Industry Blossomed in the Gardens
Walking round the jewellery quarter, you’d never suspect that a whole hive of communication is slowly bubbling away beneath the surface. As day shoppers casually wonder down the picturesque streets, and the sound of the shop bell tinkles nearby, to the untrained eye, the place would appear pretty but silent.
But if you look a little deeper you will find that the jewellery quarter harbours a lot more than streets of charming architecture. Going back almost two hundred years, this place would’ve been the thrumming heart of the city, its blood shining silver, as the metal workers pounded out the machinery that would go onto building 21st century Britain.
Imagine you’re standing by St Pauls Cathedral, Birmingham. The year is 1877 and the call to work has moved you and your family from the clean air of arable Leicestershire, to the smog and thunder of the industrial revolution. Behind you, the church is being built, its workers frantic to get it sorted in time so that the growing congregation of workers has somewhere to go when it’s time to say your prayers. The noise of their shouts as they shuffle across the scaffolding deafens you, and looking around, you’re in utter disbelief at what is happening surrounding you. As far as the eye can see, workshop after workshop can be found, building everything from silver-plated tea trays, to rifles and machinery. The air is thick with smoke and soot, a choking solution that clogs your lungs as you frantically try to make your way down the street. Everywhere people jostle and push by- a girl dressed in threadbare rags offers you a posy of flowers, but Is pushed away by another young child, selling bootlaces instead. Pick pockets are rife- best to keep your hands inside them- and the marketers will rob you blind if you show so much as an inch of nervousness within their presence. Your stomach rumbles as you wonder by a cart selling penny-farthing meals- bread, jellied eels, hot potatoes- its simple fare but it’s what your used too as a 3rd class citizen. Wondering through the back allies, things get claustrophobic- the slums are cramped here, and the smell is even more suffocating. Women with hollow eyes stare at you as they rock yet another baby on their hips, and children with dirty fingers stuffed in their mouths eye you suspiciously to see whether your worth their time. Above, lines of laundry hang, dripping water, and you gasp as a cold droplet runs down your neck. No matter how hard the women scrub, the stain of dust remains, and their off-white sheen darkens the ally, whilst you try to fumble your way back home.
Walking past the closet, you hold your breath and try not to breathe in- 3 toilets to a whole street of families can only result in one smell, and its vapour stings your eyes as you hurriedly wonder past. Nearby, the water pump is frozen- again- and you try to stifle your shock as you see children with numb fingers pressing burning paper into the pipe to try and thaw out the water within. A whole crowd of them stands by, all with buckets waiting to be filled, their thin arms shivering in the cold. They know their mum is waiting and she won’t be happy if there late back- it’s getting dark and the slum is no place to be outside at night.
When at last you find your house, you wonder tiredly into your family’s room. Its only one room for the whole lot of you- there’s a fireplace, a bed for you and your partner, and a few spare blankets and mattresses for the children. Lines of clothes dry slowly on the rafter beams, and the smell of damp pervades the air. In places, mould is peeking through the paper you were able to buy cheap from the market, and the furniture you can acquire already looks ready to be thrown on the fire. The window shines meekly into the room- there isn’t much light to be had around here- and as you settle down onto the bed (moving deftly about the poking springs) you lie back and watch as a roach slowly disappears into a crack within the ceiling. As you close your eyes, the coughing of the adjacent family echoes through the paper-thin walls, and as day sinks into night, the glare of the fire is all you have, to see where everything is. A baby cries somewhere in the shadows- a dog barks in the gloom. It’s frightening but what choice do you have? This is the industrial revolution. The world is moving on fast- and you better move with it before the ground beneath you is pulled under.
Nowadays, this hum of revolution is a lot quieter. You’d never imagine the above was once going on, when now the quarter has become a series of peaceful streets and shops. The architecture remains of course- but the people who built this place are long gone. Looking up at the skyline, the crowd and noise of the central city is already looming large over what Is left of this historical place. The empty glitter of glass and grey steel stands like an open maw over you, and the sense of threat is real- places like this are becoming rarer every day, and as contractors look to build up the residential market, their greed becomes clear in the destruction of countless prized buildings, for the sake of the space they were built upon. As we seek to move on with the times, we are beginning to destroy the heritage which gave us the chance to progress at all- every story, every man, woman and child who was here when Birmingham was built into what we know today is slowly being forgotten- their stories apparently as inconsequential, as the dust motes in the air, scattered by the nearby digger.
Talking to the people who work here ,however, you’ll find that although the place about them is being developed, its not necessarily what they themselves desire. Talking to Sal (who runs a café in the former rifle workshop) she says that the jewellery quarter is one of the few places left where ‘little industries like mine can be made, and not have to fight against the mass chain stores which moved me out of the city in the first place.’ What I found particularly fascinating as well was the fact that cafes like hers were beginning to build up networks between each other, as they drove towards advancing within a world that is often not in the independent businesses favour. Though she cooks the majority of food onsite, the bread she uses is made by the soda bread café down the road- she sources her vegetables and fruits from local grocers when possible, and is always eager to promote nearby shops, in the hopes of making Birmingham more aware of the fantastic hive of creators like her, who are taking the chance, and are choosing to fight against the consumerist chain.
We were lucky enough to meet many fantastic people like her whilst on our journey through the quarter. Everybody adored the stories and the history this place had, and what both myself and my friend ,Tom, at the time both noted was how strongly people felt a sense of community here. The pride within the voices we heard today was extremely evident, and it was obvious people were proud to say they were part of the Jewellery quarters history. In the words of our newfound friend Sal,
‘People are friendly here, which is so different from what I’ve experienced in places like London or even in the city centre nearby- so much is happening within Birmingham’s independent trades and its exciting to know I’m part of it.’