Birmingham was once the ‘City of 1001 trades’. Today its artisan gun making industry, and rich heritage dating back to 1643, is facing extinction.
Jesse Hill Gunmakers, Stirchley
It’s like stepping in to a time warp. Squeezing through the doorway behind the large drill in the engineer workshop, then up the low-lit steep, wooden stairs to the gunmaker’s above. At the top it’s not quite Narnia but definitely like something from a different time and place.
Up here the room is dark, but sunlight streams in through the south-facing leaded window on to the bench below where Haydn is working. It illuminates hundreds of beautiful old wooden-handled chisels, files and assorted tools. Some stand to attention like soldiers on parade in their respective positions against the low window-sill. Others scattered at ease on the bench, their location known only to their solitary commander. Each tool blackened over the decades, but still proudly retaining the strength and precision it was designed with, for the job. Solid and dependable. Made by the hand of a crafts person that has gone before.
Haydn Hill, 48, is the fifth and last generation of Jesse Hill Gunmakers which began in 1921. For health and safety reasons he is unable to take on an apprentice. His business and workshop will close when he retires.
'DE. CON.STRUCT' - The Open Project 1, Mac, Birmingham. August 2013
'Look With All Your Eyes' - The Open Project 3, Mac, Birmingham. August 2013
Some Cities - Library of Birmingham. April to July 2014
Redeye - Hothouse Bradford. February 2014
Source Magazine, supplement. October 2013. Selected by Daniel F. Herrmann - Photography Critic, Eisler Curator & Head of Curatorial Studies Whitechapel Gallery. View images: Source Photo Review.
Other Guest Selectors - Helen Trompeteler - Assistant Curator of Photographs, National Portrait Gallery & Seán Kissane- Curator of Exhibitions, Irish Museum of Modern Art.
The Gun Quarter, Birmingham
The gun trade in Birmingham reached its peak in around 1803 during the Napoleonic War, when 14,000 guns were being produced per week. Birmingham also supplied approximately 150,000 lower quality guns per year to the slave trade (1690s to 1807).
Today there are only a dozen remaining workshops primarily on Price street, which specialise in different parts of the 'trade' (e.g. stocking, engraving, colour hardening). Collectively they make exceptionally high quality, bespoke sporting guns and rifles by hand, using traditional methods and tools passed down over centuries. Complete guns can take years to produce often fetching a price of around £60,000 per gun. Handguns and military weapons are no longer produced in the Gun Quarter.
Westley Richards offer clients luxury excursions to shoot the Big Game, from the smallest antelope to the largest buffalo.
“The chance to hunt in one of the world’s last great wildernesses is a supreme privilege - one that Westley Richards takes very seriously”.
Westley Richards produce the complete gun almost exclusively in-house from start to finish making on average only fifteen guns a year. They are proud of their colonial heritage. On display in the spacious visitors foyer is the huge and imposing skull of an elephant, flanked on the left by a hunters shopping paradise; a boutique-esque showroom full of extravagantly hand-made shooting merchandise, clothing and leather goods. The walls are dotted with extraordinary memorabilia: taxidermy trophy animals, framed displays of collector’s shotgun cartridges, and old black and white photographs of British gentry posing, for example, with the majestic carcass of an adult Tiger at their feet surrounded by Indian attendants. The showroom is aimed at wealthy landowners, collectors and international big game shooting clients.