I visited Birmingham for the first time and, rather than frequent the shops (having plenty of those in London), I asked D if we could check out some of the city council’s museums, entry being free and all with our Art Fund cards. My wish was granted, and we found ourselves on a tour of the industrial history of Birmingham.
We started our tour at Soho House, home to Birmingham-based industrialist Matthew Boulton from 1766 to 1809. MB was also a founding member of the Lunar Society, who met at Soho House. The Lunar Society was a think-tank of industrial minds who met during the full moon, hence the name!
I had never heard of Matthew Boulton or the Lunar Society. Boulton was, however, a man with his fingers in many pies and in the visitor centre based in the grounds of Soho House there are examples of his silver work, his work with steam power stemming from his partnership with James Watt, and his work involved with minting coinage.
The council has restored the house with period interiors, including reproduction wallpaper and carpets, although the most interesting part of this house (which intrinsically doesn’t stand out from its contemporaries) is the story of its most famous inhabitant, who incidentally married his first wife’s sister after the first wife “mysteriously” was found drowned in the woods.
The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter
From Soho House we moved into the jewellery quarter of Birmingham, to visit an esoteric? gem.
“When the proprietors of the Smith & Pepper jewellery manufacturing firm decided to retire in 1981 they ceased trading and locked the door, unaware they would be leaving a time capsule for future generations. Tools were left strewn on benches; grubby overalls were hung on the coat hooks; and dirty teacups were abandoned alongside jars of marmite and jam on the shelf.
In the eighty years before its closure little changed with the working practices or equipment used within the family-owned business. Even the décor had more in common with early 20th century trends than a thriving business in the early 1980s. Today the factory is a remarkable museum, which tells the story of the Jewellery Quarter and Birmingham’s renowned jewellery and metalworking heritage.”
We visited the museum, which sets out the history of Birmingham’s contribution to the jewellery trade in England and explains the poor conditions in which employees worked. We then took a guided tour of the offices of Smith & Pepper, a family firm who worked in the upper echelons of the jewellery trade. Without a successor and having failed to find a buyer for the business, with the owners in the 80s they simply shut up shop. The saving grace was that the council owned the lease on the building and after a decade passed, finally a museum of the premises was opened.
We were shown how some of the machinery worked, given tokens to take away with us and enjoyed a fascinating insight into the hard toil of working in the jewellery business.
When visited: May 2014