The Jewellery Quarter

B18 - Grid reference SP060877

Shops in Vyse Street in the Jewellery Quarter. The source of this photograph is unknown; if any copyright has been breached please contact the author via Feedback.
Shops in Vyse Street in the Jewellery Quarter. The source of this photograph is unknown; if any copyright has been breached please contact the author via Feedback.

The area east of Icknield Street and west of Great Hampton Street/ Constitution Hill in Hockley is known as the Jewellery Quarter and has the greatest concentration of wholesale and retail jewellery manufacturers in Europe. Over a third of all British jewellery is made within one mile of Birmingham City Centre.

There is an early reference to jewellery manufacture in a survey of Birmingham made in 1553 when Roger Pemberton was named as a goldsmith living in the town. Already in the 16th century Birmingham's metalworking industry was well developed and producing cutlery, nails, swords and products related to horse transport. The general trend at this time was for heavier metal-bashing work to be concentrated in the Black Country, while smaller metal goods, which required a higher degree of precision and manufacturing skill, were made in Birmingham.


Known at the time as 'toys', they included a very wide range of goods such as badges, buckles and buttons, candle-sticks and candle snuffers, corkscrews, cruets, ink-stands, mirrors, seals, snuff boxes, sugar tongs, toothpick cases, watch chains, as well as swords and guns. (See the Gun Quarter.) And in addition to working in steel, brass, and copper, silver and gold were increasingly used. The move towards small but quality items was driven by the promise of higher profits. By 1780 a local directory listed 26 jewellers, though there were undoubtedly more. At this time the industry was spread across the town, which at that time covered the area that has become the City Centre.

The emergence of the Jewellery Quarter was the indirect result of the sale and subsequent development in the mid-18th century of the Colmore estate on the north-western edge of the town. The Colmore family lived in New Hall, a large Jacobean house set in many acres of land on what is now the north-western corner of the junction of Great Charles Street Queensway and Newhall Street. In 1746 the Colmores, by a private Act of Parliament, had the restrictions lifted which had prevented them selling the estate, and the present grid pattern of streets between Colmore Row and St Paul's Square was in place by the end of the century. Although the street plan was very regular, the development of properties was fairly haphazard. Built on plots with 120-year leases, there was a mixture large and small buildings cheek-by jowl, houses for the wealthy and houses lived in by self-employed toymakers who increasingly used the garrets or outbuildings as their own workshops.

In 1777 with the area nearest the town moving downmarket, Charles Colmore set about creating a higher-class suburb lower down the hill by donating the land and £1000 to build St Paul's Church in the middle of a fashionable square. His aim was to cash in on the demand for houses by the expanding prosperous middle class outside the growing industrial town. In this he succeeded. A significant number of these 18th-century Georgian houses survive. However, the quality of the district was not to last long.


St Paul's, the Jewellers' Church
St Paul's, the Jewellers' Church

Well worth a visit - St Paul's Church

The Colmore family gave a hectare of land and £1000 towards the building costs for St Paul's Church. Built from 1777 this is one of Birmingham's few surviving neo-classical designs and is said to be a scaled-down version of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London's Trafalgar Square. The aim was to stimulate demand for this high-class housing development on the rural edge of the crowded town.

At this time most of the pews at St Martin's and St Philip's were let. It was extremely difficult for newcomers, however wealthy, to rent a pew. The alternative was to sit in the few free pews at the back reserved for the poor. A new housing estate with a church whose pews could be purchased was a great incentive to prospective purchasers and gave impetus to sale of plots. St Paul's is now known for its proximity to the Jewellery Quarter as 'The Jewellers' Church'.

For fifty years St Paul's was a highly fashionable church in the midst of an expensive property development. However, as Birmingham's population boomed and industry thrived, the surrounding area became industrialised with poor overcrowded housing. The status of the area continued to decline and the fabric of the church building with it. After being damaged by German bombs during the Second World War there was every prospect that the church might close.

However, the life of the parish was revitalised by a vision of the church as the centre of Birmingham's industrial community. The building itself was extensively restored 1985-1994 and is now a Grade I Listed building at the centre of St Paul's Conservation Area, now consolidated as the Jewellery Quarter Conservation Area.


The Cambrian Wharf off the Birmingham & Fazeley canal is all that remains of the Newhall Arm. Photograph bt David Stowell on Geograph SP0686 reusable under Creative Commons licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Cambrian Wharf off the Birmingham & Fazeley canal is all that remains of the Newhall Arm. Photograph bt David Stowell on Geograph SP0686 reusable under Creative Commons licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

What spoiled Charles Colmore's plans was the development of the canal system and the industry it attracted. The Birmingham Canal to Wednesbury, which had opened in 1769, was linked in 1789 to the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal which separated the new development from the town. Modern regeneration of the canals gives a misleading impression of their 18th- and 19th-century character. The canals were commercial highways and attracted industrial and warehouse building in urban centres wherever they were cut.


Wharves were built at the west end of the Colmore estate, the Newhall Wharf coming right up to the site of the old hall itself. All along the Old Thirteen, the locks on the Fazeley Canal which lead down from the town centre towards Aston, there quickly sprang up warehouses, yards, wharfs, and factories powered by smoky and noisy steam engines. As the middle-class moved out, their houses were taken up by toymakers and jewellers moving down from the old side of the Colmore estate below Colmore Row to the area below Lionel Street.

By 1800 streets were being laid out on the hill above St Paul's Square between Camden Street and Warstone Lane, and by 1840 along Great Hampton Street as far as Hockley Hill and the town boundary. And it is from about this time that part of Hockley began to emerge as the Jewellery Quarter.

Jewellery-making, like gun-making, was a trade of great specialisation carried out by self-employed people often working on their own or with a small number of colleagues. This is still largely the case. Many were family businesses carried out in their own homes. Each business undertook only one small part of the overall process of making a piece of jewellery and then took it elsewhere for the next process to be carried out. Jewellery would pass through a number of hands before being sold. All the more important that the businesses should be close to one another. If businesses expanded, they would do so by building more outbuildings in the back gardens of the houses. Successful jewellers would eventually use up the whole of the house as a workshop and live elsewhere.


The images below are All Rights Reserved and reproduced from the Newman University College Local History website with the kind permission of Head of History Dr Ian Cawood. See Acknowledgements to link to that site.

Left: No.48 Tenby Street 1895

Centre: 29 Augusta Street - date unknown

Right: 54 & 56a Albion Street 1895

The pictures show the former houses converted into manufacturing premises; there were almost no retail outlets in the Jewellery Quarter at that time. Although the businesses were often small and run by small masters, these photographs show a surprising number of workers employed. 

Most of the 19th century was a boom time for the Quarter, from where fine jewellery was exported throughout the extensive British Empire. However, after the First World War business began to contract, and bomb damage during the Second World War cast doubt on the viability of the district.

School of Jewellery. Photograph by Tagishsimon on Wikipedia reusable under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.
School of Jewellery. Photograph by Tagishsimon on Wikipedia reusable under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported licence.


The Birmingham School of Jewellery has had a very beneficial influence in maintaining and developing the jewellery trade here. Started by the Birmingham Jewellers & Silversmiths Association in a branch of the Municipal School of Art in Ellen Street, the present building in Vittoria Street opened in 1890 in a former goldsmith's factory of 1865 designed by J G Bland. The conversion was carried out by local architects Martin & Chamberlain. The school was expanded in 1911 and 1993 and is now part of the Art & Design faculty of Birmingham City University, formerly the University of Central England.


The Hockley Centre, the Big Peg opened in 1971. After World War 2 the Quarter was bomb-damaged and anyway contained a good deal of badly-maintained sub-standard property. Built in a typical utilitarian 1960s style, it was designed as a flatted factory for some 150 firms displaced by the development. It was part of a radical approach to poor quality buildings in the city whereby everything old would be replaced by new high-rise.

Unfortunately the rents in the Big Peg were far higher than the jewellers' old properties and many of them went out of business. The building was largely occupied by businesses with no jewellery connection, and no more developments of its kind took place. With the revitalisation of the quarter at the end of the 20th century, the Big Peg has been refurbished and now houses a variety of arts-based and jewellery businesses.


Vyse Street
Vyse Street

From the late 1970s a regeneration of industrial Birmingham took place focussing on the service economy with developments such as the National Exhibition Centre NEC in 1976, the National Indoor Arena NIA in 1981, the International Convention Centre ICC in 1991. There was pedestrianisation in the City Centre and opening up of public spaces and canals.


A new interest was also taken in the Jewellery Quarter which was now seen not only as an industrial asset, but as a retail tourist attraction.

Until 1980 the Jewellery Quarter was a manufacturing district largely supplying wholesale products to retailers. Some jewellers in the Warstone Lane area opened retail shops at the front of their premises. Business boomed and in the past 20-30 years this has created the Golden Triangle, the retail district of the Jewellery Quarter around Warstone Lane, Vyse Street and Augusta Street.

In 1980 the Jewellery Quarter was designated an Industrial Improvement Area, and grants were made available to modernise and restore old properties. Much of the Quarter is now protected within a Conservation Area. Many properties have been renovated and new properties built, most of them in keeping with the character of the district. There has been a concerted effort to bring high-quality residential housing into the area and some of the old buildings have been converted into fashionable wine bars and restaurants.


Originally Key Hill Conservation Area, the district is now consolidated as the Jewellery Quarter Conservation Area covering the area bounded by Great Charles Street Queensway, Constitution Hill and Barr Street, Icknield Street, Summer Hill Road and Sandpits. Some Listed buildings here are good examples of simple domestic architecture, for example, early 19th-century terraced houses on Hockley Hill.


There are a number of Listed public houses here including the Jewellers' Arms c1840 with its carriage arch. Some examples are of grander origin: on Warstone Lane a neo-classical three-storey house with Doric pilasters, was built as a private residence c1835. In 1880 a workshop was built to the rear and the premises were then used industrially. The rest of the garden was built on in 1897, a development typical of the Jewellery Quarter. There are also some large purpose-built factories in the district, good examples of 19th-century industrial architecture:


Birmingham Assay Office
Birmingham Assay Office

The Birmingham Assay Office

Before 1773, all jewellery made in Birmingham had to be sent to the assay offices in either London or Chester to be hallmarked. The Birmingham manufacturers, notably Matthew Boulton, found this unacceptable and organised on behalf of Birmingham and Sheffield to petition Parliament to allow the creation of local assay offices. Despite strong opposition by the London trade, a bill in Parliament was successfully passed into law. While Boulton was in London lobbying Parliament, he stayed at the Crown & Anchor. It is believed that a toss of a coin determined that Birmingham's assay mark should be an anchor, while Sheffield's would be a crown, subsequently the white rose of York. London's mark is a leopard's head.

The Assay Office originally opened upstairs at a public house in New Street, moving to Bull Lane in 1782, Little Colmore Street in 1799, Little Cannon Street in 1815 and to its present purpose-built premises in 1877. The Assay Office is now the busiest in the world testing and hall-marks some twelve million items of gold, silver or platinum every year.

The present building is proving insufficient and a new building is being constructed to be occupied in 2015.


Well worth a visit - Smith & Pepper's

The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter on Vyse Street is set up in the former premises of Charles Smith and Edwyn Pepper, who opened a large factory (by jewellery standards) in 1899. Remarkably, when the business closed in 1980, all the tools and machinery, benches and paperwork were left untouched until the building was restored as a working museum by the City Council as the Jewellery Quarter Discovery Centre c1990.


The Argent Centre
The Argent Centre


The Argent Centre

At the corner of Frederick Street and Legge Lane the Argent Centre is a striking building in renaissance florentine style in polychromatic brick with round arches and italianate towers. Built in 1862, it was probably Birmingham's first flatted factory. 250 workers were employed here manufacturing pens. On the upper floor was a luxurious Turkish baths heated by excess steam from the factory below. Also available were facilities for billiards, chess and fencing. The construction of the building was innovative in that the floors were built using hollow bricks to reduce weight and fastened with iron ties to lessen the fire risk.



Also worth a look - Gillott's Manufactory

At the junction of Vittoria Street and Graham Street the Victoria Works, Gillott's Manufactory was built in 1838 around a central courtyard. It is an important building as an early example, certainly the earliest in the Jewellery Quarter, of a purpose-built factory. Here the world's first mass-produced steel pen nibs were made, so too Joseph Gillott's fortune.


Coming from Sheffield to Birmingham in search of work during the post-war slump after Waterloo, Gillott found work at a buckle factory. His fiancée's brothers were in the pen-making business; each pen was made individually and the quality and thickness of their nibs was inconsistent. Gillott applied the mass-production system he had seen in buckle-making to pen-making initially in his attic in Cornwall Street, then in Church Street, Newhall Street and finally in Graham Street where he had built his own factory employing over five hundred workers by 1870.


Birmingham in the mid-19th century became the pen capital of the world with twelve factories employing some 2500 workers. A semi-circular pediment with a relief bust of Queen Victoria facing Graham Street commemorates the queen's Golden Jubilee in 1887. The firm left the site for a purpose-built factory near Dudley in 1956. The building was restored and now comprises offices and apartments.



The Birmingham Mint
The Birmingham Mint


Take a look at the Birmingham Mint.

On Icknield Street stand the former buildings of the Birmingham Mint with a long frontage along Icknield Street. It is built in italianate style with three storeys around a central yard. Founded in 1794 in Slaney Street (near Weaman Street in the City Centre, but now gone) by brassfounder and button-maker Ralph Heaton I to make medals.


In 1851 Ralph Heaton II bought the Soho Manufactory minting machinery from Matthew Boulton at auction and began to mint coins. So successful was the business minting British and foreign coins that the large Icknield Street site was bought and developed by 1862.


That same year Ralph Heaton III took over and installed new machinery giving an even greater capacity than the Royal Mint in London, and subsequently taking on subcontracts from that mint. By the 1890s the Mint was producing for Russia alone over 100 million coins annually. The Mint was set up as a public company by Ralph III; Ralph IV became the managing director in 1891.

In 1911 the Mint lost the monopoly with the Royal Mint and shared the contract with the Kings Norton Metal Company. The latter was later to become part of IMI who bought out the Mint. After World War 2 the Mint diversified into button, badge and medal making, pressing, die-making, and electro-precision work. During the 1990s the Mint bought other minting companies and was itself subject to take-overs.


In 2000 The Birmingham Mint secured its biggest ever single order worth over £45 million supplying the German mints with 1- and 2-Euro coin blanks and a further 50 million 2-Euro coins for another national mint. However, the Mint went into liquidation in 2003 was acquired by J F T Law & Co with Stirchley Machine Tools Ltd. Now largely involved in badge and medal making, their premises are on the Tyburn Road near Erdington. The old Mint buildings are being converted into apartments. 


Chamberlain clock. Image by Jeremy Bolwell on Geograph SP0687 reusable under Creative Commons licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Chamberlain clock. Image by Jeremy Bolwell on Geograph SP0687 reusable under Creative Commons licence Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Take a look at the Chamberlain Clock.

Set in the middle of the Warstone Lane/ Vyse Street junction at the centre of the Jewellery Quarter, the Chamberlain Clock of 1903 is a tribute to Joseph Chamberlain's services to South Africa; Chamberlain was the area's Member of Parliament for many years. The clock was paid for by public subscription and unveiled by his wife in 1904. Originally clockwork and hand-wound it was later converted to electricity, but did not chime for many years.


Having fallen into disrepair it was restored in 1989 as part of the revitalisation of the Jewellery Quarter; a new chiming bell was installed, the lamp brackets replaced and the structure repainted. It serves as a handsome focal point for the district.

William Dargue 28.03.09/ 08.10.2012