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

Old-established shops.

Considering the pace at which Birmingham moved forward during the latter half of the nineteenth century, it is not, perhaps, surprising that few shops and houses of old date are now to be seen in the chief centre streets of the city. A few, however, remain to remind us that Birmingham was not built yesterday, and that it has a respectable past, and is not a place of that mushroom growth which comes into existence in a night.

Chief among the old order of retail trading establishments still flourishing in our midst I may particularly mention the shop of Mr. William Pearsall, silversmith, &c. As many of my readers are aware, it is situated in High Street, opposite the end of New Street, and is conspicuous for its pretty I had almost said petite quaintness and its genuine old-time appearance and origin. There are the small bow windows, the little panes of glass, that are so suggestive of the architecture of a century ago, and outside the shop everything bespeaks a past which was not exactly of yesterday.

This great-grandfather shop, so to speak, has, indeed, been established for more than a century, and when the present proprietor first went to the business the trade done was chiefly in silver and silver made goods, whereas now it is largely in electro plate, in jewellery, cutlery, &c. The proprietor, indeed, like others in his position, has found himself obliged to keep in step with the times or go under. He has preferred the former course, but without abandoning what I may call the antique department of his business.

It is, indeed, a most attractive kind of shop, especially for ladies of a matured taste and mind who like to see pretty things, some of which have a quaint charm which is often especially dear to the feminine soul. I can fancy ladies going there and spending a right down happy time in looking at the dainty specimens of antique silver, and also the modern reproductions of old patterns in electro plate. I can, indeed, by a stretch of the imagination picture in my mind ladies who will go and look at many things at such a shop, admire all, and buy none.

Indeed, I do not know that I should mind indulging in this little luxury myself, but, being of the masculine order of creation, I, perhaps, hardly like to spend hours in a shop and leave the shopkeeper with the cold comfort of a promise that I will “think about it.” Quaint and inviting shops, however, stocked with articles that form a little exhibition in themselves must pay the penalty of their attractiveness, and possibly the proprietors have no objection.

It goes, of course, without saying that a business that has been carried on for over a century has seen great changes in regard to custom and customers. Consequently, it is not surprising to learn that wealthy iron-masters, the country gentry, and prosperous farmers no longer make the purchases of silver and fancy wares they did in the days that are no more. Black country magnates have discovered they can now do without many solid silver services, and even fairly well-to-do rural people find they can at a pinch put up with electro plate.

I confess I like to look at the bijou shop in High Street and think what it must have seen and heard in its time. It must have heard the bells of St. Martin’s toll for the death of Nelson and ring out joyous peals after Waterloo. It must have seen disorderly crowds march past its doors at the time of the Birmingham riots; more than this, it felt something of the lawlessness that prevailed, since the shop was looted and some of its contents carried off by the rioters.

Yes, as I have said, it must have heard some pealing and tolling of the St. Martin’s Church bells and what charmingly mellifluous and melodious bells they are! I do not profess to be a campanologist or a bell hunter, but I have a loving ear for a sweet-toned church bell, and can think of few belfries whose contents surpass St. Martin’s, Birmingham. Although I have not heard the “Bells of Shandon” immortalised by Father Prout, I have, however, heard Great Tom of Lincoln. I have listened to the “bonny Christ Church bells” of Oxford, and my ears have dwelt upon the sweet jinglings of the Carrillion at Antwerp and in other Flemish cities. I have also heard the dulcet chimings of many village church bells in various parts of the land, and I have listened with undelight to the unmusical tones of Big Ben of Westminster, but so far as mellow tone is concerned, I rarely hear any ordinary church bells that are more dulcet and harmonious than the bells of St. Martin’s, Birmingham.

Few people heed their beauties I am afraid; indeed, some singularly insensible residents and traders in the neighbourhood have been known to protest against the charming chimings of the bells of St. Martin’s. Those, however, who want to hear the true musical quality and tone of these bells must select a quiet time, as the Bull Ring is not a particularly peaceful spot in the busy hours of day. Midnight is the witching hour that should be chosen to listen to the music of St. Martin’s belfry. It may be a late and inconvenient hour for the experiment, but it is worth it if the bells still chime at that “ghostly” hour.

I am afraid I have indulged in a somewhat extensive parenthesis, but my pen has run away with me, and now it must come back to the old-fashioned High Street shop where I lingered a few paragraphs back. The adjoining premises to Mr. Pearsall’s, on the east side, are also old and well in years. They have been altered and provided with a modern “dickey” I should say, front which rather hides their antiquity. There is, however, still conspicuous a quaint and curious spout-head which bears the date 1687, showing that these premises have more than passed their bicentenary.

The only little old-date shop in the heart of Birmingham that, till recently, rivalled the “silver-smithy” I have described in High Street, was a saddler’s at the top of New Street, which nestled under the shadow of Christ Church. It had the old-style small bow windows, the low roof, and the circumscribed area of old-fashioned shops. The ancient saddler who formerly tenanted it had not enough space to crack a whip, let alone swing a cat in. In past days, however, business was carried on under “limited” principles, but chiefly limited as to extent and space.

When walking about Birmingham, archaeological observers should look up if they wish to see and note any traces of age and antiquity. The lower portions of old premises have often been so enlarged and modernized that they give no sign of the real date of the buildings. In Bull Street, for instance, there are narrow old style windows that are very suggestive of a bygone day. But these are becoming few and far between, and will doubtless soon be seen no more.

Old-fashioned shops naturally suggest new and old-style shopkeeping. In a recent chapter I alluded to some long-established trading houses in Birmingham that within certain limits carry on their trade in a manner that differs from the very modern and obtrusively pressing fashion which is so much the custom of the day. Something of the same kind may be said of shops, as I generally remarked in my earlier observations. But to descend more into detail, there are still among its at any rate a limited number of shopkeepers who like to do their business on good, safe, and steady lines, and keep together a nice respectable connection by upholding the dependable quality of their wares. Some of these shopkeepers do not make much of an outward show, but I have reason to know that many of them in a quiet undemonstrative manner do a snug and prosperous trade without fuss or display.

I will just briefly particularize. Opposite King Edward’s School in New Street is a quiet, unostentatious-looking tobacconist’s shop. The window plate bears the name of Evans, and in the window is a modest show of smoking wares and materials. If you step inside the shop, it is comparatively calm and quiet. You do not see young men sitting about smoking, chatting, and joking with girls across the counter. There is no constant succession of customers coming in and out and buying their ounces and half ounces of “Returns,” “Bird’s Eye,” “Shag,” and “Old Virginia.” Yet an evident perfume of tobacco and prosperity seems to pervade the shop, but no sign of the Tom, Dick, and Henry sort of trade that is done by more ostentatious modern traders. It is, I believe, a case of half a century’s trading in good tobacco stuffs having established a connection among those who like good tobacco, will pay a proper price for it, and deal where they can get it.

These remarks apply more or less to a jewellery, watch and clock shop next door, kept for many years by Mr. L.N. Hobday. Here again there is a look of quality rather than mere quantity. There is no ticketed crowded display of wares, but the look of the shop inspires a feeling of confidence and an assurance that the quality of what you purchase may be relied upon. I am not in the secrets of the proprietor of this establishment, and have no interest in it beyond being an occasional small customer, yet I should not wonder if he does not do a nice, steady, quiet trade among those who have found out the advantages of dealing with a trader who personally understands his business, and will give them good value for their money.

There are, as I have hinted, other shops that prefer adhering to well-established lines of business, rather than up-to-dating their trade past all recognition. There are a few drapers still left, who, like Turner, Son, and Nephew, do not go in for a general all round-my-hat sort of business, but who restrict themselves within certain limited lines and on them keep up a well-established connection. There are, however, others who prefer a more pushing, store-competing, Whiteley-emulating style of trade. They follow their bent and probably make it pay. It is, of course, well that we should have traders of all kinds to minister to the requirements of a large and varied community. For myself, however, I am glad that there are still some shopkeeper specialists left who limit themselves to dealing in such things as they understand, and know what they buy, and sell that they know.