James Turner Street in Winson Green was named after my great great uncle, a member of the button-making dynasty.
James Turner Street became known as Benefits Street after a Channel 4 documentary series on the residents was aired in early 2014. An article in The Birmingham Mail suggested a variety of candidates for the original James Turner and Carl Chinn, Birmingham historian extraordinaire, provided the answer – my great great Uncle James! Carl was kind enough to give me permission to reproduce his article here. You can see the original at http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/nostalgia/benefits-street-real-james-turner-6594887
Benefits Street: The REAL James Turner finally revealed
26 January 2014 By Carl Chinn
It was an exciting day for the most celebrated manufacturers of Birmingham when, in late July 1838, the gallant and distinguished Marshall Soult arrived in Birmingham as part of his tour of the manufacturing towns of England.
Perhaps Napoleon’s most famed general, he had played a decisive role in the defeat of the Austrians and Russians at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 and went on to lead the French forces in the Peninsular War against the British and Portuguese under Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of Wellington.
Soult was not only an illustrious general, but he was also a clever politician who negotiated each twist and turn in his country’s political system.
A staunch republican, after Napoleon’s final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the restoration of House of Bourbon to power, the Marshall became an avowed royalist.
Minister of War between 1830 and 1834, four years later he was made ambassador extraordinary to London for the Coronation of Queen Victoria in June 1838. This position also gave him the opportunity see for himself the great works of Birmingham and Manchester that were so crucial to the Industrial Revolution and the transformation of Britain into the world’s first urbanised and industrialised nation.
The Marshall was accompanied by a large party and, upon arriving in Birmingham, was welcomed by a guard of honour of the 14th Light Dragoons and a committee of local worthies. According to the Birmingham Gazette, they set off quickly in carriages to Church Street and the “splendid establishment” of George Richmond Collis, manufacturing jeweller, silversmith, glass cutter, plater and maker of plated articles.
Thence they proceeded downhill to Messrs Sargeant’s gun and sword works in Deritend. Unsurprisingly, this afforded “extreme interest to the whole party”. Next on the rapid tour was the papier mache manufactory of Messrs Jennens and Bettridge on Constitution Hill; the Britannia Nail Works of Mr T. M. Jones in Bradford Street; and the gun barrel Proof House in Banbury.
In each place, “the processes led to various expressions of astonishment and of high gratification”.
Last, but not least, in this small and select group of renowned manufacturers was “the extensive button manufactory of Messrs Hammond, Turner, and Sons’ in Snow Hill, close to Great Charles Street.
Looking down Snow Hill from Colmore Row in 1960. Hammond, Turner and Co button makers would have been down on the left, past Lionel Street, and out of view.
Amongst those who would have greeted the Marshall was one of the partners, James Turner – and it is he who is recalled in the naming of James Turner Street in Winson Green, now famous for its Benefits Street tag.
By then he was living in the grand Winson Green House, which was set amidst a wide estate. This mansion was close to Winson Green Lane, later renamed Winson Green Road. This fine building was knocked down in the late 1860s or early 1870s and new streets were cut out of its land. James Turner Street would emerge by the 1870s just around the corner, and off Foundry Road.
James Turner made his wealth from button making. Indeed Birmingham was so associated with this trade that the townsfolk were often called Brummagem Buttons. This bond owed much to the inventive and highly successful John Taylor, the “Brummagem button king”.
He developed the gilding of buttons with a thin layer of gold leaf or silver plate, whilst he also introduced the sub-division of labour.
A family letter of the Lloyd family described a visit to John Taylor’s button manufactory on July 3, 1755.
It reads that he was: “the most considerable Maker of Gilt-metal Buttons, and enamell’d Snuff- boxes”.
“We were assured that he employs 500 Persons in those two Branches, and when we had seen his Work-shop, we had no Scruple in believing it. The Multitude of Hands each Button goes thro’ before it is sent to the Market, is likewise surprising; you perhaps will think it incredible, when I tell you they go thro’ 70 different Operations of 70 different Work-folks…”
Instead of one skilled man making a few buttons daily, hundreds could be manufactured if they passed through 15 to 20 pairs or more of nimble, fast and efficient hands of semi-skilled and unskilled workers.
Many of these hands belonged to women. Their work and the sub-division of labour was as important for powering Britain into industrial supremacy as were the steam engines of Boulton and Watt that came from the Soho Foundry, just down from James Turner Street.
When Taylor died in 1775, it is said that he left the colossal fortune of £200,000. A co-founder of Taylor and Lloyd’s Bank, he also bought land and his sons moved away from manufacturing. But button making continued to be a pre-eminent Birmingham manufacture thanks to families like the Turners.
A John Turner is mentioned in 1770 in Sketchley and Adams’s book, Streets & Inhabitants of Birmingham, as a toy maker – someone making the small metal goods for which Birmingham was noted. His premises were in Great Charles Street, close to where the Hammond and Turner works would be built, and it is likely that he was James Turner’s grandfather.
This belief is strengthened by the fact that John Turner’s wife was Mary Hammond. Of course, James Turner’s button business was called Hammond and Turner, whilst two of his brothers had Hammond as their middle name.
Button maker John Turner is believed to be the grandfather of James Turner. His name is seen in an advert from Bisset Magnificent Directory, from 1808
According to Bisset’s Magnificent Directory, by 1808 John Turner had become a button maker. To a skilled man adept at making small metal goods, this adaptation would have been an easy one. He was one of 25 button makers advertised in the directory, to which number could be added Matthew Boulton and Edward Thomason – both of whom had large manufactories and were involved in other manufactures.
Seven years later, in 1815 and in Wrightsons Triennial Directory of Birmingham, the button manufactory of Hammond, Turner, and Dickenson was noted in Snow Hill. This was a coming together of either John Turner with his brother-in-law Samuel Hammond; or else of John’s son, another John, with his uncle Samuel. The third partner was John Dickinson, a former apprentice of Samuel Hammond.
Apprenticeship records for Warwickshire show that Samuel Hammond himself had been apprenticed as a toy maker to James Kempson in Birmingham in 1754. By 1775, he was included in Swinney’s Birmingham Directory as a button maker at 55 Snow Hill.
Six years later, Pearson & Rollason’s Directory of Birmingham gave him at 89 Snow Hill.
Interestingly, on May 11 1870, a descendant of the Turner family wrote to the Birmingham Daily Post in 1870 to state that the firm of Hammond, Turner and Sons had been on the Snow Hill site for 99 years. This would accord with the dates when Samuel Hammond began trading there.
He must have been successful because he was able to live in a large house in what was then the countryside of Winson Green, then part of Birmingham Heath. This wasteland covered a large area. It stretched from what became the Dudley Road in the west to the Hockley Brook in the east, across which lay Handsworth Heath.
Its northern limit was about where Winson Green Road, Lodge Road and Bacchus Road would run, whilst to the south its border approximately followed the line of the modern Clissold Street and All Saint’s Street.
In 1798, an act of Parliament allowed this common land to be enclosed and divided amongst the landowners of the manor of Birmingham.
Gradually the old heath disappeared as Birmingham marched outwards, but in the first decades of the 19th century it retained a rural feel and it was this which attracted a few wealthy businessman to build imposing homes here.
This feature was emphasised in 1818 in a A Description of Modern Birmingham. The author explained that after passing through the Sandpits and Spring Hill, “you cross the Birmingham Canal”.
“Ascending the hill, there is on the right an extensive view over the adjacent country, including Barr-beacon, Mr. Boulton’s plantations, and Winson-green, a neat house, in the possession of Mrs. Steward.
“On the left is Summerfield-house, late the residence of John Iddins, Esq. but now of James Woolley, Esq. and beyond it, a neat white house, occupied by Mr. Hammond. Over an apparently wooded country, you have a windmill in full view, and when at the foot of the hill, on the right is Smethwick grove, the residence of John Lewis Moilliet, Esq.”
Samuel Hammond lived in his home at Birmingham Heath until he died in 1825. His will was dated five years previously. Unable to write, he signed his mark. Yet for all his supposed illiteracy, this was a self-made man who had risen from the ranks of apprentices to become the founder of a major Birmingham company.
He had obviously retired from business, as he was in receipt of an annuity from his nephew, John Turner, who was trustee and executor of the will – as well as a main beneficiary. As for John Dickinson, he was appointed adviser to the other main beneficiary of Samuel’s will, his sister Elizabeth Townsend.
By the later 1820s, Dickinson had either died or left the company and it was advertised as “Hammond, Turner, and Sons, gilt, metal, and pearl button manufacturers and pearl-shell dealers, 100 Snow-hill”.
John Turner the elder was also dead and the Electoral Registers for Business Premises of 1838 suggest that four people were now involved in the business. They were his son, John Turner, and his grandsons William Hammond, Samuel Hammond and James, who was the oldest of the three.
It is apparent that Samuel Hammond’s residence in Birmingham Heath had also drawn his nephew, John Turner and his family to what would become the Winson Green district. The Earl of Dartmouth’s Map of Birmingham for 1824 and 1825 notes that James Turner was living in a large house with land between Monument Road and Spring Hill. Ingleby Street would later be cut through this land.
A decade later the Poll Book of voters for Birmingham indicated that his father, John, lived at Heath Green, near to the Dudley Road, whilst James Turner now had his home at Winson Green. Another son, Samuel Hammond Turner, was living nearby at Birmingham Heath.
Although he was older, James outlived his two younger brother partners and the Electoral Registers for Business Premises of 1868 suggest that he was now in partnership with his only son, John Pemberton Turner. His middle name was taken from his mother, Anna Maria Pemberton.
A view of Winson Green Road from, I think, Norman Street. The prison is in the background on the right. James Turner would have lived across the way in Winson Green House, before the area was developed.
The Pemberton family was one of the most prominent and wealthy in the town. Pembertons were mentioned as goldsmiths as far back as the later 1500s. In the succeeding generations some of them became ironmongers, money lenders and partners with Taylor in his button-making business.
With their riches from business they became significant landowners locally and intermarried with other powerful families such as the Lloyds and Rylands. As for Anna Maria’s father, Thomas, his company manufactured of gold and silver articles in Livery Street whilst he also had a brass foundry.
In 1866, John Pemberton Turner wrote that Hammond, Turner and Sons had a high reputation for “for best fancy and uniform buttons”. Indeed, over the previous decades it had – and it had exhibited with success at the Birmingham Exposition of Arts and Manufactures in 1849; the Great Exhibition of 1851; and the International Exhibition at Paris in 1855 amongst others.
Distinguished visitors were also drawn to the works: from Princess Victoria and her mother, the Duchess of Kent, in 1830 to Ibrahim Pacha, the hereditary prince of Egypt in 1846; and from His Imperial Highness Constantine the Grand Duke of Russia in July 1847 to His Royal Highness Prince Waldemar of Prussia a month later.
With regard to the size of Hammond, Turner and Sons, by 1866 the company came third in the numbers of workers behind Wm. Aston, Princip Street, where there are from 700 to 800; then follow Dain, Watts, and Manton. However as all of them employed “many outworkers, the numbers actually engaged on their premises would not give a just comparative estimate”.
Two years previously, John Pemberton Turner had told the Children’s Employment Commission that like many Birmingham manufactories, it laboured under the disadvantage “of being old and having grown up gradually in a crowded space.
“Other houses are gradually taken on to those in which a business started in a small way, and shops are added one by one – a plan which is unfavourable to space and arrangement.”
Improvements had been made by then installation of ventilators but “where the ceilings are low it is difficult to keep the rooms fresh in summer or when gas is used”.
Ten boys aged between nine and 12 were employed at cracking ivory nuts in a small dark outhouse at a time when the employment of children was commonplace. And whilst James Turner and his son did their best to improve working conditions, fatal accidents did happen.
In November 1861, the Birmingham Gazette reported that Reuben Eden, a 19-year-old button maker, had “reached over a circular saw, driven by steam power, and received a compound fracture of the left arm, besides severe lacerations”.
The injury was so bad that his arm was amputated and he died.
Six years later, the clothes of a teenager called John James were caught in the fly wheel of a machine. Before it could be stopped “he was whipped round several times and sustained a severe scalp wound, combined with fractures of his limbs and a general shock to his while frame”.
Although the unfortunate young man was rushed to the General Hospital, he was not expected to live.
Despite these terrible events, the Turners were regarded as progressive employers.
In 1867 James’s son, John Pemberton Turner, reduced the working hours of his employees and in so doing was amongst the pioneers of the Saturday Half Day holiday in the town. Work now started at 7am and finished at 6pm in the week; and it ended at 1pm on a Saturday.
James Turner also seemed to have a good reputation as an employer.
In a period when so many factory owners were hated, he appears to have gained the loyalty of his workers.
In 1841 the Birmingham Journal recounted the sudden death of a woman called Catherine Powers whilst she was walking with her husband.
She was a warehouse woman at “the extensive button manufactory” and had been employed there for 40 years, since she had been 15, and was “much respected”.
This bond between workers and the Turners was emphasised on Monday July 11, 1853, when 200 of the company’s workmen accompanied by their wives caught the train to Knowle “where they partook of breakfast and dinner”. In the afternoon they were joined by their employers and all took part in various sports until it was time to return to Birmingham.
Another long-standing worker was Joseph Corbett. In 1842 it was recorded that he had worked for the Turners for 50 years.
A working class radical who strive for the economic betterment of his class, he was active in meetings called to help cope with the distress in the town caused by high unemployment and hunger in 1837.
Corbett was also a leading opponent locally of the protectionist Corn Laws, which kept the price of British wheat high for the benefit of the landowners and which thus raised the price of bread – the staple diet of the working class.
In 1842, Corbett gave a “very excellent address showing the wicked and unrighteous character of the corn laws, and the absolute necessity of their total repeal; appealing to all masters and workmen at once to join hand and heart, and unite more and more, until these atrocious laws were altered”.
During the agitation for the passing of the Reform Bill of 1867, the workers at Hammond, Turner and Son, both male and female, were regarded as amongst the most radical in any manufactory in Birmingham. Their employer, John Pemberton Turner – the son of James Turner – was also perceived as a radical in politics.
A keen member of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce and a councillor, in 1851 he had played a leading role in helping to bring Louis Kossuth, the great Hungarian patriot, to Birmingham. The town was then a bastion of radical politics and beliefs in democracy and egalitarianism, and Kossuth was welcomed with tremendous enthusiasm.
Three years previously he had been appointed Regent-President of the Kingdom of Hungary in the revolution against the autocratic rule of the Austrian Hapsburgs. Unhappily, the revolution failed and Kossuth went into exile, but he was hailed as a freedom fighter and father of Hungarian democracy.
Although James Turner was not as active a citizen as was his son, he had been a member of the Street Commission, the body that was responsible for lighting, street widening and the removal of nuisances before the council took over its powers in 1852.
As such he had been a keen member of the Smoke Nuisance Committee and that year wrote to the Birmingham Gazette about the problem of pollution caused by smoke from industrial premises.
James Turner died in November 1867 at Leamington Priors. He left effects of under £30,000 –a huge sum.
Six years previously he had still been living in Winson Green. The Census of the year noted that he was a retired manufacturer aged 69 who had been born in Birmingham, as had his wife Anna Maria, aged 68. Living with them was an unmarried daughter, Helen who was 40; a sick nurse; and two female servants.
The address of the house was given as 22 Winson Green Lane. Other dwellings were in this road and although most of the residents were in regular work it was becoming a working-class road.
Indeed, one of Turner’s close neighbours was a gaol officer at the relatively new Birmingham Prison which had been built across the road from the button manufacturer’s home in 1849. Moreover, further along the road were courtyards of back-to-backs houses, in which lived the poor.
Nearby, a clutch of new streets had also emerged. They included Aberdeen Street, bringing to mind Lord Aberdeen who was Prime Minister between 1852-5. The street is obvious on Pigott Smith’s Map of 1855 as is Lansdowne Street, named after a lord who served without office in Aberdeen’s administration and who had played a part in the passage of the Great Reform Act in 1832.
A Scot, Aberdeen had been Foreign Minister in Sir Robert Peel’s Conservative Government of 1841-6. Both men were staunch supporters of free trade and when Peel resigned because of his support for the repeal of the Corn Laws, he was joined by Aberdeen. This connection explains the nearby Peel Street.
In the previous Census of 1851, none these roads had been present; nor was Winson Green Lane named. James Turner’s address had been stated simply as Winson Green House. There had been plenty of house building in Factory Road and along Winson Green but there remained much open land.
At that date James Turner was still active in business. His household was large. Living with him and his wife were their five daughters; three female servants – a lady’s maid, cook and house maid; and a teenaged male butler.
In addition, on the estate of James Turner there lived his coachman and his family; his gardener and his family; and his farmer.
It is apparent that in the decade between 1851 and 1861 urbanisation had begun to overwhelm Winson Green as new streets were cut out and houses built. Probably for this reason, and also the proximity of the brooding structure of the prison, James Turner left his long-standing home at Winson Green House and moved to Leamington.
He may have gone but today he is yet brought to mind in the street that bears his name.