From The Journal of Beatrix Potter
Beatrix Potter, Eyewitness
Beatrix Potter, aged 15, visits the factory of Hunt & Roskell, Silversmiths, in 1881.
A superbly detailed and delightfully innocent account.
Friday, November 4th 1881. [1881-11-04]
We went to Hunt & Roskells, silver manufacturers in Harrison Street, Euston Road. They make silver cups, groups, jugs, salvers there. We arrived before time, ten to eleven, but Mr. Saunders was already there. He was a queer old gentleman, very formal and polite, but kind and obliging.
The Warehouse was dark and old-fashioned with steep stairs and narrow intricate passages, small doors frequently opening on to uneven stone steps of which Mr. Saunders always warned us. He then went carefully down, feeling with his foot to see that he was at the bottom and telling us the number.
We entered a dark lobby with four or five doors, a passage and a staircase leading out of it. The house sounded singularly silent and deserted except for the faint click of hammers from an upper room. While waiting for my grandmother, Mr. Saunders took us into a small room on the right. One side was divided off into pigeon holes in which were kept innumerable steel dies. They were beautifully cut and worth several thousand pounds according to Mr. Saunders.
There were two large presses, a stove and a long table before the two high windows, and consequently not much room to move. The press near the door acted by means of a screw with an iron cross-bar on the top having heavy knobs at each end. Mr. Saunders moved us out of the way of this formidable instrument. The workman pushed the bar, the weights giving it force, the screw turned and descended with a thud. This machine was used for pressing the soft metal into the dies in making such things as handles and spouts. The other press which looked weaker was really the strongest. It was a weight of about half cwt. which the man raised by means of a rope and pulley and let fall. He stamped a piece of copper while we were there.
Mr. Saunders told us they lost a great deal of metal in every thing they made, gold more than silver. It disappeared in dust, particularly in the melting. Looking round I was not much surprised, such dust ! Nothing had been dusted since the house was built I should think. We then crossed the passage to another room, in which was the dirtiest, largest sink I ever saw in which the silver was washed. Also a small office partitioned off in which sat a clerk and a pussy cat, also a large furnace and an immense iron pot in which the silver was melted. But the most interesting thing in the room was a machine for making silver wire. A number of iron plates hung on the wall, bored with holes of every shape and size. A handle was turned which set some wheels going, which in their turn, started a long chain to which was attached a pair of pincers holding the end of the wire. The wire was then dragged through one of the little holes.
In the next room down some steps was a press on the same principle as the second, but heavier, and worked by two men. In the room beyond that, small twirls, chiefly belonging to candlelabras were cast. The hard plaster shapes were laid in boxes of soft sand and baked. Then the plaster was taken out and the silver poured in. There was a furnace in the room, and the pots the silver was melted in were made of plumbago.
Then we went upstairs. The walls were hung with plaster casts. Hammer! hammer! hammer! We entered a long room in which six or seven silversmiths were at work. It was a long room with tables down the middle, on one of which stood a fine completed Group. But the men were working at a long wooden bench opposite windows from which was an extensive view of chimneys; nothing to tempt them to waste their time there.
Each smith sat on a stool before an iron peg fixed in the table which he put inside his work and hammered. The hammering seemed to be done to make them the same thickness, not for shape. In this room we saw nearly all the process.
Mr. Saunders asked a workman to show us how a cup was made. The silver had first been pressed flat and cut into a circle. He held it into one of the many holes in a large wooden block, turning it round holding it in different ones, and hammering all the while with an iron hammer. Then the other smiths hammered it into the proper shape and thickness. Afterwards the first man to finish the shaping, filed it over a wooden knob which was turned by a machine in the room above. By pressing it with an instrument while it was revolving he could alter the shape wonderfully. When he rang a little bell the machine was stopped.
In a little room leading out of this was a stand on which the things were fired. It was done with gas, like all the other firing and melting which we saw. It was a brilliant flame made by mixing two currents of gas and air. The man who was doing it held the pipe in one hand, turned the stand with the other, and blew the bellows with his foot. A large vase became red hot in about five minutes. It would then be plunged into a tank of dirty looking stuff called pickIe, which the man said would burn our clothes though it could not hurt our hands. The silver went into pickle red-hot and came out a second after, brilliantly white. There was a nice little tortoiseshell cat in this room; we saw four or five in the house altogether.
In the next room (a small one) there seemed to be no working, there were some beautiful specimens of silver work. There was also a funny fat old man, talkative, might have been French; he went with us for the rest of the time and was more important than Mr. Saunders himself.
We now went along the passage, past the head of the stairs, into two rooms one out of the other, they were practically full of plaster casts which had been executed in silver. There was one large and very beautiful group of stags, which had been done for the Earl of Breadalbane, and another by a Russian artist, which had been sent over to be made. The Frenchman admired it exceedingly and said it was called the Harvest group. Here again dust was everywhere nearly concealing some of the casts. Mr. Saunders made frequent apologies for it.
We went up again-the top. Another long room above the hammering one, another cat, a row of old men sitting opposite the window engraving. It was done by hammering with small steel pins. Each old man had a bit of brown paper pinned between him and his neighbour! One was engraving a beautiful cup for the Baroness Burdett-Coutts, illustrating among other things that lady's good deed during the Bengal famine, another side a very pretty picture of a ship passing Gibraltar, another of her ladyship driving in a sledge with slightly peculiar horse, and another a battle. The old man said he had to draw it himself on the cup from the design. They must need to be very clever and they all semed very respectable and good mannered. Another was engraving a large salver.
The cups and things are filled, with a nasty compound of boiling pitch and sand. This goes hard and prevents them being hammered out of shape. Mamma asked how they would get it off the back of the salver, Oh they would put some red hot coals on it, rather a queer way to treat plate.
Now for the finishing room, first, another pussy, who dashes away surprised at the sight of so many people. Then a machine with many wheels and straps, which turns a brush, with which the silver is scrubbed after having gone through the ordeal of being rubbed or scratched with wet pumice stone, then two men dressed like French cooks, sitting before a table covered with rouge. They mixed this with a little oil and rubbed the silver with it. It was all done with the finger. Mr. Saunders said it got sore. I wonder it didn't wear off.
When this was done the silver was beautifully bright and finished; so as Mr. Saunders said frequently, we had seen the whole process of making a lump of silver into an elegant shaped cup, candelabra, etc.
There was one thing more to see, the designing. In we all went, a little sized studio with skylights, surrounded with curtains, one of which the Frenchman unceremoniously pulled aside to let us in. The work on hand was a large centre piece, a drawing of which stood on an easel, whilst the artist was busy at a plaster model.
The model, a big man in velvet cloak edged with fur, red flannel slippers and dirty white stockings, his hand resting on a roll of paper, was seated in state on the table, casting sheep's eyes at us, and representing Vasco da Gama. The artist, Mr G. A. Carter, a rather conceited little person with a long black coat, brought out, with the assistance of the Frenchman, the drawings of the rest of the collection, some of which were good, some of which weren't according to my poor judgment. I liked the centre piece very much. At the top was a figure sitting on the world and at each of the four corners, a great navigator. The globe was made, and as large as an ordinary lamp glass; this large set of plate was to be presented to the manager of the White Star Line of Steam Ships. It was the chief work on hand at the manufactory.
We now went down stairs into another studio where two gentlemen were at work designing other parts of the set. In a room leading out of it all the designs were kept, six or seven thousand.
Now we had seen everything and went into the clerk's room to wait a few minutes for the carriage. Another cat, and over the chimney piece, the very, very ancient guns with a dirty label "loaded", also a sword. Old Mr. Saunders laughed and said he was afraid they would not have much chance against a modern revolver, but they had something else, pointing to some pistols in cases.
We saw the place where the chests are kept, we crossed a court and peeped down through a grated door like a prison. They were in a cellar and hoisted out with a crane. The men have sometimes to move dozens before they get at the right one.