Jewellery quarter protected from developers

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The Independent Online

Birmingham's historic jewellery quarter, one of the finest of its kind in Europe, will be protected by English Heritage, its chairman said yesterday.

The atmospheric 100-year-old quarter - which centres on a labyrinth of narrow city streets lined by converted domestic premises - is still the most prolific producer of gold jewellery in Britain.

During a tour of the area yesterday, Sir Neil Cossons of English Heritage hailed the quarter as a "national treasure", describing its distinctive buildings as the most extensive surviving group of Victorian and 20th-century jewellery factories in Europe.

Sir Neil also announced Grade II* status for the quarter's Victorian coffin factory, built in 1892 as a metal-working factory for the production of coffin fittings.

Most businesses in the quarter still occupy their original premises, which were converted from fine Victorian houses by merchants. Many use the same Victorian tools and employ no more than the handful of workers they did during the quarter's heyday before the First World War.

Now, as then, the firms are unusually inter-dependent: when one finishes work on a piece of jewellery, it is often passed on to another local craftsmen for the next stage of embellishment. When one factory closes in this community, others inevitably go to the wall with it.

The quarter is now under threat from developers seeking more properties to convert to chic city dwellings because of the success of an Urban Village housing development project in the area.

But English Heritage and Birmingham City Council yesterday announced the creation of an enlarged conservation area and a conservation and regeneration strategy for the quarter. The move is designed to restrict housing development in the area, where many of the small factories and warehouses still have their pre-conversion Victorian fireplaces, stairs and cornices.

"There have been economic threats to the quarter but the businesses have always been resourceful," said Martin Cherry, English Heritage's director of programmes. "The real threat is residential, though. The developers are eyeing up the quarter and property prices are going up."

At risk are the dozens of early workshops that were built within attics or living areas of houses so that "masters" of the businesses could supervise them at close hand.

The quarter's artisans have a long history of turning their hands to the manufacture of almost anything. In the 19th century, a quarter of a million pen nibs a day were churned out, but when that trade died out firms increased the output of buttons and fittings for breeches instead. Studs for pistol grips have also been a profitable line, and during the Second World War parts were made for Spitfires.

Today, the quarter employs 6,000 people. English Heritage aims to attract new businesses to the quarter, which is home to the Birmingham School of Jewellery, Britain's centre for innovation in jewellery design, and the Birmingham Mint,which makes commemorative medallions and coins for other countries.

Marrie Haddleton, who was born in the quarter 71 years ago, still lives there and has put out its newsletter for the past 16 years, has led the fight against housing development.

"When they started talking about building an Urban Village they were sentimental," she said. "In fact, when this place was last occupied by houses it was a slum. We had rickets, TB and measles and we played among the mud and rubbish. The industry rescued it. Now it has all the noise and smell of industry about it. It's no place for homes."

The threat of cheap foreign competition was always a more manageable proposition than property developers, she added. "It's always been hard to graft a living here. Prince Charles once visited and remarked on how the craftsman who was setting a £30,000 diamond still only got 15p for his trouble."