Kirby, Beard & Co.


1862  set up business at Parkwood Mills, Ipsley Stree, Redditch, England

1929 sold to Milward’s


As listed in Paris Universal Exhibition of 1878, Official Catalog of the British Section, Part 1 (second edition), Offices of the Royal Commission, London, England


Excerpts from: Gloucestershire Society for Industrial Archaeology Journal for 2005 pages 4-18

The complete article is available at Gloucester Folk Museum and the Mechanization of the Pin Industry


Nigel Cox

Kirby Beard and Co

Kirby Beard and Co moved from Gloucester to Birmingham in 1853 and subsequently amalgamated with other pin companies but the name was retained until the middle of the 20th century. They are still well known for the ‘Kirbygrip’ hair slide. Unfortunately the Birmingham factory and their London offices were destroyed by enemy action during WWII and any documentation that may have existed of their Gloucester origins was lost. Also destroyed was a very early pin machine brought from the Gloucester factory. It is believed that around 30 machines were moved from Gloucester when the firm relocated in 1853 (1).

The lack of company records means that we are dependent on indirect sources such as census returns, trade directories, wills, newspaper accounts etc. to construct a company history. Among the numerous artefacts at the Folk Museum relating to pin making is a faded clipping from the ‘Drapers Record’, the trade publication for those in the drapery business. The edition is dated 9th November 1907 and describes the history of Kirby Beard as related (presumably) from the memories of those who had taken part in the relocation from Gloucester over half a century before (full text at appendix 2). The article also includes a reproduction of a portrait of William Tovey that (again presumably) hung in the offices in Birmingham at the time (figure 3). This article is a key text from which subsequent histories have been derived and contains fascinating and intriguing references to the mechanisation of the industry.

‘…endeavours were made by the firm to substitute steam power and machines for the hand labour which had hitherto been supreme. Messrs. Kirby, Beard & Co. were the first firm to start this radical change. They commenced by setting up a steam engine for wire “drawing” and “pointing”. This was followed by machines for making pins with solid heads direct from the wire. This machine was first worked at Gloucester, and it is interesting to note that the firm had manufactured pins at that place since 1743….

The account quoted above makes it clear that mechanisation happened in stages; there was no sudden leap from hand-crafted pins to solid headed, machine made, production. Stages in the process, such as wire drawing and pointing were mechanised before the introduction of the solid head machines. Social factors too would have played a part. The Cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1847 may have accelerated the move to machines. The poor areas of alleys and yards around Archdeacon Street, The Quay and the Island were where the majority of Kirby Beard workers lived and where most deaths occurred (123 in 1832 and nearly 100 in 1847). Factory acts regulating the hours of women and children would also have reduced the supply of labour.

The Kirby Beard Partners

The pin-making factory that became Kirby Beard and Co was established around 1743 by William Cowcher (1713-83). Cowcher was an important figure in the City, becoming an Alderman. He has an impressive memorial in the South Aisle of St Nicholas Church opposite his factory that also records the names and dates of several of his children including Richard Cowcher. Richard succeeded his father in the business but died aged only 39 in 1805 (figure 2). William Cowcher built a fine town house next door to his factory that later became the company offices (still standing and now occupied by Nikki’s Taverna). Richard Cowcher established the partnership with Robert Kirby, but the Cowchers were both dead long before the first pin machines arrived.

Robert Kirby probably brought vital Capital to the business and looked after the London end of the trade. He was well connected and became a Sheriff of London in 1816. The Gloucester pin makers all maintained London warehouses. These were situated near London Bridge in the City and were where the majority of the production was traded. By 1820 two further partners, George Beard (1810) and William Tovey (1815) had joined. George Beard succeeded the Cowchers as pin maker and William Tovey (figure 3) worked primarily as the regional or country salesman. Tovey, who died in 1823, was a huge man weighing 23 stone. The names of Tovey and Cowcher were later dropped and the firm appeared as Kirby, Beard and Company by the 1840’s.

Kirby Beard was the most important pin firm in Gloucester, and lasted the longest. The 1851 Census records George Beard aged 34, son of the first George Beard, as a pin-maker employing 132 hands. In its latter days at Gloucester, the firm’s premises included the present numbers. 99, 101, 103 and 105 Westgate Street -the offices being in number 105. Clearly in 1851 this was still a substantial business. Within two years George Beard had moved the business to Birmingham and 30 years later he is living in a substantial house in Solihull, Hillfield Hall, with six servants including a butler (6).

The story of the partners and of the relationships, marital, personal and business, between Gloucester’s pin makers in the first half of the 19th century is not yet well researched. In this context the Gutch deposit at Worcester County Records Office has huge potential. The Gutch archive contains information about the smaller Gloucester pin making concern of Hall and English and has many references to Kirby Beard with whom they had familial ties and maintained a price association.


I am indebted to Brian Jowett, probably the last man in England to manage a pin factory. He was group production manager for Newey and Tayler in Birmingham, incorporating Kirby Beard. Mr Jowett’s visit to the Folk Museum in 2005 and subsequent detailed observations on past publications and surviving artefacts inspired this article. It is hoped that with his help a further article answering some of the questions set out above will appear in the future.


From The Drapers Record November 9th 1907

In addition to pins, Messrs, Kirby, Beard & Co. manufacture hairpins of all sorts and sizes, while at their establishment at Redditch they produce needles.

The firm have depots in London and Paris, and an agency in New York, to aid in the distribution of the goods, as well as agents in various parts of the world.



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