The royal visit in November 1843 was a great opportunity for Birmingham to show off its pioneering industries. Below are some extracts from Aris’s Birmingham Gazette of December 4th 1843. The enthusiasm for industry is evident as the journalist presents the many mechanised processes as art.
“On arriving at the glass-works of Messrs. Bacchus in Dartmouth-street, his Royal Highness was ushered into the manufactory and inspected the process in every stage. Whilst in the establishment, an elegant cup, with two handles, was blown in the presence of the Prince, and a very chaste centrepiece was produced by the new mode of pressing. The rapidity with which the glass was passed through the different stages from its raw or liquid state to when it was turned out from the mould perfect and fit for use, was regarded by his Royal Highness with great interest. An elegant glass pillar was also manufactured in the Prince’s presence with great rapidity. His Royal Highness was next conducted to the mixing room, where the glass is prepared for the furnace; in this room a large number of ladies were assembled, who cordially welcomed his Royal Highness.”
This was a whistle-stop tour and after a fleeting visit to the glass maker’s show rooms, the royal cavalcade headed off across the town to Water Street and rolling mills belonging to the Muntz brothers. George Henry Muntz, also M.P. for Birmingham, was out of town, so it was his younger brother and local alderman Philip who entertained the royal visitor. The Muntz brothers had patented a metal alloy, which still bears their name and is in use today, particularly in maritime constructions.
“A most novel, but for the manufactory, a very appropriate sight was here exhibited. Instead of carpeting, a quantity of the patent yellow metal, used for the sheathing of ships’ bottoms, which has been the subject of so much litigation, was laid down for his Royal Highness to walk over. The prince was then conducted through different departments of the mill, where the various operations of the manufacturing the patent metal were being carried on. He was first shown the metal in its liquid state, taken from the furnace and cast in bars, or pigs; next the process of heating the solid mass which, while in this state, was subjected to the operation of powerful rollers turned by steam machinery. The flattened bar, after being taken from the rolls, was again subjected to heat of the furnace and once more passed through the rollers; and in this way, by four operations, the shapeless mass was converted into a fine sheet of metal, cut by circular shears into the required length.”
By the time the prince left Muntz’s it was noon and crowds of workers were filling the streets, “the rush of artizans from the manufactories of St. Paul’s was so great that every thoroughfare was completely obstructed.” The paper reported that there was no disorder, owing to the ‘good humour of the populace’ and the ‘temperate conduct of the police’.
Upwards of an hour was spent at the papier-mache manufacturers of Jennens and Betteridge on Constitution Hill where the prince was shown
“the various stages of the papier mache manufacture, from the first process of pasting the sheets of paper together in the form of trays until the article was turned out in its polished and highly finished state. Prince Albert seemed much interested in the beautiful arts of enamelling, inlaying with pearl and painting, which are carried on in separate rooms, and examined with much apparent gratification the many designs and views which were being transferred from the works of Landseer, Roberts and other artists, to the more costly and highly ornamented articles intended for the drawing-room and boudoir. After examining the process of turning door handles, vases and other ornamental articles, his Royal Highness was conducted to the show rooms where he appeared to be highly delighted with the magnificent and elegant collection of articles which were there displayed.” Here, further ‘delight and surprise’ was expressed at the wide variety of goods to which the papier mache process had been supplied: “the room containing specimens in every shape, including work-tables, chairs, folding screens, cabinets, work-boxes, desks, and picture frames”.
After being presented with a gift of a “beautiful papier mache chess table and inkstand”, and meeting with a number of ladies who had been invited to the showrooms of Jennen and Betteridge’s for the occasion, the royal entourage moved on to Charlotte Street, where a tour of Messrs. Sargant Brothers gun and sword manufactory was conducted. The crowds here were ‘immense’ and the prince was greeted by a gun salute fired by some of the workers who had served at Waterloo. The prince was given a demonstration of the “the process of rolling gun barrels and turning and boring them by steam machinery. The highly finished and perfect style by which the barrel was turned out excited the admiration of his Royal Highness, who very carefully examined a variety of guns turned out by Messrs. Sargant for the Ordnance Department by order of the government.”
The prince was then conveyed to Elkington’s, in Newhall Street. The site of Elkington’s is now a vacant lot, previously occupied by the Birmingham Science Museum. In 1843 the electroplating system which was pioneered by Elkington’s attracted a great deal of attention, much like the interest generated by 3D print manufacturing today. The sense of wonder and excitement that watching the process instilled in the reporter is not lost in this article:
“This new and beautiful invention is carried on most extensively here, the perfection to which the art is brought having superseded, to a great extent, the old system of gold and silver plating. At this establishment are also manufactured solid gold and silver articles, deposited by the same agency as is used in the process of plating, the solid articles merely requiring a longer period for the process of deposition. Large quantities of buttons, rings, bracelets and other light ornaments were placed in a small basked and dipped in a solution of gold, and in less than five minutes they were brought out perfectly and beautifully gilt…one of the most recent applications of this beautiful art is the coating of flowers, leaves and rare plants with gold, silver or copper; birds too are subjected to the same process and form exquisite specimens for cabinets and other collections. The invention, among the infinite variety of purposes to which it is applied, has also been used in coating cloth and canvas with copper, as sheathing or covering for buildings; and by the same process wrought or cast iron can be coated with zinc or copper, thereby preventing oxidation and the continual expense of re-painting. His Royal Highness was very minute in his enquiries, and manifested considerable acquaintance with the principles of the science upon which this manufacture is based. The prince was especially interested with the operations of the batteries in connection with the solutions of various metals and witnessed not only the coating of various ornaments with gold and silver, but also the production of solid articles manufactured both in silver and copper entirely from solutions.”
The next factory to be visited was Edward Armfield’s button manufactory. Birmingham was well known for its button production, and during his tour here the prince recognised a pattern of some buttons which he owned. Once again, new methods of manufacture were on show “his Royal Highness remained for some time in the stamping-shop, admiring the beauty of the figures which are raised upon the buttons at a single blow.”