In the heart of the Jewellery Quarter nestled in-between the rows of Jewellers shops is a factory frozen in time exhibiting traditional methods of Jewellery making and production. The building and its contents are a physical reminder of Birmingham’s industrial past and the success of the Jewellery Trade; especially during the 1900’s when it was at its peak.
The factory in question is the Smith and Pepper Factory situated on Vyse Street in Hockley which is the main attraction of the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter next door. The factory is open to the public and visits are by guided tour where you get to explore the factory and learn about the history of the Birmingham Jewellery Trade. Since I had only 2 months left on my BM&AG annual membership ticket I thought I better get cracking and visit the last remaining sites. So on a cold winter’s morning in February I decided to take a wander around the Jewellery Quarter and pop into the museum to explore.
The factory is named after the business partners who set up the firm in 1899; Mr Smith and Mr Pepper. The firm traded for 82 years up until 1981 and over the years it was predominantly run by generations of the Smith family after Mr Pepper left the business. The height of their success was during the 1920’s when they were well-known for producing snake style bracelets and jewellery with Egyptian motifs which grew in popularity after Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in 1922. Their coiled snake gold bangle with red ruby eye detail was a very popular seminal piece.
Unfortunately by the 1980’s the elder members of the family could not secure the future involvement of younger members to carry the business forward. Hence one Friday in 1981 the workers downed tools and the factory was abandoned. The building was left shut up for 9 years before the Council acquired possession and opened the doors to find a perfectly preserved time capsule. Even the workers overalls and coats were left hanging on hooks in the workshop gathering dust waiting for their owners to return. Therefore the factory as you see it today has been left pretty much untouched for the past 30 plus years.
The factory comprises of several workshops around a courtyard with office space above. Originally these were separate dwellings/workshops which were then converted into one factory. The tour initially starts off upstairs in the office and admin areas of the factory before you progress down into the main workshop area. Old receipts, paper files and vintage typewriters are left scattered across the desks; there are even old jars of marmalade and jam which Mr Smith apparently used to spread on his toast! I wouldn’t fancy opening those jars now after 34 years!
In the main workshop area you can see where the jewellers would have carried out their daily work. As soon as you enter the workshop the aroma of years of dust and industry hits you. Walking around the workshop you can see that the equipment and techniques used by the jewellers had changed very little since the beginning of the business with many Victorian contraptions, machinery and manual tools on display. The jeweller’s benches are littered with tools and even some personal items have been left abandoned such as tobacco tins and notebooks. There are metal presses used to cut out pendants and an array of different types of metal moulds to produce bangles and rings. The tour guide told us that every couple of months they clean the interior which involves photographing, removing, cleaning and replacing every single item- which must be quite a task!
The tour takes about 45 minutes to an hour and the tour guides will carry out demonstrations using the original machinery and manual tools. As well as the factory there are also two gallery spaces displaying exhibits telling the historical story of the Jewellery Quarter which spans over 200 years. Charges apply for the tour and to enter the galleries but the gift shop, café and temporary exhibition space are free.
Even though the Jewellery Quarter still has the largest concentration of Jewellery Businesses in Europe ( it produces 40% of the jewellery sold in the UK) it has reduced dramatically in size since Mr Smith and Mr Pepper set up their business. Birmingham expanded vastly during the Industrial revolution becoming a hub for new technologies and businesses. Jewellery making became a very lucrative trade and the area thrived during the 19th century with many people working and living there. The trade peaked during the 1900’s when the area employed over 30,000 people. Even during WWI production continued due to the demand for military buttons, badges and medals. However after the Great Depression the Jewellery Trade struggled to recover and continued to decline during the 20th Century mainly due to foreign competition.
On the way back I also popped into the Pen Museum; a short walk away on Frederick Street. It is situated on the ground floor of the Grade II listed Argent Centre which is a gorgeous red brick building with decorative multi coloured brickwork and a series of arched windows running along the façade. The Pen Museum has a vast collection of decorative pen nibs, fountain pens, old packaging, typewriters and all manner of pen paraphernalia. One of the volunteers told me that at one time Birmingham was making 70% of the pens sold in the entire world! A crazy statistic when you compare it with the current situation where only a handful of pen factories remain in the country producing bespoke fountain pens, neither of which are in Birmingham- how times have changed!
If you are in the vicinity you can quite easily visit both museums in a couple of hours and they give a nice introduction to the rich industrial history of the area.
- Location: 75-80 Vyse Street, The Jewellery Quarter, Hockley, Birmingham.
- Year: Circa 1880’s
- Use: Jewellers Workshop/ factory
- Style: Victorian, industrial
- Material: Red Brick
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