Saturday, February 18, 2006

Diary of Lady Shelburne - 4th Post

Here is a description of Birmingham and its industry written by Lady Shelburne and her husband in May of 1766. This is the fourth set of entries from her diary. The first three are here, here and here. As before, the entries come from the Fitzmaurice biography of the Earl of Shelburne.

May 14th [1766]. We got into the coach for Birmingham, and arrived through rough roads at nine o'clock there. We were kindly and politely received by Mr. Garbett; but before I dwell upon the curiosities of this place I must mention having seen some very good portraits at Warwick Castle, particularly one said to be an original of the famous Earl of Essex.

May 15th. We breakfasted, and went soon after with Mr. Garbett to see the manufactory of buttons and hardwares, which are very curious, and entertained us very much till dinner-time. Mr. Taylor, the principal manufacturer there, dined with us, and we went afterwards to Mr. Bolden's, who trades much in the same way. His house is a very pretty one about a mile out of the town, and his workshops newly built at the end of his garden, where they take up a large piece of ground which has named Soho Square. There, as in the morning, we purchased some watch chains and trinkets at an amazing cheap price, and drank tea afterwards in his house, which a very pleasant one. We returned home to supper ween nine and ten, for we kept early hours. Mr. Baskerville supped with us.

May 16th. This morning we went to Gimlett's, where bought a great many toys and saw his warehouse of watches, &c., one of which I bought for Master Parker, also went to a quaker's to see the making of guns, neither Lady Louisa or I being much interested about that, we left Lord Shelburne and Mr. Garbett and went with his son to the toyshops, where we made some purchases. At Mr. Taylor's we met again, and he made and ennamel'd a landscape on the top of a box before us, which he afterwards gave me as a curiosity from my having seen it done. The method of doing it is this: a stamping instrument managed only by one woman first impresses the picture on paper, which paper is then laid even upon a piece of white enamel and rubbed hard with a knife or instrument like it, till it is marked upon the box. Then there is spread over it with a brush some metallic colour reduced to a fine powder which adheres to the moist part, and, by putting it afterwards into an oven for a few minutes, the whole is completed by fixing colour. We came home, dined, went again to Gimlett's, and from thence to drink tea at Mr. Taylor's villa. This is a very handsome house with a dairy and garden about it. His wife and daughter, a girl of about fourteen, received us, and she played on the harpsichord and sung to us. Mr. Taylor and his son walked about with Lord Shelburne and Mr. Garbett. After this Mr. Frank Garbett went with Lady Louisa and me in the coach to Mr. Baskerville's, which is also a pretty place out of the town; he showed us his garden and hothouse, Mrs. Baskerville the Japan, which business she has chiefly the management of. By this time Mr. Garbett and Lord Shelburne, who walked, arrived; he bought some new books printed by Mr. Baskerville, and I some Japan, and it being now dark we returned home.

May 17th. As soon as breakfast was over we went to see the making of buckles, papier mâché boxes, and the melting, painting, and stamping of glass. By twelve o'clock we returned to Mr. Garbett's, took some chocolate, and, thanking him for our entertainment at Birmingham, got into our coach to return home, the young Mr. Garbett being of the party till we got through the town. Then we parted, giving him an invitation to Bowood Park, and dined at Shipston; at night we lay at Chappel-on-the-Heath.

May 19th. After breakfast Lady Louisa went to attend Princess Amelia, and we sent, without success, to Eton to desire leave for Master Parker to come to us. We dined alone, and in the evening Lord Shelburne was so good to write for me the following account of the place we had been so much amused at:
Birmingham originally had no manufacture except a small one of linen thread, which continues there to this day, though now to the amount of ten or twelve thousand pounds. It is not fifty years since the hardware began to make a figure, from thence begun by people not worth above three or four hundred pounds a-piece, some of which are now worth three or four hundred thousand, particularly a Mr. Taylor, the most established manufacturer and trader; some, however, are beginning to rival him in the extent of his trade. Its great rise was owing to two things, first the discovery of mixed metal so mollient or ductile as easily to suffer stamping, the consequence of which is they do buttons, buckles, toys, and everything in the hardware way by stamping machines which were before obliged to be performed by human labour. Another thing quickly followed, instead of employing the same hand to finish a button or any other thing, they subdivide it into as many different hands as possible, finding beyond doubt that the human faculties by being confined to a repetition of the same thing become more expeditious and more to be depended on than when obliged or suffered to pass from one to another. Thus a button passes through fifty hands, and each hand perhaps passes a thousand in a day; likewise, by this means, the work becomes so simple that, five times in six, children of six or eight years old do it as well as men, and earn from ten pence to eight shillings a week. There are besides an infinity of smaller improvements which each workman has and sedulously keeps secret from the rest. Upon the whole they have reduced the price so low that the small matter of gold on a button makes the chief expense of it, being as three to one including all other materials and manufacture. However, they have lately discovered a method of washing them with aquafortis, which gives them the colour of gold, and are come to stamp them so well that 'tis scarce possible at any distance to distinguish them from a thread button. There are many other manufactures here; most of the spirit of hartshorn consumed in England, and oil of a great quantity, but the greatest manufacture of that is now removed to Preston Pans in Scotland. The reason Mr. Garbett gave for it was, first, secrecy as to the method of making it (which is almost impossible to preserve in Birmingham, there is so much enterprise and sharpness); next, the cheapness of provisions; and, lastly, the obedient turn of the Scotch. Refining of gold and silver, and gun-making to a prodigious amount for exportation, are likewise another branch of their trade, of which they send annually above a hundred and fifty thousand to the coast of Africa, some of which are sold for five and sixpence a-piece, but what is shocking to humanity, above half of them, from the manner they are finished in, are sure to burst in the first hand that fires them. If an Act of Parliament was passed ordering a proof-master to be settled at the expence of the manufacturers themselves, for one shilling more the barrels might be properly bored and finished, so as to secure the buyer at least from certain danger, the trade by this means assured and confirmed in its present channel, and the moral infamy in the individuals who are thus induced to multiply gain, suppressed. This trade, great as it is, is not above twenty or twenty-five years' standing. Another thing they are in great want of is an assay-master, which is allowed both at Chester and York; but it is very hard on a manufacturer to be obliged to send every piece of plate to Chester to be marked, without which no one will purchase it, where the great object of the whole trade is to make a quantity and thus to reduce the profits as low as 'tis possible. It would be of infinite public advantage if silver plate came to be manufactured here as watches lately are, and that it should be taken out of the imposing monopoly of it in London.


Some notes on people and places mentioned in this diary set of diary entries:

Warwick Castle, click to enlarge.

A painting in the castle, not Essex, click to enlarge.

A good general source of background for the Shelburne's visit to Birmingham is The lunar men : five friends whose curiosity changed the world, by Jennifer S Uglow (2002). She identifies Samuel Garbett was a prominent button and hardware maker (p. 22). John Taylor was one of the first manufactures to replace the old putting-out system with a new-fangled factory: a conglomeration of workshops on a single site (p. 67). In 1759, Garbett and Taylor he testified in the House of Commons about the toy trade of Birmingham, reporting that it employed 20,000 people and exported about 80% of its production.

The man Sophie identifies as Mr. Bolden was Samuel Boulton, who started out as a maker of buckles and became one of the most wealthy and famous of the Birmingham industrialists. Of him, Jennifer Uglow says: "Matt Boulton was neat and dark and dapper, with curly brown hair, keen eyes and a broad grin. Frank and humorous, always with an eye to the main chance, he was a man on the make, like his town." (p. 25)

Boulton enjoyed displaying his workshops. A year after the Shelburne's visit he was something of a tour-guide, writing to his London agent that "I had lords and ladies to wait on yesterday; I have Spaniards today; and tomorrow I shall have Germans, Russians, and Norwegians." (Uglow, p. 221)

Boulton's works at Soho Square, Birmingham. Uglow quotes Boulton about this huge enterprise: "I founded my manufactory upon one of the most barren commons of England, where there existed but a few miserable huts filled with idle beggarly people, who by the help of the common land and a little thieving made shift to live without working. The scene is now entirely changed. I have employed a thousand men, women, and children, in my aforesaid manufactory, for nearly thirty years." About this quote she says Boulton wrote "with the proud intolerance of a merchant prince." (p 69)

John Baskerville, was the famous type designer; also a writing master and printer.
{click to enlarge}

I haven't identified Mr. Gimlett, nor the Mr. Taylor (later connected with Eton and so presumably a young acquaintance of the Shelburne's).

It's interesting that Sophie mentions a foundry for making guns that is run by Quakers. I don't have more information about this.

This is an example of japaning, which business, Sophie says, Mrs. Baskerville "has chiefly the management of."

This gives some idea of the village of Shipton in the Cotswolds where the Shelburnes dined on their trip homeward.

The essay by Lord Shelburne that ends the piece is remarkable. It shows he had done his homework and knew the subject well. It also shows that an intelligent observer at the time could perceive the importance of the innovations being introduced in Birmingham and, as well, the extreme competitive spirit and "sharpness" of the Birmingham entrepreneurs -- including an cavalier attitude toward African buyers of cheap and very dangerous guns. Though he does not say so directly, it's apparent he perceives both the importance of regulation to prevent export of dangerous weapons and also the importance of eliminating restraints on free-enterprise (the suppression of monopoly industries).

Most of the men whom the Shelburne's met were members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham. As you'd expect, Jennifer Uglow's book is a good source for information about the society and its members. In addition to those mentioned in the diary, those members included Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin (Charles' grandfather), Joseph Priestley, James Watt, and Samuel Galton. They were, like Lord Shelburne himself, friends of Benjamin Franklin. The web page of the City of Birmingham Archives has a short introduction to Boulton, Soho, and the Lunar Society.

It's interesting that the radical, Priestley, is not mentioned in the diary entries. He was later, on recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, to become the librarian at the Shelburne Bowood estate.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Jeff, for these extracts from the Shelburne Diaries.

Reading between the lines, I am sure that the Quaker gunsmith mentioned was Samuel Galton Junior, a member of the Lunar Society. The firm of Farmer and Galton was one of the city's largest gunmakers, and made a speciality out of the manufacture of unproved (untested, therefore cheap) muskets with cheap stocks, which were sold to slave traders in the ports of Bristol and Liverpool, where the firm had agents.

Galton's Quaker co-religionists deplored his involvement with the slave trade.

Hope that helps!

Conrad Taylor

Unknown said...