Tour of Lost Birmingham Nᵒ.45: A Trip to Thomason's Show Rooms (Church Street)

Edward Thomason's trade card, circa 1815.

When Sir Edward Thomason retired in 1835 he had built up a business that was one of the jewels of Birmingham's manufacturing crown. It had been visited by Princes, Dukes and Emperors from all the corners of Europe; and considering this global renown of Thomason in his time, I thought that you might like to take a tour as well.

The manufactory that you see before you (see image above) was composed from a number of dwelling houses that had lined the top end of Church Street, built in the 1700s. But from 1793, after an apprenticeship with Matthew Boulton, Edward Thomason began trading, utilising his father's buckle manufactory that had been left for him on the same site. Thomason's apprenticeship with Boulton had showed him what ambition could achieve and whetted his appetite for science and mechanics. His 'mind became restless to produce some novelty or invention worthy to be patented'.* He began making gilt and plated buttons, but soon branched into jewellery, coins, tokens and medals, continually expanding the business, so that by 1796 sixty to seventy rooms were utilised for his manufactures, as well as having twelve show rooms. The use of show rooms was an excellent tactic as it included Thomason's manufactory as part of the Birmingham tour where the town's articles could be examined and the the ingenuity of their maker wondered at.

Throughout this time Thomason was also working to achieve his ambitions of invention, and after several years of being generally unsuccessful he finally patented a new design for a corkscrew in 1802 that helped to make his name, as well as a good fortune. His ingenuity was aided by unflinching self promotion; he would send examples of new articles to whomever he thought best to promote himself and his wares, whether that be scientific medals to the most eminent scientists if the day, or commemorative medals to the Prince Regent himself. He also made the town and himself known to all Europe by sending religious medals to all of Europe's monarchs, and over the nineteenth century he received many honours and gifts from these; honours that he actively sought, and sometimes asked for.* He included illustrations of many of these gifts in his memoirs, as well as a portrait of himself wearing his honours (see below), and the many letters of praise received from esteemed persons. He was obviously very proud of his achievements, but one commentator (who called Thomason 'pleasant, chatty, spirited, yet egotistical') gave vanity as one of the main drivers in Thomason's memoirs.**

Thomason with his honours, from his Memoirs.

But, less about the man, let us take a look inside, where you can explore within one space a great range of the metallic arts; the 'show-rooms [...] profusely supplied with all that can be conceived of elegance and magnificence',*** and 'considered to be the most complete of the kind in Birmingham, and not to be equalled by many in England. He has a splendid exhibition of costly ornamental productions, in gold, silver, brass, and bronze, with a great variety of medals of the finest workmanship', as well as mechanical items.**** In 1832 Charles Stewart visited Birmingham. During his short stay (he found Birmingham too modern) he visited the ‘ingenious manufactories’ of both Thomason and Jones and found them both ‘rich in specimens of the most beautiful workmanship' and containing several items of special interest, including the Warwick Vase, of which Thomason's establishment was particularly noted for.

Over the next few weeks there will be some more posts about the Warwick Vase and other items that you might have been able to see in Thomason's show rooms. 

By this time (1832) the manufactory Thomason had inherited and built up was a very large affair and Thomason himself had made a name for himself through his ambition, innovation and clever promotion. It was three weeks after Stewart visited that Thomason was knighted, the first Brummie to be so. Shortly afterwards his friend, James Bisset, sent him the following verse:

            I congratulate you on the honor
So lately conferr'd by our Monarch (the donor).
Who, judging most wisely where merit is due,
The badge of true Knighthood bestowed upon you;
And feeling as all other amateurs felt,
Rewards you with title, gilt spurs, sword, and belt!
    I remember the time (fifty years since, when boys)
Your name at SOHO 'gan to make a great noise;
And when to the 'toy shop of Europe' you came,
Each season exalted a THOMASON'S fame.
As an Artist whose works o'er the globe have been whirl'd,
Your renown has extended all over the world!
No wonder HIS MAJESTY then thought it right
(High-talented Edward) to make you a KNIGHT!
                       I am Sir, Yours very faithfully,
                                        JAMES BISSET,
                                                 A Septuagenarian."'

Edward Thomason attributed to Sir William Beechey.
Date unknown but probably late 1700s.

* Thomason's Memoirs
** The Worthies of Warwick
*** A Picture of Birmingham
**** A History of Birmingham

Scientific and Philosophical Medals