History of the Coppersmiths' Arms in Rea Street at Digbeth in Birmingham in the county of Warwickshire.


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Some history of the Coppersmiths' Arms

The Coppersmiths' Arms was one of three public houses on the eastern side of Rea Street between Digbeth and Bradford Street. Below is a plan dated 1889 that shows the pub, along with its neighbouring competitors for trade. Not that the competition was all in Rea Street. The Anchor Inn on the corner of Bradford Street was just across the road from the Coppersmiths' Arms. Although the beer house closed many moons ago, the building probably survived for some time later. However, this section of Rea Street was almost completely destroyed by an incendiary bomb during the Second World War. At the time of writing, [March 2017], this corner of Digbeth and Bradford Street was earmarked for a development of luxury apartments by Seven Capital under the brand-name of Connaught Square. How the Victorians who once lived here in their squalid courts would chuckle!

Plan Showing the location of the Coppersmiths' Arms, along with the Old Windmill Inn and Golden Hammer in Rea Street [1889]

The could be an argument for me moving my apostrophe as the pub took its name from a coppersmith rather than being a reference to a group of coppersmiths, though there is a case for either as an early publican who once occupied the property was also the employer of a large number of men in his business as both a brazier and coppersmith. However, it was James Pemberton who operated a factory here in Rea Street at Nos.97 and 98, the former being the address of the Coppersmiths' Arms in later years.

The manufactory was operating in the 1830s; James Pemberton is listed as a coppersmith and brazier at No.97 Rea Street within Robson's Directory published in 1839. In the same year there was a similar business being conducted by George Waring at No.106. Next to James Pemberton at No.96 was the tailor John Baker whilst No.99 was occupied by the wood turner and carver Thomas Collett.

Born in Birmingham in 1801, James Pemberton was a man who did well for himself and his family. He and his Shropshire-born wife, Sarah, initially lived in Rea Street but, as the business prospered and the wealth rolled in, the couple moved out to a residence on leafy Moseley Road from where James Pemberton commuted into work.

The work of a brazier and coppersmith could be quite skilled and James Pemberton assembled a workforce of 40 by the early 1850s. However, it would seem that it was difficult to find good honest men to work in his factory as a magistrate at the Public Office [see newspaper article] commented in July 1857 that "Mr. Pemberton has suffered severely from the depredations of some of his work people." Copper and brass were goods of some value and easy to sell on the black market.

Advertisement for the site of the Coppersmiths' Arms in Rea Street in Digbeth [1866]

Because of the name of the beer house I first thought that it was indeed James Pemberton who applied for a licence to retail beer on the premises - it would have been profitable to supply his workforce with something to quench their thirst whilst they laboured at the hearth. No doubt a runner was sent across the road to the Anchor Inn for liquid refreshment. It was when I stumbled upon an advertisement from March 1866 [see above] that I realised that the premises had not been used as a beer house until this date.

This advertisement shows that the premises were solely used as a manufactory and had been "for many years in the occupation of James Pemberton." The advert also states that the premises had been rebuilt.

Family Home of James Pemberton on Moseley Road

James Pemberton died on April 17th 1862. His legal affairs reveal that he lived at Brunswick House in Highgate. This property was between Belgrave House and Gloucester Terrace. The Pemberton's home displayed a degree of affluence. The Grade II-listed property still stands in Moseley Road at No.356. James and Sarah employed a domestic cook and housemaid whilst a niece, Elizabeth [Betsy] Pemberton, acted as a lady's maid.

There does not seem to be any continuity in the business at Rea Street. Sarah Pemberton remained at Brunswick House as an annuitant. Any family interest in the premises at Rea Street seems to have extinguished following the passing of James Pemberton. It would seem that William Adams responded to the above advertisement and took a lease on the property and converted much of the front building into a beer house. Acknowledging the hard labour and sweat that had been conducted on the site, he would have named the house the Coppersmiths' Arms - there would still be plenty of men in the locality engaged in this form of metal craft and such a name would have been very popular.

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William Adams did not stay long in his new venture. The lease for the Coppersmiths' Arms was advertised in November 1868 and in a description of the property the beer house "consisted of a bar, parlour, tap room, large club room, capital brewhouse, cellars and American bowling alley." They weren't kidding when they said the property had been rebuilt following its days as a copper goods factory. Thomas Upton appears to have been the incoming tenant, though his stay was brief and the house was taken over by Henry and Ann Johnson who had previously kept the Bell Inn at Ravenhurst Street. Sadly, not long after they had moved into the Coppersmiths' Arms, Ann Johnson died on May 9th 1870. She was just 35 years-old.

In the early 1870s the licence of the Coppersmiths' Arms changed with alarming frequency. This was to be a feature of this house and it suggests that it was tough going for a publican to make money or it was difficult to keep an orderly house. The magistrates were probably bored with reading out yet another name to take over the licence at each session for Licensing Transfers.

In 1871 Isaiah Barber was the licensee of the Coppersmiths' Arms. Interestingly, he was recorded as a plane maker and retail brewer. This suggests that he had adapted the industrial premises to suit his needs and that the Coppersmiths' Arms was selling homebrewed ales. He kept the beer house with his wife Esther, both of whom were Brummies. By this period Rea Street had a number of people working in the furniture trade. The chair-maker Edward Morris lived next door to the pub - he possibly worked for the master chair-maker James Ford who traded two doors away. The furniture dealer Samuel Bruce was in business towards the Digbeth-end of the street.

Isaiah and Esther didn't stay long in Rea Street, however, and in October 1871 the licence was transferred to Edward Taylor. The Barber family later lived at Holborn Place in Ford Street from where Isaiah concentrated on his business as a plane maker.

Edward and Harriet Knibbs were mine hosts at the Coppersmiths' Arms for a brief spell in the 1870s. Born in 1841, he was the son of policeman Edward Knibbs, and had grown up in Sherlock Street where his father was stationed. He was a brass caster by trade, though the family did run a tobacconist's shop in Sherlock Street before having a go in the licensed trade.

The Knibbs name is not particularly common in Birmingham so it is possible that Arthur Edward Knibbs was a descendant. I only highlight this because I came across a newspaper article from 1941 which reported Arthur Knibbs, a general dealer, had been awarded the George Medal. The citation stated that "a A high-explosive bomb demolished a house, trapping two women and a youth. Arthur Knibbs climbed over debris and rescued the younger girl. There was a small hole leading down to the kitchen fire, which was still burning. He went down this opening and saw the youth with his head under a beam. He released his head and dragged him out. A girl was pinned in a chair under a beam, and it was necessary to saw the seat and one arm of the chair away to release her. Mr. Knibbs was working in a cramped position, close to the firegrate, for nearly two hours, and there was considerable risk of the house collapsing. Bombs were dropped in the neighbourhood during the rescue."

Charles Ireland took over the licence of the Coppersmiths' Arms in August 1879. The Handsworth-born publican was a tube maker by trade. Indeed, it was with these skills he forged his career before and after running the Coppersmiths' Arms with his wife Ellen. The couple would later live for many years at No.269 Pershore Road in Selly Park from where Charles Ireland made his way to a lamp works where he worked as a tube maker.

Mechanical Spring Auto Tilt Stillage or Cask Tilter

Charles and Ellen Ireland were succeeded by Henry and Elizabeth Fradgley, the licence for the Coppersmiths' Arms being transferred in August 1882. Henry was born in Hackney in London, though his wife hailed from Bentley in Worcestershire. He had earlier worked as a warehouseman for a brassfounding firm when the couple lived in Oughton Place where Highgate meets Sparkbrook. Indeed, they would later live at South Road from where Henry worked as a timekeeper in an iron foundry. I assume this was a post in which he had plenty of 'down' time for, in 1891, drawing on his experience in the licensed trade, he submitted a patent for what was described as "apparatus for tilting ale and other casks." This is a device for which he should have been rewarded as these are still used in the cellars of today's pubs and clubs. These are simply known as cask ale tilters and they automatically tilt as the cask empties, thus reducing waste and preventing any sediment from being agitated during consumption.

Working for the Holt Brewery Company who were operating the building, William and Ada Allcock may have been the last couple to run the pub when the plug was pulled on the Coppersmiths' Arms in 1902 during a period when the number of beer houses within central Birmingham was greatly reduced. Holt's surrendered the licence in 1901.

The building subsequently opened as an adult school and was in use as a Christian Society mission in 1908. The school, which was founded in 1877, had previously been held in a farmhouse. But there is another final interesting tale regarding the building. It involves a Scottish-born tailor who was actively involved with the church and schools. When he died in September 1940 the following obituary appeared in the Birmingham Mail : "James Johnstone Bryden, who was in his 93rd year, died yesterday at his home, 110, Alcester Road, Moseley. He had been active, despite his great age, until a week ago, when he collapsed. Right up to that time he carried on his trade as a tailor, and on his 90th birthday his four children, 23 grandchildren, and 14 great-grandchildren joined in the celebrations. A native of Dumfriesshire, he came to Birmingham in 1872, and in the same year began his association with the Church of Christ in Charles Henry Street, of which he was an elder. In the 1870s he taught in Mr. George Cadbury's adult school at Bristol Street board school. Eventually a branch adult school was opened in Rea Street at a de-licensed premises called The Coppersmiths' Arms, and of that school Mr. Bryden was the first president. Before moving to Moseley, he lived in another de-licensed public house, The Quiet Woman, in Longmore Street, over which, at that time, still hung the sign of a woman carrying her head under her arm. Mr. Bryden had been for over 60 years a teetotaller and for 30 years a non-smoker. Mrs. Bryden died about 14 years ago, some time after she and her husband had celebrated their golden wedding. The following year, at the age of 79, he married again. The funeral service will be at the Church of Christ, Charles Henry Street, Monday, and the interment will be at Moseley Church."

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Licensees of this pub

1867 - 1868 William Adams
1870 - Thomas Upton
1870 - Henry Johnson
1871 - Isaiah Barber
1871 - Edward Taylor
1875 - Edward W. Knibbs
1878 - Edward W. Knibbs
1879 - 1882 Charles Ireland
1882 - Henry Fradgley
1888 - John Ellis
1890 - John Ellis
1891 - Joseph A. G. Thomas
1891 - Joseph Grimley
1894 - W. Suckling
1895 - W. Concann
1895 - Joseph Grimley
1897 - Herbert Eales
1899 - James Wright
1900 - John Whitehouse
1901 - William Allcock
Note : this is not a complete list of licensees for this pub.

Inn Sign

Inn Sign of The Coppersmiths' Arms at Sutton

The sign of the Coppersmiths' Arms is relatively scarce, particularly nowadays. I have used the signboard from Sutton as an illustration. This pub in Rea Street was probably named in honour of the brazier and coppersmith James Pemberton who operated a manufactory in this building before it was opened as a beer house. Often dubbed 'Redsmith's, a coppersmith worked with the soft metal, generally by gentle heating in order for the copper to be worked to the required shape. Once the shaping was completed, the copper was cooled in cold water in a process known as quenching. This is in contrast to ferrous metals which needed to be cooled slowly to anneal. Although coppersmiths and a braziers both worked with copper, the former tended to work in gangs on large articles whereas braziers worked on smaller items, particularly domestic and household goods.

The Coppersmith [1898] oil on canvas by Edgar Melville Ward

Genealogy Connections

If you have a genealogy story or query regarding the Coppersmiths' Arms you can contact me and I will post it here in addition to including your message within the website pages for Birmingham Genealogy.

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Related Newspaper Articles

"On Saturday, at the Public Office, before Mr. Welch and Mr. Sands Cox, James Whale, dresser, Great Barr Street and James Linsdale, coppersmith, Rea Street, were brought up on a remand from Friday, charged, the former with stealing, and the latter with feloniously receiving, a quantity of brass knobs, covers for copper kettles, and two old files, the property of Mr. James Pemberton, brazier Rea Street. Mr. T. W. Palmer appeared for the prosecution, and Mr. T. Harding for the defence. It appeared that in consequence of information he had received, Mr. Pemberton suspected that Whale, who was in his employ, was robbing him and that Linsdale was the receiver. The police were communicated with, and the above-named articles were traced to Linsdale's possession, the covers having been supplied to Mr. Walker, factor, Moseley Street. Detective Spokes apprehended Linsdale, who said a portion of the articles had been left at his shop by Whale. With regard to the covers, several had been left by his father a short time before, and the knobs he [Linsdale], had cast from a pattern belonging to Mr. Pemberton. When Whale was apprehended, he denied having, to his knowledge, left any of the articles at Linsdale's, but stated that he had worked there occasionally. The evidence called by Mr. Palmer with a view to the identity of the copper goods was far from being conclusive. A man named Cuerton, in the employ of the prosecutor, produced the dies from which the lids had been made, but in cross-examination Mr. Harding elicited that from each die something like ten gross of lids had been stamped for Mr. Pemberton, the covers, when stamped, being sent to the factory, fitted to the kettles, and ultimately sold. The witness could not say that the particular covers found in Linsdale's possession had not been sold in the ordinary way of business. The files, it was shown, were marked with Mr. Pemberton's initials, and throughout the enquiry there had been no prevarication in the part of the prisoners, nor any attempt at concealment. Under these circumstances the case for the prosecution rested mainly on the evidence of Oliver Linsdale, brother to the prisoner. This young man deposed that six months ago his brother told him that copper goods were being stolen from Mr. Pemberton's by Whale. He had seen covers, etc., brought to the shop by Whale, and his brother told him they were stolen from Mr. Pemberton's, and that there were more to come. Mr. Harding commented strongly upon the evidence of this witness, who he remarked had lived on his brother's bounty and obtained his confidence, and now, for some reason or other, displayed an eager desire to convict that brother of felony. He [Mr. Harding] would not degrade himself or insult the Bench by commenting on the evidence of a wretch, who after being, as he admitted, accessory to a felony for six months, came there and asked that his evidence should be implicitly believed. Mr. Welch said the evidence of identity was not sufficient, and the prisoners would therefore be discharged. Mr. Pemberton has suffered severely from the depredations of some of his work people."
"Alleged Robbery and Receipt of Stolen Property"
Birmingham Journal : July 8th 1857 Page 1

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