Image: John Rubery, Umbrella, Parasol, Furniture and Steel Frame Manufacturer, Birmingham

Image from: The New Illustrated Directory Entitled Men and Things of Modern England, 1858

Local Studies and History, Central Library, Birmingham

Birmingham [3]

One word as to the progress of Birmingham in population and in material wealth, and we bring this portion of our work to a close. In 1648 there were in Birmingham only 907 houses and 5,472 inhabitants; in 1700 the houses numbered 2,504 and the population 15,032; in 1781 there were 4,172 dwellings and 25,032 people; in 1816 the houses had extended to 17,710 and the inhabitants had increased to 88,550. From that date the town advanced at an almost inconceivable rate. In 1831 there were 29,397 houses and 142,251 people; in 1841 the numbers were respectively 40,000 and 182,922 and in 1851 the borough contained 232,841 persons, who inhabited 48,894 houses. The rate of increase since that time has been considerably higher than in former years and we shall probably be not far wrong in estimating the actual population of Birmingham in 1858 at about 290,000 and the number of houses at not less than 70,000. At the close of the last century it is doubtful whether the united rental of Birmingham was more than £100,000 and at that time £90 a-year was the highest rent asked for a dwelling-house. At the present time the assessment of the borough is upwards of £800,000 and as this is usually calculated at about two-thirds of the actual rental, the total yearly value of building property in Birmingham would not be less than £1,200,000. Many of the dwelling-houses let for £200 or £300 per annum, and for some of the principal shops yearly rents varying from £200 to £800, or even more than £1000 are obtained. The exports of Birmingham manufactures have since the beginning of the century increased to nearly ten times their quantity and value at that period. The artisans have shared in the general advance of the town. They live for the most part in comfortable separate houses, which in some cases have gardens attached to them. Men’s wages vary from 16s to £4 or £5 per week (taking the extreme points) – the average would probably be about 26s. The consequence of this comparatively high scale of payment is that Birmingham mechanics are more independent in manner and in circumstances than those of most other towns. Many of them have by the aid of building societies become possessors of the cottages in which they live; others have ledged a considerable part of their earnings in the ‘Savings Bank’; and although no doubt much improvidence and occasionally distress, exists here as in all other great communities, yet as a class the artisans of Birmingham will, as regards prosperity and good conduct, bear favourable comparison with their working brethren elsewhere.

We now proceed to notice those of the manufactures of Birmingham which are included in the plan of this work.


Image: William Spurrier, Electro Silver Plate Manufacturer, Birmingham

Image from: The New Illustrated Directory Entitled Men and Things of Modern England, 1858


Great antiquity has, without much solid ground, been claimed for Birmingham as a centre of metal manufactures. According to some fanciful writers it was from this town that the ancient Britons obtained their swords and spears and their scythe-armed chariots. “I had chariots, arms and horses,” exclaimed the British Caractacus before the tribunal of the Roman Claudius. But it does not follow that the barbarian derived his weapons from the forges of Birmingham. Authentic history does not go further back than the time of Henry the Eighth, when Leland wrote that “a great part of the town is maintained by smiths, who have their iron and sea-coal out of Staffordshire.” But the trade was then very limited. Even in Charles the Second’s time the town produced scarcely anything but tools and agricultural implements. Although there is no doubt that sword-making had been introduced before that period, yet it had not been developed into a staple manufacture. Before the middle of the eighteenth century there were no manufactures in brass. Soon after these were established, glass-making was commenced. It was followed by papier mâché; then came jewellery, then steel pens and so on by rapid strides the town accumulated in its workshops, either by creation or adoption, the numerous trades which have now become peculiarly its own. The first great impulse given to Birmingham was the substitution of coal for wood in the smelting of iron. The application of steam as a motive power was the next important step towards prosperity, although communities other than Birmingham have received most benefit from the steam engine. When it was ascertained that a machine driven by steam, would with unerring certainty and at wonderful speed, make a yard of calico or a ball of cotton, the multiplication of these products became a simple question of demand. If a manufacturer wanted to make more calico or more cotton, he had simply to set up more spindles and he was at once enabled indefinitely to extend the amount of his production. Here the steam-engine was essential; it superseded all other motive power; the trader was able to estimate with certainty the exact measure of assistance it could afford him – he could adjust his means to the designed end with mathematical accuracy. But in Birmingham steam machinery has never been more than an auxiliary force. In some trades it is still altogether dispensed with; in others it is able to do only a small portion of the work; in none does it altogether supersede skilled labour. Large numbers, probably the majority, of Birmingham workmen are employed in their own homes, or in little shops not large enough to hold more than four or five men. These artisans depend chiefly upon skilled hand labour; either they make parts of articles only, or if they find it necessary to have recourse to the aid of steam to facilitate their operations, they hire a room through which a shaft, driven by steam power, is made to pass. The result of this arrangement is that Birmingham in some measure disappoints the visitor who expects to see huge factories like those of the north, their long plain fronts pierced with hundreds of windows, cold and hard by day, but at night emitting a thousand streams of light. There are, it is true, a few factories in Birmingham which may vie with any the world can show, but these are very few; and as we have previously said, the major portion of the work is performed in small shops, or not infrequently in the garrets of houses. The stranger who desires to form an adequate idea of the industry of the great iron district should station himself on a dark night on the railway viaduct which rises above some of the business streets of the town. Beneath him and seemingly for miles around, he will observe thousands of twinkling points of fire, indicating the spots where industrious artisans are engaged in fashioning articles of Birmingham manufacture. As he travels slowly into Staffordshire he will mark before him and on every side, an endless range of houses and workshops similarly illuminated, until he reaches the lofty hill crowned by the ruins of Dudley Castle, some seven miles distant. Standing on this hill and looking over the great mineral basin which spreads out its ample breadth below, he will behold a sea of fire, leaping up from the countless pits and forges incessantly employed in yielding coal and ironstone and in converting the latter into the metal which under the hands of skilful artificers becomes to the labouring world more valuable than the finest gold. Fringing the edge of the great valley, he will perceive a broad band of light – the combination into one grand illumination of the tiny sparks that floated beneath and around the railway viaduct of Birmingham. Such a journey and only such a journey will enable a stranger to comprehend the vast extent if midland industry; to understand the gigantic labour bestowed on the conversion and adaptation of metals and to estimate at its proper rate the immense benefit conferred upon England and upon the world by the skill and capital engaged in developing and manufacturing the exhaustless stores of mineral wealth which lie hidden under the coal and ironstone strata surrounding the midland metropolis.


Image: Hinks, Wells & Co, Steel Pen Manufacturers, Buckingham Street Pen Works, Birmingham

Image from: The New Illustrated Directory Entitled Men and Things of Modern England, 1858

Local Studies and History, Central Library, Birmingham


We cannot venture, in the space allotted to us, to attempt a description of all the branches of trade carried on in the great Midland Metropolis – the town which Burke denominated “The Toyshop of Europe”. The title is somewhat of a misnomer. Birmingham makes toys enough no doubt; but they are intended for the rough hands of hardworking men; not to amuse the idle hours of laughing children. Her toys are the gun, the sword, the axe, the spade, the anvil, the steam engine. Wherever useful work has to be done, wherever stubborn Nature needs to be subdued to the wants of man, wherever wild wastes are to be brought into blooming cultivation, or the bowels of the earth to be rifled of their rich and varied mineral treasures, there are to be found the ‘toys’ of Birmingham – toys in producing which her hardy sons have sweated over the glowing forge, or toiled at the swift-revolving lathe, or wielded the ponderous hammer, or plied the sharp-biting file. In her earlier days Birmingham altogether lacked the graces with which she has since be-decked herself. To use the words of her sole historian, Hutton, she was “comparatively small in her size, homely in her person and coarse in her dress – her ornaments wholly of iron from her own forge.” But even in his remote day Hutton decried the coming greatness of his adopted town. Looking to the future he exclaimed, with something of a prophetic spirit – “We have only seen her in infancy. But now her growth will be amazing, her expansion rapid, perhaps not to be paralleled in history. We shall see her rise in all the beauty of youth, of grace, of elegance and attract the notice of the commercial world. She will also add to her iron ornaments the lustre of every metal that the whole earth can produce, with all their illustrious race of compounds heightened by fancy and garnished with jewels. She will draw from the fossil and the vegetable kingdoms; press the ocean for shell, skin and coral. She will also tax the animal for horn, bone and ivory and she will decorate the whole with touches of her pencil.” The fanciful picture drawn in these glowing colours by the old antiquary has been realised to the letter. The manufactures of Birmingham are dispersed over the whole world. Wherever commerce has been established Birmingham has found a market for some, at least, of the infinite variety of her wares. In the luxurious capitals of Europe, in the vast empires of Asia, in the dense forests of Western America, in the boundless plains of Russia, in the thriving communities of Australia, in the farthest islands of the Eastern and Western Oceans, Birmingham has supplied the ever-growing wants of man, civilized or savage. The Arab Sheikh eats his pillau with a Birmingham spoon, the Egyptian Pasha takes from a Birmingham tray his bowl of sherbert, or illumes his harem with glittering candelabra made of Birmingham glass, or decorates his yacht with cunningly-designed pictures painted by Birmingham workmen on Birmingham papier mâché. The American Indian provides himself with food, or defends himself in war by the unerring use of a Birmingham rifle; the luxurious Hindoo loads his table with Birmingham plate and hangs in his saloon a handsome Birmingham lamp. The swift horsemen who scour the plains of South America urge on their steeds with Birmingham spurs and deck their gaudy jackets with Birmingham buttons. The Negro labourer hacks down the sugar cane with Birmingham machetes and presses the luscious juice into Birmingham vats and coolers. The dreamy German strikes a light for his everlasting pipe with a Birmingham steel on tinder, in a Birmingham box. The emigrant cooks his frugal dinner in a Birmingham saucepan over a Birmingham stove and carries his little luxuries in tins stamped with the name of a Birmingham maker. But we need not continue the catalogue. It is impossible to move without finding traces of the great hive of metal workers – the veritable followers of Tubal Cain. The palace and the cottage, the peasant and the prince, are alike indebted for necessaries, comforts and luxuries, to the busy fingers of Birmingham men. The locks and bolts which fasten our doors, the bedsteads on which we sleep, the cooking vessels in which our meals are prepared, the nails which hold together our shoes, the tips of our bootlaces, the metal tops of our inkstands, our curtain rods and cornices, the castors on which our tables roll, our fenders and fire-irons, our drinking glasses and decanters, the pens with which we write and much of the jewellery with which we adorn ourselves, are made at Birmingham. At home or abroad, sleeping or waking, walking or riding, in a carriage or on a railway or steamboat, we cannot escape reminiscences of Birmingham. She haunts us from the cradle to the grave. She supplies us with the spoon that first brings our infant lips into acquaintance with ‘pap’ and provides the lugubrious ‘furniture’ which is affixed to our coffins. In her turn Birmingham lays the whole world under contribution for material. For her smiths and metal workers and jewellers, wherever nature has deposited stores of useful or precious metals, or has hidden glittering gems, there industrious miners are busily digging. Divers collect for her button makers millions of rare and costly shells. Adventurous hunters rifle for her the buffalo of his wide-spreading horns and the elephant of his ivory tusks. There is scarcely a product of any country or any climate that she does not gladly receive and in return, stamp with a new and rare value. Knowledge has endowed her with art higher than magic and it is this which enables her to take in hand substances seemingly the most worthless and by her ingenuity to convert them into articles of universal necessity, or into the most coveted appliances of the highest luxury. We have spoken at length and thus warmly – not from mere local predilections – but because Birmingham may be regarded as a microcosm of the industry of England. There are perhaps other towns which use more iron, more steel, more gold, more jewels; there are other towns compared with which Birmingham has very few factories worthy the name; there are other towns which far outstrip Birmingham in wealth and outnumber her in people; but there is no town in the world where so many trades are practised; nor is there any community which manifests more acuteness and ingenuity, which is characterised by greater industry, or distinguished by high inventive skill.

The Manufactures of Birmingham and Sheffield

Image: Dain, Watts and Manton, Patentees and Button Manufacturers, Birmingham

Image from: The New Illustrated Directory Entitled Men and Things of Modern England, 1858

Local Studies and History, Central Library, Birmingham

(Attributed to J. T. Bunce)


As our readers are aware, the main object of this work is to place on record, in a permanent form, the Advertisements of the chief manufacturers in some of the numerous trades which constitute the industry of the kingdom. It is hoped that, by imparting to the work an interest beyond that attaching to ordinary collections of business announcements, it ma be made to take its place as a book of reference; by consulting which the consumer will, at a glance, be able to select the house with which it will best suit him to put himself into communication; and from which both purchasers and manufacturers may derive interesting and useful information, in reference to the departments of trade in which they are respectively concerned. In order to secure the attainment of this object – the combination of amusement and instruction with ample business information – one portion of the work has been devoted to illustrated memoirs of persons distinguished by their high social position, or by their eminence as Statesmen, Lawyers, Authors, Artists, or Military or Naval Commanders. It is felt to be an essential portion of the plan laid down by the publisher, that the work should also include sketches of the history and character of the Manufacturers enumerated amongst its advertisements. As it happens that the majority of the branches of industry thus requiring notice, are those which for the staple trades of Birmingham and Sheffield – the two most important metal-working towns – it is considered advisable to treat first of those manufacturers which are peculiar to each community; then of those which are extensively carried on both in Birmingham and Sheffield; and finally, of those which cannot be assigned exclusively to either town. For errors or omissions which must inevitably occur in the execution of this plan, the publisher must beg the indulgence of the persons who have favoured him with advertisements and also that of the reader. Taking into account the widely-varied subjects to be treated, the difficulty of satisfactory classification, the condensation necessarily imposed by restricted space and the limited time allowed for preparation, it will be seen that to expect entire freedom from mistake is demanding what is simply impossible. If, at a future time, circumstances should – as the publisher anticipates will be the case – call for another and improve edition, he will use the utmost exertion to correct mistakes and supply the omissions, which are unavoidably in the present issue. The publisher desires to make on further observation: – It was originally intended to have incorporated with this part of the work, not only notices of the principal manufacturers, but also of the leading houses in each branch of trade. With this view, authentic information was sought from those houses themselves; but it has been found so difficult to obtain full and exact data that the design, excepting in a few special cases, has been necessarily, though reluctantly abandoned. With these remarks we proceed briefly to describe the manufactures of Birmingham.

The First Manufacturing Town: Industry in Birmingham in the mid-19th Century, The New Illustrated Directory, 1858

Image: The frontispiece presents an image of an imaginary industrial and commercial city. Huge factories dominate the landscape on the right. A railway bridge bisects the landscape and a train travels towards the city. In the background there is evidence of extensive commerce in a busy port full of ships. A steam vessel moves in the distance. The town is viewed by two observers. Presumably they gaze in wonder at the scene below.

Text: Malcolm Dick

In 1791, Arthur Young, the writer and commentator on British economic life described Birmingham as “the first manufacturing town in the world.” By the mid-19th century the town had other urban industrial rivals such as Manchester, but Birmingham possessed an extraordinarily varied industrial base. The “city of a thousand trades” was the world’s leading manufacturer of metal ware, but other goods were made as well. Businesses included the brass, toy, jewellery, gun and pin industries, coin and medal making, electroplating and steel-pen manufacturing. Buttons were created from a huge range of materials and Birmingham also made flint glass, papier mâché and japan ware. The 1851 census showed the large numbers of brassfounders, gunsmiths, gold and silversmiths, button makers and tool-makers who were employed in the town.

Birmingham had factories, but unlike the cotton towns of the north-west, the town was heavily dependent upon workshops and the application of factory-based steam power was slow. Boulton and Watt’s steam engines which were made in the Smethwick Foundry were not used widely in Birmingham. In 1815 there were only about 40 steam engines in the town, though by 1838 this had risen to 240. Where steam engines were used they were often small and generated power for hammering, rolling and blowing. There were thousands of small workshops which employed small numbers of workers who used hand rather than steam technology to operate presses, stamps and lathes. Evidence from the Children’s Employment Commission of 1843 provides testimony for this kind of work.

The New Illustrated Directory was published in Birmingham in 1858. It combines high-quality engravings and chromolithographs with detailed written descriptions, probably by Samuel Timmins, of Birmingham’s industrial history. It purports to be a national directory, but despite concessions to commercial and industrial premises in London, Rotherham, Bristol and elsewhere, its focus is on Birmingham and its industrial hinterland in the Black Country and Worcestershire. Illustrations include hotels, but the vast majority of images are of factories and large workshops, the businesses that were likely to afford the cost of advertisements and coloured portraits of their premises. It therefore misrepresents the nature of industrial organisation in the local workshop-based economy.

The images in the Directory promote the large family business. They provide aerial views of palatial industrial premises with an exaggerated perspective and reveal workers busily engaged in industrial and commercial activity in railway carriage works, forges, brass foundries, electroplating works and many others. Small plumes of smoke emerge artistically from tall chimneys, but there is no evidence of dirt and pollution. The book is a remarkable celebration of industrial capitalism in the 1850s.






Text: Taken from the original Directory

Local Studies and History, Central Library, Birmingham


In issuing this volume, the Publisher desires to say a few words on its character and object. It has been felt as a serious want that, hitherto, no work has existed from the pages of which the British Public, or foreigners, could make themselves acquainted with the names of leading manufacturers in this country. The necessity for such a guide-book has long been admitted, by both commercial and by persons who transact business with them and the Publisher has much pleasure in calling attention to his “COMMERCIAL DIRECTORY”, which will he believes supply the desideratum. The work contains the announcements of the principal firms engaged in the chief branches of trade carried on in the United Kingdom and has been designed and executed on a scale calculated to ensure its preservation as a work of reference. In order to extend to Advertisers the benefit of wide publicity, copies of the work will be pleased in the hands of the leading commercial houses throughout the kingdom and others will be distributed amongst the clubs, the principal hotels and reading-rooms in this country, on the Continent, in the United States and in the British Colonies. Copies will also be placed on board vessels belonging to the chief steam-packet companies; and all other available means will be taken to ensure for the work the fullest publicity amongst the classes whom the advertisers particularly desire to reach. The Publisher calls attention to the circumstance, that although the COMMERCIAL DIRECTORY is primarily intended to be a record of business announcements, he has endeavoured to render it interesting to the public at large by adding to its portraits and biographical sketches of eminent persons and also brief notices of the history and processes of the principal trades mentioned amongst the advertisements. He is sensible that many defects will be observed in the execution of this plan; but for these and all other errors – which are inseparable from the issue of a work of this kind – he requests the indulgence of his supporters; and at the same time takes the opportunity of assuring them that in his next publication he will use his utmost exertions to prevent the occurrence of the remotest ground for complaint.

The present work has scarcely done more than open up the vast field afforded by the trade of the country for the introduction of such a volume and the Publisher desires, therefore to announce that he proposes in the course of a few months to issue another and larger Directory, on a scale much superior to the one he has now the pleasure of submitting to public notice. Arrangements for the second Directory are already in progress and the Publisher feels warranted in expressing his belief that he shall be able to produce a volume, the contents of which will be found in the highest degree useful to commercial men, both as a trustworthy collection of carefully selected business announcements and as a compendium of information valuable alike to the merchant, the manufacturer, the tradesman and the public.