1760 saw the dawn of the industrial revolution in England and the ascension of King George III to the throne. Alexander Betts came from Battle in Sussex to the village of Birmingham to set up a smelting and refining business to recover gold and silver ores and recover precious metals from wastes being produced in Birmingham’s newly established Jewellery Quarter. The business was known as Betts and Sons.
Alexander Betts died in 1781 and his son Edward carried on the business until his death in 1817. His grave can be found in St Paul’s churchyard in the Jewellery Quarter where he is buried with other Betts ancestors. His sons John and William continued the family business which expanded and prospered for the next century as Birmingham grew to be known as the “workshop to the world”. John led the business until the late 1840’s and died in 1864 at the age of ninety. He was an energetic man and was one of the first sixteen elected aldermen of the first council of the city of Birmingham on its incorporation as a city in 1838. During his tenure the company became known as John Betts & Sons Ltd.
When Abraham Lincoln was elected president of America in 1860, the company reached 100 years of profitable business, and in the late 19th century the company continued to expand at its works in Charlotte Street, Birmingham and 131 Long Acre in London. In 1874 Alfred and his brother John Betts bought the adjacent land to Charlotte Street on the corner with Newhall Street for £2050 (approximately £2.5m in today’s terms) in order to expand the works. Unfortunately, due to a corrupt lawyer the brothers were left without the land or the money. Subsequently the Birmingham Assay Office was built on the site.
The first part of the 20th century saw hard times for the business until after the First World War, but the factory was prevented from closing due to its contribution to the war effort. During this time silver ceased briefly to be quoted as having any value.
After the end of the First World War a longer period of stability ensued for the business, and by the time President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, the business had been trading for over 200 years. In addition to recovering wastes from the jewellery trade the company dealt with wastes from potteries, mirror manufacturers, platers and other industries. The biggest development at this time was the recovery of silver from the photographic trade, with the company carrying out all the refining work for Kodak for many years until the 1970’s.
The direct line of descendents has sometimes hung by a thread and this is particularly true during the Second World War. John Francis Betts was a captain when he was shot and reported missing in action, presumed dead, after being surrounded and cut off by Germans whilst fighting to defend the retreat from Dunkirk (for which he receive a M.C.). He was eventually discovered in a hospital in Belgium where he recovered from a bullet wound which went straight through his mouth. An inch higher and the Betts line would have died out.
John Francis Betts had two sons and the company continued under Stephen and now two of his sons, Daniel and Charles, who are the ninth consecutive generation of the Betts family to manage a business which has now been in existence for over quarter of a millennium.
For more information, you can download our 250th Anniversary booklet, just click the image below.