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30 Apr 2018

Birmingham Manufactures Project: Photographing our Machines

The Birmingham Manufactures Project is nearing its end. We have looked at jewellery, toys, custard, buttons, buckles, bricks, brass, coins, electroplating, pens, pots, papier mâché, tools, beer mats, printing blocks and quite a lot of other things. We have taken the time to look carefully at all kinds of objects, and we have learned a little bit about the manufacturing history of Birmingham from each of them. These things were all made in Birmingham, and they all live on shelves and in boxes in our Museum Collections Centre. Most of the things we have talked about so far have been objects that you can hold in your hand or move about on a little trolley.

However, anyone who has visited our Collection Centre will recall that some of the most exciting things in our collection are too big to hold in your hand, or even lift. Some of our objects are so big that they don’t fit in most of our buildings. We have a steam hammer that requires a crane to move and a machine that polishes giant lighthouse lenses. We have lots of slightly smaller machines from factories and workshops around the city. We even have the machines that made some of the thousands of tiny objects in our collections! Read More...

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23 Apr 2018

Birmingham Manufactures: Alfred Bird & Sons - Poles Apart

In 2013 Birmingham Museums acquired a collection of products made by Alfred Birds & Sons at their Digbeth factory. They were catalogued and photographed as part of the Birmingham Manufactures project. 

Bird’s is an iconic brand which originated in Birmingham. With its familiar blue and yellow packaging, it appeals to a comforting vision of homelife in the twentieth century and a nostalgic yearning for British-made goods and products. But these objects also tell other stories.  Read More...

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2 Nov 2017

Birmingham Manufactures: Chad Valley

If you are following the Birmingham Manufactures Project in twitter (@BrumMfr ) you may have noticed in the past couple of months that we have been looking at Chad Valley toys. I’m sure many of you will recognise that name from your own childhood, and if you have small children it will certainly be familiar! The company history is extensive, but here is a little about how they developed and some examples of Chad Valley in our collections!

The company was originally involved in printing, engraving, bookbinding and the production of stationery, starting life under the trading name of Messrs. Johnson Bros. Taking its name from its proprietors, it was started by Joseph Johnson who in his former years had worked for his father’s stationery company. In 1897, Joseph moved the company to Harborne, and his new factory was named the Chad Valley Works due to its close proximity to a stream called the Chad. Despite the name of the factory, Johnson’s company was trading as Johnson Bros. (Harborne) Ltd and didn’t change its name for a further 20 years or so. As well as still producing stationery, the company had also started production of a range of cardboard games. Read More...

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19 Sep 2017

Volunteering with Birmingham Manufactures

Three hundred words (or so) on our week as Summer Research Assistants for the Birmingham Manufacturers Project.

Armed with subject files of photographs, a scanner, and an Apple Mac we set to work to see what exactly you could learn in just a week on the project.  Read More...

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12 Jun 2017

Birmingham Manufactures: What about Smethwick?

We all know that names are important, but identifying what we mean by ‘Birmingham’ for this project has proved a little tricky! At the start of the project we were unsure whether or not to include world-famous manufacturers that although not technically in Birmingham, have important connections to the city, and are well represented in the collection. Perhaps most perplexing of all was the problem of Smethwick. Although it is not part of Birmingham, many of the most important manufacturers in this region were either based in Smethwick or had premises there, and Smethwick-made goods are well represented in our collection. This blog post will identify a few examples that we’ve already come across as part of the project, and explore a little bit why the geographical division of manufactured goods is so difficult! 

Perhaps the most familiar to visitors of Thinktank will be the Smethwick Engine. The Smethwick Engine is the oldest working steam engine in the world, and is one of the highlights of our collection. The engine was made for pumping water up the locks on the Birmingham Canal, and was made at Soho Foundry, in Smethwick. Named after the site at which it originally stood, the Smethwick Engine has clear connections to manufacturing in nearby Birmingham. The Engine was manufactured for the famous Birmingham-ites Boulton & Watt, who founded the Soho Manufactory, a little over a mile away in Handsworth. Although Handsworth is now firmly within Birmingham’s borders, at the time of production, it actually lay in Staffordshire!  Read More...

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30 Mar 2017

Birmingham Manufactures Project; The School of Jewellery

Although Birmingham is famously known as the City of a Thousand Trades, one trade shines particularly brightly in its history and self-identity - and not only because of its association with precious metals. That trade is, of course, the jewellery trade. 

The beginnings of Birmingham’s jewellery trade lie in its history as a metal working town and with the production of steel and silver buckles, buttons, and trinkets in the eighteenth century.  Read More...

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5 Dec 2016

Introduction to Birmingham Manufactures

Greetings from the Birmingham Manufactures camp! We are a brand new project funded by Arts Council England's Designation Development Fund  to increase knowledge and documentation on the wonderful manufacturing history of Birmingham, aka ‘The City of a Thousand Trades’. Both Tessa Chynoweth (Research Assistant) and I (Sophie Misson, Documentation Assistant) will be giving regular blog post to give insight into what we’re doing and all of the exciting objects we come across.

Manufacturing and industry are central to Birmingham’s history; shaping individual lives and the geography of the city as much as the reputation of the place. Although Birmingham’s history as a centre of industrial production (particularly of metalwork) goes back to the medieval period, Birmingham achieved global significance through its leading role in the economic, social and political changes associated with the Industrial Revolution. Birmingham Museums owe much to this industrial heritage. Not only was the museum collection designed to inspire the local artisan population and raise the quality and design of workmanship in Birmingham, but was itself the product of investment of local manufacturing firms – most notably, perhaps, Richard and George Tangye, Birmingham-based engineers whose philanthropy was an important aspect of the instigation of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery as well as the School of Art. Read More...