“We’re Europe’s third most popular museum you know?” was the rather surprising claim that greeted us when we arrived at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham. The claim is not, however, without any justification (if we accept the unreliable premise of an internet poll as ‘justification’) as it was recently voted the third most popular free European attraction, after the Pantheon in Rome and the National Galley in London, in a poll on travel website TripAdvisor. Having now been around the museum I can see why it may have done so well: a fascinating time-capsule with informed and friendly staff.
Although called the ‘Museum of the Jewellery Quarter’ this is rather misleading as it isn’t so much a museum of the whole of the area and its industrial past but rather one very specific part: the firm of Smith & Pepper Ltd. When the remaining Smiths decided to retire in 1981 they closed the jewellery manufacturing firm that had been run by the family for the last 200 years and walked away, leaving everything as it was: tools on benches, coats on pegs, papers in desks and even Mr Smith’s jar of Marmite. Fortunately someone – Mr Smith? – talked to Birmingham City Council and a deal was done with BCC taking over the lease, giving the Family about £3,000 (and exemption from some significant and expensive obligations) and creating the museum we have today.
Access into the factory part is only by guided tours of about a dozen people. It was very surprising to find that my guide started work at the firm in 1959 as the office junior and continued working here for six years. To add to this first hand experience – “see, this is my handwriting in the ledger” – was knowledge of the manufacturing process and a warm and friendly personality which greatly enhanced the experience. The tour starts in the main office, moves down to the front work room with the various dies and wire-drawing machines, though the manufacturing area and polishing shop to the small cold drop forge at the back. You also see part of the gold recovery operation, including the tea making next to the cyanide bath!
A visit is strongly recommended but at the time of writing ( July 2008 ) it is only the factory and one gallery that is open, the other areas, including the coffee shop, are being refurbished.
Although this is seen as the ‘main’ museum in the area there is another equally fascinating one ten minutes walk away; The Pen Room which they introduce with:
“Birmingham was the centre of the world pen trade for more than a century, employing thousands of people, and pioneering craftsmanship, manufacturing processes and employment opportunities for women. The availability of cheap pens enabled the development of education and literacy throughout the world. The Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association is working to ensure that this important part of Birmingham’s history receives the recognition it deserves.”
In contrast to the Museum of the Jewellery Quater the Pen Room is a charity and the guides are eccentric and enthusiastic volunteers, demonstrating the business of making the nibs on the fly presses by getting visitors to assist and explaining the importance of the pen trade to the city. To add to the slightly surreal atmosphere the museum was holding a Harry Potter Day (beyond the obvious tenuous connection I don’t know why) so it was full of children in weird outfits drawing Potter characters. Again highly recommended.
The area will soon be adding a third industrial museum as English Heritage has just bought a 19th Century silverware and plate maker’s premises, J E Evans, described as being:
“unique as the most complete repository of the traditional craft skills, industrial processes, tools, machinery and archive materials that epitomise this important facet of our industrial past”
The Birmingham Post has a small photo gallery of the site and the workers.
If you want a change from museums then visit the Warstone Lane Cemetery which was opened in 1848 by the Birmingham Church of England Cemetery Company and acquired by the Birmingham City Council under a compulsory purchase order in 1951. The cemetery has two tiers of catacombs, whose unhealthy vapours led to the Birmingham Cemeteries Act which required that non-interred coffins should be sealed with lead or pitch.
— Words & pictures by Paul