The walk at www.jquarter.org.uk
9. THE PEN MAKERS, & RIP VAN WINKLE
|Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter|
Continue along to the end of George Street. Turn sharp right up Newhall Hill and walk up the hill as far as the corner of Graham Street (1), (2), (3). Walk a little way up Frederick Street and turn left under the arch in the side of the Argent Centre to visit The Pen Room (4). Finally, return to the street corner (5), (6).
A. Joseph Gillott's Victoria Works
B. The Argent Centre, formerly the Albert Works
C. Baker & Finnemore
Sir Josiah Mason
Henry Van Wart's house
The Argent Centre (Albert Works) as it originally was, with pyramidal tops to the corner towers
(1) How Brum enabled the world to write
Consider these facts.
- 1. In the early nineteenth century steel pen nibs were made by a laborious manual process and were consequently very expensive, costing around 2s 6d (12.5p) each, which at that time was around two days' wages for a labouring man. For that reason most people wrote with goose-quill pens, but even they were expensive and it is a sobering thought that in those days, even if they knew how to write, many people could not afford to do so.
- 2. From the early 1820s Birmingham manufacturers began to exploit their manufacturing and metalworking expertise to enable pen nibs to be mass produced. This led to a dramatic reduction in prices, the cheapest nibs ultimately coming down to 3d per gross - ie, in decimal coinage, the price was reduced from 12.5p each to 1.25p for 144, a reduction of more than 99.9%! As Carl Chinn says, they democratised writing, which became affordable to everybody - and what a wonderful achievement that was!
-3. For over 130 years, until cheap biros took over in the 1950s and '60s, the vast majority of pen nibs used anywhere in the world were made in Brum, in factories centred on the Jewellery Quarter. Even those that were made elsewhere were sometimes made in factories owned and run by Birmingham manufacturers.
How did all this come about? Though metal pen nibs, often made of bronze rather than steel, have been known at least since Roman times, they continued to be expensively hand made until 1822 when John Mitchell, who had a works in Newhall Street, adapting processes commonly used in button manufacture, became the first mass producer of pen nibs by applying hand presses to the processes of shaping, piercing and slitting nibs. By the 1830s Josiah Mason, Joseph Gillott and the Mitchell brothers - John and William - had become major manufacturers. Ultimately a total of twelve firms came to dominate the market. Output was phenomenal, growing rapidly as literacy became more widespread. At the peak 5,000 mostly female workers produced an astonishing total of 1,500 million pen nibs in Birmingham every year, and that figure wasn't far short of the entire world population at the time!
Unlike toys and jewellery, which are relatively high value items whose manufacture calls for craft skills, pen nibs are extremely low value items, mechanically manufactured (even if some of the machines were manually operated). This kind of manufacturing is most efficiently carried on in large factories and so, contrary to the Jewellery Quarter norm, a number of big pen making works were established. There were five of them just here - the Victoria Works (A), the Albert Works (now the Argent Centre, B) and away to the right Baker & Finnemore (C), as well as two more in Legge Lane (to the left), one of which we shall see shortly (the other is now derelict). Other leading pen makers were based in St Paul's Square, George Street, Charlotte Street, and New John Street West (near the Hockley flyover), all in the vicinity of the Jewellery Quarter, though the biggest of them all, Josiah Mason's works, was in Lancaster Street, near where Aston University is now, and John Mitchell ultimately moved to Moland Street in the same area.
When fountain, and more especially ballpoint, pens became popular in the 1950s demand for traditional pen nibs declined sharply and is now limited to specialist users such as artists and calligraphers. Only one of the 'big twelve' companies, D Leonardt, which is now based at Highley in Shropshire, is still manufacturing pens under its own name. The other remaining pen manufacturer is British Pens Ltd, which took over the interests of William Mitchell, Hinks Wells, Perry & Co (which had earlier absorbed Wiley, Sommerville and Sir Josiah Mason's business) and Gillott's. British Pens is now based at Oldbury in the Black Country. Just two companies - C Brandauer and Baker & Finnemore - continue to manufacture in their original Birmingham premises, but both have diversified and neither makes pens any more. The rest have simply disappeared.
Joseph Gillott was a Sheffield man. Born in 1799, he came to Birmingham in search of work in 1821, when the cutlery trade was in decline following the Napoleonic Wars. After some years working as a toymaker he met, and later married, Maria Mitchell, sister of the pen-making brothers John and William. (The Mitchells were also from Sheffield, by the way.) Through this connection he got into the pen making business, working at first in his garret (naturally!) and then, as the business grew rapidly, moving to successively larger premises and ultimately to the Victoria Works, which was one of the first purpose-built factories using modern production methods to be put up in the town.
Pen making in progress in the Victoria Works
It is worth taking a look around the building, which is listed, Grade II. It is a typical late Georgian structure, relying on restrained design and handsome proportions for effect, in stark contrast to the ornate Italianate style of the Argent Centre, which had become very popular by the middle years of the century (see right hand panel). There are a number of nice details, including the rounded corners, which were popular at the time. As the drawing above shows, the shopping was provided with large windows on both sides, so as to provide maximum light for working by. (You can see the shopping if you look through the archway on the Vittoria Street side.) To have windows on two sides is a rare luxury in the Jewellery Quarter, where most shopping is 'blind-backed' because the shortage of space meant that usually, one wall was a party wall.
I am not entirely sure when the Victoria Works was built. There is an interesting Gillott website which gives the date as 1859, whilst the Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association quotes 1853 and other sources date it around 1840. It could well be that all these dates are correct in the sense that, according to contemporary drawings, the works was built in stages. In any event the late Georgian style of the building and the phenomenal output that Gillott was achieving long before the 1850s make a start around 1840 seem quite likely.
The Argent Centre, which was originally (and appropriately in view of its proximity to the Victoria works) known as the Albert Works, was erected in 1863 for W E Wiley, a manufacturer of gold plated pen nibs, who also made exquisite pen holders in ivory and other exotic materials. Built in mid century when Italianate was in vogue, it is in the Lombardic style and is listed, Grade II*. The building was originally much better looking than it is today (see illustration, left), having pyramidal tops to the corner towers which look rather stupid now their tops have been sliced off. Its appearance has been further disfigured by the addition of ugly parapet walls on top of the nice decorative edging to the flat roof, which is still in place. The Argent Centre being such a prominent building, it really should be returned to its original appearance. The building originally housed a Turkish bath at the north end (along Frederick Street, furthest from Legge Lane). This bath, which Wiley's operated as a sideline, was ‘powered’ by surplus steam from the building’s boilers. An interesting structural feature lies in the fact that the floors are constructed of hollow bricks threaded on wrought iron bars, resulting in a very strong and fireproof construction.
Under the arch in the Frederick Street side of the Argent Centre you will find The Pen Room, a fascinating little museum run by the Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association (BPTHA). In The Pen Room you will find displayed some of the 100,000 varieties of pen nib made by the Birmingham manufacturers in their heyday, the beautiful labels they put on their boxes of nibs, pen making machinery, pen holders (including some of Wiley's ivory holders), Braille embossers (made in Brum, naturally!) and much more. You will also find brief histories of the 'big twelve' manufacturers, information on the surprisingly complex manufacturing process, and if you like you can practise writing with different kinds of pen - reeds, quills and steel pens. There are also books for sale to those who want more information. The Pen Room is open from 11am to 4pm, Monday to Saturday, and from 1pm to 4pm on Sundays. Admission is free but visitors are invited to make a donation in support of the museum. Do pay it a visit; it's well worth some of your time. (If you can't visit but would like to contact the BPTHA, their address is The Pen Room, Unit 3 The Argent Centre, 60 Frederick Street, Birmingham B1 3HS. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. They also have a website www.penroom.co.uk with lots of information, including key dates in the history of the pen trade and information about the pen makers.)
Everyone knows the story of Rip Van Winkle and you probably recall that it was written by an American, Washington Irving, but do you know where it was written? The answer is right here, on the corner of Legge Lane and Frederick Street, in a house that was set well back, so that when the Argent Centre was built the house long survived behind it. But how did the story come to be written here?
For a time in the late eighteenth century it was fashionable for the Birmingham elite to live in this area. There were good views over what was still a lovely valley, and at the same time it was close to town. A number of large houses were accordingly built along Graham and Frederick Streets, and on the hillside that was to your left as you walked up Newhall Hill.
At the time Rip Van Winkle was written, in 1818, there lived in one such house, the one I have referred to, an American couple by the name of Van Wart. Mrs Sarah Van Wart was the author Washington Irving's sister. Now the Irvings were a wealthy family of New York merchants and Sarah Irving had met her husband to be, Henry Van Wart, whilst he was in the employ of the family firm, Irving & Smith. The Van Warts first came to England when he was entrusted with opening a branch of Irving & Smith in Liverpool. That enterprise failed and after a number of setbacks Henry Van Wart eventually established a successful business as a Birmingham factor specialising in trade with the New World. The story goes that one evening during a visit that Irving paid to his sister, he and Henry Van Wart were sitting round the drawing room fire after dinner, reminiscing about the life they had known back in America. That conversation gave Irving the idea for two stories, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, both of which were written here in the Van Warts' house. Rip Van Winkle changed Irving’s life and established him as the first commercially successful American author; The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was made into a film not so very long ago.
Whilst Irving was still in Birmingham the Van Warts were invited to visit James Watt junior, who at that time had recently leased Aston Hall from Abraham Bracebridge, the last surviving member of the Holte family, who had built the hall in 1634. Despite the fact that the story is set in the wilds of Yorkshire, entries in Irving’s diary make it clear that Aston Hall provided the inspiration for another of his novels, Bracebridge Hall, much of which was also written in Brum. It contains a number of scenes describing Christmas at the hall which, as Peter Leather has put it, ‘immortalised the traditional English Christmas when Charles Dickens was still a lad’. It is nicely ironical to reflect that the world's image of the 'traditional English Christmas' was created by an American author writing about a Scotsman's Christmas in Birmingham!
Along with most of the other middle class families who had settled in the area, the Van Warts subsequently moved to Edgbaston - to Calthorpe Road in their case - at which address too, Washington Irving was a frequent visitor, a fact recalled in the nearby street names of Washington Street and Irving Street.
For a time in the early nineteenth century there was a roller-coaster on Graham Street, which made use of the steep slope of Newhall Hill. It seems to have been put paid to by the digging of the sandpit, for an old ballad of 1828 mourning its passing laments (the italics are mine): 'They've taken away all Newhall-hill / Poor old Brummagem!' Whilst it was there the roller-coaster sounds to have been good fun; the ballad goes on 'At Easter time girls fair and brown / Used to come rolly-polly down / And show their legs to half the town'. According to contemporary reports, riders sat in little two-seater cars which raced down inclines, sped around curves, and climbed a slope with the aid of a winch before hurtling down, round, up and down again. Great fun indeed!
The roller coaster was known as the Russian Mountains. Very few people know how it came by this name, but you will in a moment, because I'm about to let you in on the secret. Think about it: the slope is pretty steep, right? So if you had got on at the top of the hill in Graham Street and then pushed off, you would have gone absolutely russian down the hill.
I think we'd better press on, don't you?
Washington Irving (1)
© 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008 Bob Miles