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Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter



The only reason for suggesting a 'virtual reality' visit to J Hudson & Co (Whistles) Ltd is that it takes about a quarter of an hour to walk there and back, and there's almost nothing of interest on the way. If you really do want to see the place for yourself, here's how to get there.

Carry on in the same direction as before to the bottom of Hockley Street. Use the pedestrian phase of the traffic lights to cross the main road (Great Hampton Street) and turn left. After a while you come to the start of a flyover. Continue as you are, following the pavement down the slope with the flyover on your left. Towards the bottom of the hill you will see a passage on the right. Walk along to the end of this passage, turn right and, almost immediately, right again. You should now be in Barr Street, and J Hudson & Co (Whistles) Ltd is a hundred yards up the hill, on the right.







I can sense it,  you're not happy bunnies, are you? You've been very polite and haven't said a word, but I know what you're thinking: Whatever is this man playing at? What does he think he's doing traipsing us round all these streets in real reality, when we could be sitting at home in comfort, doing it all in virtual reality. For heaven's sake, doesn't he know it's the twenty-first century? 

That's it, isn't it? And I must admit, it has all been pretty low tech up to now. But things are about to change big time, because we are about to pay a virtual reality visit to J Hudson & Co (Whistles) Ltd. So switch on your VR headsets, give them a moment to warm up and ... yes! Here we are!

J Hudson & Co (Whistles) Ltd

Ask anyone today what a whistle is, and they'll probably say it's a utilitarian device, for attracting attention if you need help; for warning people of danger; or for bringing people to attention. Yet the fact is, for almost the whole of recorded history the whistle was a cheap, popular musical instrument. The man who changed the world's perception of the whistle was Joseph Hudson.

Joseph Hudson was a Brummie toolmaker and amateur violinist. Like John Baskerville, he was one of those people who have an inexplicable passion that leads them to do great things. Joseph Hudson's passion was whistles. He had two vital insights: that the whistle had the potential to be a useful device; and that the usefulness of a whistle, in making a sound that carried a long way, or in penetrating though background noise, for example, depended not so much on its loudness as on the quality of the sound that it made.

His first big breakthrough came in 1883. Up to that time the police had used hand rattles, like football rattles, to attract attention. But they weren't much cop (I promise you, that's definitely the last one!); they were cumbersome and the sound carried only a couple of hundred yards at best. Then, in 1883, the Metropolitan Police invited proposals for a more effective alternative to the rattle. Joseph Hudson was convinced that a whistle could do the job, and the story goes that as he searched for the right sound, the sound that would carry furthest, one day he dropped his violin. As the instrument hit the floor it gave out a  curious, discordant, dying note as the strings broke, and immediately Joseph Hudson knew that was the sound he was looking for.  The Metropolitan Police agreed. In tests they found that the discordant, two-tone sound the whistle made could carry over a mile in the right conditions. They placed an order for 21,000 whistles, but Joseph Hudson told them that wouldn't do, as he couldn't afford to buy the brass needed to make such a large number of whistles. "You'll have to lend me twenty pounds", he told them, and that is exactly what happened - the Metropolitan Police Commissioner lent Joseph Hudson £20, and he went away and set to work. The Met still use Hudson whistles, as do many other forces around the world. 

His next breakthrough came in 1884, with the Acme Thunderer. Prior to 1878  football referees had not used whistles - they just waved a handkerchief, and not surprisingly they sometimes had difficulty keeping control of the game. Joseph Hudson thought a whistle would help, and made the first whistle ever to be used by a football referee, in a game held at Nottingham Forest in 1878. It is no coincidence that a refereeís whistle makes a very different noise from a policemanís - itís designed to do a different job. Whereas the sound of a policemanís whistle needs to carry a long way, a refereeís whistle doesnít need to carry very far at all - but it does need to penetrate through an awful lot of background noise, something it does remarkably well. After further refinements, in 1884, Joseph Hudson introduced the world's most successful football whistle,  the Acme Thunderer, which was the worldís first pea whistle and has proved to be the world's all-time best selling whistle, still selling in huge quantities over a century later to referees, train guards and attention seekers the world over. 

Over the years the company has introduced many other specialised whistles: whistles, inaudible to the human ear, for training dogs; whistles that imitate complex bird calls, the sound of a cow or even the roar of a lion; orchestral whistles; hunting whistles; safety whistles.

Which brings me to Kate Winslet. The whistle that she so famously blew in the film Titanic was one of eighty made by J Hudson & Co (Whistles) Ltd for the ill-starred liner, and one of a handful that were recovered from the wreckage. And it saved Kate Winsletís life, did it not?

I rest my case.




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Joseph Hudson & Co make 5 million whistles every year. They sell all over the world. Although the majority are now made in plastic, the company still consumes 80 tonnes of brass a year in the manufacture of metal whistles. Around 1000 million whistles have been made in the Jewellery Quarter since 1870.


In early 2002 Joseph Hudson were testing the Meteor, the world's first two-seater whistle and hopefully the world's loudest. The plan is to drop the whistle from a plane at 10,000 feet. The two pilots will eject at 6,000 feet and the whistle's own parachute will open at 3,000 feet. By that time it will be going fast enough to emit a sound of 200 decibels.

© 2001, 2002 Bob Miles