From Hallamshire to American literature

Buffing at R F Mosley's Portland Works, around 1907'Copyright Prof Geoffrey Tweedale (01663) 766241)
Buffing at R F Mosley's Portland Works, around 1907'Copyright Prof Geoffrey Tweedale (01663) 766241)
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The first documentary evidence of Sheffield as a centre for cutlery dates back to 1297, when one Robert the Cutler appeared in the local tax returns.

By the 14th century, cutlers in Hallamshire, the ancient district centred on Sheffield, were known to have considerable metalworking and bone carving skills and Sheffield knives started making an appearance in medieval documents.

The Sheffield ‘thwitel’ – a wooden handled knife – made its appearance in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, while ‘The Writing Schoolmaster’ – published in 1590 to teach swift, true and ‘faire’ writing recommends students use a Sheffield knife, because it is best for cutting quills to make pens.

By 1624, the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire had been formed to regulate quality in the industry.

At the time, Sheffield’s cutlers were using imported steel, but by 1650 they were switching to blister steel, made locally using what was known as the Cementation Process.

By the mid-1700s the industry was heading for serious growth and the information on which Geoffrey Tweedale’s directory is based was starting to be written down.

The availability of water power had led to roughly 90 mills being built in the area, two thirds of them powering grinding wheels, and within a century, there were more than 100 water powered mills.

By then, a large part of the burgeoning industry was based around St Peter’s parish church -now Sheffield’s Anglican Cathedral - in Campo Lane, Paradise Square, Hawley Croft and other lanes.

The move into town was prompted, says Prof Tweedale, by the increasing sophistication of manufacturing.

Craftsmen were working pearl, ivory and horn to form handles, etching, marking and polishing and packaging the finished products into cabinets and cases made by skilled woodworkers.

Prof Tweedale traces the industry’s expansion through the development of crucible steel by Benjamin Huntsman in the mid 1700s, to the growth of exports to America.

By the 1800s a third of goods produced in Sheffield were going to America and a third of its working population – around 6,000 people - were involved in trade with America in one way or another.

Sheffield knives started making it into American literature, with the Barlow doubled bladed pocket knife being mentioned by James Fenimore Cooper in The Pioneers, published in 1823 and Mark Twain in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published 53 years later.

Meanwhile, the Bowie Knife became as much a part of American folk law as the Colt Peacemaker or the Winchester rifle in later years.

Prof Tweedale records that, in 1823, William Greaves & Sons used their transatlantic profits to finance the first integrated factory in Sheffield – The Sheaf Works, in the canal basin, now the home of one of Ant Marketing’s call centres.

In the mid-1800s, Sheffield was the most dominant manufacturer of cutlery in the world and steel was “a subsidiary activity,” but all that was to change, with the American Civil War heralding the introduction of mass produced, home made cutlery in the US, while the arrival of the Bessemer and Siemens processes put steel in the ascendancy.

While the Americans mechanised, a number of Sheffield companies refused to change.

Among them was Joseph Rodgers & Son, which could trace its history back to 1724 and is accorded eight pages in the Prof Tweedale’s directory.

Rogers, whose name lives on as on of the brands of the Sheffield-based Egginton Group, even refused to use typewriters – invented in the 1860s - or telephones –which came to the fore about 20 years later - until 1914.