Lost Trades Nᵒ.11: John Taylor (c. 1711 to 1775) & Birmingham's First Factory (probably)

John Taylor I, c. 1750. In the possession
of Lloyd's Bank, London.

John Taylor (c. 1711 to 1775)

John Taylor was one of Birmingham’s most dominant manufacturers of small wares, often called 'toys', including japanned goods (decorative lacquer), metal buttons and enamelled boxes. In 1766 Lady Shelburne, who was visiting the Birmingham manufactories with her husband and some friends, called Taylor the 'principal manufacturer' of the town.* Taylor's business had grown from the 1730s, and his manufactory was probably Birmingham's first factory, in the sense we understand it today. He also was a partner in Taylor and Lloyd's bank, which opened in Birmingham in 1765 and is now simply Lloyd's Bank, and he died in 1775 a very wealth man.

Due to the early period of Taylor's activity few archival records survive so very little is known about him. Also, no surviving objects can be definitely attributed to his manufactory, although some speculation can be made.

A Beginning in Japanning

The first mention of Taylor is in the diary of Richard Wilkes, a Willenhall physician, in 1737: ‘This year the Art of Japanning was brought almost to perfection at least in small Pieces at Birmingham & Wolverhampton. In the former Place by one Taylor who was a Sadler by Trade'.** Wilkes continued his description of Taylor's japanned goods, stating that they included 'Snuff Boxes [....made...] to the utmost Degree of Nicety; & upon them any Peice [sic] of History, [Loving] Creatures, Landscapes &c were painted to the Life'.*

Example of designs for japanned snuff boxes.
From a Bilston pattern book, c. 1761.

Taylor’s success in japanning was attributed to his development of a ‘cheap yet elegant varnish for snuff boxes, which was his secret, by a tour d’adresse [feat of skill]’.* Varnish was one of the most important aspects of the japanner's trade. Japanned goods consisted of a metal or papier-mâché base decorated in high-gloss paints and then lacquered or varnished to a high shine. This shine was a major part of the appeal, so the ability to produce a high-quality varnish at a low price would have increased a japanner’s chances of success in the trade. Taylor achieved this, and in 1758 Robert Dossie observed the differences between Parisian and Birmingham snuff-boxes, noting that the latter 'when good of their kind, never peel or crack, or suffer any damage, unless by great violence' whereas with the French examples the ‘japan coats […] crack and fly off in flakes, whenever any knock or fall, particularly near the edges’.* This was almost certainly due to the Birmingham boxes having more coats of varnish due to the lowered costs.

A notable rumour, recorded posthumously, was that when John Baskerville took up japanning, who later became a renowned printer, he followed Taylor as he collected the ingredients for his varnish to discover the secret.*  Despite the unreliability of this as a historical source, it depicts how innovations in varnish were perceived as integral to success in japanning, and even if it was a myth, it added to the appeal of Baskerville’s products in that they were produced with Taylor’s secret recipe. Many of these stories circulated, which increased interest in the innovations which forged many of Birmingham's wares.

Legend and the Gilt Button

With Taylor, it is difficult to distinguish fact from legend. William Hutton, Birmingham's first historian and a contemporary of Taylor, called him ‘the Shakspeare [sic] or the Newton of his day’. He continued that ‘To this uncommon genius we owe the gilt button, the japanned and gilt snuff boxes, with the numerous race of enamels’.*

Taylor's enamels are discussed shortly, but whether or not Taylor invented the gilt button is questionable. One of Birmingham's first 'toy-shops' was selling ‘mettle buttons some [twist] guilt’ in 1733.* Although Taylor would have been about twenty-two years old at this time so possibly already in trade, he was described as a japanner in 1737, and it was noted that he had formerly been a ‘Sadler’. It is unlikely, then, that Taylor invented gilt buttons. What Taylor did do, though, was innovate the process of button manufacture.

In the 1740s it was described that metal buttons were ‘mostly made in the Country’ (probably Birmingham) and that there was not much to made out of the trade.* Charles Pye later supported that early button making provided little wealth for those involved in it, stating that the trade had initially been ‘a very tedious and expensive process’.* Division of labour existed in Birmingham and the Black Country before this time, but it was often divided between cottage industries run by different individuals. The notion of producing a single article in one manufactory by employing individuals who would only work on one small aspect of the manufacture of each article was novel to the eighteenth century. Taylor's success in button manufacture probably came less in innovations in the article and more in innovation of process, with division of labour being a key factor in his success.

Resta Patching, a visitor to Taylor's manufactory in 1755, described this new mode of making:
'We [...] saw the Manufactory of Mr. Taylor, the most considerable Maker of Gilt-metal Buttons, and enamell'd Snuff-boxes: We were assured that he employs 500 Persons in those two Branches, and when we had seen his Workshop, we had no Scruple in believing it. The Multitude of Hands each Button goes thro' before it is sent to the Market, is likewise surprising; you perhaps will think it incredible, when I tell you they go thro' 70 different Operations of 70 different Work-folks; but so we were inform'd; whether it be exactly true or not I cannot affirm, the Number seemed to me uncountable; tho' from what dwelt on my Memory afterwards, reflecting on what I had seen, I could not find so considerable a Deficiency as to raise a Doubt of the Truth of it.'*
The genuine wonder in Patching's description is palpable as he attempted to relay what he saw to his brother. Patching's surprise also depicts the novelty of what was being seen.

As well as gilt buttons, Taylor also entered the steel button trade as those articles became the height of fashion, much to the annoyance of Matthew Boulton, who was a major rival to Taylor. Boulton had built, what was probably, Birmingham's second major factory at Soho, in Handsworth, in 1766. Boulton claimed that he had invented steel buttons, but in 1773 complained of competition from Taylor who was employing one-hundred people for their manufacture and having a man walking round Birmingham with a bell ‘crying for Lappers, Handers &c’ for the making of the studs.*

Taylor's Mill

As well as the manufactory, which was in the central part of Birmingham, Taylor also ran a mill for rolling copper and brass which was noted by Reinhold Angerstein in 1755. Angerstein noted a 'Rolling mill and thimble machines' between Bromford, in Aston, and Birmingham, so this was certainly Thimble Mill, which the surviving Thimble Mill Lane was named after. The metal rolled in the mill was used in the 'button factory', and there several rolling machine run by six individuals, as well as 'a machine for cleaning and grinding rolls, which was very clever' which he illustrated (see below). Angerstein continued that the: 'invention consisted of placing under the roll a piece of wood hollowed out on top to fit the curvature of the roll and which could be moved back and forth axially by a workman whilst the roll was rotated. This man was also busy continuously smearing oil and emery or hard sand on the wood'.* Taylor utilised a network of sites, and rather than relying on other manufacturers for his metal needs in button manufacture was rolling the metal himself. This may also have been a major factor in his success, along with the innovation of technologies.


A snuff-box similar to those produced at Taylor's

The last article Taylor was associated with was enamelled toys, especially snuff-boxes. Hutton stated that from Taylor's ingenuity 'issued the painted snuff box', which could possibly be referring to enamel.* This should not be taken as gospel, especially as other inventions have been attributed to Taylor which may not have been the case, but this would suggest that Taylor was central in developing painted enamel snuff-boxes. Hundreds, if not thousands, of painted snuff boxes and other toys survive, which were made mainly in Birmingham, Bilston and Wednesbury.

As well a painting enamel boxes, Taylor was also involved in transfer-printing enamel, which Birmingham was central in developing as a successful process. Transfer-printing involved printing copperplate images onto the glossy surface of enamel, which was fascinating to contemporaries. Lady Shelburne visited the enamelling part of Taylor's factory in 1766 and described the process she saw:
'At Mr. Taylor's we met again, and he made and enamel'd a landscape on the top of a box before us, which he afterwards gave me as a curiosity from my having seen it done. The method of doing it is this: a stamping instrument managed only by one woman first impresses the picture on paper, which paper is then laid even upon a piece of white enamel and rubbed hard with a knife or instrument like it, till it is marked upon the box. Then there is spread over it with a brush some metallic colour reduced to a fine powder which adheres to the moist part, and, by putting it afterwards into an oven for a few minutes, the whole is completed by fixing the colour'.
 Shelburne also described some of Taylor's family life:
'We came home, dined, went again to Gimlett's, and from thence to drink tea at Mr. Taylor's villa. This is a very handsome house with a dairy and garden about it. His wife and daughter, a girl of about fourteen, received us, and she played on the harpsichord and sung to us. Mr. Taylor and his son walked about with Lord Shelburne and Mr. Garbett'.
The 'handsome house' mentioned was Moseley Hall, then in the parish of Yardley out in the countryside.

Taylor's son, another John, took over the business and the banking after his father's death (below).

John Taylor II, by Thomas Gainsborough, 1778.

Contemporary Comment on Taylor

Josiah Wedgwood: ‘I have omitted saying anything to Mr Taylor upon the subject [prices?] ‘till we have settled somthing about it ourselves – If he has them, they will be in every Shop window in London in a trice & so perhaps they must if we go upon the 5000 plan. His Vases you may remember were in every Tin Mans window'. Letter to Thomas Bentley, 2 Dec 1773.

*References on request
**Taylor has often been described as a cabinet maker before he turned to japanning, but Wilkes' diary would suggest that this was not the case.
The manufactory was destroyed in the riots? (The Sporting Magazine (London: J. Wheble, 1808), vol. 30, p. 18.)
Ang[p. 37]