On 4th November 1889 the Birmingham Jewellery and Silversmiths Association (now the British Jewellers Association) held an historical meeting at Birmingham Assay office, attended by representatives from all the principal jewellery and silverware manufacturing companies.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the setting up of an exclusive school for the industry following successful pilot classes at the Ellen Street Board Schools, when 160 boys had been enrolled in the first term. The proposed new school would need to house up to 460 students and, as well as catering for boys from the age of twelve and a half years, courses for adult craftsmen and separate course for women were also envisaged. The Association achieved its objective and the new school was opened in the factory building at 84 Vittoria Street, which it still occupies, on 18th September 1890.

Initially technical studies were provided by the Association and ‘art’ by the City. After ten years this arrangement was formally changed to bring both sections under the direction of one Headmaster (Robert Catterson-Smith).

As well as developing afternoon classes, Catterson-Smith pushed forward with his rather radical views on the teaching of art. He had a strong arts and crafts background – the students drew natural forms rather than plaster casts, and were surrounded by large prints by Burne-Jones that Catterson-Smith had hung throughout the School. He moved to become Head of the College of Art and Crafts in Margaret Street after only three years and formal and informal links were developed between the two institutions.

Poster (Gaskin)

The arts and crafts “philosophy” continued under Catterson-Smith’s successor at the School, Arthur Gaskin. Like his predecessor, Gaskin had no time for Art Nouveau, or “the Squirm” as it was deprecatingly known by. In 1924 Gaskin was followed as Head by W.T. Blackband who had first entered the School as a student in 1898. Thus, for the first fifty years of the School’s history there was a continued emphasis for seeking artistic inspiration from craft achievements of the past.

In addition to those already mentioned many notable teachers and artists were involved, working at Vittoria Street and Margaret Street. The most well known are Bernard Cuzner and Thomas Cuthbertson, the latter becoming Head at Vittoria Street upon Blackband’s retirement in 1946.

In 1951 all jewellery and silversmithing teaching at the College of Art in Margaret Street was moved to Vittoria Street and the two merged to become a single School within the College of Art and Crafts, with R.G. Baxendale as Head until his retirement in 1974. Significant students/teachers during these two decades were Cyril Shiner, Eric Clements and Gerald Whiles, the latter becoming Head in 1975.

Before the retirement of Gerald Whiles in 1995 the School witnessed a number of significant developments. First of these, the major exhibition Finely Taught, Finely Wrought, celebrating the School’s centenary, was held at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery over a four month period with more than 400 exhibits and a preface to the catalogue written by HRH Prince Charles.

Next was the extensive building and refurbishment programme for the School which took two years to complete. This successfully integrated the original building in use from 1890 with an extension of 1912 and considerable new adjoining space. This created the largest teaching institution for the specialisation in Europe. At this time planning was taking place for another major aspect of the School – the Jewellery Industry Innovation Centre – which opened in 1997.

Over its existence for more than 100 years the School has had many administrative relationships – college, department, polytechnic, university. It has grown its student numbers and international reputation over the 12 years that Norman Cherry has been Head and continues to be a constituent department in the Faculty of Birmingham Art and Design.

Terry Hunt

Further reading:
  • Finely Taught, Finely Wrought Editor Terry Hunt (B’ham Polytechnic, 1990)
  • Birmingham Gold and Silver 1773-1973 Exhibition catalogue (BMAG, 1973)
  • By Hammer and Hand Editor Alan Crawford (BMAG, 1984)
  • Birmingham Jewellery & Silversmiths Association 1887-1919 F.Sanders (BJSA, 1919)