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Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter



From the junction of Vittoria Street and Warstone Lane (1), turn right into Warstone Lane (2). Take the first street on the right off Warstone Lane (this is a sharp, 120-degree turn into Hall Street, which soon becomes Caroline Street). Just a little way along you will see the premises of Pickering & Mayell (3) on the left, on the corner of Caroline and Kenyon Streets. Return to the end of Vittoria Street by the same route.

A. No 27 Warstone Lane is in the centre of the picture, No 29 on the right. The building on the left conceals behind it the shopping shown in B below


B. To the right of this picture is the building shown at the left of the picture above. Behind it, revealed during building works in April 2001, is a surprisingly large range of shopping. The bottom photo shows what was built on this site

C. The premises of Pickering & Mayell, with houses at the front and shopping to the rear

Is it just me, or is this tacky block of flats the kind of thing that really shouldn't be built in an area like the Jewellery Quarter?







 (1) The Golden Triangle

What a difference a street corner can make! Whereas Vittoria Street, like the other streets we have been walking, is quiet except at rush hours and lunchtimes, and is very much the kind of place where people only go if they have business there, turn the corner into  Warstone Lane and the street is lined with lighted jeweller's shop windows and is usually bustling with shoppers and tourists.

Until about 1980 the Jewellery Quarter was exclusively a manufacturing district where few went except on business, much as Vittoria Street, Albion Street and the like still are. But then  the jewellers started opening shops, selling direct to the public, and over the years this has become big business, to the point where there are now over 100 shops in the Jewellery Quarter and if it's jewellery you want there is probably no better or cheaper place to buy it. Today the area in the centre of the Jewellery Quarter where the shops are concentrated is known as 'The Golden Triangle'.

(2) In Warstone Lane

There are a number of interesting buildings along this stretch of Warstone Lane, and they are all on the right hand side (what befell the other side of the street will be revealed shortly). There are two small factories at Nos 27 - 29, built in the ornate style that was popular at the time of their construction (around 1870). No 27 was built for Edward Day, who was a refiner, whilst No 29 was for William Neale & Sons, who were jewellers and silversmiths.

They do say that most of what happens in the Jewellery Quarter goes on 'out of sight', hidden from passers-by in the street. This is borne out by the surprisingly large range of shopping behind the relatively modest frontage to the left of No 27,  revealed when development work was under way in April 2001, and apparently only accessible from a narrow alley which is all too easily passed by without noticing it. 

Further along at No 7, almost opposite the end of Spencer Street, is Turley's Jewellery Repairs, where a jeweller can sometimes be seen at work at his bench. Even if the jeweller is not there, you may be able to see the Birmingham jeweller's traditional cut-away work bench and the flaming gas jet used for soldering. The bench is called a  'jeweller's board' (or 'peg bench', the peg being the wooden block on which the jeweller works), whilst the gas jet is known as a  'Birmingham sidelight'. The jewellers used to control the gas jet by blowing into it through a blowpipe; indeed, this method is still used on occasion, especially for very fine work. Since it was necessary to blow continuously, a jeweller had to learn to inhale through the nose whilst simultaneously blowing through the pipe. But that was the least of their accomplishments - many of them managed to smoke at the same time. So in other words, they could simultaneously draw on the cigarette, exhale the smoke, blow through the blowpipe and breathe in through the nose. This is not something to try for yourself at home!

(3) The way they lived then

We have seen how William Elliott carried on his substantial button-making business in shopping built onto the back of the house he lived in. The premises of Pickering & Mayell, on the corner of Caroline and Kenyon Streets, provide a surviving example of just such a house. (To be precise, this was originally a pair of semi-detached houses - one of the front doors has been bricked up.) They were built, as new, as houses with attached shopping. If you look at the side wall of No 42 Caroline Street, which faces onto Kenyon Street, you will see that the the original shopping is quite substantial, extending as far as the end of the dark-coloured brickwork. These houses were built in about 1826 and were occupied early on by two of the most famous of Birmingham's early silversmiths, Nathaniel Mills and George Unite, though Pickering and Mayell (and their predecessor firm, Pickering & Bagley) have been making jewellery cases here for over 100 years. This type of property, and the lifestyle it accommodated, were common in Birmingham up to the latter part of the nineteenth century. Whilst it must have been very convenient for a master to be able to walk directly from his back parlour into his factory, in many cases he would have to live with a good deal of noise and dirt. William Elliott's family, for example, would have had to live with the noise of buttons being stamped all day long.




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There are a number, probably a small number, of surviving premises in and around the Jewellery Quarter that, like Pickering & Mayell's,  were built for masters who carried on their manufacturing business behind the house in attached shopping.  At least one of these properties appears to be vacant. If at all possible, one of them should be preserved and opened to the public to illustrate a way of life once common in Birmingham.

2001, 2004 Bob Miles