Board of Ordnance, Gun Barrel Proof House, The Tower, Bagot Street, Birmingham

Sandstone block which was part of a wall that once marked the extremity of the Tower site. Author’s image.

For most of the 18th century, muskets ordered from Birmingham contractors by the Ordnance Board were either proof tested to the Tower standard, within the grounds of the gun maker by an Ordnance Board inspector, or taken to London to be proved.1

In 1755, Board of Ordnance viewers were stationed at Birmingham to gauge and view barrels made by contractors for the Ordnance. Those that passed the test were then sent to London for proof. In 1777, with the increase in demand caused by the American War of Independence, the Ordnance in Birmingham established a warehouse to try to ease the selection process, but this caused the Ordnance viewers to become even more discriminating, which made the process even slower. Those barrels that passed selection faced a nine-day journey to London by road and canal and the contractor had to bear the cost of transportation as well as the expense of any rejected barrels.4

Soon after the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars this system was deemed unacceptable as more efficient and less time consuming processing methods were needed.

In 1796 the Board of Ordnance decided that the only way to overcome the situation was to build a proof house at Birmingham.4 The Government purchased land between the Birmingham-Fazeley canal, Walmer Lane (later Newtown Row) and Bagot Street, Birmingham. 2 A state-owned proofing establishment was erected on the site, with the main entrance in Bagot Street.4

While the Ordnance proof house was being built, an agreement was made with the gunmakers Galton, Ketland and Walker, Whately, Grice and Blair for their barrels to be proved at their own proof houses by the Ordnance viewers. 4

The Bagot Street Ordnance proof house opened in 1798 for the purpose of viewing and stamping all new government arms with a ‘Tower’ mark.5

The first Bagot Street proving house, ‘the explosions of which were very terrific to strangers’, 3 was replaced in 1808 by a larger one on the same plot but ‘at a greater distance from the view rooms’. A new View Room was built in 1811.4

On 31 December 1812,

… a shocking incident occurred at the Proving-house, in Walmer-Lane, Birmingham. One of the workmen employed in proving guns for the army, stepped before the muzzles of the barrels, after a general discharge, to fresh prime two or three which had not exploded, the old priming unexpectedly took effect, and the contents of the pieces literally carried away the poor fellow’s leg and thigh. He was immediately conveyed to the Hospital, but died a few minutes after his arrival there, leaving a widow and six children, who were dependent upon his industry. [The Star, 5 January 1813. p.1] 1

The Bagot Street proving house was closed in 1818 as fewer guns were needed in a time of relative peace following the French and American wars.4

Extract from a Plan of Birmingham surveyed 1824-1825 by John Piggot Smith.

In 1839 George Lovell and James Gunner, The London Ordnance Storekeeper & Superintendent, went to Birmingham to set about re-opening the Ordnance proof house. The Bagot Street proof house reopened in 1841. 4

It was subsequently extended to a ‘large establishment’.2 Between 12 November 1856 and July 1857 the Ordnance Board sought permission to store black powder and bullets at the Birmingham Proof House whilst they constructed a new Proof House in Bagot Street. They also arranged for 51,143 of their military barrels to be provisionally proved in Banbury Street and a further 680 barrels definitively proved, during this period whilst their new proof house, shown as ‘D’ on the following plan, was being built.1

The number of barrels proved at the Government Proof-house in Birmingham was: for 1855 – 131,869; 1856 – 98,279; 1857 – 95,467; 1858 – 92,106; 1859 – 92,937; 1860 – 112,228; 1861 – 147,764; 1862 – 235,360; 1863 – 210,181 & 1864 – 98,579. 2

Over these ten years 16% of the barrels proved in England passed through the Tower. Until 1858, the year in which the Enfield factory began testing, the Tower’s percentage shows an increase from 23.2% in 1855 to 28.6%. Thereafter it shows a decline to a low of 2.4% in 1863.

When in full operation, a staff of between sixty and seventy men were there engaged in viewing the arms manufactured in the town. The several parts of a gun are first examined in detail, and accurately gauged; they are then returned to the gunmaker who proceeds to set them up. At every stage of the process of setting-up, the guns are taken for examination to Bagot Street. At each view the examiner strikes his mark on the part examined, and a gun when completed bears twenty-two of such marks. Each viewers mark has its distinctive stages of manufacture, or in service.2

Post 1857 plan of Ordnance premises in Harding C W, A Bi-Centenary History of the Birmingham Proof House 1813-2013, 2015.

In 1864 Bagot Street Ordnance premises were under the superintendence of Captain Warlow R.A.2

In the 1860’s the projected closure of ‘the Tower’ convinced Birmingham’s military gun trade that ‘such a course would seriously affect thousands of hand-made gun-operatives in the town’, scattering and driving into other trades thousands of skilled artisans. Several trade representatives had therefore sent a ‘memorial’ to the Earl de Grey and Ripon at the War Office … suggesting that ‘the Tower’ might be used as a repairing establishment for furnishing the weapons to volunteers and local militia. 5

From 1866 the Tower was mainly used as the government repair establishment due to lack of space for manufacture or assembly. It carried out routine works, lapping barrels, re-blueing and general repairs.5 By the 1880’s the premises were considered by Government to be a great deal too circumscribed for the work.

Extract from Ordnance Survey map, 1887, showing site of ‘the Tower’.

The National Arms and Ammunition Company 9 folded in 1882. Its large factory at Montgomery Street, Sparkbrook was abandoned following various experiments with tricycle manufacture, and then acquired by government in 1885-87 for the repair of rifles. Between 1887 and 1894 the Government Small Arms Factory at ‘the Tower’ was relocated to Sparkbrook, but not without sudden and serious reductions in output, employment and wages. As there was a favourable opportunity of disposing of the Tower works, they were sold.

Following this, the Tower remained empty for some time apart from a period from 1896 until 1910 when a bicycle manufacturer, Osmond Cycle Co Ltd used it.11

Extract from  Ordnance Survey map 1:2354 (25” to 1 mile), 1902, showing Tower Cycle Works.

In late 1914/early 1915, the company of W.W.Greener helped set up a factory in Birmingham to manufacture the Belgiam Mauser. The factory location chosen was The Tower, seemingly because it was standing empty and made available to Greeners by the War office.6

When Oliver Greener, who was seconded by the War Office to run the factory, arrived at The Tower in December 1914 he found ‘an inch of dust on the floor, the factory having lain idle for many years. By the end of January 1915 the tool room was up and running and the works made its first Mauser by August of the same year.’ At the end of 1915, 158 men and 74 women were employed (50% British).

When the Tower was ready to put the Mausers into production the Government handed the works over to the Belgians6 under Colonel Aie Loiselet.7  By the end of 1916, 90% of the 400 employees were Belgians following the move of part of the Calais workshop personnel as well as military armsmakers.7 The Belgians, who had experience of making these rifles, had escaped the German advance.6

From the beginning of February 1816 the Tower was able to produce several thousand rifles per month as well as 150000 spare parts for various weapons as well as machine gun barrels. The plant also produced the new model 1916 bayonet. The six departments were as follows: I – General services; II – Barrel shop (drilling, profiling &c), fore & rear sights, mounting of same & test firing; III – Assembly ‘in the white’ of rifles and other arms; IV – Manufacture of lockworks, bolts, firing pins, bayonet assembly; V – Reception of parts and accessories made by civilian contractors, toolshop, manufacture of wooden parts; VI – bayonet shop.7

Images 1, 2 & 5 show Department II; Image 3 shows Department I; Image 4 shows Department V, from ‘Bagot Street Factory’, Arms and Explosives, March 1894 p.96.

Ordnance Survey map 25” to mile, 1917, showing the site plan of the 1917 Mauser factory at Tower Works. It shows little change from that of the 1902 Tower Cycle Works or indeed from that of the 1887 Government Small Arms factory.

After production moved back to Liege in 1819 there was no need for use of The Tower by either the Belgian Government  or the British Army Ordnance Board and the site was immediately taken over by Timmins Brothers brass castings.11

Ordnance Survey map 25” to mile, 1937, showing the Tower Works used for metal fittings by Timmins Brothers.

The sandstone block shown at the top of this blog post was part of a wall that once marked the extremity of the Tower site and was removed in 2010 to the Birmingham Proof House Museum.

  1. Harding C W, A Bi-Centenary History of the Birmingham Proof House 1813-2013, 2015
  2. Goodman, John D, ‘The Birmingham Gun Trade’, in Timmins, Samuel, Birmingham and the Midland Hardware District, 1866, London
  3. Morfitt J, Sketch of Birmingham, 1802, quoted in Blair, Claude ed, Pollard’s History of Firearms, 1983, p.475
  4. Godwin, Brian & Evans John, ‘Crossed Sceptres & Crown mark and its association with the gunmakers Ketland’.
  5. Emrys Chew, Arming the Periphery: The Arms Trade in the Indian Ocean During the Age of Global Empire, 2012, pp.64,67,72,74 & 225-226
  6. Hay, Jonathan, ‘The Tower, W W Greener and Mauser Manufacture, The Military Rifle Journal, Issue 205, October 2011, pp5-11
  7. Leonard, Colonel Pierre, La Manufacture d’armes de l’État (M.A.E.), Centre Liégeois d’Histoire et d’Archéologie Militaire, Tome III – Fascicule 1 – mars 1986 http://www.clham.org/t-3-fasc-1-manufacture quoted in 6.
  8. ‘Bagot Street Factory’, Arms and Explosives, March 1894 p.96
  9. The National Arms and Ammunition Company was set up by Westley Richards. Gun making was carried out at Sparkbrook.
  10. ‘The London and Birmingham Gun Trade’ at http://www.britishcarbines.co.uk/GunTrade.pdf
  11. Kelly’s Trade Directories, Birmingham

John Townley

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One response to “Board of Ordnance, Gun Barrel Proof House, The Tower, Bagot Street, Birmingham

  1. Reblogged this on keithbracey and commented:
    My Dad Leslie Bracey who lived in the back to backs of Little Shadwell Street in #Birmingham’s Gun Quarter, carried shotguns to the #Birmingham Proof House before the Second World War when he worked for a #Birmingham gun maker in the Gun Quarter.

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