The history boy

The history boy

The West Midlands is famed for the skills of its ‘metal bashers’, but not many operate in the niche pewter industry. And only one can claim to be a family firm with a history dating back to 1779...

The fingers on young Sam Williams’ hand slide and click into action when I ask to see the range of pewter products made by the A.E. Williams company.

His computer mouse quickly calls up a picture on the screen of the great dining hall at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, with line upon line of children waiting for their dinner. “You see all those plates in front of Harry Potter and all the other pupils? They were all made in our workshops,” says Sam, proudly.

He clicks his mouse again: “Here’s Michelle Pfeiffer with her hand round one of our goblets in Stardust.”

Another click: “And that’s our jug that Robert De Niro is pouring from in the same film.” Suddenly, he’s off: Rowan Atkinson clutching a pewter goblet in Black Adder, little William Miller holding a pewter bowl in the BBC’s latest film of Oliver Twist, Russell Crowe glaring over shiny pewter candelabra in Master and Commander, and Johnny Depp emptying a pewter tankard in Pirates of the Caribbean 4.

All these film props were made with loving care and attention by master craftsmen at A. E. Williams, based in Digbeth, Birmingham. There’s more: Sweeney Todd, Robin Hood, Titanic, Les Miserables and countless other cinema blockbusters all used the firm’s products, because nowhere else can producers find pewter items that look and feel so historic.

History, of course, is what A.E. Williams is all about. The family company has been making Pewter since the 18th century, and several of the current family shareholders are members of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers, just like their ancestors.

At this stage, Sam flicks through various papers and internet pages as he tries to remember whether he is the sixth or seventh generation, so we use my notebook to draw a rough and ready tree.

The story begins back in 1779 when Thomas Williams began making pewter on the Welsh border, near Bristol. His son, Richard Williams, took over in 1835, followed by his son, Ernest Williams, from 1865, moving to Birmingham by the end of the 19th century.

In 1900, Ernest’s son, Albert Williams, took charge, and his son, Thomas Williams, ran the firm from 1945. Then, in 1987, Thomas split the firm equally to his son, David Williams, and his son-in-law, Barry Johnson.

Today, Barry’s son Stephen Johnson is a joint partner with David, and David’s son Sam Williams, aged 23, has recently become a junior partner. And so we decide that the original Thomas Williams is Sam’s great, great, great, great, great grandfather – making Sam the seventh generation of Williams in the family company’s history.

Sam’s taking me on a mini-tour of the workshops now, and he points out the age of the moulds that result in such vintage pewter ware. “This one’s a plate mould dating back to the early 18th century, part of an entire stock of moulds that was part of the James Yates Collection that we bought back in 1990.”

We’re in a darkened room with no windows, and the metal shelves around me are sagging with the weight of hundreds upon hundreds of bronze moulds used to shape the various pewter designs.

“You must have hundreds of different products,” I venture. “Hundreds?” smiles Sam. “There are five thousand more moulds stored upstairs,” he laughs, “and some of them make parts for up to five different products. You can work out how many products that makes.”

Now Sam’s stopped in front of a small pile of tin ingots, a tangle of copper bars and a small case of antimony, explaining how the pewter’s made. Depending on the grade, you mix between 92% to 96% of tin with 2% to 5% of copper, and then add 1% to 3% of antimony.

The latter, Sam explains, is fairly lethal stuff in itself, but in tiny quantities within pewter it acts as a bleach, continuously cleaning the alloy and therefore making it hygienic to eat and drink from.

Sam’s tour continues. We pass fires that can heat the pewter to 400 degrees Fahrenheit before it’s carefully poured into moulds, then watch turning machines at work with craftsmen completing the shapes of products, and see other workers at polishing machines making them shine.

We walk through several rooms storing the company’s stock: piles of plates, bowls and spoons, rows of goblets and tankards, and shelves of candlesticks and candelabra in all shapes and sizes.

“That’s what we call ‘period pewter’,” says Sam, “the kind of thing you see in Tudor dramas and in historic castles.” It’s these products that helped to make up a major order from the Crown Estate in 2008, when A.E. Williams helped to restock the kitchens and dining rooms at Hampton Court Palace in Richmond upon Thames.

Another Crown Estate order followed in 2009 for celebrations to mark the 500th anniversary of the crowning of King Henry VIII, and Sam shows me dozens of pictures of re-enactments using their pewter products. But although the company is proud of its ‘period pewter’, it’s had to move with the times in recent years, diversifying its products to meet new demands of giftware markets and changing fashions.

Sam now opens box after box of modern pewter products: fob pocket watches, cufflinks, tie bars, letter openers, thimbles, clocks and picture frames, to name just a few. “Pewter’s just such a versatile metal,” says Sam.

“People say ‘can you do this, or this’ and if the demand is there, we just find a way. I could make you a pewter replica of that pen you’re holding, or of your mobile phone – and sometimes that’s the kind of thing people want.”

It’s this flexibility and diversity that has helped to keep A.E. Williams going for the last 234 years, now employing 18 staff and with annual turnover “well over £1m” and steadily rising. “We’ve survived because we’ve adapted,” says Sam, now sitting down with me at desks in the firm’s narrow management office.

“Come war or recession, to get through it starts with the person. “And whether that’s been my father or grandfather, and all the other ancestors, they’ve had to want to get through those difficult periods. And if that ‘want’ is there, they make it happen by adapting – either with new products, or with new manufacturing methods, or by responding to changing fashions.

“I’ve got this theory that those fashions change every 40 to 50 years. Back in the 1960s, I understand that tankards were all the fashion for birthdays, retirements and so on. Twenty or 30 years ago, there was not so much demand for them. But now, 50 years later, tankards are back!

“Fob pocket watches are another good example. If you’d told my dad 10 to 15 years ago that they’d be popular, he’d have laughed. But now, we can’t make enough of them. So we keep all our moulds, and as fashions change we bring out the old ones again.”

As he talks, Sam enthuses, and even though he’s only 23 you can tell that he’s ‘caught’ the pewter-making bug.

“Absolutely,” he says. “Not that it’s what I thought would happen. Dad didn’t want me to feel comfortable just coming to work in the family factory.

“Originally, I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, and even started studying the subject at university in Coventry, but it wasn’t what I imagined. Then I had thoughts of becoming an electrician.

"But I eventually started work at the Co-op, and mixed that with some temporary work down here in the workshop. And then you just get hooked."

That was when Sam was just turning 18, and nearly six years later he’s still learning the pewter trade, slowly becoming an expert in each and every part of the craft to carry on in the family tradition.

As things stand, Sam’s still single, so does that expectation of progression weigh heavily on his shoulders? “Yes and no,” he answers.

“I don’t feel it’s on my shoulders now because dad’s still here and Stephen’s also a partner. But I do think about 30 years down the line – in that I still want to be here in 30 years time, and so there’s all the business that we have to continue running to get there.

“And yes, I do want to get to where my dad’s sat now, with my own family, my own children, and thinking who am I going to pass this history onto next. But that’s a long time away.”

And at this point, Sam has to break off to deal with hotel bookings in Glasgow, where he and several staff are heading that afternoon to attend a giftware trade fair, selling their new designs and keeping an eye out for any trends that might trigger ideas for new products.