Heritage

The Story of Assay Office Birmingham

The first UK Assay Office was Goldsmiths' Hall, founded around 1300, and where the term "hallmarking" originates. Since then, there have been ten Assay Offices in the UK. There are four Assay Offices operating in the UK today.

The history of hallmarking dates back to 1300 when a Statute of Edward I instituted the assaying (testing) and marking of precious metals. The original aim of the system remains unchanged; the protection of the public against fraud and of the trader against unfair competition. Indeed, hallmarking is one of the oldest forms of consumer protection.

Hallmarking is as necessary today as it was in 1300 because when jewellery and silverware are manufactured, precious metals are not used in their pure form, as they are too soft. Gold, Silver, Platinum and Palladium are always alloyed with copper or other metals to create an alloy that is more suitable to the requirements of the jeweller. Such an alloy needs to be strong, workable, yet still attractive.

Owing to the high value of Gold, Platinum, Palladium and silver, there are significant profits to be gained by reducing the precious metal content of an alloy at the manufacturing stage. Base metal articles plated with a thin coat of gold or silver look like the same articles made wholly of precious metal, at least until the plating wears, and even an expert cannot determine the quality or standard of precious metal items by eye or touch alone.
The Statute of 1300 allowed the Wardens of the Company of Goldsmiths in London to go out to workshops in the City and assay silver and gold. However, only silver that met the required standard was marked at this time. The mark was the symbol of the leopard’s head which is still the mark of the London Assay Office today. Gradually gold came to be marked in the same way as silver.

In 1363, the maker’s mark was added to the hallmark. To begin with, most of them were pictorial but as literacy rates rose, the system of using the maker’s initials was introduced.

Quite some time after, in 1478, the Wardens of Goldsmiths set themselves up in Goldsmiths Hall and paid a salaried assayer to test and mark items submitted to them. This led to the introduction of the date letter in order to make successive assayers accountable for their work.

Birmingham Assay Office was founded by an Act of Parliament in 1773. It had become clear by this time to the silversmiths of Birmingham, especially Matthew Boulton, that their trade would never truly prosper without an Office of their own. Boulton lobbied Parliament vigorously and was finally rewarded by the Hallmarking Act 1773, which founded the Birmingham Assay Office.

Hallmarking of precious metals continues to be rigorously enforced and observed in the UK, allowing jewellers to trade on a level playing field and consumers to buy with confidence.

Assay Office Birmingham was founded in 1773, when the city and some of its most famous entrepreneurs were playing a leading role in the Industrial Revolution.

At this time, silversmithing was booming in Birmingham, with manufacturers making buttons, buckles, spoons and other small articles. In 1762, Matthew Boulton made a major investment in his family business, relocating it from Snow Hill to the purpose built Soho Manufactory in Handsworth, then just outside the Birmingham boundary. The new factory employed over 700 people, but Boulton soon discovered that having to send all his items to Chester Assay Office for Hallmarking was a serious handicap to his business.   An instinctive marketeer, Boulton made much of the difficulties of transporting his goods 70 miles each way on horse drawn carriages, the expense and delay and the perils of attack by highwaymen. He also claimed that careless handling and packing at Chester Assay office caused damage to his goods.

However, the original archives, owned by the Assay Office Birmingham show no record of such “feckless carelessness”.  It is now apparent that Boulton’s biggest concern was that Chester silversmiths would copy his designs and innovative manufacturing techniques that gave him a competitive advantage.

 


Boulton resolved to take action on behalf of all Birmingham silversmiths and fight for the foundation of an Assay Office in Birmingham.

Boulton's neighbour, Lord Dartmouth MP, proved to be a valuable ally. He advised Boulton to promote an Act of Parliament authorising an Assay Office in Birmingham. Boulton was also approached by the Sheffield Cutlers’ Company who were fighting to establish an office in their town, and he agreed to fight the cause for both parties. He had staunch support from many local nobility, landed gentry and members of the royal family who were all satisfied customers. Despite major opposition from the Goldsmiths’ Company in London, Boulton's tenacity and skilful lobbying won through, and the Assay Bill was given Royal Assent on 28th May 1773.

The new factory employed over 700 people, but Boulton soon discovered that having to send all his items to Chester Assay Office for Hallmarking was a serious handicap to his business.

By the 1770s, at Soho, Boulton had begun to manufacture silverware, but this aspect of his business had met with a major obstacle. In order to be saleable by law silver articles had to be tested and hallmarked, yet London Assay Office was 125 miles from Birmingham, and Chester 72 miles. Journeys of this length in the 18th Century presented several problems – the possibility of damage due to poor roads and transport or careless packing, the danger of highway robbery, the inconvenience of delay and the risk of Boulton’s designs being copied, not to mention the added cost involved.

These difficulties, along with the prestige of having an Assay Office in Birmingham, strengthened Boulton’s resolve, and he decided to lobby Parliament.

The passing of the Assay Office Bill in May 1773 was a triumph for Boulton and for Birmingham, and when the Assay Office opened its doors for business on August 31st 1773, Matthew Boulton and his partner, John Fothergill were its first customers.

During his long stay in London, Boulton stayed at the Crown & Anchor Tavern in the Strand, a popular haunt for politicians, where much of the business was transacted. Quite how the decision was made is unclear, but it was probably the toss of a coin which determined that Birmingham, in the heart of the country and miles from the sea, should adopt the Anchor as its hallmarking symbol, whilst Sheffield took the Crown (subsequently changed to the Rose). Brummies are eternally grateful that Boulton did not stay at the Slug & Lettuce - or worse!

Once the Act was passed suitable premises were found, three rooms above the King’s Head Inn on New St, and the office opened for the receipt of work one day a week - Tuesday. The first day of opening was 31st August 1773 and not surprisingly the first customer was Matthew Boulton.

The Act of Parliament stipulated that the Office should be controlled by a Board of thirty-six Guardians of the Standard of Wrought Plate in Birmingham, of whom not more than nine nor less than six might be connected with the trade. This was a departure from the older established office and halls, administered by the Guilds. The new Assay Office Birmingham was created to be self-supporting with all its revenues coming from charges for assaying or marking. Rapid industrial expansion provided great potential in the early years; by 1815 the Office had moved to premises in Little Cannon Street, and in 1877 moved again to its current site in Newhall St, complete with all its Victorian splendour.

By 2005 diversification had rendered this building not fit for purpose. The physical constraints of the building which now operated over five floors reduced efficiency and flexibility. The Wardens determined that a move to w new more appropriate facility was essential.

There was unanimous agreement that this should be in the Jewellery Quarter. Due to the large site required to accommodate the operational areas on one floor, for maximum flexibility of both staff and equipment, it took some time to find a suitable site.  By the time the site was identified the recession was in full swing and the Assay office saw its hallmarking numbers decrease significantly. However, the move was considered vital to the long term survival of the Assay Office and was pursued relentlessly despite the dramatic decline in hallmarking numbers from 2009 to 2013. 

Plans for a new purpose built Assay Office came to fruition in Summer 2015 with a move to a new purpose built facility on the other side of the Jewellery Quarter bounded by Icknield Street and Moreton Street.

The Newhall St was sold to TCN with plans to develop it for commercial and residential use while retaining its heritage features in line with its Grade II listing.

 Newhall Street Building - 1877 to 2015

  • In 1877-78, it cost £9,448 to build the first part of the Assay Office on the present site in Birmingham. But owing to the rapid increase in business it soon proved too small, and the first extension was added in 1885 at a cost of £1,988.

  • Telephones were installed in 1885, and the gas lighting was replaced with electric lights in 1890. Further alterations were made, to create more space in 1895, 1899, 1907 and 1914.

  • In 1972, following intensive discussions with the City Council in the 1960s regarding a possible move to the heart of a redeveloped Jewellery Quarter, which was subsequently abandoned, it was agreed to add another storey to the building.

  • This provided another 5,278 square feet and represented great foresight on the part of the Guardians as the number of articles handled each year rose from 5 million in 1972 to 9.8 million in 1979 .

Opening Hours

  • The Office’s opening hours gradually increased to meet demand from the Trade. In 1848, it was open on Mondays and Thursdays; an average of eleven and twenty-two trades people brought goods in for assaying on these days respectively.

  • It is estimated that 20,000 people were employed in the Birmingham Jewellery Trade in the 1860's, focused on the area around St Paul's Square and the current site of the Assay Office. Typical working hours were from 8.00am to 7.00pm, with an hour and a quarter for dinner and half an hour for tea.

  • In 1895, the Assay Office began to open five days a week. Work could only be received between 9.00 and 9.30 am or 4.00 and 5.00pm, but on payment of a late fee of one shilling per parcel goods could also be received between 11.00 and 11.30am.

Production Statistics

  • On its first working day, August 31st 1773, Assay Office the Birmingham hallmarked about 200 articles.

  • In its first full year of activity Assay Office Birmingham assayed and hallmarked 16,983 ounces of silverware. In 1811, hallmarking in Birmingham exceeded 100,000 ounces for the first time.

  • Productivity at the Assay Office is as seasonal as the trade it serves. On its busiest day ever recorded, the Assay Office Birmingham achieved the hallmarking of 100,000 articles in just one day.

  • From January 1953 to March 1954, 506,864 articles were marked with the special Coronation commemorative mark at the Assay Office Birmingham, while 295,838 were marked at the other five Offices together.

 

The Jewellery Trade

  • In 1845, when business was declining, the Birmingham Trade sent a delegation to Queen Victoria & Prince Albert. They took Birmingham made jewellery and petitioned the Queen to set an example by wearing Birmingham made items.

  • A survey conducted in 1906 amongst members of the British Jewellers & Silversmiths' Association recorded that 56 members did not export at all, but 203 exported to Commonwealth countries, 20 to the USA, and a handful to European countries. 71 reported importing goods from Germany.

  • Since 1773, there have been only thirteen Assay Masters at the Assay Office Birmingham, including the current Assay Master, Doug Henry. The longest serving of these was Arthur Westwood, an employee of the Office for 69 years.

Assay Office Birmingham in the 21st Century

Assay Office Birmingham has a long established reputation within the jewellery trade as an independent centre of quality assessment and expert opinion.

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