BIRMINGHAM’S PEN MUSEUM
By Ann Evans
The humble pen is something we take for granted. Ann Evans visits the Birmingham Pen Museum to learn more of its origins.
Asked if you have a pen, most people would be able to put their hand on one in seconds. Pens are just ordinary, everyday objects that have been around all of our lives. Of course, if we lived before the 19th century, we would all have been scratching on parchment using a feathered quill. So, I was delighted to discover the Pen Museum right in the heart of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. The place where pen nibs were once manufactured by the million and exported throughout the world. In fact, in the 1800s, three-quarters of everything written down in the world was written with a Birmingham made pen!
To preserve that legacy and keep the history of Birmingham’s pen nib trade alive for future generations, the Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association was set up in 1996, and the Pen Museum opened five years later in 2001.
Primarily, there were four founders of the museum: Brian Jones, Colin Jiles, Ray Handley and Larry Hanks. They started with just one room in what was the William Wiley pen factory, built in 1863 – a red brick building on the corner of Legge Lane and Frederick Street, today known as the Argent Centre.
Back in 2001, the four friends began by displaying their own collections. Gradually, as people got to hear about the museum, donations of old pens and other items related to the pen industry would come in as people cleared out old drawers.
Of these founder members Larry Hanks is still an active volunteer at the museum, doing talks and tours, and keeping alive Birmingham’s industrial legacy. Visiting the museum and listening to Larry, he talked firstly of the days when quills were used, explaining how these quills would generally come from Russian geese, using only five feathers from each of the wings. These would make right-handed or left-handed quills. Before the feather could be used, it needed to be treated through a process that included dipping it in buckets of hot sand to harden before the end would be angled, a slit made and carved.
Larry added, “After writing a line or two the nib would need to be re-sharpened and re-shaped. There would have been qualified quill sharpeners employed in companies purely to do this. And if you’ve ever wondered where the term ‘pen knife’ came from, it was from here.”
For those wealthy enough, nibs began to be made from gold, with the owner having a special little box in which to keep these precious nibs. When Iridium was discovered in 1803 this was used to re-enforce the nibs, with the gold melted and poured over the nibs. Later, with the Industrial Revolution came steel nibs which would be tubular, the slit occurring where the tube joined.
With Birmingham being a free city, anyone could come to the area and start up a business. There were no guilds to conform to as in many other towns and cities. And so, during the 19th century, factory after factory would open up, with names such as Josiah Mason, Joseph Gilletts and John and William Mitchell producing pen nibs for the entire world. At its height there were 129 factories in that area making steel pen nibs. Around one and a half billion pen nibs were produced every year. This mass production enabled mass communication – as the museum points out.
The workforce was mainly women. One reason being they were cheaper to employ, but also, they were more nimble-fingered. Workshops were well lit with windows on either side, and each worker would produce around 18,000 nibs every day and earn around 100 pence per week. At one time the women risked being fined anything from a penny to three pence for talking whilst working. Employers gradually realised that women could multi task, and work and talk at the same time – and the fine system was dropped.
The pen museum is full of wonderful old stories of life there right through to the 20th century. The original one room has expanded through the dedication of its volunteers and some funding from the Heritage Lottery and support from the Arts Council England and the Association of Independent Museums.
It now has three rooms of displays, equipment, machinery and photographs. Visitors can see examples of nibs from all of the local pen manufacturers, along with speciality items and objects associated with the pen trade and the history of writing. The Pen Museum houses the most comprehensive collection of its kind in the country.
There’s an interactive exhibition, the opportunity to make your own nib using the old traditional methods and try your hand at writing with a feather quill. The museum offer tours and classes, it has a gift shop with an excellent range of calligraphy equipment, books, gift sets and souvenirs. They also have a meeting room with all the amenities which can be hired out. Children can enjoy the museum’s ‘clocking-in’ trail, a Victorian schoolroom and more.
The Pen Museum is proud to be a recipient of The Queen’s Award for Voluntary Services.
Find out more: www.penmuseum.org.uk