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Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter

 

THE PEN TRADE

A typical pen nib. The pierced hole can be seen, about one third of the way along, with the slit running from the hole to the tip of the nib (left). The shading along the top and bottom suggests the rounded profile which was created in the raising process.

An aerial view of Sir Josiah Mason's works, the largest pen factory in the world

Sir Josiah Mason

John Mitchell

Joseph Gillott

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

The manufacturing process

Despite the fact that pen nibs were remarkably cheap, the manufacturing process was surprisingly complicated, involving  14 or more operations. Some of these operations were themselves complex and required considerable technical knowledge or skill. Given that the Birmingham manufacturers had been developing their skills for centuries this probably explains, at least in part, why the they achieved such dominance of the world market - indeed, there are reports of would-be manufacturers in Brum who, despite their expertise, still failed in their attempts to produce high quality pen nibs competitively. 

The pen makers started with sheets of brass or, more commonly,  steel. These were first rolled to reduce them to the required thickness, and then blanked, by putting them in a press which stamped out flat pen shapes, known as blanks. The blanks were stamped with the maker's name and some nibs had side slits cut in them before they were pierced. This was the process of making a small hole in the nib, which served both to prevent the slit which would later be formed from spreading, and to permit the flow of ink through the nib. Then the nibs were annealed (heat treated) in order to soften them. This was one of the processes that was difficult to get right; apart from the fact that it was done in a very specific way, skilled operatives, using years of experience, were required to judge by the colour of the pens when the process was complete. Next the nibs were raised to give them their rounded profile. This was followed by hardening and tempering, which entailed a complex series of operations. Again, it was difficult, but critical, to get these processes right, as they determined both the corrosion resistance and the flexibility of the nib. Next the nibs were cleaned by pickling them in dilute sulphuric acid. Then came scouring, carried out in pebble mills, ie  the nibs were placed in drums containing water and pebbles, which were rotated for several hours. Two more scouring processes followed, one using a dry compound and the final one, sawdust. After scouring the nibs were shiny, had the desired rounded point, and any burrs or rough edges had been removed. The nibs might  then be ground to reduce the thickness in certain places, making them more flexible. Next they were slitted, ie a slit was put in, running from the hole that had been pierced earlier, to the tip of the nib. Then came barrelling. This was another scouring process, which was followed by colouring, achieved by the application of heat to the nibs and again requiring careful control to produce exactly  the required colour, the nibs turning successively bronze, blue, purple and so on, the longer the heat was applied. Next came varnishing (or gold or silver plating in the case of the more expensive nibs) to prevent rusting. Finally there was inspection, packaging and despatch. 

The main pen makers

For the reasons given in the right-hand column it is difficult to trace precisely  the fortunes of some of the pen makers. The following summary is therefore certainly incomplete, and may contain inaccuracies. However, it provides the best brief summary of the histories of the main firms that I can piece together from the information I have available. 

Baker and Finnemore. The company was established in James Street, just near St Paul's Square,  in 1850.  In the 1840s a Daniel Baker was making pens in Icknield Street West, whilst Evans and Finnemore were pen makers in Legge Lane. Whether these were the same Baker and Finnemore I don't know, but it seems likely. What is known is that Joseph Finnemore had earlier worked for George Wells. Although they now give their address as Newhall Street, I would imagine they are still on the original site, since the premises back on to James Street and there is an entrance there. Their pens, which were branded 'Bak-Fin', were sold worldwide. The company is still very much in business in its Newhall Street premises, but no longer makes pens (see 'The pen makers' sidelines', right-hand column). 

C Brandauer & Co Ltd. The company was founded in 1850 as Ash & Petit and traded under that name from 70 Navigation Street until 1862. Joseph Petit looked after the manufacturing side, whilst Charles Ash was responsible for the finances. Whether Ash was a rogue I do not know, but in 1861 he 'disappeared', leaving the company in financial difficulties. The firm's agent in Vienna, Carl Kuhn, was so concerned about the lack of supply resulting from these problems that he sent his nephew, Charles Brandauer, over to Brum to sort things out. Brandauer offered to invest in the company, financing a new factory in New John Street West, which is near the Hockley flyover, on condition that Joseph Petit continued to run the business. The Brandauers remained involved with the business until the First World War, when the factory was confiscated by the authorities on the grounds that the Brandauers were Austrian, and was eventually released to the Petit family. Tragically, one of the Brandauers, who despite his nationality was 'more English than the English', committed suicide when he was detained as an enemy national during the war. The company is still in business, until recently in New John Street West but now in Newtown, and remarkably, is still owned and run by the Petit family, though like Baker & Finnemore they no longer make pens. In 2004, the company won a major contract to supply precision components for the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN research lab in Geneva.  (I am most grateful to Marie-Louise Petit for supplying information about the events during WW1, which led to the factory being transferred to the Petit family.) 

Joseph Gillott & Sons Ltd. Joseph Gillott began making pen nibs in around 1827, in Bread Street (which was  where lower Cornwall Street is now). As his business grew, he moved successively to Church Street, Newhall Street and finally to the Victoria Works in Graham Street. Ultimately, his firm came to be about two-thirds the size of the largest manufacturer, Josiah Mason. The company was particularly strong in the American market, prompting Elihu Burrit, the American consul, to write, 'In ten thousand school houses across the American continent between the two oceans, a million children are as familiarly acquainted with Joseph Gillott as with Noah Webster' (the compiler of the famous American dictionary). The Victoria Works consequently received visits from many notable Americans, including US president Ulysses S Grant. Other notable visitors included the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria  and Prince Albert. The explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley, who discovered Dr Livingstone, also found his way to Graham Street. The firm was noted for the specialist nibs it made for artists and calligraphers. The company's pen making business was folded into British Pens Ltd in 1969, and that company continues to market artists' and calligraphers' pens under the Gillott brand. 

Hinks Wells & Co. George Wells set up a pen making business in 1836, taking on John Hinks as partner around 15 years later. They had a factory in Buckingham Street, near Old Snow Hill. Thomas Hooper ran the company following the deaths of the founding partners, introducing improvements in the manufacturing process and diversifying into fountain pens and typewriters. In 1920 the company merged with William Mitchell to form British Pens Ltd.

Geo W Hughes. George Hughes set up the business around 1840 in St Paul's Square, moving in 1893 to a new works in Legge Lane. His knowledge of metallurgy enabled the company to produce pens of very high quality. The business, which was never incorporated, made all the pens marketed by Rudhall & Co of Jamaica Row. They also made fountain pens. The company closed around 1960, although the factory survives.

D Leonardt & Co. Diedrich Leonardt founded the business in 1856. By 1867 he had entered into partnership with Catwinkle, the firm Leonardt & Catwinkle having a works in George Street. But by 1869 this firm had been dissolved and Leonardt had gone into partnership with Hewitt in Charlotte Street. Then, in 1880, Hewitt formed a partnership with both Diedrich and Charles Leonardt. This liaison survived until 1889, when Hezekiah Hewitt left to start his own business in Sparkbrook and (after all that!) the business reverted to its original name of D Leonardt & Co. The company was most noted for its patented nibs with hemispherical tips. In 1946 AAS Charles who, before the war had managed his father's pen making business, T Hessin & Co of Wheeleys Lane (off Broad Street), established the Highley Pen Co at Highley in Shropshire. In 1949 this business merged with D Leonardt & Co, and thereafter traded under that name. The company is still in business at Highley and still manufactures pen nibs and fountain pens.

Macniven & Cameron. This was a firm of printers and stationers in based in Edinburgh, which had been founded in 1770. Their Waverley nib was first manufactured on the company's behalf in 1864 by Joseph Gillott, but in the mid 1870s manufacture was transferred to Hinks Wells. Then, in 1900,  they began to manufacture their pens themselves in Birmingham, at a works in Watery Lane, Bordesley.  They also made stainless steel self-filling fountain pens for a time in the 1920s, but this was not very successful and they moved into stationery items, including paperclips. The Watery Lane factory closed in 1964, though parts of the company survive. There is more information  here.   I am most grateful to Sue Bowen for supplying information which led me to this link.

Sir Josiah Mason. Josiah Mason's career has been described elsewhere, so only brief details will be given here. He began making pen nibs in 1827 at his factory in Lancaster Street, and grew to be the biggest pen maker in the world. Very few of his pens were sold under the Mason name, most being made for Perry & Co, but he also made pens for Gillott and Sommerville. He took over Sommerville & Co in 1870, and in 1876 when Josiah Mason retired from buiness the Mason, Wiley and Perry businesses were merged under the name of Perry & Co, Josiah Mason receiving 130,000 for his business, 15,000 of which was in 5% preference shares. This business became part of British Pens in 1961.

John Mitchell. John Mitchell is credited with having pioneered the mass manufacture of steel pens when, in 1822, he applied methods used in button making to the manufacture of pen nibs, enabling them to be mass produced to a better quality and at a fraction of their previous cost. Initially based at 36 Newhall Street, by 1835 he had moved to larger premises at 48 Newhall Street, and in 1908 the company moved to large factory premises in Moland Street, near to where Aston University is today. John Mitchell gained a royal warrant to supply Queen Victoria with pens, and won medals at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Paris Exhibition of 1855. His pens were particularly popular in France and Belgium, where his 'plumes ballons', which sported an embossed balloon, became a household name. In 1928, John Mitchell began making Esterbrook fountain pens by arrangement with Hazell, Watson & Viney Ltd (UK agents for Esterbrook - an American firm - who were later reorganised as Esterbrook Hazell Pens Ltd). In 1947 the Mitchell business and the factory were sold to  Esterbrook Hazell Pens Ltd, who in turn were bought out by the American Esterbrook company (see 'A cruel irony', right-hand column).  The American management introduced new products including marker pens and felt tips. Then in 1967 the Esterbrook Pen Co was taken over by the Venus Pencil Co, which had a modern factory in King's Lynn, Norfolk, to which production was gradually transferred, ceasing on the Moland  Street site in 1972. Though still standing (just!) the factory is now derelict.

William Mitchell. After a couple of years working for his brother John, in 1824 William Mitchell set up in business on his own in Church Street, before moving to 7 St Paul's Square in 1830. In 1852 he moved to Cumberland Street, off Broad Street. I assume it was while at this address that he began making Cumberland pencils. In 1910 the company moved to a purpose built factory in Bearwood Road, where around 500 were employed . In 1920 William Mitchell merged with Hinks Wells to form British Pens, still in Bearwood Road but now employing around 1,000. British Pens, which took over the Perry and Gillott businesses in the 1960s, is still making pens and pencils  at Oldbury in the Black Country.

M Myers & Son. The business was founded by  Meyer Myers in around 1837, and was initially based at 8 Newhall Street. After trading on his own account for a while he entered a partnership with Philip Phillips, who in the early to mid 1840s had his own business at 2 Newhall Street, but Phillips dropped out after a few years. In 1854 the firm moved to a purpose built works in Charlotte Street and in 1939 they moved again, this time to Langley Green, Oldbury. The company, which remained throughout in the control of the Myers family, made corkscrews, drawing instruments and office supplies, including the famous bulldog clips, as well as pens. In common with Brandauer and Baker & Finnemore they successfully diversified into precision pressings. In 1985 the company was sold to an American label company, Avery International, who wanted to expand their European office stationery business. The old Myers directors quickly retired and the business transformed virtually overnight from a typically English family firm to part of an international conglomerate, which sold the factory and its land in Langley Green, and like many other long established British companies, it is now a housing estate. The firm now operates under the Avery name from what was the distribution centre next to the railway crossing in Langley Green.

I am indebted to Wayne Cooper for updating me on what happened to the company after the Myers family sold out.

Perry & Co Ltd. James Perry, a schoolmaster, being dissatisfied with the quality of existing pens, began making steel pens by hand in 1819, at first in Manchester and then, from 1824, in London. He did much to popularise steel pens with his patented Perryian pens. From 1829 all of Perry's pens were made by Josiah Mason.  In 1876 the Perry company was merged with Josiah Mason and Wiley under the Perry name. The business was sold to British Pens in 1961.

Sommerville & Co Ltd. Alfred Sommerville was originally a wholesaler in steel pens and stationery, based at 64 Frederick Street. In about 1850 he went into pen manufacture, taking on Maurice Pollack as manager and, from 1865, as partner. Their factory was in Legge Lane. Alfred Sommerville owned at least one pen factory in France (I do not know what name it traded under) and indeed it was while Sommerville was away in France that Pollack sold the business to Josiah Mason, who retained Pollack as manager. Although it may sound as though Pollack had pulled a fast one, I don't think that was the case; certainly, Josiah Mason deposited securities with the Birmingham Banking Company, to ensure that Sommerville received his due. Upon the merger of the Mason, Wiley and Perry companies, Maurice Pollack became secretary of the combined undertaking. The former Sommerville factory in Legge Lane is now derelict.

W E Wiley & Co. I have been unable to discover when this company was founded, although we do know that by 1863 it was sufficiently large and prosperous to build the Albert Works (now the Argent Centre). Although their main business was in the manufacture of gold-plated pens they also made pen holders, pencils, pencil cases, percussion caps, cartridges and ammunition, and operated a brassworks and a luxury Turkish bath, all from the same premises. In 1870 they merged with Josiah Mason and Perry under the Perry name, receiving 36,000 in fully paid up shares. The Argent Centre is now a flatted factory, and houses  The Pen Room  museum.

Success and failure

It is generally acknowledged that for around 130 years Birmingham dominated the world market for steel pen nibs, which is no small achievement!. But what, in practice, do we mean by dominated? What was Brum's share of the market? To answer the question reliably we should need  statistics of world pen production, which we could compare with the figures for Birmingham. Unfortunately I am not aware of any such figures, but a bit of guesstimation (see right-hand column) leads me to think that a figure of 70% to 75% might not be too wide of the mark.

In the end, though, with some honourable exceptions, most of the Brummie pen making firms either contracted or disappeared entirely. At least in part this seems to have been due to a failure to invest adequately in product development. It was left to Esterbrook to do the R & D necessary to develop a really successful fountain pen nib, which enabled that company to dominate the market for fountain pens. And although British Pens made biros for a while, in general there seems to have been little attempt to develop more modern writing implements such as felt tipped or marker pens, the only significant production of those having come from John Mitchell during the period of Esterbrook ownership. 

For further information about the big Birmingham manufacturers and the manufacturing method, see 'A brief history of the Birmingham Pen Trade', published by the BPTHA and obtainable from The Pen Room.

 

 

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List of Birmingham pen makers

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AN INDUSTRY IN A STATE OF FLUX

It is said that there were over 100 pen makers in Birmingham, and indeed there is a fascinating list showing over 90 firms. Detailed though this list is, a little study reveals that it does not tell the full story.

In the first place the list is incomplete, the most notable omission being that of Wiley, one of the major manufacturers. This suggests to me that the list has probably been compiled from trade directories, in which a company would only have an entry if it paid for one. If that's right, then it is likely that other names are missing from the list.

In other respects there is a degree of over-estimation. You have to remember that in the 1820s this was a new industry with rapid growth potential. So just as in the dot.com sector in recent times, lots of people had a go. Some succeeded, others failed, merged, reorganised or regrouped. So of the 90 companies on the list, not all were in business at any one time; and in some cases what was, in reality, one company appears as more than one because it changed its name. There were also firms that called themselves pen makers but in reality only sold pens made for them by others. Moreover, to judge from their addresses (2 Newhall Street, 26 Temple Street), some of the listed firms were small businesses which wouldn't have had the space to employ more than perhaps 20 or 30 people. 

THE PEN MAKERS' SIDELINES

Even at the height of the pen making boom, many of the pen makers had manufacturing sidelines. Often these were ancillary toys such as paper clips, inkstands or pen holders, but this was not invariably the case. For example Josiah Mason's main sidelines were split rings and cutlery, Hinks Wells made typewriters, and Perry made bicycle chains and even, for a couple of years, motor cars! 

Given that they had these sidelines, when the pen trade went into decline, it was sound business strategy to focus on the sidelines rather than learning the new technology required to make ball point pens. Both Baker & Finnemore and Brandauer have prospered by pursuing this strategy.

A CRUEL IRONY

(There was a cruel irony in the takeover, in the 1940s, of John Mitchell by Esterbrook.  In 1856  Richard Esterbrook, a Cornishman, had poached five key workers from John Mitchell and taken them over to the United States, where he established the pen making business of R Esterbrook & Co, which ultimately grew to rival Josiah Mason's business in terms of output. So Esterbrook, who got himself started in pen making by poaching from John Mitchell, ended up owning his firm!

WHO WAS FIRST?

There was some dispute between Joseph Gillott and John Mitchell as to who had initiated the mass manufacture of steel pen nibs. It seems to be generally agreed that John Mitchell was the pioneer, but equally there is no doubt that Joseph Gillott made a number of important innovations in the manufacture of pens, as did Josiah Mason. To that extent at least, Gillott was a pioneer.

BRUM'S MARKET DOMINANCE

How dominant was Birmingham in terms of the world market for steel pen nibs? As far as the UK was concerned there was no significant pen industry in any other town, and even abroad it was not until the late 1840s that competition began to emerge. As time went on, although Birmingham's output increased due to rising literacy rates, its share of the market fell as more foreign competitors entered the market. But what did it fall to?

In my view it is likely that Brum's share of the world market fell to less than 5/6ths, but it is not likely to have dropped much below  3/4. How so? Let's take the 5/6ths figure first. It is widely reported that the American Esterbrook company's output rose to the point where it was rivalling Josiah Mason's . Now Josiah Mason accounted for about 1/5th of Birmingham output, so even if Esterbrook had been the only foreign manufacturer (which was not the case), Brum's share would have fallen to 5/6ths. The 3/4 figure is trickier, and calls for some guesstimation. As Vilfredo Pareto would have told you if you'd gone to his economics lectures, in any market you will find a few big firms taking typically 80% or 90% of the market, with a much larger number of smaller firms competing for the remaining 10% or 20%. I can find no reference to any foreign firms other than Esterbrook rivalling any of Brum's 'big twelve' in size.  So let's assume that the other firms were all in the 'smaller' category; by Pareto's rule it is unlikely that their combined output, including that of the smaller Birmingham firms, would have catered for more than 20% of the market, and perhaps as little as 10%. If we exclude the smaller Brummie firms, then 10% market share is probably a reasonable guesstimate for the non-Esterbrook overseas manufacturers, especially given that at least one of them sourced at least some of their pens from Brum, whilst at least one other  was Birmingham owned. So if we credit Esterbrook with 1/6th and the other overseas firms with 1/10th of the market, this leads to a market share for Birmingham of  3/4. Giving the non-Esterbrook overseas firms 15% gives Brum around 70% and 20%, two-thirds.

2001, 2005, 2006 Bob Miles