Inking in the Pen Industry

Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter is a gem of a visit. For local history enthusiasts there are listed buildings, a church where James Watt and Matthew Boulton worshipped, the city’s only surviving Georgian square, a coffin works and a jewellery museum.

However, on this visit the steel pen nib trade is top of the list. A ten minute walk from the combined railway and Midland Metro tram station at Vyse Street, past the Chamberlain Clock reaches Frederick Street. Here the Pen Museum is housed in the 1863 Albert Works pen factory of William Wiley. The museum is packed with thousands of items associated with the pen trade and the history of writing.

The invention of the steel pen nib had a humble beginning around 1800. In Sedgley local blacksmith, Daniel Fellows set his apprentice to work on handcrafted nibs making Thomas Sheldon the world’s first pen nib ‘manufacturer’. Outside the Black Country these names are often forgotten, while in 1820s Birmingham Joseph Gillott and others were refining the simple barrel shape and adding slits thus writing their names in the history books.

Birmingham can definitely claim to have industrialised nib making. At Joseph Gillott’s Victoria Works (1840) in Graham Street, round the corner from the museum, literally tons of steel nibs were manufactured. Gillott took nearly 80% of the world market by 1850 and became the sole importer into the United States.

Thomas Sheldon is buried in the shadow of All Saints’ Church in Sedgley and Joseph Gillott in Key Hill cemetery in the Jewellery Quarter.