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13 November 2014

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You are in: Birmingham > History > Local History > Birmingham's historic gun trade

Courtesy Birmingham Proof House

Courtesy Birmingham Proof House

Birmingham's historic gun trade

Some Brummies made a lot of money during the American Civil War - selling guns to the south. David Williams looks back at Birmingham's long association with gun manufacturing.

Prof. David Williams

Prof. David Williams

Birmingham has been a key innovator in the gun trade since the seventeenth century and the Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House operates to this day.

Between 1855 and 1861, six million arms were tested and proofed here - many of them destined for the USA.

Professor David Williams tells the story:

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Birmingham's gun manufacturing community grew around St Mary's Church.

Initially a select residential area for Georgian entrepreneurs, the community slowly turned into a warren of workshops that had begun as the back gardens of the houses.

It came to be known as the 'Gun Quarter' - an area where skilled craftsmen made guns by hand.

Courtesy: Birmingham Proof House

Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House

The Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House opened in 1813 as a way of testing and filtering out those weapons of inferior quality. It still stands to this day in Banbury Street.

Locks and components for the guns came from nearby Black Country towns: Bilston, Darlaston and Wolverhampton. Barrel makers were near water in Aston, Deritend, Smethwick and West Bromwich, the water driving their boring and grinding machines.

The trade made millions of weapons that saw service in the Napoleonic Wars and in the American Civil War, mostly on the side of the South. A great deal of money was made.

Profligate gun makers and barrel makers on wages of £20 and £50 a week (in the early 1860s) were 'lighting cigars in public houses with £5 notes'.

The Board of Ordnance was always concerned that the Birmingham trade had too much control of its supply chain – the gun makers went on strike at the start of the Crimean War – finally pushing the Ordnance to build its own factory with machines at Enfield.

Courtesy: Birmingham Proof House

Coat of arms

Rise of the machines

The early trade made much by hand but real machines arrived in the Birmingham with the founding of Birmingham Small Arms by a group of leading gun makers.

Whilst intensively competitive and secret – it is customary to cover work in the vice with a cloth – gun makers would work together when it suited them.

They had changed the rules on apprenticeship in the Napoleonic Wars, to ensure they could do business and meet the demand on the trade.

Initially machines came from outside Birmingham - Greenwood and Batley in Yorkshire and the USA. Machine builders in America had learnt a lot from Birmingham men who had gone to live in the new world. Later though, local manufacturers such as Archdale began to make them.

Courtesy: Birmingham Proof House

Gunmakers at W.W Greener's in about 1892

Birmingham's industrialisation

Factories were built in Armoury Road (BSA) and in the greater St Mary's and Aston areas including those of W.W. Greener and the ammunition makers including Kynoch's, subsequently IMI.

So successful was this new way of making guns that the machines themselves helped pave the way for the industrialisation of Birmingham. Sewing machine, bicycle and later car manufacturing all took inspiration in terms of manufacturing techniques from how Birmingham made its gun.

Military gun making dominated the two World Wars. The Great War saw many of the old 'moth balled' factories were re-opened. In WWII, BSA and its sixty seven plants made many millions of guns.

By David Williams

By David Williams

The 'good times' though couldn't last

As Birmingham grew as a city in the early 20th century, gun manufacturing all but collapsed.

The building of Corporation Street in the late 1900s, the depression of the 20s and 30s, the collapse of BSA and ultimately the development of the inner ring road in the 1960s and 1970's decimated much of the trade.

Reminders are still evident in the city, most notably the Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House which operates to this day, and Westley Richards, Birmingham's largest and most noted best gun maker, has a new site in Pritchett Street, at the heart of the 'trade'.

David Williams was born in Birmingham but now lives in Hathern, Leicestershire. His new book 'The Birmingham Gun Trade' tells the full story and is out now published by The History Press.

For more information on the Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House, click the link below:

last updated: 12/10/2009 at 10:05
created: 19/02/2009

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