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! 

Part of the Smethwick Engine at Thinktank
Part of the Smethwick Engine at Thinktank

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! 

Former official beam scale of the City of Birmingham
Former official beam scale of the City of Birmingham. Accession number: 1974F101.

The Soho Foundry is also the location of another important company who are still working on site, and are well-represented in our collection. That company is W & T Avery, who have been manufacturing weights and scales since the eighteenth century. Originally based in a workshop in Digbeth, Averys moved to Smethwick in the nineteenth century, but continued to brand their goods as made in Birmingham. The proximity to Birmingham appears to have been a major selling-point for many Smethwick-based companies. The Chance Brothers, who were based on Spon Lane in Smethwick, also played on their geographical closeness to Birmingham. Chance were enormously successful glass makers; as well as glazing the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition and the Houses of Parliament, they pioneered the manufacture of glass for lighthouses lens which are still to be found all across the globe. One of these lighthouse plates survives in the collection, and markets them as Chance Brothers & Co, Smethwick, Near Birmingham. More confusingly still, a photo we’ve recently been given of the factory of GKN in the 1980s, can be read a sign which reads ‘City of Birmingham / Smethwick’. 

Chance Brothers & Co, Lighthouse Plaque
Chance Brothers & Co, Lighthouse Plaque. Accession number: 1952S00029.00002.
GKN sign which reads ‘City of Birmingham / Smethwick’. Photo courtesy of Chris and Tony Bason.
GKN sign which reads ‘City of Birmingham / Smethwick’. Photo courtesy of Chris and Tony Bason. Tony was employed as a chemist at GKN from 1977-1985.

Although called Birmingham Manufactures, our project might be better understood as a project to identify and catalogue items in the collection at Birmingham Museums which relate to manufacturing in the region. Although Birmingham makers and manufacturers often worked together, very few products were constructed solely within Birmingham’s borders. Indeed, although this post has focused only on Smethwick, the dependence of Birmingham’s industrial success on the local, national and global market for raw materials, labour and skill is becoming significantly clearer as we progress with the project.