Image: Introduction to Patent and Harcourt’s Specification, Castors for Furniture. Patent AD1839 No 8240. An example the front page of this patent for brass castors for furniture.

[Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Local Studies and History]

Brass An alloy of copper and zinc, usually in the ratio of 60-80% copper and 40-20% zinc.
Calamine Zinc carbonate (ZnCO3), an ore of zinc found in carboniferous limestone regions, such as Derbyshire and Cornwall.
Calamine Brass Produced by smelting calcined calamine with broken or granulated copper, it has a maximum of 28% zinc content.
Cementation Process The heating together of zinc ore and copper to produce brass.
Crock-brass The term used for the copper lead alloy which is used mainly for the casting of domestic pots.
Gun-metal An alloy made up of 80% copper, 9% yellow brass, 10% tin and 1% lead, although the mixture can vary.
Latten An old name for brass encompassing that used for medieval church brasses
Paktong Originating in China, this alloy of zinc, copper and nickel was used as a cheap alternative to silver (which it resembled) in eighteenth century England.
Patent An official document giving inventors the right to an income for a term of years from those who may wish to use their invention.
Pot-metal An alloy of copper and lead
Spelter An old name for zinc
Yellow Brass Old name for foundry brass, often containing up to 3% lead to aid casting and machining.

Conclusion: Further Investigation

Image: Advertisement for Richard & Edward Peyton, Bordesley Works, Birmingham, Manufacturer of the Patent Dovetail-Jointed Brass and Iron Bedsteads, in the New Illustrated Directory entitled Men & Things of Modern England. (Birmingham, M Billing, 1858) p 62. Trade Directories are useful sources for the history of the brass industry, providing information on the location of businesses and lists of products. This advertisement is rare in that it provides an image of the place of production.

[Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Local Studies and History]

A search of the National Register of Archives for a specific company/business name should indicate the location of surviving records, but personnel records are few and far between for this trade.  Many local studies libraries also have ephemera and cuttings collections, which may include items relating to local brass works.  Local directories list businesses in the area and often contain full-page advertisements for larger concerns.  The original building may still be standing, but now put to a different commercial (or even residential) use.  If it has been demolished, a local studies library may have photographs or drawings of the buildings.

Many brassworkers served an apprenticeship and surviving indentures and other papers may be held at the local county record office or main library.  As well as being indexed by the names of masters and apprentices, there is often an index by trade to complement this.  It is possible that a parish apprenticeship was effected and in these cases, any surviving records can be found amongst the Overseers of the Poor accounts of the relevant parish at the Diocesan Record Office. It was not unusual for masters to take apprentices from parishes or institutions some distance away. Indentures for James Ford Banner of the Charity School, Bingworth, Worcestershire, dated 29th May 1800, indicate that he was apprenticed to William Mason, Brass Founder of Birmingham. This can be found in the Archives at Birmingham Central Library (DV 343)

The brass trade was competitive and most companies produced lavish catalogues of their goods.  These can usually be found in main libraries, county record offices, or, if the company is still trading, with the company itself.  Whilst these do not contain genealogical information, it is fascinating to see the types of articles a brass-founding ancestor produced.

Many of the larger foundries and manufactories published regular staff magazines, which may well provide details of individual workers. Many include obituaries, retirements, marriages, engagements and births as well as reports of sporting and social events.  They may also feature a history of the company or reproduce old advertisements.  In its Christmas 1968 issue, Conex-Sanbra of Sandwell published one of a series of company cameos detailing the work of the polishing shop, complete with snippets about the people who worked there.  Such magazines are generally deposited in main libraries, record offices or at the company’s offices.

Trades Unions

Image: Brassfounders’ Arms and Motto from the Quarterly Journal of the National Brass and Metal Mechanics.

[Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Local Studies and History]

The Brass Workers Union was founded in 1872, its first secretary being W J Davis, who remained close to the union until his death, despite breaks when he was a factory inspector in Sheffield and a politician.  There were other unions associated with the brass trade, some of which were short-lived and whilst others became part of the Amalgamated Association of Brassfounders, Turners, Fitters, Finishers and Coppersmiths.  Some 20th century executive committee and other minutes have been deposited at The Modern Records Centre at Warwick University but these are unlikely to contain any biographical information for individual members.  Annual reports of the Fender and Fire Brasses Manufacturers Association for the late 19th century contain information about wages, safety and reports from member companies. These can be found in the Local Studies and History Service at Birmingham Central Library, together with biographies of some local brass manufacturers and general histories of the brass trade.

Working Practices and Conditions in the Birmingham Brass Industry

Image: Brass-making at Messrs R W Winfield and Co. in 1887 from “The Homes of our Metal Manufactures. Messrs R W Winfield and Co’s Cambridge Street Works & Rolling Mills, Birmingham”, in Martineau & Smith’s Hardware Trade Journal (Jan 31, 1887, p 9). The image shows molten brass being transported by one worker in a crucible. In the foreground the fluid metal is poured into iron moulds to create ingots which can then be passed onto the next stages of production, such as rolling or slitting. The dangers inherent in this work can be seen in the picture, not only from the heat, but also from the fumes, known as philosopher’s wool, a dense white gas of zinc oxide.

[Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Local Studies and History]

At a conference in 1872, R H Best, chandelier maker of Birmingham, stated that he knew of two of his men who, after paying their underhands, made the sum of £3.00p. His son reported, in 1905, that “On many a soldering hearth there was the sizzling of bacon and the boiling of tea for half and hour after the morning arrivals, and again as one o’clock approached, but then the aroma changed to one of chops.” As long as it did not interfere with production he turned a blind eye.  Despite manufacturing chandeliers, Best’s factory was not well-lit.  This was because the vibration of the machines caused the fragile mantles to break easily.

The traditional keeping of “Saint Monday” whereby workers did not return to work until Tuesday, and then made up the hours during the rest of the week, was still upheld in the brass trade until the late nineteenth century. Whilst this was not so important in small workshops, in larger foundries or factories the absence of workers in key positions held up output in the production process.

The Birmingham historian, William Hutton, writing in the late 18th century summed up the “curious art” of brassfounding as being “… less ancient than profitable and less healthful than either”.  In both respects he was accurate, as brassworkers contracted pulmonary and respiratory diseases from the dust and fumes emitted in the various processes. This led one industrial historian to comment in 1866 that “Brass casters are unanimously short-lived”.

In the St Laurence Parish of Birmingham in the early twentieth century, the phenomenon of green snow was reported. This parish was home to a number of brass foundries, and illnesses of the respiratory system were rife amongst both workers and the residents who shared their streets with a large number of such establishments.

The Organisation of the Birmingham Workforce

Image: The Works of Messrs R W Winfield and Co. in 1887 from “The Homes of our Metal Manufactures. Messrs R W Winfield and Co’s Cambridge Street Works & Rolling Mills, Birmingham”, Martineau & Smith’s Hardware Trade Journal (Jan 31, 1887, p 9). The works were founded in 1829 and were described in the article as “a model manufactory and for completeness, extent, and good order it would perhaps be difficult, if not impossible to find any large industrial establishment to surpass it.”

[Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Local Studies and History]

By the mid 19th century, the typical workshop employed 20 or 30 men, whilst the Birmingham Brass Houses had just over 100 men each with the exception of R W Winfield with 100 in 1835 and 700 by 1860. The late 19th century brass industry comprised some nine divisions, although there was some overlap, with some manufacturers producing a wide range of goods. The divisions can be broken down as casting, cabinet, bell and general brass foundry, cock-making and plumbers brass foundry, stamped work, rolled brass, wire and sheathing, tube manufacture, lamp-making, gas and electrical fittings and naval brass foundry. Ironically, the infinite numbers of brass items required for any ocean-going vessel were made in Birmingham – probably the farthest town away from the English coast!

Generally speaking, in the foundries the workforce was divided into gangs and chargehands sub-contracted their own group. A head brass-caster would usually have between eight and ten people working for him and they would produce castings at an agreed price per hundredweight (cwt) with deductions for the use of the sandmill. As power lathes and other machines replaced the foot-treddle lathes and hand-tools, the contractor could, and usually did, make deductions to cover the cost of the power used. He then paid the chargehand who, in turn, paid his workers – often in the form of day wages. Occasionally, the chargehand was forced into ‘blind piecework’. This occurred when the contractor/master fixed the total price for the work and not just the parts being carried out by a particular group of workers. This could result in the chargehand being in debt to his contractor on completion of the job. Although the system of blind piecework was abolished by an Act of Parliament in 1901 it did not come into force in the brass trade until 1907.

During the 19th century, stamping and piercing, such as in the manufacture of buttons, medals and ornamental work became increasingly mechanised, which resulted in a larger female workforce. These unskilled jobs generally paid significantly less than others in the trade. The Registrar General’s Report to the 1851 census showed that there were 1,781 women employed in the trade, with the 1861 census indicating an increase to 2,119. At the turn of the 20th century Edward Cadbury, of the Bournville chocolate manufacturing family, examined women’s work and wages and published his findings. Apart from the bedstead trade some 31 different types of brass work is listed with wages varying from 30s (£1.50p) per week down to 3s 6d (17p) for the female employees.

Some Brassworkers’ weekly wages in shillings c.1855

Cockfounders 42 to 45
Stampers 20 to 25
Labourers 15 to 18
Lads” 7/6 to 10/6
Dippers 20 to 30
Lacquerers 8 to 10  (women) 3/6 to 5 (girls)
Metal Rollers 40 to 50
Finishers 24 to 26
Tubemakers 30
Solderers 10 to 12 (women)

Entrepreneurship 2: The Birmingham Metal Company and The Birmingham Mining and Copper Company

Image: First page of Copy of the Deeds of the Birmingham Mining and Copper Company. 1791.

[Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Local Studies and History (See Birmingham Institutions volume, D9)]

William Hutton summed up the feelings against the brass manufacturers “Brass is an object of some magnitude … the manufacture of this useful article has long been in few and opulent hands, who … acted with despotic sovereignty, established their own laws, chose their customers, directed the price of and govern the market”

The establishment of the Birmingham Metal Company was not the end of the problems for Birmingham’s brass trade. In 1783, the brass companies lobbied Parliament for the repeal of certain old statutes which prohibited the export of brass. In response, brassfounders from Birmingham and other Midland towns petitioned that the export of brass would be detrimental to their trades, and, although the Bill, known as the “Brass Masters Bill” passed through the House of Commons, it was defeated in the House of Lords.

The combination of copper suppliers in 1785 further threatened the Birmingham brass trade, as this effectively provided a monopoly for the whole copper output of the country. It would not only affect the brass trade, but also all those requiring copper. Due to conflicting business interests various schemes to provide Birmingham with its own smelting works were scrapped, and, in August 1790, The Birmingham Mining and Copper Company was formed with a capital of £50,000, divided into 500 shares.  At this time it was estimated that consumption was between 1,500 and 2,000 tons annually.

Entrepreneurship 1: Birmingham Brassfounders and the Building of the Brass House

Image: The Brass House, Broad Street, Birmingham from Bisset’s Magnificent Guide, or Grand Copperplate Directory….(Birmingham, 1808). The Brass House was built in 1781 to manufacture the metal alloy in Birmingham and avoid the need to transport raw brass from elsewhere.

[Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Local Studies and History]

For most of the 18th century, brass was brought from Cheadle and Bristol to Birmingham. It was deemed more economical to bring in the alloy itself from far afield than bringing in the raw materials. However, matters came to a head in 1780 when the price of brass was increased by £12.00 per ton.

Between 1771 and 1780, production of copper, the chief component needed for the production of brass fell from 3,347 tons to 2,932 tons. Consequently, the price of brass supplied to the brassfounders rose from £72 per ton to £84 per ton. This vastly increased the potential profits of the brass manufacturers (by up to 25%) whilst drastically reducing those of the brassfounders. A meeting of the chief brassfounders of Birmingham was held at the Swan on Bull Street on the 29th August 1780, at which it was decided to increase the price of brassfoundry goods by 7½%. Birmingham’s brassfounders wanted to become independent of the manufactories of Bristol and Cheadle, and, on the 9th October 1780, a “serious address to Birmingham merchants and manufacturers of hardware” was published in Aris’s Gazette. It opened in a congratulatory tone to Birmingham’s past industrial achievements “… you have surprised all Europe in Invention and Executions. You have sought honour and profit, and it has been found in every Quarter of the Globe … your competitors … watch every opportunity to share with you a trade they cannot equal”.

The writer of the address, whom Aitken suggests was Matthew Boulton, urged the brassfounders to build their own smelting and brass houses to gain independence from the existing brass makers, asking “… shall so Respectable a Body of Merchants and Manufacturers become the Dupes of a set of Capricious Monopolists in the articles of brass and spelter on which their trade depends? … be no longer governed by Strangers when you have the power to help yourselves at home.”

A few weeks later, on the 21st November 1780, the same writer placed an advertisement in Aris’ Gazette inviting Birmingham’s brassfounders and merchants to “… deliberate upon a plan … to relieve yourselves from the Imposition of a set of mercenary men whose machinations manifestly tend to the Injury of the Trade of your Town and Neighbourhood.” The decision was made to raise a fund, divided into shares to which every founder and merchant should subscribe. With subscriptions of £20,000 the Birmingham Metal Company was formed on the 2nd February 1781.

The network of canals around Birmingham was established by this time making the transportation of raw materials both quicker and cheaper. The headquarters of the new company, The Brass House, was erected in 1781 “by ye canal” in Broad Street with “… corpulent tunnels or tapering chimneys which reared behind, under each of which were two furnaces”. Soon the price of brass fell from £84.00p per ton to £56.00p per ton, thus further increasing the presence of the trade in Birmingham. The last of the six tapering chimneys was demolished on 27th January 1866 and all that remains of the building is the name of the thoroughfare “Brass House Passage”.

Demand for Birmingham Brass in Britain and Abroad

Image: The showroom of Messrs R W Winfield and Co. in 1887 from “The Homes of our Metal Manufactures. Messrs R W Winfield and Co’s Cambridge Street Works & Rolling Mills, Birmingham”, Martineau & Smith’s Hardware Trade Journal (Jan 31, 1887, p 10). By the late 19th century an extraordinary range of brass items were created by Birmingham Brassfounders to meet home and overseas demand. The writer of the article noted that that “the extensive show-room contained noteworthy examples of some of the finest brasswork, on which the eye is tempted to linger….” He listed some of them. The ante-room to the show-room alone contained bedsteads, gas fittings, bronzes, fenders, fire screens, stair rods and electric light fittings.

[Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Local Studies and History]

Brass was in demand for the manufacture of buckles, buttons, horse and carriage fittings, household goods and, as improvement and sanitation schemes were effected, plumbing and sanitary products were needed in large numbers. In 1770, there were just five cock-founders in Birmingham supplying items for steam engines in the form of whistles, cocks, taps and gauges. A century later similar items were being produced for locomotive and ship engines as well as for industrial machines. Writing in 1865, Aitken suggested:

What Manchester is to cotton, Bradford to wool and Sheffield in steel, Birmingham is in brass: its articles of cabinet and general brassfoundary are to be found in every part of the world; its gas fittings in every city and town into which gas had been introduced, from Indus to the Poles … on the railways of every country and on every sea its locomotive and marine engines of solid brass generate the vapour which impels the locomotive over the iron road, and propels the steam boat over the ocean wave … its rings and ornament of brass are the chief decorations of the ‘belles’ on the banks of the distant Zambesi.

Aitkens’ statement was backed up by David Livingstone who described a Makalolo woman he met in Africa as wearing “Eighteen solid brass rings, as thick as ones fingers on each leg and three under each knee, nineteen on her left arm and eight on her right”.

The demand for brass for the production of goods in all shapes and forms rose as the 19th century progressed. The Victorian pre-occupation with death led to a rise in the manufacture of coffin furniture. Aitken reported a request from two African palm oil potentates called “King I Am” and “Egbo Jack” for two coffins, each made of brass, 6ft 10in in length, 3feet in depth and 2ft 3in wide – each weighed 600lbs. The receptacles had a dual purpose, they were to be used as repositories for their treasures during their lifetimes before being called into service for the purpose for which they were designed.

As demand in one area declined there was usually another to take its place. An Exhibition of Electric Lighting was held at the Crystal Palace in 1882, and leaders of the brass industry foresaw electricity as the successor to gas for means of lighting. Fearing a loss of trade they argued that “Brass stands in the first rank” as the material for making electrical fittings. Their fears did not come to fruition as the turbine engine, motor industry came to the fore, and the Penny Post created new markets – from scales for weighing letters to brass letterboxes.

Brassworking Skills in Birmingham

Caption: First page of William Tonks, Sons & Co., Catalogue of the Various Kinds of Work (1880). The image shows the variety of products made by this firm of brassfounders in Moseley Street, Birmingham. Items range from relatively simple items of door furniture to a church lecturn. They show how extensive the skills of workers in the local brass industry had to be.

[Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Local Studies and History]

4. Brassworking Skills in Birmingham

The skills within the brass trade cannot be understated. Casting needed the application of both manual dexterity and scientific knowledge. The rising demand for church furniture and artefacts in the 19th century, as well as the revival of metal art and crafts, tried the skills of the workers. The production of an eagle for a church lectern required a mould made up of 25 separate pieces. Braziers wrought intricate patterns on many of the goods they produced, but, by the nineteenth century, their work had been taken over by machine stamping.

The flexibility of Birmingham’s workers was renowned. Writing in 1865, Aitken suggests that these characteristics were “… hereditary, transmissable and transmitted from sire to son … thus there is a tendency to perpetuate a special qualification for the manipulation of metals”. With its firm connections with the iron trades the adaptation to brass was relatively straightforward as both are polished by abrasion or friction, and methods of fitting together the moulded articles are the same. Aitken was confident of the future of the brass trade in Birmingham where “…it found an almost ready trained class of artisans prepared to deal with it”. Although Birmingham cannot claim credit for the introduction of brass manufacture to this country, within a few years of its appearance in the town Birmingham was responsible for a high proportion of the manufacture of articles in brass.

Innovation in the Midlands Brass Industry

Caption: An original Boulton and Watt Engine from The Useful Arts and Manufactures of Great Britain, second part (London, SPCK nd), p 31. This engine of 100 horse power was installed at the Fazeley Street Rolling Mills in Birmingham at the end of the 18th century to provide the energy to drive rolling mills which turned cast plates of brass into sheets. The author of the article accompanying the image, written some sixty years after the installation of the machine, wrote:

“The beam is of massive timber, and its vibrations are accompanied with a loud cracking noise, which would seem to indicate want of strength and stability; but the writer was informed that the noise has always accompanied the working of the beam, and that some thirty years ago an iron beam was got ready to supply the place of the wooden one, which it was thought could not last much longer. And yet this curious and excellent engine still stands, as it were, a monument to the genius of the great improver of the steam engine.”

[Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Science and Technology]

3. Innovation in the Midlands Brass Industry

Turner’s Brass House on Coleshill Street was established in 1740 and in 1767, the first Birmingham patent was granted to William Chapman for “Refining copper and manufacturing brass and brass wire.” In 1769 the process of producing brass articles by means of stamp and die was introduced. A patent for a stamped brass foundry was granted to John Pickering, a London gilt toymaker on the 7th March 1769. This process was adopted by Richard Ford in his Birmingham factory. David Harcourt took out the patent in 1835 for the first automatic press and almost a hundred years later the same machine was still in use in the family’s manufactory.

Until the nineteenth century casting was the usual method used by brassfounders, which involved pouring molten copper alloys into moulds. Braziers, a separate trade, wrought goods by hand from sheet brass. Both had their own guilds or companies established in 14th century London. Birmingham was not a guild town, and, therefore attracted workers and entrepreneurs from far and wide, many of whom brought certain skills with them – from the chain and nailmaking trades of the Black Country for instance. Each item required a pattern from which copies were cast and moulds were made by packing sand around the pattern in a rectangular wooden or iron frame, which was made in two halves. Molten metal was poured through a runner (a channel cut through the sand) and smaller channels, called risers, were cut to enable hot air and gasses to escape as the molten metal reached the mould. A fettler was responsible for removing the stem from the mould when cooled, and all roughness was filed off.

The tools of the trade were inexpensive and easy to obtain – a lathe, vice and a few hand tools were the stock-in-trade of many small workshops. The “manufacturer” resided in the front part of his residence whilst upstairs and behind the house he “treddled the turning lathe, and, begirt with apron, examined the work, tied it up, made out the invoice and sent the finished work off to its destination”.

The bright, yellow, newness of brass articles was achieved by pickling it in acid – a dangerous aspect of the trade – and the process of “dead dipping” was discovered by accident when, in 1832, a worker at David Malins’ foundry left a quantity of articles in the cleaning solution (dipping) overnight. The strong acid (or pickling process) turned the items a dull, frosted yellow, but after burnishing and lacquering the desired effect was achieved. Burnishing was carried out by steel burnishers and the articles then passed through acid before being rinsed and dried out in a warm box of sawdust. The final process of lacquering covered the finished articles with a transparent varnish, which could contain dissolved seed lac to which was added “tumeric, dragon’s blood or sandalwood” to impart the colour. The source of the dragon’s blood is not given in any of the histories of the trade!

The Origins of the Brass Industry in the Midlands and Birmingham

Caption: Image of a brassworker with a crucible from The Useful Arts and Manufactures of Great Britain, second part (London, SPCK, nd). Brass was originally made by cementing copper, calamine (zinc ore) and charcoal in a crucible to a red hot heat. Brass was formed when the spelter (zinc metal) and copper combined at the bottom of the crucible leaving slag behind. By the 19th century brass was manufactured by the direct fusion of copper and zinc. Zinc was melted in crucibles and copper was added to it. The two metals fused into an alloy. This in turn was allowed to cool, broken up and melted with an additional quantity of zinc.

[Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Science and Technology]

2. The Origins of the Brass Industry in the Midlands and Birmingham

Early in 1700 an ancestor of Abraham Darby (of Coalbrookdale) and a Mr Lloyd (an ancestor of the founder of Lloyd’s Bank) established a brass works at the Baptist Mill on the River Frome near Bristol. Similar works grew along the river Avon, at Keynsham, Kelson, Salford, Weston and Warmley, all under the control of Joseph Loscombe and the Brass Works Company. Less than 20 years later the Cheadle Copper and Brass Company erected a smelting works at Bank Quay, Warrington. The first entry in the account book is said to read “Paid for ale to men digging foundations”.

In 1719 The Cheadle Copper and Brass Company at Cheadle, Cheshire was established with calamine stone being carried on the backs of mules from Derbyshire. According to a local ironmaster more than 30,000 individuals were employed in the brass trade in 1721.

Until the last quarter of the eighteenth century Bristol dominated the brass industry. It was both close to the raw materials – calamine from the Mendips, and copper from Cornwall – and there was a sufficient water supply to provide power. Bristol was also a major port, and its prominent role in the slave trade involved the brass industry. Wares, known “as guinea kettles” were taken to West Africa as part of the goods used for barter by slave traders.

Birmingham’s toy trade (items such as buttons, buckles, sugar, tongs etc.) required high copper alloys, pinchbeck and tombac. In 1738, William Champion of Bristol patented a method of producing zinc from calamine by the process of distillation, and this, together with further technical developments meant that the importation of foreign brass declined rapidly and Birmingham was taking a large amount of the sheet brass and ingots from Champions Brass Works.

By the time that Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, Birmingham had become the centre of the brass industry. The main factors were innovative practices, workforce skills, high demand and entrepreneurship. The social dimension of the industry is part of the history of Birmingham’s brass trade. Aspects include the organisation of the workforce, working practices and conditions and trade unionism.

The Early Brass Trade

Caption: The brazier was one of the specialised workers in the brass trade. He made kettles, pails, candlesticks and kitchen utensils in brass. 17th century wills show that kitchen utensils were important items manufactured from brass during the early history of the industry. From The Book of Trades, or Library of the Useful Arts, part III, third edition (London, Tabart and Co, 1805).

[Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Science and Technology]

1. The Early Brass Trade

Brass-making was known in Roman times where experiments took place to produce brass by heating calamine (zinc ore) and copper together. The earliest examples of brass to be found in England are monumental brasses dating from the fourteenth century – such as can be seen in Westminster Abbey, but these were made from brass imported from Flanders or Germany. The medieval industry developed there because of the availability of the two main resources for the manufacture of brass – calamine reserves and water. The latter was used to provide power to hammer the sheet brass into the finished items. These were sometimes referred to as “Flemish ware”.

During the reign of Elizabeth I a patent was granted to Christopher Schutz for the exclusive right of getting the calamine stone and working brass. He was described as a man “… of great cunnynge in ye mixed metal called latten or brass … and working ye same into all sortes of batterye wares, cast work and wyre”. Schultz was a Saxon zinc miner and, in 1568, two monopolies were granted concerning the brass trade. The first was to the Mines Royal Company for the mining and smelting of copper, and the second gave the Mineral and Battery Works the sole right to mine calamine and manufacture brass

Two Germans, Jacob Monima and Daniel Demitreus, established a brass works in 1649 at Esher, Surrey, with an outlay of some £6000, but this had gone out of business before the turn of the eighteenth century.

The Goldscope Copper Mine, near Keswick in Cumbria, was licensed to convert its copper into brass, and, by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, it had 4,000 employees. However, during Cromwell’s rule its smelting houses were destroyed and, although the workings were resumed by Dutch miners on the accession of William II, business ceased in 1715.

The brass trade relied heavily on skilled workers from the continent, and this, together with the crown monopolies, meant that a native industry was slow to develop. The passing of the Mines Royal Act in 1689 removed the crown monopoly on mining and brass production, which brought about renewed interest in the copper industry.

Despite the well known euphemism for “brass” to mean money and the statement of being “without a brass farthing”, which denotes poverty, the closest that Britain came to a brass regal coin was in the reign of James II. It was proclaimed in June 1689 that crowns, half-crowns, shillings and sixpences were to be made of brass and these became known as gun money because the brass came from old brass cannons, bells and kitchen utensils. Early wills and inventories often mention such items. The inventory of Nathaniel Moore, whitesmith of Deritend, in 1688, includes brass pots and brass candlesticks.

The Brass Industry and Brass Workers in Birmingham

Caption: Brass Door Furniture from William Tonks and Sons, Catalogue of the Various Kinds of Work (Birmingham, 1880), p 318. An example of the wide range of items produced by one Birmingham brass manufacturer.

[Image from: Birmingham Central Library, Local Studies and History]

Text: Doreen Hopwood

Image Captions: Malcolm Dick


The brass trade has left its mark on the English language – we refer to people as having a “brass neck” and we get down to “brass tacks” when we mean business. Our bosses can be referred to as “top brass” or “brass hats” and our brassworking ancestors may well have been “brassed off” by the tedious and repetitive nature of their work!

Large profits were to be made from brass and the numbers of foundries, factories and manufactories grew at an alarming rate from the late eighteenth century. By the mid nineteenth century the manufacture of every conceivable item that could be made of brass – from tacks to bedsteads and gas fittings – were being produced in huge quantities, with Birmingham being one of the main centres for the trade.