In his latest book, “Lucky Joe”, Stanley McShane referred to Birmingham, England, (as the locals called it), “Brummagem”. Finding the word irresistibly magnetic, I’ve been drawn repeatedly back until digging for information, actually found it has some surprising and ancient origins.
Birmingham actually is an Irish name (Norman-Irish), according to genealogist, Eric Birmingham. Eric maintains the name Birmingham originates from a knight or knights who participated in William the Conqueror’s army that won England in 1066 and were awarded this remote Saxon hamlet as a lordship.
Even going back to 1086, the Domesday form maintains the origins of the name are, in fact, Anglo-Saxon; ie pre-Domesday, and mean: the homestead (ham) of the people (ingas) of Beorma. The form ‘Brummagem’ (there are actually many, many variants) evolved as a result of pronunciation. So Brummagem is not supposed to be a ‘slang’ word for Birmingham, it is an alternative version of the name created by various dialects. ‘Brummagem’ became the affectionate term used by the locals. Brummagem is a name in the Brummie dialect for the city of Birmingham. It is from this version of the city’s name that the terms Brum and Brummie are derived. The former refers to the city itself, and the latter refers to inhabitants of the city, their accent and dialect. The word passed into political slang as early as the 1680s.
You can argue then that later, the use of the term, Brummagem, took on even deeper and darker meanings and eventually came to be associated with cheap and shoddy imitations (Brummagem ware).
There were many contradictory comments and accounts to the idea that Birmingham or Brummagem was associated with poor quality manufacture around the 19th century (1895). One particularly negative use of the word is “brummagem screwdriver”, a term for a hammer, a jibe which suggested that Brummie workers were unskilled and unsophisticated. Too bad, as around 1690, they were referred to as having swords, heads of canes, snuff-boxes and other fine works of steel that could be had, “cheaper and better even than in famed Milan.” Indeed, the decline in quality of manufacture wasn’t the only issue and by 1920, Birmingham’s foremost criminal gang referred to themselves as the Brummagem Boys*.
There is a song “I can’t find Brummagem”, there is a poem about Brummagem, Brummagem boats that are locally made in Birmingham England, Brummagem buttons, and a breed of dogs named Brummagem and none can apparently over-come the unattractive use of the name as it refers to shoddy imitations even in the U.S. By the way, most of the Birminghams in the United States originate from Ireland rather than England, due to the great mass Irish immigrations during the Potato Famine of the 1840s and constant warfare in Ireland during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.