I went on the “What a Gem” tour through the Jewellery Quarter. We were picked up with a beautiful nostalgic 1956 AEC Reliance coach from the Aston Manor Transport Museum. The bus was used to transport the Aston Villa team to the matches, and took them to Wembley in 1957 when they won the FA cup final.
The mobile creche was also on board taking some kids along. First we stopped at The Pen Room – Museum and Learning Centre, where the kids were able to make some nibs. They also run calligraphy, creative writing, handwriting sessions, Braille and Jewellery Quarter history and geneology lessons.
So Birmingham was the centre of pen making, and most of the pens were made here in the 17th century. It was mainly women operating the presses, and about 90% of pen workers were women. Circa 18000 nibs were made each day; in 1894 working hours were 6 days a week, from 8-6pm, the salary was 7 shillings a week and singing and talking was not allowed.
Birmingham had hundreds of pen manufacturers, at the end of the century there were 12 left, and now there are only 2: Fountain pens and Willie & Co.
Reason for this was the invention of the biro in 1968 by an Hungarian, which enabled to write more or less anywhere. This made the industry sink rapidly.
Lots of children were employed in the pen making industry, 10, 11 and 12 years olds. They were mostly illiterate, and often suffered rather nasty injuries. The pen making process consists out of 14 processes, including Blanking, Piercing, Marking, Raising and Slitting.
The Pen Room is run by volunteers and also had a little shop selling pen fan materials, such as “The Anti-Satanic or Good Man’s Own Pen”.
Our tour guide told lots of anecdotes and gave out whistles to the kids. We stopped at a traditional medal making factory. They also make medals for the Royal Family. During the II WW they were also making parts for the spitfire, and the railings still showed the impact of a bomb shrapnell, which missed the factory.
We went on to the Chamberlain Clock and saw the Warstone Lane Cemetary with the catacombs, which were used as housing in the 2nd WW.
Afterwards we went to a famous silversmith who made Prince Charles last year Christmas presents, which apparently were semi-wooden honey pots. We watched a bit the 20min sanding and polishing process.
The tour guide stressed that handmade, made-to-order jewellery would not necessarily be expensive, a journalist tried it out and got an unique ring with her birthstone for £80.
Birmingham has the largest school of jewellery in Europe. Mainly because apprenticeships aren’t really existing because of the government is not paying for training anymore, said the tour guide.