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History of Birmingham ‘Toys’

Birmingham-made ‘toys’ demonstrate a rich, local history of world renowned craftsmanship. A range of eminent names illustrate a network of skilled smallworkers active in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.

As industry flourished in the 18th century, Birmingham metal workers set about producing a variety of small, personal items known as ‘toys’. James Sketchley’s Birmingham Directory of 1767 notes that while ‘it would be endless to attempt to give a list’ of every single item that constituted a ‘toy’, the category included vinaigrettes, snuff boxes and vesta cases.

Championing the skill of Birmingham makers, Sketchley stated that ‘for cheapness, beauty and elegance, no place in the world can vie with them’. These sentiments remain true today, with the enduring popularity of makers such as Nathaniel Mills.

This ‘castle-top’ snuff box is typical of luxury silver boxes sold to commemorate visits to British castles or other landmarks.

The rise and expansion of the railway system enabled easier travel and contributed to the development of tourist areas. Touted as the most prolific of all box makers, Mills exhibited the entrepreneurial spirit Birmingham is known for, by catering to the newly mobile middle classes and capitalising on their demand for souvenirs.

Another vinaigrette by Matthew Linwood. The highly detailed pierced grille depicting H.M.S Victory is testament to Linwood’s specialism in box making.

A prominent figure in Birmingham’s metal industry, Linwood was made Guardian of the Birmingham Assay Office in 1811. His connection to a network of Birmingham innovators is evident in his sister’s, the celebrated needlework artist Mary Linwood, appointment as embroidery teacher to Mathew Boulton’s own sister, Ann at Soho House, Handsworth.

With a family history entwined with Birmingham’s metalworking legacy, is Deakin & Francis,

Founded in 1786 by Benjamin Woolfield, Deakin & Francis are England’s oldest manufacturing jewellers, seven generations later.

Residing in what was once the family home of James Watt, the most famous of all Birmingham’s industrialists as the revolutioniser of the steam engine, the company remain in the heart of the Jewellery Quarter. Their pieces are represented in historic collections, such as the Jewellery Quarter Museum and Powerhouse Museum, part of Sydney, Australia’s Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences.

Other eminent silversmiths with silver novelties include William Simpson, Edward Smith and Samuel Pemberton.

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