William Bragge’s life illustrates the mix of religious beliefs, intellectual curiosity, entrepreneurship, manufacturing development and civic responsibility that were a feature of the Industrial Revolution.
Born in 1823, the son of a Birmingham jeweller, Bragge did an engineering apprenticeship in Birmingham which led to a career as both a civil and a locomotive engineer. In 1852 he went to South America, where he built railways and gas works in both Brazil and Argentina.
He returned to England in 1858 a wealthy man and was able to buy a partnership with John Brown and Co in Sheffield. After helping with the company’s expansion into Bessemer steel and armour plates he travelled widely, negotiating contracts with governments in Russia and elsewhere. He used his travels to build up large collections including tobacco materials, illuminated manuscripts, ethnographic objects, geology and precious stones – many of the items are now in the collections of major museums around the world.
In the 1870s, after his year as Master Cutler, Bragge devoted himself more to civic activities and the promotion of Free Libraries and technical education in Sheffield. He was the prime mover in the establishment of the Weston Park Museum in the City.
Bragge’s wife Martha died in 1877, after what appears to have been a protracted illness, and he then moved back to his native Birmingham, where he was involved with the establishment of the English Watch Co. as well as involving himself in civic activities until his death in 1884.