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Their nibs

Birmingham’s Pen Room, which celebrates the city’s highly successful Victorian pen-making industry, sprang from the collections of the city’s passionate locals, writes Emily Brooks Photographs andrew montgomery

94 H&A NOVEMBER 2012

any a great museum started life as an individual’s private collection. But even though we no longer live in an age of benevolent antiquarians, there are still those who are turning their private collecting into public good. The Pen Room in Birmingham, dedicated to the city’s steel pen-nib industry, was set up by four such men. Brian Jones, Ray Handley, Colin Giles and Larry Hanks share a desire to keep this bit of local history alive: at its height in the late 19th century, the industry employed more than 8,000 people and three-quarters of everything written in the world was done so with a Birmingham nib. The four got together in the mid 1990s. Ray and Colin were already collectors of writing paraphernalia, while Brian had written a book on Josiah Mason, the celebrated Birmingham pen manufacturer. Larry had been collecting fountain pens, ‘But I was made redundant and my wife said, “You’ll have to collect something cheaper now.” So I moved on to pen nibs.’ It was an appearance by Brian on local radio talking about his book that put the four in touch and, when they were offered space at a former pen factory in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, they pooled their collections to bring this remarkable story to a wider audience. The free museum opened in 2001, on the ground floor of an elaborate 1863 Italianate building, once home to the firm of WE Wiley, one of about 100 manufacturers in the area at the time. Gradually, it is raising the profile of those Victorian pen-makers – Josiah Mason, John Mitchell, Joseph Gillott and the like – who have had so great an impact on our world. Until mass production came along in 1822, individually made steel nibs were so expensive (about 2s 6d each) that most people stuck with goose quills. Afterwards, nibs cost 3d per gross (144). The price drop was so dramatic that it had a catalytic effect on world literacy – where would the burgeoning school systems of the 19th century have been without

facing page A box of Birmingham nibs, part of the Pen Room’s collection. These are school nibs, the simplest and cheapest of all designs this page Larry Hanks (left) and Brian Jones, two of the museum’s four founders. Boxes of nibs line the shelves behind them


H&A COLLECTING

cheap writing equipment? Nibs start off relatively cheaply – in its shop, the museum sells off old donated stock at £5 a gross – and their small size and attractive packaging make them appealing to collect. But it’s the sheer variety that could hook you for life. Brian and Larry estimate that there are around 100,000 types of Birmingham-made nib, encompassing everything from school nibs to those used for specialist work – there’s a time-saving triple-line nib in the collection that was used for book-keeping (making three columns for pounds, shillings and pence). Even rarer is a five-line nib for musical staves. Embossed designs were big business, too. It was usual for a particular client’s nibs to be uniquely marked – banks, the railway companies and the Stationery Office all had their own. But there were also nibs for every possible vocation or interest – or, as Larry puts it, ‘Birds, bees, trees, counties, countries; anything that would attract people’. The museum includes a nib for the Royal Hunt from 1866, with a fox’s head staring out of it; one with the head of Bismarck; and another with a tiny tennis racket and two balls, for the Lawn Tennis Association. Rarer nibs can command high prices – a similar Bismarck nib sold on eBay for £700, while the owner of a rare bird design by Isaac John Hollingshead – much coveted by Larry and Brian – purportedly insured it for £8,500. Dating the nibs is sometimes problematic, says Brian. ‘Some could have been made over a 40-year period but a few of the commemorative ones, like that with the head of Queen Victoria made for the 60th

anniversary of the coronation, would only have been made that year.’ Surprisingly, perhaps, given the fate of so many commemorative wares, these are relatively rare and worth around £50 or £60 each. women’s work Since the museum opened, Ray, Colin and Larry’s original collections have been swelled by donations from the public, loans and some lucky breaks, such as the two van-loads of nibs they rescued from a closing-down stationery shop. And it’s not only the history of Birmingham’s pen industry that’s on show but all the paraphernalia that goes with it. In one room, there are displays of nibs and pen barrels, but also blotters, inkwells, cleaning brushes and packaging. Part of Larry’s original collection of travelling inkwells is also here, including those shaped like military helmets, violin cases and books. ‘It’s lovely to have them on show,’ he says. ‘At least people can see them now.’ Along one wall is a long, worn wooden bench, originally from the manufacturer Brandauer, lined with hand-presses. Visitors can make their own nib here, first pressing out a blank, then piercing a hole in it, stamping it with the manufacturer’s or client’s name, ‘raising’ it (which turns a flat blank into a rounded nib) and then slitting it to regulate ink flow. This work was done by women, who were cheap as well as nimble- fingered, and they were expected to produce up to 18,000 nibs per day. ‘There were rules – no talking, no singing, no wasting the metal. Definitely no being late or else you got fined,’ says Brian. Looking at these benches, the footrests worn away, it’s humbling to think how much hard graft went into it all. Part of the museum’s hands-on approach is to run regular calligraphy courses, where you can try out a Birmingham steel nib for yourself. And if you’re a calligrapher, you might find yourself writing with a ‘Gillott’ brand nib, made by British Pens Ltd, which bought many pen companies as their business waned in the face of the Biro and, later, digitalisation. It’s the smallest reminder of a name, and an industry, that helped teach the world to write. ✤ The Pen Room, Unit 3, The Argent Centre, 60 Frederick Street, Hockley, Birmingham, B1 3HS. 0121 236 9834; penroom.co.uk

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clockwise from left Embossed nibs were made for every vocation, pastime and occasion. This one was for the Royal Hunt; Larry straightens up one of the museum’s displays; these travelling inkwells attest to the Victorians’ love of novelty; Larry operates one of the hand-presses, originally used by women to press up to 18,000 nibs a day; many ink bottles were found buried in the ground; an assortment of different nibs on display; their packaging and small size make nibs an exciting item to collect

made in birmingham Birmingham’s pen industry represents an important part of the city’s wide manufacturing influence during the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution started early here and saw an explosion of production. Inside thousands of small workshops (often based in homes) were people busy with everything from buttonmaking to leatherwork and tailoring. ‘The city of a thousand trades’ was entrepreneurial and innovative – between 1760 and 1850, its residents registered more than three times as many patents as those of any other British town or city. And, unlike London, the lack of a formal guild system meant that anyone was free to start up in a trade and be judged purely on the quality of their goods. Birmingham’s manufacturing heritage is celebrated city-wide: the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter (0121 554 3598; bmag. org.uk), in the former factory of jeweller Smith and Pepper, is a time capsule of original fixtures, tools and machinery, while the Back to Backs, restored courtyard housing of the type once seen all over the city, offer an insight into how those home workshops – including that of a glass-eye maker – might have looked. 0121 666 7671; nationaltrust.org.uk

‘In the late 19th century, threequarters of everything written down in the world was done so with a Birmingham pen nib’


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