The Story of the Acme Whistle

Perhaps the poor turnout for November's meeting was due to the membership anticipating a somewhat boring presentation on whistles. Nothing could have been further from the truth as the Chief Executive of J. Hudson & Co (Whistles) Ltd, Simon Topman, launched into one of the best hours' live entertainment that many would have experienced for some time. Armed with a host of different types of whistles, the hour turned into a history of whistle production in Birmingham, punctuated by copious sound effects.

The Acme Whistle Company, still trading in the Jewellery Quarter, is 139 years old. Founded by a Matlock farm labourer, James Hudson, like many a rural worker, he came to Birmingham with his family (17 in all) to seek his fortune. Living in a back to back in Ladywood, the family all worked in the Birmingham metal trades. James supplemented his meagre income by turning his hand to any other metalwork he could find a market for. His big break came in 1883 when the Metropolitan Police decided that the time had come to replace the policeman's rattle. It was James who came up with the idea of a police whistle and, following testing and not an insignificant amount of trouble in actually sealing the deal with the police, eventually received an order for 21,000 whistles! Success seemed assured as other police forces, both at home and throughout the Empire placed orders too. James was not a man to rest on his laurels though, and soon targeted the football referees' market. Before 1884 referees had to run around at matches shouting or waving a handkerchief. His breakthrough was to invent the Acme Thunderer, a whistle which has hardly changed to the present day, though show one to Simon and he will tell you if it's a model 58, or 59 or whatever, and its date of manufacture. (In fact the audience produced whistles for him to date - in true Antiques Roadshow style).

We heard about the Acme Thunderers provided to Cunard White Star for the Titanic. The paperwork still resides in the company's files. We also heard (literally) from the plethora of whistles produced these days to imitate a whole variety birdsong, US Railroad locomotives, pigs, dogs and even heard that nostalgic sound made for the children's TV series of many years ago - 'The Clangers'. An astounding 6 million whistles are sold by this, the only company in Birmingham now manufacturing whistles, with 40% of its output heading to the USA. Yes, it's an export success story, employing 65 staff.

Simon's talk was both thoroughly entertaining and an interesting insight into social history. It was gratifying to learn that his fee for the evening, together with the income from the sale of his whistles for the night would be donated to Mayfield Special School. To date the Company has raised 60,000 for the school, much of which one suspects was raised from Simon's talks.

And finally we learned the answer to the burning question "is it really peas that go into an Acme Thunderer?" But that must remain a secret for those members who bothered to attend!

Roger Hockney
November 2009