A brief history of the once great British hallmark.

Hallmarking is a facsinating subject and there are probably more people that collect items made of silver because of the hallmark that is on it than because they like the item.

The following is a brief history about the origin of hallmarking in the UK and in particular about Birmingham assay office as it is the office we have always used since starting to manufacture silverware over 35 years ago. Please note this article is primarily concerned with the hallmarking of silver.  The fact that Birmingham assay office have recently opened an assay office in Mumbai, India has left a particularly sour taste in many mouths not least the few Birmingham based manufacturers that are left because of their insistance on using the famous Birmingham anchor symbol on items marked there. In effect you the consumer will no longer know if an item that you are are about to purchase was made in the UK or in Timbuktu. In March of this year a Birmingham assay office spokeswoman pompously stated on TV that the Birmingham anchor mark was "NOT A MARK OF ORIGIN."

The Silverware Shop and many other Birmingham based manufacturers strongly disagree with this statement.


Hallmarking is one of the oldest forms of consumer protection and dates back to the 1300s when King Edward 1st instituted the testing (assaying) and hallmarking of items made of silver or gold. The system protected both the buyer and the seller of the goods. It protected the buyer from being ripped off by unscrupulous dealers that were seeking to profit by selling items that were not of the quality stated and it also protected honest dealers from being undercut by the same unscrupulous dealers.
 
The 1300 statute allowed the wardens, of what was to become the London Assay office, to test the gold and silver that was being crafted in workshops. The original mark applied was a Leopards head and this is still used by London assay office to this day. Only silver items were marked in these early years but items made of gold followed later.
 
In 1363 a "makers mark"  was added to the hallmark and this gave people the ability to trace the manufacturer of an item. Then in 1678 the London assay office also added a "date letter" that gave an even greater ability to trace the origin and history of an item. This system of hallmarking is one of the reasons that we know so much today about the history of our forefathers that manufactured articles made of hallmarked silver and gold. You only have to listen to any antique programme on the TV to see how this valuable information is used. If an item has an Anchor as part of the hallmark every single antique expert on the TV will say that the item was  "Marked at Birmingham assay office, " or  "It has a Birmingham Hallmark."  Similarly London has the Leopards head, Sheffield a rose and Edinburgh a castle as their symbols.
 
This was the start of a hallmarking system that was to become recognised throughout the world and was to become the envy of many countries. Some countries had a hallmarking system of some form and used metals with varying silver and gold content but nothing quite added up to the real deal of the British hallmarking system. A system that guaranteed quality and a system that provided the buyer with a complete history trail of their purchase.

Prior to 1773 there were five assay offices in the UK and Ireland. These were based in London, Chester, (closed 1962) Exeter, (closed 1883)  Edinburgh and Dublin. In 1773 both Birmingham and Sheffield were allowed to open their own assay offices by way of an act of parliament.
 
The famous industrialist Matthew Boulton was instrumental in Birmingham being granted the right to have its own assay office after joining forces with The Sheffield Cutlers Company and jointly lobbying parliament.  Matthew Boulton who had opened his famous Soho Manufactury in Birmingham in 1766 was experiencing problems getting his work hallmarked as the nearest assay offices to Birmingham were at either Chester or London. The primitive horse drawn waggon, which was the standard mode of transport at the time meant he was experiencing extensive delays,  damage to goods while in transit and there was also the risk of theft from highwaymen.
 
While staying in London during the lobbying process Boulton Lodged at a Tavern on The Strand called The Crown and Anchor and this is where many of his meetings took place.  After agreement was finally reached to allow the two new offices to open it is rumoured that a toss of a coin decided that Sheffield assay office would adopt the Crown as their symbol and Birmingham assay office the Anchor. (Sheffield dropped the crown in 1975 and replaced it for a rose which was the mark they were already using on gold items.)

 
Birmingham’s first assay office opened its doors on 31st August 1773. Its very first customer was non other than Matthew Boulton and from the moment it opened the Birmingham assay office included a “DATE LETTER” in the hallmark.

The hallmark shown below is from an item made by Matthew Boulton with the date letter for 1787. The mark may be worn but all the information is still there. The extra symbol of a Kings head is a duty mark struck to prove that a tax had been paid on the item and these marks were used from 1784 to 1890.


 
In Birmingham there is a saying if something is no good that goes,   “put it (or stick it) under the hammer”
 
This phrase is said to come from the Assay Offices process of destroying any work that did not come up to the standard required for hallmarking. 

Unfortunately for Matthew Boulton, as well as being the first customer of the Birmingham Assay Office he was also rumoured to be the first to experience this first hand. A batch of work did not come up to the standard of metal fineness required and he received back the squashed remains, that had been “put under the hammer”. Today only the Dublin assay office still destroys a whole batch of work if just one item taken at random from a batch fails the assay test.

 
If you had a piece of silverware hallmarked in 1773 at the Birmingham Assay Office the hallmark had four symbols that would tell us four different things and an example of the layout of an old style hallmark is shown below. The symbols were


1.      A MAKERS MARK, so we knew who had made the item.
2.      AN ASSAY OFFICE MARK, so we knew where the item had been hallmarked?
3.      A FINENESS MARK, so we knew the fineness of metal used. (In this case the rampant lion for Sterling Silver)
4.      A DATE LETTER, so we knew which year the item had been hallmarked.



 

So Britain had developed a hallmarking system that was to become the envy of many countries and was to be recognised throughout most of the world and this continued to be the case with rules and regulations being stringently policed and enforced for nearly 700 hundred years. Unlike some European countries that had a hallmarking system of some form or another and with some countries using metals with lower silver content nothing quite added up to the “REAL DEAL” of the British hallmarking system with its complete history trail and a date letter that changed every year. It also allowed consumers to distinguish between articles that had been made in the UK from those that had been imported because a different set of marks were used on imported items. After 1903 each assay office had its own unique mark to use on imported items but prior to this a letter "F" was stamped which just stood for FOREIGN

Two examples of imported marks are shown below. The first image is a London mark for 1900 with a simple "F" for foreign. (Picture courtesy of Tony Ellis. ) The second image is a Birmingham mark for 1904 with their symbol of a triangle that was used until 1998.




In the late 1990’s plans were afoot to change the hallmarking system as we knew it. We had already lost the famous “MAKERS MARK” to be replaced by a "SPONSORS MARK" so would never really be certain in the future who had actually made an item.

The import mark would also conveniently disappear at the behest of importers as many of them had stopped using it anyway preferring to declare their imported items as "MADE IN THE UK." 

Then finally at the end of 1998 the hallmark was revamped and the "date letter"  became a non compulsory mark as did the famous "Rampant lion" which had been the proud British symbol that denoted sterling silver for nearly 500 years.

All these changes took place and were rubber stamped by The British Hallmarking Council that issued a statement in the late 1990's along the lines of,

"AFTER WIDESPREAD CONSULTATION WITH THE JEWELLERY INDUSTRY IT HAS BEEN DECIDED THAT, etc etc"

To this day I, nor anyone that I know associated with the manufacturing silverware industry know of, or have heard of anyone that was involved in this "WIDESPREAD CONSULTATION?"

The same statement was also issued in 2013 by the British Hallmarking Council when it rubber stamped the right for UK assay offices to mark offshore. We have managed to obtain all the consultation papers and the "LIST" of "consultees" that were invited to take part and it looks odd to say the least.

Of the 50 organisations invited to take part not a single Birmingham based silverware manufacturer was included. Of the 50 organisations invited to take part only 7 bothered to reply which hardly qualifies as a "WIDESPREAD CONSULTATION."  This for something that would have such a significant effect on UK manufacturers and jobs. It is hardly suprising that only 7 of the consultees bothered to reply when you look at the list of them that included a rake of importers such as Argos and the Signet Group to name but two.  The four UK assay offices were of course included and organisations such as,

Association of British designer.
Barbara Cattle.
British antique dealers association.
Consumer focus.
Gecko distribution centre.
Fellows, (auctioneers)?
Local goverment association.
Northern Ireland assembly.
Rics fine arts and antiques.
Scottish consumer council.
Scottish government.
Sothebys.
The northern Ireland office.
The Scotland office.
The Wales office.
Welsh assembly government.

It seems like someone went to great time and trouble to make sure that the list of consultees were in the large never going to be interested in the subject which is more than likely why 43 of them never bothered to reply.  4 of the 7 replys were from the 4 UK assay offices which is no suprise.   As stated previously this is hardly what could be classed as "A WIDESPREAD CONSULTATION" is it?


It was stated quite clearly when discussed in parliament that offshore marks "SHOULD BE CLEARLY DISTINGUISHABLE FROM THOSE USED IN THE UK"   Unfortunately when the new legislation to allow offshore hallmarking was actually written the wording was apparently incorrect and both Sheffield and Birmingham assay offices saw this as an opportunity to basically defy the will of parliament and do whatever they wanted. They have both opened up overseas assay offices and used their traditional town marks on items marked there which makes it impossible for the consumer to tell the difference.



SO WHAT IS LEFT?

So what are we left with regarding the Kudos of an English Hallmark in July 2016 at time of writing this article. Earlier in this article we listed what a British hallmark meant regarding complete trace ability and its worldwide renown.  It meant a lot and had a bold and proud presence stamped into articles made of precious metals. Unfortunately it now sounds more like part of the Vera Lynne song “We'll meet again” which in stark contrast to before now reads something like this,--

Dont know who.

Dont know where.

Dont know when.


Yes unfortunately the British hallmark now only tells us one thing which is that an item is made of a particular metal so one could argue that the British hallmark is now worth only 25% of what it used to be?

 

After 700 years of striking hallmarks solely in the UK we believe that using the same hallmark abroad is not only a betrayal of UK manufacturers, but of every citizen in the UK.  The UK hallmark is something that is enshrined in our heritage.
 

What a sad end to over 700 years of British heritage. Something sold down the river by The British Hallmarking council and two of the UK assay offices for

"A FEW PIECES OF SILVER".


 
SHAME ON YOU ALL

 

 
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