As stones go, it looks quite ordinary, even though this felsite boulder was deposited during the Ice Age by a glacier. Once a boundary stone, the War Stone now lies on a plinth inside a cemetery on a street named after it. Legend has it that two giants got into a fight and the Birmingham giant was hit by a large boulder that killed him and destroyed his castle. In his honour, his followers erected a stone in the lane. Hence the name War Stone.
In Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, even the rocks tell a story. Once an industrial town manufacturing metal products (pens, chains, coins, whistles, coffin parts, trophies), it was home to traders working on every stage of the jewellery manufacturing process. The Great Depression and World War II saw a decline in industry but it still has about 700 jewellery-linked businesses producing 40% of the jewellery made in the UK.
The conservation of the Quarter has turned it into a space for creative business and hospitality ventures. Yet, there is history here—in the listed red-brick buildings, once bustling factories, the century-old Chamberlain Clock, the ink in the Pen Museum (the area once produced 75% of pens in the world), and hidden in the soft earth in Birmingham’s last Georgian Square. St Paul’s Square is lush with autumn foliage, a shaded courtyard with old tombstones and memorials, and, in the centre, the 18th century St Paul’s Church, with its stained-glass windows.
I get a brief lesson in the Quarter from Josie Wall, a PhD student, guide and part of the Jewellery Quarter Business Improvement (JQ BID), a company dedicated to improving the district. Wall’s passion for the region is evident in the way she rattles off figures and trivia, and the way her eyes light up when talking about its history. “The 1960s were the heydays of the Quarter. There was more manufacturing than retailing. Factories typically worked on one aspect of the process, like plating or finishing. Beyond jewellery, many small metal items were made here. You needed the same skilled workers to make coffin handles, or a coffee pot or a nib,” she says.
The heart of the Quarter is the intersecting lanes of Warstone and Vyse Street, which house jewellery shops, their windows a-dazzle with gems. We walk into alleyways with red-brick buildings. We pass by a Sikh temple, beautiful in blue, which was once the Highbury Independent Chapel. On the pavement, we look out for plates embedded in the pavement which offer more history lessons—on Graham Street, a sign indicates that it was once the site of a roller-coaster.
Along the way, Wall feeds me nuggets: Factories with “works” in the name were actually workshops; the steam from the pen factory was used for Turkish baths; census records show the Quarter had workers from South Africa, Australia, Trinidad and Russia; and the cemeteries are one of the few untouched open green spaces. Wall grins when I suggest we visit them. “You don’t find too many people interested in hanging out in cemeteries,” she says. The “cemeteries researcher” is a manager at the JQ Cemeteries Project, which looks at restoring at the region’s two cemeteries.
In the city centre is the Warstone Lane Cemetery. “This cemetery doesn’t have a chapel; the existing one was destroyed in WWII and after the war ended, rebuilding it wasn’t a priority. Instead, the chapel’s footprint was recreated as a garden of memory,” she says. There is a war memorial, and catacombs, arranged in a semi-circle, in two tiers, and built on old sand quarries. In summer, they screen films on the catacombs; during Halloween, it is decorated with pumpkins and there are plays and events. “During the pandemic lockdown, people would gather here to do yoga,” says Wall.
In an old factory on Fleet Street, I find myself confronting a different aspect of death. The Newman Brothers were Birmingham’s last coffin-furniture factory, operating for 100 years. Today, Coffin Works is a museum with rooms dedicated to the many aspects of burials. There are coffins, fitted with trimmings, shrouds and face veils, brass handles (including replicas of those made for Winston Churchill and Princess Diana), chair and coffin nails, a stamp room with mechanical presses, sample pieces that travelling salesmen would carry in leather bags, and order books going back to the 1940s.
As I walk around the museum, it is clear that women were at the heart of it. In the shroud or sewing room, seamstresses sat with machines, stitching the cloth used to dress the bodies, and the coffins. It was the late Joyce Green, the last owner of Newman Brothers, who turned the factory into a museum. Green joined as the office secretary at 18, and, over the next 50 years, climbed up the ranks—a woman who had to fight to prove herself.
I came to the Jewellery Quarter seeking bling. Instead, I find stories of industry and trade, and of women fighting for change.
Joanna Lobo is a Goa-based journalist.
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