Silversmiths, Medallists & Badge Makers.
(By Royal Appointment to Geo.V; VI and EIIR)
The name of J R Gaunt & Son used to be prominent in the Quarter but is now almost forgotten, other than by those who have worked here for decades. Recently people have noticed various young men wearing smart black uniforms bearing a J R Gaunt logo in the shops at lunchtime, the Post Office and around the Quarter, so perhaps it is time to remind people about J R Gaunt.
At their peak J R Gaunt & Son were the largest manufacturers of Uniform Accoutrements in the British Empire, with offices in Montreal, New York, Christchurch, Bombay and London, St James’, just off Regent Street, all supplied from their Warstone Parade Works in Birmingham.
The Gaunt family can trace their manufacturing roots back to 1733 near Rowley Regis and were being described as ‘Button Men of Summerhill’ in 1767. Button making is the historical core to Gaunts’ and remains so to this day.
The eponymous J R Gaunt was James Richard Gaunt, who worked for Firmin & Sons in London. His son, Charles Frederick Gaunt was born in 1864 and in due course was apprenticed as a clerk. Firmin moved to St Paul’s Square, Birmingham in 1882 by which time James Richard Gaunt is recorded as living at 317 Camden Street (1881 census), by then having risen to manage Firmin’s Birmingham button works.
The Gaunts’ left Firmin’s together to found J R Gaunt & Son in 1884. In 1888, at the age of 24 years, C F Gaunt took over the running of the company and relocated it to 33 Clifford Street, Lozells. He soon became very much the person to make the company name so important, concentrating on Foreign (Empire) trade, as the Domestic market was very competitive. He filed over 100 patents between 1885 and 1935, covering both working practices such as safety improvements for operators of fly presses (modern manufacturers take note) and products being made by the company.
In 1895 Gaunt purchased the Works previously owned by David Faris, book clasp maker (which is why their telegraph address was ‘Clasps, Birmingham’) and moved to Warstone Parade East. The Faris works blew up due to a faulty boiler in 1912 and with the insurance payout of £15,000 (£1.45 million today) a smart new Works was built. This covered a very large area between Alfred Street (now renamed Pemberton Street) and Warstone Parade East, backing up to the Cemetery.
During WW1 the company employed over 600 people and worked round the clock, supplying cap badges and buttons for every branch of the Empire Armed Forces.
Charles F Gaunt went on to be elected to the Board of Guardians in 1904, then a councillor for St Paul’s Ward in 1907, a seat he held until elected an Alderman in 1915. He chaired the Museum & Art Gallery Committee and was a substantial benefactor to the Public collections. On a more modest scale, he co-founded (with Mr E L Gyde) the Highbury Hall Club in 1911, which was a social lunch club for workers in the Jewellery District.
It provided a cooked lunch on a modest profit basis for hundreds of people and gave them a place to eat and socialise. It was the first club of its kind and was soon copied in other Cities; another also opened at the Peoples Hall, Hurst Street. Alderman Gaunt remained active both in Birmingham life and the business into his early 70’s, when he retired. He died in Hove, Sussex in 1939.
J R Gaunt acquired many other companies over the years, one of which was the London based sword-makers Edward Thurkle in 1897 and by 1905 had opened a London office at 53, later 60, Conduit Street. The telegraphic address was ‘Fourreau, London’, which means [sword] sheath.
J.R. Gaunt & Son, were Military, Naval, Railway and Police Button and Ornament manufacturers and also made Helmet and Belt fittings, Scotch Brooches, Buckles, Clasps, Hooks & Eyes, Whistles, and Regulation Harness Ornaments, in every material.
They were renowned Die Sinkers and Medallists and manufactured Swords, Lances, Boarding Pikes, Livery, Crest, Hunt, Yacht, Golf, Club, Fancy, Anchor, and Trouser Buttons, as well as many advertising novelties and promotional items, including Butlins, cycling proficiency, Girl Guides and Golliwog badges.
Collectors regard Gaunt hallmarked Officers’ cap badges as being the epitome of those manufactured and Gaunt medals of the highest quality also. Many of the latter, both civilian and military from WWI until the early 1960’s, were modelled by one of the best British sculptors of the period, retained by Gaunt as their ‘House Designer’ for such work throughout his career.
This was Edward Carter Preston, the designer of the bronze memorial plaquettes presented to the families of British servicemen and women who died during the First World War (the ‘Dead Man’s Penny’).
Although known for some of the highest quality traditional trades, such as vitreous enamelling and mercury gilding (being the last company in the Quarter to do this latter) the Company moved with the times, embracing new technologies as they were developed, even introducing some themselves, researching and fine tuning processes which are today taken for granted, such as Anodising Aluminium.
J R Gaunt went through a number of changes after 1973, when the family control was relinquished and The Birmingham Mint bought the company. Mr Eric Watts was Managing Director at the time of the takeover.
He had worked for the company for 25 years and moved his way up through the Works, being Sales Manager, General Manager, and Sales Director to the position of Managing Director. Being a staunch Brummagem it was well known that he didn’t appreciate the ‘J.R. Gaunt London’ marked on most of the badges, and when the dies wore out, he quietly changed the new ones to read ‘J.R. Gaunt Birmingham’!
Gaunt diversified into making industrial badges for well known brands such as Fergusons, New World, Aga, Jaguar, Aston Martin and many others. A new divisional factory was opened in Telford to supply these and the Warstone Works was demolished and redeveloped in 1982, with the rest of the Company moving to share part of the Mint site, then later to Lower Tower Street.
By 1993, it ceased manufacture of anything under its own name and slipped into dormancy and obscurity.
Source: The Hockley Flyer September 2014
£600,000 purchase by Mint B’ham
The Mint, Birmingham, Ltd, has bought J R Gaunt and Son for £600,000 cash, of which £450,000 was paid on completion; the balance will be paid on January 1 next.
J R Gaunt, a private company, is the leading United Kingdom manufacturer of military, hunt and decorative buttons, military cap badges, medals and other military regalia. It also makes nameplates and trims for a variety of industries.
The purchase brings together businesses with sales of £4.7m. Gaunt has its headquarters and main factory immediately adjacent to The Mint.
Source: The Times June 1973
‘The Board of J R Gaunt & Son Limited (‘Gaunts’) and Firmin & Sons pic (‘Firmins’) are pleased to announce that the Insignia and Factored businesses formerly carried on by Gaunts have been purchased by Firmins, who have agreed to take over all the outstanding contracts of those businesses.
Gaunts has been located for the last two years in the Icknield Street factory which also accommodates the activities of The Birmingham Mint Limited.
Due to the need to install plant and machinery recently ordered by The Birmingham Mint Limited in the area currently occupied by the Gaunts business, the Board of The Birmingham Mint Limited have reluctantly had to take the decision to sell the Gaunt’s business.
This decision was not taken lightly, but we believe that by selling this business to Firmins, a company with long history and experience in this market, the best interests of the customers and employees of Gaunts will be served’.
Source: The Times 19 February 1991