The Fire Iron Manufacturers of Birmingham

 

The gas or electric fires that now provide a focal feature in many a house may often have a fancy, tiled hearth with a wood surround.  Such picturesque fireplaces may be accompanied by a further feature designed to add a touch of realism to our nostalgic aspirations - the companion set or set of fire irons.  A poker, brush, pan and a pair of tongs stand idly by, with no useful purpose other than to remind us of cosy days in front of a real coal fire.  Obviously there are still homes with such a fire, where the fire irons are functional.  For most of us though, the work involved in maintaining the fire and cleaning out the grate and the hearth is but a distant memory.

 

In Birmingham, during the early part of the 19th century, the manufacture of fire irons was an expanding trade.  Along with Dudley, Wolverhampton and Sheffield, Birmingham was an important producer of these essential pieces of equipment for many homes.  It was a time of increasing availability of coal at a reasonable price, particularly as a result of the development of the canal system, for which Birmingham was to become the hub.  Later the railways were increasingly important for the transport of coal.  There was an increasing demand for fire irons from an expanding population. (The population of Birmingham rose from 71,000 in 1801 to 144,000 in 1831)  There was also a growing middle class of merchants, tradesmen, industrialists and bankers who would want a higher quality, more decorative product.  An export market existed in Europe with Germany being the main importer. 

 

All this was to provide opportunities for individuals to set up as manufacturers of fire irons.  Little finance and few tools were required and any man with a few skills in metal working, such as those of a blacksmith, was able to set up on his own account.   £5 was considered to be sufficient capital to start up.  The basic tools were a forge and anvil, some dies for shaping the tongs and handles, a few hammers, a vice and a file.  £3 per week was easily earned by these individual tradesmen, a significant sum in 1850.  Although it is said that the workers in this trade were not noted for their "intelligence and sobriety" they clearly worked hard, in very hot uncomfortable conditions and had to replenish their fluids.  At this time beer was the logical choice of drink, not only as they would be able to afford it but also as the water quality was not reliable. 

 

Towards the middle of the 19th century, factories were beginning to displace the small manufacturer but Birmingham could still boast 35 working masters in 1865 and a total of 260 men, 26 women and 36 boys employed in the trade.  The women were mainly engaged in polishing the fire irons, the boys in filing off the scale of the processed iron and no doubt many odd jobs.  The smaller manufacturers would be located in small workshops, perhaps in old stables or wash houses in a back court up an entry.  Particular areas of Birmingham were favoured due to the availability of such premises and the proximity of other trades, such as the mills of the Metal Rollers and the presses of the Stampers and Piercers  Fire iron manufacture was closely linked with both.  Larger manufacturers would also be engaged in the production of brass fire surrounds and fenders.

 

By 1850 the trade was particularly concentrated in and around Digbeth and Deritend, with many of the mills of the Metal Rollers in the same area.  Cheapside, Bradford St. Adderley St. Floodgate St. and Moor St. were all important locations.  There were also manufacturers in the area around St. Paul's Square and Gt. Charles St.

 

References

Hill C. 1977 "British Economic and Social History 1700 - 1975" London, Arnold

Timmins S. (Ed) 1866 "Birmingham And The Midland Hardware District" London, Hardwicke

Pigot's Directory of Warwickshire 1828 - 1829

Whites Directory of Warwickshire 1850

Ezekiel Smith - Brasscaster Journeyman came from an established Birmingham family of Fire Iron workers

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