Metals and Trades in the 18th Century.
There can be little doubt that the demand for arms caused by the Civil War benefited Birmingham. The tradition is that one Robert Porter (who certainly had a blademill) supplied the parliamentary forces with 15,000 swords and was punished by Prince Rupert, when he sacked the town in 1643, by having his mill pulled down. (fn. 50) But there were numerous other mills of this kind in the area and the trade flourished. Holford Mill was certainly producing blades in 1654. (fn. 51) It is noticeable how many of the Birmingham blade mills figure in leases for the first time in the period round 1650, suggesting some competition for their tenure. (fn. 52)
Some idea of the distribution of trades after the Restoration may be gained from the analysis of the hearth tax returns. (fn. 53) There were still eleven identifiable tanners and a few textile workers. The largest clue to trades consists of the 178 smiths' hearths returned in 1683, (fn. 54) although these may have served many different occupations. There was only one sword cutler so termed but there were 11 other cutlers, 2 grinders, a hiltmaker, 3 bladesmiths, a long cutler, a short cutler, and a sheathmaker, and any of these might have produced swords or, by 1663, ploughshares. In 1710 there was a razor-grinder in Edgbaston Street. (fn. 55)
There were also 2 bucklemakers, a scalemaker, a pewterer, 2 bellowsmakers, 8 ironmongers, 2 nailers, 5 locksmiths, a wiredrawer, (fn. 56) an ironfounder, and a man occupied in soldering and leadwork. But since most inhabitants are not, in fact, positively identifiable, we have to treat this list as a sample of trends rather than a census. There is other evidence for some of these occupations at this time. Pewterware of undoubted 17th-century origin bears a Birmingham mark. (fn. 57) At least one Birmingham locksmith of the period achieved a national reputation (fn. 58) and there were several others. (fn. 59) The principal new trade of the late 17th century, however, was gunmaking. We have little direct evidence concerning the Hadley family, who are said to have been the first important makers. (fn. 60) Documentary proof begins only with the intercession by Sir Richard Newdigate, of Arbury, on behalf of the Birmingham musketmakers, which secured them important government contracts. (fn. 61) By 1692, as the Company of Gunmakers of Birmingham, they had clearly a reputation and a corporate organization, (fn. 62) which suggests that they had been practising their craft for some time. They could undertake to make 200 muskets a month and to have them proved at Birmingham according to the Tower proof. By 1707 they were feeling important enough to complain of the competition of the London gunmakers and to threaten national well-being with the removal of 400 men to 'some other nation' if nothing was done for them. (fn. 63) Here again, we have a case of capital being provided by a landowner, for Newdigate, when the gunmakers were short of ready cash in 1696, advanced them £700 on the security of their output. (fn. 64) Apart from the original makers listed in the 1693 contract (William Bourne, Thomas Moore, John West, Richard Weston and Jacob Austin), we find repeated mention of Samuel Vaughton from 1707. (fn. 65) Some specialization was introduced at an early stage. There was, for example, a gunbarrel maker in 1708. (fn. 66) The 1693 contract specified engraved locks and brass components, and no doubt these would be the products of specialists. We know little about the fate of the trade after the end of the war period in 1713 but the skill continued. The leading maker in 1730 is reported to have been one Jordan. (fn. 67) One of John Wyatt's backers in his experiments with a file-cutting machine (fn. 68) was a gunmaker called Richard Heeley (c. 1732).
The diversification of metal products can be traced more exactly early in the 18th century. The existence of braziers testifies to the manufacture of seamed or jointed goods. (fn. 69) A candlestickmaker is mentioned in 1729, (fn. 70) and the number of founders or casters, including bell-founders, was on the increase. (fn. 71) By 1733 there was a gearmaker, (fn. 72) and, although he probably made only wooden gear for mills, he would use quantities of iron nails, pins, and sheathing. A smoothing-iron maker emerges in 1721 (fn. 73) and a tiresmith in 1725. (fn. 74) The mention of the tiremaker is significant as coinciding with a well-attested increase in interest in road transport. (fn. 75) Richard Baddeley of Old Square, who was the first Birmingham man to hold a patent for an invention, was concerned in 1722 with the making of 'streaks' for binding cart and wagon wheels and for smoothing irons made of pig iron. (fn. 76) Baddeley is variously described as an ironmonger and a gunsmith and had a furnace at Rushall (Staffs.). Local supplies did not meet the needs of all these trades and we know that the ironmongers had to look further afield to augment the supplies coming from north Warwickshire, south Staffordshire, and the lower Stour valley. Even Sweden and the American colonies were beginning to supply the Midlands with iron (fn. 77) and by 1757 petitions testify to the importance of this source of supply. (fn. 78) Whereas the makers of bits and stirrups and of relatively expensive steel toys required only small quantities of metal, any shortage of raw material would place the nailers and the founders of grates, patten rings, and other mass-produced goods in much greater difficulties. In 1726 the heavy traffic in iron and coal in Digbeth was causing comment (fn. 79) - but the 1,000 tons of pig iron and 500 tons of bar iron produced in Warwickshire in 1717 would scarcely have been enough to cause this or provide working materials for all Birmingham. Thus we find Swedish iron as raw material for Kettle's steelhouses (fn. 80) and, when Swedish supplies temporarily failed, we read of the first attempts to increase American production. Joseph Farmer, the Lloyds' predecessor as tenant of the old Digbeth corn mill which his family converted into a slitting mill for nailers' iron, went to Virginia in 1718 to try to increase the supply. (fn. 81) In Sweden, as in America, timber for charcoal was plentiful and, although by this time Abraham Darby knew how to smelt iron with coke, the secret was clearly not communicated to the ironmasters round Birmingham, for the evidence points to stagnating or even declining production at a time when demand was clearly increasing. (fn. 82) On the other hand, the rationalization of raw material supplies, with the opening of trade routes and improvement of transport, was in itself an incentive to production on a larger scale.
One good example of this increase in the scale of production was the nailing industry, then still located in Birmingham proper, though by the end of the century being driven further westwards. We have noticed nailers in various parts of the present city area in the 16th and 17th centuries. Nails were invariably hand made, one at a time, at least until 1780 and increased production was only achieved by specialization and the extensive use of female and juvenile labour. The iron was prepared by rolling the heavy bars into sheets and then slitting the thin sheet into rods which, in turn, were rolled into rods of the gauge required for the particular nail. The rods were cut and headed and pointed by the nailer at his domestic forge. Technically the most complex operation was slitting, and in the 18th century there was an increase in slitting mills compared with blade mills. Thus Nechells Park Mill which, produced blades in the time of Thomas Banks and during the 17th century, was a slitting mill by 1746-7. (fn. 83) Farmer's slitting mill had been Porter's blade mill and was then used for corn grinding. (fn. 84) There are many similar examples of this change of use. (fn. 85) The rolling process was also used to produce sections other than nailers' rods and, apart from those associated with slitting mills, we have evidence of other rolling mills (fn. 86) multiplying in the earlier part of the 18th century. We have already notices of wiredrawers in the previous century: these were probably the first to use rollers for sections, whereas the slitting mills used broad rollers for sheets, either for fabrication or for the cutting of blanks by stamping and pressing. When these trades became more important later, both water and then steam-driven rolling mills were erected in all parts of the Midlands.
Of the nail trade itself, we have few records. The individual establishment was, and remained, very small indeed, practically all the production being on a family scale. The nailers were, in the 17th century as in the 19th, the poorest and most despised of all workers. In the teeth of uninterrupted poverty generations clung to the trade which offered mere survival in good times and starvation in bad. In 1655, John Sanders of Harborne, who was himself an ironmonger and knew his local nailers well, appealed to them to co-operate in a strike against the 'Egyptian Taskmasters' (the ironmongers) who exploited the helpless small men. (fn. 87) Richard Baxter, thirty years later, also characterized the iron-workers as living in poverty but included not only nailers but different sorts of smiths and thought their poverty was to be preferred to the insecurity of the small husbandman - a view which would hardly have commended itself to most observers, especially in later ages. (fn. 88) The nailers were frequently in debt to the ironmonger for their raw materials and entirely dependent on them for their sales. Fortunately for the well-being of the population of the town of Birmingham, nail-making practically disappeared from the inner area by the end of the 18th century. The reasons for this change are not entirely clear but probably W. H. B. Court is correct in thinking that the existence of alternative, more lucrative skilled occupations in Birmingham itself left nailing to poorer areas on the fringes. (fn. 89)
These alternative occupations, as we have seen, were multiplying in Birmingham. Already, early in the century, a traveller in Northern Italy commented on the 'fine wares of rock crystal, swords, heads for canes, snuff boxes, and other fine works of steel' which he had seen in Milan, by remarking, in the margin, that these things were to be had better and cheaper at Birmingham and London. The order is significant. (fn. 90) In 1754 a dictionary of the arts and sciences, under the heading 'Birmingham Hardware Men', defined Birmingham wares as 'all sorts of tools, smaller utensils, toys, buckles, buttons, in iron, steel, brass, etc.' (fn. 91) The author mentioned that such things were made in London and Sheffield as well, but clearly their home was in Birmingham, with its thousands of artisans, mostly in the smiths' and cutlers' trades. The remark that those who would be apprenticed to such trades should be skilled in writing, arithmetic, and book-keeping is worth noting. The typical Birmingham artisan was a very different creature from the poor nailer at his forge.
One of the characteristics of this new trade was the need for other raw materials besides iron. Steel was required for all ornamental work which could not be allowed to rust and was often required to sparkle. By the end of the 17th century some steel was made in south Staffordshire (fn. 92) but, early in the 18th, at least two steel houses were set up in Birmingham, both shown in Westley's plan of 1731: (fn. 93) Kettle's in Steelhouse Lane and Carless's in Coleshill Street, opposite Stafford Street. Similarly, brass was being used increasingly both for ornaments and for domestic utensils and we find it locally produced on a large scale for the first time in Turner's brasshouse, c. 1740, (fn. 94) replacing the uncertain and expensive supplies previously brought from Bristol (fn. 95) and Cheadle. The first brass foundry as such comes to our notice in 1715 (fn. 96) using, no doubt, imported brass. One of the partners in this venture was Walter Tippin, whose products included both candlesticks and Jews' harps of which, it is said, he sent away a waggon-load a day. (fn. 97) His partner, Henry Carver, purchased a blade mill in Northfield in 1727 from Alice Lloyd, presumably for the rolling of brass for wrought rather than cast articles. (fn. 98)
John Laight is mentioned in an indenture of 1740 (fn. 99) as a silversmith but it is most likely that the material was extensively used in the manufacture of trinkets by the toymakers, like Boulton's father. Its chief use, in plating, did not begin seriously until Matthew Boulton's own Soho days. The goldsmiths are less and less in evidence: the trade concentrated on London, leaving Birmingham the doubtful honour of trying to make a grain or two cover a large article. The Pembertons, still mentioned as goldsmiths in 1634, (fn. 1) made more out of iron than they had done out of gold and Richard Grene of the Old Crown House, Deritend, was apprenticed to a London goldsmith, becoming a freeman in 1666. (fn. 2)