed their goods which were made up of textiles, toys, clothing, and consumer goods as well as hardware, building and heating, electrical and engineering products.

The fair’s purpose was to demonstrate the high quality and craftsmanship of British made goods as well as the range of different products they were able to produce. It was far more diverse and resilient than any previous fair that had been held nationally and attracted on average 200,000 visitors each year from 400 towns and cities in Great Britain as well as consumers from over 100 overseas territories.

Special trains were run to the fair from London and flights were organised to come in from other countries into Castle Bromwich Aerodrome. The fair was known globally and described in one Australian newspaper as ‘the greatest trade fair in the world’.

A member of the royal family attended the fair every year to commemorate its importance and various Prime Ministers visited over the course of its existence too. In 1929, Prince Albert Duke of York attended the fair, and a letter was written to congratulate the chamber on the event which has been recovered from the archives, calling it a ‘magnificent display of British Industries’.

It continued to be successful in connecting businesses and growing industry until 1957, becoming the biggest self-contained exhibition site in Europe. After it ended, it was realised that a new exhibition space was necessary to hold exhibitions as Birmingham began to feel the effects of a lack of competition, particularly in the industrial sector.

Map of The British Industries Fair 1956 from Chamber Archives

This led to plans for the creation of the NEC which was opened in 1976 as a necessary means of connecting Birmingham with the rest of the country and internationally. Today, the NEC remains the UK’s largest exhibition centre and holds more than 125 exhibitions with over 39,000 businesses each year. The Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce played a significant role in its initial creation and the NEC has been a Patron of the Chambers ever since its inception.

Today’s Chamber still aims to connect, support, and grow local businesses in the same way and have one of the largest event calendars within the British Chambers network. We hold over 200 events each year, both online and in person, serving the same purpose as the British industries fair 100 years ago. In 2022, we held a variety of events including international conferences, speed networking and business growth seminars which bring together key business leaders from across Birmingham and encourage further growth.