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W. & S. Butcher


The History of Industries and Toolmaking in United Kingdom

  Day One in the Birmingham Factories - The Penny Magazine, 1844 1 of 7  

It has been a sort of bye-word, that "Birmingham is the toy-shop of Europe."

  • Silver and Gold Work
  • Buttons
  • Brass and Bronze Work
  • Guns

This phrase seems to have sprung up about the time when cheap gilt jeweler became extensively manufactured in that town; a species of goods which well merits admiration, when considered in reference to the skill whereby such economical produce has been rendered attainable; but which has to a certain extent acquired a bad odour from being palmed off, by itinerant hawkers and unscrupulous dealers, as solid gold productions, or at least as possessed of excellences which are really attainable only at a much higher price.

But modify the phrase as we may, it goes but little way in characterizing the manufactures of Birmingham; since (it may be safely affirmed) there is scarcely a house in the kingdom in which there is not, at almost every hour in the day, some useful article or other employed of Birmingham manufacture.

The useful and the ornamental have progressed by parallel steps; and the general arrangements of the town have advanced with them both.

Mr. Hawkes Smith, in his account of Birmingham, has alluded to the latter point in the following terms:

"The mode of conducting business in Birmingham has suffered a complete revolution since about 1760, at which period manufactures had multiplied and increased.

Previously to that period, the 'Birmingham blacksmith' had been accustomed, from time immemorial, to keep his station at home, where he was visited by ironmongers and other dealers, who resorted to this town twice in the year from all parts of the country, to make their purchases. This was obviously, to the community at large, the most expensive as well as the least eligible mode of affecting the desired purpose; and as the variety of manufactures rapidly augmented, it became almost impossible for the customer to wait on the numerous fabricators.

This led first to the employment of agents, who made purchases for the country traders, taking a commission for their trouble. These agents afterwards grew into a separate trade, becoming home-merchants or factors, as they are termed. These factors travel through every part of the country, collecting orders, which they execute on their own account; carrying with them specimens of the different articles, if practicable ; or pictured representations, where too bulky or too numerous.

Their portable show-rooms were long enclosed within the swollen receptacles of a pair of leathern saddle-bags, which were slung across a horse, and on which the traveler, or rider (as he was then technically called), took his seat.  But now a tolerably complete set of patterns will weigh 5 cwt., and, with their exhibitor, forms a full and ample load for a one-horse carriage."

The subdivision of trades at Birmingham is so apparently exhaustless, that to examine a small portion of them is all that a writer or a visitor can effect. There are very few large factories, properly so called, in which an article goes through the entire range of manufacturing processes; but there is a vast number of workshops, more or less extensive, in each of which portions of the work are done.

One manufactured article, which is sold retail for a penny, may go through twenty workshops before it is finished; some having forty or fifty workmen, some four or five, while some are simply the garrets of workmen who apply their trade by their own fire-side. With the exception of the metropolis, there is perhaps no town in England where there are so many persons combining in themselves the characters of master and workman, as Birmingham, and none in which there is more observable a chain of links connecting one with another.

The Supplement for October contained a general notice of the gold and silver plate manufacture, including the new art of electro-metallurgy.  In this and the next following Supplements, we shall endeavour to group together a few brief notices of other departments of the town's manufacture, such as may serve to give some idea of the variety which they exhibit.

Small work in Gold and Silver

Whoever looks into the glittering window of a jeweler’s and silversmith's shop, will see to what class of articles we here elude.  The interminable forms and appearance of the pencil-cases, pen-holders, thimbles, bodkins, toothpicks, tweezers, brooches, finger-rings, ear-rings, chains, bracelets, buckles, clasps, &c, point to the existence of a large and important subdivision of trades at Birmingham.  Some of these small trinkets are made of solid gold, some of silver, while some have only a thin superficial coating of one or other of these precious metals; but in any or all of these cases, the manufacturing arrangements are pretty much alike.

There are warehouses, the proprietors of which form a medium between the small manufacturers and the buyers.  They give out their small ingots of silver, or a given weight of gold in sheets, to workmen who, employed at their own homes perhaps, or working three or four for some intermediate master, perform a certain portion of the process of manufacture.

A dozen different men or sets of men may be employed at the same time, in a dozen different places, in making certain parts of the same trinket, or some may succeed others in the order of processes; but all alike come at intervals to the warehouse, to render an account of the material they have used, to give in the trinket or part of a trinket which they have made, and to receive payment for their labour; and there are, in every particular branch, persons whose business it is to put together the various pieces of which the article may be made.

A jeweler or trinket-factory, properly so called, is perhaps hardly to be found in Birmingham, since almost every workman, and almost every small master, confines his attention to some one subdivision of processes.  But if we were to follow the articles through the various workshops, we should find that the processes of manufacture are generally manipulative, or very little dependent on machinery.

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W. & S. Butcher

Preston Planes


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