A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 7, the City of Birmingham. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1964.
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INDUSTRY AND TRADE, 1500-1880
1500-1640, p. 81. 1640-1760, p. 84. 1760-1840, p. 94. 1840-1880, p. 125.
The multiplicity of trades and of factories and workshops makes a minute description of Birmingham's industry difficult. At least for the later part of this period most trades and workplaces are recorded somewhere, if not in one of the extensive 19thcentury surveys, (fn. 1) then in a directory. In rate books and directories manufacturers' names, too, have probably survived, at least for recent times. It is not possible here, however, to make a comprehensive survey of all these matters, while to concentrate on large firms only would deflect attention from the smaller undertakings which were the source of the bulk of employment and wealth. What has been attempted here is an analysis of the principal features of Birmingham's industrial growth at various times within the period, and some guide to the literature on the subject. (fn. 2) In the case of many industries a division between Birmingham and the Black Country is, of course, entirely artificial, and to understand these reference should be made to the works of G. C. Allen and W. H. B. Court, which treat the conurbation as a whole.
Industry, which in the 17th century was the predominant factor in Birmingham's prosperity, was already important in the 16th. The leather industry may then have been organized for manufacturing and trading purposes, for the merchants and craftsmen possessed a 'leather-hall' and controlled inspecting officers. (fn. 3) In 1553 there were at least a dozen tanyards and one Robert Elesmore had rights to a 'water course' which apparently served him to wash the skins he used in his tanner's business. (fn. 4) When Leland visited the town in about 1538 he seems to have overlooked the fulling mills and tanneries, noticing only the more obvious shops of the smiths. Yet at that time the cloth and leather trades were probably still more important than the iron industry. (fn. 5)
Nevertheless the growing significance of iron manufacture is reflected in his description of the town's cutlers and smiths 'that use to make knives and all maner of cuttynge tooles and many lorimars that make byts, and a great many naylors. So that a great parte of the town is mayntayned by smithes'. (fn. 6) By the time of the survey of 1553 the industrial balance had shifted further from leather and cloth to the metal-using occupations. In that year some of the King family were still fullers, but one at least was an ironmonger, providing iron for smiths and nailers. (fn. 7) Roger Pemberton, named in the survey, was a goldsmith manufacturing for a distant market, who married a wife from a family of ironmongers, and himself became ancestor of a rich family of ironmongers. (fn. 8)
Later in the century when Camden visited the town he found it 'echoing with forges, most of the inhabitants being iron-manufacturers', (fn. 9) and William Smith noted the town as 'Bromicham-where great store of knyves are made; for almost all the townes men are cutlers, or smithes'. (fn. 10)
The reasons for the rise of the metal industries in the town are complex. During the Middle Ages Birmingham had not stood out from its neighbours as an industrial centre, for other Midland villages shared its geographical advantages. During the 16th century, however, industries which one would expect to find located on the coal outcrops to the north and west of Birmingham were moving south and east in search of water-power. (fn. 11) The furnaces where iron was smelted needed a great deal of fuel, and could not be far from wood so that they are not found nearer the town than Aston and Perry Barr. (fn. 12) But the forges, where iron was prepared for the smith or the nailer, needed water-power, and so we find the valley of the Tame growing in importance. Such a forge is mentioned at Bromford in 1605 (fn. 13) and another at Handsworth. (fn. 14) Although the smith and the nailer needed less fuel than the smelter, they could not easily exist more than a day's run by wagon from their fuel-in this case coal could be used, which, unlike wood, was plentiful in the vicinity.
The combination of iron ore, coal outcrops, and pure water was to be found elsewhere, yet, except at Sheffield, similar development did not take place during this period, and there must have been other reasons for the development of Birmingham's metal industry. The causes of the growth of the town generally have been discussed above (fn. 15) and some no doubt apply here. In particular, freedom from the control of any guild or corporation may have encouraged enterprise. (fn. 16) Tradesmen could change their occupations or follow more than one. A deed of 1573 relating to a house in Moor Street lists among its trustees three ironmongers, a fuller, two mercers, and a smith. (fn. 17) Probably many of these people carried on more than one trade. Premises, too, changed their purpose. When the tanyards decayed they were often used in the textile trades and even in the preparation of iron. Possibly, too, the leather industry gave rise to specialization in the manufacture of saddles which in turn encouraged the local production of the ironmongery necessary to complete the horse's harness.
At all events as the 16th century progressed we find an increasing concentration of metalworkers around Birmingham. This was heaviest around the old town centre at Digbeth and Deritend, but we find similar occupations elsewhere. There were scythesmiths at Aston, (fn. 18) Bordesley, and Erdington, (fn. 19) a flecher at Yardley, (fn. 20) and, a little later, a bladesmith at Witton. (fn. 21) Nailers and wheelers were common at King's Norton. (fn. 22) In the account of the Birmingham mills given elsewhere, (fn. 23) it will be noted that before the end of the 16th century many former corn mills were used in metal trades and new blade or hammer mills established. One of these was the hammer mill at Holford, (fn. 24) and the town's main mill, the Malt Mill, also later became a blade mill. (fn. 25) There was at least one bucklemaker, Robert Collyns, who lived in the English Market and died in 1555. (fn. 26) Two nailers are recorded at Handsworth, and another at Ridgeacre in Harborne. The inventory of one of these nailers included, besides his bellows, hammers, and other implements, 'a burden of steele' (fn. 27) -so he may have made other things besides nails. The Aston scythesmith who died in 1548 had also left 'yron and stele', so he too may have made other things besides scythes; and Thomas Fitter of Bordesley left his 'plating anfyld' to his godson, though he mentioned that another man was working at it. (fn. 28) The words suggest more complex processes than forging scythe blades. Camden's 'echoing forges' produced a wide range of goods.
There is evidence that Birmingham men sold arms in Ireland before the end of the 16th century. (fn. 29) This was not the task of the makers but the middlemen: the ironmongers, so frequently mentioned, sold not only the bar iron to the smiths but the finished product to the customers. There were two great concentrations of such people in England: in London, where they formed a powerful corporate body, and in Birmingham, where they were free from control. There was much rivalry between the two centres at a later stage, but in 1600 the Birmingham men, close to the supply of raw materials and manufacturers, manifestly held their own against the Londoners, who were close to the final consumer. By 1625 the greatest of the Birmingham ironmongers, John Jennens, was in partnership with his brother Ambrose, who marketed the product in London. (fn. 30) In 1600, however, such distant outlets were still the exception rather than the rule. What few records there are seem to point mostly to a local connexion in the Midland counties. (fn. 31) As we should expect, not all the 100 or 200 producers in Birmingham at the end of the 16th century showed the degree of enterprise characteristic of the founders of the great commercial and industrial dynasties. (fn. 32) Many of them combined husbandry with trade and might succeed in neither. (fn. 33) Nevertheless, the rise of families like the Pembertons and the Jennenses was of crucial importance to Birmingham, since they trained their numerous relations and employees and, in their travels, widened the town's commercial contacts. The will of William Jennens, who settled in Birmingham in the middle of the 16th century and died in 1602, showed him to have accumulated considerable possessions in his lifetime. (fn. 34) The will of the first John Jennens (1651) mentions Aston forges and furnaces; (fn. 35) Aston was probably started about 1615. (fn. 36) By 1650 the family was involved in a number of partnerships, as appears from a law case of 1646. (fn. 37) Apart from the London venture with Ambrose, with a capital of several thousand pounds, there was the Birmingham ironmongery business as well as the Aston and Bromford works. John Jennens's son Humphrey carried on the tradition and, before 1700, the family was amongst the most considerable landowners in Warwickshire (fn. 38) and, in the 18th century, provided the country with two millionaires, one of whom, dying intestate, brought the family national fame. These Jennenses, living in great style at Erdington Hall, (fn. 39) were clearly the social equals of the greatest local families, like the Colmores and the Sheltons, and it may be partly this atmosphere which accounts for Birmingham's success. The man of ability, whatever his trade, could rise to the top of local society and his children would marry into the aristocracy. We shall return to this topic when we consider religious freedom. (fn. 40)
How did these men acquire their capital? The traditional story has it, of course, that they were small men at first, who saved and scraped. Indeed, not much was required for a start. All the tools of one of the Handsworth nailers previously mentioned were valued at 4s., his stock of steel at 6s. The much more lavishly equipped workshop of a scythesmith, who had other property besides, could not account for much out of his total assets of less than £80. Yet this process of slow accumulation cannot explain the trading capital of the Jennenses. In the case of families with only an indirect place in this history, like the Pagets and the Foleys, landownership and mining help to explain their wealth. We can only guess that some of the exceptional opportunities in the arms trade, especially to Ireland, provide the answer. A London cutler's protest against 'Bromedgham blades' in 1637 indicates that such articles were nationally known by that time. (fn. 41) From later evidence, one would also assume that there was a certain amount of lending by those who owned land to those who worked in trade. The income of families like the Wyrleys, who owned water rights, (fn. 42) depended on industrial activity and they might well help to finance trade. Where, as in the case of the Willoughbys, the ironmakers themselves were landowners, they probably also financed the operations of their customers (who, in the 1580s, included the Smallbrooks and the Kings) by giving credit for the bar iron they supplied. The same people also drew iron from the estates of the fugitive Thomas, Lord Paget. (fn. 43) In turn, the merchants to whom the final product was sold might act as bankers to the small man.
The difficulty of accumulating enough capital for large-scale operations, the shortage of fuel for smelting, the absence of roads and navigable waterways and, indeed, the lack of an expanding market, amounted to a set of obstacles hard to surmount. There is no real evidence that, a hundred years after the 1553 survey, activities were on any very considerably larger scale. A notice of the town in 1627 (fn. 44) was not in radically different terms from Leland's. Trades were perhaps a little more diversified. Most of the deeds and wills we possess still speak of tanners and smiths and nailers before 1650. The first locksmith made his appearance in 1610 (fn. 45) - and that was not to be a large Birmingham trade. In the same year there was a bellowsmaker; (fn. 46) but that must have been an old occupation. In 1648 there is mention of a paper-mill at Perry Barr. (fn. 47) Perhaps the first real evidence we have of a larger scale of operations is the emergence of specialist subdivisions of trades, like the two grinders, one in Aston, who are mentioned in an indenture of 1654. (fn. 48) This refers to Holford Mill in Handsworth, and all its waterworks 'belonging thereto when the same was a furnace or ironworks in the occupation of Thomas Foley'. (fn. 49) Not until the hearth tax returns of 1663 (see below) can we point to any substantial widening of the field. The decisive change seems to have come with the Civil War, if not because of it.
There can be little doubt that the demand for arms caused by the Civil War benefited Birmingham. The tradition is that one Robert Porter (who certainly had a blademill) supplied the parliamentary forces with 15,000 swords and was punished by Prince Rupert, when he sacked the town in 1643, by having his mill pulled down. (fn. 50) But there were numerous other mills of this kind in the area and the trade flourished. Holford Mill was certainly producing blades in 1654. (fn. 51) It is noticeable how many of the Birmingham blade mills figure in leases for the first time in the period round 1650, suggesting some competition for their tenure. (fn. 52)
Some idea of the distribution of trades after the Restoration may be gained from the analysis of the hearth tax returns. (fn. 53) There were still eleven identifiable tanners and a few textile workers. The largest clue to trades consists of the 178 smiths' hearths returned in 1683, (fn. 54) although these may have served many different occupations. There was only one sword cutler so termed but there were 11 other cutlers, 2 grinders, a hiltmaker, 3 bladesmiths, a long cutler, a short cutler, and a sheathmaker, and any of these might have produced swords or, by 1663, ploughshares. In 1710 there was a razor-grinder in Edgbaston Street. (fn. 55)
There were also 2 bucklemakers, a scalemaker, a pewterer, 2 bellowsmakers, 8 ironmongers, 2 nailers, 5 locksmiths, a wiredrawer, (fn. 56) an ironfounder, and a man occupied in soldering and leadwork. But since most inhabitants are not, in fact, positively identifiable, we have to treat this list as a sample of trends rather than a census. There is other evidence for some of these occupations at this time. Pewterware of undoubted 17th-century origin bears a Birmingham mark. (fn. 57) At least one Birmingham locksmith of the period achieved a national reputation (fn. 58) and there were several others. (fn. 59) The principal new trade of the late 17th century, however, was gunmaking. We have little direct evidence concerning the Hadley family, who are said to have been the first important makers. (fn. 60) Documentary proof begins only with the intercession by Sir Richard Newdigate, of Arbury, on behalf of the Birmingham musketmakers, which secured them important government contracts. (fn. 61) By 1692, as the Company of Gunmakers of Birmingham, they had clearly a reputation and a corporate organization, (fn. 62) which suggests that they had been practising their craft for some time. They could undertake to make 200 muskets a month and to have them proved at Birmingham according to the Tower proof. By 1707 they were feeling important enough to complain of the competition of the London gunmakers and to threaten national well-being with the removal of 400 men to 'some other nation' if nothing was done for them. (fn. 63) Here again, we have a case of capital being provided by a landowner, for Newdigate, when the gunmakers were short of ready cash in 1696, advanced them £700 on the security of their output. (fn. 64) Apart from the original makers listed in the 1693 contract (William Bourne, Thomas Moore, John West, Richard Weston and Jacob Austin), we find repeated mention of Samuel Vaughton from 1707. (fn. 65) Some specialization was introduced at an early stage. There was, for example, a gunbarrel maker in 1708. (fn. 66) The 1693 contract specified engraved locks and brass components, and no doubt these would be the products of specialists. We know little about the fate of the trade after the end of the war period in 1713 but the skill continued. The leading maker in 1730 is reported to have been one Jordan. (fn. 67) One of John Wyatt's backers in his experiments with a file-cutting machine (fn. 68) was a gunmaker called Richard Heeley (c. 1732).
The diversification of metal products can be traced more exactly early in the 18th century. The existence of braziers testifies to the manufacture of seamed or jointed goods. (fn. 69) A candlestickmaker is mentioned in 1729, (fn. 70) and the number of founders or casters, including bell-founders, was on the increase. (fn. 71) By 1733 there was a gearmaker, (fn. 72) and, although he probably made only wooden gear for mills, he would use quantities of iron nails, pins, and sheathing. A smoothing-iron maker emerges in 1721 (fn. 73) and a tiresmith in 1725. (fn. 74) The mention of the tiremaker is significant as coinciding with a well-attested increase in interest in road transport. (fn. 75) Richard Baddeley of Old Square, who was the first Birmingham man to hold a patent for an invention, was concerned in 1722 with the making of 'streaks' for binding cart and wagon wheels and for smoothing irons made of pig iron. (fn. 76) Baddeley is variously described as an ironmonger and a gunsmith and had a furnace at Rushall (Staffs.). Local supplies did not meet the needs of all these trades and we know that the ironmongers had to look further afield to augment the supplies coming from north Warwickshire, south Staffordshire, and the lower Stour valley. Even Sweden and the American colonies were beginning to supply the Midlands with iron (fn. 77) and by 1757 petitions testify to the importance of this source of supply. (fn. 78) Whereas the makers of bits and stirrups and of relatively expensive steel toys required only small quantities of metal, any shortage of raw material would place the nailers and the founders of grates, patten rings, and other mass-produced goods in much greater difficulties. In 1726 the heavy traffic in iron and coal in Digbeth was causing comment (fn. 79) - but the 1,000 tons of pig iron and 500 tons of bar iron produced in Warwickshire in 1717 would scarcely have been enough to cause this or provide working materials for all Birmingham. Thus we find Swedish iron as raw material for Kettle's steelhouses (fn. 80) and, when Swedish supplies temporarily failed, we read of the first attempts to increase American production. Joseph Farmer, the Lloyds' predecessor as tenant of the old Digbeth corn mill which his family converted into a slitting mill for nailers' iron, went to Virginia in 1718 to try to increase the supply. (fn. 81) In Sweden, as in America, timber for charcoal was plentiful and, although by this time Abraham Darby knew how to smelt iron with coke, the secret was clearly not communicated to the ironmasters round Birmingham, for the evidence points to stagnating or even declining production at a time when demand was clearly increasing. (fn. 82) On the other hand, the rationalization of raw material supplies, with the opening of trade routes and improvement of transport, was in itself an incentive to production on a larger scale.
One good example of this increase in the scale of production was the nailing industry, then still located in Birmingham proper, though by the end of the century being driven further westwards. We have noticed nailers in various parts of the present city area in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nails were invariably hand made, one at a time, at least until 1780 and increased production was only achieved by specialization and the extensive use of female and juvenile labour. The iron was prepared by rolling the heavy bars into sheets and then slitting the thin sheet into rods which, in turn, were rolled into rods of the gauge required for the particular nail. The rods were cut and headed and pointed by the nailer at his domestic forge. Technically the most complex operation was slitting, and in the 18th century there was an increase in slitting mills compared with blade mills. Thus Nechells Park Mill which, produced blades in the time of Thomas Banks and during the 17th century, was a slitting mill by 1746-7. (fn. 83) Farmer's slitting mill had been Porter's blade mill and was then used for corn grinding. (fn. 84) There are many similar examples of this change of use. (fn. 85) The rolling process was also used to produce sections other than nailers' rods and, apart from those associated with slitting mills, we have evidence of other rolling mills (fn. 86) multiplying in the earlier part of the 18th century. We have already notices of wiredrawers in the previous century: these were probably the first to use rollers for sections, whereas the slitting mills used broad rollers for sheets, either for fabrication or for the cutting of blanks by stamping and pressing. When these trades became more important later, both water and then steam-driven rolling mills were erected in all parts of the Midlands.
Of the nail trade itself, we have few records. The individual establishment was, and remained, very small indeed, practically all the production being on a family scale. The nailers were, in the 17th century as in the 19th, the poorest and most despised of all workers. In the teeth of uninterrupted poverty generations clung to the trade which offered mere survival in good times and starvation in bad. In 1655, John Sanders of Harborne, who was himself an ironmonger and knew his local nailers well, appealed to them to co-operate in a strike against the 'Egyptian Taskmasters' (the ironmongers) who exploited the helpless small men. (fn. 87) Richard Baxter, thirty years later, also characterized the iron-workers as living in poverty but included not only nailers but different sorts of smiths and thought their poverty was to be preferred to the insecurity of the small husbandman - a view which would hardly have commended itself to most observers, especially in later ages. (fn. 88) The nailers were frequently in debt to the ironmonger for their raw materials and entirely dependent on them for their sales. Fortunately for the well-being of the population of the town of Birmingham, nail-making practically disappeared from the inner area by the end of the 18th century. The reasons for this change are not entirely clear but probably W. H. B. Court is correct in thinking that the existence of alternative, more lucrative skilled occupations in Birmingham itself left nailing to poorer areas on the fringes. (fn. 89)
These alternative occupations, as we have seen, were multiplying in Birmingham. Already, early in the century, a traveller in Northern Italy commented on the 'fine wares of rock crystal, swords, heads for canes, snuff boxes, and other fine works of steel' which he had seen in Milan, by remarking, in the margin, that these things were to be had better and cheaper at Birmingham and London. The order is significant. (fn. 90) In 1754 a dictionary of the arts and sciences, under the heading 'Birmingham Hardware Men', defined Birmingham wares as 'all sorts of tools, smaller utensils, toys, buckles, buttons, in iron, steel, brass, etc.' (fn. 91) The author mentioned that such things were made in London and Sheffield as well, but clearly their home was in Birmingham, with its thousands of artisans, mostly in the smiths' and cutlers' trades. The remark that those who would be apprenticed to such trades should be skilled in writing, arithmetic, and book-keeping is worth noting. The typical Birmingham artisan was a very different creature from the poor nailer at his forge.
One of the characteristics of this new trade was the need for other raw materials besides iron. Steel was required for all ornamental work which could not be allowed to rust and was often required to sparkle. By the end of the 17th century some steel was made in south Staffordshire (fn. 92) but, early in the 18th, at least two steel houses were set up in Birmingham, both shown in Westley's plan of 1731: (fn. 93) Kettle's in Steelhouse Lane and Carless's in Coleshill Street, opposite Stafford Street. Similarly, brass was being used increasingly both for ornaments and for domestic utensils and we find it locally produced on a large scale for the first time in Turner's brasshouse, c. 1740, (fn. 94) replacing the uncertain and expensive supplies previously brought from Bristol (fn. 95) and Cheadle. The first brass foundry as such comes to our notice in 1715 (fn. 96) using, no doubt, imported brass. One of the partners in this venture was Walter Tippin, whose products included both candlesticks and Jews' harps of which, it is said, he sent away a waggon-load a day. (fn. 97) His partner, Henry Carver, purchased a blade mill in Northfield in 1727 from Alice Lloyd, presumably for the rolling of brass for wrought rather than cast articles. (fn. 98)
John Laight is mentioned in an indenture of 1740 (fn. 99) as a silversmith but it is most likely that the material was extensively used in the manufacture of trinkets by the toymakers, like Boulton's father. Its chief use, in plating, did not begin seriously until Matthew Boulton's own Soho days. The goldsmiths are less and less in evidence: the trade concentrated on London, leaving Birmingham the doubtful honour of trying to make a grain or two cover a large article. The Pembertons, still mentioned as goldsmiths in 1634, (fn. 100) made more out of iron than they had done out of gold and Richard Grene of the Old Crown House, Deritend, was apprenticed to a London goldsmith, becoming a freeman in 1666. (fn. 101)
Entrepreneurs and Capital
The increasing activities of the town were matched by a rising population. (fn. 102) This may have been partly due to natural increase but there must also have been immigration on a large scale. Some of the immigrants were already men of means and brought with them new manufactures or trade openings. The pewterers' trade, though existing in Birmingham in the previous century, had been mainly in Bewdley but it returned to Birmingham. (fn. 103) Meyer Oppenheim, or Opnaim, clearly a Jew of German origin, who had taken out a patent for the manufacture of coloured glass in London in 1755, was granted a further monopoly for a similar invention in 1770. His works were in Snow Hill. (fn. 104) John Wyatt came in from the Lichfield area to work at his spinning machine and allied himself with Lewis Paul, of Huguenot descent. The Lloyds had been Quaker farmers in north Wales and had established an ironworks at Dolobran (Montgomery) about 1720. The first of them, Sampson (I), brother-in-law to Sir Ambrose Crawley and John Pemberton, settled in Birmingham in 1699 and soon had a flourishing business. The Lloyds later took over the Farmers' slitting mill. (fn. 105) The Hallens or Hollands, a Dutch family, settled in Birmingham and started making brass frying pans early in the 18th century. (fn. 106)
What brought these people to Birmingham? There are several explanations, none of them sufficient in themselves. The favourite theory points out that Birmingham was not a corporate town, that it was free from privilege and restrictions and tolerant to dissenters. Already in 1702 Thomas Bladon eulogized Birmingham in a treatise intended to show that 'where there is no parish church there are no schisms'. (fn. 107) This idea has been echoed frequently down the ages. But it has also been pointed out (fn. 108) that the main immigration into Birmingham began after the Toleration Act was already on the statute book and that Birmingham did not have an unusually high proportion of dissenters. Groups like the Quakers were proportionately less strong in Birmingham than in the smaller towns of Warwickshire. Taken by itself, freedom from corporate control is also of doubtful importance since the same conditions obtained in countless other towns in the Midlands and the North. But it is also one of the oldest explanations of Birmingham's growth. (fn. 109) The place did encourage experiment, however, not for the negative reason that there were no restrictions on innovations, but for the positive one that it had highly skilled workmen who could turn their hand to anything and because it contained a certain number of wealthy people who were prepared to take risks. Thus John Wyatt, having been born near the town, found there his backers for his spinning rollers, his file-cutting machine and his weighing apparatus, as well as men who could construct the models and provide the parts. His backers included a gunmaker, a bookseller and, later, Boulton himself. (fn. 110) Spinning in Birmingham had little future (though Wyatt himself worked at it in the Upper Priory for some time), but the improved file found a market and the weighing machine came into operation in the town and elsewhere, no doubt partly owing to the stimulus of the 1741 Turnpike Act which made it necessary to find out the weight of waggons. (fn. 111)
Samuel Garbett, wishing to begin the manufacture of acid to aid the refining of precious metals, found capital and scientific associates and in the end gained great wealth and fame. Sampson Lloyd (II), banker and merchant rather than ironmonger, took as a partner the rich buttonmaker, John Taylor, and was able to draw on his numerous Quaker relations, just as his father had allied himself to dynasties of wealthy ironmasters and traders. One of the most characteristic aspects of this enterprising society is the fact that so many men changed their trade or pursued more than one line at a time, (fn. 112) an important prerequisite for new ventures.
Under such conditions a man could make his way in the world and this must have been the chief attraction Birmingham possessed. Samuel Garbett, his apprentice Patrick Downey, and John Baskerville - such were the self-made heroes of the industrial revolution, moving visitors to admiration in 1760. (fn. 113) They were the subjects of Samuel Smiles's biographies a hundred years later. They lived in beautiful houses and had a suitable interest in science and the arts, even if, like Baskerville, they still preferred to receive their visitors in their kitchens. (fn. 114) If Hutton's analysis of wealth and income in 1783 is any guide, there were by then 209 people in a town of 50,000 inhabitants who were worth more than £5,000 and of these 103 'began the world with nothing but their own prudence' and 35 had insignificant capital. (fn. 115) This was no obstacle: money could be borrowed; informally, before 1765, after that date, at Taylor and Lloyds' Bank. But one of the earliest coffin-furniture manufacturers, Mole, borrowed capital from another brassfounder to break into the London trade, was successful and then had to leave the rewards to others since his creditor foreclosed on him and took the business himself. (fn. 116)
An analysis of 715 immigrants into Birmingham who reached the town with certificates under the Settlement Acts shows that 90 per cent. of them came from within a radius of twenty miles and, indeed, more than a quarter were not really migrants, having formerly lived in other parishes of what now constitutes the city of Birmingham. (fn. 117) Only 26 came from London. Their occupations, where they are known, show no startling difference from the Birmingham pattern. But this analysis hardly throws much light on the significance of the immigration. It is likely that those who did most to further the economic life of the city came without certificates. (fn. 118) The poor men who came in from the agricultural districts or from the main nailing areas in years of distress were, at first, mere unskilled labour, though they might learn a new trade. At any rate, there is no suggestion in the records that the town was short of labour, for the differential (documented in Arthur Young's time) between the level of wages in the town and in places less than twenty miles away in the country, was too great to be resisted by the poor law. (fn. 119) On the other hand, there were no periods of prolonged general distress: already by 1750, the diversity of trades was such that temporary setbacks in one sector were easily compensated by another. The trade cycle had hardly made itself felt. Wars, on the whole, benefited the town. In the 1745 rebellion swords were clearly made for both sides (fn. 120) and the Seven Years' War brought a great increase in the activities of the gunsmiths.
Apprenticeship was used in some trades but not, in the strict sense of the word, in others: many small masters, themselves not particularly qualified in any recognized trade, took on as many young lads as they could use. Women were used extensively by 1750. In Taylor's button manufactory, women preponderated and, as lighter trades and repetition work expanded, so did the employment of men tend more and more in the direction of skilled work only. We have seen John Barrow's recommendation that those who would enter Birmingham trades should be educated moderately well.
Hutton, not having known Birmingham well in the first half of the 18th century, assumed that the local tradesmen always produced their goods and waited for itinerant merchants to take their stocks from them. (fn. 121) This was hardly the case. Considering the conditions of the roads, the local manufacturers and especially the wholesalers (ironmongers or factors, as they came to be called) travelled far and wide in search of their markets. One indication of the trend of things is in the local mercantile communities' preoccupation with the inadequacies of the postal services. The introduction of additional posts was a matter for press comment and rejoicing. (fn. 122) The frequency of the coach services was rapidly increasing after 1740. (fn. 123) Though communications, especially with the south, did not really improve greatly until the canal age, the increasing concentration of manufacturers on goods which were valuable in relation to their weight and size, enabled the town to have a world-wide market long before most other inland centres. (fn. 124) We have seen Joseph Farmer visiting America early in the century and it is difficult to imagine that the scale of Birmingham's exports to that continent was achieved without some later visits across the Atlantic by Birmingham men. (fn. 125) By 1765 any interruption of that commerce was likely to cause alarm. (fn. 126)
The African trade was also of importance, especially for firearms and the toys and trinkets that were exchanged for slaves. No evidence as to this trade survives from its Birmingham end, but in 1708, 1709, and 1711 petitions of Birmingham men against the threatened renewal of the monopoly of trade on the West coast of Africa, formerly the prerogative of the Royal Africa Company, prove that even then at least some of the local manufacturers depended in some measure on this outlet. (fn. 127) Not until 1713 was this danger finally past. Had the company retained its monopoly, it would have been the sole buyer of goods for the African market and thus been able to dictate prices. As it was, a large number of London merchants made their separate bargains with the slave traders. (fn. 128)
In Europe France was the chief market for Birmingham goods and this was to prove dangerous at the end of the century. (fn. 129) A tract of 1712 gives a list of British brass goods in demand in France and most of these were by then available from the Birmingham manufacturers. (fn. 130) In 1728 Defoe again emphasized the significance of brass and iron exports to all parts of western Europe and Italy. (fn. 131)
But it was the home market which really laid the foundations of Birmingham's wealth in the period before 1760. This fact is apt to be overlooked by those who like to explain the Industrial Revolution in terms of a colonial empire. There are clear indications that it was the increase of purchasing power in all sections of the British population in the 18th century which really explains the expansion of production. In the day of Defoe this market had still been reached by primitive means. Birmingham goods were displayed at the biannual Stourbridge Fair in Cambridgeshire - an uncertain and unrewarding outlet. (fn. 132)
The improvement in the marketing system came when the local ironmongers themselves went in search of new business. In 1719-20 we see one such man, Tobias Bellaers, travelling repeatedly to his native Stamford and into other parts of East Anglia and the East Midlands. (fn. 133) He distributed not only nails, as many of the original ironmongers did, but locks, coffin furniture, candlesticks, and that characteristic piece of equipment, in muddy England, the patten ring.
One of the difficulties of this kind of commerce was the fact that the heavier products of the town were difficult to carry about in a sample case. Hawkes Smith, describing past practices in 1836, mentioned ' "portable showrooms" long enclosed within the swollen receptacles of a pair of leather saddle bags'. (fn. 134) Gradually, however, a complete set came to weigh five cwt. and so resort was had to pattern books, cards, and models, although these modern devices were not widely introduced until the days of the Boulton and Fothergill partnership at Soho.
Meanwhile, a serious problem was beginning to affect the Birmingham trades: the shocking reputation of the locality. Selling by sample or pattern book is only possible where the customer implicitly trusts the maker. We know that Birmingham goods were, in fact, sold in London as products of the metropolis and this applied before the days of the proof-house and assay office, especially to guns and silverware. Though the reputable local makers objected to this practice it may have helped to sell their goods. Birmingham sword blades already had a bad name in 1637 (fn. 135) and Macaulay reported that in 1685 the spurious groats allegedly 'minted' in the town had given rise to a national gibe. (fn. 136) This reputation for coining continued into the 18th century and, indeed, provoked a royal proclamation on the subject in 1751. (fn. 137) It was an undeserved slur for Birmingham only supplied what was wanted generally. The whole country was swamped with unofficial money, for want of sufficient useful coinage from the royal mint. In other parts of the country the art of striking coins from dies was not well understood, whereas Birmingham had diesinkers of high skill. (fn. 138) Nevertheless, the very fact that locally-made goods came to be sold ever more cheaply was as often attributed to their spurious quality as to the skill and scale of manufacture. Although articles made mostly of gold and silver were protected by assaying legislation, the typical Birmingham product which only contained a small quantity of precious metal by way of cover or decoration was specifically exempt by Acts of Parliament in 1758 and 1759. (fn. 139) This at once favoured the local article and lowered its value in the esteem of wealthy customers. Yet the dictates of fashion helped Birmingham. Pearls and diamonds and solid gold might endure but the taste in knick-knacks changed from season to season. Beau Nash's successor as the reigning monarch at Bath once visited Baskerville's shop and admired greatly what he saw, (fn. 140) and successions of other travellers testified to the attractions of the Birmingham displays of worthless trinkets. Hawkes Smith, in 1836, and many other writers of the time emphasized the importance of the refinement of taste in the rise of the town. (fn. 141) On that argument one would certainly agree that the Restoration had made Birmingham just as Puritanism would have left it dead. (fn. 142) This theory has been put forward recently on a much larger scale: an industrial civilization cannot exist without the consciousness, which first arose during the Renaissance, of the need for beautiful and convenient articles around the person and the house. (fn. 143) In this context the demand for Baskerville's products, from well printed books to the cheapest japanned tray or lacquered button, becomes linked with the development of society as a whole in the 18th century.
The speeding up of output and the mass production of ever cheaper consumer goods was made possible by technological changes which owed much to local artisan inventors. Wyatt, perhaps the greatest of the Birmingham engineers before Watt, made only one contribution to the practical problems of the day. Richard Baddeley, with his lathe that would turn an oval object, is much more of a case in point. (fn. 144) John Baskerville himself patented complex new methods of preparing and treating the japanned trays which first made him rich. (fn. 145) Other Birmingham manufacturers of the period took out patents relating to different aspects of forming and ornamenting metal wares. (fn. 146) But such patents, especially in the imperfect state of the law relating to them at that time, are not a good guide to advance. What the modern historians of the chemical revolution call one of the 'pivotal points' of 18th-century economic history was not the subject of a patent. (fn. 147) Samuel Garbett was refining metals in a workshop in Steelhouse Lane for the use of Birmingham jewellers when he was faced with a grave shortage of sulphuric acid. This he had obtained from the existing makers at a distance, and since it was both expensive to produce on a small scale and very difficult to transport, the costs of the refinery were high. In partnership with Dr. John Roebuck, one of the best trained scientists of the time, Garbett began, in 1746, to make sulphuric acid on a large scale in lead vessels, Roebuck having demonstrated that the metal was as resistant to the acid as glass. (fn. 148) Garbett's later business ventures brought him at first enormous wealth and, in due course, bankruptcy. He corresponded with ministers on economic questions of the day, he promoted the assay office and the Birmingham Commercial Committee. He was preoccupied with questions of quality all his life and collaborated with Boulton in the introduction of a standard test for the quality of sword blades. (fn. 149)
This growth of scientific interest even before the days of the Lunar Society is reflected in the beginnings of public scientific lectures in the 1740s. (fn. 150) Although such events provided amusement for the gentry, they may well have helped in the improvement of the artisan's range of skills. It is not possible to dismiss the accuracy of the Birmingham pattern maker, moulder, or polisher in 1750 as being simply the product of experience. Something of the properties of materials and the art of measurement must have been known by men like Hodgetts, the ironfounder who boasted of being able to cast any required shape in metal. (fn. 151)
The development of the stamp and the press in the sixties required a high degree of accuracy in the finish of the machine tool, calculations as to stresses set up in the metal formed and of the degree of leverage required to minimize the operator's effort. The leverage principle also underlay Wyatt's weighing machine.
All the pre-conditions for speedy growth were thus present in Birmingham on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. There were entrepreneurship, sources of capital, ample manpower, and high technical skill, as well as a world-wide market for the local range of products. But the phase of really rapid growth began only about 1760, when Boulton first decided to look for a site for a large factory specially planned for his purpose, a place radically different from even the largest aggregation of semi-skilled workers like Taylor's button factory. The founding of Soho in the middle of a war period (when economic activity was already strong) is often taken as a convenient starting point for the Industrial Revolution itself. It certainly marks the beginning of modern Birmingham - the age of steam power and large-scale transport.
Matthew Boulton was already a wealthy man when he began to plan the Soho Manufactory in 1761. His father left him a considerable business and his own marriage had brought a dowry of £28,000. (fn. 152) The decision to set up in the production of the typical Birmingham goods of the time on what was then an unprecedented scale marked, however, a turning point in Birmingham history, if not in the fortunes of the Boulton family. The gradual emergence of larger firms, the introduction of steam power, and the linking of the town with its markets and sources of raw material by heavy transport - all these belong to the Soho era. Most undertakings continued to be small, few leaving any record outside the directories, and many existing only as ancillaries to the larger industrial and commercial establishments. The lead came from those conducting the larger businesses.
Organization and Size: The Leaders
The visitor to Birmingham in the years round about 1770 would be taken to see, first of all, the factories on which Birmingham's world-wide reputation rested. Foremost amongst these was Soho, then employing between about 800 and 1,000 people, conducted by Matthew Boulton and his partner John Fothergill. (fn. 153) Boulton himself was mainly responsible for technical matters, design, and management, and Fothergill for the commercial side, especially the organization of sales. The location of the works at Soho (fn. 154) had been determined by the availability of a large tract of undeveloped ground and water power. (fn. 155) This movement of industry north-westwards from Birmingham was not new for ribbon development in the direction of Wolverhampton and Walsall had taken place for some time (fn. 156) as land in the town became more built up. Many of the Soho products were, in fact, also made in places like Bilston and Walsall.
Soho produced goods of high quality. Plated wares made there looked like solid silver even after years of use, and or-moulu (ormulu) products became highly prized collectors' items. All types of buttons, buckles, boxes, and ornaments were designed and made. Yet it was not really what we should now call mass production for new patterns were constantly brought into use and many very valuable pieces were individually constructed. This side of the business continued even after Watt had been taken into partnership - but the design of steam engines and their ancillary gear and minting of coins became more important. Not until the Soho Foundry was built in 1796 did a part of the Boulton organization begin to specialize in the actual making of steam engines. In fact, a number of businesses were carried on simultaneously. In 1800 eight different trading partnerships were recorded there. (fn. 157)
Next to Soho, the largest firm was that of John Taylor, merchant, buttonmaker, and High Sheriff of Warwickshire in 1756, and the subject of numerous legends. When he died, his property was worth £200,000. At its peak his factory delivered buttons to the value of £800 a week. Some of his employees earned £3 10s. a week painting snuff boxes. An admiring visitor is said to have carried away eighty pounds' worth of trinkets in a single day. (fn. 158) He reputedly employed 500 people in 1755, but whether this was in his own factory or as outworkers is not known. (fn. 159) Lady Shelburne, visiting his works in 1766, described the enamelling processes used, admired the stamping presses, and commented on the number of women employed. (fn. 160) Perhaps a better light on Taylor's organization is provided by the remarks Lord Shelburne wrote down for his wife after the visit, explaining the success of the Birmingham men. (fn. 161) The first reason suggested by him was the skill of the manufacturers in producing new compound metals which allowed them to be shaped by mechanical means. For the second he gave a classical description of the division of labour: a button passed through fifty pairs of hands and each could produce a thousand a day. (This was an underestimate.) Thanks to this, even children could do some of the work. Costs were thus reduced, and the ingenuity of individual workmen in devising improvements helped in the same direction.
John Baskerville's enterprise attained even greater fame than Taylor's, largely because of his later printing ventures. (fn. 162) His principal trade was in japanned goods. An immigrant from Worcestershire, starting with very little capital, (fn. 163) he began in Birmingham as a stone-cutter, was then a writing master and set up as a manufacturer of japanned goods in Moor Street in 1740. (fn. 164) From 1745 his home was a fine house on what was then the fringe of the town, at Easy Hill, (fn. 165) and from there he directed his factory for japanned 'tea tables, waiters, and trays' (fn. 166) and his printing business. Among his innovations was the introduction of papier-mâché into this country. He produced it in its original manner, as the name implies, by glueing pulped paper which could then be moulded, shaped, and decorated. His pupil, Henry Clay, later patented the more usual modern method by which layers of uncut papers are pasted together before moulding. This highly adaptable material was really a forerunner of present-day plastic substances, which can be given any required shape or colour, and its versatility ensured widespread use. A ballad sung at the New Theatre in 1765 refers to the gods' need for Birmingham's manufacturers, including Venus' papiermâché box to preserve her rappée. (fn. 167) Baskerville achieved a high degree of devolution in his concern, through a system of managers looking after different departments, leaving him free to invent, design and cut his type. His wife was said to be in charge of japanning (fn. 168) and both Clay and his later partner Gibbins (or Gibbons) worked for Baskerville for several years. Henry Clay himself made a fortune out of the work Baskerville had pioneered. He employed 300 people (fn. 169) and died as one of Birmingham's leading citizens.
Samuel Garbett, too, must be put among the leading manufacturers of the day. He was an entrepreneur with widespread interests and, by the time the Shelburnes visited him, the production of acid and refined metals in Birmingham was only a sideline to his other concerns, especially in Scotland. When he went bankrupt in 1783, he still remained one of the town's major commercial figures but the business was taken over by Alston and Armitage. (fn. 170) James Alston & Sons, refiners and manufacturing chemists, remained at Steelhouse Lane, and James Armitage was later at Love Lane in the chemical trade. (fn. 171) Alston was an immigrant from North Berwick and at one time was also in partnership with Thomas Willmore in Colmore Row, who was a buckle-maker (fn. 172) and japanner, and seems to have gone into the helmet and hat business later - at any rate he took out a patent in that line. (fn. 173)
In gun manufacturing, the most important businesses were those of Ketland and Galton. Thomas Ketland appears in the 1770 directory in Lichfield Street but his firm is said to have been large already in 1750 when he undertook the proving of guns for other manufacturers. (fn. 174) Certainly his proof marks of c. 1780 survive. Samuel Galton was the successor to that other Quaker gunmaker, Joseph Farmer, mentioned above. Farmer and Galton, merchants and gunmakers, Steelhouse Lane, are listed in 1770. (fn. 175) Galton later removed to Weaman Street, where he also built a proof house for general use. (fn. 176) We may assume that the Galtons made and proved only the better sorts of guns but they did not make the largest number of weapons. There was an enormous trade in unproved guns, mostly for export to Africa. These were cheaply mass-produced, dangerous, and damaging to the town's reputation, but since they were not proved we do not know who made them. (fn. 177)
Galton was disowned by the Society of Friends when he refused to give up the manufacture of arms and it is noteworthy that in his vindication he described his father, his uncle, and himself as having been engaged in this manufacture for a period of seventy years. (fn. 178) This sort of continuity was confined to the better firms in the 19th century. Galton's reputation in the town certainly stood high. He was associated with the Lunar Society, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and married Erasmus Darwin's daughter. He stands near the head of one of the most famous family trees in English science and letters. (fn. 179)
Among the cutlers and swordmakers, the most important figures emerge in a dispute which began in 1789. Thomas Gill, (fn. 180) anxious to persuade the government that Birmingham swords were better than their reputation, arranged trials (fn. 181) which showed his own product in a better light than those of his rivals, both British and foreign. At meetings of the Birmingham Commercial Committee, to which many leading swordmakers belonged, he was accused of unfair practices. (fn. 182) Samuel Garbett, as chairman, was alleged to be biased towards Gill and the committee suffered as a result. Graver charges were brought against Gill in 1792. A Dr. Maxwell had visited Birmingham swordmakers and tried to negotiate for 20,000 daggers, destined, it was claimed, for French Jacobins. Gill apparently agreed to carry out the order but denied any knowledge of its destination. (fn. 183) Later he sent a specimen to the Treasury and this may have been the one which figured in an episode in the House of Commons when Burke threw a dagger on the floor in one of his dramatic passages. (fn. 184) Gill, in defence, claimed that Maxwell had also called on other manufacturers called Dawes, Harvey, and Wooley, (fn. 185) and that Dawes had urged him soon afterwards to agree on a price to be charged by whichever of them got the order. This provides an early example of restrictive practices amongst masters.
Gill's swords had a great reputation for toughness. (fn. 186) He was a versatile entrepreneur turning later to rifle-making, patenting an early method of mechanical barrel-rifling, (fn. 187) and appearing also as a muslin spinner. (fn. 188)
The Medium-sized Firm
Directories provide the names of ever-increasing numbers of firms, but little clue as to their size, importance, or markets. Since trade became more specialized, the term 'leading manufacturer', which was often employed, had little meaning. Some information is provided, however, by the minutes of evidence of the Commons committee hearing petitions against the Orders in Council of 1812. (fn. 189)
The chief witness for the Birmingham men was Thomas Attwood, who claimed that the orders had affected 50,000 people engaged in the iron and allied trades, and in the manufacturing of brass buttons, jewellery, gold and silver plate, and hardware. Ten thousand of these were said to be in brassfoundry alone and 30,000 in the nail trade within fifteen miles of Birmingham. Attwood was later closely questioned on his statistical information: much of it was clearly guesswork or at least exaggerated. More reliable evidence on the deployment of the labour force was provided by the men who came to back up Attwood's general statements by a description of their own business. Thus, James Ryland, harness and saddlery-furniture maker, employed 150 hands. (fn. 190) William Blakeway, a lamp maker in Edgbaston Street, had only 60. (fn. 191) Thomas Messenger, brassfounder, who specialized in the American trade, stated that in 1807 he had employed from 100 to 200 people (fn. 192) and up to 250 at the height of the boom. By 1812 he was down to 100 again.
George Room, a manufacturer of japanned goods, claimed to have employed up to 40 men out of the total of between 600 and 1,000 in the trade, (fn. 193) and, since he was engaged in what seems to have been the luxury side of the field, he may well have been smaller than others. Among the wire manufacturers, Joseph Webster had up to 100 employees when business was good. (fn. 194) Benjamin Cook, in the jewellery, gilt, and toy line, used to have 40 to 50 employees and in 1812 had only four. He thought there were 7,000 people employed in his field and these were distributed between 150 masters. (fn. 195) Thomas Osler, glass toy and buttonmaker, had between 80 and 100 workpeople. (fn. 196) William Bannister, a plater, 24 years in the trade, spoke of 120 men in good times (fn. 197) and Thomas Clark, maker of webbing and braces and all sorts of toys, had formerly had 150 workpeople. (fn. 198)
This list, consisting of people whose trade had suffered in the war, does not include those who were doing well - the gunsmiths, sword cutlers, uniform buttonmakers, and so on, and there is no reason to believe that, even within their trades, it included the largest manufacturers. We must therefore assume that by 1812 there was a very considerable layer of medium-sized firms. The word 'employment' does not, of course, imply that all the people on the payroll worked under one roof and, even if they did, this does not imply complete dependence, since it was not unknown for those on the premises to be in fact contract workers, not only supplying their own tools but actually paying for their place at the bench. (fn. 199) The exact relationship is much less important than the fact that the scale of organization was becoming larger.
In some trades by 1800, the larger firm was beginning to predominate because technical considerations, in particular the indivisibility of the machine or furnace used, prohibited small-scale working. This applied, for instance, to glass-making. (fn. 200) The actual process of melting the glass (as opposed to the production of toys and decorated ware from bought-in glass) had to be on a considerable scale, partly because of the excise regulations, and partly because the cost of a melting furnace was considerable. Messrs. Chance's glass works at Spon Lane provided the most striking example of this: many thousands of pounds, acquired in a factoring partnership, had to be spent before the first glass was made and we hear of other large establishments in the town at the time. (fn. 201)
Similarly, in the making of rolled plate, wire-drawing, and pin-making, technical considerations were concentrating the business in the hands of a few larger-sized firms. Sometimes it was the result of the ingenuity of a particular manufacturer in using mechanical means to produce a simple article on a large scale. A good example is provided by the pen trade. To about 1825 the quill had been in universal use, but, from then onwards, experiments in the production of steel pens began. Although the first and best known of these was patented by James Perry (fn. 202) of London, the successful processes were all devised in Birmingham. Joseph Gillott, who came from Sheffield, began in this trade in 1824 and, after early experience of making them by hand at a cost of about 2d. each, experimented with a press (later steam-driven), using mostly semi-skilled and unskilled labour, which eventually brought down the price of the article to less than 2d. a gross, packed in a box. Gillott's pen factory in Graham Street became one of the showpieces of industrial Birmingham in the mid-19th century, employing 500 people in 'an immense brick building, which looks something like a large asylum, a little like a manufactory, and more like a hospital than either . . .' (fn. 203) Gillott's great rival was Josiah Mason, born in Kidderminster, who manufactured all the pens sold under Perry's name from about 1830 onwards. (fn. 204) Gillott, Mason, and the Mitchells (who were Gillott's brothers-in-law), shared most of the trade between them by 1850 and the average number employed in each of the twelve establishments was 150, of whom two-thirds were women, and they made 65,000 gross of pens between them a week. The small men could hardly hope to compete on that scale, except for specialized products.
Small Masters and Sub-contractors
The earliest directories already show the extent to which many of the trades were sub-divided. In 1770 nearly 50 of the Birmingham specialist lines were entered with five or more makers in the business, the most numerous being the brass founders (33), buttonmakers (83), gun and pistol makers (38), jewellers (23), platers (45), and bucklemakers (44). (fn. 205) The actual figures are of no importance and most probably wrong - in 1767 there had been 108 buttonmakers and in 1777 there were 129. Only about 20 of the actual manufacturers in 1777 indicated, by giving more than one name, or the suffix '& Co.', that they might be partnerships. By the early 1800s there were 51 different gun trades listed, with from one to 156 entries per description. (fn. 206) Moreover, it is clear that even with the smallest articles, one firm often performed only the final process of assembly or decoration, drawing on others not only for raw materials, but for stamping, piercing, spinning, brazing, plating, or annealing. The button-mould turner did not make buttons, the filigree maker worked in blanks supplied by others and handed on his piece to someone who made it up into the finished decorated box or ornament. In 1777 platers were already numerous but there were only nine stampers so described and one piercer, although Matthew Boulton's father had been a silverpiercer and stamper. (fn. 207)
These then were the garret and back-room workers, who rented a single room, or even a hearth in someone else's, to carry on their trade. (fn. 208) In 1825 the former Britannia Brewery was occupied 'by the works of various mechanical experimentalists'. (fn. 209) In the directories the entry 'back of' somebody's house is frequent. In any case, the existence of one name per house-number merely indicates the presence of the owner, chief tenant, or rate-payer, or the man who answered the door to the publisher's canvasser. The little men would take no special steps to make their presence known for their reputation was with their neighbours and friends. They were the typical Birmingham men and few of them had premises which could be shown to the elegant visitors. We do not know which Boden Lady Shelburne visited (she called him Bolden) but it is more likely to have been Benjamin, who carried on his toy making in Temple Street, rather than Edward, the jeweller 'back of Livery Street'. (fn. 210) J. G. Bodmer, the noted German engineer, visiting Birmingham in 1816, commented that the 'number and variety of the workshops at Birmingham are immense, but they are worked ill rather than well'. (fn. 211)
Many such businesses were carried on by women. Early in the 19th century G. J. Holyoake's mother was what he called a 'home button maker', presumably working for a manufacturer or factor at home. (fn. 212) No doubt it was 'sweated' labour. Holyoake himself certainly thought that the so-called 'independent' workers were often worse off than those who were directly employed by a master, like John Rea, tinplate worker, who got 13s. a week when he was 'jobbing' but up to 25s. when he was working on a piecework basis. (fn. 213)
There is no doubt that the small firms were used to cut prices. In 1790 a steel-trade meeting passed a resolution against the habit of certain manufacturers of selling semifinished goods to a factor, who would then put them out to a garret-master at lower rates than were customary in the bigger firms. (fn. 214) There were many attempts by these small men to unite and to produce price lists (fn. 215) but they usually came to nothing. There were too many of them, and, even if at any one time they had all done well, freedom of entry and versatility in the others would soon depress their earnings. A petition of 1752 mentions 20,000 'manufacturers' in the town who had difficulty in obtaining payment for their work. (fn. 216) This is no doubt a vastly exaggerated number, certainly as to independent workers, but exploitation did exist. When there were only five men in the business of cock-founding in 1770, they may have agreed on prices, but, when the increase in the demand for steam engines and domestic water supplies put up their number to twenty, they would not be able to control their trade with the same ease.
Freedom of entry was guaranteed not only by the absence of regulation but by the smallness of the capital required for a start. 'Shopping', as working space was called, could be had cheaply. When one part of the town was full, another was built: the New Hall estate in the early 18th century, (fn. 217) Ashted in the second half of the century, and so on. (fn. 218) In 1767 land at Bradford Street was offered free to anyone who would develop a substantial trade there (fn. 219) but those who could not afford a stone building could have a room or a shed for a shilling or two per week. (fn. 220) Beyond his room the would-be manufacturer needed fuel if he worked in metal. Availability of this was sometimes mentioned in advertisements. Coal at 2d. a cwt. delivered was clearly an inducement to the tenant. (fn. 221) By the early 19th century the gas jet provided light and melting heat alike and was universally supplied, by the gas company on credit if necessary. (fn. 222) Credit for raw materials, if required, was not difficult to obtain, especially where 'a farthing's worth of steel became a watch chain worth two or five guineas'. (fn. 223) The actual time which elapsed between the purchase of the metal or semi-fabricate and the delivery to the customer was not long, so that the punctual payment of the supplier largely depended on the ultimate customer. 'Give a Birmingham maker a sovereign and a copper kettle, and he'll make you a hundred pounds worth of jewellery'. (fn. 224) A wooden bench, a leather apron, and perhaps one or two pounds' worth of tools would be sufficient equipment. (fn. 225) The small men had little or nothing locked up in stocks and therefore did not face the difficulties the larger manufacturers encountered in times of recession. Frequently, however, they had no savings, so that slumps meant starvation. Had they possessed capital, they would no doubt have enlarged their operation.
They lived an irregular life. They worked no fixed hours. When trade was good, they might labour seven days a week. When it was bad, they were idle. When it was normal, they worked a four or five day week, taking off Monday and sometimes Tuesday. Saint Monday was a local deity.
'Perhaps at work they transitory peep,
But vice and lathe are soon consigned to sleep,
The shop is left untenanted awhile
And a cessation is proclaimed from toil.' (fn. 226)
In factories discipline was much harsher and only under war-time conditions was the short working week introduced as an alternative to dismissal. (fn. 227) Many therefore preferred to stay outside the organized system.
Vagaries of Fashion
The changes in Birmingham's industrial structure reflected the progress in what, just before the French Revolution, came to be called 'civilization'. This elusive state was marked by the progress of dress and domestic arrangements and changes in food and drink as well as reading habits and entertainments. The demand for goods created by the changing tastes and fashions of the day might last for a month or two or a century. Birmingham offered the materials, the tools for shaping them, and the skills of the men who used them. Versatility was greatest when the tools were simple: when large specialized machines came in, rigidity led to unemployment. But even in the earliest days the prosperity of a trade at the height of the popularity of its product often had to be paid for by misery when the fashion had gone and its purveyors refused to believe that it had done so.
The classical instance is the buckle trade. In Hutton's typical phrase, 'the revolution was remarkable for the introduction of William, of liberty, and the minute buckle'. (fn. 228) In time the buckle (which had, in fact, been known before) (fn. 229) became larger and a Birmingham staple. It was made in an infinite variety of shapes, sizes, and qualities. A pair of the cheapest steel buckles might cost 6d., a fancy pair made of precious metals and set with jewels, £50 or more. (fn. 230) By 1777 40 makers were listed, of whom at least one, Edward Thomason, became well-known. (fn. 231) Buckles were one of the main lines at Soho. Boulton and Fothergill mostly made the better sort and the stamping of these formed a considerable part of the early work of the assay office. But most makers used cheaper metals, some of them specially produced for this type of work, like Tutania, (fn. 232) pinchbeck, and 'soft tommy' which was quite useless in wear. (fn. 233)
The ingenuity of the inventors was expended on raw materials, decorations, and fastenings. A good deal of capital must have been locked up in the trade by 1785 and it employed thousands of workers, although probably far short of the 20,000 mentioned when the collapse came. Originally, much of the work had been done at Bilston (fn. 234) but there seems to have been a general tendency for the more delicate work in the Midlands to become concentrated more and more in Birmingham and the cruder nailing and foundry trades to grow in the Black Country. At any rate the world depended on Birmingham for buckles and the town seems to have felt that it in turn depended on the buckle.
For reasons not explained the fashion for buckles collapsed very suddenly in about 1786 and people started wearing slippers or shoes fastened with strings. By 1791 the bucklemakers were petitioning the Prince of Wales on behalf of the '20,000' in distress. The Prince and the Duke of York helped by ordering their entourage to wear buckles (fn. 235) but to no avail. Further petitions went out in 1792 and even as late as 1800. In vain did the bucklemakers parade the town with a donkey, its hooves adorned with shoestrings, and publicly revile and insult the wearers of the new fashion. (fn. 236) A pamphlet published in 1795, containing a letter to William Pitt, bitterly complained of the changed fashion and advocated that he should raise much-needed revenue by taxing the slipper and the shoe-string. (fn. 237) The shock to Birmingham's economy must have been severe, for the event was remembered long afterwards. T. H. Osler mentioned it in an aggrieved tone to the Commons Committee of 1812. (fn. 238)
For all that, however, fashion was not so unkind. The button was, in its heyday, just as much a vehicle for display as the buckle. Hutton's philosophical remarks on pride appear under the heading 'steel' and the sin is epitomized in the 'button which shines on the breast'. (fn. 239) As a result of the increasing number of buttons on women's clothes, and owing, too, to the war and the growth of the American market, the button trade made huge progress.
There were 83 buttonmakers listed in 1770 and 188 by 1788. (fn. 240) By 1847 the number had shrunk to 108 but mechanization accounts for this later apparent shrinkage and the number of people employed in the trade certainly increased. There were still estimated to be 6,000 in 1865. (fn. 241) Like buckles buttons were made in all sizes and shapes. (fn. 242) The most expensive were hand-cut and polished in steel to sparkle like diamonds and were esteemed nearly as much. There were buttons of all kinds of metals, of glass, porcelain, papier-mêaché, paper, leather, and mother-of-pearl. All these required different techniques. The cheaper varieties were turned on simple lathes or moulded on stamping machines which, it was pointed out not altogether without reason, could be used for coining counterfeit money as easily as uniform buttons. (fn. 243) The shanks were also produced mechanically and one of the machines invented for this purpose (by R. Heaton of Slancy Street) was probably one of the earliest examples of a fully self-acting contrivance capable of performing a whole series of consecutive operations without re-setting. (fn. 244)
The introduction of the fashion of gilt buttons came as a boon to the trade just as the buckle disappeared. At the end of the 18th century between 4,000 and 5,000 persons were said to be employed in it and wages were extraordinarily high. Gilding was cheaper than plating and there were many complaints of fraud or unfair competition. This produced resort to legislation and the Act which was passed was in the tradition of mercantilist proscriptions of an earlier age, (fn. 245) protecting the makers of plated buttons by inflicting heavy penalties on the fraudulent producers. (fn. 246) It was probably a useless measure, though there were prosecutions and convictions. (fn. 247) The conscientious craftsmen of Birmingham were forever fighting against their less scrupulous competitors who satisfied the demands for the mass market.
The pin business, too, was essentially a fashion trade. Though Birmingham had long produced pins in their simplest form, the town came to specialize in more complex and ornamented patterns. We first hear of the trade about 1750, when Samuel Ryland made pins in New Street (fn. 248) and, if an advertisement of 1753 for 'best London pins' is correctly interpreted by Dent, Joseph Allen also produced them and sold them through John Allen, peruke maker. (fn. 249) It would not be unusual to sell something locally made by saying that it was as good, and as cheap, as in London. Samuel Ryland probably got his raw material from another member of his family who was a wiredrawer in High Street. (fn. 250) Another branch of the family made buckles, and later (c. 1840) became well known as screw makers. (fn. 251) The pin trade itself was transferred by Samuel Ryland to his nephew Thomas Henry Phipson in 1785 and the Phipsons remained the largest people in the business, combining wire-drawing and pin making. Other manufacturers bought wire in.
At first each pin was made by hand in a succession of twelve or fourteen different processes. Accounts vary. Adam Smith, who provides the most famous description, said eighteen. Since this occurred practically on the first page of the Wealth of Nations, this was one aspect of Birmingham work known to the whole world. Although Smith said that, by this means, ten people could produce nearly 50,000 pins a day, it was still a laborious process. (fn. 252) Head and body were produced in different operations and consequently frequently parted company. Attempts were made to produce hat and cloak pins by stamping as early as 1777 and a patent was taken out, (fn. 253) but this process was unsuitable for the smaller varieties. The first really workable automatic machine, invented by an American, Lemuel Wright, was patented in 1824 but not introduced in Birmingham until later. Various local inventors followed in his footsteps and by 1840 the trade was largely mechanized. (fn. 254) Even the laborious process of sticking the pins into a paper for sale was performed by machine. It is possible that mechanization took place earlier than is usually assumed, since the trade was highly competitive and the manufacturers secretive about their processes. (fn. 255)
Buckles, buttons, and pins might be termed the staple accessories over a long period of time. Birmingham, however, also produced that vast assortment of metal goods referred to as 'toys', a name covering any portable article in any metal, leather, glass, or other materials, having the common characteristic that the patterns changed with even greater frequency than in buttons. In fact, novelty alone sold the object. The steel-toy trade was divided into light steel toys, mostly covering the less useful varieties, and heavy steel toys, which included such untoylike equipment as carpenters' tools. In many cases only a small steel component was involved. Some firms were specialists, like the makers of shagreen cases and tortoiseshell boxes mentioned in 1777 but most would turn their attention to whatever happened to be demanded. (fn. 256) This was the main trade at Soho and most button and buckle makers of the larger variety made some of these things as a sideline. (fn. 257) The basis of the article was usually brass for the better varieties and all kinds of inferior metals in the cheaper lines but the art lay in the finishing of the object to look like gold or silver (see below).
Brass fittings and fixtures of a heavier kind were another line of trade which developed strongly during this period. The London cabinet-maker turned to Birmingham for his hinges, locks and keys, metal facings for corners and edges, as well as the humbler screws and bolts. In 1764 a coffin-furniture-maker advertised that he could make his wares 'as cheap as in London'. (fn. 258) The secret of the cheapness lay in the stamping process used to ornament the brass, which had been cast or rolled: the trade was usually referred to as 'stamped brass-foundry'. Patents in this line were taken out almost simultaneously in London and Birmingham in 1769, both of them indicating important lines of business. (fn. 259) Pickering, the London man, mentioned the production of ornamented decorations, including coffin furniture; Richard Ford, of Birmingham, referred mostly to such useful articles as kettles and saucepans. Both branches flourished. By 1780 a local writer claimed that even in an artistic sense, Birmingham was better than London, (fn. 260) though it took time for the Londoners to accept this claim fully. (fn. 261)
There were numerous other products with a 'fashion' market at one time or another. As tea-drinking spread, so did the manufacture of teapots, kettles, trays, and 'teawaiters'. (fn. 262) The introduction of the umbrella created a whole new industry. (fn. 263) Again many patents were taken out in the town and the number of makers rose from two in 1800 to 25 in 1850. (fn. 264) Perhaps the most curious sideline was that of the versatile Thomason who in 1808 patented his 'rhabdoskidophoros', a clumsy combination of umbrella and walking stick. Braces and belts were added to the buttons to secure the trousers of the 19th century. The main point was that, whatever was required, Birmingham would deliver it.
Plated Goods and the Assay Office
As we have seen, Birmingham specialized early in the production of goods which appeared to be what they were not. Yet there was one honest and several dishonest ways of producing such objects. The honest way was to cover a hard and serviceable base (mostly copper and brass) with a layer of gold or silver (fn. 265) sufficiently thick to stand up to wear, to fasten this layer securely to the base and to declare the quality. To produce the material for the manufacturer of the finished article was the task of the plater. The art consisted in using the smallest possible quantity of precious metal to achieve the desired quality. If the plated sheet was to be machine-stamped or pressed into a complex shape or if it was to serve as a foot or handle subject to constant wear, it had to be thicker than if it was to be merely hand-shaped and perhaps engraved. Since the piece bore the maker's mark, it was in his interest to produce something that would stand up to use.
The trade originally had its home in Sheffield and was brought to Birmingham in the mid-18th century. John Taylor and Boulton and Fothergill first produced plate on a large scale but the main users of plated sheets were the 'toymakers', the candlestickmakers, and the producers of buttons and buckles: in fact all the small establishments which could not roll their own plate. (fn. 266) Soho and some of the large makers of plated goods rolled their own sheets. After about 1800 severe competition began to confine the production of the rolled metal to a few large producers (notably Waterhouse and Ryland), (fn. 267) who were particularly skilled in making a little go a long way. The difficulty faced by the makers of plated goods (already commented on by Shelburne in 1766) (fn. 268) was the need for assaying and hallmarking before sale. There was no assay office in Birmingham before 1773 and this obliged the manufacturers to send their completed wares to London or to Chester, the two places privileged under legislation dating back to Edward I. This not only caused delay but, as Boulton frequently complained, (fn. 269) led to unnecessary risks of damage on a journey of 140 miles which took four days, so that he had the expense of making, transporting, and assaying for nothing. The fact that neither the Birmingham nor the Sheffield producers took any serious steps to remedy the deficiency before 1773 speaks rather for the assumption that the trade had only begun to expand substantially in the early seventies. (fn. 270) The move came, primarily, from those whose names and marks were already registered at the Goldsmiths' Hall Assay Office. There were about a dozen of these and three more, including Boulton and Fothergill, were entered at Chester. But the total number of licensed makers of plate was 40 by that time. Samuel Garbett, giving evidence as a refiner of gold and silver before the committee of the House hearing the petition, mentioned these licensed makers as proving the extent of the trade, but the opponents of the measure, mainly the London goldsmiths, alleged that they faked assay marks or, at any rate, tried to pass off as silver and gold articles made from base metal. This charge may well have been correct in many cases. (fn. 271) Nevertheless, the two new assay offices were sanctioned (fn. 272) and the conduct of the local one placed in the hands of the 'Guardians of the Standard of Wrought Plate in Birmingham'. The guardians appointed their first assayer, James Jackson, in the summer of 1773 and the office at Little Cannon Street started operations in September. (fn. 273) Boulton was the first to use it and the first list of articles marked, containing 70 types of wares, gives some idea of the diversity of the operations at Soho. (fn. 274)
Until 1824, the Birmingham Assay Office dealt only with silver ware but after that date it was authorized to mark gold articles and this acted as a stimulus to that side of the plating industry. (fn. 275) Gold-plating was a more difficult operation than that of silver-plating and for long involved the use of mercury, which was highly noxious to the workmen. Apart from Taylor, Boulton, and Thomason, a few specialists in this line had emerged early in the 19th century, notably John Turner (later Hammond, Turner & Son) and William Richards of James Street, near St. Paul's, both of them described as makers of 'patent' gold plate. (fn. 276) It was never, however, as important as silver plate in the town's economy.
The glass industry came to Birmingham about 150 years after it had settled in Stourbridge. Since sand, clay, and coal had to be brought into the town by road, there was no advantage in making it there. As the fashion trades developed, however, specialized glass was required in small quantities for their use and this must explain the setting up of a number of glass houses in the middle of the 18th century. The first of which we have any definite knowledge was in Snow Hill in 1762, where the chief figure was one Meyer Oppenheim. (fn. 277) He later removed his activities to France but a relation, Nathaniel, continued the trade in Birmingham. This glass house mainly supplied others with raw material but we know that the making of finished glass toys was also carried out at Snow Hill until the end of the century. (fn. 278) Other important glass houses were those of Isaac Hawker (in Spiceal Street from before 1772), Park Glasshouse, Birmingham Heath (c. 1788; from 1835 in the occupation of Lloyd and Summerfield), (fn. 279) Belmont Glass Works (founded by the Harris and Hawkes families c. 1810), the Islington works (eventually in the possession of Rice Harris; founded c. 1800), and Osler's Broad Street Glass Works (fn. 280) (later F. & C. Osler, and still in existence in 1961). Most of these seem to have made glass as well as worked it up into finished goods.
In addition to these producers, there were numerous firms making glass toys, beads, buttons, and so on. (fn. 281) These were often referred to as 'glass pinchers' (fn. 282) and can be traced from 1755 onwards. There were ten of them in the directory of 1777 but this is probably not an exhaustive list of those who used glass, though none of the small firms melted it.
The scale of operations in the 'pinchers' trade was necessarily small (fn. 283) but the makers reached considerable size. The capital required was larger than in other manufactures and partnerships were common. Jones, Smart & Co. of Aston had four partners, (fn. 284) occupied a large three-story building, and were among the pioneers of gas-lighting. (fn. 285) After 1810 the house operated as Brueton, Gibbons and Williams but disappeared before 1822. At Belmont, too, there were up to four partners and five at the Greatbrook Street factory. One of these was P. F. Muntz, merchant and iron-steel manufacturer, father of G. F. Muntz, M.P. At this factory china as well as glass was produced. Bodmer, in 1816, saw annealing ovens 100 ft. long at one glassmaker's and was impressed by the grindery lit by 100 gas jets, presumably at Aston. (fn. 286)
The important Spon Lane glass works (Chance Brothers, from 1824) and the Birmingham Plate Glass Co., both in Smethwick, may be considered economically an integral part of Birmingham. Since they lie in Staffordshire their history is, however, reserved for full treatment in the Victoria History of Staffordshire.
One further aspect of the Birmingham glass trade deserves mention. Francis Eginton (1737-1805) was a painter on glass but his output was so large as to deserve the epithet 'industrial'. Not only did the preparation of huge panes of glass (divided by an iron frame into squares) involve a number of workmen, but the actual painting was carried out by the master painter with the help of assistants, including those who prepared the colours. This 'art' has nothing in common with stained glass, being rather painting on a glass surface. Eginton found imitators and successors in Birmingham, and Chance Bros. themselves found it worth while to start a special painted-glass department which reverted to the older methods of making stained glass in leaded sections. (fn. 287) Eginton at one time was believed to have invented some early process of photography, then known as 'polygraphics', which turned out, on investigation, to have been merely yet another variant of the usual Birmingham knack of producing something by mechanical methods to look like a work of art. (fn. 288)
Coins, Medals, and 'Art'
These trades never employed many workers but they played an important part in the making of Birmingham's industrial reputation. The art of coining had been practised in the 17th century when counterfeit money issued from her presses had given the town a bad name.
The difficulty in achieving a stable and plentiful supply of coinage lay in the fact that the making of hard, accurate coins of small denomination, such as were badly needed to keep the daily needs of trade satisfied, was an operation costly out of all proportion to the face value of the coin. Boulton saw in the steam-operated press the solution to the problem and, from 1788 onwards, he made coins on contract, first on a relatively small scale for the East India Co. and other authorities and, from 1797, for the British government. (fn. 289) The machines used were automatic and attended by young lads, and were so successful that Boulton was able to secure a contract to instal similar models at the royal mint. Many oversea contracts followed. But the industry continued to flourish in Birmingham and, after the end of the Boulton and Watt partnership, was carried on by Ralph Heaton in a new building but with machinery of Boulton's design, and by the firm of James Watt & Co., which built another mint at Soho Foundry in 1848. (fn. 290)
The dies for these coins were made by highly skilled workmen and Boulton obtained the services of a number of well-known medallists to produce good designs and to promote the production of medals for special occasions. Among these were C. H. Kückler and Peter Wyon, as well as British artists. (fn. 291) Perhaps the most remarkable of Boulton's pupils in this line was Edward Thomason who set up on his own at Church Street in 1793. Thomason also made buttons, buckles, and tradesmen's tokens and was a prolific inventor of not particularly useful gadgets, but his chief claim to fame was his production of a long series of medals, partly with the help of the Wyons. It was his habit to present these medals to a variety of minor European rulers as well as influential people in England: for this he amassed in the course of his life some twenty or thirty foreign decorations (which he frequently wore) and eventually the first knighthood awarded to a Birmingham industrialist. His memoirs (fn. 292) are without doubt one of the most egotistical and snobbish productions ever published but he did much in his day to raise the standards of industrial craftsmanship. Medals of a less expensive and exclusive kind were much in demand for special occasions in Victorian times and this kept some 120 diesinkers busy. (fn. 293) Less complex dies were, of course, also used in the making of buttons and other ornaments.
Thomason is also notorious for promoting another Birmingham trade, that of making reproductions of works of art. One of his first efforts in this direction was an exact replica of the Warwick Vase. (fn. 294) He seems to have suffered from a delusion that he was the heir and successor of Benvenuto Cellini and tried his hand at the casting of life-size bronze statues, including one of George IV, and copies of the horses on the façade of St. Mark's in Venice, which were placed on the roof of his manufactory. (fn. 295)
This began a brisk trade in fake medieval works of art and the paraphernalia of the Gothic revival. The firm of John Hardman, under the direction of A. W. Pugin and his son-in-law J. H. Powell, tried to preserve some decent reticence and employed craftsmen to make ecclesiastical and civic regalia but there were hosts of imitators who produced Birmingham Gothic on a large scale. These were mostly brassfounders and they once again damaged the town's reputation severely. (fn. 296) The representative symbol of Birmingham industry by 1850 was the Benares tray made in Aston and the 'door porter' in the shape of the gable end of a medieval house with a long handle protruding from the finial. (fn. 297)
The Financing of Industry
We have quoted Hutton's guess concerning the origin of the wealthiest citizen of his time and shown that it was possible for an enterprising man without capital to borrow in order to make a start. (fn. 298) During the period now under review, when equipment became more complex and therefore a larger initial amount was required, the organization of the capital market also became more elaborate. The most formal channel from lenders to borrowers was through the banks. Taylor & Lloyds', founded in 1765, was joined by others, some of which were short-lived. The most famous of the newcomers were Attwood & Spooner, founded by two of the most prominent manufacturers and merchants, in succession to Isaac Spooner's (begun 1791), and always considered the quintessence of stability until they collapsed without warning in 1865, even before the general crisis swept through the English banking world. (fn. 299) Gibbins, Smith & Goode, also founded by merchants, collapsed in 1825 and out of its ruins arose the Birmingham Banking Co. with a capital of £500,000. There were six banks by 1815 and eight by 1847, but only three were still private partnerships.
These partnerships existed mainly to regularize the usual procedure, which was for the merchant to lend to the manufacturer to purchase raw materials and pay wages until he received payment for his product. In other words, it was a short-term business in overdrafts and bills. Such bills might, of course, be renewed several times and become long-term loans and the frequency and severity of the bank collapses were due largely to inability to call in loans which were only nominally short-term. The Bank of England, which established a local branch in 1827, guarded itself against such dangers. When the original partnerships became joint-stock companies under the Act of 1826, their boards consisted of the most respectable local merchants and some manufacturers and they were thus supposed to exercise some effective control over lending through their detailed knowledge of conditions. The Bank of England, and at a later stage the branches of the large national amalgamations, also had local boards for the same purpose.
Yet this did nothing to solve the problem of fixed capital which had to come from individual loans and mortgages. Entrepreneurs avoided them if they could and sought wealthy partners if possible. It is impossible to say how many Birmingham businesses were, by 1840, run as partnerships, what proportion of these were working partnerships and how many were formed for financial purposes only. The mere appearance of two names in a directory does not necessarily signify a formal partnership, especially where members of the same family were involved. Matthew Boulton was involved in several partnerships at the same time for different purposes. (fn. 300) Despite the fact that he had £28,000 in initial capital with his wife's dowry, apart from his father's legacy, he was borrowing on a large scale from, for instance, Thomas Tippin, a merchant whose father had made a fortune out of Jews' harps. (fn. 301) Fothergill and Boulton each put £5,000 into their partnership. (fn. 302) Samuel Garbett was engaged in a number of partnerships with Dr. John Roebuck and others, including his son-in-law, who was in the end the cause of his bankruptcy. It is estimated that the total capital locked up in his business was £150,000 in 1771, (fn. 303) and in 1765 he was able to lend £20,000 in connexion with operations at Carron. (fn. 304)
There were many variations in the methods of borrowing. (fn. 305) Where land or buildings were bought, they could be security on loans. Manufacturers might borrow, pledging their stocks, which might be considerable: Thomas Potts told the committee of 1812 that some houses had £70,000 locked up in stocks. (fn. 306) But, in the long run, neither loans nor partnerships were sufficient to undertake the largest operations. A lucky few might make a fortune out of a single innovation, like Josiah Mason, who used money gained in the making of split rings to start manufacturing pens on a large scale and was able to make benefactions amounting to nearly half a million pounds within forty years of entering the new trade. (fn. 307) Normally, the process of self-accumulation took too long, especially if heavy machinery and power were involved. Joint-stock companies were the answer to the problem. Unfortunately, the law did not favour them and only in the traditional fields of metal extraction and what might be termed public utilities were they granted by Parliament. But the establishment of the brasshouse in 1781, (fn. 308) the Mining and Copper Co. (with a capital in 1791 of £50,000) (fn. 309) and a number of mills, breweries, and similar undertakings, was made possible by this method of raising capital.
The Labour Force
Between 1801 and 1831 the population of Birmingham, with Edgbaston and Aston, nearly doubled itself. (fn. 310) The greatest part of this growth was due to immigration. Mortality, especially amongst the children, was such that, left to itself, the town might well have declined in numbers. It is clear enough what brought people swarming into the town, with or without certificates under the settlement Acts. (fn. 311) The wage differential compared with the agricultural districts was striking. Arthur Young observed that the country labourer outside the town rarely got more than £15 a year, yet he found no one in Birmingham earning less than 7s. a week, and some received up to £3. Even women earned up to 7s. a week and children from 1s. 6d. to 4s. 6d. (fn. 312) Many observers commented on the exceptionally high earnings which could be obtained in the jewellery and toy trades. (fn. 313) At Chance Brothers the German and French glassblowers sometimes received more than the managers. (fn. 314) In the button trade workers were said to have been earning 25s. to 30s. a week in the years before the slump of 1811. (fn. 315) Piece-workers earned high wages for long hours and the chances of supplementing the men's earnings by those of the women and children were high. Many of the trades had a high proportion of skilled openings, invariably filled by men. The coining staff at Soho consisted of 13 men, 27 women and 16 boys. The boys worked the machines which produced up to 30,000 coins per week, (fn. 316) but they were merely semi-skilled.
It is not possible to give a detailed picture of the composition and occupational distribution of the labour force before 1841. At the time of the 1801 census, Birmingham's population consisted almost wholly of those engaged in 'trade, manufactures and handicrafts'. (fn. 317) In Aston, Edgbaston, Handsworth, and Harborne, there was a substantial agricultural minority and in the parishes of King's Norton, Northfield, Yardley, and Perry Barr, farming still predominated. (fn. 318) By 1811 17,294 out of 18,165 families in Birmingham, Aston, and Edgbaston were returned as being in the industrial and commercial categories. Northfield had joined the parishes where industry predominated, nailing being the chief employment there. In 1812 Attwood thought that 10,000 people worked in the brass foundry trade but 30,000 in nailing in Birmingham and vicinity. (fn. 319) By 1831 there was a great increase in the number of families in 'other' occupations - the professional and administrative services, and those of independent means - reliable indicators of the growing complexity of industrial society. In 1831 they accounted for one-sixth of the population.
In 1841 a more detailed analysis becomes possible, at least for the borough of Birmingham. About 70,000 people were then gainfully occupied. No single employment predominated. There were 3,056 brass founders and moulders, 2,888 buttonmakers and the like, 514 other founders, 964 glass manufacturers, 1,781 gun and pistolmakers, 631 japanners and lacquerers, 730 platers, and 1,398 jewellers, goldand silver-smiths and the like. (fn. 320) Of these totals women formed a large percentage in some trades such as buttonmaking (45 per cent.), and japanning (42 per cent.). Young workers (under 20 years of age) accounted for a quarter of the labour force in brass founding, glass, and japanning, and a third in buttonmaking. Out of the 70,000 occupied persons, a quarter were females and just under a fifth were under 20 years of age - 8,038 boys and 5,945 girls. (fn. 321)
Much of this labour force, as we have seen, was well paid for its skill, but it was also difficult to retain. Birmingham was world famous and we hear of frequent attempts to bribe workers to go elsewhere. This nuisance partly accounted for the survival of the legislation against the emigration of artisans until 1824, ineffective as it was. (fn. 322) Employers were anxious to retain the skilled men even if the state of trade made this temporarily costly, for fear they might leave, never to come back, or sell secrets to their rivals. (fn. 323) The chamber of commerce was doubtful about the wisdom of permitting emigration even in 1824. (fn. 324)
Women were used more extensively in Birmingham than anywhere except in Lancashire and not only in light occupations. (fn. 325) The half-naked bodies of the female nailers offended Hutton when he first approached Birmingham from Walsall in 1741 (fn. 326) and they were still a blot on the industrial landscape a century and a half later. (fn. 327) In the brass trades women shared in the rough work and were liable to the industrial diseases common to those engaged in foundry and brass turning. (fn. 328) The adoption of machines for stamping and piercing extended the range of female employment, especially for young girls. The effects of this system on the health of the population cannot be estimated here: from an industrial point of view cheap labour was indispensable. (fn. 329) An anonymous pamphleteer in 1792 savagely flayed the manufacturers for their treatment of their employees, especially the young female workers. Sarcastically, he suggested that the employer should always keep a young wench in the works, and if he got her into trouble, pay a workman a few guineas to take the blame. (fn. 330)
The children were in a pitiful state. Lady Shelburne, in 1766, noticed them in the button factory, (fn. 331) and the silver manufacturers who petitioned for an assay office in 1773 proudly informed the world that Birmingham was a happy exception to the general rule, in England, that children meant poverty for their parents, for there people 'make their little ones earn a subsistence at the same age in which little ones are learning vice through the streets of every other large town in the kingdom'. (fn. 332)
In fact, the good citizens could not bear to see any little hands unemployed. Besides the use of workhouse children, (fn. 333) part-time labour for the inmates of the Blue Coat School was proposed in 1796. (fn. 334) The Elizabethan law relating to apprentices was, in any case, inoperative here, (fn. 335) and when attempts were made to enforce it in 1814 the Birmingham men were amongst those who asked for its repeal as being totally inappropriate to the local conditions of industry. (fn. 336) So apparently were proposals for factory Acts. When Peel's proposals for the regulation of factories containing twenty or more persons under eighteen were published in 1816, the chamber of commerce petitioned against them. The chamber claimed to be unaware of abuses and contended that, if anything was wrong, the existing laws were enough to enable magistrates to deal with the evil. In particular various manufactories afforded 'various employments for children under ten years of age which did not require bodily exertions detrimental to health'. In any case, legislation would deprive their poor parents of their earnings. Many of the local processes were such that working hours could not be precisely regulated (referring, presumably, to furnaces). Equally little was thought of the educational clauses in the Bill-there would be little advantage from such instruction, especially if compulsory. (fn. 337)
Even where employers were considerate, the system of sub-contracting ensured that the children were effectively left without protection. Both male and female gangmasters engaged young assistants (fn. 338) and this type of employment was outside the scope of legislation until the end of the 19th century, especially if it was carried out in somebody's back kitchen. Parents connived at the system. (fn. 339)
Extensive evidence on this was provided by R. D. Grainger, appointed by the Children's Employment Commission to investigate trades in the Midlands and London. Some of Birmingham's better-known firms, such as Phipson's, the pinmakers in Broad Street, came out of these reports very badly. Crowded and close workrooms, filthy privies, women overseers striking with canes children who walked three miles to work and were at their task 12 or 14 hours a day for a wage of 1s. to 3s. a week - such was the tale. (fn. 340) One firm manufacturing screws in Edmund Street (Ledsam's) would not even co-operate with the commissioner and gave no assurance that workers giving evidence would not be victimized. (fn. 341) At Wallis's in Dartmouth Street work spaces were let out to three spoon-polishers, a nail-maker, and a snuffer polisher under indescribable conditions. (fn. 342) On the other hand, James's Screw Manufactory in Bradford Street had good conditions, employing 60 men, 300 females, and no children under fourteen. (fn. 343) Turner's large button works on Snow Hill, where 500 were employed, was also praised (fn. 344) and so were the four different firms sharing the Soho manufactory. Boulton and Watt took no one under thirteen and all their 243 employees were literate. (fn. 345) The general picture which emerges, as one might expect, is that of a very mixed situation: the good and the bad side by side, with a general tendency for the larger firms to be more conscientious.
The health of adults also gave concern. If one hears little in the middle of the 18th century about the diseases affecting the workers exposed to mercury, metal dust, and fumes, it is presumably because early death was too commonplace. But with the improvement in medical statistics and some increase in the expectation of life in some parts of the country, the appalling waste of the industrial areas gradually came to light. As early as 1790, a local surgeon, W. Richardson, was writing a chemical treatise 'designed chiefly for the use of manufacturers', listing the characteristics of mercury, copper, lead, and arsenic, and pointing out the results of their use. (fn. 346) The most destructive processes were those employing a mixture of gold and mercury. Dr. Robert Bree, physician to the General Hospital, was concerning himself at the same time with the health of the industrial population and drew attention to fevers, the effect of smoke and the lack of resistance of undernourished bodies to a variety of industrial diseases. (fn. 347) The war and the various stoppages of trade, especially in 1812, accentuated the problem. Wages often fell disastrously and poor law and charity could not supply the deficiency. As chemical substances in use in various trades became more complex, the varieties of poisoning also increased. (fn. 348) The poor law and charity coped with the victims of industry as best they could. Only at Soho did Boulton's Mutual Assurance Society (founded before 1792) afford some protection of workers with elaborate and generous sickness benefits. This was unique at the time and yet it was probably less needed at Soho than anywhere else in Birmingham. (fn. 349)
The Growth of the Market
Owing to the waywardness of official classifications and to changes in the methods of recording the value of exported goods, it is difficult to give useful statistics relating to the growth of the market for Birmingham goods. Porter, in his Progress of the Nation, thought that Birmingham's rise in the world could best be presented by the weight and value of national exports of hardware and cutlery (though that trade was shared with Sheffield), and of copper and brass manufactures. From these tables (fn. 350) is abstracted the brief statement of progress contained in Table 1.
a Porter gives official values before 1814, and real values after 1814. For an explanation of these changes see A. Imlah, 'Real Values in British foreign trade, 1798-1853', Jnl. Ec. Hist. viii. 133 sqq.
There are gaps in the records and other reasons why it is not possible to give a comparative picture for each decade, but several features emerge clearly from these figures. First, although there is undoubted progress over the years, both trades suffered severe fluctuations. For hardware the lowest point came in 1808 (2,673 tons), the peak in 1836 (21,177 tons - more than eight times as much). In the case of brass and copper only 64,210 cwt. were exported in 1811 - one-fifth of the 1840 exports. There were bad set-backs in the years 1825-6 in both trades and again in 1837 in the hardware and cutlery business but in copper and brass in 1833. Secondly, then, the peaks and troughs did not coincide in the two trades, and, if we consider the home markets as well as other branches of manufacture, the evening out of the totals is even greater. In the crown-glass trade, the main troughs in total production occurred in 1820 and 1831, in exports in the years 1822-3, and 1831. (fn. 351) Thirdly, we see from these figures that the expansion of the market was accompanied by a considerable fall in prices. Less was paid per ton exported in spite of the fact that manufactures were becoming more complex all the time and, presumably, had undergone more processes in the conversion from raw material to finished article. This fall in prices is well documented in the case of some objects which were technically the same in 1812 and 1832. Charles Babbage, the mathematician, obtained these 'from the books of a highly respectable house in Birmingham'. (fn. 352) Six-inch bedscrews, square-headed, had been 7s. 6d. a gross and were, in 1832, 4s. 6d. Single roller gun locks had been 7s. 2½d. each and were reduced to 1s. 11d. Iron-turned table spoons were down from 22s. 6d. to 7s. a gross, and so on. Reductions up to 80 per cent. in price were observed.
It is not possible to say in what order these falls in price occurred. The end of the war reduced costs at home and restrictions were lifted and this widened the market. The larger sales in turn made it possible to reduce prices by adopting more machinery. Steam power and cheaper transport were probably the largest factors in cost reduction but the importance of smaller improvements, especially in the shaping of metals by machine, must not be overlooked.
How was this market reached? We have seen that, even at the beginning of the 18th century, the commercial traveller was on the roads. The man on horse-back with his saddle-bags, remained in evidence throughout our period, especially when it came to journeys which could not be made by mail coach. The main trade roads, such as those to London, Shrewsbury, and Derby, were served with tolerable regularity and speed though even by the 1840s many routes had not even a daily service and, if the connexion at an intermediate town were missed, an eighty mile journey might still occupy two full days. London was first reached in 14 hours in summer in 1782. (fn. 353) The enterprising agent was, however, still better off on a horse if he wanted to show his samples to his customers. (fn. 354) As for parcels, everything depended on the carriers, who were infinitely slower than the mail coaches and as late as 1847 only departed once a week for many destinations, (fn. 355) having by that time, of course, given up the towns served by the railway.
There were, however, several alternatives to this tedious method of reaching the customer. First, catalogues became more elaborate and informative. We have already come across Richard Ford, the inventor of the stamp or press, a considerable figure in Birmingham and possibly the builder of the sham Gothic 'Hockley Abbey'. (fn. 356) The goods which he may have produced and certainly marketed c. 1775 are illustrated in a catalogue issued by Ford, Whitmore and Brunton. (fn. 357) This shows clearly how far the organization of marketing had progressed by then. The tools sold were mostly those required in the jewellery and watch-making, gold and silversmiths' trades but there were also other metal-working tools and parts for machines, as well as weighing machines. There was an astonishingly wide range of sizes and finishes for each tool and orders could be placed by numbers, presumably by using a separate price list. Such catalogues were issued to the firm's agents and travellers and orders came by post. A catalogue of 1810, issued by W. & C. Wynn of Suffolk Street, (fn. 358) specializes in carpenters' tools and other steel products and is similarly precise and detailed. Nailmakers' price lists of about 1807 show a like wide range of products available and advertise that not less than 1,200 nails go to a thousand. (fn. 359) By 1845 a pattern book issued by Keep & Hinkley of Russell Street lists more than 100 different types of screw hooks alone as well as an immense variety of furnishing ironmongery. (fn. 360)
For the convenience of buyers visiting Birmingham a number of manufacturers either established their own showrooms in the centre of Birmingham or exhibited their wares in permanent collections run by enterprising individuals such as Charles Jones, who maintained the 'Pantechnatheca', or General Repository of Art (built 1823), (fn. 361) in New Street. This was a retail shop as well, but seems to have served as a place where the products of different manufacturers might be compared. The medallist, Edward Thomason, maintained his own showrooms in Church Street, as well as allowing 'persons of distinction' to visit his factory. (fn. 362) This was, by 1830, no longer permitted at Soho, but there too, large showrooms were available for the display of the full range of Boulton and Watt's products.
Besides the catalogues which were sent to all the factors and wholesale merchants in the trade, more firms kept their own warehouses, showrooms, or agents in London. This practice was mostly confined to large businesses like Boulton and Fothergill (fn. 363) and, later, Tangyes. Taylor & Perry, of Newhall Street, successors to John Taylor's establishment, maintained a London outlet near Fleet Street. (fn. 364) Henry Clay had a house in King Street, Covent Garden, which served commercial as well as personal purposes. (fn. 365)
For the smaller firms, however, the factors and merchants remained the principal outlet for sales. (fn. 366) In the 1777 directory there were 85 such firms and by 1815 there were 175. (fn. 367) They were directly in touch with the London and oversea markets but they also travelled the country. (fn. 368) Many of them were among the leading citizens of the day. The Chances (who, as Chance & Homer specialized in the American trade), the Galtons, Lloyds, Spooners, and Taylors were all established before 1770. Many of them, like Moilliet, Muntz, and the Dutch-American Henry Van Wart, had direct connexions with other countries. (fn. 369) Many of them had obviously come from the continent. By 1847 there were Schletter, Louis & Mier, Neusdadt and Barnett, Openheimer, Perero, Stoessiger, Weiss, and Flersheim. (fn. 370) The name Flersheim had already occurred in 1799 in a case involving the sale of buttons illegally marked 'strong gilt' (fn. 371) in which a local buttonmaker was charged together with L. Flersheim, a 'Jew merchant late of Frankfort'. No doubt such men maintained links with their home towns. Herz Moses Flersheim, of Frankfurt, transferred his business in English buttons and plated goods, in 1790, to his son, Löb Herz Flersheim. (fn. 372) The 'Jews and emissaries', (fn. 373) accused of bribing workmen to tell their trade secrets or to take employment abroad, were probably in reality travelling merchants in search of new toys.
More usually foreign trade went through the merchant houses of London and Liverpool. (fn. 374) Boulton and Watt had their own agent (fn. 375) but most firms used the general trade agents for particular areas or commodities. Even by 1800, a good many of the local firms depended on such outlets.
'Thus Birmingham hath not yet arrived at the zenith, neither is she likely to reach it for ages to come. Her increase will depend upon her manufactures; her manufactures will depend on the national commerce; our national commerce will depend upon a superiority at sea; and according to past and present appearances, this superiority may be extended to a long futurity'. (fn. 376) This, ironically enough, appeared only a year before the most disastrous collapse Birmingham trade ever suffered in our period.
The large number of references to the American trade and its vicissitudes from 1765 onwards, show both the significance and the uncertainty of this market. It was not a luxury trade but a sober export of nails and other hardware, of glass and mirrors, tools and weapons. The troubles preceding the War of Independence caused some dislocation. In 1775 the Birmingham men were divided over whether they wanted the rules enforced against the colonists or not. One group asked for relief from 'the present unhappy obstruction of our commerce' with America (fn. 377) but another section of the Birmingham trades wanted the strict enforcement of the law, perhaps in the hope of causing an open breach and thus giving a stimulus to arms production or preventing the competition of American iron. (fn. 378) There were many more such petitions in the next fifty years. They usually asked for help without specifying the remedy. Occasionally Birmingham men knew what was required as when, in 1824, they pleaded for the recognition of the South American governments to facilitate trade. (fn. 379)
As a general rule, no clear commercial policy was pursued by the local trading interests. (fn. 380) They were free traders so far as the duty-free import of their raw materials was concerned but they mostly wanted protection against foreign competition in their home and oversea markets. They were afraid of Irish competition when the commercial treaty was being debated in 1785 and had little confidence that they could enlarge their own markets there. (fn. 381) When Pitt's French Treaty of 1786 was being opposed nationally by the General Chamber of Manufacturers, however, the Birmingham Committee disagreed with the statements published in London. (fn. 382) Locally, there was clearly a division of opinion on the matter; one suspects that the committee was dominated by a few of the more enlightened and competitive manufacturers, like Boulton, and the merchants who saw great opportunities in the French trade. (fn. 383) The brass manufacturers petitioned in 1783 against the repeal of laws relating to the export of brass (fn. 384) but, of course, the iron manufacturers were in favour of free import of their raw materials. (fn. 385) Even great pressure in the form of rising metal prices and dislike of the corn laws did not convert the Birmingham men to the idea of free international competition until very much later. (fn. 386) In face of great fluctuations in the success of exports, they complained continually of the success of other nations in breaking into markets which they considered to be their special preserves, largely owing to the tariff policies pursued by the governments concerned. Brass was allowed free into France, Portugal, Russia, and Germany, but goods manufactured from the metal were subject to duty. (fn. 387) This was intended to encourage the native producers and, judging by the complaints of the Birmingham trade, at any rate, it seems to have been to some extent a successful policy. Samuel Smith, the Birmingham merchant, giving evidence before a committee in 1799, particularly mentioned the German makers in the Ruhr area. (fn. 388) We have seen that there was anxiety about the emigration of artisans, as there was about the export of machinery, and rival establishments set up by Birmingham men abroad come to our notice. (fn. 389)
The extent of Birmingham's dependence on these markets is perhaps best demonstrated by the distress occasioned in the crises of the war years and the great commercial failures of the 19th century. (fn. 390) First, the French wars and the effects of the Berlin and Milan decrees interfered with the European markets, mainly for brass and plated goods. Then the American outlets for nails, hardware, and glass, which had begun to compensate for the loss of France, were almost destroyed by the United States' non-intercourse legislation and the British Orders in Council which followed. Europe had probably taken about one-quarter of Birmingham's output by 1790. (fn. 391) France had been a preferred market. The French were punctual payers and the 1786 treaty had, in the end, proved advantageous to Birmingham. Faujas de St. Fond had visited Birmingham in 1784 and commented that it produced goods which made France tributary to England. (fn. 392) Boulton and Watt had conducted their first substantial foreign business in the erection of engines in France from 1778 onwards. (fn. 393)
The war cut off a good deal of this business, though probably not altogether. A book of instructions in French for Watt's copying machine was printed in Birmingham in 1807, presumably at a time when there were enough sales to justify this. (fn. 394) Nevertheless, the blockade was effective, especially in the occupied territories, and Hamburg was long to remember the havoc wrought by Davoust's burning of the English goods. (fn. 395) There remained, in 1795, the Russian and American trades but they clearly were less profitable since they tended to consist of the heavier wares. The shortage of shipping also hampered the expansion of the most distant markets (fn. 396) and even made itself felt on the short sea routes.
The total volume of exports of British produce to the United States, as measured by a comparison of the fictitious 'official values', had amounted to about £8 million in 1805-7. In 1808 it dropped to about £4 million, rose again to nearly £7.8 million in 1810, then fell disastrously to less than £1.5 million in 1811. In 1812 there was a slight revival; there are no records for 1813, but in 1814 trade was at a standstill, so that we may say that for about four years this market was almost completely closed. At the end of the war there was a revival, which brought the value up to £11.9 million before falling off again to an average of £7 million in the post-war years. (fn. 397) In 1807 the whole American continent had taken nearly 63 per cent. of British exports, by 1811 it was only 46 per cent. of a much smaller trade (fn. 398) and most of this was to the much more risky South American market. Although the total figures are suspect, and Birmingham's share in the trade is not known, we have considerable local evidence that this decline hit the town hard. Thomas Attwood declared that Birmingham's trade had been 'principally' with Europe before 1790, had then switched to America and had been at a standstill since the spring of 1811. (fn. 399) The annual value of the town's American trade had been between £800,000 and £1,000,000, which was half its total output, and this compared with 'trifling' exports to other areas worth about £300,000 and a home trade of perhaps £700,000. The South American trade was threatened through lack of remittances. Many cargoes had been abandoned. (fn. 400) Steel exports had ceased; the Americans had started making their own and had introduced machines for the automatic production of nails. Other manufacturers and merchants confirmed this evidence. Jeremiah Ridout, a partner in a firm of merchants in Newhall Street, had personal knowledge of the American market and a partner resident there. (fn. 401) Several others described themselves as 'American merchants' and some of the manufacturers said that the greater part of their output sold in the United States. (fn. 402)
The Birmingham men blamed all their ills on the Orders in Council, but it is clear from the evidence that, with the exception of some of their leaders (Attwood, Potts, Spooner), their knowledge of what these Orders were, or how they had come about, was very imperfect. They had speculated on a limitless American market and when it collapsed blamed the government. But it is recorded that some merchants had sent parcels of goods 'just as for U.S.' to South America and then found that they would not sell. (fn. 403) How good was their commercial intelligence? The legendary ice-skates which, according to McCulloch, were sent to Rio de Janeiro, were perhaps of Birmingham origin. (fn. 404)
In the event the Birmingham deputation, which went to London in June 1812 to plead again for the revocation of the Orders, was successful and was received with great joy on its return to the town. (fn. 405) Nevertheless in the long run it turned out that the North American trade was doomed to remain much less important than it had been, in the British economy generally and that of Birmingham. Instead, the Far Eastern connexion was fostered and Birmingham joined with others in petitioning for the ending of the East India Company's monopoly which hampered the expansion of trade. (fn. 406)
It is not possible to say for certain whether exports were as important in Birmingham's economy from 1815 to 1840 as they had been during the war years. The value of iron, hardware, and cutlery exports did not even double during this time; their volume increased slightly more as prices fell. But since population nearly doubled in the interval (fn. 407) and productivity must have risen very considerably, one would guess that the town's industrial production rose faster than the export possibilities. Nevertheless, each cessation of foreign activity caused distress. The immediate post-war slump was the occasion for a petition by the 'distressed mechanics of Birmingham' (fn. 408) and the gun trade remained inactive for many years after the war. A fresh boom occurred in 1824-5 but a collapse in 1826 brought despondency again. (fn. 409) American exports were high in the thirties, but ended quite suddenly again in 1836-37. The 'appalling state of commercial distress' led to a meeting between artisans and merchants and manufacturers, with those engaged in the American trade (like Van Wart) prominent amongst them. This time unemployment and short-time working continued until well into 1838. (fn. 410) Nevertheless, one has the impression that the resilience of the local trades was remarkable and that the diversity of products and markets prevented any prolonged general depression even in what were nationally the worst periods.
Employers' Organizations and the Proof House
Before 1760 we hear little of any permanent organizations among the manufacturers. Occasionally meetings of masters in particular trades took place and an announcement on prices followed, as with the filemakers in 1746 and 1759 and the master weavers in 1748; (fn. 411) and presumably the petitions presented from time to time on such subjects as the Africa Company's monopoly or the import of iron were drawn up at general meetings of the trade.
These meetings became more regular after 1770 for a number of reasons. First, difficulties over supplies of raw materials increased. The establishment of the brass companies was the response to this need. Secondly, there was continual concern with quality and the bad reputation Birmingham suffered. Masters combined to prosecute those who infringed the law, and, as we have seen, petitioned for the establishment of the assay office. Thirdly, the workmen were beginning to organize themselves better and to make collective demands which required collective answers. Fourthly, adverse trading conditions and the desire for government protection through fiscal policy led to the formation of permanent and general policy committees.
The Birmingham Commercial Committee was formed in 1783 with Samuel Garbett as its first chairman. Its members were both merchants and manufacturers. (fn. 412) It had a rather stormy existence and had to suffer suspension and re-birth on several occasions, gaining permanence only in 1842 as the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, a name first used in 1813. Its early preoccupations are well summarized in a list of resolutions passed in 1785: (fn. 413) they were against taxation of manufactured goods and in favour of the taxation of real property; for raw material imports to be free of duty; against excise laws which threatened trade secrets whilst the officers were allowed in the workshops; for control of tool exports (fn. 414) and for a government that would do all it could to encourage manufactures. (fn. 415) With variations, these themes occur through the society's and the chamber's history. They considered foreign treaties and the prices of copper and brass, opposed usury laws and the revival of apprenticeship regulations, and equivocated on combinations, free trade in general, and factory laws. After 1842, when free trade was accepted, they discussed currency, partnerships and limited liability, the iniquities of the railways, and trade marks. Though Boulton kept rather aloof most of the time, the leading men in the early days were the greatest figures in the town. The 1813 committee included the Attwoods, William Chance, Richard Cadbury, the Galtons and Rylands, Richard Spooner, Joshua Scholefield, the Lloyds, and Thomas Osler. (fn. 416) After the re-formation in 1842, although one of the leading M.P.s was always president, the members tended to be more and more the merchants and the manufacturers of the second or third rank with the leaders of industry as nominal members or outside it altogether.
At the time when the Combination Acts were supposed to prevent concerted action by masters and men alike, the commercial committee acted as a perfectly legal forum for the discussion of industrial topics but undoubtedly less reputable meetings took place at the same time. Thomas Osler, the glass manufacturer, representing the chamber before the Committee on Artisans and Machinery of 1824, admitted such secret meetings but thought that combinations could never be effective among employers for there were too many of them. There were, he thought, fewer than twenty brass founders who employed a capital of £20,000 in their business. (fn. 417) These twenty, however, probably did meet and agree on their prices and wages. The existence of printed 'price lists', issued by small masters in the middle of the war, suggests that among them too, combinations were quite feasible. (fn. 418) We have seen that the leading swordmakers combined to fix identical tenders when a customer inquired for large quantities. A prosecution against men who had infringed the Button Act reveals that there was a Button Association in 1799 with a treasurer, Simpson, who was an attorney, and offered a reward of ten guineas for information. The association also secured the services of the assay master and his son to make tests on gilded buttons for those who applied for them. (fn. 419) Other trades also had their associations, some permanent, some ephemeral. The jewellers combined in 1851 to prevent stealing and receiving but had nothing permanent until 1887. (fn. 420) The window-glass makers were strongly organized nationally as early as the 1820s (fn. 421) and the Midland Flint Glass Manufacturers and the 'master cutters' combined in 1858 and 1845 respectively, apparently to resist combinations by their workmen. (fn. 422)
Perhaps the strongest association was in the gun trade. That the masters acted in concert is already shown by the testimonial in 1692 to Sir Richard Newdigate signed by 'The Company of Gunmakers of Birmingham', (fn. 423) though there is no evidence that the company as such survived. But from time to time they organized petitions on such matters as the shortage of currency and the iniquities of their London competitors, who were, of course, highly organized. When war broke out in America and after 1793 in Europe, the demand for arms increased very considerably but it seems that Birmingham was not obtaining its proper share of government contracts, perhaps because of the atrocious reputation the local product had in the world. Nevertheless, the needs of the armies forced the Board of Ordnance to place ever larger orders there, especially after 1804, and one contemporary estimate puts the total number of barrels made in Birmingham between 1804 and 1817 at about 5 million. (fn. 424) To overcome their handicap in the market, the local gun-makers seem to have acquired the habit of stamping their finished guns with a London mark, whether the barrel had been proved unofficially at Galton's proof-house, officially in London, or not at all. (fn. 425) This was a desperate expedient and throughout the war the need for local control of quality was discussed. The Board of Ordnance itself, of course, inspected every arm before it took delivery and after 1798 it did this locally at a viewing station in Bagot Street known as the Tower. (fn. 426) This procedure was not, however, available commercially. As long ago as 1766, the Earl of Shelburne had advocated the employment of a local proof master to ensure the safety of the guns made in Birmingham. (fn. 427) This hint was probably picked up from his host, Samuel Garbett, who was an untiring advocate of quality control. But the high degree of competition in the trade, together with the profitability of the export of unproved arms, was too great to allow concerted action until 1813. Then a proposal to introduce an Act to compel every manufacturer to mark all his weapons with his own name, brought the Birmingham gunmakers together to try to prevent the passing of this Act and to obtain, instead, an Act for a local proofhouse. In 1813 provision was made for guardians, trustees, and wardens to institute and supervise a local proof-house under the direction of a proof master. At the same time proving was made compulsory. The Birmingham Proof House was built in Banbury Street and John Bondman was the first proof master. (fn. 428)
The early years of the proof-house were stormy. It seems to have caused a split between those who conducted the proof-house and those who claimed that they were injured by the conduct of the place in the hands of their rivals. (fn. 429) Various attempts were made to ensure that the proof-house was controlled by persons unconnected with the trade. These failed, but the regulations were tightened up at intervals until the organization became generally acceptable, (fn. 430) mostly following the Acts of 1855 and 1868. (fn. 431)
Science, Technology, and Steam Power
The organizational changes in production described in this chapter were intimately linked with the progress of science and technology. Steam power made it possible to concentrate far more industry in Birmingham than in the days of watermills. It meant that forgings and castings of a much larger size could be made, that costs were reduced to a fraction of what they had been, and that some of the hardest and most dangerous operations were performed by machine rather than by hand. Without scientific progress, steam power could not have been harnessed. Its application meant advances in metal technology. The great accuracy required in large machines involved progress in mensuration and the control of production. Chemicals and electricity made it possible to perform complex operations on a large scale.
We have seen that there was some amateur interest in science in the mid-18th century. Lectures on all kinds of 'philosophical' subjects appeared frequently in the newspapers of the time, until in 1800 the permanent Philosophical Society (or Institution) was established. (fn. 432) The Society of Arts was formed in 1821, and the Mechanics' Institute in 1825. (fn. 433) Even before this, there were artisans' libraries. (fn. 434) We may suppose that such institutions helped in the training of the skilled labour force. Not only did the making of steam engines, chemicals, and metal alloys presuppose a high degree of literacy but new trades were coming in which required almost every single workman to be scientifically trained. From about 1800 the making of telescopes and other optical instruments began in Birmingham and the production of spectacles was advanced from its former crude state. (fn. 435) Rules and other measuring devices were made with great accuracy. (fn. 436) An instrument-maker was settled in the town by 1777. The engraving of dies similarly demanded a high degree of precision. The engine-makers provided blue prints from which their workmen made the finished machine. (fn. 437)
Perhaps the greatest local agency promoting the application of science to industry was the Lunar Society. Although only five of its fourteen ascertainable members were actively engaged in industry, there is no doubt that it concerned itself with matters of very practical interest as well as the larger scientific issues of the day. (fn. 438) Boulton and Watt's firm at Soho was technically, without doubt, the most advanced business in Birmingham, if not in England, at the time. It has been shown that the perfection of scientific instruments was one of the firm's chief concerns. Watt, indeed, had begun his career in the making of such apparatus. (fn. 439) Accurate techniques of mensuration, especially in connexion with assaying and the mixing of chemicals, were required and the construction of balances was perfected. James Keir was a prominent member of the society with a wide variety of industrial and scientific interests. Although he has a bad reputation as a jack-of-all-trades, his manufacture of alkali was of real industrial importance. (fn. 440) He, too, made instruments. (fn. 441) At one time he applied his alkali to glassmaking and he also patented a metal mixture which was similar to Muntz's metal, which became well known forty years later. It was composed of copper, zinc, and iron and Boulton seems to have succeeded in persuading the Admiralty to make trials of the alloy. (fn. 442) All his activities involved the application of laboratory experiments to practical industrial problems. (fn. 443)
Such questions as the composition of glazes would interest their fellow member, Wedgwood. The geology of the raw material deposits was of concern to all metal manufacturers and so were the malleability and ductility of different sorts of alloys. (fn. 444)
The improvement of the steam engine itself may well have been discussed at the meetings of the society. Boulton and Watt had gone into partnership in 1775 for the exploitation of Watt's steam engine patent. Economically the importance of this engine in the last quarter of the 18th century lies in the employment it gave at the Soho Works in the making of parts until 1796 and the manufacture of complete engines at Soho Foundry after that date, rather than in the amount of power actually supplied to Birmingham manufacturers. Some of the earliest applications were on the canals in the area, where engines were used to pump water back from lower to higher levels at the numerous locks on the edge of the plateau. (fn. 445)
There is evidence that Newcomen engines were erected for industrial purposes by 1760 and in 1783 we find 'power to let' in an establishment where shafting took the motion from a central steam engine to various rooms used by individual masters engaged in drilling, polishing, and similar operations. (fn. 446) This system was still in operation in 1832 when it was described by Charles Babbage in his Economy of Machinery. It was clearly an integral part of the town's industrial organization. (fn. 447) Joseph Gillott, the pen-maker, started the manufacture of small knives with his brother in a workshop in a corner of the yard of G. & P. Muntz's rolling mill in Water Street and obtained the small amount of steam power required from his landlords' engine. (fn. 448)
A table of engines erected in Birmingham before 1835 (fn. 449) shows that only about 270 h.p. was provided by steam in the borough before 1800. But by 1835 there were 169 engines at work, with a total of 2,700 h.p., the largest number being employed in 'metal working', that is rolling, drawing, and forging. J. G. Bodmer, in 1816, had seen a 54 h.p. engine at work at a gunbarrel makers, which drove grinding and boring machines and circular wood saws and, at a wire-drawer's, 60 machines driven by a single engine. (fn. 450) A drop-hammer of 4 cwt. was steam driven and even a brewery employed a tiny 4 h.p. engine. Although these are not impressive figures by modern standards, there is no doubt that by 1840 the arrival of steam had transformed large sections of industry. (fn. 451) Hawkes Smith, writing in 1836, gave pride of place to steam in his list of factors which had made Birmingham great. The indispensable tools of the local manufacturers-the press, the stamp, the lathe, and the draw bench for wire - all depended on steam power. (fn. 452) Prophetically, Charles Babbage demanded a system by which such power could be transmitted from a central engine to workshops at a distance. (fn. 453)
In the age of steam, the large machine became commonplace. The Eagle Foundry, where Holyoake worked as a youth, (fn. 454) was in fact by 1825 a complex engineering works employing heavy machinery in the cast-iron trade, as well as constructing it. (fn. 455) The finishing of large castings required planing and drilling machines which dwarfed the operators in the engraving, and these, in turn, required large cranes to lift them. (fn. 456) Many operations, such as the grinding of plate glass, needed a degree of power and regularity which no hand-operated tool could give them. Thus industrial Birmingham was transformed into a city dominated by soot and noise. (fn. 457)
Birmingham was famous as a centre for inventors. Until about 1850, far more patents were issued here than in any other place outside London. (fn. 458) This was due not only to the great variety of trades with their various needs but to the presence in the town of so many skilled smiths and founders and general engineers who were used to the translation of inventors' ingenious ideas into metal assemblies. Although some of these patents were associated with the Soho group, the majority originated in less highly organized systems of research and production. Boulton's own improvement to the automatic coining press, Keir's sheathing metal, Murdock's gas lighting, Watt's improvements to the steam engine, and both his and Murdock's methods of changing reciprocating into rotative motion, were all innovations which radically transformed methods of production and industrial organization. But most of the patents granted to Birmingham men were in respect of comparatively small mechanical improvements in the manufacture of trinkets and buttons, in machine tools, metal compositions, and scientific instruments. Some, like Muntz's metal, brought fortunes to the patentee, others were soon forgotten. Many of the inventions were concerned with methods to speed up production of the semi-fabricates which were universally used in typical Birmingham products, like rolled tubes, wire, and bolts. There were also the inevitable eccentric ideas which had no commercial future, ranging from Lindopp's 'Portmanteau Saddle' to a number of impracticable road vehicles, some propelled by steam.
In some cases the inventions laid the foundation for a whole new industry. The series of patents concerned with electro-plating to be discussed below, (fn. 459) James T. Chance's improvements in the production of window glass on a large scale, and Arthur Albright's amorphous phosphorus, are cases in point. Often, however, such an identification is not possible and the value of the invention has only shown itself in the saving of labour or fuel effected in a number of branches of industry. Moreover, countless improvements were never patented but simply adopted by small masters who derived some advantage for this without incurring the costs and delays involved in obtaining a patent. The secretive manufacturers who locked their doors and led James Drake to complain in 1825 that the tourist trade was endangered by their behaviour (fn. 460) were, in all probability, men who found it easier to withold their innovations by keeping them dark rather than ensuring the enforcement of a patent with all the publicity for the specification this method involved. (fn. 461)
Supplies of Raw Materials and Fuels
As the sheer quantity of output increased, Birmingham industry was forced to pay increased attention to the supplies of raw materials. Iron was the least of the difficulties so far as the town was concerned. Less and less was being used compared with other raw materials. The general adoption of the coke smelting process in south Staffordshire in the later 18th century made possible a rapid increase in the output of pig iron when, as in war time, the demand rose. The price fell to £12 per ton even in 1812. (fn. 462) Coal, too, was available in large quantities and, since the opening of the canals, was brought to the users quickly and cheaply. Well might Freeth, the local bard, write:
'For true feeling joy in each breast must be wrought
When coals under five-pence per hundred are bought.' (fn. 463)
That was in 1769, soon after the first canal, the Birmingham Canal, (fn. 464) opened, and in time coal was 'twopence a hundred' delivered at the wharves. Among the promoters of the canal project had been the ultimate beneficiaries like Kettle the steelmaster, and Samuel Galton. Bodmer, in 1816, saw the immense advantage this coal conferred on local industry. (fn. 465) But when a canal to Warwick was proposed in 1793, the manufacturers opposed it in case it should prove too much of an additional outlet for the Staffordshire coal supplies and thus raise their price to local industry. (fn. 466)
William Murdock's successful gas lighting, developed from experiments begun in Cornwall, was adopted at Soho before 1800 (fn. 467) and from then on spread into other establishments in Birmingham. Just as this method was found cheaper and more reliable than oil lamps in keeping production going during the winter, so the gas flame provided the most economical and versatile small source of heat. Bodmer, in 1816, saw it used for annealing glass and soldering metal. (fn. 468) The making of gas fittings became one of the staple trades in Birmingham. (fn. 469) A large glass factory on Aston Hill was said to be 'as light as day' by means of gas jets issuing from a leaden tube round the workroom. It cost 4s. 6d. a night to provide more illumination than would have been afforded by 240 candles, costing 20 times as much. (fn. 470) Most of these early schemes depended on a gas generator on the premises, but, since the incorporation of the Birmingham Gas Light Company in 1819, (fn. 471) a town scheme was set in operation and gas began to rival coal in the heating of all kinds of furnaces where exact control of heat was essential, such as in annealing. In the jewellery industry it soon became the sole source of fire.
Brass proved more difficult. (fn. 472) In the 17th century, Birmingham had been dependent on foreign sources and, early in the 18th, the brasshouses of Cheadle and Bristol supplied the bulk. There was a local brasshouse (Turner's) from about 1740 but its output proved insufficient and prices caused anxiety from the 1770s onwards. Finally, in 1780 'the article rose, either through caprice, or necessity, perhaps the former', as Hutton delicately put it, to £84 per ton. (fn. 473) The fact was that there was a combination against the brass users, of which Turner formed part and very soon the victims decided to enter the market themselves (fn. 474) and to form companies to smelt copper as well as make brass. Matthew Boulton, who was not in Birmingham at the time, urged caution on his fellow manufacturers. This, in view of his own heavy investment in Cornish copper mining and at least one smelting company, is not surprising. In the end it was decided to produce only brass and to do so in Birmingham itself and not in the rising metallurgical areas of north or south Wales. In 1781 a start was made on the brasshouse near Broad Street on the Birmingham Canal with capital subscribed by the local consumers for the Birmingham Metal Company. (fn. 475) Two hundred proprietors had been asked to raise £100 each and this total of £20,000 was quickly reached. Many who were anxious to have a share were disappointed and there was soon a feeling that the co-operative undertaking would itself turn into a monopoly.
The immediate effect of the start of operations was to lower the price of brass from £84 to £56 a ton. As Hutton put it, 'the old companies. . . like some former monarchs, in the abuse of power, they repented one day too late'. (fn. 476) Two years after its establishment there arose a new threat to supplies when it was proposed to repeal legislation prohibiting the export of brass. Boulton, both on free-trade grounds and since he felt it would benefit the mining trade, was in favour of liberalization. The Birmingham men and other consumers opposed it and were successful. (fn. 477) Further difficulties experienced in the supply of copper for the brass works, of which from 1,500 to 2,000 tons were needed annually in Birmingham, eventually led to the formation of the Birmingham Mining and Copper Company in 1790 with a capital of £50,000 in 500 shares and works at Swansea and Redruth. (fn. 478) Later there were also the Rose Copper Company and the Crown Copper Company, both owned in Birmingham and operating in south Wales.
Apart from these staple materials the town consumed large quantities of miscellaneous imported materials. (fn. 479) The refining of gold and silver obtained from London is said to have begun about 1760 with the recovery of precious metals from jewellers' floor-sweepings. John Taylor is said to have gained £1,000 from this practice. (fn. 480) The pearl-button trade was initially wasteful of shells, cutting only a single blank from the most convenient part. As the demand grew, however, more economic methods of cutting had to be resorted to and the world's coasts scoured for supplies. (fn. 481)
The town of Birmingham grew at almost the same rate during this period as it had done in the previous forty years, but there was some slackening of the tempo of expansion towards the end. In the decade 1841-51, Birmingham, Aston, and Edgbaston grew by almost 28 per cent. In 1871-81, it was about 16 per cent. This was still more than the national average and, to some extent, the stationary population of Birmingham borough was offset by the faster growth of the more distant suburbs. (fn. 482)
That there was a slight decline in the momentum of expansion may be confirmed by an examination of industrial trends. There were certain significant innovations in the mid-Victorian period but, in general, it is true to say that the main lines of fresh development had been laid down before 1840. The railway, the steamship, and the telegraph brought Birmingham into closer touch with a larger market and this gave an impetus to the industries which had been handicapped by the high ratio of weight to value characteristic of their products. There was a relative decline in the importance of some of the staple industries of earlier periods like the 'toy' trade, and the growth of some new lines, such as electroplate, bedsteads, railway rolling stock, sewing machines, ropes, machinery, and cocoa. In a few of the old-established trades, such as gunmaking, mechanization had affected a proportion of the firms. The general picture was nevertheless much the same in 1880 as it had been in 1840 and it is intended here only to sketch the main areas of significant change.
Size and Organization of Firms
The partnership, as the principal method of financing the operations of larger firms, still predominated in 1880. Though joint-stock companies were increasing in number towards the end, limited liability was still a rarity for two decades after it had been made legally possible and public companies, especially in manufacturing industry, were few. Not until the commercial difficulties of the eighties threatened the partners or unprotected shareholders did the suffix 'Limited' become usual. The first undertakings with a modern joint-stock organization were those which had been created by the amalgamation of smaller partnerships. Most important of these was the Birmingham Small Arms Company, the successor to twenty firms entrusted with government contracts at the time of the Crimean War, which had faced the difficult tasks posed by the constant severe fluctuations in the market for guns by the adoption of limited liability in 1862. (fn. 483) In the same trade the National Arms and Ammunition Company Ltd. was formed in 1872. (fn. 484) This method of finance was also usual in the manufacture of rolling stock and railway components on a large scale, which was carried on by five such companies registered in Birmingham by 1880. Only two public companies might be said to have been converted private firms: Josiah Mason's Perry & Co. Ltd., and the Muntz Metal Co. Ltd. of Smethwick. (fn. 485) The private limited companies were largely commercial or, in reality, connected with the Staffordshire trades, though they also included ventures like the Patent Metallic Airtight Coffin Co. Ltd.-firms with small capital and perhaps uncertain prospects which resorted to this form of finance and were suspect in the industrial world for a long time to come. (fn. 486) The normal path to growth was, however, still for the owner to plough back his profits when the steady demand for his products enabled him to do so.
The Large Firm
By 1870 there were probably fewer than twenty firms in the town employing more than 500 persons. Many of these had existed before 1840. They included Joseph Gillott's and Josiah Mason's pen factories, Robert Winfield's brass and engineering works in Cambridge Street, (fn. 487) William Aston's button factory in Princip Street, (fn. 488) Elkington's electro-plating business in Newhall Street, and Dowler's Plume Works at Aston. At the last matches were the principal product. (fn. 489) There were also the three large railway-carriage works at Saltley. (fn. 490) There was a tendency for the larger works to be situated on the canals and the railway leading north-westwards out of the town, and there was a concentration of them in what is now the county borough of Smethwick but was then generally regarded as part of Birmingham. This group included Chance Brothers, the Birmingham Plate Glass Company, and Nettlefold and Chamberlain's screw factory. (fn. 491) There were a number of other firms which probably employed fewer than 500 people at that time. They may, by reason of their large-scale organization, be grouped with these others, especially in view of the fact that a high degree of mechanization in itself meant fewer employees. These included Tangyes' Cornwall Works where hydraulic machinery was made, and, in the glass trade, the firms of Thomas Osler and Rice Harris. (fn. 492)
These were very much the show places of industry. Joseph Gillott & Sons' works in Graham Street had a world-wide reputation (fn. 493) and the owners delighted in conducting visitors through the building. From their descriptions one may form some idea of what it was that allowed some manufacturers of comparatively small articles to produce on this exceptional scale. Contemporary descriptions praise the working conditions and there is no sign that low price was due to the employment of sweated labour. (fn. 494)
Winfield's may be taken as an example of another sort of large firm. This was a highly integrated concern, started by Robert Winfield c. 1820 and employing 800 people by 1866, with a weekly pay roll of nearly £3,000, an average of nearly £4 a worker. (fn. 495) This shows that a very high proportion of skilled men was used. The founder was the sole controller for most of the period of growth. In the beginning he was only a brassfounder but gradually other trades were added. The firm made its own sheet metal, wire, and tubes, and manufactured a wide range of end products from these semi-fabricates. Here the key to size was the ability to control a large number of operations, each carried out on a comparatively small scale, under one roof. Without this rare ability no real advantage was derived from the total size of the undertaking. (fn. 496)
Where a large amount of heavy machinery was used, as in drop forging, the central provision of power conferred benefits on the larger firm. John Yates & Co., Exchange Works, Aston, had 400 men in that establishment as well as others at Pritchett Street. They were manufacturers of edge tools, a class of product with the common characteristic that all required a heavy application of mechanical finishing processes. (fn. 497)
In the case of Elkington's, the basis of large-scale production was the monopoly afforded for a time by the exclusive patent rights reserved to the partners and their employees, as well as the strange reluctance of others to take out licences for the use of the patent. By 1850, ten years after the grant, they had 500 employees and well over a thousand by 1880. (fn. 498) J. & E. Wright's rope works at Garrison Street similarly owed its growth to a patent for the production of rope composed of hemp and wire. This had a high degree of strength and resistance to corrosion, yet was light and was used for the Atlantic cable of 1866. (fn. 499) The business had been founded in 1770 by William Wright of Dartmouth Street, was continued first by his son William and then his daughter-in-law Ann, and after 1846 by his grandsons John and Edwin. They were the patentees and brought the firm to its later size. (fn. 500)
In the button trade the tradition of large-scale enterprise, initiated by John Taylor, was carried on by Elliott & Sons in Frederick Street, the Astons, and two or three other firms. (fn. 501) There were also several employing between 200 and 500 people. By 1871 there were twenty factories with over 3,000 employees between them, as well as numerous small workshops, (fn. 502) so that there cannot have been any absolute advantage in size. The labour force was mostly composed of women and children and very little power was used. Hand-operated machinery was the rule, with a good deal of work also performed by the simplest tools. Here, too, it required good management and marketing methods to achieve success.
Medium and Small Firms
The factory returns of 1871, although they do not distinguish Birmingham separately from the rest of Warwickshire, give some idea of the organization of the major trades, especially when seen against the background of the census information of that year. (fn. 503) The returns are divided into factories and workshops. This was an obscure distinction in Birmingham. Factories meant generally all establishments in certain industries where power was used, as well as those in all other industries employing over 50 people, whereas the workshop was a place other than a factory where young people and women were employed in handicraft trades. Thus, we find that there were no workshops at all among iron foundries, in machine making, glass production, or cartridge making. They provided, however, the greater part of employment in the gun trade, in the manufacture of files, saws, and tools, buttons, gold and silver plate, and jewellery, the 'miscellaneous metal trades', as well as in those craft occupations which catered mainly for a local market. Nail-making was equally distributed between factories and workshops, each establishment having, on the average, 45 employees. This, of course, excludes the domestic nailers. About half the brass-finishing trades were carried on in factories with an average of 80 people, and about half in workshops with fewer than 50 persons.
In the button trade the 20 factories employed 150 each, the workshops 20. In gun making the average was under 50 in factories and under 20 in workshops. The mint had 164 workers. In the return as a whole there are 4,873 establishments with 92,799 workers or fewer than 20 a firm. The figures exclude premises not subject to the Acts, so that we may be certain that the true average for all productive units was smaller still. The small business predominated as it had always done. This was despite the fact that the greater use of power and the introduction of large and expensive machinery, tended to increase the size of firms. (fn. 504) Conversely, the repeal of the excise on glass is said to have proliferated the 'cribs' or very small glassmakers' shops. (fn. 505) The 'nests of small shops' at the George Street Mill elicited unfavourable comment in 1862 and were thought to be typical of the town just as they had been in Babbage's day. (fn. 506)
New Industries (fn. 507)
One of the most important fresh developments after 1840 was the introduction of electro-plating into the silverware trade. The principles involved in the process (Faraday's laws of electrolysis) and the necessary source of electric current (the constant current battery) had been known for some years before Wright and Elkingtons' patent for the commercial process was taken out in 1840. (fn. 508) Wright, a Birmingham surgeon, was the true inventor. The Elkingtons had been in the old silver-plating trade for many years and toy-makers before that, and had been interested in the experiments in the electrical deposition of metals ever since the publication of Faraday's paper. (fn. 509) The basis of Wright's process was the solution of the precious metal in potassium cyanide which resulted in a firm and even deposit on the article to be plated. The new method did not at once produce good commercial results and, apart from the resistance to it in most sections of the trade, there were also technical imperfections to be overcome. One of the main advances came with a further patent by J. S. Woolrich in 1842, which introduced a dynamo (i.e. an electro-magnetic machine) into the process for the purpose of creating a current of sufficient strength and regularity. (fn. 510) This patent was purchased by Elkington's. After further improvements by Millward, O. W. Barratt, and Alexander Parkes, the process was a great commercial success and completely displaced all other forms of plating by the middle of the century. Elkington's factory in Newhall Street became the centre of the trade and a place of pilgrimage for scientists. The firm continued to experiment and is reputed to have given Sir William Siemens a start in England by purchasing a process from him, which proved to be unworkable, for a handsome consideration. (fn. 511) Elkington's had half this trade by 1862 and the other firms also employed about 1,000 people between them. (fn. 512)
Chemicals and the refining of metals by chemical methods played an increasingly important role in Birmingham's industries during this period. John & E. Sturge (founded c. 1822) (fn. 513) had been originally at Bewdley as makers of dyers' solutions and had moved to Wheeley's Lane, Edgbaston, shortly afterwards. They increased their range in Birmingham and, by the middle of the century, their chief products were citric acid, used in the making of soft drinks, and textile processes (fn. 514) and other fine chemicals in a highly purified state. In 1842 the Sturges took into partnership Arthur Albright, who had come from Charlbury (Oxon.) and had worked at T. & W. Southall's, a well-known druggist's business in Bull Street and forerunner of two firms of manufacturing chemists. In 1844 the Sturges and Albright began the making of phosphorus on the banks of the Worcestershire canal at Selly Oak. In 1851 Albright transferred the main activities in this line to Oldbury and in 1855 dissolved the Sturge partnership and sold the Selly Oak works. Sturges continued at Wheeley's Lane, and was still there in 1961. Both Albright (since 1856 in partnership with J. E. Wilson) and the Sturges later returned to the south side of the town, at Lifford, to establish branch works. (fn. 515)
The production of nickel silver is an example of the new type of metal refining. (fn. 516) Nickel was required as the principal constituent for 'German silver', the material from which small articles like cutlery were cast even before electro-plating opened up great new possibilities for this substance. (fn. 517) The commercial refinement of nickel by means of an acid solution was perfected by a Birmingham veterinary surgeon, Charles Askin, who had come from Cheadle (Staffs.). He developed it into a large-scale undertaking in partnership with Brooke Evans, the son of a draper, who had already had some experience of the iron industry in Poland with two of his brothers, and was familiar with nickel and cobalt from the continental mines. (fn. 518) Evans and Askin became the chief suppliers to Elkington's, who silvered the articles, but other firms soon followed in their footsteps. Eventually, all production was merged into the firm of Henry Wiggin. The refining of cobalt, which was used in the glazing of pottery, was also developed by Askin and carried on by his firm.
Henry Wiggin was born in Cheadle in 1826, was apprenticed to a firm of woollen drapers in Birmingham and joined Evans and Askin in 1842. He became a partner in 1848 and, after Evans's death, sole proprietor. The business moved to the Birmingham Heath area in the forties and owed much of its later success to the fact that it gave facilities to the Mond family when they began their experiments in England. (fn. 519)
Great progress was also made in mechanical engineering. Richard Tangye had come to Birmingham in 1852 as a clerk in an engineering works but had practical experience of engines in his native Cornwall. He started a small business of his own, renting for 4s. a week a workshop in Mount Street. (fn. 520) His great opportunity came with the invention of a powerful hydraulic jack, which proved useful in the launching of the ill-fated Great Eastern and the orders he received as a result meant expansion for his firm in which he was by then partnered by his brothers. Richard himself continued to interest himself in the mechanical engineering side and began the manufacture of Weston's differential pulley block, as well as mechanisms of his own invention, whilst his brother travelled in search of orders. In 1864 the Tangyes removed to the neighbourhood of Soho, where they built up Cornwall Works. Their specialty was the manufacture of machines to very close tolerances. By 1866 they had their own warehouse in London and a world-wide business.
Mechanization also gave an impetus to the steam-engine trade but Birmingham's share in this gradually declined. One important component, tubes for steam boilers, was made on a large scale in south Staffordshire and, to some extent, in Birmingham, for example by the firm of William Tonks & Sons of Moseley Street. (fn. 521) Originally, tubes had been made by forming strips into the required shapes and then soldering the seams but these proved ineffective under pressure. From 1838 the drawing of seamless tubes had been practised in the town (fn. 522) and this became a considerable trade. It was estimated that some 9,000 tons of tubes for railway and marine boilers had been made in Birmingham by 1865.
The railways provided other employment in Birmingham. T. H. Ryland, in his reminiscences, described how his business was first brought into prominence by his ability to supply Brunel with a very large number of screws for fastening rails to sleepers. (fn. 523) Bolts and nuts for fish-plates became a Birmingham specialty, and, before 1880, some 3,300 people were engaged in the manufacture of these parts. (fn. 524) Production was highly mechanized and standard gauges on Whitworth's system were introduced. The largest concern was the Patent Nut and Bolt Company, which arose out of a combination of smaller manufacturers (including Watkins and Keen) and took over Fox, Henderson & Co.'s works at Smethwick. (fn. 525) The company had interests in other parts of the country and eventually became part of the Guest, Keen and Nettlefold combination. Bassano and Fisher of Albion Works, Liverpool Street (successors to Thomas Lowe), had been chiefly makers of springs and harness for coaches. They turned to railway work in the forties and became specialists in accessories for railway rolling stock, signalling equipment, and stations. (fn. 526) Other firms produced railway steam whistles (fn. 527) and Chance Bros. made red and green glass for signals. Others yet, like Joseph Wright of Saltley, made parts for engines.
As the scale of production increased, large joint-stock companies were formed on the basis of these smaller firms. Carriages of sorts had been made since 1838 but the first modern plant was that of the Metropolitan Carriage and Waggon Co., situated at Saltley (on Wright's former premises), and this area became the centre of the trade. Metropolitan alone employed 1,200 people in 1862 and the four main firms together had more than 3,000 workers. (fn. 528) An important export trade developed. One of the earliest patents was in the name of Henry Van Wart, the American merchant. (fn. 529) James Hardy's patent forged axle, first mentioned in 1844, (fn. 530) marked the beginning of another important railway trade, though this eventually had its principal seat at Wednesbury. (fn. 531)
An entirely different new line was in bedsteads. The introduction of metallic beds was a rather sudden affair in the forties and the fashion soon spread. (fn. 532) Benjamin Cook of Whittall Street was said to have invented them (fn. 533) but there are, in fact, patents in many different names. There were only five makers recorded in 1847 but about twenty existed in 1862, employing some 2,000 people. There was again a large export business, about half the estimated weekly output of 5,000-6,000 going abroad. (fn. 534) Bedsteads of infinite elaboration in design and mechanical versatility were produced, including an automatic self-collapsing variety actuated by an alarm clock. (fn. 535) Plainer articles were made for export, for government departments, and hospitals, and the telescopic kind for travellers. (fn. 536)
Out of the pin and button industry grew other trades using tinned wire as their raw material, notably the making of hooks and eyes. Much of the work of putting these articles on cards was done by home workers. This was one of the worst paid sweated trades. The finished article sold at 2d. a gross and about 800 home workers were said to be employed in 1862. (fn. 537) Work in the manufacturing centres was highly mechanized and not particularly obnoxious. It was almost entirely women's and children's work. (fn. 538) The gun trade gave rise to one particular off-shoot which, in turn, laid the foundations for the Birmingham branch of one of the country's largest industrial concerns. Kynoch's began making percussion caps at Great Hampton Street and in the sixties concentrated their activities at Witton, where they eventually became the Metals Division of Imperial Chemical Industries, with printing and cartridge making as ancillary activities. Kynoch's cartridges were world famous but they also produced other kinds of arms and ammunition. (fn. 539) The basis of the shell-case was brass and local skills in the working of this metal ensured the expansion of the trade. B.S.A. and the National Arms and Ammunition Company also made cartridges and there were some smaller firms. Total employment in this trade, however, was not significant before 1880. (fn. 540) Like the gun industry it was subject to violent fluctuations of demand, at least as far as the military trade was concerned, and this led to some attempts at diversification.
There remains one last new industry, entirely untypical of Birmingham and yet, in later periods, one of the town's most important ventures. This was the cocoa industry. The Cadburys had been in Birmingham since the late 18th century and had interests also in the linen business and button manufacture. They were prominent citizens and held public office. In 1834 John Cadbury began a tea and coffee dealer's shop in Bull Street and from 1835 experimented with cocoa manufacture at Crooked Lane. (fn. 541) In 1847 he moved to Bridge Street and it was there, in the days of his sons Richard and George, that the business grew very fast. George was born in 1839, was apprenticed early in the family firm and undoubtedly possessed great business acumen as well as political and philanthropic instincts. He and his brother inherited capital from their mother, Candia Barrow, member of a family closely linked to the Cadburys and itself identified with the town's commercial life. This capital was urgently required in 1861 when the sons took over the manufacturing business. There were then only a dozen employees and turnover was falling. George succeeded in building up this wasting asset with the help of Barrow money (£10,000) but it was only after a long struggle and a good deal of self-denial, with the threat of bankruptcy in 1863, that success came. It was largely due to the adoption of a high standard of purity in their product, which threw a great deal of trade into their hands once the 1872 Adulteration of Food Act had handicapped their less scrupulous competitors. By the late seventies they had 300 employees, and, faced with the limitations of Bridge Street, made the decision to move out to Bournville. This change laid the foundation not only of the modern British cocoa and chocolate industry but was a landmark in the history of housing and planning. (fn. 542)
The coming of the canals had already helped to enlarge the area devoted to industry in the town. The steam engine had emphasized the need for coal. By 1840 both old and new firms had begun to look for sites on the fringes of the old areas. The railways reinforced the trend. They brought raw materials and carried away finished products and they enabled workpeople to live at a distance yet without the need for long walks. Cheap fares became universal.
At Soho Boulton had accentuated a trend already previously described, for new industries to settle along the main lines of communication between Wolverhampton and Birmingham. Soho and the adjoining areas of Smethwick were one favourite location and tended to attract some of the larger firms. Soho Foundry, Nettlefold and Chamberlain, some of the railway carriage makers, and Tangyes were all in that group. (fn. 543) Birmingham Heath, the district between the town and Soho, rapidly filled up after about 1830. Its chief industries were glass and chemicals but it also proved attractive to smaller firms.
Other suburban ventures clearly owed their origins directly to the canals and the railways. (fn. 544) The Adderley Park Iron Company on the Coventry-London line, the three carriage works at Saltley on the Derby line and the B.S.A. establishment at Small Heath on the Oxford line are cases in point. Further down on the same railway at Hay Mills, there was another group, including rope works. (fn. 545) To the north, at Witton, we have already encountered Kynoch's cartridge factory. Though Harborne acquired a branch railway line the west proved less attractive and apart from the ubiquitous nailers only Palmer's tool works, almost on the edge of Smethwick, was of any importance.
An important colony developed on the south side of the town in Worcestershire. Selly Oak, on the Worcester canal and later on the Gloucester railway, had been developed by Albright and Sturge in the forties. (fn. 546) Nailing had always been settled there but the new developments were varied, including Elliott's metal works, where another variety of patent sheathing metal for ships was produced. In later years the plant was in the hands of I.C.I. and another one nearby became part of Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds. A little further south-east along canal and railway was some pleasant open land, developed by George Cadbury after 1879 without losing its rural character altogether; then came Hazelwell, Breedon (Nettlefold and Chamberlain, previously in the occupation of James, Son and Avery), (fn. 547) Lifford, where Sturge and Albright and Wilson expanded, and King's Norton. Here there was, by 1865, an important range of new establishments including G. R. Wilson's india-rubber works (Lifford Mills) and James Baldwin's Sherborne paper factory, named after their original Sherborne Street works. (fn. 548) A little to the west of King's Norton village, at Wychall on the River Rea, there were new rolling mills occupied by Charles Ellis & Sons. By 1871 King's Norton had more than 11,000 industrial workers. (fn. 549) Birmingham's sprawl had begun in earnest.
When J. E. White toured the Birmingham factories for the Children's Employment Commission in 1863, he carefully distinguished between the typical old establishments in the centre of the town and the new plants on the periphery, which normally he found much better than the old. Heaton's Mint at Icknield Street, makers of tubes and brass founders as well as coiners, was described as being on the edge of the town, new, light, and airy. (fn. 550) This was part of the Birmingham Heath complex. So was Enoch Chamberlain's Abbey Street works (Lodge Road), where one of the traditional trades had found enlarged premises. They were tinplate workers and japanners and also earned praise for airy and light conditions. (fn. 551) The Saltley railway works were similarly commended. (fn. 552)
But these moves left the jewellery and gun trades quite unaffected for the most part. The other staple industries, like brass founding and button making, went only a little way out into what became the inner ring industrial areas of Hockley, Aston, Nechells, and Ladywood. (fn. 553)
Labour Force, Labour Relations, and Conditions
The total industrial labour force over twenty years of age at the time of the 1871 census in Birmingham, Aston, and King's Norton was nearly 100,000, of whom threequarters were men. If one adds the boys and girls and districts in the adjoining counties not separately distinguished, the total is probably nearer 150,000. (fn. 554) For Warwickshire as a whole 92,000 people came under the factories and workshops Acts. (fn. 555) This includes Coventry and Rugby and we may judge from this that a very large part of the total Birmingham labour force was outside the operation of the Acts, employed on home industries or in small workshops not using power. Since classifications change, it is not possible to compare the occupational structure of 1871 in detail with that of 1841 (fn. 556) but certain categories may give some indication of developments.
Among the male workers above twenty years the largest single occupations were the same in 1841 and 1871: gunsmiths and makers (over 4,000 as against 1,650), buttonmakers (1,300 at both censuses), goldsmiths, silversmiths, and jewellers (3,400 as against 1,200), and brass manufacturers and braziers (4,460 against 2,620). Clearly, buttons were relatively less important and both guns and jewellery had gained. Other large groups, some of which had loomed large in 1841, were on the wane: in 1871 there were only 115 in the toy trade so described (680 in 1841). Japanners were the same number (approximately 275) in each case. The sword cutlers, die sinkers, and engravers, the bellowsmakers and buckle manufacturers, and the snuffer makers had disappeared or were in 1871 subsumed under other headings.
Instead, there were 256 instrument makers (49 in 1841), 452 weighing-machine makers (103), presumably mainly in the employment of Averys, the new owners of Soho foundry. Engine and machine makers were 2,240 (200), and toolmakers 1,280 (370). (fn. 557) Glassmakers had almost doubled. Wire drawers and workers had increased from 380 to 2,630. The total of those described as being in the iron and steel trades had risen from 440 to 2,989. In 1841 230 men were listed as stampers and piercers: this category disappeared in 1871 but there were over 1,000 'artisan mechanics'. We have 147 papermakers (34) and 375 brushmakers (16).
Among the women buttonmakers were still by far the largest group-nearly 1,700 (700). Nearly a thousand were steel pen makers (125). The employment of females in guns, jewellery, screw-cutting, and machine working also increased considerably and there were large numbers employed as burnishers and pressworkers without any indication of the branch of industry.
These figures clearly demonstrate the change in the industrial picture. There were certain new industries and the staples of the early part of the century had declined. The increased importance of machinery and steam is reflected both in the increased number of those making and maintaining tools and power and the larger number of women employed in attending them. Nevertheless it must be stressed that these changes were not fundamental. The proportion of women employed (fn. 558) and the age structure remained fairly stable. Skills were different, but the proportion of skilled people in the total labour force was roughly the same. Nor were there important differences as to conditions or hours of work until after 1872. 'Saint Monday' was still the subject of complaint in 1862 (fn. 559) and manufacturers had trouble introducing a regular working week. Hours were clearly still excessive, though a few philanthropists had introduced Saturday half-holidays even before they became general in the last quarter of the century. (fn. 560) They were, however, often bought at the expense of longer hours on Fridays. T. H. Ryland thought that some of the improvement was due to the fact that the railways would not collect parcels after a certain hour and there was therefore no point in keeping clerks and warehousemen until late. (fn. 561) After 1872, however, the nine-hour day made distinct progress, especially in the engineering industry. (fn. 562)
As for conditions in the smaller factories the reports of J. E. White and Dr. Greenhow (fn. 563) to the Children's Employment Commission and the Privy Council in the early sixties show no improvement whatever on Grainger's report in 1833. (fn. 564) The occupational diseases of grinders, founders, and buttonmakers were those described by Richardson seventy, and Darwall forty years earlier. (fn. 565) The results of working in crowded and ill ventilated rooms were the same. If the dangers of mercurial poison had disappeared with the coming of electrolysis, there were now the hazards of working unguarded heavy machinery and the increased use of acid in pickling, refining, and etching. (fn. 566) Whilst Birmingham in general was accounted healthy compared with the other large manufacturing towns, even the most sanguine apologists for the system had to admit that something was deeply wrong. In salubrious Edgbaston, the deathrate was less than 15 per thousand, in the parish of Birmingham it was 26.5. (fn. 567) More detailed investigation showed that the high death-rate was due mainly to casualties among such groups as metal workers over 45, whose lungs had been damaged in early manhood. The workhouse, the prisons, and the asylums were full of the still living victims of these working conditions.
The employment of children, too, was just as widespread and disastrous to their health and morals as it had been. Work still occasionally began at five or six years of age and was general before children were ten years old. (fn. 568) The local inquiries of J. E. White confirmed what the census had revealed-that there were not far short of 20,000 persons under twenty years of age in regular employment, 13,080 boys and 5,380 girls. Of these perhaps 2,800 were employed on errands in warehouses and millinery shops, leaving some 16,000 in manufacturing (excluding domestic nailers). (fn. 569) Many of the children worked the night shifts in trades where furnaces had to be kept going continuously and they were subject to the same diseases and accidents as the adults. The authorities were much pre-occupied with the moral state of the young and the Commissioner's questions reveal a state of degradation and ignorance among the young workers that makes it difficult to accept the progress in education which is supposed to have taken place in Birmingham at this time. (fn. 570) There is a clear distinction in the reports between skill and education: men capable of accurate and difficult work might still be illiterate and only those boys who were serving an apprenticeship in a trade requiring a high degree of literacy or even mathematical knowledge would be expected to be educated to a higher standard of general information and conduct.
The Factory Act of 1864, the 1867 Extension Act, and the Workshop Regulation Act gradually improved some of these conditions. They brought the typical Birmingham industries largely within their scope. (fn. 571) Children under eight were excluded even from workshops and those under thirteen were not allowed to work more than halftime. The local authority's system of administration was, however, defective. Working hours were loosely defined, and despite numerous attempts at consolidation and improvement, especially in 1878 and 1891, nothing was fundamentally changed until the Act of 1901, which may be taken as the beginning of modern legislation. Conditions in Birmingham factories and workshops improved only very slowly, whatever the state of the law. What Boulton was to the late 18th century, Cadbury was to the 19th- but they remained in complete isolation.
Considering the conditions prevailing, labour relations appear to have been surprisingly good. Although trade unions developed rapidly during this period, including the Brassworkers Society under W. J. Davis, strikes were still very rare. (fn. 572) Relationships such as existed between Davis and at least one enlightened employer, R. H. Best, were probably unique (fn. 573) but the same causes which produced unsatisfactory reports from inspectors also operated in the direction of industrial peace. Such causes included small workshops and semi-independent master craftsmen in many of the larger ones and a labour force much diluted by women and children in those large factories where trouble might have been started. (fn. 574) Besides, from 1840 until the end of the seventies, despite occasional crises, employment was good and wages correspondingly high. Where there was a crisis, as caused in the gun trade in 1859 by a fall in exports, a prolonged strike was possible, but it was an unusual occurrence in an industry where relations were not strained by rapid mechanization or dilution of labour. (fn. 575)
There was, nevertheless, a wide range of pay rates in different trades. Samuel Timmins's correspondents for his survey published for the British Association meeting in 1865 reported differentials of a high order. Labourers were generally said to earn at least 15s. a week, at a time when business was brisk, but the most skilled craftsmen, the charge-hands, and some piece-workers in non-mechanized trades, frequently took home £2 and more. Those who employed gangs of their own on a contract basis probably earned most. In the gun trade top wages were higher than elsewhere. (fn. 576) Clearly the most intelligent and steady workmen enjoyed a premium far greater than was customary in later periods and this may have hindered the spread of dissatisfaction. Among nailers or iron-workers, where conditions were very different, strikes were more frequent. There is not much evidence in Birmingham of large groups of intelligent but depressed skilled workers as existed in Lancashire.
Employers were too numerous often to act in concert, so that dissatisfied workpeople found it easy to change their place and, until about 1875, it was unknown for a great number of trades to be suffering simultaneously.
Oversea trade expanded very rapidly during the mid-Victorian years. If we take as representative of Birmingham products the official category 'other metal goods', for which continuous statistical series are available, we find that exports of these goods were worth £416,000 in 1830, £678,000 in 1840, £1,489,000 in 1850, £2,208,000 in 1860 and £3,324,000 in 1870, a level which was not much surpassed during the next thirty years of comparative stagnation. (fn. 577) Birmingham also had a share of other categories. With iron goods, machinery, and 'other manufactured goods' the expansion was of the same order. The one difference was that expansion of exports of machinery and 'other manufactured goods' continued at the same great rate even after the onset of the mis-named 'great depression' of 1873-96, (fn. 578) whereas textiles, for instance, languished. Behind these figures lies the characteristic structure of Birmingham's foreign trade. The Black Country and allied manufactures in Birmingham, such as nails, as well as the coal and iron industries themselves, were hard hit. (fn. 579) Expensive jewellery, too, suffered badly and was stated to be the most depressed trade in 1885-7. (fn. 580) But brass, electro-plated silverware, buttons, and bedsteads escaped. (fn. 581) The gun trade had been producing at a high level since the Crimean War. It did well in the American Civil War which was said to have provided a market for 750,000 barrels. (fn. 582) It continued to be prosperous until after the end of the Franco-Prussian War and was then still kept alive for some years by the fact that many governments re-equipped their armies with the new breach-loading rifles. Then the decline came and business was rather quiet until the end of the century, when a new period of hostilities and great prosperity began. In general, it seems that, where there was much innovation, the town could hold its own, but the traditional industries faced increasingly severe competition from other countries. (fn. 583)
There is not much indication that Birmingham had found itself any new markets in this period and the best of the older ones were precisely those where Germany, Belgium, and France also concentrated their efforts. (fn. 584) American industry was producing increasingly the goods formerly supplied from England. If Birmingham was to compete, it had to be on the grounds of quality, price, and novelty of design. These matters were not clearly understood by contemporaries who tended to blame the depression on such matters as the cost-raising effects of the factory Acts, the charging system of the railways, the activities of trade unions, low wages on the continent, and so on. (fn. 585) Free trade was seriously questioned. (fn. 586) They did not see that those local producers who had ventured into new lines, adopted the latest methods, and used machine power to its full extent, were able to pay good wages and yet increase their business.
Not only did methods of production have to change to exploit new markets. The whole system of reaching the customer through the factors and London merchants was found to be unsatisfactory and many of the larger firms created their own foreign agencies. London showrooms became more usual too. Joseph Gillott had one there and another in New York. Elkington's sumptuous gallery in Regent Street is another good example. R. H. Best, partner in Best & Hobson, brass-chandelier manufacturers, found it necessary to visit his European agents repeatedly to maintain the high proportion of exports of the firm's products. They had three agencies, each of which had to keep a stock of the varied products. (fn. 587) What he saw on his continental journeys persuaded him that British industry needed not only good workmanship but good design and he came to devote a large part of his energy to the education of the brassworkers in this and other respects.
Large firms like the Tangyes found it necessary to have one of their partners to travel constantly in search of markets, to direct the agencies, to enforce the price lists, and to watch competitors. (fn. 588) The Chances maintained a London office from the forties, and, even before that, had a number of commercial travellers who reported on trading conditions as well as soliciting orders. (fn. 589) Advertising became a large business with the growing number of newspapers, periodicals, and trade papers. Many manufacturers began to adopt names and recognized trade marks to distinguish their products from those of their competitors. Joseph Gillott and Perry were among the pioneers of advertising their products. Every pen bore Gillott's signature. Brades village near Birmingham became known all over the world to users of tools (fn. 590) as, at a later date, did Bournville among the consumers of chocolate. The royal warrant and others granted by lesser princes were sported in advertisements, as were the medals gained at the many exhibitions of the time. Birmingham's assorted wares at the Crystal Palace in 1851 certainly helped to make them known the world over, though whether the papier-mâché armchairs and the collapsible bed did much for sales may be doubted. (fn. 591)
Technology and Power
Birmingham had a rich and varied scientific life. The Birmingham and Midland Institute (1854) provided a forum for lectures and discussions with distinguished visitors. (fn. 592) Yet the town lacked provision for systematic technological education. (fn. 593) The Mechanics' Institute closed in 1843 and a Polytechnic Institution failed to arouse interest. (fn. 594) A School of Design had more than a thousand students in 1865, (fn. 595) but there is little evidence that it was of serious importance to industry. (fn. 596) Mason's College did not begin teaching until 1880 and was not a centre of scientific research for some time after its foundation. (fn. 597) The Technical College came much later. (fn. 598) So there was little opportunity for the apprentice in Birmingham to learn other than by his master's instruction. This did nothing to foster innovation. It is noticeable how many of the men who introduced new methods into local industries came from outside the town. The Scots of the Soho days, Askin and Wiggin, Gillott and Ryland, all came from other parts of the country. Towards the end of the century Birmingham looked increasingly to the continent for its scientific manpower as earlier generations had recruited medallists in Germany and glass-makers in France. G. A. Boeddicker, who became Wiggin's chief chemist in 1877, was trained at the Berlin Technical School (fn. 599) and the Mond family introduced the modern nickel production techniques. In 1854 the Nettlefold and Chamberlain concern had to import American screw-making machines to survive. (fn. 600) The gun industry brought its modernization from the United States, too, in the shape of machines for the production of rifles with interchangeable parts, (fn. 601) and yet was many times in danger of extinction in the face of the more up-todate methods used in the government's own factories, as well as foreign competition.
Despite the fact, therefore, that many Birmingham patents still appeared in the list, they were clearly declining in national importance after 1855, and there was a distinct lack of technical impetus in the town. After Muntz's ship metal (which was not even original) and the electro-plating processes, only the glass industry, phosphorus making, and one or two other trades not typical of the town made rapid technical progress. There were, indeed, many small improvements recorded in a variety of trades, leading to a reduction in costs and a saving of labour. But electricity, chemicals, and rubber owed little progress to Birmingham after 1850. The cycle trade got a foothold locally in 1872 and eventually the motor car and rubber tyre trade settled in the town, based largely on patents and methods perfected elsewhere. This did not affect Birmingham's prosperity but it changed one of the essential characteristics of its industry. Entrepreneurs came to Birmingham where they were able to make use of a highly skilled and contented labour force, whom they trained in the new techniques required. A marked contrast grew up between these large, well-organized firms with their high degree of mechanization and the small workshops which continued to exist where neither factory Acts nor steam power had great significance and where the men produced that wide variety of goods for which the town had always been famous, but which played a declining role in its wealth and income.
In 1880 steam power was still supreme, (fn. 602) though the gas engine and electric motors were both known and hydraulic power was used in certain specialized operations where heavy and sustained thrust was required. But the total amount of power used was not impressive compared with, say, the forges and rolling mills of south Staffordshire. The individual worker had a fraction of a horsepower at his command even in the most mechanized trades. (fn. 603) Hand-operated tools and foot-pedal presses and 'olivers' were still widely used. In 1865 one who was proud of Birmingham's achievements and who knew the stamped brass goods trade intimately wrote of the trade: 'They are slow to recognize the waste of nervous energy and muscular strength in a process which can be better accomplished by the inanimate and untiring power of steam. By retaining the old method of working, they ignore the science of the 19th century; this advancing intelligence repudiates, and humanity deplores'. (fn. 604) In the suburban nail shops of Harborne or Northfield equipment and organization were exactly the same as they had been for a hundred years or more. In the jewellery industry the same was largely true. The goldsmiths and gem setters occupied the same cramped ill lit workshops round St. Paul's church into which they had first settled a century earlier (fn. 605) and which were often still their homes a hundred years later. The gunsmiths' organization and power equipment, too, was practically unchanged. (fn. 606) There were exceptions, like Charles Reeves, (fn. 607) and Westley Richards who had a highly integrated factory and, before the end of the century, shook off the cramped surroundings of the gun quarter and went to Bournbrook. (fn. 608) Westley Richards mass-produced revolvers with a good deal of machinery. (fn. 609) The Birmingham Small Arms Company worked on a very large scale but only had two engines producing 180 h.p. and standardized their parts - but even they were not a self-contained unit and bought in from sub-contractors. (fn. 610) If labour was saved and prices reduced then, it was partly because the stamp and the press could, in fact, ensure some saving of costs compared with hand-tools and because the division of labour in the finishing processes was probably as rational a system as could be devised.
Birmingham, in 1880, still impressed the visitor greatly as a large city almost completely devoted to industrial production and showing a larger variety of products than any other town in the country. Yet it was, at that time, in the midst of an important transformation. Fashion had already killed many of its traditional industries and depression at home and competition abroad were about to do further damage. Henceforth the large firms and combinations of firms, in the form of the anonymous joint-stock company, were to play a far larger part in total employment than hitherto. The brass industry, the jewellery and toy trades, and other trades based mainly on the very small unit, made little or no technical progress and could hope to sell only on the quality of their design or function, or their extreme cheapness - and there was an inherent contradiction in this. The advent of the new industries, however, prevented what might have been a great calamity for the town and gradually absorbed the surplus labour power in the market.