Brass, an alloy of copper and zinc, is a wonder material. It’s highly malleable, does not rust when exposed to air, takes a high polish, and lcan be cast into any shape. Birmingham artisans made cutlery and iron tools since at least Tudor times, and in the 18th century the city was famous for its metal ‘toys’ (buttons, buckles, etc.). Matthew Boulton of Soho was a toy-manufacturer.
Brass manufacture is said to have been introduced to Birmingham in 1740 by a Mr Turner, on Coleshill St. The growth of the city’s famous canal network made it easy to transport raw materials and finished goods. By the mid-19th century Birmingham’s brass bolts, wire, lamps and chandeliers, nails, cabinet and gas fittings were exported worldwide. Firms like Winfield’s capitalised on the increasing popularity of brass bedsteads.
|Brass strip casting.|
|Making brass moulds.|
A government investigator interviewed adults and children at Winfield’s Cambridge St works in the 1860s (3rd Report, Children’s Employment Commission). Brass foundries were important employers for boys (girls worked in the packing rooms). Children started work around age 7, or more usually age 9 or 10.
The choking, poisonous fumes in the founding and casting shops affected adult and child workers. The men making ‘yellow’ brass in particular suffered from lung diseases. Henry Peel (27), a brass-caster at Timothy Smith & Sons, said that ‘you get old’ at age forty: ‘I hope to live over 40’.
You can find out more about Birmingham brass manufacture, and how to trace ancestors who worked in the industry, in the December issue of Who Do YouThink You Are? magazine.
Illustrations of brass strip casting, the brass workers' frieze, and the canals are from the English Illustrated Magazine, 1883. Making moulds and brass casting are from the Boys' Book of Trades, c.1890s. Author's collection.