J. W. Evans: A Snapshot in Time

English Heritage

Silversmithing in the 19th century

J. W. Evans and Sons: A Family Business
In 1881, J. W. Evans Silversmiths was founded. Rescued by English Heritage in 2008, it survives as one of the most complete historic factories in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter.

In 1881, Jenkin William Evans set up business in a converted terrace house in central Birmingham.

His talents as a businessman meant that by 1902, he had extended across a further four properties.

Evans was a talented artist, training at the Birmingham School of Art. He used these skills to develop his career after he completed his apprenticeship in the Jewellery Quarter.

Evans’ flair for design and knowledge of silver-working enabled him to develop J. W. Evans into a successful business.

On the factory floor, Jenkin designed (and often made) his own patterns and stamps.

From 1881 to 2008, the Evans factory retained and archived every single pattern, die (or former) and tool they used.

This remarkably complete and varied collection shows the changing fortunes and fashions within the silverware industry through the history of a remarkable family business.

The factory produced a huge range of tableware, jewellery and novelty items, particularly in the years leading up to the First World War.

At this time the Evans factory was designing and producing hundreds of original patterns and dies a year.

Design and Production
The tools and records of the J. W. Evans business offer insights into the craft of silver-working. 

Jenkin Evans kept very detailed business records of what was produced, including account books and personal business correspondence.

These exist in both physical form...

... and through archives and printed catalogues.

There are records of every design, carefully sketched and labelled in Indian ink.

Sheets of silver were stamped into these dies to make ‘pressings’

These were then ‘cut out’ using a fly press and cutting tool to get rid of the spare metal.

This work was generally done by women while the stamping was done by men.

The shelves of the workshop groan under the weight of the tools.

The dies and cutting tools were used with these machines. They were operated by workers who were trained through apprenticeships to carry out specific jobs.

A number of these pressings could then be soldered together...

... and made up ‘in the rough’ giving a recognisable 3D object.

The objects would also need to be plated and polished before being returned to the retailer for selling.

It was a complex process and required a large workforce, with a varied range of skills.

As this video featuring Tony Evans, grandson of Jenkin Evans, demonstrates, making a candlestick was not as simple as it might appear.

The Finished Article
From candlesticks to teapots to mustard pots, J. W. Evans would supply it.

Silver candlesticks were one of the most frequently made items.

Designs varied from plain to exotic and some proved more popular than others.

This Corinthian candlestick continued in popularity throughout the factory’s history.

The Evans factory also created practical objects which were still beautiful enough to grace the smartest tables. Wine coolers and coasters protected the table from spillages or water marks.

J. W. Evans made a variety of silverware, but on occasion they did buy items in.

From the business records we know all the miniature condiment spoons were supplied by a separate, specialist manufacturer.

As well as complete pieces, they produced decorative elements such as these rams' heads...

... or even a lion's head!

Both would have been added to a round silver bowl to hold the ringed handles.

A variety of animals in cheaper base metal can be seen on a sample card. These samples enabled customers to choose a design and size perfect for their object.

As well as the popular and practical there is also a more whimsical, lighthearted side to Evans' products.

Pictured here is a miniature tea set fully equipped with a tray, tea pot, coffee pot, milk jug and sugar bowl and presented in a velvet lined box.

Another novelty item was this silver nightcap, which when turned upside down could hold a surprisingly large measure of alcohol.

The idea was that one could take a silver nightcap to bed, filled with a ‘nightcap’, to ensure a sound night’s sleep.

This salt cellar (dish) in the shape of a shell had a glass insert to stop the salt damaging the silver surface.

This is a Victorian-style pedestal dish with dolphin and shell details.

Although pressings were mass produced, every object would be made up and finished by hand to a very high standard.

This creative flair enabled J. W. Evans to continue in business for 120 years.


These differing sugar shakers show variations in size and design.

This was important as J. W. Evans supplied to a wide range of manufacturers, and each would want a slightly different design to their competitor.

Conserve As Found
English Heritage had already carried out a survey of J. W. Evans and other important Jewellery Quarter buildings during the late 1990s. It was only when the factory finally closed in 2008 that English Heritage became responsible for its care, and the extent and importance of the collection was fully appreciated.  

The variety of objects uncovered at J. W. Evans spanned the history of the business, with drawers, shelves and whole rooms packed to bursting point.

English Heritage’s challenge was to catalogue and conserve them, keeping them exactly as they were found.

A major conservation project was necessary, and was carried out from 2008 to 2011. It was clear that certain issues had to be dealt with, such as leaking roofs and gutters, broken windows, rickety shelves, not to mention a resident flock of pigeons!

The method of retaining the atmosphere of the property but still making it weathertight developed over time.

With collections in every available gap, a comprehensive programme of repairs and documentation began.

This included totally reroofing each workshop while all the objects stayed in place, protected by sealed scaffolding decks and plywood boxes.

Despite looking very little changed, the factory has been extensively conserved. In this room the wallpaper, wall and ceiling plaster have been stabilised and the external wall has been reinforced.

The charm of J. W. Evans is its character, the feeling of an untouched space. The very essence of the place has seeped into these rooms.

A space almost untouched by time remains.

Carrying out major building works without removing objects did make the process more complex.

The tottering piles of stampings, cluttered workbenches with their tools and paraphernalia and hidden corners all had to be left undisturbed.

Despite the difficulty, English Heritage chose to ‘conserve as found’ so that visitors could continue to experience this industry and feel a connection with the workers who used these spaces.

This image of four drop stampers is from an original glass negative and was taken by Harold (Jenkin Evans’ son).

Each room is preserved as if the last worker has downed tools, tidied their bench and clocked out. 

Credits: Story

Contributors
Bethan Stanley, Rose Arkle

Visit J. W. Evans Silver Factory

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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