Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter



The Chamberlain clock

James Watt

St Paul's church

Matthew Boulton

Washington Irving

A former die sinking works

John Baskerville

19th century houses now used as jewellery workshops

Joseph Gillott's late Georgian pen factory

A lovely goldsmith's factory from the 1860s, now part of the Birmingham School of Jewellery

The Jewellery Quarter is home to over 100 shops selling jewellery and silverware direct 

Travel website of the week -The Guardian

'Thank you for a lovely day out'

'The best walking guide to the Jewellery Quarter'

'Informative and entertaining'

'I had no idea there was so much history here'

'Your site, as I am sure you have been told before, is truly excellent'

Site updated 5/12/09





The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter has been described by English Heritage as ‘a national treasure’ ... ‘a place of unique character’ ... ‘a particular combination of structures associated with jewellery and metalworking which does not seem to exist anywhere else in the world’. Like every other place the Jewellery Quarter is a product of its history, its unique character devolving from a unique combination of  circumstances and historical processes. This website invites you to take a walk of discovery from Birmingham city centre to and around the Jewellery Quarter. In the course of this walk we shall, of course, see what is there, but we shall be particularly interested in what has happened and how things came to be the way they are. 

There is more. The story of the development of Birmingham's industry is remarkable (see right-hand panel), and it so happens that the area of the Jewellery Quarter is associated with a number of important events that occurred around the time of the Industrial Revolution, when Birmingham was a world leader. So, jewellery apart:  

- We shall learn about the Birmingham toymakers who, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the precursors of the jewellers and who developed an industrial structure which survives to a degree in the Jewellery Quarter and gives rise to much of its uniqueness.

- We shall visit what was, for all practical purposes, the birthplace of electroplating and learn about Alexander Parkes, the ingenious scientist who worked there, and who invented plastics.

- We shall see something of the city’s famous canals and learn how the canals and the steam engine put the middle class to flight, which led quite directly to the establishment of the Jewellery Quarter in its present location. We shall also discover the definitive answer to the question, does Birmingham really have more canals than Venice?

- We shall visit St Paul's Church, where those foremost pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, James Watt and Matthew Boulton worshipped; indeed, we shall see where they sat in church, and we shall meet some of their friends, together with whom they formed that remarkable eighteenth century think tank, the Lunar Society. We shall also see where James Watt lived and if you like, as an optional extra, you can visit Matthew Boulton's home, which is open to the public.

- We shall see where, in the tumultuous 1830s, under the leadership of the astute and highly intelligent Thomas Attwood, a series of vast public meetings was held as part of a campaign in which Birmingham played the leading role in securing the Parliamentary reform which almost certainly saved the country from revolution.

- We shall learn how Birmingham pen makers brought the cost of writing within everybody's reach by reducing the price of pen nibs by an astonishing 99.9%, and how the city went on to supply the world with pen nibs for over 130 years, from factories based mainly in the Jewellery Quarter. We shall see three of those factories and visit The Pen Room, a fascinating little museum devoted to the pen trade.

- We shall see the spot where the American author Washington Irving wrote the tale that propelled him to fame and fortune, the story of Rip Van Winkle, and learn how that came about.

- We shall learn how, at a time when Britain's coinage was in a shambles and the Royal Mint had been closed for decades, Matthew Boulton single-handedly came to the rescue by developing modern coinage, and we shall see the premises of what was until recently the world's oldest and largest privately-owned mint.

-  We shall see the catacombs where lies buried that great and fastidious typographer and printer  John Baskerville, whose books 'went forth to astonish all the librarians of Europe',  and hear the shameful story which led to that confirmed atheist being buried in consecrated ground. (If that nice Mr Gates has furnished your computer with John Baskerville's font, you will be reading it right now.)

- We shall learn about Joseph Hudson, who changed the world's perception of the whistle, and you can see his factory, where the whistle that Kate Winslet blew in the film Titanic was made.

- The walk ends at the award-winning Museum of the Jewellery Quarter (open April to October, closed Mondays, cafe), a fascinating ‘time capsule’ where visitors can see the inside of an authentic jewellery workshop, learn a great deal about the history and practice of jewellery manufacture, and see jewellers at work. A visit to the museum is recommended for those interested in the jewellery trade and the manufacture of jewellery, as those subjects are not dealt with to any extent here.

There’s much more that we shall see on the walk, and after it there is more of the Jewellery Quarter to explore, including over a hundred shops selling jewellery and silverware. Or if you prefer, it is only a short walk to Matthew Boulton's home Soho House, where among other things you can visit the room where the Lunar Society often met. A little beyond Soho House is St Mary's Church, where James Watt and Matthew Boulton are buried, and the (greatly altered) Soho Foundry, where the Boulton & Watt company built their famous steam engines, is not far away.

In terms of distance the walk is not very long; about two miles. How much time it takes depends on how much detail you want to go into. Three hours is probably a reasonable estimate. Then you need to allow at least an hour for the museum (strongly recommended!), plus whatever time you want to devote to exploring, shopping, or further visits. Overall, then, if you want a full day out, there is more than enough of interest here. 

The best times to do the walk

The Jewellery Quarter Museum is open from April to October, Tuesday to Sunday 11.30am - 4.00pm (closed Mondays except Bank Holidays). The Pen Room is only open from 11am (1pm on Sundays). To see everything therefore, you need to avoid the winter months and ideally start around 10 to 11am. If more convenient  you could leave out the first two parts of the walk and start in Colmore Row,  without missing anything that you will need to know later on. Entrance to the Jewellery Quarter Museum is by guided tour only. It is best to enquire in advance as to the times of the tours (0121 554 9122), so you can make sure you don't just miss one, and that you do arrive at the museum in time for the last tour of the day. 

Using the site

The pages of the site are laid out, like this page, in three columns. In the left-hand column you will find directions for the walk, sketch maps (not to scale), accompanying illustrations and, where appropriate, information about toilets, places to eat, etc. The centre column contains the main narrative. The right-hand column contains menus and supplementary material. The layout is so  designed that the first two columns can be printed onto paper in portrait orientation, which you can then take with you when you do the walk. The right-hand column will not print, but in those cases where the material in it is of such importance or interest that you might want to take it with you, it is repeated on a separate, printable, 'Walk extra' page to which there is a link from the main walk page. In a number of cases where the volume of additional material is too great to go in the right-hand column, it has been placed on a separate, 'More about ...' page. The 'Walk extra' and 'More about ...' pages are not essential and if you prefer, you can ignore them without losing the thread of the narrative. 

If, when you do the walk, you staple the printed pages corresponding to each web page, put them in order into a large envelope and take them out as you need them,  you will find that is quite convenient - and you'll be able to buy several ice creams with the money saved relative to what a book of the walk would have cost, and walk the calories off into the bargain! 

The site is best viewed using Internet Explorer. Unfortunately, some of the pages do not display as they ought to in Netscape. I am not aware of Firefox giving problems.



The walk

More about ...

The Lunar Society

       Matthew Boulton

        James Watt

        Erasmus Darwin

        Joseph Priestley

The Priestley riots

Birmingham in 1818    NEW

Sources of information

Get in touch

Other sites: Birmingham (1) (2) (3) (4)

Jewellery Quarter  (1) (2)


When King William's Domesday tax assessors visited Birmingham they found a tiny, impoverished hamlet, situated on high, infertile land, bereft of resources, power and influence, and remote from the country's main lines of communication. Why this particular hamlet, alone out of countless thousands, should have risen to prominence, is something of a mystery. Yet the fact is, seven centuries after Domesday, with nothing but their own tenacity, enterprise, skill and industriousness to draw on, its people had turned this unpromising place into 'the first manufacturing town in the world', whose manufactured goods were sold in practically every corner of the developed world, and the engineroom from which those towering pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, James Watt and Matthew Boulton, despatched the steam engines that would power much of the world's industry.

By the 1500s metalworking, which was to be the town's stock in trade, was already well-established, with cutlers, swordsmiths, nailers and lorimers in prominence. There followed a relentless drive upmarket, which brought both the reward of higher profits and the risk of fickle markets, vulnerable to the vagaries of fashion. The cheaper products were driven out to the Black Country, whilst Birmingham grew rich making upmarket goods. Knives and nails  gave ground to snuffboxes, candelabras, mirrors and cruets; swords to guns; and alongside steel they worked in copper, brass, silver and gold.  They learned how to apply decorative finishes such as japanning (an early form of enamelling) and silver plating. By the 1770s jewellery and silverware were sufficiently prominent for an assay office to be opened.

Not only did these restless people strive continually to develop their skills and improve their product range, they developed novel methods and a singular organisational structure, which enabled them to achieve phenomenal rates of productivity, often without the aid of anything that we would call machinery. And they worked, how they worked! Their  work ethic became the subject of international comment. But they reaped their rewards, too. It was a town where anyone however humble, if endowed with skill, motivation and a modicum of luck, could make a fortune, and many did so. In fact, there was no other town like it. Distinguished by its prosperity and the industriousness of its people, the social cohesion of the place set it apart from other industrial towns, where bosses and workers were often poles apart.

It is from this background that the Jewellery Quarter has developed. Although much has changed over the years the organisational structure and methods of working that served the town so well in the past are still practised there to a degree and help to maintain the Jewellery Quarter as the leading centre of jewellery manufacture in the UK.


© 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 Bob Miles