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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!

Birmingham Manufacturers / Machine 4

These are wonderful things, but pose considerable practical problems: some of the machines are stored on warehouse racking which is fifty meters high, making it so that you can only reach them with a special forklift. When we started looking closely at the machines, we needed to carefully plan what we were going to do moving forward.

We wanted to photograph some of these machines so that we could share them with everyone, and have useful pictures to look at later, but most don’t fit in our photography studio. Therefore, we had to call in the museum photographer and assemble a team of trained machine-moving professionals to build our own giant photography studio in the middle of the warehouse (and even this was too small for the steam hammer and lighthouse polisher!)

Birmingham Manufacturers

Over four days we photographed twenty machines. This included draw benches, box making machines, weighing machines, slotting machines, a drill, a gun-maker’s workbench, an industrial microscope, a wire-straightening machine a drop press, a pin making machine, a punch card machine from the Bournville factory, and a 200 year old lathe once owned by Matthew Boulton.

Birmingham Manufacturers Lathe

This lathe was first built for use in the Snow Hill Factory in the middle of the 18th century. In 1762 it was moved to the new Soho Factory in Handsworth. It was known as the ‘odd lathe’, and was used to train new apprentices on how to make small metal objects, before they graduated on to larger machines. The lathe made small tools that were used in other parts of the factory. In 1850, at a sale in the Soho Factory, it was bought by Samuel Vale, who had trained on it himself when he started working at Soho at the age of nine (just as his father and grandfather had). He took it home and continued to use it for several decades, until it was passed on to his son, who donated it to the Museum of Science and Industry in 1959.

Many of our machines came from the collection of the old Birmingham Science Museum. The museum was collecting objects in the middle of the 20th century, when a lot of local factories were shutting down, and looking for places to donate their old industrial equipment to. Many local business had machines that had been in continuous use since the 19th century. When the factories closed, the machines were able to go straight to the museum to be displayed. This is amazing because it means that we now have excellent information about the owners and users of some of our machines.

Birmingham Manufacturers / Machine 3

We have a drop press that was used by Perry Pens to shape small metal objects, and a riveting machine owned by the Hudson Whistle Company (who later became Acme Whistles). We have a jeweller’s draw bench from the Joseph Fray works. Joseph Fray was a big Smethwick company that made car badges and medals (at one time, it made 80% of all the car badges in the UK!). It began as a small jewellery business in 1873 when the original Joseph Fray started making rings, trinkets and enamelled jewellery on Augusta Street in Birmingham. He later moved to the Jewellery Quarter and grew into a large medal-making business. Our draw bench came from the Joseph Fray works in the 1950s, when the firm specialised in industrial manufacture. They had not used draw benches, or made anything by hand, for 50 years, yet they still treasured this little bench. It must have come from the earliest days of the company, when Joseph Fray like his own father before him, had started out drawing wire for a living.

Sometimes, when we look at an object closely we find little secrets hidden away. We have a slotting machine that was given to the Museum of Science and Industry by the Britannia Tube Co., of Glover Street. This machine cuts metal for machine parts. It can shape gears or cogs or metal tools. When we examined the machine we found a small door in the front that led to a small compartment. Inside, we found a collection of objects – a pair of gloves, a piece of cloth, two containers and a tin of Dura-Gilt metal polish. These were all put there by the last person who used the machine in the Britannia factory, and have sat happily inside ever since. The polish still smells and the cloth is still greasy.

Over the last few months we have spent eight days photographing 37 different machines of different sizes and types. While some we could lift, very carefully, by hand (as was the case with Joseph Fray’s bench) others were extremely heavy. For example,  two machines used by Baxter’s Bolts to cut screw heads each weighed over 500kg. None of them had ever been photographed before.

Birmingham Manufacturers / Machines 2

We still have lots to do for the final few weeks of the project. We want to look at some big companies like Avery and BSA, and at some key trades, like pen and gun making. We also have some experts coming to visit, to help us understand  more about working lives in Birmingham.

Stay tuned to our @Brum Mfr twitter account for the latest news on the Birmingham of 50-200 years ago, and follow @BMT_Photo to see what other things our photographer is up to. We are also going to try and sum up what we have learned from the project as a whole and give everyone a final tour of Birmingham manufacturing.