The walk at  www.jquarter.org.uk

5. ELKINGTONS' & THE ASSAY OFFICE


Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter

THE WALK

THE INFO

Leaving the boardwalk (1), (2), (3), turn left and walk down Newhall Street about half-way to the crossroads. Note the blue plaque on the wall to Alexander Parkes. The Assay Office (4) is directly opposite. 

A. The former premises of the Museum of Science & Industry were housed in what remains of Elkingtons' works

B. The Birmingham Assay Office

C. The bridge carrying the towpath over the stub end of the abandoned Whitmore Arm of the canal, which we shall meet in George Street (centre right of photo)

Hang on, isn't that ... ? No, it's not Nora Batty with her rollers in, it's George Elkington in a rather unfortunate toupé

Alexander Parkes

Sir Josiah Mason

ESSENTIALS

There are benches on the boardwalk where you can take a rest or eat out.

(1) On the boardwalk

We are now on the boardwalk above the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. This used to be an extremely pleasant, open space, furnished with benches and popular with office workers who would sit out and enjoy the sun during their lunch breaks. Now, thanks to a piece of irresponsibility, if not worse, on the part of the City Council, developers have been allowed to ruin that fine public amenity in the name of profit, replacing it by the uninviting, sunless bare space you see now beneath the apartment block. (In case you're wondering how this kind of thing could be allowed to happen, it is known as 'regeneration'.)  

During the Victorian era, this now-desolate spot  was the setting for two important developments  - the   invention of electroplating, and the invention (though not the practical implementation) of plastics.

(2) The development of electroplating 

An aerial view of the former Elkingtons' works. The canal can be seen between the two left-handmost rows of buildings, indicated by 1.

The site of the former Science Museum on the far side of the canal, together with the land on this side of the canal, was for many years occupied by the premises of H & GR Elkington, who in 1840 developed and patented the first effective electroplating process. Although plated ware was by no means new - Matthew Boulton had been prominent in the trade - the original process, which involved soldering silver or gold onto a copper base, was very laborious and expensive. 

It was a Birmingham doctor, John Wright, who first showed that items could be electroplated by immersing them in a tank of silver held in solution, through which an electric current was passed. Unfortunately, early attempts at electroplating were unsuccessful, on account of the fact that it proved impossible to obtain an even coating of silver, and it took years of experimentation on the part of John Wright, with Henry and George Richard Elkington, before Alexander Parkes,  an exceptionally gifted scientist who worked for the Elkingtons, discovered that the problem could be solved by the addition of cyanide to the silver solution. 

At first there was considerable scepticism as to the viability  of the new process, to the point where Josiah Mason's friends attempted to dissuade him from taking a share in the business. But he persisted and in 1842 the firm became Elkington, Mason & Co, with Josiah Mason holding a one-third share. Mason was convinced that for the firm to prosper it had to diversify away from the 'articles of taste' - salvers, vases and the like, that the Elkingtons had focused on, and go into the manufacture of everyday items that ordinary people could afford - electroplated jewellery, cutlery and the like.  

This innovation of Mason's proved highly successful and had a marked impact on the Jewellery Quarter, as imitation jewellery, in reality electroplated though virtually indistinguishable from solid gold or silver, became very popular with the Victorians and the following years saw a big increase in the mass production by mechanised methods including rolling, stamping, pressing and embossing, of cheaper, plated jewellery. This, coupled with the discovery of new goldfields in Australia and California, and the introduction in 1854 of the 9 carat standard, led to a huge increase in employment in the Jewellery Quarter. From around 6,500 in 1850 (that's roughly the same number as are employed today), total employment in the Jewellery Quarter rose to a peak of 37,000 in the years before the First World War. (See 'Employment and output', right hand column.)

For many years Elkingtons' had a monopoly of electroplating by virtue of their patent. By 1880 they had 1000 employees on this site, and six other factories. They employed a number of celebrated designers and their wares, some of which were very fine and were exhibited internationally, became world famous. The works received many visits from both British and foreign dignitaries. One such was Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, who was presented with a spider’s web that had been electroplated using a method devised by Alexander Parkes. Perhaps the most famous example of Elkington plate is the Wimbledon Ladies Singles Trophy. Other beautiful examples of Elkingtons' output can be found in the Birmingham City Museum. 

 (3) The invention of plastics

The first person to develop a plastic material was Alexander Parkes, the son of a locksmith and an exceptionally gifted and prolific inventor. As we have seen, Parkes worked for Elkingtons' for many years as an R & D man, and had played a crucial role in the development of electroplating there.

One day, while searching in his medicine cabinet for collodion (see right-hand panel) to dress a wound, Parkes noticed that the solvent had evaporated, leaving a solid mass in the bottom of the bottle. Most people would simply have thrown the bottle away, but Parkes was an inventor. He observed that the residue was tough and pliable, and it occurred to him that it might be mouldable. Finding that his attempts to soften the material by heating merely led to explosions, he searched for a platicising material that would soften the collodion without the need for heating, and eventually discovered that the addition of camphor (as used in mothballs) and ethanol did the trick. He called his invention Parkesine and patented it in 1865. 

What happened next is quite poignant. Believing that he had invented a revolutionary new kind of material that would be of huge importance (which was right), and  convinced that Parkesine would make him a  wealthy man (which was to prove very wrong), he invested a great deal of his own money in setting up the Parkesine Company to exploit his invention. But bitter experience was to teach him that he hadn't got it quite right.  Parkesine was expensive, because  ethanol was expensive. There was consequently little interest in the material, the business quickly failed, and Parkes lost a great deal of money in the process.

Meanwhile, in New York, a John Wesley Hyatt was doing the sensible thing. Learning of Parkes's invention and appreciating its enormous potential whilst understanding that the material was too expensive, he experimented to find a cheaper way of achieving the same result, and in 1870 he was awarded a US patent for a material blending camphor with a modified form of collodion, and avoiding the use of costly ethanol. Hyatt called his material celluloid and the rest, as they say, is history - except that the British Xylonite company, which had bought up Parkes's patents, challenged Hyatt’s patent and a celebrated legal battle, which went on for decades, ensued between British Xylonite and the Celluloid Manufacturing Company. Ultimately unable to settle the matter in the courts, the two companies finally concluded that the only solution was for them to merge.

Alexander Parkes is chiefly remembered today for the process he devised for extracting silver from lead ores, which is known as the Parkes Process.

(4) The Birmingham Assay Office

Prior to 1773, all silverware and jewellery made in Birmingham had to be sent to either London or Chester to be hallmarked - clearly a very unsatisfactory situation. Many in Birmingham, including most notably Matthew Boulton, found this situation unacceptable and a joint deputation was organised on behalf of Birmingham and Sheffield to petition Parliament to authorise assay offices in the two towns. The proposal was strongly resisted by the London trade, which claimed that deceit and shoddy wares would creep into the system if it were granted. This was more than a bit rich and the astute Matthew Boulton proved it. Secretly buying up twenty two pieces of silverware that had been assayed in London and having them independently tested, he was able to show that the silver content of all but one of them was well below the hallmarked standard. The day was won, and if any one was left in any doubt as to the integrity with which assaying would be carried out in Birmingham, such doubts were swiftly dispelled when Matthew Boulton himself became the first manufacturer to have his wares destroyed as sub-standard. Today, Birmingham’s Assay Office is the busiest in the world, testing between 40,000 and 80,000 items each working day. It is said that when the trade was at its peak in the early nineteen hundreds, there were more people employed in jewellery manufacture in Birmingham than in any other city in the world, and it is reported that 70% of all jewellery manufactured in the UK is now made in Birmingham, which has long surpassed London as a centre of jewellery manufacture.

The Assay Office has had a rather peripatetic history. It was originally established in upstairs rooms in the King's Head pub in New Street - good for staff recruitment and retention, no doubt, but possibly not conducive of high productivity. After nine years at the King’s Head it moved to Bull Lane in 1782, then to Little Colmore Street in 1799, Little Cannon Street in 1815 and finally to the present purpose-built premises in 1877. The original building is the portion on the left, which has been greatly extended behind and at the side, and by the addition of the top storey. The building leaves you in no doubt that Birmingham’s hallmark is the anchor.

 

LINKS

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PLATING TECHNIQUES

 Sheffield plate was introduced in the 1740s and remained the method of producing silver plate until superseded by electroplating. The process involved taking a thin sheet of silver which was laid on an ingot of copper and hammered to ensure that the two metals were in contact over the whole of their surface area. The copper and silver were then bound round with copper wire and heated in a furnace until they fused together. The ingot was then rolled to produce a bimetallic sheet from which plated goods were fashioned.

Gold plate made by the analogous process was known as rolled gold.

Gilding was another early method of applying a gold finish. Ground gold was mixed with mercury to form a paste which was painted onto the article to be gilded. Heat was then applied to vaporise the mercury. A beautiful finish could be obtained, but the process was  very detrimental to the gilder's health.

Electroplating can be used to plate goods with a wide variety of metals, the process being essentially the same in every case. In silver plating, the object to be plated ( a vase, let us say) is first fashioned in nickel silver ( a silvery-looking alloy of nickel). The vase is then immersed in a bath containing a solution of a salt of silver, and connected to the negative terminal of a battery, the positive terminal of which is connected to a rod of silver which is also immersed in the bath. When the silver salt is dissolved  it ionises and positively charged ions of silver are attracted to the negatively charged vase, which acquires a coating of silver. At the same time ions flow from the silver rod into the solution, replacing those that have been plated out. Electroplating has now replaced all of the earlier processes, rolled gold apart.

COLLODION

 Collodion is a solution of gun cotton in a mixture of ether and alcohol. It used to be used in place of plasters as a waterproof covering for wounds. Colloquially known as 'artificial skin', it came in a bottle with a brush in the cap and, when painted onto a wound, formed a plastic-like skin. 

HALLMARKING

Hallmarking is the world's oldest form of consumer protection, having been introduced in England in 1300 under an Act of Edward I. It involves stamping jewellery which has been assayed (tested) with a distinctive mark in order to certify the precious metal content. (Since pure gold, silver and platinum are too soft to be used in jewellery, in practice all jewellery is made from alloys of varying degrees of purity.) Articles found to be substandard are broken up and the materials returned to the maker.

The Assay Office is supervised by a Board of Guardians, only a proportion of whose members may be drawn from the jewellery trade.

EMPLOYMENT & OUTPUT

There are no accurate figures for the numbers employed in the jewellery trade. However, the general trend is clear. From around 6,000 in the mid 1800s it rose erratically, with many ups and downs on the way, to a peak variously estimated between 35,000 and 70,000 in 1913, falling sharply in the depression. Both world wars hit the trade badly, as did the punitive rates of tax in force after World War 2. In 1947 employment was estimated at 19,500. It is now said to be around one-third of that level, and falling. There are several factors behind this: increased productivity resulting from the introduction of modern manufacturing methods, the movement of some firms away from the Jewellery Quarter, and higher import penetration. 

The Assay offices figures for gold and silver assayed in Birmingham tell a similar story. To take just a few years at random, in 1774 17,000 ounces were assayed; 1837 111,000; 1890 1,471,000; 1913 4,639,000; 1932 2,389,000; 1953 569,000; 1972 1,423,000.  

 

© 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006 Bob Miles