Friday 30th September
It was quite chilly this morning. Although the sun is out we are on the shady side of the canal for most of the day at this time of year. After Dave took Meg for a good walk, we sat down with a mug of coffee to plan a day without her. We have an excellent map of the Birmingham canals which was on the boat when we got it; unfortunately it is also quite old and although the canals haven’t moved some of the attractions have. The Museum of Science and Technology, which used to be close to Farmer’s Bridge locks, has moved to Millennium Point in Digbeth. Another day!
We walked towards the Jewellery Quarter as we had never been that way before. First stop was the Warstone Lane Cemetery and Catacombs. The cemetery was founded in the mid-19th century to ease overcrowding in the city’s graveyards. The most recent occupants seem to have been in the 70s, but were interred in family plots that had been there for generations. The memorials were often large and ornate, though as the local rock is sandstone some of the inscriptions had worn away. This angel is one of the few still in possession of its head.
Some of the texts were very poignant with spouses outliving their partners and children for decades.
As the location of the cemetery included an open sand quarry, catacombs were constructed in the cliff face to make the most of the site. Until the Birmingham Cemeteries Act required that coffins not buried in the ground were sealed with lead or pitch, ‘unhealthy vapours and unpleasant smells’ unfortunately made themselves obvious.
Until recently the unused catacombs and tunnels were left open, but have now been sealed to ‘prevent use by drug users and rent boys’. The most well-known occupant is John Baskerville, a typographer and printer who developed the Baskerville font. As an atheist he stipulated that he be buried in a mausoleum in the grounds of his house and not in consecrated ground. But soon a canal was built through the land and his embalmed body was dug up and displayed (at 6d a head) for a while. Baskerville House in Centenary Square was built on the site of his original house, so I imagine the canal was the Birmingham and Fazeley at Farmer’s Bridge locks. Eventually his body was placed in the catacombs, in consecrated ground, which would have infuriated him.
The cemetery and Warstone Lane took their names from the War Stone, a glacial erratic which was left here at the end of the last Ice Age. The name is a corruption of Hoar Stone, which was an ancient term for a boundary stone; this one was used as a parish boundary marker for a time.
We walked on into the Jewellery Quarter, wondering how so many jeweller’s shops can survive in such as small space when their wares cost so much. To be honest I’m not a great one for bling and soon got bored looking at diamonds. Lucky Dave, you might think! We went on to the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, which I had read (in someone’s blog, thank you whoever you are!) is an interesting place to visit. There are a couple of galleries to look at, but the focus of the museum is the guided tours of the workshops. The firm of Smith and Pepper operated here for 100 years until 1981, having weathered two world wars and the three day week. The owners had retired but could not sell the business because of the recession, so when the buildings passed to the council they discovered a throwback to the past as nothing had been changed since it was locked up for the last time. Everything in there was photographed and documented, removed and replaced exactly as it had been once the building had been restored. It had to be completely rewired and they used a business that makes props for films to create authentic-looking electric flexes. In the office upstairs are the record books used at the time, the old typewriters and a comptometer (an early kind of adding machine). Further along the bench are the inspection lamps where the finished products were given their final checks before despatch.
The jewellery makers themselves were not allowed upstairs – all non-verbal communications and deliveries went via a dumb waiter, to the left of this picture.
In the workshops below were the jewellers’ benches, each with the ‘peg’ which they rested their work on and a leather sheet under the peg to catch any bits of gold. The floor was covered with a grid so that any gold dust adhering to the workers’ shoes would fall through and could be collected.
The owner collected the workers’ overalls every night and washed them himself to collect the gold dust (of course the workers were forbidden to wear trousers with turn-ups). The waste pipe ran into a sack of sawdust rather than the drains, so that the gold could easily be retrieved. To the left of the basin in the picture is the safe, where gold was stored overnight, and in front is the downstairs part of the dumb waiter.
Brendan, our excellent guide, showed us an example of the task apprentices were set – it was to use a jewellery saw to cut out the king's head from a penny, without cutting off his nose or beard. The example was done 9and polished up) by Brendan, who said it was not easy to learn the technique and required a lot of patience. You can imagine that it quickly weeded out those not suited to the work.
Once an item was completed it was cleaned in a process that used hydrochloric acid and cyanide. The fan blade was corroded by the atmosphere – what effect must it have had on the workers close by?
The polishing machines were the closest to the cleaning process. Jewellers’ rouge – an ultra-fine metal polish – was used for this and any rough bits of gold would have been rubbed off. You can see that the stools are different heights – this is because the owners cut the bottom of the legs off periodically to recover fallen gold dust! Apparently enough was recovered every few months of the value equivalent to a new car, so worth doing!
Between the cleaning position and the polishers was the kitchen cubby-hole where the tea and biscuits were prepared by the lady who did the work with the cyanide. Yet they all apparently lived to ripe old ages.
This was a fascinating tour and we would recommend it. One of the other visitors had been to the Pen Museum, which they had found very interesting too.
It was well after lunch time when we left for the Lord Clifden in Great Hampton street, not far away. It is a great pub and has won several awards. We had an excellent lunch and would happily go back for an evening meal one day. Then we really had to go back to the boat to take Meg out.
After we had eaten we went for a stroll around to see where we would be allowed to go now the Tory Conference has moved into town – the bridge from Brindley Place to the ICC is gated off, half of Symphony Court is out of bounds and the place was swarming with police and security guards. No pictures – I’m not wasting my time on them. We went back to have a drink in the Fiddle and Bone as there was live music – a good band but a very thin crowd and expensive drinks so we didn’t stay too long.
But we had a great day.