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A city forged on art of gunmaking.

Byline: Carl Chinn

WILLIAM Hutton will always hold a pre-eminent position amongst the many Brummies who have made their mark upon our city, not only for his active role as a citizen but also most importantly because he was the first man to write a history of our town.

This notable man came here in the middle years of the 18th century, when Birmingham was on the cusp of remarkable change and was set to thrust itself upon the world stage as the City of a Thousand Trades.

In seeking to understand what had set off this unprecedented expansion, Hutton would have spoken with older Brummies and it seems that the local belief was strong that the economic revolution of Birmingham had begun during the lives of their parents, who had lived in the decades following the Restoration of Charles II to the throne of England in 1660.

As Hutton put it, although Birmingham "had held a considerable degree of eminence before this, yet at this period the curious arts began to take root and were cultivated by the hand of genius".

Chief amongst these "curious arts" was gunmaking.

Supplying armies with weapons of war was well established in the town.

During the English Civil War itself, a Robert Porter was said to have made 15,000 swords at his blade mill in the town for the Parliamentarian forces - and this fact is given as one of the reasons why Prince Rupert and his cavalry attacked and sacked Birmingham in 1643.

According to Hutton, it was about this time that gunmaking first emerged locally. He repeated a widespread tradition that: "King William was once lamenting that guns were not manufactured in his dominions, but that he was obliged to procure them from Holland at a great expense, and greater difficulty."

One of the Members for Warwickshire told the King: 'He thought his constituents could answer his Majesty's wishes'.

However, a later authority on Birmingham's industries believed that the incident only happened because guns were already made in Birmingham.

It was the MP Sir Richard Newdigate of Arbury near to Warwick who was responsible for gaining the government contract.

Before 1832 Birmingham had no representation in parliament as a distinct entity - it was included within the electoral district of the whole of Warwickshire. The county returned two MPs and from at least the later 18th century one of these was regarded as having a special interest towards Birmingham.

This state of affairs may have begun with Sir Richard, whose surname could also be spelled as Newdegate, and whose father had been High Steward of Sutton Coldfield.

Sir Richard was successful and on January 10, 1689, the Office of Ordnance wrote to him explaining that instructions had been given to send to him two muskets.

The Birmingham workers must have fulfilled this test satisfactorily for in March 1692 they were given a trial order.

The Company of Gunmakers in Birmingham made plain their appreciation of Sir Richard's efforts in a letter six months lateralong with the "small token" of a gun.

Within a year of the first order another was given to William Bourne, Thomas Bloore, John West, Richard Weston and Jacob Austin, gunsmiths of Birmingham.

These men represented other gunmakers in the town and agreed that all of them should make 200 muskets a month for one year.

Sir Richard Newdigate had a profound influence on the development of Birmingham, for the gun trade waxed.

In 1765 one of his descendants, Roger, was one of the first members of the committee seeking to establish a general Hospital in Birmingham.

Yet it would seem that Newdegate Street in Vauxhall was named after neither of them - it recalls another member of the family, Charles Newdigate Newdegate, who was returned as one of the two MPs for North Warwickshire in 1847.

Vauxhall was developed as a working-class neighbourhood from countryside, soon afterwards by the Freehold Land Society.

This organisation was determined to battle to gain the vote for working-class men who were at that point excluded from the franchise.

Paradoxically, however, Charles Newdigate Newdegate was an arch Tory and was staunchly opposed to reform.

Perhaps he gained a street name because his fellow North Warwickshire MP, although now also a High Tory, had once been a radical who campaigned for the rights of the working class.

His name was Richard Spooner, after whom another street in Vauxhall was named. More on that next week.


NEWDEGATE NAME REMEMBERED... The old Birmingham Co-operative store on the corner of Vauxhall Road and Newdegate Street in 1966. The rooms above were used as an annexe to the junior section of Loxton Street School. Guy's Brewery was on the opposite side.; THE SCENE TODAY... houses mark the postition of the Co-op store.
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Publication:Birmingham Mail (England)
Date:Sep 8, 2007
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