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3. COLMORE ROW & THE TOYMAKERS 


Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter

THE WALK

THE INFO

From Church Street (1), (2), continue in the same direction as before (3) to the traffic lights at Newhall Street. 

A. Church Street

B. Colmore Row

C. The former premises of Rogers & Priestley, piano manufacturers

D. Medallions on the Royal Bank of Scotland building, either side of the top floor windows

E. Now ...

E. ... and then. First generation buildings in Colmore Row around 1870, shortly prior to demolition

F. Ghastly: the Natwest building on the opposite corner of Newhall Street

G. Bamford's Trust House on the corner of Colmore Row and Newhall Street

A Georgian house in the Jewellery Quarter which was subsequently adapted for manufacturing, as indicated by the shopping at the rear, which was added later.

A pair of semis (one of the front doors has been bricked up) in the Jewellery Quarter as built in the late 1820s with shopping at the rear (ie they were specifically erected to be used for living at the front, while the family business was carried on at the rear). 

(1) The New Hall estate

If you had stood looking down Church Street at the time the cathedral was new, you would have been looking out over open country, and by all accounts it was a lovely view. The land sloped gently down before rising up to the hilltop where the Jewellery Quarter is now. There were fields, woods and ponds, the largest of which, the Great Pond, was a little over to the right at the bottom of Snow Hill. The only building in this view, some half a mile off and forty-five degrees left, was a Jacobean mansion called New Hall. This was the home of the Colmore family who had been around in Birmingham since the mid 1400s. Like many others in Birmingham, they were active in the town's flourishing trade in Welsh wool, having made their money as cloth merchants. Practically everything you could see belonged to the Colmores.

Although Birmingham was expanding rapidly in the eighteenth century, the Colmores’ New Hall estate remained undeveloped until 1746. This was on account of legal problems which prevented the estate from being split up into development plots. In 1746, however, Ann Colmore secured a private Act of Parliament which lifted the restrictions and the Colmores then lost no time in developing their land. By 1750 much of Colmore Row was built up and building work was under way on Edmund Street behind. Within thirty years a street pattern very similar to today's had been established and building had spread from Colmore Row as far as St Paul’s Square. 

So what went up? Was it what we see today? No, the present buildings are mainly second generation, late Victorian structures. This being the Georgian era, was it a typical  Georgian development such as one finds in Bath? Well, there were some Georgian houses in Colmore Row and upper Newhall Street, but in the main the answer is no again; this was a very Brummie development. I doubt whether it ever would, or could, have been built anywhere else and it is a great pity that it has disappeared, because had it survived, it would have been fascinating.

Gable-fronted toymakers' houses on the New Hall estate, photographed during demolition works in the late nineteenth century. The large chimneystacks produced a good draught, resulting in a hot fire on which metal could be worked 

The buildings that went up on the New Hall estate were mostly built in a vernacular style. Photographs taken in the nineteenth century show there were a mixture of styles - some gable-fronted, some with dormer windows, some without. And it was a very varied area, with large and small houses mixed together in the same street and intermingled with small workshops. In fact, it was at one and the same time a residential and an industrial area. The people who moved in here were, in the main, the Birmingham toymakers and since the toymakers were the forerunners of today’s jewellers and you can't properly understand the Jewellery Quarter without knowing something about them, it is worth looking at them in some detail. So here goes ...

(2) The Birmingham toymakers

First of all, we need to understand that  in this context the term ‘toy’ referred to a very wide variety of small, and often quite fancy, artifacts made in a wide variety of metals. Sketchley's Directory of 1767 illustrates the range of the toymakers' output:

'These artists are divided into several branches as the Gold and Silver Toymakers, who make trinkets, seals, tweezer and toothpick cases, smelling bottles, snuff boxes, and filigree work such as toilets, tea chests, inkstands etc, etc. The Tortoiseshell toymaker makes a beautiful variety of the above and other articles; as does the Steel, who make corkscrews, buckles, buttons, draw and other boxes, snuffers, watch chains, stay hooks, sugar [tongs] etc, etc; and almost all these are likewise made in various metals.' 

The toymakers produced all these items in prodigious quantities, usually without the aid of anything we would call machinery and often using only the simplest of tools (see right-hand panel).  By the time the Colmore estate was developed, toymaking had been established and growing in importance in Birmingham for at least a hundred years and the industry had developed some very singular characteristics, which still survive in large measure in today’s Jewellery Quarter.

- 1. The trade was split into very small units, being carried out mainly by self-employed people working on their own, or by small family businesses in which the members of the family would often form the whole or part of the workforce, sometimes doing the same jobs as, and sharing a workbench with, their employees.

In the modern Jewellery Quarter the self-employed and small family businesses still predominate. The six thousand people who work there are employed in some 1,500 separate businesses. There are larger firms (there always have been, Matthew Boulton's firm providing a prominent example). Many of these firms have their own design, marketing and other functions, and are able to achieve high productivity by the use of modern, and sometimes high tech, methods. But despite these advantages,  in recent years there has been a trend towards smaller firms, with young people entering the trade often preferring self-employment.

- 2. There was intense specialisation, with different processes being carried out by different people. Goods passed through several hands during the manufacturing process, being carried round from one workshop to another. This meant that it was important for all those involved to be located near to one another, which is the reason why we have a Jewellery Quarter. A vital role in this kind of manufacturing structure is played by the Factor, who is rather like the conductor of an orchestra. The factor buys in raw materials, organises people with the requisite skills to carry out the work needed to produce a product, pays them for what they do and markets the finished product into the retail or export trade. Without the factors jewellers would be forced to amalgamate into bigger firms that encompassed the full range of skills and could afford their own buying departments, marketing departments and so forth.

This intense specialisation survives unchanged in the modern Jewellery Quarter.

- 3. They worked where they lived, usually in upstairs rooms or garrets in their houses or in ‘shopping’ (ie, outbuildings used as workshops)

Visitors to the modern Jewellery Quarter are often struck by the fact that a lot of jewellery manufacture is carried on in buildings that were obviously intended for residential use. This is because, to begin with, the jewellers worked in their houses as had the toymakers before them. By and large these buildings are not lived in today, though. The reason for this is that there was a huge increase in demand for jewellery in the late nineteenth century. Needing to keep close together and unable to expand into adjoining areas, the jewellers met the demand for more space by moving to live elsewhere, turning the whole of their houses over to manufacturing, and even building shopping in the back gardens, with the result that a survey carried out in 1948 found that the Jewellery Quarter was the most densely built-up area in the whole country.

One of the leading toymakers of the early nineteenth century was Sir Edward Thomason, who had premises in Church Street and who, in his youth, had been apprenticed to Matthew Boulton. Sir Edward specialised in the manufacture of buttons, silver plate, and all manner of natty gadgets of his own invention, including a toasting fork with a built-in toast ejector and, rather less whimsically, a beautiful and ingenious double-acting corkscrew, which made the process of extracting the cork from the bottle every bit as easy as inserting the screw into the cork. Two hundred years later, very few of the corkscrews on sale in the shops are as easy to use as Sir Edward's. (This is known as progress.) The architect Yeoville Thomason was one of Sir Edward's grandsons. 

(3) What you see now

The Colmores let the plots on the New Hall estate on 120-year leases, which fell in from the 1870s onwards. By that time the town had expanded enormously, land values had soared and hence the new leases were at sharply higher ground rents. This led to redevelopment and with a few obvious exceptions the buildings you see today, some of which are very fine, were built in the late nineteenth or the early twentieth century. 

The handsome row of buildings on Colmore Row between Church Street and Newhall Street (B) was built in the 1870s. All are Grade II listed and all were designed by  Yeoville Thomason. In the main they began life as banks or upmarket showrooms. All have been facaded.

If you look at the building opposite the corner of the Cathedral precinct (C) you will notice the cast iron pillars set into the wall and the girder above. This building began life as the premises of Rogers and Priestley, pianoforte manufacturers, and originally the spaces between the pillars were filled by huge French windows, which could be opened whenever a piano had to be moved out. As to how they got the pianos past the iron railings, I'll leave you to work that out.

 The building now occupied by the Royal Bank of Scotland (D) was built for William Spurrier, a leading Birmingham silversmith. The medallions either side of the top floor windows bear the carved heads of Lorenzo Ghiberti and Benvenuto Cellini, both of whom were celebrated goldsmiths and sculptors in Renaissance Florence.  Ghiberti made the famous golden door of the Baptistry of Florence Cathedral. I wonder how many of Spurrier's customers made the intended connections?  

Bamford's Trust House (E) on the corner of Newhall Street was originally the Union Club. Built as an ostentatiously opulent meeting place for the wealthy gentlemen of Victorian Birmingham, its two original storeys are equal in height to William Spurrier's three storeys and four storeys further down the street. (In medieval Italy status conscious types with more money than sense built hugely expensive towers, just so they could say to the neighbours, 'Our tower's taller than yours'. In Victorian Birmingham such folk contented themselves with, 'Our ceilings are higher than yours'.) This building is considered by many to be Thomason's best.

Despite the depredations of war, road builders and property developers, much of central Birmingham retains its Victorian character and boasts many excellent buildings. If you are interested in exploring them further, there are references (marked *) on the sources of information page to books describing architectural trails in the city centre.    

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 BRUM'S SOCIAL COHESION

An important social consequence of the predominance of small businesses in Birmingham was that there were no great divisions of wealth or social status between master and employee; in fact there was not even a clear distinction and it was not uncommon to be an employer one day and an employee the next, depending on how things went. This being the case, bosses and workers were quite happy to live cheek by jowl in the same street.  This accounts for the mix of large and small houses, and it made Birmingham starkly different from the northern industrial towns, where the stereotypical mill owner, fabulously rich and living in a hilltop mansion, was widely separated in every sense from his badly paid employees in their huddled courts in the valley below.

As Cobden wrote, 'The social and political state of [Birmingham] is far more healthy than that of Manchester. There is a freer intercourse between all classes than in the Lancashire town, where a great and impassable gulf separates the workman from the employer ... the industry of the hardware districts is carried on by small manufacturers, employing a few men and boys each, sometimes only an apprentice or two, whilst the great capitalists in Manchester form an aristocracy.'

THE TOY TRADE IN 1759

In evidence presented to a Parliamentary committee in 1759, John Taylor and Samuel Garbett, the two leading manufacturers of the day, reported that the toy trade was worth £600,000 a year and that five sixths of the output was exported (the illustrious French court being among the customers). The business was fashion conscious, alert to changing tastes, and many Frenchmen and Germans were employed in design work. There were a number of drawing schools in the town, providing instruction in design and drawing.  

SPECIALISATION IN THE JEWELLERY TRADE

Fourteen specialisations are recognised in the jewellery trade. These are: burnishing, chasing, diamond cutting, diamond mounting and setting, enamelling, engraving, gem cutting, gem mounting and setting, gilding, piercing, plating, polishing, refining, and stamping.

© 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006 Bob Miles