William Grice, The Gunmaker

William Grice the Gunmaker and his family


The monument to William Grice is situated in the north aisle of the Cathedral, left of the altar, and reads:

Sacred to the Memory of


who devoutly resign’d this life in humble hope of

partaking of a blessed Immortality Nov. 4th 1781

Aged 74 Years

In her conduct She was exemplary as a Christian

And fulfill’d the relative duties of life

In the most sincere and affectionate manner

Also in memory of WILLIAM her Husband

who died suddenly in London July 24th 1790

Aged 76 Years


Next to this stone is situated that of his daughter, Rebecca Morris; the memorial for his other daughter, Sobieski Brookshaw, whom I discuss in a separate posting, is situated on the west wall by the north aisle exit door. The three monuments were made by William Thomson, a local monument maker, and the design of the monuments for the two daughters is virtually identical.

One deduces from William Grice’s monument that the husband is younger than the wife, and I speculate that this might be because he married an heiress. We know that he married Rebecca Jefferies at Lichfield Cathedral on 5th December 1743, and that they had four children, all of whom were baptised in St. Philip’s:

William 28th September 1744

Rebecca 29th January 1747

Sobieski 15th May 1749

Joseph 31st January 1751

William Grice was a wealthy gunmaker who, according to his will, owned property in Bull Street and Sand Street in Birmingham, property in Wednesbury (where iron was smelted), and a mill in Coleshill, and also probably had an office or shop in London. Historical authorities usually claim that gunmaking only came to Birmingham in 1690; so if, as is likely, William was the William, son of one John Grice, gunsmith of Handsworth, who was baptised at St. Mary’s Handsworth on 24th March 1715, the youngest of four children, then he came from a family which dealt in gunmaking from the beginning.  John Grice’s will of 1744 (he was buried on 27th November 1745) leaves his eldest son, Joseph, a house, the gun barrel business and a farm, and his unmarried daughter a house in Lichfield, but to the next son he leaves £10 and to William only £6 15s.  It would therefore appear that William Grice  made his own way, and he is likely to be the “Will son of John Grice of Handsworth”, who was apprenticed to a locksmith, John Smith, in Birmingham in 1730, as we know that John Smith made gunlocks.

William Grice attended St. Philip’s church because he lived in Bull Street within the parish, and is listed in several directories of the time, the earliest extant being 1767. It may be that for a time his business was based where he lived, and then moved to Sand Street, an area which became part of the gun quarter and was situated near St.Chad’s and the Children’s Hospital (today it is taken over by Printing House Square.)   Sand Street was an area similar to the Jewellery Quarter, where ordinary houses were turned into factories and businesses, and was photographed shortly before it was demolished in the twentieth century.  Alternatively, it may be that the workshops were in Sand Street and the shop or headquarters in Bull Street, which was a fashionable shopping street at the time and near the modern housing of Old Square.

Grice’s firm is best known today for supplying the first British rifles for the British army against the American rebels, as he established the “pattern” for the rifles from a German model, then supplied two hundred of the eight hundred rifles supplied in Birmingham by four gunmakers in all. One of these four was Samuel Galton who was a member of the Lunar Society.  Samuel Galton features in the History of Birmingham exhibition at Birmingham Museum because he was asked to leave the Quakers for making guns, and yet supported the movement for the abolition of slavery.  It would appear that Anglicans did not share these moral doubts, as several other gunmakers are buried in the Cathedral churchyard.  Gunmaking in the eighteenth century was highly profitable, and William Grice would make his money by selling to the British Ordinance, to American Indians, supplying guns to slave traders and to both sides in the French Revolution.  It was not until the nineteenth century that slave trading and then slavery were abolished.  Today the early and beautifully engraved pistols by William Grice are highly prized at auction.

William Grice’s will demonstrates both his wealth and the extent of his interests. He appoints three executors, one of who is of Chapter House Square in London, one who is described as a landowner, and another is a Japanner of Birmingham, all three of whom must have had their work cut out to deal with the extent of his business and requests. We also know that Grice subscribed to several books, the most notable of which is an edition of the poem “The Grave” which had engravings by William Blake; and we know that like several well-known people of his age he was a Jacobite, hence the name of his daughter Sobieski.  William Grice lived through turbulent times, and the year after he died the dinner which started the Priestley Riots took place just around the corner from his house.

William Grice 1744 – 1805?

The original William left his oldest son William one fifth of his “Messuages, Buildings and Premises” and £100, to be inherited by his grandson William and administered by the trustees. Son William seems to have lived in London in the parish of Christ Church, and married Rebecca Dukes in 1771 at All Hallows, London Wall, with his mother signing the parish register; the parish register at the wedding of his son William Dukes Grice states that William was a “hardwareman” (as indeed was his son). Both the terms of the original William Grice’s will and the fact that the younger William signed a bond for £200 – with an elaborate flourish of a signature –  before his marriage, suggests that he was short of money.


There is a mention in the will of Joseph Grice, younger son of the original William Grice, which states “I bequeath to my nephew William Dukes Grice of London £100 and an annuity of ten pounds for his life to be paid to him by equal half yearly payments so long as he shall not assign mortgage or charge the same or become bankrupt or take the benefit of any act for the wish of insolvent debtors.” William Dukes Grice was baptised at St. Stephen Walbrook church in London in 1778 and married Margaret Theobald, a widow, at Christ Church, Spitalfields in 1831.  Rebecca Ann Morris also left £100 to her cousin William Dukes Grice, which was far less than she left to her other cousins, and there is a document dated 1805 in which William Dukes Grice acknowledges he has no further claim from the will of his grandfather, William Grice.  (This might suggest that his father was already dead.)  Despite being in his fifties when he married, William Dukes Grice had a daughter Margaret Rebecca who married in 1840 at Christ Church one Thomas Tombs who is an attorney’s clerk.  She must have been born before her father was married and, judging by the profession of her husband, her family were a great deal less financially well off than her Grice relations.

Rebecca Morris 1747 – 1817

Rebecca Grice married Henry Morris at St. Philip’s on 30th June 1774, a man who also was baptised at the same church, and clearly received from her father a substantial marriage bond as it is the opening concern in William Grice’s will. For some unknown reason she receives two fifths of the worth of his property and possessions and £500, all of it to be passed on to her heirs and not to her husband.  From the wills of the couple they appear to have lived in Spring Hill, Yardley and had four daughters:

Rebecca Ann who was baptised in 1775 at St. Philip’s and buried in the same place on 14th August 1822 – it is her memorial stone which faces across the aisle to her parents and shows she died unmarried.   Her uncle Joseph is an executor of her will, which has a long list of bequests, including gifts to Bluecoat School, S.P.C.K., the General Hospital and the Birmingham Dispensary.  Her two sisters and her cousin Caroline Brookshaw receive generous bequests.

Mary Sobieski, born in 1779, who died only three months after her birth and was also buried in St. Philip’s.

Jane (baptised 1781) and Fanny (baptised 1783) probably went to live with their uncle Joseph Grice after the death of their parents, never married, and can be found on the 1851 census living together in Leamington Priors near their cousin William Grice, son of their uncle Joseph Grice, described as “fundholders” and employing a butler.   Fanny died first in 1855 and Jane in 1856.

Joseph Grice, William’s son, had been in partnership with his father and after his father’s death was in partnership with Henry Morris. A rather strange book entitled “A Poetic Survey of Birmingham” displays a Grice and Morris illustrated advert.  After his father’s death it is clear that the widowed and then childless Joseph took on the role of head of the family, so the three daughters after the death of both of their parents, together with Sobieski Brookshaw and her daughter Caroline, all came under his wing at Handsworth Hall, near Matthew Boulton’s Soho Works.  In his will Joseph Grice remembered them all.

Henry Morris’s will on his death in 1810 makes his brother-in-law Joseph his executor and leaves clear directions to sell his shares, except those in the Warwick Birmingham and Warwick and Mapton canals, for his wife.  What is most fascinating about his will is a codicil he added in 1804 stating, “I leave to my wife Rebecca the option of carrying on the business which I am now engaged in as Contractor to the Board of Ordnance.”  As the business of Grice and Morris is listed at Sand Street until 1817, it is possible that Rebecca did retain an interest in the business.

Rebecca Morris died on 7th June 1817 and her will appears to be written hastily in March 1816, as she leaves everything to her three daughters, “share and share alike”.  Joseph, her brother, gives testimony that he recognised her handwriting.

Sobieski Brookshaw 1749 – 1811

Like her sister, Sobieski (who is covered in a separate post) was baptised, married and buried at St. Philip’s. She married George Brookshaw, a japanner and furniture maker, who was also baptised in St. Philip’s and carried on a furniture business in London.  The original William Grice left her £500 and one fifth of his estate as well as a marriage bond, which in his will he ensures can only be left to her heirs.   Art historians believe that Sobieski’s money enabled George Brookshaw to set up his business; when he took a mistress and separated from his wife he closed the business and landed up in debtors’ prison, eventually becoming an artist.  Sobieski took their only child Caroline Diana Grice Brookshaw (1786-1864) with her back to Birmingham.  Sobieski’s life was bound up with London, yet her daughter’s life seems entwined with that of her cousins the Morrises and the family of her uncle Joseph Grice, with whom Caroline was certainly living in 1823 when her father made his will.  Caroline never married and lived on the Hagley Road, having inherited a copy of her father’s most famous book “Pomona Britannica” and money from her mother and uncle.  On the 1861 census she is described as a “proprietor of houses” and when she died her will is described as “under £5,000”.

Joseph Grice 1751 -1834

Joseph Grice is possibly the most interesting of William Grice’s children who, because of his wealth was a force to be reckoned with in Birmingham and had dealings with people at the top of society. It is cheating a little to include him as a “child of St. Philip’s” as he lived in Handsworth, but his working links remained in Birmingham and he probably arranged the burials of his sisters and brother-in-law in St. Philip’s.

We learn from his father’s will that as well as one fifth of the property, Joseph inherited his father’s business:  “I give to my said son Joseph aforesaid all my Tools and Fixtures in my warehouse in Birmingham aforesaid also all my tools and fixtures in my Shops …also my Warehouse Shops and Buildings in Sand Street in Birmingham wherein I now carry on my Trade…also my Lease in Coleshill Mill and premises…and all the Tools in the said Mill…I give one half of the Capital in the said Trade”.

Joseph first married Lucy Reynolds of Meriden at the parish church in 1783, with the names of William Grice and Henry Morris in their handwriting written on the Parish register. Lucy Reynold’s date of death is as yet unknown and they do not appear to have had children.   He then married again as a widower in 1808 when he was 56.  Elizabeth Hill of Worcester was clearly wealthy, as in his will Joseph mentions the £1,000 she brought to the marriage; she was also nearly thirty years younger than her husband, and we know that her brother was a clergyman.  Their children, Joseph Hill Grice (1808 – 1867), William Grice (1813 – 1885) and Elizabeth Grice (1814 – 1888) were all baptised in St. Mary’s Handsworth.

Handsworth Hall, the home of Joseph Grice, was described as having “a beautiful avenue of lime trees” and pictures remain of the now demolished house, which had originally belonged to the Gough family. Joseph’s bust adorns a chantry in St. Mary’s Handsworth, which makes it likely that, as a wealthy man and propertied landowner, he would have known Matthew Boulton and James Watt who are buried in the same church.  We know from his will that he invested in canals, the new and profitable industry in the eighteenth century; a book of the time suggests that he was involved in button-making; he had a large investment of £4,000 as a silent partner in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette and was involved in selling guns in West Africa.  Yet as there is no mention of him in later gazetteers of Birmingham as a gunmaker, the impression is that he gave up gunmaking before his death, possibly by 1817 on the death of his sister Rebecca.  One of the executors of his will was Samuel Tertius Galton, the son of Samuel Galton who was a member of the Lunar Society, and who also gave up gunmaking and went into banking.  (Tertius Galton’s mother was the daughter of Erasmus Darwin, another member of the Lunar Society; Tertius Galton was a High Bailiff of Birmingham who went to live in Leamington, and it is possible that Joseph Grice’s son and Henry Morris’s daughters followed him there.)

Joseph’s sons both went to Eton and Oxford and then became curates; in his will Joseph makes a point of leaving them special Bibles, whilst his daughter gets a Life of Christ and the works of Samuel Johnson. Amidst the wealth (£3,500) and goods he left his wife is the information that he leaves her his carriage “now being built in London”, together with the horses.  In addition to subscriptions to many publications, mostly concerning geography, art and poetry, Joseph Grice was a considerable philanthropist, endowing several charities in Handsworth including the National School, and leaving bequests to the General Hospital, People’s Dispensary and Bluecoat School in Birmingham and to the poor of Handsworth.

Elizabeth, his daughter, married Thomas Attwood (1783-1856) as his second wife, in 1845 after the death of her father by whom she was left £5,000. She followed her mother’s example as, when she married him, Thomas Attwood was thirty years older than her, and had passed the heights of his political career as he was ill.  He lived in Handsworth and it is said he was a friend of the family.  He had founded the Birmingham Political Union and fought for currency and electoral reform, was High Bailiff of Birmingham at a young age and then became Birmingham’s first M.P, becoming a keen advocate of the 1832 Reform Act.  Elizabeth was his second wife, and he had five children living when he married again.  Thomas Attwood came from a family of bankers and he is described as such when he married Elizabeth in London. For a time they lived in Handsworth, then in the 1851 census the pair are living in Henley, Warwickshire, but he died in Malvern.   Elizabeth Attwood built a house in Malvern called The Boynes which still stands, and was associated with a new chapel of ease called the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, where the East window was dedicated to her memory.   She died in 1888 and was buried in the churchyard of Hanley Castle with her husband.   Her niece, Louisa Hutchinson, moved into The Boynes in the 1890’s, and during the First World War the house was used as a hospital by the Red Cross.

After the death of Joseph Grice the house in Handsworth was sold and Elizabeth Grice went to live with her son William in Leamington; on the 1851 census he is described as “perpetual curate” and she as “accountant”.  William’s wife, Henrietta Broughton, was the daughter of a clergyman who was also a Baronet, and she had the patriotic middle name of “Waterloo”.  Although a clergyman, William eventually lived in great style with many servants in Sherbourne, Devon worked as a magistrate and died in 1885.  His daughter Louisa married Captain Hutchison, who was the conservative M.P. for Aston Manor 1891-1900.  Many of their family are commemorated in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd.

Joseph Hill Grice was a perpetual curate at Upton on Severn, interested in Free Masonry and The Templars (on which he wrote a book) and died before his mother in 1867. One has the impression that for the prime beneficiary of his father’s will, he chose to live fairly modestly and sold the family home.  He never married and left no heirs.  He appears to have known Gladstone, the future Prime Minister, and documents of the time show that he had to spend a lot of time looking after the family property, shares and inheritance.


The history of William Grice

It would be difficult to credit a novel which took in gunmaking, selling gunlocks to the slave trade, heiresses, a black sheep, an artist who landed up in debtors’ prison, clergy who were extremely rich, church building, philanthropy, canal investment, members of parliament and a pioneer of parliamentary reform. Eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Birmingham was a place where all of this and much more was going on, and the people commemorated on walls of Birmingham Cathedral were busy taking part in it all.  William Grice was certainly a son of toil, and Joseph Grice was a gentleman.  How one becomes a gentleman, however philanthropic a gentleman, seems to raise a great many moral questions.

Gill Partridge March 2016


2 thoughts on “William Grice, The Gunmaker

  1. Thank you for this great history on “Grice” I have known some of this for many years……..This fills a lot of blanc spaces……..When Grice landed in Toronto Canada they opened a black smith shop……..


    • Thank you, this is so interesting, my grandmother used to talk about being descendants of the Grice ‘s and the monument at the Cathedral. Having never seen it myself I will be visiting…. now I know it exists.


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