Sunday 29 March 2015

Pressing and Stamping in the Jewellery Quarter

Sculpture reminding us of Birmingham's history
Well, my planned day out in Birmingham was wonderful, and turned out rather differently from what I first had in mind. Now I shall have to go again to do some of the things I was going to do, for on this trip I struggled to leave the wonderful Jewellery Quarter. I had been there before twice: once looking for jewellery (which I actually finished up buying in the city centre...) and once very briefly for a quick pub lunch while in the city for something else. This time I wanted to see the Pen Museum and while researching its location I stumbled across the Coffin Works, newly open, which I decided really had to see as well. Given that the first off-peak train from Stamford does not get to New Street until after 11:30, lunch would have to be fitted in between the two museums and the day is beginning to look full!

I started the day with the 10:05 departure for Birmingham, nicely on time all the way following a difficult couple of days for Cross Country Trains caused by a derailed freight train near Birmingham. I had my morning coffee on the train - quite a decent coffee I was, pleased to discover. On arrival I picked my way out of the building site which has been New Street station for the last couple of years (not long now before completion), around the roadworks for the tramline extension and visited briefly the Ian Allen book and model shop to look through the range of model cars to add something to the streets of my art deco model railway layout.

Then it was off to the Coffin Works, the former premises of Newman Brothers, manufacturers of coffin furniture for the funeral trade. I knew the midday guided tour was fully booked because they had told me so on Twitter, so I just popped in to see what was available, booked myself on the 14:00 tour and went on the Pen Museum.

It was a short walk through streets being redeveloped to provide new flats where metal-working premises used to be. Like all our cities, this side of Birmingham is being transformed but is bearing witness to its past trades on which the great wealth of this city was built. Finding the entrance to the Pen Museum is quite a challenge: it is in a building where pen nibs were once made and where many other businesses still trade, and it still looks like a factory. I twigged that I had to open the small wicket gate within the vehicular gate to get into the courtyard where the door into the museum was situated, and once inside was amazed at the huge number of pen nibs displayed before me. I declined the immediate offer of a hands-on demonstration of nib-making while I looked around and took in my surroundings. I was greeted by name - the result of having Tweeted that I was on my way there - and after a while allowed myself to be shown how to make a nib. The whole mass-production process cannot be demonstrated because it involves the use of furnaces, but the pressing and cutting operations can all be carried out using Victorian hand presses. As I cut my second nib my "tutor" explained the girls employed on this equipment were expected to turn out 17,000 nib blanks a day ... At one time 75% of the world's writing was done with pens made in Birmingham, and calligraphy pens are still made elsewhere in the city, but the rise of the ballpoint in the mid-twentieth century saw off this industry as a major part of the city's economy.

Through to another room, I was shown the marketing displays of thousands of pens, along with blotters, inkwells, typewriters (these would have been worth an hour on their own) and a huge collection of novelty ballpoints. By this time it became clear that I would have to tear myself away to stand any chance of a meal before my appointment at the Coffin Works, so I said my farewells and made my donation - entry is free but it is well worth giving a donation to such an enthusiastic group of people who keep alive the memory of such a significant industry.

The Stamp Room, the smallest of the hammers
being demonstrated
I went to the pub I had visited for a meal before. It was busy and the one barman was on the telephone, with another customer already waiting, so I went off in search of another, by now being quite thirsty and making my way in the general direction of the Coffin Works. In St Paul's Square I discovered the The Rectory Bar and restaurant and just had time for a pint (very nice) and a sandwich then made my way along the street to my second quirky Jewellery Quarter museum of the day. On paying the £5 admission each visitor "clocks in" just as the workers would have done and we are taken through to the courtyard and the stamp room. Newman Brothers used to make the metal fittings for coffins, a good Brummie industry, and these are stamped out of sheet metal in the stamp room. There was a number of power stamps of various sizes and one of them was used by a professional stamper to demonstrate the process of making a small "RIP" plate for each of us. The working conditions in the plant's heyday would have been difficult: hot, noisy, dangerous, but the jobs were well-paid (they'd have to have been to get anyone to take them). We were then taken to a room where coffin linings and shrouds were made, less typically Brummie but very interesting. The factory had not been much modernised since the 1960s and and not closed until 1999 and had been left as it was on its last day of working, shrouds in the colours of Birmingham City and Aston Villa football clubs still there ...

Shroud for a Villa fan
In the office the phone rang and a long-dead funeral director ordered coffin fittings for his business from the long-dead proprietor of this one. Eery. And off I went, pen nibs and RIP plates in my pocket and dying for a cup of tea!

The one thing I had promised myself on this trip which did come off was tea and cake at the Centenary Lounge at Moor Street station, a walk across the city centre. This simple little tea and coffee place is in Art Deco style and uses crockery closely based on the Great Western Railway's design for their centenary (and these can be brought from the café or its website for use at home as well!) and they do a very nice cup of tea or coffee and a range of cakes and other snacks. It is also licensed but for me, tea was what was needed, and I had to try the Red Velvet cake, flavoured with vanilla and coloured with beetroot ...

I had intended to visit the ThinkTank museum of science and technology, but by now time had slipped by to the point when it was too late to go in, last entry being at 16:00, so I put that on the "list" for next time and crossed the road to Selfridges where I had a little gift shopping to do. Selfridges is the curvy shop covered in metal discs which dominates any photograph of this end of the city centre. A walk through the market area brought me to the National Trust's Back-to-Back houses which I wanted to photograph, not having done so when we visited them on a holiday in Birmingham a few years ago.

I decided to forego a pint at the Wellington real ale pub which had been on the original schedule in order to fit in dinner at Ask Italian in New Street neatly before the 19:22 departure for Stansted Airport which brought me home in time for an early night, tired out from all that I had seen and done and already feeling the need to return as soon as I can fit in another trip.

Link: My 2011 holiday in Birmingham

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