My dad came to stay at the weekend, and we, of course went to the city museum, as we often do with guests. At the end of the Birmingham history gallery, he asked ‘so why did Birmingham become a jewellery-making centre if it was such a minor medieval town?’. The answer to that was ‘I have no idea, but I’d like to’, so I did some snooping…
There’s a standard UK city history: a settlement is placed on an easily-defendable location (usually a hill) beside a navigable river (for transport and water supply), and grows following the introduction of a market. At 130m above sea level and with a market appearing in 1166, Birmingham hits two of these criteria, but it’s noticeably lacking on the third. So, why were settlers drawn to this essentially riverless location? And how, over the following centuries, did Birmingham become a metalworking powerhouse?
Despite its lack of a major river and out-of-the-way location, early Birmingham did have a decent water supply from the much smaller ‘rivers’ Rea, Tame and Cole, as well as Bourn Brook. Because of its height, it was also nice and dry (i.e. not marshy), and timber, iron, and coal were all easily available. Birmingham’s plentiful supply of both raw materials (base metals, timber, coal) and of other tradesmen meant the medieval jeweller could easily get hold of local pottery vessels and iron tools, as well as sheets of base metal for practice and working.The veins of gold discovered in nearby Shropshire probably didn’t hurt the city’s jewellery trade, either.
So far, so good, but how does a village with 9 houses and a value of £1 in the Domesday Book host multiple goldsmiths just three centuries later? Well, it owes a lot to the local ruling family, the de Birminghams, who held the manor in the town for 400 years from 1150. The second lord, Peter de Birmingham, was the person granted a market charter by King Henry II. By the time Peter’s son, William, sought confirmation of the charter from Richard I, just two decades later, the location had changed from the ‘manor at Birmingham’ to the ‘town of Birmingham’.
More importantly, the de Birminghams preferred a hands-off approach to trade regulations, just charging a toll on market traffic, and it was mainly this which attracted craftsmen to the growing market town over the next couple of centuries. By 1327, craftsmen were listed amongst taxpayers in Birmingham. In 1308, seized effects of a Knight Templar included 22 ‘Birmingham Pieces’. There’s also no specification of what exactly the ‘Birmingham Pieces’ were, but they were precious metal objects small enough to be taken into prison, and also well-known enough to need no further explanation. This was in London, meaning that gold- and silversmithing wasn’t just happening on a local level; the trade had already expanded beyond Birmingham.
Fast forward to Birmingham’s Industrial Revolution, and the real growth started as early as 1680. The population exploded shortly after, quadrupling between 1700 and 1750. It was during this time that the Jewellery Quarter rapidly developed, becoming known as its own manufacturing area by the early nineteenth century.
With the creation of Birmingham’s canals (the first was opened in 1769), the large amount of iron available in the area could now be easily transported in and out of the city. Birmingham’s iron supply allowed tradesmen to diversify and specialise in their metalworking efforts, practising everything from buckle-making to locksmithing. On the other hand, although Birmingham was at the front of the canal-building trend, it actually remained relatively difficult to access, meaning that the metalworking of small, valuable objects became the obvious trade to pursue. Hello, jewellery… Perhaps most importantly of all, Birmingham’s lack of guilds meant tradesmen were much freer to change occupation or practise more than one trade here than they were in other cities, since they didn’t have to pay expensive membership rates and belong to just one guild.
Birmingham’s adaptability carried its jewellery trade through periods of depression and both world wars. Today, the Jewellery Quarter still produces 40% of all jewellery created in the UK (mine included!), and boasts both the world’s largest Assay Office and the oldest independent mint in the world. Not bad for a city which was a tiny, wooded backwater only a millenium ago…
And there we have it: good local supplies + lack of trade restrictions = an influx of tradespeople. Throw in the Industrial Revolution for good measure and you’ve got Birmingham as the UK centre of jewellery-making. So, Dad, now we know!
Medieval Goldsmiths, John Cherry (2011, British Museum Press)