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Early Growth of the Cutlery Trade


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The growth of Sheffield trade may be traced broadly in three chapters. First, there is the cutlery trade with which Hallamshire was specially concerned till about the middle of the eighteenth century. Then came the second period, when Sheffield began to multiply rapidly its forms of industry, and to make many other things than edged tools, and particularly superior steel. Lastly, there are the modern developments of the heavy trades, and the wonderful triumph of steel in every department of manufacture. To each of these periods separate attention must be given. First, then, comes the cutlery trade, which so many strangers still think of as Sheffield's sole form of business.

A good deal has been written in various books to show, on one side that Hallamshire did, and on the other side that it did not, gain a special position by its manufacture of knives in the earliest times; but really we have no records that prove that the manufactures of this district were widely known earlier than 1340. It is clear that iron must have been smelted and made up into manufactures from very early times, but to what extent, and of what quality, no one knows.

The fact is that the manufacture of knives, scythes, and other cutting tools, as well as weapons, was widespread when wood was the fuel for smelting, and when much iron could be found near the surface of the earth. London was the first place where steel goods were made in such quantities that the workers were able to group themselves together and form a protective trade organization. London had a cutlers' guild 220 years before any fellowship of the kind is known to have existed in Sheffield. The London guild dates from before the year 1300. About a hundred years later, the London guild was beginning to complain about the competition of the cutlers scattered throughout the country; and very likely the men of Hallamshire, working under the rule of the Lord of Hallamshire, and hiring from him their water power, were among these competitors, for this was long after the time when an inventory of goods sent out from the Tower of London mentioned among the stock a Sheffield knife. It also was long after the time when Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Canterbury Tales, described one of the middle-class pilgrims to the shrine of Thomas a Becket as carrying a Sheffield whittle in his stocking, he not being of the rank to carry a sword-

"A Sheffield thwytel bare he in his hose."

It is not, however, till the middle of the sixteenth century that we begin to have definite knowledge of the trade in Hallamshire. Then the information comes to us in abundance, and shows that the cutlers' craft had not only been long practised in the district but had won a reputation far afield.

Leland, who travelled throughout England between the years 1536 and 1542, said there were "many smiths and cutlers in Hallamshire," and also "very good smiths for all cutting tools" at Rotherham. Shortly after this time the Lord of Hallamshire (the Earl of Shrewsbury) was granting, through his Court held at Sheffield, trade-marks to the master-cutlers throughout his lordship, and we know that between 1554 and 1570 sixty-one such marks were added to the list.

At this time iron was being imported into Hallamshire from Sweden and Spain, by way of Hull and Bawtry, which then was a well-known river-port, and the arrival of six barrels of steel from Bawtry is noted in the memorandum book of the Earl's steward on October 8, 1574. While steel was being brought into Hallamshire, knives at the same time were being exported by way of Liverpool.

The reputation of these wares does not depend on local opinion, such as that of George, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, who, when sending a case of Sheffield whittles to Elizabeth's great Minister, Lord Burghley, described them as "such fruits as my poor country affordeth with fame throughout the realm." The quality of Sheffield knives was borne witness to by the writers of the day, before the art of advertisement was known. One writer says of women's wits that they are "like Sheffield knives, sometimes so keen that they will cut a hair, and sometimes so blunt that they must go to the grindstone." No doubt then, as always, there were good and bad productions claiming the name of Sheffield, but the good were already making the town's fame. For example, in a book entitled The Writing Schoolmaster, advice is given as to the making of a quill pen - an all-important step then towards penmanship. "First, then" (says the author), "be the choice of your pen-knife. A right Sheffield knife is best." The dramatist, Nash, too, in one of his plays, uses the phrase "right Sheffield" to signify the best quality.

We see, then, that during the last half of the sixteenth century Hallamshire was doing a considerable cutlery trade, and that its reputation was sound and wide-spread. On the streams through the Earl of Shrewsbury's property were twenty-eight dams and water-wheels.

At this period, too, we begin to learn definitely about the trade, because the organization of the cutlers took a formal shape, and "constitutions and ordinances" were "agreed and made." Those drawn up on June 24, 1565, have been preserved on certain parchment skins which record the proceedings of the Lord's Court in Sheffield. The rules set forth are said to be ordained "by the whole consent of the cutlers, makers of knives, and the cutlers' occupation within the Lordship of Hallamshire," for "the maintenance of the commonwealth of the cutlers' craft and cutlers' occupation according to the ancient customs."

The subjects dealt with in these regulations were such as continued to be discussed by cutlers for more than two hundred years afterwards. No doubt they had been discussed as long a time before. The aims were to keep strangers out of the cutlers' craft; to ensure that workmen should be properly apprenticed; and to check over-supply and keep up prices by stopping work at certain times. These regulations of 1565 were re-affirmed and extended in 1590, and those who agreed to them are called "The Fellowship and Company of Cutlers." This is the first mention in history of a Cutlers' Company in Hallamshire.

By the provisions of the 1590 agreement, work had to be stopped four weeks in August, and four weeks at Christmas. Probably these stoppages were not so bad as they seem, for in August water might be low in the streams, and labour was needed for harvesting; and in winter the streams would possibly be frozen. Apprenticeship was restricted by each cutler being allowed to engage only one apprentice, the next being engaged when the first entered on his last year. All knives must be made from first to last in Sheffield - "haft and blade." Each cutler could only use one trade-mark, and that must be given to him by the Lord's Court.

These regulations were enforced by a jury elected for the purpose at Easter, when the Lord's Court met, and. consisting of "twelve men of the science and mystery of cutlers." The fines that were imposed for breaking the regulations went, with a single exception, into the pocket of "the lord." That exception was that if any one joined the Company of Cutlers without being apprenticed he had to pay 5, of which half was taken by the Earl, and half might be used "to bring help and benefit to the poorest sort" of the cutlers.

In 1614 these "ordinances" were again brought forward for revision and sanction. They were extended by the admission into the Fellowship of a number of cutlers living outside the lordship of Hallamshire, the first batch being seventeen Derbyshire cutlers; and they were strengthened by providing that every man must put his mark on his work, and must make the edges and points of his wares of hard material.

James Creswick was the Clerk of the Jury, and he started a new book containing the marks adopted by each cutler - a book which remains to this day in the possession of the Cutlers' Company. There were 182 marks registered in the book for a beginning.

The accounts for the years 1614 and 1615 are also preserved, but the next ten years are missing. The income for the first year was 5 to the Jury and 26 5s. to the Lord. The Jury spent 52s. on James Creswick's records, and 57s. on dinners for themselves, so that there was a debt of 9s. at the end of the year, and not a farthing for the benefit of the "cutlers of the poorest sort." Next year the Lord's share was 19, and the Jury had an income of 3 3s. 3d., which they spent as follows: Last year's debt, 9s.; expenses, 11s. 4d.; dinners, 36s. 6d.; and to poor cutlers, 6s. 6d. In order that we may know how these amounts compare with present-day money we must multiply each of them by ten.

The considerable advances made towards greater freedom and better arrangements by the people in the cutlery trade depended largely on the Lords of the Manor relaxing their hold on the trade. Thus the regulations of 1590 were made at the time of the death of George, the sixth Earl of Shrewsbury; and the further steps towards self-management in 1614 only shortly preceded the death of Gilbert, the seventh Earl of Shrewsbury. The death of the eighth earl, Francis, brought the Shrewsbury dynasty to an end in 1617, and the cutlers were thereafter free to manage their own affairs without paying fines into the Lord's Court. They accordingly went to Parliament in 1624 for an Act of Incorporation, which was rapidly obtained at a cost of 67 4s. 4d., and so the "Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire" was formed.


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Pictures for Early Growth of the Cutlery Trade

Cutlers' Company, Sheffield.
Cutlers' Company, Sheffield. >>>>
EARLY SHEFFIELD CUTLERS' NAMES AND TRADE-MARKS
EARLY SHEFFIELD CUTLERS' NAMES AND TRADE-MARKS >>>>

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