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. 

While many of us can easily name a handful of iconic Birmingham born manufacturers and brands, this sporadic minority is in no way representative of the many manufacturers that helped the city gain notoriety as the Workshop of the World and the City of a Thousand Trades. Instead, companies like Cadbury’s, Typhoo and Austin Motors form only the tip of the manufacturing iceberg. Behind these household names exists a wealth of local manufacturers who produced everything from whistles, to pen nibs, to jewellery and tools. And, whilst the iconic producers survive in our kitchen cupboards or architectural remnants like the Custard Factory at Digbeth and the model village at Bournville, all that remains of many are ageing records and photography filed away, lost or donated to archives and stores. 

It soon became clear that photographs and photography provide an insight of unequivocal importance to the research project, and not only because a large majority of the records are in photographic format. Without wanting to feed into the typical clichés it must be stressed that photographs can afford us with the luxury of illustrating both the physical and manufacturing infrastructure of these key industries. Like many others we had never heard of a number of the manufacturers located in Birmingham, like the tool manufacturers, Wynn Timmins Ltd. However, after being gifted with a file full of prints, negatives and three A4 sheets of limited descriptions of the factory, by Thursday afternoon we were becoming fluent in the practices of tool production. 

Wynn Timmins, Century Works, Degreasing Plant, photographer by W.G Belsher, 1977
Wynn Timmins, Century Works, Degreasing Plant, photographer by W.G Belsher, 1977.

Which leads us to conclude that if two research novices can ascertain a comprehensive understanding and appreciation for the lesser known manufacturers of Birmingham in just one week, then the completion of the project should cast a brighter light on those manufacturers that helped characterise Birmingham as the United Kingdom’s Second City.