The gun trade is probably the industry that the city of Birmingham is best known for and most of this activity was centred around what was called the Gun Quarter.
By the middle of the seventeenth century Birmingham was becoming established as a gun-manufacturing centre and in 1689 a Government contract was undertaken to produce military small arms. Later in 1693 a larger contract was awarded whereby Birmingham gunsmiths agreed to deliver 200 weapons per month for a year.
From 1690 to 1713 during the wars against the French the industry was able to supply 40,000 flintlocks to the government. During the Napoleonic wars 1803-1815 Birmingham gunmakers supplied two thirds of the guns used by the British army with 1,743,382 guns being made for the Board of Ordnance. It also supplied large numbers of swords and cutlasses for the army and navy.
By 1750 gunmakers Farmer & Galton were exporting 12,000 guns a year to Africa, however an extract from Lady Shelburne’s diary doubted the quality of some of the guns destined for Africa.
Refining of gold and silver, and gun making to a prodigious amount for exportation are likewise another branch of their trade, of which they send annually above a hundred and fifty thousand to the coast of Africa, some of which are sold for five and sixpence a-piece, but what is shocking to humanity, above half of them from the manner they are finished in, are sure to burst in the first hand that fires them. If an Act of Parliament was passed ordering a proof-master to be settled at the expense of the manufacturers themselves, for one shilling more the barrels might be properly bored and finished, so as to secure the buyer at least from certain danger, the trade by this means assured and confirmed in its present channel, and the moral infamy in the individuals who are thus induced to multiply gain, suppressed. This trade, great as it is, is not above twenty or twenty-five years’ standing.
By the end of the eighteenth century the development of the flintlock had been perfected and Birmingham was the foremost arms producer in the world, manufacturing a million items more than London, its nearest rival. Firearms making was a very specialised trade and the production of a gun involved many stages, from the forging and manufacture of component parts to the assembly, finishing and decorating of complete weapons. Initially all the operations were carried out by individual gunsmiths, but as production methods changed and different styles of weapons were introduced, people began to specialise in manufacture of the various component parts.
By the 1820s there were several thousand people employed in the gun trade, with most working in an area lying between the foot of Steelhouse Lane and Aston and around St Mary’s church in Whittall St. This area became known as the Gun Quarter.There was a mixture of factories of moderate size, small factories and "shoppings", the name given to workshops which were let out to individual out-workers. A gunsmith who wished to set up a business of his own would rent a space from either the Council or another gunmaker. It was close, cramped and higgledy-piggledy, with early Victorian tenement buildings pushing in between buildings of an earlier time and function.
Samuel Galton’s gun barrel proof house was in Weaman Street and the factory of Webley and Scott was in Slaney St. Gunmaking was also carried out in small workshops on the Weaman estate around St Mary’s Church in Whittall Street.
William Tranter was at 29.5 Whittall Street from 1839 to 1849. He was in partnership at 10-11 Weaman Row between 1844 and 1849 and he also had premises at Loveday Street between 1854 and 1860. By 1851 Tranter had a factory at 13 St Mary’s Row and in 1867 completed a new factory at 31 Lichfield Road, Aston Cross. George Kynoch took over the factory in 1885 and it was renamed The Kynoch Gun Factory. It was again renamed in 1888 to the Aston Arms Factory. In 1900 the factory was occupied by the Clipper Automatic Tyre Co. and then by Dunlop Rubber. In 1926 it was sold to Hercules Cycle Co. and was demolished in 1961.
In Price St were the firms of Bonehills and Benjamin West along with numerous other small establishments. Price Street appears to have developed in two sections, firstly the old street on the corner of which stands the Bulls Head pub at number one and then the second section called New Buildings, also starting from number one. The older section certainly went back to the eighteenth century and in its fifty-nine houses and seven courts there were several shopkeepers, two cow keepers, a kettle and tea urn manufacturer, a coal dealer, a marine store dealer, an earthenware dealer and two beer retailers to name but a few. There were also twenty-two tradesmen associated with the gun trade, working in domestic workshops. The newer section developed as a result of the rapidly expanding firearms industry. Gunmakers and allied trades occupied all twenty-eight buildings.
In the middle of the nineteenth century it was common for the employers in the gun trade to pay their employees wages in the Bulls Head pub in Price St. This practice inevitably led to much drinking and subsequent brawling on the sawdust covered floor. At this time there was a strong Catholic community in the Gun Quarter and often the landlord would summon the local priest to sort out the fighters while the resident fiddler continued playing, rather than enlist the services of the law.
The 1767 Sketchley’s Directory of Birmingham lists a total of 62 workshops involved in gunmaking. There were 35 gun and pistol makers, 8 gun barrel makers and filers, 5 gun barrel polishers and finishers, 11 gun lock makers forgers and finishers, and 3 gun swivel and stock makers. An 1860 trades directory listed 48 different gun related trades.
By 1861 Birmingham had overtaken Manchester to become the third largest city in Britain and by 1881 it had overtaken Liverpool to become the second largest, a position it still holds. In 1851 there were 2867 workers in the Birmingham gun trade. This had grown to about 6000 by 1860 and by 1865 nearly ten thousand workers were employed in the gun trade. Kelly's directory for 1874 lists 329 names connected with the gun trade in Birmingham, 210 of which had premises in the Gun Quarter.
Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House
As early as 1637 the London Company of Gunmakers was established by royal charter, which effectively marked the introduction of proof in England. Gun proofing was not compulsory and although private proof houses run by individual gunmakers existed in Birmingham and were available for use by others, they were not used by the less reputable gunmakers. Many saw the need for independent proof as in London. As a result the Birmingham Proof House was established in 1813 by Act of Parliament, at the request and expense of the Birmingham trade. Situated in Banbury St, the proof house is a two storey brick building with an impressive relief display of heraldry over 3 metres wide and including the Hannoverian coat-of-arms, the Birmingham shield with the crossed swords proof mark and a profusion of muskets, pistols, cannon balls, flags and drums above the front entrance. Between 1855 and 1861 six million arms were tested and proofed. The Birmingham Proof House still operates to this day and is the only official proof house outside London.