My books on manufacturing

My books on manufacturing
My books on manufacturing history

Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Birmingham Manufacturing History

Britain's second city has been described as a city of a thousand trades and so quite different to Sheffield with its focus on steel, Manchester on cotton and Leeds on wool. Having said this, in the nineteenth century its production of brass and objects made from brass made it a world leader, with Birmingham parts present on steam trains the world over to say nothing of door furniture and the very many other items made from the metal. It has always been an industrious city but with a core of small and medium size enterprises, a great many working with metal.

In this post I explore Birmingham's manufacturing history. Looking back to the origins and early development of the city I offer here an essay I wrote for my BA Humanities, it was titled: Describe the development of industry in one town and explain its impact on the town growth and environment. This comes further down the post. The image is of the Chamberlain clock tower in the Jewellery Quarter which to my mind speaks of Birmingham's pride but also its intellectual life; Birmingham was the city of Darwin, Chamberlain and Priestley.

Looking at the last couple of centuries, large scale manufacturing was first focused on the iconic Soho Works of Boulton & Watt. The Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company manufactured in Smethwick. The city's businesses were the biggest producer of brass objects. Elkingtons invented electroplating of silver on nickel which boosted Birmingham's trade in domestic luxury items. Picking up on its intellectual life, companies in the city produced more steel pens than any other such manufacturer in the world and exported far and wide. Alongside the pen was paper and printing in which the city excelled. Alongside books was of course chocolate and the Cadbury family began their long relationship with the city by the canal at Bourneville. Brass also had its darker uses and Birmingham was a major producer of guns with the Birmingham Small Arms Company.

The First World War laid down a major challenge for Birmingham as it did for other cities including Coventry. British Commander in Chief Sir John French is quoted as suggesting that the war was a struggle between Krupp and Birmingham. BSA was producing Lee-Enfield rifles, Lewis guns and motor bikes; by 1918 it employed 14,000 people. There was a National Shell Filling Factory at Washwood heath and Mills Munition Factory produced many thousands of Mills bombs. Kynoch's at Witton produced high explosive and rifle ammunition and Cadbury provided much needed chocolate.

The interwar years were challenging, but less so for Birmingham than for its fellow cities geared more to shipbuilding and steel. It developed into a significant player in the motor industry. The Land Rover is a child of Birmingham with Rover's founders the Wilkes Brothers setting up their company in Solihull. The famous Fort Dunlop speaks of the rubber and tyre industry. Lucas manufactured in the Jewellery Quarter benefitting from the fine metal working skills, as did Avery the weighing machine company which later became part of GEC. At Witton, GEC made large electric motors, generators and switchgear. Herbert Austin set up the company bearing his name in Longbridge to the south of the city and the company on which he cut his teeth, Wolseley, both built vehicles for the forces in the First World War and for the growing home market in the twenties and thirties. I write of the motor industry including its war time contribution in How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World (HBSTMW).

The Second World War demanded more of Birmingham than even the First. The city became home to shadow factories run by Rover, Austin and Morris, the latter famous for making Spitfires and Lancasters. BSA once again rose to the challenge and Cadbury set up a separate factory making parts for aeroplanes, rockets and respirators. The University of Birmingham lent its expertise to radar development and the atomic bomb.

In the post was world, Cadbury continued to thrive at Bourneville, although now under foreign ownership, and I write of them too in Vehicles to Vaccines. The motor industry has declined but JLR are a continuing presence. I write of the post war motor industry in three chapters of Vehicles to Vaccines: Volume Car Makers, Speciality Car Makers and Commercial Vehicles and Motor Component Manufacturers.The Jewellery Quarter first prospered but then suffered from cheap imports but nonetheless continues and I write of it in the context of designer makers in Vehicles to Vaccines.

So to the early days.....


The three elements: industry, growth and environment are intermeshed. Industry will grow not only because of demand for its products but also because of the suitability of the environment and the availability of labour. People will be attracted to a town by the prospect of work and wages; their very presence and the presence of the industry in which they work will impact on the environment. The study thus is one of inter-relationships.

The town selected for investigation is Birmingham because it has grown to become England’s second city having set out very much among the pack of medieval parishes. The story of Birmingham’s industry began in medieval times and its study could quite reasonably go on to the late Victorian era with the coming of such household names as Cadbury and Dunlop, Chamberlain and, a little later, Austin. However the building blocks were firmly in place at the point the town obtained its charter in 1838 and it is at around that point that this review will conclude.

The period of the wars with France from 1793 to 1815 was a watershed for Birmingham in slowing what had been a period of frenetic development. The wars were followed by a period of investigation, which provided a much more detailed picture at a time when the pace had slowed.

The essay will examine a number of different industries and look at population figures and related statistics as well as drawing upon what information is available to paint a picture of the environment. The environment will be addressed in its broadest sense and so not only covering the physical but also the micro environment in which people lived and worked.

Setting the scene

The scene can be well set by a comment from the Tudor period by Leland who visited in about 1538, three centuries before Birmingham was granted the status of a town.

'There be many smiths in the town, that used to make knives and all mannour of cuttinge tooles, and many lorimers, that makes bittes, and a great many nailors. So that a great part of the towne is maintained by smiths, who have their iron and sea-cole out of Staffordshire.'

It is the latter remark that is key to Birmingham’s story, the availability locally of the raw materials that would build the future of the ‘metal bashing brummy’. Later in the sixteenth century, Camden referred to this by seeing the town as ‘full of inhabitants, and resounding with hammers and anvils, for the most part smiths.’ In 1683 there were said to be 202 forges in the town.

In terms of gaining a picture of the place, Sweet gives an indication of its size in comparison to other places in 1670. Birmingham was said to have population in the region of 6,000, the same as Manchester, a little more than Liverpool or Shrewsbury but less that nearby Worcester.

A little later a comment taken from the foot of Westley’s 1731 plan tells that ‘in the year 1700 Birmingham contained 80 streets, 100 courts and alleys, 2,504 houses, 15,082 inhabitants, once church, dedicated to St Martin, and a chapel to St John and a school founded by Edward the Sixth, and a dissenting meeting house.’

William Hutton, the great Birmingham historian, gave his first impression on seeing the town in 1741

'I was surprised at the pace, but more so the people. They possessed a vivacity I had never beheld. I had been among dreamers, but now I saw men awake. Their very step along the streets showed alacrity. Every man seemed to know what he was about…'

A description from some fourteen years later adds to the picture:

‘the town, which is another London in miniature: it stands on the Side of a Hill, forming a Half moon; the lower part is filled with the Workshops and Warehouses of the manufacturers, and consists chiefly of old Buildings; the Upper Part of the Town, like St James’s, contains a Number of new, regular streets, and a handsome square, all well-built and well-inhabited…’

The description of the development of industry and its impact on growth and the environment may be set into context by looking at the population growth over the period under review.

This graph is taken from population figures drawn together by Hopkins. The pink line represents annual percentage growth rates, thus the growth rate from 1670 to 1720 was about 2% per annum. The rate rose in the period to 1750 and then fell, not retaining its former rate until the 1830s.


Birmingham’s industry began with forges, the working of metal, mainly iron. During the civil war Birmingham had been on the side of Parliament and the output of the forges in the shape of pikes, swords and guns must have been a most welcome contribution. With the Restoration came a new confidence among the ‘middling types’ and a new prosperity. Birmingham was ready and waiting to serve this by supplying not articles of war but trinkets, pins, buttons; those things that were essential to the aspiring family. In doing this, Birmingham had discovered two of the keys to industrialism: the division of labour and the use of small machines. In terms of mechanisation Birmingham was both ahead of its rivals and smaller in the machines it used. In common use by 1750 were the stamp, press, lathe and draw bench. In relation to the division of labour, a pin would undergo some fourteen processes each carried out by a separate worker . The same was the case with the button and the buckle and indeed with all the ‘toys’ which Birmingham produced. The name of John Taylor needs to be mentioned as one of the first in the long line of Birmingham’s entrepreneurs. The skills in toy making were extended into the manufacture of jewellery, the quality of which was said to have improved as the century progressed. The establishment of an Assay Office was authorised in 1773.

Birmingham was a place of small workshops and this is shown clearly in another Birmingham trade of the eighteenth century, gun making. In a way typical, the manufacture of the musket was a process divided up into tens of different parts, up to 63. The manufacture was in a small area of half a dozen streets with small workshops side by side passing parts on for the next process or assembly. There is little evidence of modern ‘clock watching’ work practices with St Monday still observed. Men and women living, working and playing in a tight knit community, the excesses of Sunday being addressed by taking Monday off.

The latter part of the eighteenth century saw the establishment of larger factories alongside the traditional small workshops. It seems extraordinary now that the Soho Manufactory on Handsworth Heath 1765 was regarded as Birmingham’s principal tourist attraction in 18th century. The Soho works was a building drawing on the classic style and dwarfed the traditional small workshop. But itself was really a collection of workshops described as ‘airy and large’, and nothing like the mills of further north, The advent of Watt’s steam engine manufactured at the Soho works was perhaps ironic for Birmingham given the very small extent to which it was actually employed in the town. In the gun making business, for example, only barrels benefited from steam power in rollers, the remainder being manual. Other major employers included Turner & Sons (buttons) employing 500 people , James James (screws) employing 360 people mainly women, and the Islington glass works with 540 employees.

Another major trade was brass. Made from copper and calamine imported from Cheshire and Bristol, Birmingham worked in brass by initially by casting but after 1769 by stamp and die. As demand grew, the brass itself was made in Birmingham, for example by the Birmingham Metal Company off Broad Street in 1781. In 1790 the brass manufacturers combined to found their own companies to produce copper in Redruth and Swansea. The number of works increased from 50 in 1800 to 280 in 1830 and 421 in 1865. Size also increased and this shift from the small workshop enabled both efficiency and more control. It also won its plaudits: ‘What Manchester is to cotton, Bradford in wool, and Sheffield in steel, Birmingham is in brass.’ W.C. Atkin. Birmingham minted coins and other brass fittings were used world wide.

Technology did not impact on Birmingham in any headline breaking way, save for the steam engine and, as we have already seen, its impact on Birmingham manufacturing was not great. Technology did however have a positive effect on the suppliers of raw material, the Black Country Iron industry and in many small ways in Birmingham itself based on the evidence of the number of patents granted. Prosser observed that ‘Birmingham stood first among provincial towns as regards the numbers of grants of letters patent.’ The web site Virtualbrum tells more: ‘Henry Clay, one of John Baskerville’s apprentices, patented papier-mache in 1772, while two brothers named Wyatt patented a machine for cutting screws— work which had hitherto been done by hand. Another townsman, named Harrison, made a steel pen for Dr. Priestley. Josiah Mason later started one of the largest factories in the world for the manufacture of pens.’ A pointer to Birmingham’s intellectual future was the Baskerville’s press, whose first project was Virgil printed in 1757.

Bisset draws a neat picture in his 1800 Magnificent Directory:

Inventions curious, various kinds of toys,

Engage the time of women, men, and boys,

And Royal patents here are found in scores

For articles minute – or pond’rous ores.

Birmingham manufactured goods were being used in Europe and America and in farther flung places with a good proportion of its production going overseas . With this international flavour and more particularly with the gun trade, it was inevitable that the wars with France would be a significant driver. The French wars between 1793 and 1815 set a solid demand for guns, which, when added to for demand for sport and in slave trade, meant strong demand in this sector which only declined after the peace. War did however decimate the other industries . The decades either side of the end of the century were not ones of great prosperity. They were however years when Birmingham’s tradition of self help came to the fore with skilled workers robbed of work able to a degree to fall back on the Friendly Societies which they had formed. The period after the wars saw a faltering return to prosperity which did not really get under way until the 1830s.

Daily life

It is possible to gain a view of Birmingham’s environment which is of unremitting grime and industry. William Toldervy visiting the town in 1762 gave another slant:

'I entered the town on the side where stands St Philip’s…This is a very beautiful modern building… There are but few in London so elegant. It stands in the middle of a large Church yard around which is a beautiful walk…on one side of the Church-Yard the buildings are as lofty, elegant, and uniform as those of Bedford Row, and are inhabited by people of fortune.’

A good number of these people of fortune were unlikely to have attended St Philips, their preference being for non-conformist forms of worship. Hutton had ascribed to the growth of Birmingham the reason that its lack of a Charter gave freedom to dissenters to set up and trade. There is much evidence that they did, given the number of dissenter meeting houses as well as a Roman Catholic Church and Jewish Synagogue. The dissent tradition also lead to a growth in radical politics.

The industry of Birmingham sucked in people and those people needed places to live. Birmingham was blessed with ample available land and so the overcrowding known in other urban centres was far less prevalent in Birmingham. The first phase of building took place in central areas, with the once better houses broken up into multiple dwellings and with workshops built where before there had been orchards. Further new building took place on the outside of the town in the direction of the neighbouring parish of Deritend. Later building would enlarge the town to the north and north west. The common design for working class habitation was the court , with earlier examples extremely cramped. There were also back to back streets as found elsewhere in England.

Hutton was impressed by the rate of house building in the latter half of the eighteenth century, which he described as second only to London. He says ‘from 1741 to the year 1781, Birmingham seems to have acquired the amazing augmentation of 71 streets, 4,172 houses, and 25,032 inhabitants.’ The picture is thus of a busy town, with people applying their skills and making money. Small workshops meant a close environment. The sheer number of people though meant noise and bustle. Also a huge amount of waste material causing streets to be unpleasant places particularly in warmer weather. This was addressed in 1769 by ‘A Bill for Laying Open and Widening certain ways and passages within the Town of Birmingham; for cleansing and Lighting the Streets, Lanes, Ways and Passages…’ It’s success seems limited with reports of open sewers even on the middle class Edgbaston .

The Granger report paints a varied picture of the work environment from speaking of the sanitary conditions at work in Phippson’s Pin Manufactory, where 100 girls and boys had between them only one privy, to James James’ screw manufactory described as an ‘admirably conducted establishment in all its branches.’ These comments relate to the larger factories. But as is clear from Granger and as Samuel Timmins pointed out in 1866 this was far from the end of the small enterprise:

‘Beginning as a small master, often working in his own house with his wife and children to help him, the Birmingham workman has become a master, his trade extended, his buildings have increased. He had used his house as a workshop, has annexed another, has built upon the garden or the yard, and consequently a large number of the manufactories are most irregular in style’

The physical state of many small workshops was grim. Granger described many as being ‘old and dilapidated’. Many were housed in garrets and were cold, damp and dirty. The close environment though engendered a sense of community which was less prevalent in larger establishments. The labour of children and women was common . The role of children was to support the main adult worker, often a parent. The significant presence of married women in the workplace is blamed for the relatively high infant mortality rate in a town considered healthier than many of its contemporaries.

The growth in industry also impacted on the wider environment. Demand for Birmingham’s goods needed increasing quantities of raw material. Also the finished goods too were of little use if left in Birmingham; they had to reach their market. The problem of raw materials was addressed by the building of a network of canals. WT Jackman in his Development of Transportation in Modern England observed that ‘Birmingham was becoming the Kremlin from which canals radiated in all directions.’ The problem of finished goods was addressed by an increase in the number of Turnpikes but was not solved until the coming of the railways, which it seems were well suited to serve the broad based Birmingham economy.

The year 1840 saw the publication of the Chadwick report which gives an objective and comparative view of Birmingham ranked against other English cities:

'The great town of Birmingham…appears to form rather a favourable contrast, in several particulars, with the state of other large towns…the general customs of each family living in a separate dwelling is conducive to comfort and cleanliness, and the good site of the town, and the dry and absorbive nature of the soil, are very great natural advantages.'

Chadwick also noted that ‘the principal streets were well drained, there was a plentiful supply of water and there were no cellar occupations, fever was not prevalent and some allotment gardens remained’ To set against this, an observation was made on the physical condition of Birmingham’s men in the context of army recruitment. ‘The general height of men in this town was 5’ 4” to 5’ 5”, many are rejected because of narrow chest and want for stamina.’

Another view of English cities was written by Friedrich Engels. In his 1845 book The Condition of the Working Class in England, Birmingham does not feature to any great extent. However he does quote a particularly scathing passage on Birmingham’s courts: ‘…in the older parts of the town there are many inferior streets and courts, which are dirty and neglected, filled with stagnant water and heaps of refuse.’

The quotation goes on to draw attention to the narrowness and poor ventilation. The editor in his footnote makes a telling point by adding the start of the quotation which Engels omitted:

‘Birmingham, the great seat of the toy and trinket trade, and competing with Sheffield in the hardware manufacture, is furnished by its position on a slope falling towards the Rea, with a very good natural drainage, which is promoted by the porous nature of the sand and gravel, of which, the adjacent high ground is mainly composed. The principal streets, therefore, are well drained by covered sewers'.

We should probably resist any temptation to imagine life in the courts and back to backs in Birmingham as in any way comfortable. Nevertheless there is no reason why we should not infer a sense of community or communities amongst its inhabitants: the role of the pawnbroker and publican, the significant role of women in holding family and community together. In terms of recreation, the chief place was the Vauxhall Gardens, described as ‘ place of quiet way from the noise and smoke, but also the venues of extravagant public celebration and fireworks.’ For indoor entertainment there was the Appollo Hotel on the towns outskirts opened in 1787, ‘peculiarly adapted to Public and Musical Entertainment’ and pubs a plenty.

Some evidence of the inevitable unpleasant environment created by so much smoke and decaying waste is available from the march of the middle class into nearby Edgebaston and the consequent running down of central areas for example that surrounding St Philips previously so highly regarded. As a suburb Edgebaston may strike us now as remarkable with some houses with ten acre gardens. The suburb provided the environment for the dependants of businessmen. For the men there were meeting places for example, Freeth’s Leicester Arms (or coffee House) in Bell St, Joe Lindon’s Minerva Tavern in Peck Lane. Also two freemason lodges.

We can though see Birmingham as a far more integrated social environment than some other cities. Against the backdrop of stark economic conditions, the creation in 1830 of the Birmingham Political Union brought together middle classes and the skilled working classes to press Birmingham’s case.

The enduring picture must be of a city abounding in enterprise and civic pride.

The 1851 census provided a detailed breakdown of the population by occupation and so provides a means by which to take stock:

Birmingham had increased in size over two centuries some thirty fold. There were still blacksmiths as there had been quite possibly at the time of Roman occupation. The manufacturing industries were there en masse but they had gathered to them the whole infrastructure of the great Victorian town. Houses needed to be built and maintained and so the building trades were well represented. The middle classes needed serving. The largest section of the working population did just this, together with the providers of related services. But all these people were certainly part of the demand for the manufactured goods and so the circle turns.

The abiding impression from this survey surely must be the ingenuity of the Birmingham people. This is not the story of cotton mills and giant machines but of the steady clever graft of thousands of people. The picture is nonetheless mixed with some dreadful living and working conditions sitting cheek by jowl with fine buildings, gracious living and state of the art manufacturing.

The authors who have studied the growth of Birmingham have struggled to pin point single reasons for the development of its industry. It does however seem to centre on the broad base of skills and the availability of raw materials and the space in which to grow. Nevertheless, there seems to be an enduring metaphor in the realisation that the foundation of England’s second city was built on the whim of fashion. Matthew Boulton, one of the greatest of Birmingham businessmen was to reflect near to his death in 1809 that ‘Birmingham was as remarkable for good forgers and filers as for their bad taste in all their works.’ He went on to refer to their past-times ‘their diversions were bull-bating, cock-fighting, boxing matches, and abominable drunkenness with all its train.’ But then to the improvement he had witnessed over his lifetime, ‘But now the scene is changed. The people are more polite and civilised, and the taste of their manufactures greatly improved.’ The baton carried by Boulton, Taylor and others was passed to Chamberlain in what had good reason to become England’s second city.

Return to West Midlands page

Read more in How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World 

Read more in Vehicles to Vaccines 

Further reading

Birmingham - The Workshop of the World, Carl Chin and Malcolm Dick eds. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2016)

Chadwick, Sanitary Inquiry – England No 12 Report of the State of the Public Health in the Borough of Birmingham Local Reports on the Sanitary Condition of the labouring population of England (HMSO 1842)

Dent, Robert K The Making of Birmingham (Birmingham: Allday; London: Simkin, Marshall and Co, 1894)

Granger, Children’s Employment Commission, Appendix to the second report of the Commissioners Trades and Manufacturers Part 1 Reports and Evidence of the Sub-Commissioners (Shannon: Irish University Press)

Henderson, W.O. and W.H. Chaloner trans Engels The Condition of the Working Class in England (Oxford: Blackwell 1958)

Hopkins, Eric The Rise of the Manufacturing Town Birmingham and the Industrial Revolution (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989; Stroud: Sutton, 1998)

Kellett, John R. The Impact of Railways on Victorian Cities, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul; Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969) p.148.

Sweet, R., The English Town 1680-1840: Government, Society and Culture (London, 1999)

Thompson, F.M.L. The Rise of Respectable Society, A Social History of Victorian Britain, 1830-1900 The Fontana Social History of Britain since 1700 General Editor F.M.L. Thompson (London: Fontana 1988)

Tyzack, Geoffrey The Civic Buildings of Birmingham, The English Urban Landscape Philip Waller Ed. (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press 2000)

Upton, Chris, A History of Birmingham (Chichester, Phillimore 1993) p.68

Wise M.J. On the Evolution of the Jewellery and Gun Quarters in Birmingham

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Sheffield Manufacturing History

Sheffield was to steel as Manchester was to cotton and Leeds to wool.

In the beginning it was the combination of fast flowing water and the availability of coal and iron ore. Hundreds of small furnaces would hide the skies of Hallamshire with their dark smoke. An equal number of forges would fill the air with the sound of hammer on anvil. By the streams, tens of water mills would drive grinding wheels to add a sharp edge to the knives men made. This was Sheffield in the sixteenth century, or rather its was Hallamshire – that area of north Derbyshire and south Yorkshire which now makes up greater Sheffield. It was unique in having such a high proportion of its working population engaged in one trade. The trade was centred round ‘little mesters' working in smithies. A Company of Cutlers was formed by Act of Parliament in 1624. I find myself comparing them to the spinners and weavers of Lancashire who would also work in a small family unit. The destiny of Hallamshire was to be the city of cutlers and a steel industry that would transform the world.

London, of which I write more elsewhere, was by far the largest urban area and so gathered to it essentially all the trades necessary for urban life. So it had then more cutlers than Sheffield as it had more framework knitters than the East Midland towns of Leicester, Nottingham and Derby.

The iron ore found in Hallamshire was adequate, but not the best; this came increasingly from Sweden and Russia and was worked into steel in small quantities suitable for knife making. The reign of Charles II saw the introduction of the fork alongside the knife on the tables of the wealthy and so Sheffield designs changed from the pointed, dagger style of knife to something nearer to that which we might recognise.

Two challenges faced the Sheffield cutlers: how to get their cutlery to market in an efficient and economical way and how to produce more steel of a consistently high quality able to take a truly sharp edge.

As to the first challenge, given the state of the roads, carriage by boat was the transport of choice. For Sheffield this meant an overland trip to Doncaster and the navigable river Don, but it was a long way from satisfactory.

Elsewhere in the country canals were being cut; given its topography, Sheffield would have to wait until the mid-nineteenth century for its canal to join the town to the Don. In the meantime the turnpike movement was improving roads and for Sheffield this proved a more than satisfactory stop gap before the canal and, a little later, the railway.

As to the second it is important to recognise that there was two sides to Sheffield’s steel story. The first has a focus on steel cutlery, but also silver and silver plate. The second was about the move to mass production which would transform the town of cutlers into the world’s prime producer of steel, the essential material for all manner of machine, and so fundamental to the further development of the industrial revolution. 

The then traditional cementation method of making 'blister' steel produced material of inconsistent quality and this spurred Lincolnshire watchmaker, Benjamin Hunstman, to years of experimentation to find a better method. 1742 is the date given to the new ‘hunstman crucible process' which provided quality steel in relatively small quantities suitable for fine work. Hunstman, himself, moved to Sheffield to focus on steel making.

Photo taken at the wonderful Kelham Island Museum

At about the same time Thomas Boulsover developed a method for plating copper with silver, ‘Old Sheffield Plate’.  This and Huntsman’s steel provided the raw material for a massive increase in production of all manner of small items for the home. A little later, Britannia Metal was developed as a yet cheaper material for household use.

Sheffield silversmiths found that their time had come and the town received its own assay office, at the same time as Birmingham, in 1773. Electroplating of steel with silver was championed by Elkington in Birmingham and this too found its way to Sheffield. Sheffield cutlery was to be found on dining tables across the globe. The technical developments led to larger manufacturing units and in time the introduction of steam power. The town saw companies making cutlery with workforces numbered in the hundreds: Joseph Rodgers, whose cutlery was marked by the Star and Maltese Cross, and Mappin which later became Mappin & Webb, to name but two.

The consistent quality of Huntsman steel proved suitable for use in a larger number of applications. Spear & Jackson set up their works in the town and tool making more generally took off with the increased demand from so many now involved in manufacturing of all kinds across the nation and beyond.

Photo taken at the wonderful Kelham Island Museum

Quantities of steel though were still insufficient and this spurred Henry Bessemer to explore alternative processes. He announced his invention of the Bessemer Converter in 1856 and set up in Carlisle Street, Sheffield as the Bessemer Steel Works.

At this point the ‘famous names ‘of Sheffield steel come to the fore. John Brown, later known as the father of steel, was the first to embrace the Bessemer process, followed by Charles Cammell in 1861. Vickers embraced the open hearth process developed later by William Siemens.

Another famous name, Thomas Firth & Sons, made their focus on armaments and another, Jessop, is perhaps less well known now and focused on supplying the American market until Carnegie began to explore the large reserves of ore in Pennsylvania.

The demand for steel was predominantly for the construction of railways in Britain, continental Europe, North and South America. This demand weakened in the 1870s and the production of armaments took its place, both armour plating and heavy guns and their shells. Sheffield became increasingly known for speciality steels. Cammells and Browns had a focus on armour plating. It was Hadfields that explored alloys and in particular the addition of manganese to harden steel for use in armour piercing shells.

I write more about the early British steel industry in How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World, and the American and German steel industries on this blog. It is surely revealing that the german Krupp travelled to Sheffield to learn the Hunstman process.

At one time Sheffield was the biggest producer of steel in the world, its importance underlined by it being created a city of 1893. A final development of lasting importance was the invention of stainless steel by Harry Brearley in 1913.

The First World war was a busy time for Sheffield with the massive demand for armaments. With the coming of peace that demand collapsed. Sheffield companies responded by merging with the resulting English Steel Corporation (owned by Vickers and Cammells) and Firth Brown. English Steel was run by Edgar Redman who in the Second World War joined the RAOC to run the army centre for mechanisation at Chilwell near Nottingham. He returned to English Steel after the war where he was joined by fellow soldier Ronald Weeks who became chairman and subsequently chairman of Vickers. Davy Ashmore was another of the great steel companies and I write of it Vehicles to Vaccines in the context of its engineering. The Sheffield industry essentially followed the path of the national steel industry and I tell its story in Vehicles to Vaccines.

Sheffield now boasts the nationalised Sheffield Forgemasters which produces large precision castings; the company brought together the heritage of the Sheffield greats: Vickers, Cammell, Firth and Brown.

Sheffield still has fine silversmiths this year celebrating four centuries of the Cutlers Company.

It has a vibrant community of designer makers many of whom exhibited at Selected Space.

It is a city looking to the future with the University of Sheffield hosting the Advanced Manufacturing Research CentreIt is still a place of traditional skills such as William Whiteley scissors, Chimo Holdings cutlers, Thomas Flinn woodworking tools combining traditional skills and new technology and Wolf Safety Lamps.

Further reading

David Hey, A History of Sheffield, (Lancaster: Carnegie Publishing, 1998)

Friday, June 28, 2024

Nottingham Manufacturing History

Nottingham was the world’s centre of lace making. It had the largest manufacturer of bicycles in Britain and supplied pharmaceuticals to every British high street. How did it all begin and what happened?

The image is of the Grantham canal meeting the Trent which offered Nottingham outstanding communications 

Nottingham was one of the five Boroughs of the Danelaw along with Leicester, Derby, Lincoln and Stamford and certainly in common with the first two had an early traditional of frame knitting and I write of this more generally in my blog on Leicester manufacturing history. Duncan Gray, in his book Nottingham: Settlement to City, suggests that the knitting frame may have been invented in nearby Calverton by William Lee, but that the invention failed to catch on because of a lack of patronage from Elizabeth I. He took his machines to France but then in 1610 returned to London where the machine based manufacturing was established ; some machines made their way to Nottingham and from there the trade grew and became the town’s principal industry.

Merchants would supply yarn and rent frames to families who would knit in the upstairs room of their dwellings. With the coming of mechanisation in the spinning of yarn, production increased. The world around was changing, as, across the country, rural dwellers were moving to the new urban areas in search of work. In the countryside enclosures were reducing the amount of common land and new agricultural techniques led to fewer jobs. In the case of Nottingham, the city fathers resisted increasing the urban area which thus became more and more crowded. Poor harvests, the Napoleonic wars and the Corn Laws led to ever increasing food prices and ever squeezed incomes for the knitters. Inevitably rioting broke out and in particular a movement, the ‘Luddites’ set about destroying new larger frames used in the new low cost technique of ‘cut ups’, stockings made up of pieces cut to size. In parallel with this violence was a more reasoned movement by the Nottingham Frameworkers Association to sue parliament for better conditions. Their efforts fell on deaf ears, but slowly with the Factory Acts working conditions improved and, with the 1835 Municipal Corporation Act, common land was released for building and chronic overcrowding slowly decreased. The railways followed.

Lace saved the day for Nottingham. The patent for bobbin net by John Heathcote, which adapted the frame for lacemaking, expired in 1823 and the new machines were adopted across the town leading, at least in the short term, to prosperity for merchants and knitters alike. Nottingham would become the greatest lace centre in the world. Richard Birkin stands out as a champion of lacemaking and the Nottingham Lace Market owns him and those like him its later prosperity.

The 19th century saw other industries establishing. I wrote of Raleigh bicycles in How Britain Shaped The Manufacturing World John Player founded his tobacco company in 1877 and Jesse Boot opened his first shop in 1884 and then expanded across the country both with shops and their own healthcare products. Both Raleigh and Boots lent their weight to the national effort in the First World War. In the nearby village of Chilwell a major shell filling factory was established and I wrote of this in Ordnance. In the wake of the war, Jesse Boot, seeing no family succession, sold his company to the American Louis Leggatt who continued the company’s expansion eventually selling it back to the family in 1933. In the meantime Jesse Boot had used a good proportion of his original sales proceeds to found the University of Nottingham.

In the twenties Lace suffered from foreign competition but hosiery prospered. The national strike hit the city hard not least because of the importance of coal mining to the area.

The Thirties saw further expansion of both Boots and Raleigh. William Hollins & Co, famous for Viyella, built a major factory and head office on Castle Boulevard. The former shell filling factory at Chilwell became the army centre for mechanisation and I wrote of this in War on Wheels.  In the forthcoming war both Raleigh and Boots once again rose to the challenge.

In the early postwar era, Raleigh and Boots continued expanding, Gunn & Moore made all manner of sports equipment. The Stanton iron works spun pipes for the nation’s drainage. Pretty Polly, Charnos and many more made hosiery. Speedo made sports wear. Dobson Park and Dosco (part of Hawker Siddeley) made mining equipment. At the University of Nottingham the MRI scanner was invented. I write of this post war manufacturing in Vehicles to Vaccines.

I worked in Nottingham for many years and would drive in passed the Royal Ordnance Factory to the smell of Pork Farms! It was a vibrant place.

Further reading

Duncan Gray, Nottingham: Settlement to City (Nottingham: Nottingham  cooperative society and S.R.Publishers, 1953, 1969

Sheila A. Mason, Nottingham Lace 1760s-1950s (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1994)

John Beckett, The Book of Nottingham, (Buckingham: Barracuda Books Ltd, 1990)

Chris Weir, Nottingham: A History (Chichester: Phillimore, 2002)

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Leicester Manufacturing History

 My exploration of British manufacturing has been sector by sector and chronological. It is time now to begin to join up the dots and explore those towns where manufacturing takes place or in some case took place. I begin with the city where I now live and seek of offer a flavour of manufacturing in this great city.

The image is of those famous sons of Leicester, David and Richard Attenborough, pictured at the University of Leicester.

Leicester’s traditional industry was hosiery with its origin in hand knitters who would work from their own homes in the city and around the county engaging the whole family in their enterprise. In this they were similar to the spinners and weavers of wool in and cotton in Lancashire.

Knitted hose began to take the place of stockings made from cloth in the Elizabethan age; Shakespeare makes reference to stockings in Henry IV (pt2, act 2, scene 2). The principal place of the trade was London close to those members of the population best able to afford that more expensive knitted product. Slowly, the hand knitted stocking gave way to the stocking knitted on a frame. In what were known as the Home Counties, framework knitters were to be found in Buckinghamshire and Surrey. Further north, into the Midlands, framework knitters began to appear in Leicester, Nottingham and Derby.

In Henson’s History of the Framework Knitters, it is suggested that by the mid-eighteenth century, a move had taken place towards the midland towns with the number of frames in Leicester exceeding those in London. It is suggested that wage costs were the significant driver and further moves would have taken place but for the demands of fashion. For the elegant in London it was essential that stockings should be a perfect colour match, something achievable only with the cloth and hosiery trades side by side. Frames were used to knit hosiery from wool, cotton and silk, with the latter producing the finest garments. By the mid nineteenth century, Nottingham had outgrown Leicester and Derby was fast catching up.

Leicester suffered from stiff competition from America where a degree of mechanisation had been introduced. We can see mechanisation seeping into the Leicester industry a little later than its northern counterparts essentially because of the greater complexity of knitting a stocking. When it came, it was from over the Atlantic where Americans had found solutions. In terms of local industry, Siobham Begley, in her book The Story of Leicester, writes how the Loughborough firm of Paget introduced power-run frames, Leicester’s Matthew Townsend invented the latch needle and Loughborough man, William Cotton, built on these developments with his Cotton Patent machine. Slowly machines were introduced and frame workers began to work in groups in a workshop setting. Pay for frame workers was bad until Corah built their factory at St Margaret’s, where, it was said, rates were 25% higher. Further impetus to the factory system came with the Education Acts where child labour was restricted and so home working became less economically viable.

Following on from hosiery came shoe making, especially for children’s shoes. This trade had prospered in nearby Northampton where it concentrated on men’s boots. Employment in Leicester’s shoe industry gradually grew and eventually overtook that in Northampton. As with hosiery, mechanisation crept in. Begley singles out Thomas Crick in Leicester making a breakthrough by riveting soles to shoes instead of stitching them. He went on to produce a machine which was later steam powered. Factory based production followed, boosted by the move of Leeds based Stead and Simpson to Leicester using an American invention, the Blake sewer, which could produce three hundred pairs of shoes a day. Leicester held on to the tradition of outworking, long embraced in hosiery, until the push of mechanisation from American essentially forced the move to factory working by the end of the nineteenth century.

In the mid nineteenth century ancillary businesses began to appear producing gussets and elastic web. More significantly, engineering businesses emerged with a focus on machinery for hosiery and shoe manufacture. Richard Rodger, in Leicester A Modern History, writes of some 7,000 male engineering workers in 1900. He lists some of the companies. Pegg’s dyeworks equipment, Phoenix Foundry for heavy casting for railways, Gimson’s Vulcan foundry on Welford Road, Gent’s clocks, Taylor & Hobson lenses and optical equipment, Pearson & Bennion boot and shoes machinery which became part of the British United Boot and Shoe Company, Wolsey Hopkins, Bentley Engineering and Mellor Bromley machines. It is fair to assume that these engineering skills encouraged Imperial Typewriters to set up in Leicester. Machine tool manufacturers Jones & Shipman set up in Leicester as did Wadkin which specialised in wood working tools. Later additions to the Leicester manufacturing scene include Thorn Lighting.

The city is also famous for Walkers Crisps and Foxes Glacier Mints.

I tell in Vehicles to Vaccines how the British commitment to excellence in textiles is evidenced by the presence of colleges devoted to teaching skills to those employed in the industry. One such was the School of Textiles in Leicester which celebrated its centenary in 1983-84 with the publication of a short history. The focus was on knitting, and the founding of the college was initiated by yarn merchants witnessing the quality of continental competitors which benefitted from formal technical education. In the second half of the twentieth century the focus moved to artificial fibres, machinery capable of producing whole garments, and textile and knitwear design. Textile manufacturing continues in Leicester albeit in reduced volumes given to move to sourcing from low wage economies.

Further reading:

Gravenor Henson, Civil, Political and Mechanical History of the Framework Knitters in Europe and America (Nottingham: Richard Sutton, 1831, reprinted 1970)
Siobhan Begley, The Story of Leicester (Brimscombe: The History Press, 2013), p.122.
Richard Rodger and Rebecca Madgin Ed’s. Leicester a Modern History (Lancaster: Carnegie Publishing, 2016)

Friday, June 14, 2024

Festival of Britain design review

There is, in the archive of the Festival, the hand written draft compilation products selected for the quality of design, alongside the companies which manufactured them, divided into the five categories: home, engineering, scientific, recreation and transport and within these categories into some fifty subdivisions. The list of names and products sing loudly of the vibrancy of manufacturing which had been given great prominence by government desperate for exports and a degree of self-sufficiency.

 The compilation was called the Design Review and was aimed at business visitors from the UK and overseas as a shop window on British manufacturing. Turning the draft pages it is possible to gain a good flavour of what British manufacturing was offering to the waiting world. [In the course of creating the festival the categories changed a little, splitting work into engineering and scientific, producing five categories for display.] The selected companies were included along with photographs and samples in five of seven arches under Waterloo bridge leading to the exhibition on London’s South Bank. The sixth arch was used as the entrance hall and the seventh to display British textiles. Around about half of the products listed were physically displayed in one or other of the exhibition spaces.

I visited the archive where it is kept and read through all the draft pages. In an appendix to Vehicles to Vaccines I have listed the more (to me) memorable products and manufacturers. What shines through is massive duplication; it isn’t really competition since it presents a geographical spread in many products. It is wonderful though, a little bit nostalgic.

Here are a few examples

Section 17, Toys (708), where Airfix offered model tractors, Britains: farm tractors and toy soldiers, Chad Valley: dolls, and Elswick cycles: a tricycle. Other names to jump out were Lines Bros with a Tri-ang lighthouse, a Watney lorry, a crane & grab, a pedal trotting machine, a toy washing machine and try-to-spell bricks. Kiddicraft had interlocking building bricks, Meccano included a train set and Raleigh exhibited bicycles. Mettoy of Northampton had an ‘ocean liner’. Interestingly plastics company British Xylonite exhibited sports balls, dolls and bath toys. Diecasting Machine Tools of London N13 exhibited a cooker set, road-up set and pistols. The Educational Supply Association had the most exhibits second only to Lines Bros. My favourite has to be Wilmot Mansour & Co with a jet propelled model car and a model hydroplane.

Section 39, Furniture (1,659) had Boulton & Paul with garden seats, Christie Tyler with an upholstered easy chair, Dartington Hall with a range of chairs, Dryad with cane furniture which they manufactured into the fifties, E Gomme Ltd with a gate legged table, famous later for G Plan. There is then Heal & Son and there is correspondence on file talking about the loan of a carpet and two stuffed toys. There is Hille & Co which manufactured chairs (at the time of writing on display in London’s Design Museum); there is Hygena, Ideal Upholstery with settee and easy chair and, interestingly, Mann Egerton, which I normally think of in relation to cars, with tables and an art desk. Meredew follows with Parker Knoll and then Roneo with steel office tables. Staples, which I remember for Ladderax, had a steel frame mattress support, Story & Cowith an easy chair (another manufacturer on display in the Design Museum) and Vickers Armstrong with an office table and desk.

Section 49, Powered Domestic Equipment (693): Aga Heat (invented by a Swede who set up in Britain) with a domestic iron, Ascot Gas Water Heaters, Belling & Co, E.K. Cole with an electric heater. EK Cole appears in a number of sections as well as radio which is where I would have expected them. I read it as diversification to use factory capacity. Duplex is there with an electric radiator, EMI is present with electric irons. English Electric had an electric cooker and refrigerator, Ever Ready a gas lighter, General Electric Company a portable Leitrim fire. Heatrae (part of Baxi) had an electric heater, Hotpoint a washing machine and electric boiling ring. Radiation Group had a Regulo controlled cooker, Tricity Cookers were there alongside Vactric with my childhood favourite a cylinder suction cleaner. Morphy-Richards with an electric floor scrubber, vacuum cleaner, iron and toaster.

You can read more in Vehicles to Vaccines

Friday, May 31, 2024

Manufacturing - the Second World War

For a chunk of British manufacturing, the Second World War began in about 1935 and lasted for ten years. The government’s decision to start to re-arm kicked into play an infrastructure aimed at armaments, initially with aircraft. The chapter begins by exploring census data to locate the places that were growing in population, it then matches these with the growing ‘new industries’ of radio, aircraft and motor vehicles. From the motor industry and armament companies came developments of the tank, and from radio and early television, radar. The shipyards began building again, and a network of Royal Ordnance Factories were set up to supply the forces. ICI produced tons of chemicals. As in the first world war, a huge range of companies turned their hand to war production. I wrote about the mechanisation of the army in WW2 in my book War on Wheels. 

This is a link to some extracts from my chapter on Manufacturing for the Second World War.

Manufacturing for the postwar export drive

 The Britain to emerge from the Second World War was broke, deeply in debt to the USA and desperately short of the foreign currency it needed to pay for the imports its citizens were demanding after six years of deprivation. 

The answer was an export drive, and the motor, radio and chemical industries led the way. The shipyards initially benefitted from post war demand, and the new Labour government embarked on a programme of nationalisation, but also of intervention in terms of directing new investment to areas of high unemployment. Former Royal Ordnance and shadow factories were put to peacetime uses. 

Once post war shortages started to become a thing of the past, British manufacturing set about meeting the wants of an increasingly prosperous nation. As well as the motor car, there was television, an ever increasing range of processed foods and affordable fashion wear from the growing number of High Street chain stores. Better off people could fly on holiday on a Vickers Viscount aircraft or sail on a P&O or Cunard Liner.

You can read more by following this link

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World is now available to pre-order

Phil Hamlyn Williams has completed his sixth book beginning an exploration of British manufacturing. His great-grandfather exhibited at the ...