Retro: farewell to man who saved Sheffield’s tool-making heritage

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It was very sad to hear this week of the death of Sheffield industrial historian Ken Hawley, whose life’s work was to preserve the city’s tool-making heritage.

Ken, aged 87, turned his enthusiasm for collecting examples of Sheffield tool-making into the Hawley Collection that has been housed at Kelham Island Museum since 2010.

His invaluable knowledge on the subject was first picked up from working in his father’s company from 1941, making machine guards. Ken described how crawling round factory floors as a teenager, measuring up, gave him the chance to see tool manufacturing processes at work.

He went on to open his own shop in 1959 that in 1961 moved to Earl Street off the Moor, with a sign on display famously stating “we sell nowt but tools”. He retired in 1989.

In a film made for the Hawley Tool Collection website, Ken described how his collection began when he was demonstrating an electric plane to a client in 1950 in his workshop and noticed a pattern of wooden joiner’s brace on the wall he hadn’t seen before. He acquired it and it’s still part of the Hawley collection.

In 1965, he made his first major acquisition when he discovered that William Marples were shutting their plane-making workshop. He started by asking to take one or two pieces that were being thrown away and ended up with the entire contents on the workshop, work benches and all.

Over the years, the collection ran to more than 100,000 pieces and the Ken Hawley Collection Trust was set up to ensure that Ken’s amazing knowledge of the subject was recorded in his lifetime.

A team of fellow enthusiasts are still at work, cataloguing the collection and ensuring that Ken’s legacy lives on. The result of that work can be seen at Kelham Island.

I was privileged to interview Ken for Retro, when he identified the saw-making company that is featured on some lantern slides that collector Peter Furniss brought in earlier this year.

He was able to look at the slides and say exactly what processes were taking place and approximately when they dated back to. As you can see from elsewhere from these pages, we now have proof that he was absolutely spot on.

Ken’s excellent sense of humour came through loud and clear when we spoke. He also was unafraid to speak his mind.

I asked him about women workers in the slides and he said: “This bloody business of women in steel really makes me poorly.

“Women for many, many, many years have worked in industry. Buffer lasses did one of the filthiest, muckiest, lousiest jobs ever.

“They had to dress up in brown paper and old newspaper. They put rags on their fingers so they didn’t get caught by some sharp edge cutting into them. They worked in Sheffield for donkey’s years.

“Why put the steelworkers on a pedestal?”

Whether you agree or not, it was a well-argued case.

Poignantly, he said then: “The tragedy is there aren’t many idiots around like me who can do this job today.”

Luckily, the team in place working on his collection have done their utmost to ensure that Ken’s work to preserve the skills that he admired so much will live on in the city he loved.