Across from Birmingham’s New Street Station and past the city’s incongruous statue better known as the ‘Floozy in the Jacuzzi’ signposts point the way past the massive buildings housing the Council House and Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The direction we were following was to the Jewellery Quarter.
Until the rapid expansion brought about by the Industrial Revolution, Birmingham was a cluster of tiny hamlets that eventually merged into one vast car dominated metropolis. During the late 1700s an up-market estate was built on land owned by the Colmore family, and centred on St Paul’s Square.
Unusual for its day, the use of high class residential buildings for light industry was allowed by the Colmores. As a result it became normal for jewellery makers to move away from inconvenient parts of the city and set up their small hand-crafted businesses in the back rooms of their homes. Gradually the whole of Birmingham’s jewellery making, concentrated itself in one tiny part of the city. In this way the movement of bullion could be better controlled and a camaraderie of manufacturing families continued their chosen way of life until cheaper or more efficient methods led to its closure. In at least two cases, manufacturers simply stopped work on the final Friday, locked the door and walked away leaving their tools as though ready to be picked up again on the following Monday morning.
As much of this part of Birmingham’s fascinating manufacturing history is still there for all to see, a self-guided tour can be followed with the aid of a leaflet picked up at the city tourist office near the Council House. There is no hard and fast way to follow the tour but we decided to take it clockwise and take in as much as our brief time allowed.
Starting at the ‘Jewellers’ Church’ in St Paul’s Square, we turned left and made for Newhall Street where the imposing building on the corner, houses The Birmingham Assay Office, the city’s fourth since 1878, each larger than its predecessor. The busiest in Britain, millions of gold and silver items are tested and hallmarked every year. Followers of Antique Roadshow programmes will have seen the expert peering through a small magnifying glass and announcing that the piece of jewellery is hallmarked as say Birmingham or London. How he or she knows this, is by checking one of the symbols stamped on the article in question. If the symbol was an anchor they would immediately know it had been assayed in Birmingham; another symbol would give the date.
Swinging right into Frederick Street we came to a large imposing building now known as the Argent centre, home of the Pen Museum. It is hard to realise that two firms once occupied this massive building, both making steel pen nibs, in an industry employing thousands of people, especially women. During the 19th century over a hundred companies were busy making pen nibs in the Birmingham area alone, but the invention of the Biro put an end to the demand for a remarkable range of skills. The museum is open daily, showing the range of intricate, hand operated machinery, needed to make the bewildering range of nibs on display.
Left round the corner into Albion Street where at numbers 54-57 is where the family-led firm of JW Evans made fashion jewellery from 1880 until 31 March 2008. This was when the last proprietor, Tony Evans, locked the front door of the handsome Georgian building and walked away, leaving all the tools, packaging and records; even the grubby work smocks mutely waited for their never to return craftsmen owners. Fortunately rather than demolish the workshop and turn it into yet another solicitor’s office, English Heritage stepped in and, leaving everything exactly as they found it, made the property into an historic record of a past industry.
Moving on up Tenby Street as far as the corner with Warstone Lane, where Aquinas House still looks as it did in 1882, when Messrs Manton and Mole went into partnership making jewellery. Now converted into office accommodation, the elaborately decorated concrete floor at the entrance remains as a feature from more affluent times. To its right and in the centre of a cross roads, the tall elaborate clock tower was erected to commemorate the visit to South Africa by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain in 1903. He was Mayor of Birmingham between 1873 and 1876 and Member of Parliament from 1876 until his death in 1914.
The Jewellery Quarter Museum is at 75-80 Vyse Street in premises once occupied by the Smith and Pepper jewellery factory. Like JW Evans, this workshop was left as it had been for over 80 years and the owners decided to retire. Again they simply turned the key in the door and walked away, leaving a time capsule for future generations. Taken over by the city council, everything is there, warts and all, from the crude looking work benches, to the almost lethal number of electrical appliances, all working off one plug. Work-in-progress seems to have been controlled by flimsy bits of paper moving to and fro between floors in a dumb waiter frequently accompanied by a cream cake, a present from the proprietor’s unmarried sister. The workshop is open daily with guided tours and an adjoining museum explains some of the mysteries of this complex trade.
Moving down Spencer Street we came to the building once owned by Pickering and Mayell. One of the oldest still operating in its original form, this is a pair of houses built in the 1820s with workshop wings (known as ‘shopping’) to the rear. The original front door surround and some windows survive in a rare example of a hybrid residential property with workshops. The jewellery box makers have occupied the property since around 1900.
Moving to the end of our short tour we came to 27-32 Mary Street, a ruinous building currently undergoing long overdue restoration. Most ‘shopping’ wings or workshops were to the rear of the street frontage buildings, but this building constructed between 1818 and 1827, clearly shows how the residential and manufacturing elements were linked, with workshops at the side and the rear. This is the oldest example of this form of building in the quarter.
While the volume of jewellery made in the quarter is nothing like its late Victorian heyday, it still functions, but often in a slightly varied way, such as at Thomas Fattorini in Regent Street where medals, badges, trophies and awards have been made since 1827. Nearby Toye, Kenning and Spencer on Warstone Lane, have been making military regalia and badges along with royal awards since 1685. The firm was originally founded by a Huguenot immigrant family and considered to be the oldest company in Birmingham; other ancillary trades such as the outer shapes for brooches and rings are made nearby. The School of Jewellery (part of Birmingham City University) is in the modern looking building on Vittoria Street; founded in 1890 it is the foremost institution for teaching fine metalworking in the world. The school’s Atrium Gallery is accessible to the public 10am-4pm during exhibitions. Many famous people have been associated with the area now covered by the Jewellery Quarter – James Watt engineer and inventor lived on regent place, just off Caroline Street between 1777 and 1790 and John Baskerville, creator of the Baskerville typeface is buried in Warstone Lane cemetery, as is Major Harry Gem, the inventor of lawn tennis.
Special tours of the Jewellery Quarter are organised from time to time – see advertised Heritage Walks as advertised by the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter: telephone 0121 348 8001.