Steeped in history, precious metals have been manufactured in Birmingham since the 14th century.
In a survey carried out in 1553 a Mr Roger Pemberton was named one of the first Goldsmiths of Birmingham.
The desire for intricate buckles and buttons did not gain momentum until the 1600’s The jewellery trade got its biggest boom during the 1700’s, and out of this growth came the creation of the Jewellery Quarter.
Following on during the 18th and 19th centuries Birmingham grew to become a large industrial town which was famous for manufacturing every kind of ware imaginable. As a result large foundries and glassworks attracted workers from all areas of Britain. A considerable trade grew up in gilt buttons, cap badges, pins and small metal toys.
According to a local directory from 1780, there were twenty-six jewellers at the time. However the area of Hockley has only been a distinct “quarter” at the centre of the city’s Jewellery industry since the mid-1830s, evolving out of those earlier button, pin, buckle and toy trades.
Matthew Boulton was a prominent industrialist of his time, who rallied for and organized an Assay Office in Birmingham in 1773. His efforts were honored in a traditional way, by gathering supporters at a pub. It was a collective event with the another city, Sheffield, which was also allowed an Assay Office. During the festivities, a coin was tossed to determine Assay marks. The outcome of the coin flip is how Sheffield acquired the Crown, and Birmingham its legendary Anchor. The pub that hosted this revelry was aptly named the Crown and Anchor
On May 28th, 1845 a party of jewellery representatives travelled from Birmingham to Buckingham Palace with the intention of persuading the Queen of England to wear British made jewellery – it was pointed out to the Queen that 5,000 families were dependent on the jewellery trades in Birmingham.
The Silver and Gold manufactured in the city around this period was of exceptionally high quality, with its own Hallmark with these products now considered collectibles throughout the world. At the same time the world famous “ Birmingham Mint ( which had first opened its doors in 1850 and moved to Icknield St in 1862 ) was producing Coins for countries overseas including Russia, Brazil, Mexico to name a few and as a result in 1889 the Birmingham Mint was acknowledged as the largest private mint in the world. Unfortunately due to world economic pressures the Birmingham Mint ceased producing coins in 2003, after the completion of an order to provide blanks for the Euro. Whilst Coin production ceased on the site, today it runs a small operation manufacturing commemorative coins and metals.
As the Quarter began to grow quickly it soon eclipsed the jewellery trade in nearby Derby, which faded away from the increased competition from it’s near neighbour. As a result of the Quarter now making a very large proportion of the British Empire’s fine jewellery, nearly 700 workshops listed in a local directory in 1880. However, historians suggest that this figure may underestimate the number of jewellers that operated at the time in the Quarter, as not all of them had the need to advertise in directories.
The trade benefited greatly from the declining price of raw gold, at the beginning of the start 1880s along with the advent of new processes such as electro plating .
In 1883, less than half of all silver jewellery made in Birmingham was of high enough standard to pass through Birmingham Assay Office. However, in the same year no less than 30 tons 17 cwt 4 lb 4 oz (32.3630mgagrams ) of silver jewellery and 3 tons 7 cwt 12 lb 3 oz (3.4093 Mg) of gold items were received bringing the total number of articles sent in for assaying that year to over 2.6 million.
However by 1885, there came a downturn in business which resulted in many workers from within the industry having to accept reduced hours, part time work and in many cases, unemployment. But it was not only the workers who suffered from the depression, as a number of manufacturers ceased trading, whilst the survivors continued to operate in the area that we call the “ Jewellery Quarter “ today.
The Jewellery Quarter is just a hop skip and jump away from the center of the Hockley district, one of Birmingham’s oldest districts. Commonly recognized as the very heart of superior jewelelry production, and also an innovative village, the Jewellery Quarter is a bustling atmosphere that houses a variety of eateries, pubs, galleries and museums. It boasts both a sweeping display of history, as it is home to 200 historic buildings, and a modern day industry, as there are more than 100 jewellery shops to experience.
In the early 1900’s the Jewellery Quarter reached its height of activity with tens of thousands of people employed within. Though that thriving phase was followed by a modern day decline, hundreds of contemporary and traditional jewelry businesses still operate in the Jewellery Quarter, and are responsible for contributing just under half of all jewellery in the UK.
Some of the businesses produce rare and original treasures, while other companies are responsible for producing highly recognized items attached to global names. In both cases, a great number of the businesses operate behind plain looking doors that give no indication of the tremendous manufacturing which occurs beyond the seemingly unremarkable brick exteriors.
The Birmingham School of Jewellery was established in 1890, as a place where young boys could receive training in the trade of creating fine jewelry. The students then transferred those skills to employment opportunities within Jewellry Quarter. That school became incorporated into Birmingham University which still provides a comprehensive spectrum of jewelry making, gemology, and silversmithing courses. It still remains the biggest and most extensive jewellery school in Europe. To this day, many of the university graduates continuing on with the tradition of utilizing their skills for employment at one of the many jewelry shops in the Quarter.
The museum contains a contemporary space with exhibits that relay the history of the area and other modern displays. Visitors can participate in a guided tour of some jewelry factories from the turn of the 20th century. One stop on the tour is a factory that met hard times and subsequently closed in the 1980’s. Instead of completely shutting it down, the partners Smith and Pepper resolved to allow a museum acquire it. This resulted in the factory being preserved precisely as it looked the day the doors closed. Right down to the stacks of papers on the desk. Other points of interest on the tour will date back to jewelry producers that closed much longer ago. While a visitor is not provided with exhibitions as they may expect to see at a museum, the factories offer a genuine glimpse of a past era.
Neighboring the renowned Jewellery Quarter, are the historical cemeteries of Warstone Lane and Key Hill. The Key Hill cemetery was established in 1836 by residents who wanted to ensure that free church ministers could have the opportunity preside over burials not associated with the church. While you cannot no longer arrange to be buried at these landmarks, you can wander amongst the peaceful markers of past residents. Guided tours are also available for visitors who want to dig deeper into understanding the history of the area.
Existence in an industrial city of Victorian times was severe and often dangerous. Consequently Key Hill and Warstone Lane cemeteries stayed quite busy during this time. The majority of factory workers were fortunate to even reach their fortieth birthday and odds were against even surviving childhood. Many businesses specializing in undertaking were established during this period, many funerals were intricate productions that consisted of horse pulled coaches, decorative feathers and fragrant flowers.
Such populated resting places have long been identified as the source of ghostly occurences.
A young female image has been reported on multiple occasions in the vicinity of the cemeteries. The woman appears as a grey figure who is dressed 1930’s era clothes, and has been recounted to walk or float through walls. Some sightings also include a lingering scent of arsenic, which was used in abundance in the history of the Jewellery Quarter.
The shadowy figure of a young man wearing an army trench coat has been spotted near the catacombs. The unknown phantom is said to have engaged in a conversion with a passerby. It is reported that during this encounter a cemetery visitor sought shelter in the catacombs during a storm where he engaged in a short conversation with an old fashioned looking, ghostly image. But as the downpour cleared and the visitor departed the catacombs, there was not even a trace of the young man he had spoken to. It was as if the young man had never even been there.
The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was launched over a century ago, and during this time it has come to protect and display more than 500,000 artifacts. On display a visitor can view a vast collection of items ranging from Renaissance art to ancient Middle Eastern riches.
In one of Birmingham’s fine buildings, is The Barber Institute of Fine Arts. This remarkable establishment boasts paintings by many masters of art including Monet, Picasso and Van Gogh.
St Paul’s Gallery is a significant stop for all music fans, for it is home to biggest and most complete (and still expanding) compilation of album cover art releases autographed by legendary musicians including David Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.
Another notable visitor attraction is The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. With free admission, it is a top destination of the area.