A Letter to Elise

Posted on 28th September 2010

The Jewellery Quarter has always held a lot of history within its streets and buildings, but having worked around the area for a few years, I completely missed some of that history. Although I knew of Warstone Lane Cemetery, The Agent Centre, The Chamerlain Clock and of the older buildings, I'd never really looked up their history. Last week I discovered that Birmingham had catacombs, and they had been right under my nose in Warstone Cemetery all this time. As such, I thought it might be interesting to take some time to look up some more history of the area.

After only a few minutes, I decided that Dan and I should take a photo tour of The Jewellery Quarter, and pick out some highlights. Our first stop was at Northwood Street, which was once home to tw2, the web design company I started working at in 1999. We then went around the corner into Regent Place, along to the building now occupied by D&F. From 1777-1790 there stood a large house where James Watt once lived. Not only did he live here, but in partnership with Matthew Boulton, he also worked here too, and produce many of his most famous inventions here. Around the corner is the school that is now part of Birmingham University, but still today concentrates on teaching pupils the art of sliversmith and jewellery making.

Although many of the factories have been replaced over the years, many still hold the history of the trades of a bygone era. One such trade was the making of pen nibs for fountain pens. Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter was once the highest producer of pen nibs in the world, and its decline only came more recently, due to the mass production of László Bíró's invention by Bic. However, The Pen Room in the Argent Centre still exists to preserve the history. As you enter, you walk into a room instantly full of history. Around the walls on the left are various packages and pens, with the centre given way to cases of exhibits. On the right are some of the old machines used to make the pen nibs. On a quiet day the staff are more than happy to give you a demostration, although they can only perform 5 steps of the process, as the other 12 require machines too large to fit in the room, as well as time to perform them. Dan got to punch out the metal and stamp it to begin the process, and got to keep the results. He was quite impressed to realise that all those years ago, children the same age as himself were producing all these nibs. Of the stamping process 28,000 per worker were cut from the sheet metal.

Next we were shown some of the braille machines that were also produced in Birmingham, with Dan getting to spell his name in braille on the ticker type machines. After the demonstrations, we were lead into the second room, full of typewriters, pen nibs and other exhibits, with the opportunity to try some of the typewriters, as well as try writing with some of the pens. A member of staff took out an old German typewriter that was very unique as the characters were all on a single barrel, and the letters chosen via a metal pointer attached to the barrel, and pointing at the letters on a curved pad. A very unusual typewriter, and I should have taken a photo, as I can't find anything like it online. Looking at some of the other exhibits, it is surprising to discover just how much an impact the pen industry had on Birmingham (as well as the world), with many pioneers having been since commorated with street names, mounments and buildings. Josiah Mason, John Baskerville and Joseph Gillott to name a few.

Across from The Pen Room was Joseph Gillott's Victoria Works, and is one of a few factories that can still be seen, the Argent Centre itself (previously the Albert Works) being one too. Incidentally the Argent Centre at one point was also a Turkish Baths. Another bit of history I discovered, is that the stories of 'Rip Van Winkle' and 'The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow' were actually written in a house, whose grounds covered the corner of Legge Lane and Frederick Street. The house survived even after the Argent Centre was built in front of it, to occupy the corner itself. Further up Frederick Street is the factory of Thomas Fattorini Ltd, who moved to Birmingham from Italy, via Skipton, and was renowned for making medals and badges. I used to walk past these buildings every day when I worked at The Big Peg, and although I often took the time to take in the grand designs of the buildings, I really wished I'd taken more interest at the time. I'd have probably spent most lunchtimes walking around with a camera :)

We then entered the central part of the Jewellery Quarter, by the Chamberlain Clock and Aquinas House. From here we walked across the road to the Warstone Lane Cemetery Lodge, and to The War Stone. The former is not something I'd really paid attention to before, and the latter I never knew was there. From here we walked into the cemetery. In the central part of the cemetery are the catacombs. Above them originally stood St Michael's Church, which has long since gone. From images and drawings the cemetery was meant to be viewed from the Icknield Street entrance, with the catacombs appearing to be leading into the church. However, the abundance of trees these days hides a large part of this viw now. The catacombs were once used from protection in WWII, but have now all been boarded up, although some had already been closed with upright headstones. A link to our visit to The Pen Room is John Baskerville who is buried here. Although I didn't find his gravestone, there is a sort of memorial to him.

As we were planning to spend all day wandering around, we walked back and drove around some of the other places, such as Icknield Street School. Next time we'll take some time to visit the Key Hill Cemetery, which is just the otherside of the train station, and holds many famous Birmingham history makers, including Alfred Bird the inventory of egg-free custard, of which the Custard Factory is named (and perhaps another tour some day). Another place we'll visit is the Jewellery Museum at the top end of Vyse Street, as well as taking in more of the buildings in and around St Paul's Square, including The Assay Office, the biggest in the world.

One of Dan's fascinations of the day was the BT Tower. So as we headed back home, I stopped at the base so he could take a picture. Opposite we discovered the building that is St John's Ambulance Headquarters, which I've probably walked past several hundred times and never really noticed. Just goes to show what you can be missing when just walking through the streets of the town where you live.

It was a great dayout, and a good reminder that discovering history is only a short step away from your own doorstep. And it doesn't need to cost a fortune either.

If you're interested in the area, and perhaps doing a similar walking tour, I thoroughly recommend reading The Walk by Bob Miles, as well as the additional material Bob has assembled over the years. I wished I'd read more of it before setting out on our trip, and I'll definitely be using it for the bits we missed when we visit the area next time.

Comments

Jewellery Quarter,

Sounds like a great day out - I'll have to take Louis one day

Posted by Dave Le Marchand on Tuesday, 18th January 2011


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