With about 20 miles between The Hamilton Pen Company HQ and Birmingham City it seems almost criminal that we haven't delved into the rich and important history of Birmingham’s Pen and nib manufacturing history. Don’t get too excited though…we are dipping the proverbial toe into the deep and rich waters of the history of Pen Manufacture in Birmingham. This will be the first part in a mini-series focussing on the Birmingham Pen Trade.
You would not be accused of hyperbole for stating that during the 19th century, the chances that if something was written in pen it was likely written with a Birmingham-made pen! Some historians go so far as suggesting that 75% of written materials were produced using a Birmingham made pen!
Map of the Jewellery Quarter
The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter, and a little of the surrounding area, was once the centre of the world’s pen trade with around 100 factories employing over 8,000 skilled craftspeople (many of whom were women!). But what happened? Where is it now beyond the shadows of former factories now made into executive apartments or the silhouettes of the names of giants barely visible in the brick of hidden buildings? The pen trade plays an interesting role in Birmingham’s history as it put the city’s name on the map and made some industrial and entrepreneurial fellows very wealthy indeed, it did however leave many of the workers themselves badly paid and uneducated.
Why Did Pen Manufacturing Boom in Birmingham?
It is usually an abundance of natural resources which leads to vast industrial growth but Birmingham had very few natural resources to speak of, particularly those required for steel pens and nibs.
What Birmingham did have was three natural advantages. The first of which being that it was located near a source of iron ore and secondly it was near a coal seam providing fuel for forges and later transport. Finally, it was surrounded by streams so watermills were made use of in the earlier stages of industrialisation and the world famous Birmingham canals were ideally placed and set-up for bringing materials into Birmingham.
Image Credit: Birmingham Live
However, of the sources explored, the main factor for the domination of the trade by Birmingham based manufacturers appears to be related to the skilled and semi-skilled workers available to the factories. Small metalware was already a dominant industry in Birmingham with buttons and buckles being a huge part of the Birmingham manufacturing scene.
Industrial Birmingham Image Credit: intriguing-History .com
The 18th Century was a flourishing time of industry for Birmingham with; blades, pins, nails, screws, bolts, brass fittings, gunsmiths and locksmiths all being successful trades in the area. Birmingham is sometimes referred to as the city of a thousand trades and the Industrial revolution had seen Birmingham progress and develop at a high level - particularly with the handpress which was considered one of the most important machines of the industrial revolution. The skills acquired through previous manufacturing using the handpress and earlier forms of processing and metalwork meant that a strong workforce was already in place…and a large portion of that ‘skilled’ workforce were women - meaning that wages could be set low allowing profits to remain high.
Women at the heart of the Birmingham Pen Industry
The presses in the pen factories were entirely operated by women workers, producing anywhere around 18,000 pens each day. The pay was unremarkable at the time with earnings of up to seven shillings being the norm which was low for the work but not so low that factories would not find people willing to work for such a rate.
Mary Ann Cotrill slitting pen nibs Image Credit: Ben Hurst - Business Live
We must remember that Trade Unions were not decriminalised until 1867 leading to legalisation in 1871 and the start of the Trade Union Movement which sought to reform socio-economic conditions in Britain. It should also be noted that the earliest Trade Unions did not concern themselves with Women and women’s work.
The conditions in the factories were as bleak as you might imagine. There were rules in place preventing talking and singing and wages were docked for lateness or wasted metals. This isn’t to say that men were not present in the factories. Men tended to be the tool makers and the ones in charge of furnaces where women were the primary force of production. The Elementary Education Act 1880 made it compulsory for children to attend school until the age of 10 and so the pen factories were able to make use of the young workforce of 10-13 year olds until Parliamentary Acts reduced the pool of employees over the years until the 1918 Education Act made it a requirement for children to attend school until the age of 14 and heavily encouraged at least part-time attendance to continue through to the age of 18.
Women were the main workforce and it was particularly unusual in the 19th Century to see such a volume of women in one occupation, it can perhaps be compared to the ribbon and watch makers of Coventry or blanket makers of Witney. Birmingham was pioneering manufacturing processes and forms of craftsmanship as well as providing unprecedented employment opportunities for women - in fact they were 70% of the workforce.
Image Credit: David fry by way of Cathy Hunt Historian
It is often argued that one of the main reasons for the great success of the Birmingham pen trade was the fact that factories were able to employ such a large volume of women and were also able to pay them poorly for their time and skills. There is a certain irony to the fact that among the women and children who made up the majority of the pen manufacture industry, most were illiterate and there was no effort - or incentive - of factory owners to rectify this. In today's economy we know that there is a benefit to enabling the workforce to not only be producers but also consumers of products.
The classification of the roles within factories played a huge part in the difference between male and female wages. Male roles were largely regarded as the skilled roles - these included; working in the rolling mills, minding the furnaces and as toolmakers. The women's roles were largely considered unskilled with the majority working as hand press operators.
At the peak of the Birmingham pen trade there were around 100,000 varieties of pens being manufactured across Birmingham but by the end of the 19th century the number of manufacturers fell from around 100 to just 12. By the 1960s, the pen factories were all but gone.
Who were the big names of the Birmingham pen trade?
Some of the main pen makers of Birmingham were: Josiah Mason, John Mitchell, William Mitchell, Joseph Gillott's, Baker & Finnemore, C. Brandauer & Co., Hinks Wells & Co., Geo W. Hughes, D. Leonardt & Co., Macniven & Cameron, M. Myers & Son, Perry & Co., A. Sommerville & Co.to name a few!
Image with thanks to Manuscript Pen Company formerly D. Leonardt & Co.
Steel pens were first mass produced in the early 19th century in a process pioneered by John Mitchell in Newhall Street. John and his brother William are credited as being the first to use machines to cut pen nibs - this made the process much faster and more efficient whilst retaining a level of quality that consumers expected.
Josiah Mason is perhaps one of the most well known names in the history of the Birmingham pen trade particularly of the 19th Century. Mason could easily fill an entire article all of his own; he was such an interesting man and played an important role in pen nib manufacturing and the pen making industry in Birmingham as a whole.
Josiah Mason: Henry Penn, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In 1828, Mason created a slip-in nib that could be produced cheaply and efficiently and could be added to a fountain pen body simply. This was the bread and butter of his operations for many years.
By the 1850s it was clear that Birmingham was the world centre for steel pen and steel nib manufacture with estimates stating that over half of the steel nibs made in the world were made in Birmingham at that time.
With the hub of all this activity taking place in the Jewellery Quarter it comes as no surprise that the worlds collided when Swan Pens opened a gold pen making factory in Birmingham utilising the skills and expertise of their jewellery makers to create fine pens.
As the industry grew and grew, vast fortunes were reportedly made. Josiah Mason was known as being a kind and charitable man and came from a poor and uneducated background not dissimilar to Joseph Gillott from Sheffield. Both men went to Birmingham and made their fortunes leaving a legacy of philanthropy behind them, Mason founded Birmingham University with his vast resources and several years earlier had established an orphanage in Erdington
Gillott became a patron of the arts leaving over a quarter of a million pounds worth of art collection upon his death in 1873.
Joseph Gillott: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The process of manufacturing nibs was not an expensive one but it was however complicated. The materials required were relatively cheap to source. Thin sheets of tin, steel or brass were rolled thinly allowing flat blank nibs to be stamped out. Then each individual piece was pierced with a small hole then stamped with the trademark of the manufacturer. Following this, the nibs would be heat-treated to allow the metal to retain a flexibility then finally the nibs were shaped. Each batch of completed nibs was then placed in a vat of sulphuric acid to clean them - this was obviously quite a hazardous task and many a child labourer was reported to have been injured during this process. Once dipped they would be moved to a pebble mill which contained - you guessed it….wet pebbles - and this would complete the polishing process. These final processes left the nibs shiny and ready for slits to be added to allow for the free movement of ink. A further step was required after this point. Batches of nibs would be heated to produce the correct colour before they were varnished and some even went on to be silver or gold plated.
We haven’t even begun to look at the early 20th Century and the impact of international trade and names you will have heard of…Esterbrook for example! If you have read our article ‘The Esterbrook Pen Company: From Cornwall to the Moon and Back…’ then you will already have a taster ! If you haven't read it…what are you waiting for! There's a whole archive waiting for you!
Anyway- we have once again gone off track…
The Decline of The Birmingham Pen Manufacturing Industry
As with many pen makers, the advent and mass production of the ballpoint pen - Biro specifically- in the mid 1940’s can be attributed to the decline in the production of traditional fountain pen nibs although one must also consider the rise of international trade, the cost of production and market saturation as factors in this decline…But more on this another time! By the 1960s, the Birmingham Pen manufacturing industry was all but gone.
László József Bíró (1899 – 1985)
Make sure you come back soon to find out more about the incredible individual pen manufacturers of Birmingham and some of the industrious names that shaped the future of pens!
We would certainly encourage anyone with an interest to support the Birmingham Pen Museum and certainly visit if you are able!