History of J. W. Evans Silver Factory
J. W. Evans Silver Factory’s workshops are still crammed with tools and equipment, but the skills of the specialist craftsmen who worked there throughout the 20th century are now almost extinct.
CENTRE OF METALWORKING
Birmingham’s rapid expansion from the mid-18th century into a major centre for the metalworking industry earned it the title of ‘the workshop of the world’. Just outside the heart of the city, the Jewellery Quarter became a close-knit neighbourhood, where a great variety of specialist trades concentrated on the production of jewellery, silverware and small metalware.
In its heyday in 1913, Birmingham had 70,000 people employed in the sector. Many of the factories were small family businesses, like J. W. Evans.
Two linked processes, die-sinking and drop-stamping, underpinned much of the Jewellery Quarter’s industry.
Die-sinking involved cutting a pattern out of a solid block of steel. Each time a new article was designed, a new set of dies had to be made. This was highly skilled work, which required many years of apprenticeship. The deeply cut, three-dimensional patterns, like those needed for candlestick bodies or pepperpots, were especially challenging. But once made, the die could be used to create thousands of patterned parts.
J. W. Evans specialised in ‘deep work’ for table silverware. A huge variety of designs were produced by the five or so die-sinkers who worked there up to 1914. The stock became a treasured resource, and 15,000 dies are still crammed into every corner of the factory. Even after the firm invested in a newly invented die-cutting machine, most of the work was still done by hand.
Once a die had been cut, it was placed into a drop-stamp. A heavy hammer head was raised by pulling on a rope, assisted by a power-driven overhead line-shaft. When the rope was released, the hammer head struck a thin sheet of metal, pressing it into the pattern of the die.
It sounds simple, but the deep pressings made for silverware at J. W. Evans demanded great skill. Barry Abbotts, the last drop-stamper to work there, reckons it took him nine years to learn his craft.
DECLINE OF SILVERWARE
Silverware for dining tables was in huge demand as recently as 1914, and had a final resurgence in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year of 1977. But fashion has moved on, and there is now only a very small market; remaining production has either moved to the Far East or been replaced by modern technology. ‘We made things we were proud to sell’, the factory’s last owner, Tony Evans, has explained, but ‘generations were growing up without silver in the house.’
After a slow decline, the factory finally closed in 2008, and only a few silverware makers are left in Birmingham. The specialist trades of die-sinker and drop-stamper, which drove a major industry, are now nearly extinct.
FROM INDUSTRY TO RETAIL
Since the decline of the market for silverware, the Jewellery Quarter has diversified. Before the 1980s, shops were almost non-existent in the area, but it is now the largest centre of jewellery retailing in the UK. Its rich architectural heritage has also attracted other uses, such as for offices and housing.
But despite economic pressures and its location just outside the centre of England’s second city, the area still retains much of its gritty, industrial character. About 40% of UK jewellery is still made there, as well as a huge range of other metalware. New production methods continue to replace old techniques, as the quarter’s businesses innovate to survive.
English Heritage took on J. W. Evans Silver Factory in 2008, and opened the site to the public in 2011.
The Production Process
This film follows each step in the production of a typical J. W. Evans product – a Chippendale-pattern candlestick, first produced in 1914.
By Nick Hill
J. W. Evans on Google Arts and Culture
Learn more about the history of J. W. Evans and the objects produced by the factory on Google Arts and Culture.
Virtually explore the rooms of the factory using Streetview and see how they have been conserved as found – preserved as if the last worker has just downed tools, tidied their bench and clocked out.Explore on Google Arts and Culture