We made a return visit to this fascinating museum in the Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham.
The Hockley area of the city has been the largest jewellery making centre of Europe for the past 150 years. With many small workshops involved in creating fine gold and silver jewellery.
The tour takes you around the premises of Smith & Pepper jewellers and specialists in gold and silver bracelets from 1899 – 1981. A very successful business was built up, employing 40 people and building a workshop behind 2 houses. The business expanded and the front of the premises was rebuilt for the offices and packaging department. The family moving out to a more rural area to live.
The workshop with the glass panels in the roof to give good light to the craftsmen working below. As you can see all the neighbouring buildings are close by and were other workshops in the jewellery trade. Immediately next door has white ceramic tiles walls to reflect more light down into the Smith & Pepper workshop.
The Smith family were the owners and it was managed by 3 siblings, Mr Eric, Mr Tom and Miss Olive until their retirement in 1981 at the ages of 74,76 & 81 when there was no-one of the family to carry it on, and it was closed. The three of them appear to have walked out of the door leaving everything just as it was in the offices and the workshops. They had not been believers in changing and moving with the times unnecessarily, so it’s as though time has stood still and makes a fascinating visit with a well informed and interesting guide.
Here the orders were received and processed with the packaging bench, complete with tissue and cotton wool laid out ready for wrapping and all the boxes for packing stacked on the shelves.
The office was Miss Olive’s domain where she took good care and interest in her staff, the family were well thought of and their staff were very loyal,
but there was obviously no Health and Safety Officer!
Mr Tom’s domain was downstairs in the workshop, where every morning he would hand out to his workers a tin box with their pieces to work with each morning, carefully weighed, recorded and signed for in his ledger so that every bit of precious gold could be kept account of.
At the end of the day the boxes were returned with the completed pieces of work and all the dust and filings collected for weighing once again, only a very small percentage was allowed to be lost.
The jewellers would work at what is know round the world as a Hockley bench, (this area of Birmingham is Hockley) perched on a low stool, with the leather ‘apron’ pulled over their lap to catch the gold dust and filings as they worked for collecting up at the end of the day. The ‘bits’ were melted back down to be used again, it was too precious to waste. Here the jewellers would cut out pieces of gold for charms, brooches or pendants, or set stones into place, working at a peg, a piece of wood which pulled out of the rounded shape and was worn to fit the way each individual crafstman worked with his tools.
Before leaving at the end of the day, each of the jewellers would have to
wash scrub their hands to remove any gold dust, the water from the sink was then filtered through sawdust to collect the particles, and in 1-2 years enough was collected for £900 of gold.
There were rows of fly-presses and polishers, which would have been operated by women, the jewellers were always men.
And in the corner a pit with several drop hammer presses, which was the domain of Arthur Brewer who worked here for 40 years, pulling the heavy weighted presses and dropping them with an ear-splitting bang, hundreds of times a day.
They also made taps and dies here for various parts of the jewellery pieces. There are over 7,000 different patterns here.
In the fixing room, some of the finished pieces would be dipped in a solution of potassium cyanide in lead lined tanks along the left hand side of this room, whilst on the other side the tea was made and taken round to the workers. One lady was in charge of both processes.
Again no Health & Safety Officer here, but then in 80 years no-one ever suffered ill-effects either!
It’s a wonderful experience treading the way of the craftsmen and women from a by-gone era. Just checking for any gold dust which we might have picked up on the way.