Signs and Wonders 23: The ultimate busy bee

Evening Post, 16 Feb 2006

WHERE: Broadway, Lace Market.

WHAT: The other week’s story about Plumptre House rang a peal of bells for reader D. Allen.

He began work at Birkin’s warehouse, which replaced the house, in 1943, aged 14, and stayed with Birkin firms for another 51 years. He writes to point out several other notable details around the arch that holds the Plumptre “relics”.

The chief one is the scroll over the arch, which gives a wealth of information. Top right is an architect’s dividers and square, with the initials TCH — for T.C. Hine, perhaps Victorian Nottingham’s defining architect. He built this warehouse, and Adams’s yet more magnificent one, restored the castle and masterminded The Park.

Below it is a builder’s hammer and trowel and “GH”: for Garland and Holland, the firm that put up the warehouse.

On the right is Richard Birkin’s emblem, a bee, for industry. His initials and the date, 1855, flank that. Then there’s another (far right) RB and a TB for his sons Richard and Thomas, who were to take over running of the firm in 1856.

Richard, the father, as Stanley Chapman’s recent piece for Notts Historian spells out, was the scariest sort of Victorian self-made man. He began work at a mill in Belper, aged seven, moved to Nottingham at 17, and quickly gained such a mastery of lace machines that his employer, Thomas Biddle, took him into partnership.

The two rode the lace boom of the 1830s, then became dominant players in the 1840s, when they were the first to exploit the more sophisticated Jacquard loom.

By 1851, Birkin was senior enough to be a lace judge at the Great Exhibition. Five years later, still in his 50s, he bought himself a manor (Aspley Hall) in which to retire. Then he began a second career as one of the town’s great and good: three times mayor, leading magistrate, Midland Railway director. His business legacy was solid enough to endure 150 years.