The working of pewter (an alloy of tin and copper or bismuth) by casting, moulding, spinning, pressing, rolling or hand forming.
|Historic area of significance||Sheffield, Birmingham, London, Bewdley|
|Area currently practised||Sheffield and Birmingham|
|Origin in the UK||Roman|
The alloying of metals to produce functional objects of practical use is one of the oldest human production activities still in commercial production. Pewter, an alloy of predominantly tin combined with other metals (originally mainly lead) however produced an alloy that was too soft to sharpen and use as weapons – unlike bronze – but could be used for more functional domestic items. The oldest surviving pewter object, an Egyptian flask, dates from around 1500BC.
The industry was significant in the Roman Period in the UK due to plentiful supplies of local tin and lead. Many Roman plates, dishes and cups have still survived archaeologically even though pewter degrades relatively quickly in the ground. Pewter production appears to have stopped after the romans left, but reappears in the 12th century, initially mainly ecclesiastical contexts. The craft was quickly established countrywide with large centres soon to develop in London, Wigan, Bristol, Newcastle, Exeter for example. The Pewterers Company one of the London Guilds was established in 1348 to both control the setting of standards for the pewter alloy, as well as to regulate the trade across the whole of England. For most of the period until the early 18th century and the introduction and general use of porcelain and china domestically, pewter was unrivalled as a material for plates, dishes, drinking vessels and similar ware. Such items were relatively hardwearing, had an intrinsic metal value and were routinely recycled, given the low melting point of the alloy, into another pewter item.
From as early as the sixteenth century any pewter who had completed his apprentiship, become a Freeman and setting up as a Pewterer and opening his own shop was to record his ‘touch’ or trade mark. These marks would be struck on a lead touchplate normally kept at the town’s guild hall. In England, only those from London have survived, and held at Pewterers Hall. The earliest touchplates were lost in the Great Fire; the five that survive today record the marks of London Master Pewterers up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the Company no longer exercised the power to enforce regulations ion the craft. These plates provide a unique record of pewterers of the period, containing over 1,000 individual marks and are of great historical value. A new touch plate was introduced in March 2000.
For most of its history the production of pewter items was undertaken by casting the component parts of an item in expensive bronze moulds, before welding or later soldering the pieces together. The industrial revolution however saw the introduction of new manufacturing techniques, whereby sheets of pewter were cut, spun or stamped into the component parts. Articles such as teapots could be mass produced, something not possible with the casting. These new techniques saw the rise of new manufacturing centres mainly Sheffield and Birmingham and the trade from the other areas rapidly. Pewter underwent a brief renaissance during the Art Nouveau movement and today is mainly associated with trophies, trinkets and bespoke art wares.
Pewter craftsmen fall into different skill sets, with craftsmen typically specialising in a single skill. These include alloying, rolling, spinning, soldering, metalsmithing, buffing, polishing, casting, mould making, engraving and finishing.
The form of pewter work carried out in Sheffield is historically unique to Sheffield in that the pewter is worked from sheets rather than cast in moulds.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
The industry is slowing moving away from traditional production (within factories, batch production and individual skills) to a more craft based model of individual designer makers having to be multi-skilled. The surviving factories are now starting to tap into that designer maker resource more for some of their production needs.
Declining demand for pewter product – pewter is not as fashionable as it was (although its popularity is increasing with promotions such as Pewter Live).
Competition from abroad – pewter ware is labour intensive to produce (although it is still produced on fairly large scale with three family run factories (staff of 5-20 at each) and several independent craftspeople).
- The pandemic has affected the manufacturers negatively in that the products they make are linked to gatherings and celebration (tankards and trophies etc.) they are also a common gift for weddings and birthdays and are sold to tourists – therefore the loss of the busy summer period as reduced demand for the products by around 40%
- That has resulted in shorter craftspeople hours – and presents to prospect that many of the aged craft workers may not return to the trade after things get back to a more normal footing having “got used to working less”
- There will also be a resulting gap in training / new trainee recruitment and potential knowledge loss
- The long term impact on the craft could be considerable.
Craftspeople currently known
- A E Williams, Birmingham
- Steve Millingham
- Richard Abdy, Wentworth Pewter
- Ed Glover, Glover & Smith
- Ella McIntosh
- Fleur Grenier
- Trish Woods
- Gordon Robertson
- Keith Tysson
- Rebecca Marsters
- Gill Clement
- Jim Stringer
- Sharon Dickinson
- Amy Leigh
- Maria Santos-Alcántara
- JLG Pewter
- Jim Lancaster
- Partners in Pewter
A list of existing pewter manufactures can be found on the website of the Association of British Pewter Workers.