diamond geezer

 Sunday, March 22, 2015

Birmingham's position as our second largest city is due to a long history of entrepreneurial craftsmanship. The Industrial Revolution brought not belching factories but an expansion of small workshops, so that 19th century Birmingham was known as the City of a Thousand Trades. So when I unexpectedly found myself in town on the day of the eclipse, I thought I'd dig into its industrious past.

The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter
Even to this day, 40% of the jewellery made in the UK originates here in Birmingham, across a square mile to the northwest of the city centre. Here are broad streets lined by terraced workshops, some still used for their original purpose, others reconditioned as offices and creative spaces. I was amazed by the number of shops selling rings, watches and diamonds, easily eclipsing Hatton Garden, which is worth knowing if you ever need to buy an expensive trinket for your other half. Regeneration has brought a creative buzz to the Jewellery Quarter, seemingly genuine rather than propped up by a hipster cafe culture. And near the station is a museum that tells the area's history by perfectly preserving part of it.

In 1899 Smith & Pepper founded a jewellery business specialising in gold bangles, churned out from a ground-floor workshop round the back of their houses on Vyse Street. Business prospered and dozens of skilled workers were employed, the company taken over by three of Charles Smith's offspring when he died in 1933. They continued to run things the traditional way, until one weekend in 1981 when Mr Tom, Mr Eric and Miss Olive (now in their 70s and 80s) decided it was time to retire. Having been wedded to the business they had no children of their own, and nobody willing to take over, so one day they left everything where it was, locked up, and left to enjoy their retirement in the suburbs. A decade later when the lease expired, Birmingham City Council discovered an industrial time capsule, perfectly preserved, and set about reopening the building to the public. The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter is the result, a fascinating glimpse into how things used to be, not so very long ago.

A fiver gets you into the museum, with tours of the workshops available every hour or so at no additional charge. While you're waiting there are three galleries to explore. One's out front, between the tearoom and the shop, and hosts a temporary exhibition (currently WW1-related). Upstairs is an account of the Jewellery Quarter's history, and how the city came to boast the busiest Assay Office in the land. And upstairs again is a selection of the varied substances from which jewellery is made, from metal to precious stones, and from coral to tortoiseshell. Your tour guide meets you by the comfy sofas, introduces the Smith family and then leads you into the company offices. These are a marvel, especially for anyone who remembers the period, which it has to be said everybody on my tour did. The whole place is laid out as in 1981, with Post Office labels on the packing bench, a stack of stapled brown cardboard boxes awaiting delivery, Miss Olive's typewriter in the corner and even a jar of half-finished Marmite on a shelf by the tea things. I could have poked around for ages, but a strict No Touching policy applies.

Downstairs is the workshop, again left as was, with tools scattered on the workbenches and a set of brown overalls hung up on hooks. All the company's ledgers survive, stashed away in the safe, while one wall is covered with thousands of metal diestamps carved with graphics and patterns. The guide demonstrates (in brass, not gold) how these were used to knock out metal shapes, and also demonstrates their skill with the gas pipe used for accurate targeting of miniature welds. The workbenches are amazing, one a curved table with eleven curved indentations where the artisans would have sat, the 19th century oak heavily chipped and pitted. Much of the machinery still works, rather noisily, hence the proprietors installed loudspeakers to relay the Light Programme to keep the polishers entertained. Watch out too for the Sqezy washing-up liquid bottle and Nabisco biscuit assortment tin, again left where they were, and now part of this glorious celebration of how we used to work.

The Pen Museum

Yes, Birmingham has a Pen Museum, devoted almost entirely to pens, and particularly their nibs which were manufactured in vast numbers hereabouts. It's housed in two ground floor rooms inside the Argent Centre, a polychromatic brick building of narrow workshops, opened 150 years ago and now Grade II* listed. Room one is long and thin, with cabinets full of nibs and pens and bottles of ink, most referenced to the Birmingham company from whence they came. You're then ushered through to room two, where blimey there's even more, the nibs and pens now augmented by a selection of inkwells, blotters and even a display of hole punches. It was nostalgic to sit down and have a go at writing with pen and ink, the end result alas far less convincing than I'd hoped. The museum's volunteers are keen to help and inform, possibly too keen, and admission is free, with repeated reminders that most visitors leave a donation. Having been quirkily satisfied, I think you will.

The Birmingham Back to Backs
It says a lot that the National Trust's only Birmingham property is a courtyard of old back-to-back houses. Court 15 lies adjacent to the Hippodrome in what's now the Chinese Quarter, but was once a densely-packed neighbourhood of artisanal homes. This clump of houses survived only because their frontages had become shops, the last of which closed in 2002, after which the terribly run-down buildings were carefully restored. The first house was built in 1802, later subdivided by the landlord into a front half and back half to boost rental income. Eventually eleven narrow homes faced the street or backed onto a shared courtyard, with privies for sanitation and a well for water supply some distance down the road. Today the National Trust run timed tours round most of the complex, which ideally should be pre-booked, but I got lucky and tagged onto the group departing immediately post-eclipse.

Your hour-plus tour takes you through four different houses each set in a different era. The first is the 1840s, courtesy of a Jewish family up from London to take advantage of Birmingham's crafts-friendly economy. Theirs was the largest home at Court 15, still relatively small, but spacious compared to the 1870s theme nextdoor into which two parents, six children and two lodgers were crammed. By the 1930s oil lamps had been replaced by electricity, and the period fixtures and fittings made several older people on my tour highly nostalgic. Last up, in the shop on the corner, a complete 1970s tailoring business has been retained, with brown paper patterns hung up on the wall, and pairs of tweed trousers still awaiting collection. Be warned there are several sets of very steep stairs if they're not your thing, but the tour was excellent and informative, and a refreshing reminder of how most people used to live, not just the usual mansion-dwellers for whom the National Trust is best known.

The Custard Factory
Alfred Bird's wife was allergic to eggs, so he invented an eggless custard powder and inadvertently made his fortune. Manufactured in Digbeth until 1963, his factory is now a trendy creative hub of juice bars, start-up offices and clothes shops, about fifteen minutes down the road from the Bullring. It's part Shoreditch, part Hackney Wick, and hardly a throbbing hotspot on a Friday afternoon. The shopkeeperbloke in the 80s retro outfitters stood in his doorway awaiting custom, two ladies windowshopped for fruity cosmetics, and a hip kid with a blinged-up bike rode up and down broadcasting R&B from his rear speaker. If you like things just the right side of proper alternative, you'll fit in fine.

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