Victorian ‘castle-top’ souvenirs
Updated: Jul 13
The term ‘castle-top’ is regularly used to describe a variety of silver boxes, primarily made during the early to mid-19th century and used to carry snuff or visiting cards. There were also vinaigrettes, which contained a sponge soaked in perfume to mask unpleasant smells. These boxes were decorated with views of famous or important British landmarks to include Windsor Castle, Warwick Castle, Westminster Abbey and Newstead Abbey, among many other examples.
At this time in early Victorian Britain, the rise and expansion of the railway system enabled easier travel around the country and opened up new tourist areas. Towns and villages, which featured in literature and particularly in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, were visited along with the homes of the famous and other notable castles, cathedrals and landmarks. It seems likely then, that the origin of the ‘castle-top’ stemmed from a desire to commemorate a visit to a famous location by purchasing an article depicting a view of that particular spot or building. So they were sold commercially as ‘tourist souvenirs’ to day-trippers, honeymooners or similar.
The main centre of production was Birmingham and there were numerous small workers making these souvenir pieces, including Joseph Taylor, Joseph Willmore, Samuel Pemberton, Edward Smith, Matthew Linwood and perhaps the best known and most prolific of them all, Nathaniel Mills.
Many ‘castle-top’ boxes were made by the method of die stamping or repoussé, so that the metal was pushed out from behind using a stamp to create a scene in relief. The higher the relief decoration then the harder they were to make. To increase variety, snuff boxes, card cases and vinaigrettes were also engraved with similar views.
These ‘castle-top’ souvenirs were mainly produced between circa 1830 to 1865. Today, they are considered extremely collectable pieces and remain among the strongest areas of the auction market for small silver objects. Depending on the type of box or case, prices can vary from mid-hundreds to over a £1000 and considerably higher for a particularly rare example.
Many important factors will affect the value, especially quality, condition and maker with pieces made by Nathaniel Mills often realising the highest prices. As already stated, rarity is a major factor in pushing up the price. Some destinations, such as Windsor Castle and Warwick Castle, were visited and depicted more frequently, and subsequently there are more examples in existence. However, if the way they are depicted shows a more unusual view or aspect, then these will likely be more sought after by a collector and fetch a better price. The same can be said of those boxes featuring rarer subjects, which appear less often. These include Wells Cathedral, Gloucester Cathedral, Buckingham Palace (before the removal of Marble Arch) and Brighton Pavilion among others.