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Historic blow for industry; Ninety years ago this week, the unsinkable Titanic plunged to the bottom of the North Atlantic, with the loss of more than 1,500 lives. With it went a clutch of whistles made by J Hudson & Co. But although the ship went down, after more than 120 years Hudson's is as buoyant as ever, as Caroline Foulkes found out.

Byline: Caroline Foulkes

Around 4.45pm each day, an alarm bell sounds somewhere deep in the bowels of the J Hudson & Co factory on Barr Street. It's a signal to the workers that it's home time, that the factory is closing for the day.

But one day last week, it didn't close on time, not for one of the workers, anyway. Because at around five o'clock they had a phone call.

The woman on the other end of the phone told them she was in Birmingham city centre and needed two of their whistles.

She had come from Austria and needed the whistles to take back for her grandsons. The whistles she was so intent on having were No 58 plain Acme Thunderers.

It was all Kate Winslet's fault, of course. Sort of. The No 58 is the Titanic whistle. Once the basic model has had the ship's name punched in the side, it becomes much more than just a whistle. It becomes 'the whistle that Kate Winslet blew in the film.' It becomes a tourist attraction.

'This lady was determined she was going to see the place where they made the Titanic whistles,' says Debbie Topman, one of the company directors, whose husband Simon is managing director. 'She arrived when everyone was going home, but Helen, one of the girls, stopped behind to wait for the lady to get here.

'She told Helen she wanted them for her grandsons. From the way she spoke we thought they were about six and seven. Then she told Helen that one was in his twenties and the other in his thirties!'

The Austrian lady's visit was not out of the ordinary. It wasn't the first time someone had just turned up looking for a Titanic whistle.

'People do turn up from all over the place,' says Debbie.

'We regularly get people ringing up saying they are in the city centre looking for us and how do they get here. Some people come to Birmingham on business and just call in here.'

The whistles went back into production for the film, and haven't stopped since.

'When the film finally finished showing at the cinemas, we thought it would all go quiet,' she adds. 'But every week we have people coming in. We get at least one phone call a day about the Titanic whistles. It's just amazed us.'

But while you can buy a new Titanic for around pounds 6, an original might cost you over over pounds 3,000. In 1991, the whistle belonging to Herbert Pitman, third officer on the Titanic, sold at Onslows in London for pounds 3,100.

Yet Hudsons is much more than 'the place they make the Titanic whistle'.

At the top of the stairs, beyond the 1940 black rubber doormat bearing the legend 'Please Wipe Your Feet' that leads into the factory hallway, still tiled in its original moss green art deco tiles, is a shiny wooden door. Screwed to the front is a black plate, with the word 'WHISTLE' picked out in bold brass capitals.

Behind the door lies the factory, a labyrinth of rooms full of different sounds and smells coming from machinery that would put the equipment in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory to shame.

This is where whistles for police forces, life jackets and various scout groups are made.

There are samba whistles for festivals, slimline tornado whistles for neighbourhood watches, whistles used on trophies to honour Canadian hockey referees.

At this year's World Cup, many football referees will choose to use an Acme Tornado 2000, the world's most powerful whistle at 125 decibels.

Then there is the company's range of dog whistles, inaudible to the human ear, but which Poppy, the Topman's poodle dog, who comes to work with them every day, is completely obedient to.

And in the tiny showroom, lying in a glass case on top of one of the wooden cabinets, is the instrument that began it all. A violin.

'The company started in Joseph Hudson's workshop in his back to back house in Ladywood,' explains Simon Topman.

'He was messing about in his workshop with his violin, trying to think of a sound for the Metropolitan police whistle he was creating, when he dropped it.

'It broke of course, but it made a jarring, discordant sound which was unnerving. Straight away he knew that was the sound he needed. That's why the police whistle sounds like it does.'


Main picture, right, a string of whistles at the plating stage. Above, workers at J Hudson & Co hard at work producing the company's world-famous whistles. The film Titanic provided a real boost for the firm
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 19, 2002
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