Gillott, Joseph (DNB00)

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GILLOTT, JOSEPH (1799–1873), steel pen maker and art patron, the son of a workman in the cutlery trade, was born at Sheffield 11 Oct. 1799, and commenced life as a working cutler, soon becoming a ‘noted hand’ at forging and grinding knife blades. In 1821, no longer finding any work in his native place, he removed to Birmingham, where his employment was in the ‘light steel toy trade,’ the technical name for the manufacture of steel buckles, chains, and other works and ornaments of that kind. About 1830 his attention was called to the manufacture of steel pens. Such pens were then laboriously cut with shears out of the steel, and trimmed and fashioned with a file. He adapted the ‘press’ to the making of pens. With much ingenuity and unflagging perseverance he experimented on different qualities of steel and the various ways of preparing it for use. One of his chief troubles was the extreme hardness of the pens. This he obviated by cutting side slits in addition to the centre slit, which had been solely in use up to that period. To this was afterwards added the cross grinding of the points; and these two processes imparted an elasticity to the pen, making it in this respect nearly equal to a quill. For some years he kept his method of working secret, fashioning his pens with his own hand, assisted by a woman, his first pens being ‘blued’ in a frying-pan over a garret fire. At first he worked for others, selling his pens for a shilling each to a firm of stationers called Beilby & Knott. His business rapidly increased. It was at first established in Bread Street, Birmingham, then removed to Church Street, then to 59 Newhall Street, and finally to his great works in Graham Street, Newhall Hill, in 1859. The simplicity, accuracy, and readiness of the machinery employed enabled him to produce steel pens in large quantities, and as he sold them at high prices he rapidly made a fortune. He ultimately employed 450 persons, who produced upwards of five tons per week, and the price of the pens was reduced from 1s. each to 4d. the gross. From his earliest years as an employer he spared no cost or pains to benefit his workpeople to the utmost of his power. His works afforded all convenience and comfort to the persons employed. He established a benevolent society among the workpeople, to which he subscribed liberally. He seldom changed his managers, and never had a dispute with his ‘hands.’ As soon as he had money to spare he began to buy pictures. The collection constantly grew both in quality and in size, until at last his house in the Westbourne Road, Edgbaston, and his residence at Stanmore, near London, were crowded with gems of English art. The great strength of the collection lay in Turners and Ettys, the last-named artist being a special friend of the collector. He appreciated Turner's talents before they had been generally recognised, and purchased his paintings when others doubted. The collection was also very rich in examples of Linnell, Maclise, Mulready, David Roberts, Prout, and other English artists. After the owner's death the paintings were sold for 170,000l. Webster's ‘Roast Pig,’ a picture painted on commission, for which Gillott gave 700 guineas, realised 3,550 guineas. His collection of violins, on which he much prided himself, was also disposed of, producing 4,000l. For many years Gillott's face was familiar at the Birmingham Theatre, where he attended nearly every evening, and then adjourned to the Hen and Chickens Hotel to smoke his ‘churchwarden’ and converse with his friends. Until about ten days before his death failing eyesight was the only sign he gave of old age. On the day after Christmas day 1872 he entertained as usual some of his children and their friends; the next morning he was attacked by a complication of pleurisy and bronchitis, and died at Westbourne Road, Edgbaston, Birmingham, 5 Jan. 1873. He married Miss Mitchell, a sister of John and William Mitchell, the steel pen makers. On 16 March 1873 his personality was sworn under 250,000l.

[Practical Magazine (1873), i. 322–5, with portrait; Timmins's Birmingham and Midland Hardware District (1866), pp. 634–7; Mayhew's Shops and Companies of London (1865), pp. 98–100; Edwards's Personal Recollections of Birmingham (1877), pp. 89–100; Annual Register, 1872, p. 38.]

G. C. B.