Keeping the Legacy Alive
The story of the Pen Museum by Brian Jones MBE
I was promoting a book about the great Birmingham industrialist and philanthropist, Josiah Mason.
As it happened, Mason made his millions from the manufacture of steel pens and the mention of this fact, above all else, was the spark which ignited the interest of a certain listener. At home, Colin Giles was taking note. He quickly contacted me, as did Larry Hanks and Ray Handley. We soon began to meet regularly at my house, and before long, had accumulated a sizable collection of pens and writing equipment, some of which had been acquired from Philip Poole of London, whose collection I had earlier catalogued. Before long we had managed to achieve the status of 'committee', and in 1997, we registered as a charity, choosing for ourselves the title of 'The Birmingham Pen Trade Heritage Association', taking it upon ourselves to educate and inform the public of Birmingham's glorious history as the epicentre of the world pen trade!
Larry Hanks - Colin Giles - Brian Jones MBE
Photo: Andrew Montgomery - Homes and Antiques Magazine
This was a little known fact, a situation we have always been keen to rectify and so there followed exhibitions, displays, talks, and something of a struggle to persuade the City Council to provide affordable museum space for us! This proved fruitless. However, following a chance meeting with David Prince, our fortunes began to change. David was, and still is, landlord of the Jewellery Quarter's 'Argent Centre', a splendid building which indeed was once the 19th Century Pen Manufactory of W.E.Wiley.
We were first offered display space in the building's foyer, and when a room on the ground floor became free, it seemed to be something of a sign! With much trepidation, we decided to take it on, with the hope that we could successfully raise the required rent.
The job required hard physical work. Lifting, demolishing, clearing away, and acid burns, became the norm! But Colin clearly had his mind on better things, and set to work with a very large hammer! And then one day – Eureka! We had a clean, empty room; and then, as if by magic, offers of furniture and items for display began to arrive.
Beautiful Victorian showcases, tables, and chairs came from the Central Library; wall-mounted cabinets from a violin maker; and, joy of joy (!), the free run of Brandauer's former pen factory on New John Street West, where we were allowed to remove the workbenches! With the demise of the Science Museum on Newhall Street, we were offered more display cases, and the possibility of another unit. Then a very welcome Heritage Lottery Fund grant was awarded for a new floor, security screens, toilet, and kitchen.
And so, to the present...............
We are older and wiser, and now there are many more of us to share the workload. These days we now have volunteers who form our Executive Committee; people who are IT literate; and people who manage our finances and fund-raising, as well as others who assist in many and varied ways, each one bringing their various skills to the museum.
We have become more ambitious in our projected aims. We can now offer Calligraphy and Braille lessons, tuition in Creative Writing, research facilities and a study area, Writing Competitions, School packages, Work Experience placements, our usual Guided Tour, and even the space and facilities for very successful children's birthday parties!
During 2010, with funds raised from, amongst others, local charitable trusts and national grant making organisations, Sita Trust and Awards for All, we were able to refit a previously run-down ground floor unit and open up our third room into a facility for the local and wider community. In April 2011 the Carl Chinn Library & Community Room was officially opened by Professor Carl Chinn MBE, the Museum's President.
In short, over a decade on, we now have a wonderful 'Hands-On' living museum, of which we feel justifiably proud.
And all a far cry from our tentative and humble beginnings of BBC Radio WM, disappointment, lifting, demolishing, clearing away, acid burns and Colin Giles with a very large hammer.
Brian Jones MBE
30th May 2011