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The History of Industries and Toolmaking in United Kingdom


 
  Foreign Rivalries - Hardware by H. R. Fox Bourne, 1884 1 of 4  

England has always been famous for its hardware; and the multitude of trades included under that somewhat vague term - nearly every one of them of great value and importance when looked at separately - have in the aggregate contributed very largely to our national prosperity. We have come to regard it as our prerogative to make not only cotton, woollen, and other articles of clothing for all the world, but also knives, scissors, axes, and saws, pins, needles, nails, and screws, pots and pans, fenders and fire-irons, and all sorts of other metal goods, from swords and firearms to watches and clocks.

If we are losing our reputation for pre-eminence in all such work, we are losing a great deal; and no one can deny that there is, to say the least, some danger of that. Perhaps the evidence that will be given in the next few paragraphs goes to prove that, as regards a few, if not many of the trades, there is more than danger ahead of us.

So it would seem to be even in the case of cutlery, in the manufacture of which England, and especially the old capital of Hallamshire, has taken the lead for several centuries. The "Sheffield thwytel," or whittle, that Chaucer praised, was, it is true, only a clumsy blade of bar-steel, roughly fastened into a handle of wood or horn; but it was the best that could be got in those days, and Sheffield kept pace with all the improvements that were from time to time introduced.

It claims the honour of having produced the first "jack-knife," in which was adopted the brilliant idea of shutting the blade into a groove in the handle with a spring; and when Queen Elizabeth gave shelter to the Protestant fugitives from the Netherlands, it profited by all the skill they brought with them. Until a few years ago, it was unrivalled for every kind of cutlery, and it still produces more durable and more carefully finished workmanship than can easily be obtained from any foreign centre of the trade. Yet it is allowing more than one foreign centre to surpass it in everything but the choicest specimens of its craft; and even in those to offer dangerous competition, by help of lower prices and greater variety in design.

 The notorious recklessness of the trades-unionists in holding out for their supposed rights is one, though not the only cause of this. "It is in a great measure attributable to the action of the men," says a competent authority, by no moans prejudiced against the working classes, "that the trade has not developed much more rapidly and widely than it has. They are paid by 'piece,' and demand extra remuneration for everything that can be termed 'extra' in a knife, altogether irrespective of the time that it may take to make it.

The misfortune appears to be that the rate of wages is far too low, and they endeavour to recoup themselves for this by charging all that they possibly can for 'extras.'

A manufacturer may devote much time and thought to the bringing out of a now pattern, simple in its details, and easily made. It may have more 'extras,' but will not occupy so much time in making as one that has fewer.

The men look only at the 'extras,' and ask such a price for making it as compels the manufacturer to abandon the idea of bringing it out, and it is therefore thrown aside. The men lose good work, and the manufacturer is discouraged in his efforts to improve and extend the trade, as he is unable to tempt business by offering new pattern goods on reasonable terms."

Thereby, American, German, and other cutlers have been greatly assisted in their competition, and, though some Sheffield firms are able to face all opposition, their less eminent neighbours find themselves hard pressed, ever in the English market, by dealers in foreign manufactures.

They suffer, too, from the prejudice against machinery, which many of them share with their men. That hand-work produces the daintiest results is likely enough; but the saving of expense attained by the use of steam power far more than compensates for any benefit thus secured.

That is the case with axes and other edge-tools even more than with knives and scissors. It may be that the necessity of obtaining an instrument especially suitable for felling their huge forest trees first stimulated the inventive energy of the Americans; but certain it is that then axes are now unsurpassed, and have not only monopolised in their own country and in Canada the trade which was formerly a source of great profit to England, but are even used extensively by our own people and our customers in other parts of the world. In the making of saws and planes, again, we are being superseded by the Americans.


 
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