Retro: Sheffield steel firm that went from strength to strength

James Neill early staff picture
James Neill early staff picture
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Turning his back against a ‘safe’ career in accountancy, 31-year-old James Neill leapt into the risky world of business in 1889.

Choosing to become a steelmaker, he possessed no formal metallurgical education and knew little about the manufacture of steel. Added to that, he had no orders and only small business premises in Bailey Street, Sheffield.

But he had bags of enthusiasm and ambition and some might argue they are the main ingredients required to embark on a new venture.

Previously, he had experienced some business success as chairman and managing director of Chambers & Co’s vinegar business. His father George Neill was chairman of Tinsley Rolling Mills.

In the early days at the Bailey Street premises James boasted only a small number of crucible furnaces but manufactured steel in small pots with a senior experienced workman alongside and an odd job boy.

Five years on and James developed his own specialised form of steel-faced iron, known as composite steel. The steel edge of the material was used to manufacture machine knives, woodworking tools, shear blades and plough plates. Further developments enabled him to take out his own patent on composite steel.

Within a short space of time James was earning quite a respectable salary of £260 a year and the business continued to grow: his staff in the 1880s comprised nine men and a youth.

Overseas sales were made in 1887 and in the first decade of the 20th century James moved to new business premises in Napier Street, to the aptly-named Composite Steel Works.

An indication of the firm’s buoyant cash flow was evident with the installation of a gas-fired crucible furnace.

James’ next move was to visit the USA, attempting to market samples of his cutting tool steel to the manufacturers of hacksaw blades, but was unsuccessful on several occasions.

Thus, he decided, with the help of his son Fred, to manufacture them himself and production began at Napier Street in 1911.

Fred Neill was given extra responsibilities in the manufacture of blades with the Eclipse name and trademark chosen for the new range of products.

Production and sales were in full swing by 1912 and the first female employee was appointed to pack finished hacksaw blades.

On the outbreak of the First world War James Neill was one of Sheffield’s firms that responded to a plea for help with the war effort, by manufacturing magnets, taking over adjacent premises in Napier Street.

After the cessation of hostilities James Neill started selling hacksaw blades to individual ironmongery businesses, having found the wholesale route stifled by US producers.

James’ business was underpinned with help from his youngest son Wilfred and eldest son Fred, now a colonel, who returned to the company after suffering injuries during the war.

Around this period, additional melting capacity was established in premises at Attercliffe and overseas markets were won in southern and eastern Africa.

A landmark for the firm occurred in 1924 when the Eclipse 20T hacksaw frame was introduced. The decade was a period where the first commercial traveller was appointed, the first motor lorry arrived and James Neill was elected Master of the Cutlers’ Company of Hallamshire.

The company’s production of the Eclipse razor blade creamed off some of the British market away from Gillette. However, the razor blade was the last new company product introduced in James Neill’s lifetime as he died in August 1930 at the age of 72.

Fred Neill took the reins of the company two months after his father’s death, the workforce at this time numbering around 400.

Development in the company’s manufacturing side included the introduction of a permanent magnet chuck – a device for grinding and milling machines.

The decade also saw Fred Neill installed as Master Cutler.

During World War Two the company turned its attention to manufacturing specialist military items but also continued to produce hacksaw blades, hacksaw frames, magnet chucks and magnets.

The loss of men to the armed forces brought an increase in female employees – some even being conscripted to work at James Neill’s.

Sheffield being a legitimate target in the eyes of the Nazis resulted in the Neill razor department being gutted by an incendiary bomb.

For a short period afterwards, the rebuilt department concentrated on turning out precision tools.

Winston Churchill made a visit to the business in November 1941 and congratulated the employees working round the clock on the war effort.

In the post-war years, the company was strong with the Eclipse trademark established in many countries and Fred’s son Hugh joined the company.

Yet Neill’s, along with many other businesses, continually experienced frustration with the delays in the allocation of basic raw materials, especially as their product range continually expanded.

The war years had seen Neill’s acquire the business of William Smith Tool and Steel and in the 1950s the company bought Hallamshire Steel and File Company.

In 1955 Fred Neill became High sheriff of Yorkshire and three years later he was knighted. He died in 1968 aged 75.

On its 75th birthday James Neill’s key market was Europe and round the same time the company won a Queen’s Award for export achievement.

Further additions to the James Neill portfolio included the purchase of Peter Stubs in Warrington, John Shaw in Wolverhampton, Moore & Wright in Sheffield and Elliott Lucas in Cannock, all of which helped push the company’s product range up to around 11,000 items.

In 1970 the company was floated on the Stock Exchange, helping it to rationalize and consider new developments especially for the DIY customer; Hugh Neill meanwhile became chairman.

A fierce takeover battle saw the acquisition of Spear & Jackson in 1985 and four years later – in the firm’s centenary year – Neill Tools was acquired by the MMG Patricof Group.

In 1995, Neill Tools renamed itself Spear & Jackson plc and continues to trade under this name.

n Special thanks are due to Olivia Burton at Spear & Jackson for providing pictures and information.