Soup Tureen, G.R.Collis & Co. 1837

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office. Photograph by Kinson Chan 

Robert Stephenson (1803-1859) did a good deal of the design work for the famous locomotive Rocket produced by his father George. Following its success on the Liverpool & Manchester railway, Robert was appointed in 1833 Chief Engineer of the Birmingham – London railway, the first line to enter London. Despite a number of difficult civil engineering challenges, construction was successfully completed in 1838.

This tureen was designed as a presentation: “To Robert Stephenson Esqr. Engineer-in-Chief of the London and Birmingham Railway. A tribute of respect and esteem from the members of the Engineering Department who were employed under him in the execution of that great work. Presented on the eve of their gradual separation. December 23d, 1837”.

Taperstick, Joseph Willmore, 1831

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Tapersticks were smaller and more portable versions of candlesticks. This naturalistic design based on leaves also contains a snuffer attached to the handle. The object is made from silver gilt.

Set of Sixteen Buttons, Thomas Willmore, 1790

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Birmingham was well-known for its buttons which were made from glass, shell, and various metals. These silver buttons are engraved with nine different scenes of a sportsman and his dog. The scenes are reminiscent of the manner of Thomas Bewick (1753-1828).

Child’s Rattle, George Unite, 1837

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Child’s silver rattle with bells, whistle and coral. Coral was regarded as a talisman against the ‘evil eye’, an amulet to protect a child against disease.

Box, Joseph Taylor, 1819

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Tortoiseshell is particularly suitable for piqué work (inlaid gold) with its ease of cutting and rich colour. The technique was popular among European gold snuff box makers in the 18th century. The lid is earlier than 1819, Joseph Taylor being only responsible for the mounting.

Nutmeg Grater, probably Samuel Pemberton, c.1800

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Nutmeg graters were produced between 1780 and 1830, when toddy drinking became fashionable. This was a mixture of rum and water, drunk hot with various ingredients including grated nutmeg. This design is made using a filigree technique.

Caddy Spoon, probably Samuel Pemberton, c.1800

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

This jockey cap caddy spoon is in filigree technique which uses thin gold, silver or copper wire, plain or twisted. It is flattened during manufacture. Ornaments are usually openwork or soldered on a metal base. The word ‘Filigree’ originated from the Latin “Filum” – thread and “granum”-grain. Filigree was exempt from hallmarking.

Caddy Spoon, No maker’s mark, 1797

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

This leaf-shaped caddy spoon bears the ‘double duty mark’. By a statute of 1797, the duty on silver, which involved the necessity of an additional mark of the sovereign’s head, was doubled to 1/ – per oz. In that year pieces marked by Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices had the sovereign’s head marked twice.

Caddy Spoon, No maker’s mark, 1797

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

From the end of the 1770s, when tea drinking became fashionable, Birmingham toy-makers produced considerable quantities of caddy spoons, catering for the fashion of keeping spoons in tea canisters. They were never exempt from hall-marking. The Act of 1790 exempted many small articles weighing less than five penny weight, but specifically excluded caddy spoons from this concession. This delicate caddy spoon is in the shape of a leaf

Snuff Box, Thomas Shaw, 1825

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Snuff-taking was a fashionable pastime in the 18th and early 19th centuries. The scene on the lid depicts Alexander the Great’s conversation with Diogenes.

Vinaigrette, Nathaniel Mills, 1835

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

This image shows the inside of the vinaigrette. The intricately decorated grill covered a sponge which was soaked in aromatic vinegar to protect the owner against unpleasant odours. The outside, which is not seen in this photograph, is decorated with a cameo of Orpheus and Eurydice from Greek mythology.

Vinaigrette, Nathaniel Mills, 1835

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Mills is recognised as one of the greatest makers of small silver boxes. This vinaigrette is decorated with a shell cameo of Orpheus trying to bring Eurydice back from the underworld and is complete with its carrying case.

Pair of Vinaigrettes, Joseph Willmore, 1825

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Two vinaigrettes in the form of a pair of leaves. The curved stem acts as pendant. A rare feature of these is the clip to hold the aromatic sponges in place, rather than having grills like other vinaigrettes.

Vinaigrette, Maker unidentified, 1817

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Vinaigrettes were small boxes containing sponges soaked in aromatic vinegar protecting their owners against bad smells. From 1800 to 1850 they were produced in vast quantities and in numerous shapes and forms. This early item is made in the form of a flexible fish.

Birmingham Silversmiths: William Lea & Co

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Vinaigrette, William Lea and Co, 1818. This box incorporates a music box. It not only disguised disagreeable odours with a vinegar-soaked sponge, it also drowned the senses with pleasant tunes.

William Lea and Co, silversmiths entered seven marks in Birmingham Assay Office’s Register Book. In 1811, the business had premises in Newhall Street, Birmingham.

Birmingham Silversmiths: Nathaniel Mills

Image: Vinaigrette, Nathaniel Mills, 1837, with a view of Kenilworth Castle.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Nathaniel Mills the elder registered his mark as a silversmith in 1803 as a partner in “Mills and Langston, Jewellers Northwood”. He registered his own mark from a new address in Caroline Street. His son, also called Nathaniel Mills (1811-1873) was famous for his well-constructed silver boxes and his adaptation of new techniques to the industry in the 1830s, including stamping, casting and engine turning. In 1836 new and presumably larger premises firm were opened in Caroline Street. Mills turned out large quantities of vinaigrettes, often with popular topographical scenes. When he died in 1873, he left £30,000 in his will.

Birmingham Silversmiths: The Willmores and Linwoods

Image: Trade cards for several Birmingham businesses including silversmiths. J Bisset, Bisset’s Magnificent Guide or Grand Copper Plate Directory for the Town of Birmingham…(Birmingham, Printed for the Author by R Jabet, 1808). The most elaborate is engraved by Francis Eginton for James Twist, Silver Plater, 5 New Hall Street, which displays the products of the firm including urns, a teapot and candlesticks. The other five are simpler designs including one for Thomas Willmore junior, a metal plater, probably the son of the Thomas Willmore the silversmith. The other cards advertise a porter merchant, toy maker, manufacturer of chandeliers and dry salter (a dealer in gums, dyes and oils).

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library

Thomas Willmore entered his mark at Birmingham Assay Office in partnership with James Alston between 1773 and 1801, though later marks show that both were independent silversmiths. Willmore was a bucklemaker and Alston operated as a button maker. His grandson, Joseph Willmore took over the business on Thomas’s death in 1816. Joseph had already registered his mark at Birmingham Assay Office in 1808. He also registered at London Assay Office where he had a showroom in Bouverie Street and later Thavies Inn in Holborn. Joseph later entered into a partnership with two other Birmingham silversmiths, John Yapp and John Woodward. His death in 1855 brought an end to the Willmore connection with silversmithing.

Matthew Linwood senior was a silversmith, who carried on a business at 23 Great Charles Street, Birmingham and registered three marks in the Marks Register of Birmingham Assay Office between 1773 and 1801. He also produced Sheffield Plate from premises in Edmund Street. His son Matthew Linwood (1756-1826) was a notable maker of silver boxes and became a Guardian of the Assay Office in 1811. He registered marks from the Edmund Street premises in partnership with his son, also called Matthew (1783-1847), in 1813. The third Matthew Linwood opened a jeweller’s shop in Fleet Street in London, but with his death, the Linwood business came to an end.

Birmingham Silversmiths: The Pembertons

Image: Caddy Spoon, Samuel Pemberton, 1802 decorated with a delicate filigree technique.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

The Pembertons were a long-established West Midlands family. Roger Pemberton was Mayor of Walsall in 1509 and one of his descendants was Samuel Pemberton (1704-84) who was a jeweller and toymaker in Snow Hill, Birmingham who registered several silver marks at Birmingham Assay Office between 1773 and 1801. His son Samuel Pemberton (1738-1803) was a Guardian of the Assay Office in 1793. Other Pembertons participated in the silver trade including another Samuel Pemberton (17771-1836) and Thomas Pemberton (1776-1830). They were in partnership with Roger Mitchell from c.1812 to 1821. Thomas Pemberton was a Guardian of the Assay Office from 1824 until 1830.

Birmingham Silversmiths: the Taylors

Image: Advertisement for J Taylor, Gold and Silversmith, Jeweller, Tortoiseshell and Ivory Box and Toy Manufacturer, Birmingham. J Bisset, Bisset’s Magnificent Guide or Grand Copper Plate Directory for the Town of Birmingham…(Birmingham, Printed for the Author by R Jabet, 1808). This illustrated trade card is for Joseph Taylor. The engraving represents a tomb, with a cherub and an angel to the right and left. In the background, the ship symbolises the firm’s trading links overseas and the elephant the source of ivory. In the foreground are jewellery boxes, gold and silver items and a tortoise. Tortoiseshell was a raw material for Taylor’s business.

Image from: Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library.

Joseph Taylor (1767-1827) is recorded in marks in the register of Birmingham Assay Office from 1773 to 1801. His work initial work seems to have been making watch cases, but he also produced smallwork such as caddy spoons and vinaigrettes. In 1813 he became a Guardian of the Assay Office. His trade card is illustrated in Bisset’s Magnificent Directory where he is described as “J Taylor, Working Gold and Silversmith, Jeweller, Tortoisehell and Ivory Box, Gilt and General Toy Manufacturer, 35 Newhall Street, Birmingham…” Taylor also had a showroom in Bouverie Street, London and left £18,000 in his will. After his death his brother, John and brother-in-law, John Perry took over the business.

Silversmiths and Silverware in late 18th and early 19th century Birmingham

Image: Silver caddy spoon, probably by Samuel Pemberton, c.1800. The delicate design is created by a filigree technique using wire.

Image from: Birmingham Assay Office.

Text: Olga Baird and Malcolm Dick

Photographs: Kinson Chan (November 2003)


Matthew Boulton created the modern silver trade in Birmingham. His successful campaign to establish a local assay office provided a hallmarking system to guarantee the silver content of locally manufactured items. This allowed the trade to develop a reputation for high quality products. Except for Boulton, little or nothing is known about most of Birmingham’s silversmiths. Some evidence can be obtained from Birmingham Assay Office records, directories and the work that they produced.

The returns of the Birmingham Assay Office list the names, premises and marks of silversmiths. They also provide an indication of the growth of the local silver making trade. In 1774, 16,983 ounces were assayed, rising to 61,220 ounces in 1779. During the 1780s and 1790s, the trade experienced a recession, but after 1800 figures rose, reaching 105,452 ounces in 1811 and 111,811 ounces in 1825. Smaller amounts were assayed in the next 14 years and the 1825 figure was not surpassed until 1839.

Though the Soho Works of Boulton and his successors contributed to this expansion silver production was also located in small family businesses and factories throughout Birmingham. They made a range of items including tapersticks, bowls, buttons, buckles, caddy spoons, vinaigrettes, snuff boxes and babies rattles.

This exhibition provides information about the local silversmiths and a selection of silver products from the collections of Birmingham Assay Office ( The Revolutionary Players Project is grateful for the permission granted by Birmingham Assay Office to photograph items in its collections.