RETRO: The history of Sheffield cutlery manufacturer family the Nowills

This week we trace a city cutlery manufacturer's family right back to the 1700s.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 5th August 2017, 1:00 pm
Updated Monday, 8th January 2018, 3:40 pm

The bell-push in the clue picture can be seen on the side door of 51 Westbourne Road.

In 1879 it was the home of cutlery manufacturer Henry Nowill who had the house built for himself and his family, and next door, at 49, lived his brother Thomas Mathias Nowill.

The firm can be traced back to 1700 when a D* mark was granted to Thomas Nowill. When Thomas passed away in 1808 this mark passed to his younger brother, William.

From this two separate companies came into being and they were Nowill & Kippax and John Nowill & Sons.

In the 1787 directory Nowill & Kippax had premises on High Street as Cutlers and Hardwaremen (not a typo this is how they are listed).

John is also listed on his own as a dealer in furniture and clothes from the same premises.

Just a year before in 1786 John went into partnership with Thomas Hague at 7 Meadow Street, he also had premises on Garden Street.

When Mr Hague retired in 1797, John renamed the business John Nowill & Co.

In 1825 Thomas retired and his sons, William and John, ran the business. They had the foresight to register a silver mark with the assay office, in 1825 they are listed as follows, Nowill Thomas and Co. manufacturers of silver fruit and dessert knives, fancy pen and pocket knives, &c. 7, Meadow St.

By 1833 their listing was Nowill Wm. & John, table, pen, pocket, & silver fruit and dessert knife mfrs. 7, Meadow Street.

John was also living in Meadow Street at that time.

Shortly after Christmas on December 28, 1836, Thomas Nowill died of, as what was then termed natural decay, old age to us now.

Just three years later in 1839 the brothers separated and William set up his concern in Rockingham Street while John continued at the Meadow Street premises.

John Nowill retired from the firm in 1847. In 1811 he had married Elizabeth Spencer and the outcome of this union produced eight sons, no television then, five of these sons entered the business, John 1818-1900, Henry 1819-1905, Thomas Mathias 1820-1892, Edward 1822-1871 and Arthur 1825-1896.

Thomas Mathias Nowill died at College Gardens in Dulwich on September 13, 1892, he was 71 years of age.

John Nowill took up the reins of the firm, in 1851 employed over 31 workers, around 31 years late the firm employed 100 men, ten lads and 15 women, this number included girls too.

John passed this life in 1900 aged 82, he had already produced the next generation of Nowills to keep the business going.

In 1914 the firm had 300 workers and they were producing highly sought after good pocket knives, pen knives, sporting knives, razors, scissors, in fact any type of implement with a good cutting edge, scissors for trimming lamp wicks, pruning scissors, any type of scissors you could think of, they made them.

In the late ‘20s, the firm had part of the family handling exports in Istanbul and Athens, their goods were high quality and quality sells.

Fast forward to WWII and their factory on Scotland Street was knocked about a bit by German bombs, the firm was sold to F.E. & J.R. Hopkinson Ltd and the firm was relocated to the Trimils Works on London Road.

Their knives, especially their bowie knives, were still being made under the Nowill name well into the 1960s, sadly the firm took less and less of the market and eventually the Nowill and Hopkinson name was acquired by Jack Adams, he keeps these world famous names alive.

On this part of Westbourne Road lived some notable people who put Sheffield on the map, at No 47, lived Lawrence Hoole, son of the Stove & Grate manufacturer Henry Elliot Hoole whose Green Lane works is now under restoration finally. Besides stoves and grates they made fenders and fire irons.

Today children have never seen the welcoming sight of an open fire, these open fires were in every home in the land even from Mr Dawson and Mr Sorsby, the earliest named cavemen.

The clean air act of 1956 was the beginning of the end for open fires and ranges, no longer could we burn all our unwanted rubbish.

Wood burning stoves are making a welcome return but not everyone has the ability to have these fitted with the result that the rubbish that was always burnt is now dumped anywhere for other people to remove, Progress? No, I don’t think so.

When I called at 51 Westbourne Road a very pleasant young woman answered the door and when I asked if I could take photos of her home she was more than willing to give me her permission, she was also very interested in the history of her home and the people who lived there.

The majority of this information is from Geoff Tweeddale’s Directory of Sheffield Cutlery Manufacturers, it’s my Bible.