BLOG: Behind plate glass shopfronts; workshops, apprentices and errand boys by John Culme

6th April 2021
BLOG: Behind plate glass shopfronts; workshops, apprentices and errand boys by John Culme Image

What follows has been inspired by a silver-gilt and startling-pink enamel toilet set (pictured above) made just after the end of the First World War by C.H. Dumenil Ltd. and retailed by The Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Co. Ltd. It was sold by Matthew Barton of Olympia Auctions in 2019.

The contrast between The Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Company Ltd's grand Regent Street emporium, with its huge plate glass windows and dazzling stock of silver and jewellery, clocks and watches and Dumenil's, only four or five minutes' cab drive away in cramped Soho, could not have been greater. The former was opened with a flourish in 1880 as 'undoubtedly one of the most elegantly fitted up [shops] in London,' whereas the latter, in a terrace house built nearly 160 years earlier in the 1720s, presented no such interesting sight to the outside world. 

Charles Henry Dumenil (20 December 1853 – 6 February 1921) was the second son of Etienne Alexandre Duménil (1827-1874), an ivory turner, carver and tobacco pipe maker who was born into a Whitechapel Huguenot family. By 1851 Etienne had moved to Queen's Head Court, Great Windmill Street, Soho, a stone's throw away from Fribourg & Treyer of the Haymarket, the well-established tobacconists and purveyors of pipes and other smokers' requisites. Although Charles Henry Dumenil was described as a jeweller when in 1873 he married Clara Hodder Brealey, the daughter of a local tailor, he may at first have been working closely with his elder brother, Etienne Alexander Dumenil junior (14 March 1852 – 5 July 1941), a carver, pipe maker and whip mounter who eventually emigrated to Australia. By 1879, however, the two were in separate, near neighbouring premises in Soho, respectively at 60 Poland Street and 74 Berwick Street.

A later account of Charles Henry Dumenil's early days in business suggested that he was then principally a naturalists' mounter, working for the taxidermist, Rowland Ward's shop, 'The Jungle,' 166 Piccadilly, which did a brisk trade in silver-mounted horse hoof inkwells, deer leg candlesticks and the like. In 1881, while retaining his two workshops at the rear of 60 Poland Street, C.H.Dumenil expanded his concern by moving his headquarters to 16 Broad Street, Soho, just across the road from the infamous water pump from which in 1854 Dr. John Snow had removed the handle in his research into the cause of cholera.

Dumenil's, which was converted into a limited liability company in 1898, eventually specialised in the making of 'tortoiseshell goods, gold & silver dressing bag fittings, also toilet sets, table mirrors, cigar & cigarette boxes, clocks, & wholesale only', expanding still further into 17 Broad Street. In 1938 C.H. Dumenil Ltd. was acquired by Paggett & Braham Ltd.

As with many Victorian and Edwardian London-based businesses connected with the manufacturing jewellery and silver trades, very little is known of their day-to-day operations. For the most part even the names of their employees are unknown and descriptions of their factories, workshops and offices are rare or vague. For instance, a visitor in 1894 to Holland, Aldwinckle & Slater of Hosier Lane, one of the biggest silver factories in the metropolis, gives us this tantalisingly uninformative account: 'the heavy thuds and ring of anvils that arise from below convince one that there is indeed such a trade as a silversmith, and that some branches of the trade include something more than the soldering of a piece of silver wire, and the tap of a penny hammer. These immense galleries, too, as one passes through them, and sees room after room filled with sterling metal, make one feel that one had the legendary days of Solomon returned again.'

We do know, however, that Dumenil's workshops at 60 Poland Street were in a courtyard behind the main building, which was mainly occupied in the 1890s by tailors and tailoresses, including Mrs.Hannah Mozley, a waistcoat maker. This information is gleaned from contemporary rate books and the 1891 Census return. Neither the adjacent 59, 60 nor 61 Poland Street survives, but no. 62, the Star and Garter public house (apparently dating to the early 19th century) does. Apart from maps, further clues as to the nature of the lost buildings and their occupants are found in reports of the prosecution of Theodore Marckwardt, a Hamburg-born acrobat, who, with various confederates, was charged in September 1890 at Marlborough Street Magistrates' Court with maintaining an ill-governed house at the rear of 59 Poland Street. This was known as the German Athletic Club, of which Marckwardt was the proprietor, comprising a large room 'fitted with a bar and laid out with small tables like . . . ordinary foreign drinking places. In another room was a piano . . .' Local residents were called as witnesses to the fact that 'the premises had been frequented by disorderly women, who went there after the public-houses closed . . . and that persons living close by were kept awake by the piano-playing and singing.' Mrs. Mozley ('Moslyn') deposed that she was a ratepayer and that there was 'so much nose inside the club that it was impossible for anyone to get rest.' The commotion regularly continued so far into the night that Clement Henry Spencer (1863-1899),,a brass worker who habitually arrived for work at 60 Poland Street at 6 a.m. from his home in Hammersmith, heard 'singing, halloaing [sic], and shouting, and that sort of thing.' 

As for C.H. Dumenil and his family, they were by this time spared the inconvenience of nocturnal inner city life, either in Poland Street or at Broad Street, by living in Soudan Road in the tranquil neighbourhood of transpontine Battersea Park (i.e. south of the River Thames).

Whether Clement Spencer worked for Dumenil is unknown but it seems likely that an 11-year-old lad called Henry Wolfe did, probably in the capacity of an errand or messenger boy for the firm at 16 Broad Street. In September 1906 he was taken from there to Charing Cross Hospital 'after playing with some machinery . . . when his hand was smashed between two cog wheels.'

The serious subject of children in the workplace had long been of concern to social reformers. Most unfortunate of all were the chimney sweepers' assistants, the so-called 'climbing boys' who under an Act of Parliament of 1840 were forbidden to be employed under the age of 21. This was largely ignored, however, and the compilers of the reports of the Children's Employment Commission in the 1860s were shocked to find that at least 2,000 boys between the ages of 5 and 10 were still employed as sweeps all over England.

For this later enquiry many factories and workshops connected with the metal trades and other light industries were visited. Francis Davy Longe (1831-1910), an Assistant Commissioner on the Children's Employment Commission between 1862 and 1867, visited Mordan's factory at 41 City Road, London of which the senior partner was Sampson Mordan (7 April 1814 – 9 May 1881). This celebrated firm was known principally as patentees of 'the ever-pointed pencil' (propelling pencils) but its range over time grew from pencils, letter balances, inkstands and patent locks to silver and silver-mounted scent flasks, vesta cases, chatelaines and other gold and silver novelties. These, stocked by all the best retailers of luxury goods, included paper knives and pencils modelled after one of the assegai seized in 1879 from Cetshwayo, King of the Zulu during the Battle of Kambula and presented to Queen Victoria. In fact, Mordan's silver pencils were renowned for the variety of their designs in the shapes of buoys, tennis rackets, pistols, owls with boot-button eyes, champagne bottles, &c., &c., even one formed as a figure of John Bull.

Mordan informed Longe that of his roughly 300 hands about 45 were boys between the ages of 12 and 20. 'Most of these boys are apprentices by deed to different trades,' he said. 'Some are apprentice lock makers, others are apprentice pencil makers. Our lads are generally our workmen's sons. . . The hours of work are from 6 to 6 in summer, and from 8 to 8 in the winter, with two hours out of that time for meals.' One of Mordan's apprentices was 15 year-old William Samuel Ward (1849-1910) who had worked since he was 10, first with watchmakers before learning his trade as a (gold and silver propelling) pencil case maker. By the time of the 1881 Census he was married with three children, one of whom, Alfred Edwin Ward (1872-1922) became a jewel case maker.

Another of Mordan's boys, John Neil, 19, told Longe that before becoming an apprentice silversmith with the firm he had worked since he was about 11, first washing plates at an eating-house, then as a grinder at a glass cutter's before moving to work at a lithographic print works. After that he was one of 60 boys at a machine ruler's (i.e. minding machines for making the lines on the pages of account books and ledgers, &c.). Then he worked for another printer before spending two and a half years making violet powder at a perfumer's.

For nearly two centuries until the 1940s the general area of Clerkenwell and Islington north of the City of London, where Mordan's was located, was a major centre for the manufacturing silver, jewellery, watch and clock trades. So it was hardly surprising that in Victorian times a Juvenile Industrial Exhibition was organized there. This was not the first nor the last of its kind, but, in the improving spirit of the day (1865), the gentlemen of the committee stated that they wished to 'develop the ideas of the young of both sexes' and that 'if an exhibition was opened especially for juveniles, it would afford the greatest encouragement to the rising generation, and tend to raise them in the moral, social, and spiritual scale.' They were not disappointed; the exhibition, which took place at St. Paul's Schoolroom in Allen Street, proved a success, showing the talents of school boys and girls, errand boys and apprentices as well as those who had lately completed their training.

The exhibits were varied, including a model of St. Paul's Schools submitted by Alice Jane Allen, aged 9 and a walnut and tulip wood frame by John Knight, aged 15, a looking glass frame maker. Visitors were also able to see many other items, including:

A model of a cannon by William Richard Penn, 14, a gold watchmaker's apprentice, son of James Williams Penn, a silversmith.

A model of a metal oak tree, plated, by Alfred Charles Hammon (1847-1918), an 18 year-old goldsmith and jeweller of 9 Northampton Square, the premises of James Hammon & Sons, watch and chronometer manufacturers.

A puppet show by Henry A. Lee, 14, a jeweller's apprentice who subsequently became a stone setter.

An engraved plate by silver engraver, Joseph William Hall, 15, a carpenter and builder's son.

An inkstand, representing a helmet, by William Nathaniel Wolrich (1848-1933), 17, silversmith of 21 Easton Street, Clerkenwell, a porter's son.

Not all were so conscientious, however. The case of 22 year-old Walter Palfrey is interesting, not least because he was an apprentice with Charles Frederick Hancock (12 May 1807 – 10 February 1891), the renowned jeweller, authority on pearls and court goldsmith at 39 Bruton Street, corner of New Bond Street, Mayfair. By 1860 Palfrey, the illegitimate son of Jane Steinmayer (née Palfrey,1812/16-1874), had completed his training and was employed as a silver chaser in Hancock's 'back factory' (as opposed to the 'front shop') for a weekly salary of between £2 and £3 (approximately £118 to £177 at today's values).

One day Palfrey gave in to temptation and stole a customer's diamond and opal ring which had been left for repair. The journey which the ring then made gives some idea as to the complex nature of a retail goldsmiths' business and what lay behind its façade. On 12 May 1860 the customer had visited Hancock's and had left her ring for repair with William Dewling (Duling?), one of the shopmen. He in turn gave it to Thomas Ellis, a workman in the employ of Stephen Rutter (bap. 26 June 1813 - 19 November 1870), a practical jeweller employed by C.F. Hancock, with a workshop at 5 Golden Square, Soho. Having reset and polished the opals he sent it back to Bruton Street about a week later via his errand boy, Thomas Coombes who left it with one of the assistants. The inference, perhaps, was that he delivered it to Palfrey, who it was said occasionally left his duties in the factory. Months later, about 15 September, Palfrey's mother asked George Foley, 'a dealer in jewellery' at 29 Little Pulteney Street, Soho, but in fact a trader in old clothes, if he wanted to buy a diamond.

Foley agreed to purchase the stone for £25 (nearly £1,500 at today's values) after seeking advice from Drayson & Burwash, jewellers and diamond workers, at nearby 15 & 16 Brewer Street, Golden Square. Later Charles Dupin Drayson (22 December 1836 – 30 July 1903) of Drayson & Burwash produced the diamond in court. A few days later Mrs. Steinmayer sold the gold ring and two opals to Samuel Ferdinando Stanley (19 February 1832 – 16 May 1890), a watch and clockmaker at 41 Princes Street, Leicester Square. He gave her 5s. 6d. each for the opals and 7s. 6d.for the gold. Both Walter Palfrey and his mother were found guilty when the case came to trial at the Old Bailey on 22 October 1860. They were each sentenced to four months' imprisonment, in Walter's case at the Coldbath Fields House of Correction.

Unreliable or not, industry in the 19th and early 20th centuries relied heavily on young workers. In Clerkenwell in the 1860s and '70s, the 'APPRENTICES & BOYS WANTED' column in the local newspaper (The Clerkenwell News) was a regular feature. It seems that every trade, shop and office required them. A random sample shows that John Radford, mediaeval mounter of Radford's Cabinet Mount Works, 7 Red Lion Street (now Britton Street), Clerkenwell needed a 'Lad . . . used to Soldering Metal or Jewellery work'; Henry Robert Batchelor, a chaser of 149 St. John Street Road, required a 'respectable, intelligent Lad, as outdoor [i.e. not living in] Apprentice to the Ornamental Engraving'; Wright & Davies, manufacturing silversmiths of 370 Oxford Street, advertised for an errand boy; and Herbert James Beeton & Son, goldsmiths, 8 Newman Street, Oxford Street, 'Wanted a strong Boy, used to Wire Drawing.'

Were it possible, it would be interesting to discover what these lads did in later life. For a few, however, there would be no future, such as George Howse, the well-regarded errand boy at Godwin & Son, retail silversmiths and jewellers, 304 High Holborn. On the night of 18 August 1865, as he was reading The Pickwick Papers, the servant of the house took away his candle. It was presumed at the subsequent inquest that Howse, who was 15, was so provoked by this act that he hanged himself 'behind the washroom door.' 

Although after his incarceration at Her Majestys pleasure Walter Palfrey continued his career as a silver chaser, employer unknown, he died in 1872 when only in his mid 30s.

As for Henry Wolfe (Henry Alfred Wolfe, 2 October 1895 – 28 July 1956), the errand boy who we met near the beginning of this article in 1906 following his cog wheel accident at Dumenil's, he recovered. In the 1911 Census we find him described as a messenger boy and by 1939 he was working as a corn chandler's manager.


A George V silver-gilt ten-piece toilet set decorated with translucent pink enamel over engine-turning, maker's mark of C.H. Dumenil Ltd., London, 1918-21, in original gilt-tooled pink morocco leather case retailed by The Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Co. Ltd. of 112 Regent Street, London, W. (Matthew Barton Ltd., 23 May 2019, lot 431, £1,200)

(left to right) Nos. 17 and 16 Broad Street, Soho, at the end of a short terrace of six houses built in 1722/23, together with no. 15. Since 1937 these have become respectively nos. 50, 48 and 46 Broadwick Street.