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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Birmingham

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Workshop at the Jewellers Technical School, Victoria St

© Birmingham Library
Birmingham's hidden jewel

A recent study of Birmingham’s jewellery quarter, by English Heritage, calls the area unique in Europe, a national treasure, no less, remarkable for its concentration of specialist buildings, factories and houses. Many date from the early 19th Century.

The 6,000 people still working in the area make it the foremost centre for gold jewellery production in the UK. But the Jewellery Quarter’s ‘unspoilt by progress’ atmosphere makes it vulnerable, as those with disposable income to spare look for a cosy little pied-a-terre close to the city centre, and property owners are only too happy to provide one. The challenge of meeting the demand for city centre accommodation and keeping the Victorian character of the area is a tough one.

Vyse Street
Vyse Street in the heart of Birmingham's jewellery quarter
© Birmingham Library
There is an irony in all this, for the Jewellery Quarter itself was the product of one of the most extensive redevelopments in Birmingham’s long history. Much of the land now occupied by the jewellers had been owned by the Colmore family, including the Jacobean family home and grounds called New Hall.

From 1746 onwards the Colmore family, with remarkable foresight, calculated that their estate would profit more from industry and housing than it would from agriculture. The land was therefore released piecemeal for building. But the key to the plan was that it would be a mixed development, designed to be attractive both to manufacturers to set up small businesses and to the middle-classes to settle in as residents.

The Colmores’ decision was well-timed, for 18th Century Birmingham was hungry to expand beyond its old boundaries, and its artisans to abandon the ‘irregular and foul-smelling’ workshops down by the River Rea. Newhall Hill had gold in it, both for the land-owners and the manufacturers.

Words: Chris Upton

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BBC jewellery collectors guide
Jewellery history
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