England Metal Working Occupations P to Z (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Metals (cont.)[edit | edit source]

Lead and Plumbing[edit | edit source]

Lead has been smelted in Britain for over 2,000 years, and was formerly widely used for pipes, cisterns, gutters, roofing, shot, household containers, ornaments, baths, coffins, in paint (red lead and white lead) and face powders. Willies (Lead and Lead Mining. Shire Publications, 1994) notes that Germans (called Dutchmen at the time) brought new techniques during Elizabeth I’s reign and at first much was exported as the metal or as red and white lead. The great age for lead was during the 18th-19th centuries and manufacturing from lead expanded near the mines, as well as near the ports of Bristol, London, Liverpool, Chester, Hull and Newcastle from 1830 when cheaper lead started to be imported. The poisonous properties were known in the 19th century but it still continued to be used for example in paints and waterproofing, to whiten bread, and to sweeten wine until the 1870s. Many new uses were found in glass and pottery production, telegraph and electricity cables and batteries, and in petrol (gasoline).

Plumbing ancestors did not just work with water and waste pipes, as they do today. They actually cast and worked the metal, making all of the household items listed above from either sheet or pipe lead. The business was often combined with that of glazier and painter. The injurious nature of lead fumes were known even by 1811 (Hurley 1991). Webb (London Apprentices Volume 33. Plumbers’ Company 1571-1800. Society of Genealogists, 2000) has indexed the apprenticeships of the Plumbers’ Company 1571-1800, and Sutton-Gould has written on decorative leadwork. Another use of lead was in typefounding, as the metal used is a blend of lead and antimony, and this trade is described by Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol I. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991)

Pewter and White Metal[edit | edit source]

The alloy called pewter has the soft metal tin as its major ingredient with small percentages of copper, bismuth, antimony or lead as a hardening agent. Charles Hull (Pewter. Shire Publications, 1999) lists several dozen everyday articles that were once made of pewter, including household items from plates and candlesticks to babies’ bottles and chamber pots. Pewter was used in churches for organ pipes, wine flagons and chalices; surgeons had pewter syringes and bleeding bowls; pilgrims wore pewter badges; and merchants traded pewter tokens.

The Worshipful Company of Pewterers, founded in 1474 laid down the grades of pewter:

Fine metal consisted of tin with 1-2% copper for flatware, or sadware as it was then called (plates and dishes).

  • Trifling metal or trifle made of tin with 4% lead for holloware (bowls, basins and drinking vessels).
  • Lay or ley metal was tin with about 15% lead for items which were not used for food or drink.

Modifications have been made over time with less lead and with additions of bismuth and antimony.

The major early centres for production were London, York, Bristol and Coventry but since the craft was so prevalent most market towns would have had at least one pewterer. They were required to strike their mark on their wares and larger centres such as London would keep a touchplate at Pewterers’ Hall with samples of all the marks (Hull). 5,000 of these are recorded in Cotterell’s book on pewterers and their marks. The influx of Huguenot craftsmen in the late 17th century benefitted the trade. Wigan later replaced York as a centre, and a new one in Bewdley, Worcestershire rapidly rose to become the leading centre.

Contrary to popular notion a whitesmith is not a worker in tin, but in white metal, a rival to pewter. It was a soft tin alloy containing tin, antimony and copper in the ratio 50:3:1 and was introduced in 1769 and renamed Britannia Metal in 1797. Sheffield and Birmingham were its leading manufacturers. Another alloy called Titania composed of brass, antimony and tin in the ratio 8:32:7 was patented in 1770 (Harry). Good starting points for research are Hull (Pewter. Shire Publications, 1999), and Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol III. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1994).

Small Metal Goods[edit | edit source]

Many of the smaller metal goods were made by women and children in small workshops around Birmingham, Worcester and Sheffield. Other sites included London and a cottage industry around Christchurch, Dorset for making fusée chains for watch movements. These were sweated trades with outworkers on piecework for an undertaker, which in this case meant a small employer. He received his materials from a larger manufacturer and undertook to get it worked up by the outworkers. This system was well developed in the Midlands by the early 18th century and items like bits, stirrups, buckles, chains, locks, nails, screws, nuts, bolts, wire, pins and needles were all constructed in this way (Filbee).

The work was filthy and hard and the workers have been referred to as the ‘white slaves of England’ (Filbee, Carol Moore). Descriptions of the work can be found in Filbee (Cottage Industries. David and Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1982) (chains, pins, nails), Wymer (English Town Crafts. A Survey of Their Development from Early Times to the Present Day. Batsford, London, 1949 chains), Joy Collins (Out and About: Unlocking the Past. Family Tree Magazine Vol 7 #12, 1991) (locks), Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991) (needles, pins, copper and iron wire), Carol Moore (Old Occupations: “Unwomanly Toil” The Women Nailmakers of the Late 19th Century. Family Tree Magazine Vol 16 #1, page 27-28 )(nails), Keen (Old Occupations: Wee Workers of Warrington. Pinmakers. Family Tree Magazine Vol 14 #8, page 5) (pins), and Hey (The Oxford Companion to Local and Family History. Oxford University Press., 1996) (iron and brass wire). The apprenticeships for various relevant companies survive and have been indexed by Webb, for example:

  • Loriners Company (who made bits, stirrups and spurs) 1722-1731 and 1759-1800 (London Apprentices Volume 14. Spectaclemakers’ Company 1666-1800; Loriners’ Company 1722-31, 1759-1800. Society of Genealogists, 1998). Note that there were also Spurriers, who made and sold spurs, but they joined the Blacksmiths’ Company.
  • Needlemakers Company 1664-1801 (London Apprentices Volume 9. Needlemakers’ Company 1664-1801. Pinmakers’ Company 1691-1723. Society of Genealogists, 1997).
  • Pinmakers Company 1691-1723 (London Apprentices Volume 9. Needlemakers’ Company 1664-1801. Pinmakers’ Company 1691-1723. Society of Genealogists, 1997).

Only those who ran their own businesses are likely to have apprenticed, but there are some girl apprentices.

Tin[edit | edit source]

Tin has been used in its pure form and also in alloys like bronze and pewter, and an amalgam of tin and mercury is used to cover the back surface of mirrors. Tin is especially useful for lining cooking utensils to prevent corrosion from acid foods, usually as tinplate, which is sheet iron coated with tin. The latter was first made in England in 1681 (Hurley 1991), and by the 1720s in south Wales (Hey). The tin plate worker received it as sheets and from this made articles such as kettles, saucepans, jelly and pudding moulds, canisters, milk pails, lanthorns (lamps and lanterns) and so forth using shears, hammers and solder. Tin plate formed the basis for the 20th century canning industry. Some history and the business of the tin plate worker is given by Hurley (The Book of Trades or Library of the Useful Arts. Vol II. Wiltshire Family History Society, 1991). The Tinplateworkers’ Company apprenticeships 1666, 1668, 1676, 1681, 1683-1800 have been indexed by Webb (London Apprentices Volume 16. Tinplateworkers’ Company 1666, 1668, 1676, 1681, 1683-1800. Society of Genealogists, 1998). Please note that a missing paragraph of the introduction to this volume appears in Volume 17.


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