Thursday, April 23, 2009

Brum. Bling.

Damn and blast. Wot kind of fule am I? I'm standing in one of the most interesting places I've stood in for simply ages, I want to record my visit and the camera is dead in my hand. The battery is flat. We will not be taking photographs today.

We are visiting The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham - I've tagged along on the local Art Group's spring expedition. I do like A Day Out and this seems promising.

The Museum is on Vyse Street, about 20 minutes stroll from the vibrant retail centre of the city. That's an impression to bear in mind because having passed through the Museum's smart frontage and been tempted by the ubiquitous gift shop one steps back in time - back into Birmingham's grimy past. Back into a dusty workshop. Birmingham is often described as a city of a 1001 trades - jewellery-making was but one, and manufacturers congregated in a cluster of streets around Warstone Lane. Jewellery-making was, of course, made up of many trades in its own right - each man or woman would specialise in one facet of production. It is estimated that at its peak of production in 1914 there were around 20,000 workers employed in the trade.

In 1976 Olive Smith - 'Miss Olive' - drew a line under the final entry in the company ledger and her brother Tom Smith turned the key of the works on Vyse Street for the last time, thus ending over 80 years of production on the site. The company was Smith and Pepper - founded by Tom and Olive's father Charles Smith and his associate Edwin Pepper. Their companies 'S&P' mark was registered in 1899. For nearly a century Smith and Pepper manufactured small gold items; gold bangles, brooches, cufflinks, lockets and crosses. By the mid 20th century the company was in decline - modern safety legislation, production methods and competition from overseas tolled the death knell for Smith and Pepper and many other manufacturers like them. It finally closed in 1981 and the premises remained virtually undisturbed for nearly a decade.

Did 'Mr Tom' recognise the value of preserving a slice of Birmingham life? I believe it had been his wish that the Museum service should take over the works and indeed, in 1996, the site opened as one of the City's museums. To enter the door is to enter another world - tools and equipment are lying where they were left on the factory's last day and in Miss Olive's office the tea making stuff and jars of Marmite still await the next brew time.

This a Good place - I want to potter, open drawers, pull levers, slice, punch and polish. Alan however is the only one to speak out and get his hands-on. He drills a neat little hole with an Archimedes drill - and would be drilling yet if there was not more processes to be told about, more stages in this guided tour. The show must go on etc. It occurs to me afterwards that in the entire factory tour we have not seen a complete piece of jewellery - perhaps few of the workers here ever did either. The finished products, pickled and polished, made to order, were sent upstairs to 'Miss Olive's' Office by dumb waiter for package and despatch. In stout brown card boxes they went into the world (pink-Empire-wide then) to adorn the breasts and wrists of maids and matrons or to secure cuff and tie of gent and geezer. Buttons, bracelets, bangles.....lockets, lucky charms.

I have a personal interest - a grandfather, George Cross, born and bred in Hockley - the jewellery quarter. His whose working life I had heard about, second hand, from my father; that's eye-glasses, benches, dust, silver and gold....His early working life was no doubt spent learning his trade in and around Warstone Lane but latterly he worked for Henry Griffiths and Sons - probably in Leamington Spa - and we have such sweet little silver thimbles made by his company, napkin rings and buttons as momentoes too. To us children it always sounded such a...well, glamorous life. Jewellery would, wouldn't it? It took Wednesday's visit to dispel any illusions of that - having seen a contemporary workplace I'm not so sure. .

George was a son of Sam Cross, a Shropshire lead miner from hereabouts - who, with his wife Harriet, upped sticks and went to Brum in search of employment when the bottom fell out of lead. Young George married Alice from London, whose family was in the jewellery business too...was her father really a diamond dealer? Lead, silver, gold - diamonds, all precious stuff.

They are special because they are my grandparents but in the scheme of things I now realise they were but part of a huge industry. For me a thought provoking visit. A great little museum anyway. Go visit.


Rachel said...

What an interesting trip! Birmingham is largely unknown to me, mainly because when I worked the journey across from Newcastle was pure aversion therapy, smelly, slow, dirty trains, and incredibly dull meetings to endure before the horror of the return journey. Maybe I should try again, though not by public transport!

Friko said...

Hi there, mountainear,
just browsing.
I live close to the Powys border on the English side.
I shall have to follow your blog to find out how others cope with the rural seclusion. After eleven years here I still hanker after the fleshpots and the big city.