Giving cutting edge to one of Sheffield’s great firms

The reveal picture of Crescent Villa
The reveal picture of Crescent Villa
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The clue picture on page three of the June 2 edition of the Star shows a carved stone saying Crescent Villa.

It was here in the 1870s that Edwin James Bell lived with his family. Edwin was part of the Cutlery Case Manufacturers MM Bell, and this was a name unknown by most people, but to people in the cutlery trade it is a well known company in the city of Sheffield.

Edwin James Bell

Edwin James Bell

The company of MM Bell was founded in 1816 by James Bell, who was the son of Joseph Bell, a Sheffield grocer, but in the 1825 directory he is listed as a Baker at 103 Fargate.

James Bell established himself in London as a ‘pocket book and book case manufacturer’ but after the death of his wife in 1827 he returned to the city of Sheffield.

In 1831 James Bell married Mary, who was the daughter of Samuel Tompkin and it was then that he set up in business with her brother John as Bell and Tompkins – case makers.

Their business premises were listed at this time as Bell and Tompkin, engravers, copperplate, lithographic, and letterpress printers, embossers, stationers and cabinet case, pattern card, razor strop, and account book manufacturers, and they were based at number three Mulberry street.

Mrs Martha Mary Bell

Mrs Martha Mary Bell

When John Tompkin retired in 1853, James Bell took his son, Edwin James, into the firm and he continued as James Bell and Son.

Then in 1860 they are listed as Edwin Bell & son, cabinet case manufacturer. At this time Edwin was living at number eight Adelaide place, Glossop Road, while James, his father, was living at number 16 Broomgrove Road – his house is still there and is well looked after.

After the death of his father, James Bell in 1864, Edwin Bell continued on his own until 1872 when he went into partnership with his brother-in-law, John Figorski. The partnership was not a success and was liquidated in 1877.

John Figorski continued to make cabinet cases and even had his business in the 1878 directory described as cabinet case, dressing and travelling case, razor case and strop, table and dessert knife case, desk and chest manufacturer at number three Arundel Lane, described as “opposite Cabinet Case Manufacturers” – I take this to be Bells and at the time he was living at 261 Crookes. On the death of Edwin James Bell in 1880, the business was taken over by his wife Martha Mary Bell who, in 1890, took her two sons into partnership. MM Bell and Sons became a limited company in 1929. Martha’s name still lives on with the company.

During the changes to Pond Street, Change Alley and Arundel Lane by the council, Bells left their Manhattan Works on Arundel Lane and relocated to 102 Arundel Street. They had gained a very good reputation as quality manufacturers of presentation boxes and cases. When the company started out there were only twelve companies making cabinet cases, but by 1862 this had risen to 23, including Bells.

By 1879 this number had risen to 40 manufacturers making cabinets and cases – such was the volume of cutlery and silverware being made in the town and many of these companies were also making razor strops.

It was well known in the trade that Bells just wasn’t another firm. When you gained a place there you became part of a family. Former workers Janet Banks, Jack Johnson, Irene Melluish and John Brown started straight from school and eventually put in nearly two hundred years between them. And Mrs Florrie Stitt was awarded the BEM for her long service to the company. Now that’s what I call loyal service, but that loyalty is a two way street – you treat your workers with respect and in return they give the company an honest workforce.

Janet still meets up with her old workmates which shows friendship never finishes when you retire, I have always said that you can pick your friends but you cannot pick your workmates, but it seems MM Bell provided both.

When Robert Bell retired from the firm in 1999 it was bought out by two of the office workers and that is when the family feeling broke up. The firm left Arundel street and it was re-located to Shepcote Lane. I know just how the workforce felt at this move, as I had to re-locate to Ecclesfield and it was horrible.

Unfortunately it now seems to be the norm that the products Bells, Kirby’s, Greaves and others produced are now being made abroad and imported.

I was surprised to find that Bells along with other cabinet case makers also produced razor strops for the cut throat razor. A razor strop is a flexible strip of leather, canvas, denim fabric, balsa wood, or other soft material, used to straighten and polish the blade of a straight razor. In many cases stropping re-aligns parts of the blade edge that have been bent out of alignment. In other cases, especially when abrasive polishing compound is used, stropping may remove a small amount of metal. Stropping can also burnish (push metal around on) the blade.

Various abrasive compounds may be applied to the strop to aid in polishing the blade while stropping to obtain a mirror-like finish. The first steel-edged cut-throat razors were manufactured in Sheffield in 1680. By the late 1680s, early 1690s, razors with silver-covered handles along with other Sheffield-made products known as “Sheffield wares” were being exported to ports in the Gulf of Finland, approximately 1,200 miles from Sheffield. From there, these goods were probably sent to Finland and even Russia.

By 1740, Benjamin Huntsman was making straight razors complete with decorated handles and hollow-ground blades made from cast steel, using a process he invented. Huntsman’s process was adopted by the French sometime later, albeit reluctantly at first due to nationalist considerations. In England, razor manufacturers were even more reluctant than the French to adopt Huntsman’s steel-making process and only did so after they saw its success in France. After their introduction in 1680, straight razors became the principal method of manual shaving for more than two hundred years and remained in common use until the mid-20th century.