Read CHAPTER XII of A Tale of One City: The New Birmingham, free online book, by Thomas Anderton, on

Its Varied and odd trades.

If some outside people were asked to name in three lines the three chief trades of Birmingham they would probably answer by saying “Guns,” “Hardware,” and then, perhaps rather puzzled, might add “more guns.” This, however, would be a very bald and incomplete reply, and would denote a somewhat benighted idea of the productive resources of Birmingham. Gun and pistol making form a very important industry in the city, and one ward St. Mary’s is the happy hunting ground of small firearm makers. All the same, gunmaking is not the be-all and end-all of our manufacturing activity, and is, indeed, only one of the many and increasing trades that thrive and progress in the midland hardware capital.

It is, indeed, a distinct advantage for Birmingham that it has many different trades, and if some are depressed and slack others may be active and prosperous. Hence, there is generally business doing somewhere. It is the misfortune of some towns and districts to be devoted entirely to one or two industries. For instance, take Manchester. If the cotton trade becomes depressed or paralysed Cottonopolis soon becomes a starved-out city. Then there are textile towns, boot and shoe boroughs, pottery districts, &c., &c. Birmingham, however, is pretty smart at taking up new ideas, and does not let new manufacturing industries go begging for a home. A certain number of trades languish and die out owing to change of fashion and to certain articles becoming obsolete. Snuffers and powder flasks, for instance, are not in large demand in the present day. A limited number are still made for travellers and for remote countries that have not cartridges, the electric light, or even incandescent gas, within their reach.

Brass and pearl button making used to be important industries, and tons of such wares used to be made in Birmingham in the course of a month. Comparatively few are made now. Yet we are not exactly “buttonless black-guards,” as Cobbett at least, I think it was Cobbett once disrespectfully called the Quakers, and buttons of various kinds other than pearl and brass are turned out in barrow loads. I remember some years ago going over the button factory of Messrs. Dain, Watts, and Manton, an old-established business now carried on by Mr. J.S. Manton, and was then shown a curious composition or kind of paste that could be made into buttons useful for all sorts of purposes. On my asking what the “button dough” was made of, Mr. Manton, I remember, gave me the comprehensive reply, “anything.”

All sorts of stuff having any substance in it was indeed thrown into a kind of mortar, ground up, mixed with something that gave the mass cohesion and plasticity, then moulded into buttons as clay is moulded by the potter, and burned, dried, and hardened. Therefore, if brass and pearl buttons are in limited demand, there are other materials from which a new useful and cheap article can be made the “very button” for the time and this is produced in much larger quantities than the more costly articles of a few generations ago.

In spite, then, of changes in fashion, Birmingham is still I will not say a button hole, but a city where billions of buttons are made. Witness, for instance, the turn-out of such a manufactory as that of Thomas Carlyle, Limited. Here is a great and extended concern grafted upon an old-established business, and which at the present time gives employment, regularly, to over 1,000 hands. Buttons are made to go to all people, save the rude and nude races, and a few odd millions produced for home use. And speaking of all this reminds me how in the days of my boyhood I sometimes saw a queer character known as “Billy Button.” He was a sight to behold, for he was decorated with buttons, mostly brass, from top to toe, and presented a sight that was enough to make a thoroughbred quaker swoon.

Birmingham, as I have remarked, is sufficiently enterprising not to let opportunities slip through its fingers. Its trades are still increasing, and increasing in number and variety, and though there is a tendency in some of the big industries that do a large foreign trade to get nearer to the sea-board, there are those who are sanguine enough to believe that the number of our works and our workpeople will increase and multiply till the large supplies of water that are to be conducted to us from Mid-Wales will be none too copious for the great unwashed and other inhabitants of our city a few years hence.

Referring again to outsiders and their ideas of Birmingham trades, when visitors distinguished or otherwise come to see our factories there are two that they generally begin and often end with namely, Mr. Joseph Gillott’s pen manufactory and the electro-plate works of Messrs. Elkington. Of late years the Birmingham Small Arms establishment at Small Heath has gained attention and made a good third to our show industries.

Visitors to Messrs. Elkington’s are, of course, largely attracted by the artistic contents and triumphs of the famous Newhall Street show rooms. The name of the Elkington firm has a world-wide fame, and their splendid artistic achievements may almost be said to be epoch-making in the way of combining utility with beautiful design to the highest degree. Those, however, who fancy that Messrs. Elkington’s great and extending manufactory is kept going by designing and producing splendid vases, shields, cups, and sumptuous gold and silver services, are, of course, hugely mistaken. The ordinary spoons, forks, &c., that are to be seen I won’t say on every table, but on the tables of millions of people, are the staple productions of such firms as that of which I speak. Indeed, if I could probe into the secret chambers of Messrs. Elkington’s back safe, I should probably find that the production of those exquisite artistic articles of theirs has not been the department of their business that has brought the greatest grist to the mill and made a commercial success of their trade.

Those visitors to Elkington’s who penetrate beyond the show rooms will find much to interest, and in some cases to mystify them. Electro-plating is indeed almost a magical sort of craft. How it is that dirty looking metal spoons can be put into a dirty looking bath and come out white and silvered must amaze and bewilder many strange eyes. Impassive as Asiatics can be, I should much like for once just to watch the eyes of an eastern conjuror and magician when he saw the electro bath trick, and especially when done in the way and on the scale that may be witnessed at the Birmingham Newhall Street works.

With regard to Mr. Joseph Gillott’s pen manufactory it is a very interesting show place, but is practical and prosaic compared with the art electro-plate establishment I have just now referred to. Those, however, who like to see processes, and something going on quickly from stage to stage, find Mr. Gillott’s factory a place of almost fascinating interest. They can, indeed, observe the steel pen emerge from its native metal, see it pressed and stamped, and again pressed and stamped, slitted, annealed, coloured, and finally boxed and packed. They can also see the penholders produced and inhale the sweet and pungent fragrance of cedar wood, and they can look on the production of the pen boxes which are made in so many attractively coloured varieties.

All this is to be seen in the course of a little march through Mr. Gillott’s factory, which is, indeed, a pattern of order and cleanliness, and so well conducted as to be almost like a real adult school of industry. Female labour is largely employed as is customary in the pen trade the nimble fingers and deft hands of many girls finding useful employment, without fatiguing labour, in the various processes of the pen-making business.

Pen-making is, of course, a great industry, but there are pens and pens, and for some of the lower qualities the trade price is of incredible cheapness. I sometimes think that if an enterprising merchant were to try and place an order for a million gross of steel pens at 1d. per gross, and 75 per cent. discount for cash, he would succeed in doing it. The quantity it is that pays.

The pleasure and interest of going over Mr. Gillott’s establishment is enhanced by the fact that visitors see the popular pens of commerce and the aristocratic pens of what Jeames calls the “upper suckles” made, so to speak, side by side. The Graham Street works could not be kept going by merely making dainty gold pens, fine long barrelled goose quills, and other such superior productions. The everyday person muse be considered and supplied with everyday pens, and the everyday person, although he buys cheap pens, is a more profitable customer than he looks.

A well-known mustard maker has been known to say that he makes his profit out of what people leave on their plates. In other words, the everyday waste of people vastly increases mustard consumption. In the same way the everyday pen is so cheap that it is not used with care and economy. It is lightly thrown aside often before it is half worn, and is often objurgated and wasted because it is dipped into bad ink. But what does it matter when you can get a gross of pens for just a few pence.

One more little remark about the Graham Street works and I have done. I take leave to doubt if Mr. Joseph Gillott turns out any of the very cheapest and commonest pens, but I feel pretty certain that he makes the best and most costly productions of their kind. There are still very many people at home and abroad especially Americans who do not like to put a little common, “vulgar” pen on their writing tables. They prefer to see something more superior in style and finish. On such pens as these will generally be seen the name of Mr. Joseph Gillott. There are, of course, other makers of good steel pens in Birmingham, but their places are not so much visited or their productions so widely known as the pens of Graham Street works.

A few years ago Birmingham penmakers, as well as others, were disposed to be rather terrified at the advent of the typewriter, and fancied in their sable moments that the steel pen would sooner or later be superseded. They are not now so dismayed as they were, and I hardly think they need be. The electric light has not put out gas; in spite of railway engines I still see a few horses about sometimes; and even motor cars and the like will not at present run locomotive engines off the line. I, therefore, think that makers of fine points, broad points, medium points, &c., may rest securely in their pens, notwithstanding a Yost of typewriters, Remington, or what not.

Few people outside our own borders quite realise, perhaps, what a large and important industry the jewellery trade is in Birmingham. Yet one quarter of the city the Hockley district is chiefly devoted to what cynical people call the production of baubles. If anyone doubts the extent to which the jewellery trade is carried on, and the number of hands engaged in it, let him station himself somewhere Hockley way at the hour of one o’clock in the day, and he will see for himself.

No sooner has the welcome sound of the tocsin been heard almost indeed before it has time to sound hundreds, aye thousands of men emerge from their workshops, and for a time quite throng streets that just before the magic hour of one p.m. were comparatively quiet and empty.

Curiously enough these working jewellers seem to come from hidden and obscure regions, and appear in the open from their industrial cells through many small doors and entries, rather than through large gateways which are opened at certain regulation hours.

The jewellery trade is not carried out in large factories with tall, towering stacks, powerful steam engines, &c. Machinery may be used in certain branches of the trade for all I know, but, speaking generally, working jewellers sit at their bench, play their blow-pipe, and with delicate appliances and deft hands put together the precious articles of fancy they make.

Handsome lockets are not turned in a lathe. Diamond and ruby rings are not productions that are run through a machine and sold by the gross, “subject.” Nor are jewelled pendants made in presses, nor beautiful bracelets banged into shape by the mechanical thump of a stamping machine. The consequence is that jewellery work of the finest fashion is made in small establishments, but as I have said there are so many of these that the “turn-out” in the way of “hands” is a formidable element in our local population.

It is, we know, an ancient saw that tells us that two of a trade cannot agree, but it has always struck me that jewellers belie this generally accepted maxim. I came to this conclusion from knowing and visiting a colony of goldfinches I mean master jewellers, who are quite civil to each other, will sit at meat and drink together, go to the same place of worship, and generally behave as friends, neighbours, and Christians.

How it was that these employer blow-pipers could maintain and assume such a benign and almost brotherly attitude towards each other was a little puzzling to me till I thought the matter out. Jewellers they might all be, but they did not all jewel alike. They rowed in the same boat, but not with the same sculls to use Jerrold’s old joke, They blowed the same pipe, but played different tunes. In a word they produced different varieties of jewellery, and consequently did not cut each other’s throats in competition. One would chiefly make chains, another lockets and pendants, a third studs and sleeve links, a fourth rings, a fifth bracelets and brooches, and another miscellaneous high-class productions, including mayoral chains, &c., &c. Under these circumstances the two or three of a trade to whom I have referred have been able to agree, and will be able to maintain good fellowship till such times as some largely enterprising bold blow-piper forms himself into a large syndicate, resolves to make everything himself, and crush down all competition. But that time is not yet.

In speaking of the jewellery trade in Birmingham, I think I am safe in saying that at any rate until recently the town, now a city, has not enjoyed full credit for the high-class work it produces. For a long time it was regarded as the workshop of cheap “sham” jewellery, and that if you wanted really good things you must go to London and buy in the marts of New Bond Street.

If any such heathen now exist, and I suspect they do, they would be rather surprised if they knew how much London sold jewellery is made in Birmingham. Purchasers have the pleasure of buying in Bond Street, and of having bracelets, bangles, rings and lockets put in cases with a well-known West-end firm’s name on it, and that is something of which they are proud, and for which they are willing to pay. And they do have to pay. In proof of which I will tell a true story. Some years ago I knew a Birmingham manufacturing jeweller whose line was gold and silver pencil cases. I was looking over his show cases one day when he picked up a small good pencil case suitable to put on a lady’s chain. My friend told me chat his trade price for this article was 3d., and he had seen it marked his own make 18s. in Regent Street shops. I have known of others in the fancy trades tell a similar story.

For instance, a manufacturer once told me that he had made gold ware for the Royal table, but not directly. His order came from a West-end house and his name was to be altogether suppressed.

In some preceding remarks I referred to cheap sham jewellery. There is a very considerable amount of it made in Birmingham, and “gilt jewellery” is the name by which it is known. Respecting this trade and its productions I can, perhaps, tell a few of my readers something that may rather surprise them. Not many years ago I wished to see and purchase some of this gilt jewellery in order to make gay and glorious a Christmas tree Heaven forbid, of course, that my friends or myself should adorn ourselves with such baubles.

I went to a manufacturer of these wares to make my purchases, and hoped to buy cheaply. And I did; at a price indeed that rather astonished me. For instance, I was shown some brilliant looking brooches of good design and finish, and sparkling with diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies, of rich lustre or, I should say, imitations of these precious stones. I looked at these handsome productions and thought a good price would be asked for them. I was, as I have hinted however, rather more than astonished to find that I could make a very good selection at from 15s. to 18s. per dozen.

Just fancy, these brilliant brooches adorned with gems of purest ray serene that is, to the naked, unexpert eye well-fashioned in the matter of workmanship, and looking of, at least, eighteen carat gold, and yet they could be purchased at the rate of from fifteen to eighteen pence each. What, however, staggered me still more was to find that there was a lower deep still in the matter of price. On my venturing to remark to the warehouse-man who showed me the articles mentioned, that I supposed they were the very cheapest things in the trade, he remarked, “Oh dear no, we don’t do anything in the cheap stuff line. If you want that you must go to Messrs. So-and-So, in Blank Street.”

I went to the cheap firm he named in Blank Street, and there sure enough found cheap stuff and no mistake. Brooches and lockets at 12s. a dozen and even less, and handsome watch chains at the rate of about 10d. each. I must add, however, that the makers would not dispose of less than a dozen of each article shewn. Perhaps they could hardly be expected to sell retail at such prices as I have named.

Having obtained the “Open Sesame” to the jewelled caves or warehouses of the gilt jewellers I came away loaded with gems, and my purse but very little lighter. So well indeed did some of my purchases look when I got them home that I could not see much difference between them and the real articles. Consequently, when I now see fair ladies gaily bedecked with a superfluity of handsome lustrous trinkets I think of the gilt jewellery trade, and brooches at 15s. per dozen, less a discount doubtless to the trade.

Leaving, now, the gold and gilt jewellery trades, which, as I have said, form a large industry in our midst, let me just briefly refer to some of the odd trades that are carried on in Birmingham. Among these I will first of all mention the manufacture of ship Logs, because it seems somewhat curious that an insular place like Birmingham, whose only suggestion of maritime operations is the canal, should produce Logs that is, cunningly devised instruments for ascertaining the speed of ships. Yet if I go to north country ports, such as Leith, and if I go south to Dover, or west to Cardiff, I see the “Cherub,” the “Harpoon,” and other Logs made by the firm of T. Walker and Sons, Oxford Street, Birmingham. As I have said, it seems a little strange, if not funny, that Birmingham should produce ship appliances. Nevertheless, the present Mr. T.F. Walker, and his father before him, have been making and improving ship Logs till their trade name is known and their productions seen in every port of significance here in Britain and abroad as well.

A city, however, that produces Artificial Human Eyes may see its way to make anything; consequently, all sorts of diverse things are produced in Birmingham, from coffin furniture to custard powder, vices to vinegar, candles to cocoa, blue bricks to bird cages, handcuffs to horse collars, anvils to hat bands, soap to sardine openers, &c., &c., &c.

There are also in Birmingham certain trades that without being large industries have taken fixed root in the locality. For instance, there is the glass trade, which employs a good few men, and, perhaps, it used to employ more. On this point I am not certain, but I do know that one large glass manufactory that existed in my younger days namely, that of Rice Harris, which stood near where now stands the Children’s Hospital, Broad Street was disestablished many years ago.

If I remember rightly Rice Harris’s glass works had one of those large old-fashioned brick domes that I fancy are not constructed nowadays. One or two, however, still remain, and I for one feel glad that Messrs. Walsh and Co., of Soho, allow their dome to stand where it did, just as a landmark and to remind me of pleasant bygone days.

I confess, too, that I like to go into one of these big glass hives, or rather glass-making hives, and see the workmen at their “chairs” blowing and moulding the hot ductile glass into its appointed form and patterns; and I like also to see the curling wreaths of smoke ascend and disappear through the orifice at the top of the dome. And when I look at this I wonder how that huge chimney is cleaned, and where the Titanic sweep is that could undertake such a gigantic job. Well, I can hardly say I wonder, because I think I have been told that the way the soot is cleaned from these well-smoked domes is by firing shot at the roof, which brings down the dirt.

When in the winter season I see skates prominently exposed for sale in our shop windows I am reminded of another of the odd or rather side industries of Birmingham. I refer to the steel toy trade. The word toy seems appropriate enough when applied to skates and quoits, but seems a curious word to designate such articles of distinct utility as hammers, pincers, turnscrews, pliers, saws, and chisels, yet these articles and many others of a similar kind are included in the words “steel toys.” This steel toy trade, if not a great industry in Birmingham, is an old-established one, and has been carried on for years by good well-known local names, such as Richard Timmins and Sons, Messrs. Wynn and Co., and others.