Birmingham’s rapid expansion from the mid-18th century into a major centre for the metalworking industry earned it the title of ‘the workshop of the world’. Just outside the heart of the city, the Jewellery Quarter became a close-knit neighbourhood, where a great variety of specialist trades concentrated on the production of jewellery, silverware and small metalware.
The Anchor is the Birmingham Assay Office Mark
In the Jewellery Quarter Museum I learned some interesting facts about the work carried out in the area. There’s a small exhibition and display to whet one’s appetite before the ‘jewel in the crown’ tour of the Museum.
– Birmingham is one of only four cities in the UK which has an Assay Office and on its first working day, August 31st, 1773 the office hallmarked about 200 articles. On its busiest day ever recorded (they don’t say which day that was) the office achieved the hallmarking of 100,000 articles!
– Most gold articles are not made from pure gold. It is too soft and expensive and is mixed (alloyed) with other metals to increase its strength.
– A single gram of gold can be beaten into a sheet of one square metre.
– Coins, clocks, trophies, tableware were shipped all over the globe. By 1914 Birmingham was supplying the world with 28 million pen nibs PER WEEK! And during both World Wars manufacture was given over to medals and munitions.
– Birmingham’s increasing prosperity was largely built on its emergence as the very centre of the British button trade. From the earliest 18th century gilt buttons to the Victorian mother-of-pearls, buttons remain as popular as ever and as fastenings and as decoration.
Jewellery Christmas Decorations
All very interesting but the highlight was yet to come. A group of us assembled for the tour. I hadn’t studied the website or literature so was not aware quite what was to come! I’d expected examples of valuable jewels and other products of historical significance. But what we got was amazing :
“When the proprietors of the Smith & Pepper jewellery manufacturing firm decided to retire in 1981 they ceased trading and locked the door, unaware they would be leaving a time capsule for future generations. Tools were left strewn on benches; grubby overalls were hung on the coat hooks; and dirty teacups were abandoned. Today the factory is a remarkable museum which tells the story of the Jewellery Quarter.” [Art Fund Guide]
The factory skylight, white walls of the neighbouring building reflect the light and the whole squeezed into a rear yard
We saw the offices, the workshop and work benches, the kitchen shared with the potassium cyanide store (looks just like sugar!!). Every single fleck of gold dust was to be saved and reused – this was a Brylcreme-free zone and no turn-ups were allowed. All dust was saved and checked. Overalls and shoes had to be changed. And the noise must have been horrendous. We had each noise source demonstrated separately but what the combination was like is unimaginable. Dangerous and unguarded sharp and heavy tools were a threat to life and limb. The whole was a Health and Safety Officer’s nightmare. I heartily recommend a visit.
A Work Bench
Notice on the Office Door
Page from the Order Book
Tea and Cyanide, anyone?
But the jewels and gems of Birmingham don’t stop in the Jewellery Quarter …