Silver wares have certainly been made in Exeter since the 12th century and probably since Roman times. However a town mark did not appear until the 1570s and the Museum's collection of Exeter and West Country silver is mostly dateable to between the late 16th and 19th centuries.
Up to and including the 16th century, West Country silversmiths relied heavily upon the church for business. Two notable Exeter goldsmiths of the 16th century were John Jones and Richard Hilliard. One of the most productive goldsmiths of his age, John Jones (d.1583-84) was Bailiff in 1567 and Churchwarden at St. Petrock's in 1570. More than a hundred of his communion cups have survived. The father of Nicolas Hilliard, the famous miniaturist, Richard Hilliard also produced church plate of outstanding quality such as the communion cup made for St. Sidwell's in c.1572.
By the end of the 17th century Exeter was entering a ‘golden age' of trade and commerce when a new class of wealthy patrons demanded a wide variety of domestic silverware. Much of the wealth resulted from the important West Country trade in wool and cloth. In 1700 Exeter, Chester, Bristol, Norwich and York established their own assay offices, and in Exeter the assaying of plate began in 1701 and continued until 1883. John Elston (d.1732) was Exeter's most successful goldsmith of the early 18th century. Elston, who became Mayor in 1727 also helped to establish the Assay Office in 1701.
By the beginning of the 19th century the decline of Exeter's economy had reduced demand for silverware. Competition from the industrial firms of Birmingham, Sheffield and London also forced many West Country goldsmiths out of business. Henry Ellis (d.1871) was one of the few Exeter goldsmiths to thrive during this period. In 1814 he opened his first shop in the High Street. A watchmaker by trade, Ellis retailed goods made locally and in Birmingham and London. In 1847 his eldest son, Henry Samuel, registered the firm's design for ‘Patent Safety Chain Brooches', some of which were made from silver mined at Comb Martin on Exmoor. After the purchase of five brooches by Queen Victoria, Ellis & Son were appointed silversmiths in ordinary to the Queen in 1848 and exhibited at the Great Exhibition in 1851.