26 February 2021

Aston Village: The Serpentine and the Aston Tavern

Aston Church in Aston, near Birmingham, with the River Tame nearby, before the railway
cut it away from Aston village, c. 1830s. 

Today the River Tame seems to skirt past the Aston area; taking a sharp turn under Witton Bridge, and then creeping behind the houses and industries of Tame Road, only to emerge under the Aston Expressway at the other end of Witton. But the old village of Aston grew up along the river, its shape determined by it and especially a large meander, later called the Serpentine. The Tame and its meander formed the north-east border of what was called Aston Manor, a smaller administrative division in the huge parish of Aston, set out at least by the time of George III.* This watery boundary line stretched from Witton Bridge (where the Shire Brook once joined the Tame, forming itself the north-west boundary) to just past Salford Bridge, where the Hockley Brook comes in (which formed the south-east boundary).

The Manor of Aston contained the central hub of Aston Parish; the village, the parish church, and the great manor house called Aston Hall (with its historic deer park), but when the Grand Junction Railway was driven through the area, it drew a line separating the river from Aston Manor. The Serpentine, the meander which lurched too deeply into the village of Aston, was also cut away by the railroad, and left as a motionless arch-shaped pool. More pools formed at its centre, and the nearby Aston Tavern utilised the picturesque ‘Old River Tame’ at the bottom of its sloping ornamental ‘tea gardens’ and platforms were erected for fishing (which was, apparently, excellent, and one of the favourite spots around Birmingham). Further from the Tavern, boathouses were built, and you can imagine summer afternoons with the paddles sweeping against the water, and Victorian ladies reclining with their parasols. It was described in 1838 that the Aston Tavern attracted “a great deal of company in fine weather, from the pleasantness of the situation and the taste displayed in the laying out of the ground”. Its situation during the nineteenth century was a fine one; it stood with a number of other buildings (some timber-built Tudor constructions) along what was called Aston Street (now Witton Lane), with the Holte Almshouses (completed 1656, see images below) standing opposite.

Looking down Aston Street from outside the Aston Tavern in 1897, with
the Holte Almshouses on the other side.
Holte Almshouses.
Aston Street with the Old Aston Tavern on the left, during
the days when the gardens behind led to a picturesque
river remnant; the Serpentine.
The Old Aston Tavern shortly before demolition and rebuild,
with the spire of Aston Church behind.

Moving the River Tame, in 1838, was not the easiest of tasks. The new course was dug out, but the railway line needed to be raised on an embankment to protect it from floods (where it still resides) which kept collapsing, as the riverside ground consisted of thousands of years of soft river deposit. It was the local gravel (from which Gravelly Hill takes its name) which saved the day, and was built up to form a firm foundation for the embankment that would support the heavy traffic on top. These setbacks caused a substantial delay, and the workmen worked “by sunlight and by moonlight” to get the line ready for its official opening.

There has been a settlement near the river here since at least Saxon times, with a moated manor house on the banks of the river just south of where Witton Bridge is today; this was early Aston, though the Saxon’s called it Enstone. Although the house had disappeared, the moat was still drawn into the ground in the days of Birmingham’s first historian, William Hutton (1782), who noted that the trenches were often flooded by the river. By the time of the Domesday Book 44 inhabitants were noted, one being a priest (suggesting that the church was already built), as well as a mill, which would have been water powered and situated along the River Tame. Although probably older, evidence of the village on the banks of the Serpentine Tame can be traced back to the thirteenth century, with finds of pottery (such as cooking pots), a medieval stone wall, and what seem like drainage channels to the river discovered during archaeological digs. Traces of an orchard from the fifteenth and/or sixteenth centuries were also found. It is also possible that a predecessor to the Aston Tavern may have stood on the site in the eighteenth century, as drinking vessels and handled mugs from that period were found during excavations.

Aston Hall with the Grand Junction Railway passing.

In more modern times, the great curve and pools of the Serpentine began to silt up and were eventually filled in. In the 20th century the ancient Onion Fair was moved out of the city centre to the suburbs, and by 1914 had moved to the ‘Serpentine Grounds’. The annual fair remained on this site till about the 1960s or early 1970s.

Birmingham Onion Fair Week. Birmingham Gazette, 1 October 1915.

* The parish of Aston was huge and contained a number of administrative divisions: these were Bordesley, Castle Bromwich, Deritend, Duddeston & Nechells, Erdington, Little Bromwich, Saltley & Washwood, Witton and Water Orton. Only Bordesley and Deritend (and the Duddeston part of Duddeston & Nechells) did not have the River Tame as part of their boundaries.

23 February 2021

Bisset's Magnificent Directory: Jones, Smart & Co., Glass Manufacturers (Plate W)

Plate W in James Bisset's Magnificent Directory (1800).

A page from Bisset's Magnificent Directory printed in 1800 depicting glass blowing at Jones, Smart and Co. who were glassmakers at Aston Hill in Birmingham.

The frontage of the manufactory was a smart late eighteenth-century structure topped with an urn with the glass cone behind, the glass cone being a chimney with a furnace at the centre and space around for the glassworkers. An underground flue provided a draught forcing the smoke up through the chimney. Glass cones looked like pottery kilns but the similarities were purely aesthetic, and the cone was unique to British glassmaking. Only four survive across the country.*

As well as the central furnace, smaller furnaces were around the edges to keep the glass hot whilst forming it. The image depicts two glassblowers as well as a boy shovelling coal. The curtains drawn back suggest that the process was being revealed to view, and this was very likely the first named glass cone interior depicted in print.**

The four surviving glass cones are the Red House Cone in Wordsley, West Midlands; the Lemington Glass Works in Newcastle upon Tyne; the Catcliffe Cone in the village of the same name in South Yorkshire; and the Northern Glass Cone in Alloa, Scotland.

* 'Industrial Heritage: British Glass', New Scientist, 63 (1974) 41-42 (p. 42). 
** Jenni Dixon, 'Tourist Experience and the Manufacturing Town: James Bisset's Magnificent Directory of Birmingham', in Pen, Print and Communication in the Eighteenth Century (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2020), pp. 169-183 (p. 177). 
- The Art of Glass Blowing (London: Bumpus and Griffin, 1831).

14 January 2021

Birmingham Objects: Thomason's Famous Corkscrew

~Corkscrew probably made by Edward Thomason labelled with Charles Jones's mark to be sold in his Pantechnetheca.~

Edward Thomason was a silversmith with a large manufactory on Church Street, he patented his design for a new corkscrew in 1802 and it made him a small fortune. Charles Jones was a silversmith and jeweller and had been in partnership with Thomason until December 1823 when Jones opened his own grand showrooms on New Street; the Pantechnetheca. It is likely that Jones sold a number of items from his old partner along with many other products sourced from other manufacturers in the town and elsewhere. Jones selected a wide range of better quality goods for his Pantechnetheca and the badge that he has placed on the corkscrew was probably a statement of quality and craftsmanship, as well as some advertising for Jones's shop. Birmingham had fought against negative opinion concerning many of the cheaper wares produced in the town and Jones was asserting his aspirations for how the best Birmingham wares should be seen through a early form of branding.

12 June 2020

Timber Framed Buildings: The Old Lamb House

Photograph of the Old Bull House shortly before demolition. WK-B11-1261.

The Old Lamb House was a timber-framed building which survived the red-brick redevelopments of the eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth century, but was demolished probably in the early 1880s. Despite its name suggesting that it had possibly been a public house there is no evidence that it was ever used as such. It was situated on Bull Street, one of Birmingham's oldest streets, and had probably been the home and retail premises of a wealthy merchant.

The eighteenth-century history of the Lamb House is little known, but in the early 1810s it was taken over by William Suffield, a printer from Coventry, as a bookshop, stationers and printing establishment. William initially set up in partnership with Charles Grafton, an already established Birmingham printer, as 'Printers, Publishers and Printing-Ink-Makers' but the partnership was dissolved in July 1813.* William continued in business alone, and after retiring from the trade became the librarian of the New Library on Temple Row West.*

In about 1829 William's son John took over the premises as a tailors' and drapers' shop which he ran very successfully and the site became somewhat of a local landmark, influenced greatly by it being a rare survivor. John ran certain aspects of the business and his wife, Jane, focused in millinery.

Advert for Mrs. Suffield's Millinery Show Rooms at 107 and 108 Bull Street,
Aris's Birmingham Gazette, 3 May 1845.

Today, Birmingham only has one of its timber-framed building still standing on its original site, which is the Old Crown in Digbeth. Even in the early nineteenth-century these were rare survivors.

Suffield's on Bull Street, 1865.

John Suffield was the great-grandfather of J. R. R. Tolkein who wrote The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and brother to Samuel Wilson Suffield who ran a druggist's shop in Birmingham.

Drawing of Suffield's Old Lamb House probably
after demolition.

Partnership between 'William Suffield and Charles Grafton, of Birmingham in the County of Warwick, Printers, Publishers and Printing-Ink-Makers, was dissolved by mutual consent on the 1st day of July last.----Dated 8th day of September 1814', The London Gazette (1814), II, p. 1838; Advertising the Annual General Meeting of subscribers for the New Library, Aris's Birmingham Gazette, 11 January 1836, p. 3; The Dart and Midland Figaro (1887), p. 11.

12 September 2019

Trade Catalogue Nᵒ.3: Japanned Boxes and a Bilston Japanner's Design Book

Fig. 1.

Pages of a Bilston japanners design book from about 1761, held at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, USA. It is thought to be from a Bilston maker as another book bought with it, from a later date, has 'Bilston' written on it. This pattern book is probably from the 1760s, though, as some of the designs (figs. 11-14) have designs celebrating the coronation of George III, which was on 22 September 1761. This is an excellent survival, as japanned boxes are liable to damage as the varnish and paint gets chipped away, so provides insight into what boxes might have looked like at this time, and many similar examples were made in Birmingham.

The pages probably formed a design book rather than a trade catalogue, as many of the illustrations are very rough and contain instructions for decorating, so the book was probably a guide for the painters. One such painter was James Bisset, who had been apprenticed as a box-painter to Thomas Bellamy, a Birmingham japanner, in 1777.*2* Bisset later recalled that his ‘daily task was two gross of Snuff Boxes or six dozen of small Painted Waiters – but I have very frequently painted 3 gross [432] of Boxes in a day’. This daily output from one individual at one manufactory depicts the extent of mass-production in Birmingham, as Bellamy was among several japanners at this time. Bisset also recorded the process: ‘Every Box was to have a flower painted on it of Three Colours, with the leaves touched with a light & dark shade; or we might paint flies, Butterflies, Insects, fruit or Landscapes on the Snuff Box lids, but with none less than three different colours’.* A selection of boxes from this period, painted in similar ways, are interspersed with the pages of the book, below.

The design book was noted by Robert Charleston who surmised that it was an enameller’s book, but there are several reasons that this is almost certainly not the case.* Firstly, many of the designs include ‘Oriental’ imagery rarely found on enamel but frequently found on japan-ware. Secondly, methods of colouring were described on the pages, such as ‘Virmilion Dip on Black’, ‘Green Grounds’, and ‘Silver ground Umber Dip’, which are all darker shades utilised on japanned goods. Thirdly, one sheet has the words ‘Cut paper Boxes 2/6’ written on it, which is highly suggestive of papier mâché bases, only used in japanning. Considering the lack of surviving japanned toys dated to this period, the design book is highly valuable, especially as it includes smaller designs which likely represent buttons, which have no counterpart in museum collections.

Fig. 2.
View here.

Fig. 3.

Fig. 4.

Fig. 5.

Fig. 6.

Fig. 7.
View here.

Fig. 8.

Fig. 9.

View here.

Fig. 10.

Fig. 11.

Fig. 12.

Fig. 13.

Fig. 14.

Fig. 15.
View here.

Fig. 16.

Fig. 17.

Fig. 18.

Fig. 19. 
View here.

* References on request.
*2* National Archives, Country Apprentices 1710-1808, 29 f 145.

24 August 2019

Gallery: John Wilkes' Beautiful Locks & 'keys so finely wrought'

Birmingham made 'detector' lock from c. 1680. V&A.

This brass lock was made in Birmingham in about 1680 by John Wilkes and is a fascinating object.

'the keys so finely wrought’, Robert Plot. 

The lock is able to record how may times it has been opened through the turning of the numbered dial. It would therefore ward off any potential thieves, and on the front are written the lines:

If I had ye gift of tongue 
I would declare and do no wrong 
Who ye are ye come by stealth 
To impare my Master's wealth.

When a button is pressed, the man’s leg moves forwards and backwards to reveal and conceal the keyhole, and his hat is tilted to release the bolt. It is an ingenious piece of craftsmanship, and Wilkes signed it Johannes Wilkes de Birmingham. It is not the only surviving John Wilkes lock, and more are shown in the gallery below.

Wilkes is generally considered to have lived and died on the Square, a fine housing development dating from about 1713, and his famous lock, above, is depicted in Kenneth Budd's 1967 mural which is situated in the modern square (called Old Square, see below). There were two John Wilkes', though, father and son, and the Wilkes who made these locks was not the same who lived on the Square.

Kenneth Budd's 'Old Square' mural made 1967. Wiki Commons.
Part of Budd's mural depicting John Wilkes' lock, J. Dixon, 2011.

The elder John was born in about 1651 and had been a locksmith in Darlaston in Staffordshire, as noted on his marriage licence to Elizabeth Heynes.** Lockmaking was dominant in Darlaston and nearby Staffordshire towns and villages. Robert Plot, who wrote A Natural History of Staffordshire in 1686, described Wolverhampton door-locks ‘with brass or iron boxes so curiously polish’t, and the keys so finely wrought’.*  In 1654 John Evelyn, the diarist, also described ‘a lock for a doore, that for its filing, & rare contrivances, was a masterpiece, yet made by a Country Black-Smith’ continuing that ‘a dore lock, of a tolerable price, was esteem’d a Curiositie even among forraine Princes’.* Although Evelyn did not note which area the 'Country Black-Smith' came from, it was likely the Black Country area of Staffordshire or Birmingham, as these were the dominant sites of lock-making outside London at this time.

John and Elizabeth were married in Sedgley, Staffordshire, where Elizabeth was from, in 1673 when they were both 22 years of age. They seem to have moved immediately to Birmingham as a daughter, Mary, was baptised at St. Martin's in 1674. They had five children altogether, John, Mary, Elizabeth, Rebecca and Joseph, and although baptisms can be found for all but John junior, they were all mentioned in John seniors will, dated 1709. The will contained an inventory of the Wilkes home as well as John's workshop, containing the tools of his trade, which was possibly on Bull Street (more on his home here).

The tools contained in Wilkes' two workshops provide insight into how these locks were produced using eighteenth-century methods. Wilkes had a hearth, as bellows were mentioned, and also a trough for cooling hot metal. There was an anvil, hammers, tongs, shears as well as technologies such as lathes. His ‘Squares & Cumpasses [compasses]’ helped him get the correct shapes and measurements, and tools which created the intricate shapes and polish were also recorded, such as vices to hold the metal and drills to begin the designs. Dozens of files of different shapes and sizes were also listed, including ‘3 New thin files, 2 oval half round & new thick half Round’. These would help him file the shapes of the foliage in the locks below. For polishing the finished articles there were rubbers and ‘smooths [smoothers]’, as well as a polishing wheel. Wilkes owned ‘Wimbles’, which were used for boring holes, and ‘Screwplates’, which formed the thread on screws. This shows that Wilkes made his own screws and that this labour was not being majorly outsourced or divided at this time.*

After the elder Wilkes' death, it was the younger John Wilkes who lived on the Square. He had followed his father's trade as a locksmith and in about 1712, or just before, had borrowed £200 from his mother, possibly to purchase one of the new grand townhouses in the Square. He died in December 1732 and was buried at St. Martin's.


Birmingham made 'detector' lock, John Wilkes, c. 1680. V&A.

This lock is from about 1680 and is one of three Birmingham locks made by John Wilkes held by the Victoria and Albert Museum. The working of the lock is described: 'The master of the house could select, by turning the small knob at the top of the lock, the number of bolts (1 to 4) that he wished to put into operation. When set at number four, which is maximum for locking the top four bolts are locked out by just turn of the key, but four turns of the key are required to withdraw these, i.e. one at a time. There is however literally a "sting in the tail" of the top bolt, the one last withdrawn, for it triggers off the twin anti-burglar bottom bolts, and these can only be unlocked by a reverse action of the correct key'.***

Similar locks (or at least parts of them) are held at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the MET Museum in New York (below). The layout and workings are slightly different, but overall the designs are very similar.
Birmingham lock, c. 1680. MET Museum.
Attributed to John Wilkes as the lock is unsigned.

Lock,  signed by John Wilkes, c. 1680. BMAG.

Hinge plate in similar design to Wilkes' locks and probably made to match,
so would be placed on the same door as the lock.
Held at V&A.

Dyrham Park, a National Trust property near Bristol and Bath, have two Wilkes locks of this design still in use, which also include a decorative keyhole plate and doorknob used on the other side of the door (belowthanks to Victoria Barker). Wilkes not only made the locks, then, but everything needed to make both secure and beautiful doors. 

Wilkes keyhole plate and knob, images by Victoria Barker.

A detector lock signed by Wilkes and sold at Sotheby's
in 2015 for £12,500.

Locks Attributed to Wilkes

Another very intricate detector lock held at the V&A.

The panel which is removed at the top reveals two dials which detect how many times the lock has been opened. 

Below is another unsigned lock very similar to the first depicted. This is very likely by Wilkes, although others may have imitated his locks. 
Held at the Rijks Muesuem.

Other locks were sold at Bonham's, here and here
See all galleries here. I have also posted this to my other blog, Crafts Through Time.

* References on request.
** 1. John Wilkes, a locksmith from Darlaston, married Elizabeth Heynes, from Sedgley, in Sedgley on 20 September 1673. The licence stated that they were both 22. Their five children were John, Mary (1674), Elizabeth (1678), Rebecca (1683), and Joseph (1689). According to wills Rebecca Wilkes married Richard Dolphin, a baker, and Mary Wilkes married Edward Burton, a short cutler. 
*** V&A.