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Cutlery since the Company was formed

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The Act of Parliament under which the Cutlers' Company was formed declared that it was designed "for the good order and government of the makers of knives, sickles, shears, scissors, and other cutlery wares in Hallamshire and the parts adjoining." It claimed for the workers in the industry that they had "the reputation of great skill and dexterity," and that they "made knives of the best edge, wherewith they served the most part of this kingdom, and other foreign countries." It pleaded that injury was done to the trade by ill-trained workmen and their "deceitful and unworkmanlike wares," and, as a remedy, asked that it might be enacted "that all persons using to make knives, blades, scissors, shears, sickles, cutlery wares, and all other wares and manufactures made or wrought of iron and steel, dwelling and inhabiting within the Lordship and Liberty of Hallamshire, or within six miles compass of the same, shall be from henceforth one body politic, perpetual and incorporate, of one Master, two Wardens, six Searchers, and four-and-twenty Assistants and Commonalty of the said Company of Cutlers of Hallamshire."

Thus was formed, by law, the celebrated Cutlers' Company, one of the few ancient guilds that still exist and take public action from time to time directly in the interests of the trade they were formed to serve.

It should be said at once that the Cutlers' Company never was a popular company. As Mr. R. E. Leader says, in his magnificent History of the Cutlers' Company, from which these facts are taken, it was a company in which all were officers. Though the Commonalty are mentioned in the Act, they never had any voice in the election of the Assistants, Searchers, Wardens, or Master. The Company at first consisted, and still consists, of thirty-three persons, and they determined who should pass out of the Company in due course, and who should come in and fill their places. So it is now. Mr. Leader expresses the position of the Commonalty in this way: "The Commonalty as a body had one duty only - to obey decrees in whose making they had no share. They were absolutely subject to the thirty-three, and only by favour of that select body could any one emerge from the ranks. The Act was said to be obtained in the interests of the poor workmen. True to the ideas of the time, their superiors, and not themselves, were regarded as alone knowing what those interests were."

This Company, so strangely formed, according to modern ideas of representative government, quickly got to work and rendered excellent service in many ways. In 1624 only 182 identification marks had been assigned to Hallamshire manufacturers. By 1646 the number of Marks registered had risen to 979. The record of the Marks in the Company's books reached 1,982 by the year 1679, of which 1,562 were knife-makers', 136 shear-smiths', and 284 scissors-smiths'.

With the establishment of the Cutlers' Company the cutlery trade may be regarded as organized in freedom from outside demands, and the business prospered beyond all former experience. It has been suggested that, a little earlier than this time, the trade products of Hallamshire may have been improved in quality by the arrival of persecuted metal-workers from the Netherlands and France, as was the case in some parts of England with other manufactures, such as woollen and silk stuffs; but there is no reason for supposing that any such strangers ever came to improve the methods of the Sheffield cutlers. Many names of Hallamshire workers have been preserved continuously, through the Court and Company records, and they show clearly the transmission of the trade along family lines, all the families bearing English names, with no foreign admixture whatsoever.

As time passed on, much dissatisfaction arose through the general body of the cutlery workers being excluded from all power in the Cutlers' Company, and the disputes were finally carried to Parliament - in 1791, and again in 1814. In the latter year the Company lost whatever authority it had retained over the trade except the control of trade-marks. In 1860 admission to the Company was enlarged so that steel-makers and manufacturers in the "heavy" trades could be included, and the Company has become, in a broad way, but not through any popular election, representative of all forms of Sheffield trade - cutlery, plate, steel-making, and engineering. It remains the registration authority for Trade-Marks, and has done much useful work in watching over the trade reputation of the city, especially abroad, where attempts to steal the good name of Sheffield are always being made.

To the outside world the Company is best known by its annual Feast, held on the first Thursday in September. Then a Member of the Government in power always attends and addresses the Master Cutler's guests on a subject connected with trade rather than with politics. These feasts have been held every year since 1648, except in the years 1809, 1810 and 1811, when disputes respecting the position and power of the Company were fierce and bitter. The Cutlers' Hall, now a handsome and commodious suite of rooms, finely decorated and containing most valuable records of the history of the city, with portraits, busts, and other memorials, occupies a site that was in part occupied by a hall built in 1638, another built in 1725, and the nucleus of the present hall erected in 1832.

The Master Cutler approaches the Chair by a series of stages. He is chosen by the Company to be an Assistant, or ordinary member; then he becomes one of the six Searchers (who formerly searched for all goods that did not conform to the rules of the company); next he is selected as Junior Warden; then succeeds to the office of Senior Warden; and the following year is the Master Cutler, unless he pays a fine to be relieved from serving in that honourable but expensive office. In public rank he takes the next place in the city to the Lord Mayor. The high repute in which the office is held, its historic dignity, and its scope for usefulness, continue to attract to it a selection from the most able business men of the City.

The cutlery trade itself, from time immemorial, has had a special character, which it is only losing by slow degrees. To a very large extent it has been carried on almost as a domestic industry, by men known as "little masters." It is one of the last forms of manufacture to resist being gathered into great factories, where all the work is planned by a single directory, and carried out under supervision with clockwork regularity. At last, the cutlery business is falling into line with other industries, but only very gradually. On this point Professor Godfrey Lloyd, who was Lecturer on Economics at Sheffield University, and is now Professor of Political Economy at the University of Toronto, has written a most interesting book, showing how the trade, as carried on in Sheffield, is the best remaining example of what he calls "small-scale production."

Under this system much of the work sold by large manufacturers, or by merchants, is let out, in whole or in part, to workers who, singly or in teams, but generally under a " little master," do it either at their homes or in a shop they combine to hire - with steam power added. Hand-file cutting and steel-fork making are examples of the system; but each separate part of the making of a knife, such as forging, grinding, and hafting, is still done by small groups of workers, and the trade remains to a large extent a handicraft, rather than a series of machining processes.

An effect of this is that men are comparatively free to work when they like; as hard and long as they like, except when their work involves the running of expensive machinery; or to take a holiday when pleasure calls. There is an exceptionally large population in Sheffield who can take a half-day off to see a football match, or the interesting stage in a cricket match, and not be losing time from work. They simply choose some other time to work. One result of this freedom of arrangement may be seen in the growth of an independent spirit. Work is much split up; it is individual; and the Sheffield cutler takes badly to strict control and monotonous routine, though he will work terribly hard and long to please himself. This comparative independence has had an effect, too, on character. Work in a small shop, or grinding hull, with a few comrades, generation after generation, has loosened the tongue, and has given a training in plain speech and ready wit. There are no machine-made men in the cutlery trade; but there is a fine, rugged growth of independent character.

But all this is wearing down slowly towards a more disciplined uniformity. The water-wheel grinding, once the most characteristic feature of the business, has now almost, if not entirely, disappeared. The appearance and disappearance of the "hulls," or grinding sheds alongside the streams, marked the growth and change of the cutlery trade through the centuries. The rent-roll of the Lord of the Manor showed that in 1604 there were twenty-eight wheels on the streams. In 1624 there were thirty-two. By the year 1770 the number of water-wheels had risen to 133, and there were twenty-eight rolling mills, tilts, and forges employing water-power. These works by the waterside were distributed as follows: on the Don, forty-seven; on the Loxley, forty-two; on the Rivelin, twenty-four; on the Porter, fifteen; on the Sheaf and other streams, thirty-three. By the year 1794, the total water-driven works had declined to 123, and five were using steam. By the year 1865 there were only thirty-two wheels using water-power, and the steam-driven wheels had risen to 132. The number of persons employed in the trade, classified as makers of cutlery, saws, files, and tools, went on with a steady increase until 1891, when the census showed that high-water mark was reached in this department of Sheffield manufactures. In that year 43,632 workers were employed throughout England and Wales, in making cutlery, saws, files, and tools, and of these 25,743 were employed in Sheffield. In making cutlery alone, 19,992 were employed throughout England and Wales, and of these 16,355 were working in Sheffield. No other figures are needed to show how completely the city has retained this particular manufacture for itself, and in doing so spread its name and fame throughout the world.

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Pictures for Cutlery since the Company was formed

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