The life and times of Sheffield's last known ivory carver Walter Swift - who also fought at the Battle of the Somme

A picture in an article about knife blade makers caught the eye of one Retro reader – it showed his great grandfather at work, who he says was Sheffield’s last ivory carver.

Tuesday, 29th June 2021, 9:45 am

The picture shows Walter Swift, who was actually working with horn in the picture. William Swift and Co date back to 1896 and were based in Rockingham Street when the picture was taken.

Ivory was used to make high-end handles by the Sheffield cutlery trade. The Retro article was written by Nick Duggan of the Hawley Tool Collection, based at Kelham Island Museum, on knife handle makers.

Walter’s descendant Michael Ellis from Ecclesfield wrote: “Thanks so much for your article which pictured Walter Swift, he was my great grandfather. His real name was William Swift, his middle name was Walter.

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Walter Swift, cutting horn, from the Hawley Collection
Walter Swift, cutting horn, from the Hawley Collection

“He worked for a cousin, also called William Swift, who owned the factory in the picture. To avoid confusion my great grandfather used the name Walter.

“Walter was also a war hero. He fought at the Battle of the Somme and was badly injured when he was hit in the head with shrapnel.

"It stayed there for the rest of his life because an operation was considered too dangerous. He did always suffer headaches but was otherwise well. Considering 583 men from Sheffield were killed on the first day of the Somme, in many ways he was lucky.

“During the Second World War, he was part of the Home Guard, as many World War One veterans were.

Walter and Clara Swift

“He was married to Clara, a dinner lady, and they had a long happy marriage and lived on the Sutton Estate. Due to difficult circumstances at the time they raised their granddaughter, Patricia, who's now 82.

“When she was older Patricia worked on the cheese counter at Schofields in the city centre and Walter visited her once a week. One week he didn't arrive and Patricia was aware of an incident outside the store but didn't realise it involved Walter.

“She found out later that he'd suffered a heart attack and died on the way to visit her.

Walter Swift with ivory stocks

“Walter was actually an ivory carver and the last one in Sheffield. We also think he went on to be the last in England unless anyone else knows differently.

“We're proud of him and what he did. He was a kind man who lived through difficult times and achieved so much.”

Michael said he had found a letter from a trade organisation advising Walter he was the last ivory carver in Sheffield

The Hawley archives show that the Swift family had been involved in ivory cutting since the early 19th century.

Firm founder William Swift was born in 1864 and died in 1948. He lived in Lees Hall Place, Meersbrook.

An article in International Cutler in autumn 1951 describes Walter Swift as the firm’s third-generation owner. He said he had spent 49 years cutting ivory but 100 per cent purchase tax meant there was little incentive for newcomers to the trade.

The article says the firm sold handles made of celluloid and Nacrolaque (imitation pearl) under licence. It ceased trading in the 1950s.