As work is due to begin to transform an historic former factory in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter into a working museum, Chief Reporter Neil Connor speaks to those behind the ambitious project.
It might have once been a bustling factory where up to 60 craftsmen earned 18 shillings a week (90p) thrashing out silver products for an Empire that spanned the globe.
But the JW Evans building in the Jewellery Quarter will soon be bustling with scores of visitors educating themselves on the silver-making industry in industrial Britain.
The historic factory was saved ‘for the nation’ in April after English Heritage stepped in amid fears that it was destined to be demolished. And the doors were opened for the last time yesterday before work begins on ensuring that the historic time capsule is fit for the public.
Nick Hill, project manager at English Heritage, said: “There is a large scale repair needed before we can do anything. As with any major project, we have our work cut out to make this a reality. We also have to decide what we will do with all the machinery. We have drop stamps which are used to press the metal. This is the type of machinery that people will want to see in working practice, but we have to make sure they are all working.
“We also have machinery that is used for piercing, stamping, moulding, assembling and moulding. The most fascinating thing about this project is that it was a working factory with all the different aspects of the trade under one roof. What is even more extraordinary is that everything remains in place from the 1880s.”
Mr Hill said the working museum will be similar to the back-to-back houses on Hurst Street in the Chinese Quarter. He expects small parties of students will visit the building, rather than large coachloads.
He said the museum would not be able to house large numbers of visitors as the site is essentially four terrace house with workshops in the gardens.
He added: “It is quite an extraordinary place. English Heritage did a study of the Jewellery Quarter and this was one of the best buildings.
The building was put up for sale last year by managing director Tony Evans who had waited five years for English Heritage to come up with an action plan to save the former factory after his retirement.
It was thought the Grade II* listed building would be bought by developers and converted into flats, with all the treasures from its factory days lost.
The plans have been put back on track after English Heritage changed its mind and took the unusual step of acquiring the building “for the nation”. English Heritage said it could not formally disclose the price but it was “several hundred thousand pounds”. In March, it bought the property outright to ensure the building and its contents would remain together.
JW Evans & Sons Ltd was founded in 1905 after Austen Evans purchased four adjoining properties in Albion Street. The sale took place during the heyday of the Jewellery Quarter’s success, just before the Great War. The average working week for the craftsmen was 66 hours long. The business is one of the last remaining silversmiths in the Jewellery Quarter and still produces silverware including condiment sets, sauce boats and decanter ladles.
Mr Evans, aged 68, worked at the factory since he was 16. He said: “This will be a marvellous project because my family have never thrown anything away – I suppose you could say they were hoarders.
“We have a pen museum and a jewellery museum in the Jewellery Quarter so it will be really nice to have a silversmiths’ museum.”