Artisan Districts Nᵒ.1: The Gun Quarter

Photographs taken in the early 1960s by Phyllis Nicklin. 

It is uncertain exactly when gun making began in Birmingham and its surrounding areas in the West Midlands. When William III came to the throne in 1689 there were gun makers in the town, who benefited from the King keeping the country at near permanent war with France throughout his reign. Technological developments of the gun had led it to be used more reliably in warfare over the previous centuries, and demand was increasing. The gun makers of Birmingham were noted by the government in the late 1600s and several trial orders were made for weapons, eventually leading to contracts being placed with a number of local manufacturers.

The trade expanded over the next fifty years, and like Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, which still survives to this day, the gun trade also developed in a distinct 'quarter' etched into the landscape of the town. The term 'gun quarter' seems to be a much more modern term than the quarter itself, the district evolved over time through amenity; there were many processes in the making of a single weapon, and each process would be conducted by different skilled workers in separate premises. The making of the guns was divided into two main areas; the component parts were produced by the 'makers' who were breechers, borers, stock makers, barrel welders, bayonet forgers, socket and ring stampers etc, these parts were then assembled by the 'setters up' who assembled to parts to produce the finished article. These were polishers, engravers, browner's, sighters etc. Each finished gun would have gone through about fifty different hands. This method of making guns, due to the complexity of the article, changed little over the years; it was the longest surviving traditional industry in Birmingham.

The 'gun quarter' was concentrated within St. Mary's parish, and many gun makers converted the smart houses that had been built around and near St. Mary's church into manufactories. These have all gone, but in the early 1960s they were beginning to be taken down; Phyllis Nicklin took her camera and recorded some of the area....

But these empty streets lined with cars do little to describe the area at its height; with people and gun parts moving from workshop to workshop the area would have been filled with hustle and bustle, the noise leaking out into the streets from the craftsmen working busily inside at their workbenches. Weaving through the street gunsmiths would be seen:
"one with half a dozen stocked guns on his shoulder, conveying them from the stocker to the screwer, another with a tray full of locks for the polisher, a third on his way with a few barrels to the Proof House, and so on".*

These Georgian frontages also tell us little about the reality of the 'gun quarter' behind the facades, as much of its life was behind the streets. This is 9 to 11 St. Mary's Row, opposite the church, but the two images below are taken behind the same building, and a description from Albert Fenton (below) helps to bring the images to life.

"Some rooms you walked up to from outside on wooden staircases and each had a name-plate on the door. Inside the rooms were very cramped, with the work benches all along the walls [....] The men were working on polishing the gun barrels or carving wood-stocks for handles. There were tools everywhere, hanging on nails and straps all over the walls and lying on benches, you gradually became aware of it all in the dim shafts of light from the small windows. The men were very skilled at their trades which were handed down from father to son"**

* Goodman from Skipp
** Albert Fenton from Carl Chinn's, The Great Working City.
1) Partridge Works on Price Street (off Loveday Street), 1960. 2) No. 3 Whittal Street, 1963. 3) Sand Street near Whittal Street, 1960. 4) St. Mary's Row, 1960. 5) Nos. 9-11 St. Mary's Row, 1960. 6) Behind 9-11 St. Mary's Row, 1960. 7) Behind 10-11 St. Mary's Row, 1963.

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