The Birmingham Assay Office Act of 1902 allowed the Assay Office to purchase ‘books and objects of art or manufacture relating to the silver or jewellery trade’.
The junior Assay Master at that time, Arthur Westwood, started collecting Birmingham silver, especially to provide examples of pre-1840 hallmarks, of which The
Birmingham Assay Office had no record.
However, the Silver Collection has grown to the point where it now demonstrates so much more than Arthur Westwood’s original intention. The collection showcases the enormous wealth of talent possessed by the city’s silversmiths through history.
The story of Assay Office Birmingham is closely linked to the story of Birmingham silver, and these pieces also chart the history of Birmingham silver and The Birmingham Assay Office from the eighteenth century until the present day.
Established by an Act of Parliament, Assay Office Birmingham has been responsible for testing and hallmarking precious metals since 1773.
The need for the hallmark is as strong now as it was in the 18th century since the hallmark protects the public and the jewellery and silversmithing trades. Precious metals are most commonly used as alloys; mixed with base metals, and even an expert cannot tell by looking whether an article contains the declared proportion of precious metal.
The UK system of statutory hallmarking by an independent Assay Office is rare in world terms, and it has contributed to the growth and success of the jewellery and silversmithing trades in the UK.
Hallmarking severely restricts the opportunity for fraud, so traders compete on a level playing field and consumers can buy with confidence. Hallmarking is a living part of our heritage, and it is important that it stays that way.
The Silver Collection at Assay Office Birmingham is an historic collection of spectacular objects created by some of Birmingham’s most celebrated Silversmiths including Matthew Boulton, Nathaniel Mills and Elkington & Co.
During the mid 18th Century the Birmingham metal trades flourished, producing large volumes of small personal items known as “toys”. Sketchley’s Directory of 1767 described the output of the Birmingham toymakers as follows;
An infinite Variety of Articles that come under this Denomination [toys] are made here, and it would be endless to attempt to give a List of the Whole, but for the information of Strangers we shall here observe, that these Articles are divided into several Branches as the Gold and Silver Toy Makers, who make Trinkets, Seals, Tweezer and Tooth pick cases, Smelling Bottles, Snuff boxes, and Filigree Work such as Toilets, Tea Chests, Inkstands, etc etc...
And so the list continued, until Sketchley concluded ‘for cheapness, Beauty and Elegance no Place in the world can vie with them.’
From snuff boxes to vinaigrettes, card cases to caddy spoons, and buttons to buckles, the ingenuity and skill of Birrmingham’s silversmiths is evident, and the beauty and elegance of these diminutive objects are still apparent.
The scope of the toy trade in Birmingham was matched by the scale on which these items were produced, and by 1759, the total annual production of toys in Birmingham was worth £600,000. Clearly, the manufacture of such a variety and quantity of toys could not be achieved without machinery for rolling, stamping, turning and polishing and the necessary division of labour in the workshops of the Jewellery Quarter. But this process of mass-production, with its associated advantages of quick turnover and steady profit, came at a cost, and the metal workers of Birmingham gained a reputation for producing shoddy wares which were known as ‘Brummagem’. Nevertheless, it was these products, often still made in base metals, that created the market for quality toys made in silver and silver-gilt.
Of the Birmingham toy makers, Nathaniel Mills is one of the most well-known. Born in 1811, he was apprenticed to his father. He rapidly became known for well-constructed boxes; indeed his ‘castle top’ vinaigrettes and card cases which depict famous buildings and houses are highly popular with collectors. A prolific and successful manufacturer, he died a wealthy man in 1873, leaving £30,000 in his will.
Matthew Boulton is perhaps best known for his partnership with James Watt and his association with the Lunar Society, but Boulton’s creative talent led him into many other enterprises during his lifetime. Indeed, of all the figures from Birmingham’s history, it is Boulton who embodies the entrepreneurial spirit that characterises the city today. The Birmingham Assay Office is proud of its heritage, as it is the only one of Boulton’s enterprises that remains, still carrying out the statutory duty with which it was charged under the Act of 1773.
In its own way, the toy trade in Birmingham was responsible for the early career of Matthew Boulton, and therefore, for the establishment of The Birmingham Assay Office. Boulton inherited his father’s toymaking business in Snow Hill, but he was determined to expand his range. A highly ambitious man, by the early 1760s he had started work on the Soho Manufactory, located just outside Birmingham, at Handsworth.
By the 1770s, at Soho, Boulton had begun to manufacture silverware, but this aspect of his business had met with a major obstacle. In order to be saleable by law silver articles had to be tested and hallmarked, yet London Assay Office was 125 miles from Birmingham, and Chester 72 miles. Journeys of this length in the 18th Century presented several problems – the possibility of damage due to poor roads and transport or careless packing, the danger of highway robbery, the inconvenience of delay and the risk of Boulton’s designs being copied, not to mention the added cost involved.
These difficulties, along with the prestige of having an Assay Office in Birmingham, strengthened Boulton’s resolve, and he decided to lobby Parliament.
The passing of the Assay Office Bill in May 1773 was a triumph for Boulton and for Birmingham, and when The Birmingham Assay Office opened its doors for business on August 31st 1773, Matthew Boulton and his partner, John Fothergill were its first customers.
From the mid 19th Century, it was design that preoccupied the minds of the Victorian silversmiths. The developments in manufacturing processes brought about by the Industrial Revolution had opened up the possibilities in design, and this culminated in the Great Exhibition of 1851. It is significant that by 1877 the increase in the quantity of silver assayed in Birmingham per annum had necessitated the move to larger premises in Newhall Street still occupied by The Birmingham Assay Office. Indeed, this is the period that is dominated by the great silversmiths such as Elkingtons.
George Richard Elkington first registered his mark with The Birmingham Assay Office on 17th November 1834, and the details that are listed give an indication of somewhat humble beginnings; Elkington’s trade is given as ‘gilt toy maker’. Having gained patents for their electroplating and electrogilding processes in 1837, 1838 and 1840, the Elkingtons very quickly came to the fore in the Birmingham silver and electroplating trades. Through their work for international exhibitions, they were known for their ability to create patterns that were still more ornate than those of London, Paris, and later, New York; the more grandiose and ornate the design, the better. The Elkingtons’ paperwork and pattern books are one of the only archives from the Birmingham silver trade to survive intact; they are now held in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
The taperstick below is made from Britannia Silver and parcel gilt and has the marks for Elkington & Co. Electro Dep., with a crown, a monogram and the registered design mark for August 1844. It is a hollow electrotype, made by the process of silver being deposited in a mould electrically. It is based on a Roman lamp, and was designed by Benjamin Schlick.
Alexander Parkes, the chemist who worked with the Elkingtons, developed the process of electroforming whereby silver could be deposited within a prepared mould. This allowed the production of highly ornate and often naturalistic designs; actual shells, leaves and flowers were used in the process.
The Arts and Crafts movement owes its origin directly to the work of William Morris and John Ruskin. In 1880,William Morris, who was then president of the Birmingham Society of Arts and the School of Design gave a lecture at Birmingham Town Hall entitled ‘Labour and Pleasure versus Labour and Sorrow’. Morris held that the increasing division of labour under industrialisation was eroding the traditional skills that craftsmen possessed, and he advocated a return to older, more traditional ways of working.
Jones studied at Birmingham School of Art; from 1901 he was working with the Birmingham Guild of Handicraft, and in 1902 he established his own company. It is not only Jones’ designs that place him in the Arts and Crafts tradition, but also the approach he took to his work.
Jones designed a majority of the pieces himself, and there was no division of labour in the workshop. The sense of humour with which he approached his work is clear. A pair of candlesticks in the Collection are decorated around the base with tiny bats, their wings outstretched, and the words inscribed – ‘Now is the witching hour of night’, borrowed from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The fruit bowl below is hallmarked for the bicentenary of the Assay Office in 1973. The fruit bowl is engraved:
‘Presented by the British Jewellers’ Association to commemorate the bicentenary of Assay Office Birmingham 1773-1973’.
On the base the fruit bowl is marked A. Edward Jones Ltd., St Dunstan Works, Birmingham.
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