12 July 2019

Artisan Trades: Filigree, a Forgotten Birmingham Craft

Filigree nutmeg grater, probably made by Samuel Pemberton
in Birmingham, c. 1790-1800. Held at Birmingham Assay Office.

Find out more about this filigree nutmeg grater here.

Birmingham may have been the ‘city of a thousand trades’, but some of those trades are more well-known than others. One that is less recognised is that of filigree making, which involved using flattened wire soldered together to form decorative and delicate patterns, usually in the making of jewellery and small boxes. These small filigree items were popular in the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries, and many examples survive; though because silver filigree was not required to be marked, their place of production can be uncertain. There is evidence though, that Birmingham was central in England’s filigree making during this period. The Encyclopaedia of Geography (1837) highlights the main trades of the town as ‘pins, buttons, nails, paper trays, filigree, and toys’; the other trades are well researched, but filigree is less so.

When, in 1774, Thomas Percival was researching how lead could poison those working with it, he visited the filigree workers who used a lead-based solder at Matthew Boulton's Soho manufactory. One of the artisans stated that he had been making silver filigree for thirty-five years, so, since about 1739 at least. This was several decades before Soho opened in the late 1760s. Most is known about Soho's filigree, though, and when Dorothy Richardson visited in 1770 she described 'several tooth pick cases of the finest silver filigree I ever saw'.*

Silver filigree toothpick case, c. 1780 (9.2cm).
Put on sale at Sotheby's in 2017.

These were possibly similar to the examples above and below, which were put up for sale at Sotheby's in 2017 and are almost certainly of Soho origin, as the manufactory made these sorts of boxes throughout the 1770s. In February 1770, for example, Boulton wrote from London for his partner to send: ‘a doz or two of ye filligree oval Boxes wᵗʰ ye wheat sheaf trophy inlᵈ in Tortoiseshell some mounted wᵗʰ Gold lip & joynt, others in Gilt mounts', similar to the box above which is set with decorative hair-work.** In 1780 Thomas and Theophilus Richards, who ran a local toyshop, bought a 'Silver Filigree Shuttle Toothpick Case with Wheat Sheaf' at 29/ from Soho.** This case was probably similar to the one below, which is closest to a shuttle shape (also known as a navette shape) and set with a wheatsheaf on ivory.

Silver filigree toothpick case, c. 1780 (8.5cm).
Put on sale at Sotheby's in 2017.

The Richards' made their own toys, and Thomas worked in filigree, but they also topped up their stock by buying articles from Soho. As well as the toothpick case, these included 'Gilt Filligree' handkerchief and neck-cloth slides at a range of prices, and several gilt and silver 'Filligree Thimble & Smelling Bottle[s]' ranging from 4/6d to 15/ each.** An inventory of Soho's stock in 1782 also recorded filigree smelling bottles, thimbles, handkerchief pins, purse runners, buckles, tea measures, toothpick cases and money boxes.**

The 'Filligree Thimble & Smelling Bottle' was probably similar to the example below, which allowed women to have a ready supply of perfume or smelling salts to hand whilst they were sewing. Others included additional items, such as a tape measure, which can be seen below again.

Simple filigree thimble and smelling bottle, c. 1785.
Private collection.

Filigree thimble, tape measure and smelling bottle, c. 1790.
Private collection.

The 'tea measures' noted at Soho were probably caddy spoons, which became a staple of Birmingham filigree manufacture in the 1790s and early 1800s. At this time, it was more usual for silver filigree to be marked, and they were produced by silversmiths and toymakers such as Samuel Pemberton, Thomas Willmore and Joseph Taylor. A fine caddy spoon was part of the ritual of making and drinking tea.

See more Birmingham filigree on Pinterest.

* The diary of Dorothy Richardson, quoted in: Nicholas Goodison, Matthew Boulton: Ormulu (2002).
** Boulton documents at Birmingham Archive.

Birmingham Printers Nᵒ.3: Thomas Warren, Lady Holte & Links to Samuel Johnson

Printed in Joseph Hill's Bookmakers of Old Birmingham (1907),
the original in Birmingham Archive.

Thomas Warren (1700-1767) was first noted as a 'bookseller' in 1727.* He sold a range of works, some of them known about through the shopping bills of Lady Holte, of Aston Hall, who visited frequently between 1729 and 1730. She bought two volumes of Gulliver's Travels; Hutchinson's 'On ye Passions'; spelling books, presumably for her children; 'Headley's method of Teaching'; the 'Beggars Opera', first performed in 1728; two volumes of 'Cyclopedia'; as well as many more publications. She had books bound and bought ink, and also paid for 'Reading' certain books, so presumably Warren offered a lending service. Warren also sold Holte other items, including a 'Pair of fine Pockett Globes' which he bought in from London. Books allowed the reader to explore the expanding eighteenth-century world, so the globes were an apt addition to the bookshop, and Warren sold books about globes and exploration too.**

Warren began printing in the early 1730s. His first known printed works were A Practical Discourse on Reconciliation (1729) by John Reynolds with the imprint 'Printed for and Sold By T. Warren, Bookseller, near St. Martin’s Church, Birmingham', so possibly printed elsewhere, and Multum in Parvo, or Jubilee of Jubilees (1732) imprinted 'Printed by T. Warren, over against the Swan Passage'. This area of High Street was where the printing trade was centralised in the eighteenth century. Warren also began producing The Birmingham Journal in 1732, the town's first newspaper. Only one copy of this publication is known to survive dated 21 May 1733 (see above).

Samuel Johnson (1775) by Joshua Reynolds.

In 1733 Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), whose uncle was a bookseller in Birmingham, visited the town and stayed with Warren, writing some articles for The Birmingham Journal. Warren also printed Voyage to Abyssinia which Johnson helped to translate into English, and a copy is held at Birmingham Archive. Residing at Warren's at the same time as Johnson was Edmund Hector (1708-1794), a surgeon in Birmingham who Johnson had been at school with. Johnson wrote to Hector in 1755 stating 'I was extremely pleased to find that you have not forgotten your old friend, who yet recollects the evenings which we have passed together at Warren's and the Swan'.*** This was the Swan Inn.

Johnson remained in Birmingham till 1735 and met his later wife, Elizabeth Porter, in the town.

Portrait of Edmund Hector.
Held at the National Portrait Gallery.

By 1755 Thomas Warren's son, another Thomas (1728-1814), had taken over the trade, and he retired to Castle Bromwich in 1801.

See books printed by Thomas Warren in Birmingham here.

* He subscribed to A Commentary Upon the Historical Books of the Old Testament.
** Bill of Lady Holte from Thomas Warren, 1729-30. 
*** Letter from Johnson to Hector, 15 April 1755, in: The Letters of Samuel Johnson: 1731-1772, ed. by Bruce Redford (Princeton Legacy Library, 2014), I, p. 104.

Birmingham Printers Nᵒ.2: Henry Butler & His Ballads

Cupid's Cabinet, p. 1.

Henry Butler was a printer in Birmingham between about 1719 and 1758, when an Esther Butler (his widow or daughter) took over the business. Butler was particularly a printer of ballads, such as Cupid's Cabinet Open'd (above and continued below) and ephemeral items, rather than books, and produced prints of Newcomen's steam engine in the late 1720s. His print shop was on New Street, probably tucked between the New Street entrance to the Swan Hotel, and what later became the Fountain Inn, not far from High Street.  

Held at Birmingham Archive.

The Newcomen engine print was owned by Birmingham historian Samuel Timmins and reproduced in The Engineer in 1879 (28 Nov). Whether this was Butler's print is uncertain, but Butler probably copied an earlier version. This was before Birmingham became known for steam power through the partnership between Matthew Boulton and Scottish innovator James Watt. There was still a local interest in new technologies in the 1720s, though.

Local poet, William Shenstone, looked to Butler for his printing needs: ‘I had & have some Thoughts of having my Ballad printed by Butler at Birmingham on ye same Paper & in ye same form wᵗʰ common Ballads. To be call’d ‘James Dawson’s Garland.’ but lest this shou’d happen I beseech yʳ Ladyship to make a secret of its author’.* If Shenstone ever printed this ballad, it has not been found. 

Following are the rest of the pages from Cupid's Cabinet Open'd. Click on the pages to enlarge.
Cupid's Cabinet, p. 2.

Cupid's Cabinet, p. 3.

Cupid's Cabinet, p. 4.

Cupid's Cabinet, p. 5.

Cupid's Cabinet, p. 6.

Cupid's Cabinet, p. 7.

Cupid's Cabinet, p. 8. End of book.
Other Printers: Nᵒ.1 Thomas Unwin

* Letter from William Shenstone to Lady Luxborough, 18 April 1748.
More on the Butler ballads here: https://www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/birming1.htm

11 July 2019

Bromford Forge, and the Interior of the 18th Century Iron Forge

An Iron Forge, by Joseph Wright of Derby (1772)

The first mention of the Bromford mill as a forge was in 1605, but the site had previously worked as a water-powered mill, possibly dating back to Domesday, but definitely the thirteenth century. Like many mills it had been converted from corn grinding to fulling, the pounding of wool to remove oil and dirt.* From working as a fulling mill it was an easy conversion to become a forge to hammer iron instead of wool, as seen in Joseph Wright’s 1772 painting of an iron forge (above). Wright was inspired by the industries of the Midlands, and although there is no reason to believe that he visited Bromford, there would be similarities.

In 1638 the mill was described as “all that forge or hammer mill and also all the houses, cottages, lands, [...] crofts & closes” which was in the possession of John Jennens of Birmingham, a wealthy ironmonger (Jennens Road, near Millenium Point, is named after him).*** The houses and cottages would have most likely been for the mill workers, with Bromford being, at that time, in the countryside, and about four miles from the Birmingham industries. Jennens himself had worked mills further up the River Tame in Wednesbury, but according to Victorian historian F. W. Hackwood, had relocated further downstream to Bromford and Aston due to a shortage of fuel, namely charcoal, in the Black Country. But Wednesbury was still rich in iron ore, which was taken by either cart or pack-horse from Wednesbury to Aston, Bromford and Perry Barr.

Jennens’ forge at Bromford was only part of his "iron empire", and would have been used as a forge for refining the brittle pig iron into more malleable wrought iron for making horse shoes, nails, tools and wire elsewhere. Inside there would have been at least a couple of furnaces, as well as bellows, and, of course, the water powered trip hammers; making the forge both a sweltering and noisy place to work, with raging flames, and the pounding of the heated iron (or bloom) between the hammer and the anvil. The pig iron would be heated for at least an hour in the furnace, whilst being blasted with air, to form a glowing ball. Once ready, it was removed with a hook and tongs to the trip-hammer, where it would be pounded. The pounding or hammering was a process to remove the carbon from the iron; too much carbon and the iron would be brittle, too little, and the iron would be too soft. This process could be repeated another four or five times before the iron was ready.

From the middle of the eighteenth century Edward Knight and Abraham Spooner became involved in Bromford Forge. They were nail makers and had built a water-powered slitting mill, called Nechells Park Mill, on the site of an old blade mill, near the confluence of the River Rea and the Tame. The slitting process literally ‘slit’ bars of iron into rods by taking them through two sets of water-powered rolls. Bromford was used to make the iron that was then transported to Nechells to ‘slit’ into rods, and then the finished nails would have been made elsewhere again. Knight and Spooner also ran Aston Furnace.

In the early years of the nineteenth century machinery was introduced to press nails at Bromford, which marked its move from forge to rolling mill. Abel Rollason rented the mill from the 1830s, and from 1849 shared the site with a firm utilising the water for the trade of wire drawing. The Rollason Wire Company were still in occupation in 1956, marking over 100 years of drawing wire on the site, though the power of water slowly made way for that of steam, and then electricity.

Bromford Forge in 1753, drawn by R. R. Angerstein.**

In 1753 Reinhold Angerstein visited Bromford Forge, drawing and describing the interior. He also described some of the surrounding area, which is included below:

Bromford Forge
In the morning of the 8th I went to Bromford Forge, which is located three-and-a-half English miles from Birmingham […], and is provided with water by the river ‘Edsborsen’ [river Tame] which flows past and partly through the town. In the forge, which is built out of wood, the hammer and its drive and other equipment were the same as in Sweden. There were three hearths in operation, two of them finery hearths using charcoal, and the third a chafery hearth heated with mineral coal. It required two hours to make a bloom weighing 1 ¼ cwt. The weekly production was 7 tons, and last year the total production amounted to 340 tons. The wages were 99s.6d, which is divided between ten people. The finers, numbering six, get 10s.6d each, and the four hammermen 9 shillings each. The iron made here is cold-short. The works belong to Messrs Knight and Spooner, who also own the blast furnace that lies on the other side of Birmingham, to the west.

Nail Smithies
On the way to Bromford I saw several nail factories, where there were generally four smiths for each small hearth.

On the way I encountered a large number of rabbits that had dug their holes on a sandy heath. Here stood a watchman’s hut, indicating that they belonged to a farmer in some village in the neighbourhood.

*British Histoy Online: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol7/pp253-269
**R. R. Angerstein's Illustrated Travel Diary, 1753-1755, translated by Torsten and Peter Berg (2011): https://books.google.co.uk/books?redir_esc=y&id=YK_siPOmoVAC&q=birmingham#v=snippet&q=birmingham&f=false
***Birmingham Archive: https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/2671bbb2-fef1-4d36-87a2-2885a602a8a1

Aston Furnace in the 1750s

Aston Furnace in 1753, drawn by R. R. Angerstein.**

Aston Furnace, now demolished, was on the Hockley Brook, near where Porchester Street is today. The current site is grade A listed, although it has been built on. The original furnace was for iron and was first noted in 1615. In the late 1600s it was run by the renowned Jennens ironmasters, who also worked Bromford Forge. British History Online states that there is no evidence that the furnace itself was water-powered, but that the brook was used to power the bellows.*

In 1753 Aston Furnace was visited by a Swedish ironmaster, Reinhold Angerstein, who described it and produced several illustrations (included). At this time the furnace was being run by Abraham Spooner and Edward Knight, who were also working Bromford Forge and Nechells Slitting Mill.* Angerstein's description was quite technical, as he was researching for his own business, but is an interesting insight into the original site:
The Aston iron furnace, where ore is smelted to yield iron, is located a mile from the town [of Birmingham]. It is built in the same way as the furnaces in Hanover and in most parts of Germany. The height is 24 feet, the opening at the top is 2 feet square, and the shaft widens downward until the bosh is reached and then contracts to the hearth, which is shaped like a parallelogram. Charcoal made from oak, ash and birch is used here and the wood is purchased by the cord, which is 8 feet long, 4 feet wide and 4 feet high, and costs 13 to 14 shillings. The ore is obtained from the coal mines six-and-a-half English miles away. It looks like blue clay that has hardened and contains remains of twigs. Seventeen tons a week can be made here. There are six workers at the furnace, who are paid 3 shillings [per week] and 17 pence per ton [of iron] and produce 17 tons per week. The furnace is charged every half-hour with six measures of coal, 36 inces long by 4 ½ inches wide, and nine measures of ore 18 inches long […] Four ‘Bird’ or dozen measures of coal per 24 hours.

The bellows were made of leather, 18 feet long, and cost new between £60 and £70. The cam [on the drive shaft] consisted of a large piece of wood that could be moved back and forth in case the alignment between bellows and shaft varied.

The overshot water wheel was 21 feet in diameter and constructed in the Swedish manner with closed buckets. The furnace itself was built of brick with flying buttresses at two corners (fig). During its last blast the furnace worked for three years except for 11 days.**
The bellow in Aston Furnace, drawn by R. R. Angerstein.**

The furnace, drawn by R. R. Angerstein.**

Into the Nineteenth Century
Aston Furnace in 1844 with Birmingham in the background.
Held by BMAG.

Furnace Lane (photo below) was formed in about the 1870s leading up to the site of the furnace, as the area became built up. The furnace itself was demolished in the late 1880s.*

Furnace Lane, 9 November 1968, by Phillis Nicklin.
Held by University of Birmingham.***
Furnace Lane, 9 November 1968, by Phillis Nicklin.
Held by University of Birmingham.***
According to Nicklin, who took the two photographs, the Hockley Brook still flowed between the gap in the houses, seen in the second image.

* British Histoy Online: https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol7/pp253-269
** R. R. Angerstein's Illustrated Travel Diary, 1753-1755, translated by Torsten and Peter Berg (2011): https://books.google.co.uk/books?redir_esc=y&id=YK_siPOmoVAC&q=birmingham#v=snippet&q=birmingham&f=false
*** University of Birmingham ePapers Repository online:  http://epapers.bham.ac.uk/2341/ & http://epapers.bham.ac.uk/452/ 

11 December 2017

Map of the Hundreds of Staffordshire, c. 1650

Map of the hundreds of Staffordhire, by Hollar, c. 1650s.

Although this is a map of Staffordshire, the town of Birmingham can be seen at its borders on the left,  and some of what are now the suburbs of Birmingham were previously in Staffordshire. On the map, north is to the right (one of the enlargements - below - is tilted with north at the top). It was produced in about the 1650s by Wenceslaus or Wenceslas Hollar, a Czech etcher, who made several images in the British Isles, and died in London in 1677. The original is 19 by 26 cm, and part of the Wenceslaus Holler Collection at the University of Toronto (see here).

19 May 2017

Birmingham's Silver Fish

At the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle in County Durham is a magnificent swan automaton made in silver in 1773 by James Cox in conjunction with John Joseph Merlin.* Both were inventors, the latter keeping Merlin's Mechanical Museum (from 1783), and the former a jeweller, toymaker and producer of large and extravagant 'sing-songs' that were sent to the East. The Swan was formed of intricately shaped and layered silver to produce the feathers, hiding the mechanics that make the swan preen itself and then curl its neck to the stream below (made with twisted glass rods that turn and catch the light to mimic water) and catch a little silver fish, one of many that wiggle amongst the ripples (see below). The swan then lifts its head and gobbles down the little fish. It is a beautiful piece of mechanical art.

In 1774 the swan was in display in Cox's museum in London, and was still there in 1791 when Cox's Museum had become Davie's Grand Museum. After this, though, its movements become hazy till it is next heard of in France in the 1860s. What is interesting is that in the early 1800s the Birmingham silversmiths and toymakers seem to have, either by accident or design, copied the design of the fishes to make intricate saleable vinaigrettes (below).

A silver fish vinaigrette made by Joseph Taylor in
Birmingham in about 1814.

These vinaigrettes were designed to contain a sponge soaked in a sweet smelling oil that could be surreptitiously sniffed if you were unfortunate enough to be sat next to an unpleasantly fragrant person at dinner, or elsewhere. They were made by Birmingham makers such as Joseph Taylor, William Lea, Joseph Willmore, John Lawrence and others. Like Cox and Merlin's fish, they are delicately engraved with the fish's scales with an articulated body, cleverly riveted inside, so that the fish wriggles from side to side.

The Mount Holyoke Museum in Massachusetts have
an eighteenth century fish in a shagreen case,
definitely English, but the exact location of
manufacture is unknown.**

It is impossible to know if the Swan influenced the small silver fish produced later, or if earlier fish vinaigrettes influenced the swan. Whatever is the case, the little silver fish are some of the quirkiest productions from the Birmingham silversmiths, and frequently unknown as a Birmingham artefact.

* Possibly made by Merlin and bought by Cox to show in his museum
** They date the fish at circa 1750 to 1760, but as a rough estimate, it is difficult to know whether this fish was made before or after the Swan.

2 October 2016

Freeth's Coffee House & the Society Feasts

Freeth's Coffee House was a tavern (more formally known as the Leicester Arms) on Bell Street, a lost street which would have stood under the complex of the new Bull Ring Shopping Centre. It was run by John Freeth (sometimes John Free), a local poet and political commentator, often known as Poet Freeth and printing publications such as The Political Songster. As with many coffee houses in the eighteenth-century, it was a meeting place, not just of people, but of ideas. Most well-known are the meetings of the Jacobin Club, a group of political radicals including James Bisset (toy-maker and museum keeper) and James Sketchley (printer and auctioneer). In his obituary in 1808 it was noted that Freeth would sing his poems and 'delight a large company with original songs, composed from subjects of a public nature, replete with wit and humour'.

The pub was the site of a number of dinners where the radical politics and current affairs of the day could be discussed. The call to these feasts was frequently through a few lines of poetry, printed in letterpress onto small cards. Here are some examples:

Click on the cards to enlarge.

Poet Freeth (John Freeth).

26 September 2016

James Watt's Workshop

A short video by History West Midlands, taking us inside the workshop of James Watt, which existed at Watt's home, Heathfield Hall, in the late eighteenth-century. The workshop is now reconstructed at the Science Museum in London.

3 September 2016

The Swan Hotel in Pictures

Swan Hotel in 1829.

The Swan Hotel was a large and dominant coaching inn on the High Street throughout the eighteenth-century and before. According to Joseph Hill it was an ancient tavern, the land of which stretching across the corner of High and New Streets, and belonged to a family called Rastell during the reign of Henry VIII. Between 1666 and 1688 the landlord of the Swan was Edward Crank, who demolished the old tavern, and built another set back from the street, with a large yard in front for carriages, and erected a row of five smart town houses along the street (seen on the left of the trade card, above).* The Swan was a haunt of Samuel Johnson, who wrote in 1755 'I was extremely pleased to find that you have not forgotten your old friend, who yet recollects the evenings which we have passed together at Warren's and the Swan'. Johnson resided in Birmingham in the early 1730s with Edmund Hector (to whom he writes above) at Thomas Warren's bookshop, which situated opposite the Swan at that time, as Warren's shop moved about.

Contemporary colouring of the 1829 card.

In the 1730s, as the notice below announces, you could catch a stage-coach to London at the Swan at six on a Monday morning, and return 'if God permit' on the Saturday. Take a journey on the Birmingham to London stage-coach here.

A map of the Swan Hotel was produced for a sale of the property in 1836. Although the hotel survived after this date, many of the extended parts of the property, such as the stables on Worcester Street, were being sold in different lots. The railway came to Birmingham in 1838 with the opening of Curzon Street Station, and whether prospective buyers would have been aware of the impact of the looming rail network, this was the end of an era for coaching inns like the Swan.

The 'Coach Office', which can be seen in green on the map (Lot 1) on New Street, is depicted in the image belowThe street on the right of 'W. JONES', the trunk manufacturer, was Worcester Street, and when the Rotunda was built, this became Worcester Passage, which has now gone itself, but was covered and cut underneath the Rotunda building.

New Street (left) at the corner of Worcester Street (right), c. 1840.

A later map of the Swan, from the 1850s, shows that the grand open entrance, where the coaches would turn (as seen in the 1820s trade card), had been built up with new shops, and the hotel itself had been limited to the site behind the New Street Coach Office.

1850s map showing the Swan Hotel.

The Twentieth Century Swan
The hotel survived until the late 1950s, but was demolished before 1961 to make way for the new Rotunda. The photos below were taken in 1932 by William A. Clark.

The swan over the door. 
The entrance door with the swan over, looking up
Swan Alley. Note Fred Burn on the right.
Poor image of the alley from the other direction. Not taken by Clark.
Landing of the Swan Hotel.