A Sheffield family whose ‘shear’ hard work goes back 12 generations are taking their scissor company into the future.
William Whiteley & Sons may date back officially to 1760 but the firm is determined to build on its 258-year heritage with forward-looking ideas.
One is a new range of Exo scissors, developed using the latest technology, that the firm has been raising money to develop by ‘crowdfunding’ (attracting lots of small investors) online.
Head of marketing Caroline Ward said: “William Whiteley & Sons (Sheffield) Ltd was founded by my 12th generation grandfather, William Whiteley.”
The Whiteley family link is on her mum Sally’s side and she and Caroline’s dad Jeremy are both directors of the company, which is based in Rother Valley Way, Holbrook.
Sally said: “We’ve had the scissor company the entire time and we were definitely making scissors before 1760. The original William Whiteley was making scissors here in Sheffield in a building at the top end of Forge Dam, called White Lea. He used the water to drive the hammers and grinding wheels. It was one of seven forging ponds around there.”
Caroline added: “Then the Industrial Revolution happened and we got steam power, then everyone moved into town. The first factory was at Park Hill, underneath what is now the connecting part of two Park Hill flats.”
The firm was later based in premises in Rockingham Street and Garden Street.
Sally remembers visiting from being a child: “The Rockingham Street premises had been a medieval inn. It had medieval cellars and things to scrape mud off your boots.
“They were all little rooms with built-through machinery with belt-driven spindles coming through the walls. The rooms all had their own gas fire.
“I remember the tick-tock of Frank Hallam, who had a big watch and always had Mintoes.”
She added: “It was piece work before I arrived in 1987. I worked alongside Dad for two years and put an end to that.”
Victorian Thomas Wilkinson, who was Master Cutler, was a maker of fine scissors and shears, including for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
Sally said: “Whiteley’s took over Wilkinson’s company in 1875. We still use Wilkinson’s to represent our premium brand of shears including tailor’s shears. The Wilkinson name is still very well known and respected.”
Thomas Wilkinson invented ‘sidebent’ scissors for tailors, with the handles moved up out of the way so that the entire lower blade could run flat against the cloth and work table, making cutting far easier. The innovation survives today.
The Whiteley’s trademark is 332 and Wilkinson’s is a bow with three arrows.
The firm still has medals that it won at the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace in London and later events in London and Paris, and a blade with a picture of the great glass building etched on it.
Another treasure is a poster from the 1855 Paris International Exhibition, signed by Napoleon Bonaparte III.
Ornate items made for display at the London and Paris exhibitions include scissors in the shape of the Sheffield coat of arms and stork-shaped embroidery scissors.
The firm’s main work was producing industrial scissors and shears for tailors and fabric and upholstery workers.
Sally said: “There are lots of weird and wonderful things that need cutting. We have found sets of scissors made just for the army and making big fat generals’ dress uniforms!”
Caroline added: “There used to be a lot of specialist manufacturers. We’re still around because we’ve always tried to make the cutting solutions that people need. We didn’t compromise.”
One modern example can cut through Kevlar, the tough material that’s used to make body armour and stab vests.
The family are proud that theirs are the industry standard, relied on by international companies such as DuPont.
Other specialist products are scissors for snipping the grass around holes on golf courses, to cut rubber and for trimming lamp wicks.
Caroline said: “We supply most of the tailors in Savile Row and big fashion houses. We’ve done a special run for Burberry and brands such as Jaeger and Aquascutum.
“We can’t make proper, big black tailor’s shears fast enough.”
Savile Row tailor Andrew Ramroop expressed an interest in what the company does, so a team went to visit the workplace where he trains a new generation of bespoke tailors.
He has always used handmade Wilkinson’s shears, so was sceptical when they presented him with a pair made using the new Exo process, of which more next week.
Sally said: “Andrew was a bit sceptical but said he would cut out some patterns on suit material. By the time he’d finished cutting, he said really nice things about them.”
Next week: meet Whiteley’s craftsmen and learn how the firm is shaping its future.