The walk at  www.jquarter.org.uk

13. WARSTONE LANE & THE MINT


Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter

THE WALK

THE INFO

We are now back at the top of Vittoria Street (1) (you did remember to retrace your steps from Caroline Street, didn't you?). Walk along Warstone Lane towards the Chamberlain clock (2). Just before the clock, use the zebra crossing to cross towards the Rose Villa Tavern (3), and use the second zebra to cross Vyse Street. Then continue along Warstone Lane in the same direction as before, but on the opposite side of the road. You will see Aquinas House (4) on the left and, just past the cemetery lodge, the War Stone (5) on the right, with the Warstone Business Centre almost opposite and 160 Warstone Lane just below the cemetery. Continue to the bottom of Warstone Lane, cross the first half of the dual carriageway at the traffic lights and walk to the right along the grassy central reservation to get a better look at the handsome Mint building (6).

A. The Big Peg

B. The Chamberlain clock

C. The Rose Villa Tavern

D. Aquinas House

E. The War Stone

E1. Warstone Business Centre

E2.160 Warstone Lane

F. The Birmingham Mint

Ralph Heaton II

The original coining presses at work in 1862

ESSENTIALS

There are several outlets in and near the Big Peg and around the Chamberlain clock, selling food and drink. Some of them have toilets. The next toilets are the public toilets in Vyse Street (Walk 15).


 

 

 

 

 

 

(1) The Big Peg

The Big Peg, or the Hockley Centre as it was called when opened in 1971, and the rest of the development of which it forms a part, must be considered one of the greater follies of postwar Birmingham. 

All right, let's be as kind as we can. The Jewellery Quarter of the nineteen forties and fifties was very different from today's. There was a significant amount of bomb damage, and aside from that there was a quantity of substandard property. So there's no disputing that something had to be done. At the same time, the then Jewellery Quarter was purely a manufacturing area, where few people went except on business. So we might just about forgive them for thinking it was all right to put up something like the Big Peg, totally out of scale and character with the area, and devoid of any particular architectural merit, though there can be no excuse for the egregiously ugly part of the development on Vyse Street, which we shall see later.

But even if we allow all that, the development was still a disaster because they got the economics all wrong. The Big Peg was intended to be a 'flatted factory', to which the 150 firms displaced by the redevelopment would move. But the rents were tens of times higher than those the jewellers had been used to paying and, unable to afford them, many of the displaced firms simply folded. In the end, the building was quite largely occupied by businesses with no connection to the jewellery trade.

Fortunately, lessons were learned and in 1980 a more enlightened approach was adopted with the designation of the Jewellery Quarter as an Industrial Improvement Area, with grants available for the modernisation, restoration and improvement of properties. There has been no more wholesale bulldozing, and indeed a great deal of good work has resulted from this initiative.

Today there is a huge amount of redevelopment under way in the Jewellery Quarter, as apartments are created from converted factory buildings or erected from new. But development is now well controlled, so that the jewellers are no longer threatened with the loss of their workshops to profit hungry developers.

(2) The Chamberlain clock

This splendid iron clock, which serves as both landmark and icon for the Jewellery Quarter, was presented to Joseph Chamberlain by his constituents (he was MP for this part of town) on the occasion of his return from a visit to South Africa which he made in his capacity as Colonial Secretary in 1903, shortly after the end of the Boer War. I donít know why they should have felt a clock coming on just because heíd been to South Africa, but bless them anyway, itís wonderful, isnít it?

(3) The Rose Villa Tavern

The Rose Villa Tavern was opened in 1920. The interior, with its fine tiling and stained glass, looks older and has thus far escaped the craze for themeing. All the more pity, then, that your abstemious nature precludes you from taking a look inside.

The pub was erected by a Mr Rose, who hailed from a long established Jewellery Quarter family. Back in the nineteenth century one of his relatives had emigrated to Australia, where he made a fortune in opal mining. Some of this fortune was spent on building a very fine house, which he dedicated to his favourite Sydney football team, called Aston Villa. When the relative died he left the house to Mr Rose, who built the Rose Villa Tavern with the proceeds.

(4) Aquinas House

This was built in 1888 as a state of the art jewellery factory, with central heating and concrete floors, for the firm of Manton & Mole. The three-storey corner block housed the firmís offices and warehouse, whilst the attractive two-storey section fronting onto Tenby Street North accommodated the workshops.

(5) The War Stone

All right, itís no big thing. But the War Stone is completely foreign to these parts. As we saw back at George Street,  the hill on which youíre standing is comprised of rock sand (which you can think of as half way between sand and sandstone). The War Stone, by contrast, is made of very different stuff and was deposited here by glacial action during the last Ice Age - and if you ask me, it was jolly clever of the Ice Age to get it spot on in the middle of the plinth like that.

As the inscription tells you, the stone was formerly known as the Hoar Stone (hoar, frost, ice, glacier, glacial deposit, geddit?), but it has been known as the War Stone for a long time and has given its name to the street, Warstone Lane, which is one of the older thoroughfares hereabouts.

Opposite the cemetery, the building now known as the Warstone Business Centre was built in 1880 as an unusual mixed-use development. The right-hand half was an electroplating works, whilst the left-hand half was divided into twelve separate workshops, which originally accommodated jewellers, engravers and a fish-bait manufacturer.

Just below the cemetery, on the corner of Warstone Parade East, 160 Warstone Lane provides a relatively late example of a house with shopping attached. It was built in the late 1860s for one John Mantle, who made rings, bracelets, medals and chains. The substantial four-storey house (including basement) has an attractive rounded corner. Fronting onto Warstone Parade East, the shopping is very extensive, though part of the top storey has been demolished. The building was converted into offices in the late 1900s.

(6) The Birmingham Mint

This is the most historic site on the walk, to the extent that we are now on the Roman road of Icknield Street, on its way from the fort and township at Metchley near Birmingham University, to Wall, near Lichfield. But we are here to view the handsome building which, until recently, housed the Birmingham Mint. This building dates from 1862, although as we know the history of coinmaking in Birmingham goes back much further than that.

We have already seen how Matthew Boulton invented modern coinage, here in Brum in the 1790s and how, for a while, he produced all the nation's coinage at his Soho Mint. After Matthew Boultonís death in 1809 the Boulton & Watt businesses were carried on by his son, Matthew Robinson Boulton, and James Watt junior. The latter died in 1848 and this led to a decision to close the Soho Manufactory including the mint. But apparently this did not happen immediately, for the Boulton & Watt company was still making coins when the goodwill and equipment of the Soho Mint was put up for sale by auction in 1850 and bought by Ralph Heaton II. It is the Heaton mint, which until its closure in 2003 was the worldís largest privately-owned mint and the world's oldest  mint in continuous production, that we see before us.

The first Ralph Heaton had been a button-maker down by Old Snow Hill. Ralph II, his youngest son, had a die sinking workshop in Bath Street, which is where the Boulton coin presses were first reinstalled. In the early years the firm did well, taking on work for the Royal Mint and the colonies. In 1852 it had the distinction of minting the first bronze coins ever to be struck, which were produced for the Marseilles mint in France. In 1855 the plant was modernised with the introduction of new, more efficient lever presses. By 1860 the business had expanded so much that a new site was needed and work started on the present building, which was completed in 1862.

By 1870 the Birmingham Mint, with its modern machinery and higher capacity, had overtaken the Royal Mint, which was again failing as it had done a century earlier. Business boomed until 1881 when, the Royal Mint having been re-equipped with Heaton lever presses, a huge source of orders dried up and, not for the last time, the Birmingham Mint was left struggling. But business picked up in the late 1880s and from then on the Mint prospered until after the First World War. Then came a bitter blow. In 1923 the Royal Mint started to compete with Birmingham for orders from countries outside the British Empire. This, combined with the effects of the great depression which soon followed, hit the company very hard, and it only survived by diversifying into other products. For a long time, coinage was something of a sideline, but by the 1960s a combination of good management and improving fortune had restored coinmaking to the leading position in a wide product portfolio which included badge, button and medal-making, pressing, die sinking and other activities. Every year the Birmingham Mint produced a remarkable total of one thousand million coins and other items which were sold all over the world. Tragically, this proud history came to an end in 2003, when the Mint closed in scandalous circumstances (see right-hand panel) when the Royal Mint abruptly and unilaterally terminated a consortium agreement made in 1965, under which the two mints shared orders for overseas coinage - not unreasonably, since the state grants the Royal Mint a monopoly in the making of British coinage. As a result,  for the first time in several centuries, coinmaking became a thing of the past in Birmingham. The word on the street is that part of the building may be turned into a museum, with the rest becoming yet more apartments. 

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Other sites: The Birmingham Mint; Birmingham coin-making

THE SCANDAL THAT CLOSED THE MINT

The following information has been extracted from the proceedings of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

In 1997, the Royal Mint was granted £25m of taxpayers' money to enable it to increase its capacity by 50% in anticipation of securing 20% of the market in new Euro coins. This money was spent despite the fact that every European country bar Luxembourg has its own mint; the UK was not going into the Euro; there was already overcapacity in the industry and the market for coin was shrinking; and the expected spike of demand for new Euro coins would last only 3 to 4 years, hardly long enough to earn a decent return on the investment. In the event, due in part to difficulty it experienced in producing Euro coins of the required quality, the Royal Mint secured only a paltry 5% of the market and, thus left with massive excess capacity, its unit costs rose by 15% and it lost £7m of taxpayers' money in 2001 Ė 2. (In the same period, the Birmingham Mint made a profit of over £5.2m.) The Royal Mint's response to this gross blunder was twofold. (1) It took steps which very predictably put out of business the Birmingham Mint, which had profitably executed two massive Euro contracts without any quality problems; and (2) it sought, and got, yet another £12m of taxpayers' money to enable it to reduce the capacity it had increased at taxpayers' expense only 5 years earlier.

During this period, the Royal Mint also suffered the theft of £25,000 in banknotes which had been kept in a safe which was left open for much of the time. So scandalously lax was the management that this theft was only discovered a year after the event, although that compared favourably with the 5 years it took them to discover the theft of a further £5,000. Whilst admitting that coin had also been stolen, the management were either unwilling or unable to tell the PAC how much. Worse still, a Royal Mint employee was killed in circumstances which, the HSE considered, would have led to the successful prosecution of a private company Ė but the Royal Mint, being a featherbedded state monopoly, enjoys Crown Immunity. Nobody was prosecuted, fired, or even disciplined, on account of either the thefts or the death.

In other words, the Birmingham Mint Ė a successful private company which had never needed a penny of subsidy from the taxpayer - has been forced to close, with the loss of 180 Birmingham jobs, in order to save a woefully mismanaged, tax-guzzling state monopoly which has a history of incompetence and failure extending over 300 years. As Mr Brian Jenkins, MP, remarked, 'Companies that do not get their act together go out of business. We have to ask ourselves why you [the Royal Mint] should remain in business. From some of the answers you have given, my reply would be that you have no right to remain in business.' Precisely so, and it is difficult to believe that the Royal Mint would still be trading were it a normal commercial operation. Yet of course it is the Royal Mint which has remained in business, endlessly bailed out by a Treasury which, while throwing taxpayers' money at the Royal Mint,  believes, by contrast, in the rigorous application of market forces to West Midlands companies such as the Birmingham Mint and MG Rover. 

© 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005 Bob Miles