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The History of Industries and Toolmaking in United Kingdom

  The Cutlers' Company of Sheffield, England 1 of 3  

from The Story Of The English Towns - Sheffield
by J. S. Fletcher, 1919

It is in Sheffield a corporate body, founded nearly three hundred years ago, exercising vast power and possessing much wealth, which is, amongst all similar corporations of the world, almost if not absolutely unique.  The Cutlers' Company makes and unmakes itself, it determines what persons shall belong to it, what persons shall go out of it, what persons shall come into it.

Holding absolute sway over certain matters relating to the cutlery trade, it gives no right of choice or election to those whom it controls.  Mr. R. B. Leader, in his monumental ”History of the Cutlers' Company," sums up the position of this corporate body and the folk over whose work it exercises what is virtually an autocracy, in this way: “The Commonalty [i.e. the workers and producers of cutlery goods] 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 [of 1624] 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 position somewhat curious in the light of modern ideas still exists.

In 1624 the cutlers of Sheffield, released from their obligations to the Shrewsbury lordship by the death of the eighth earl in 1617, took steps towards the management of their own affairs by applying to Parliament for an Act of Incorporation. 

The Bill embodying their desires was presented to the House of Commons in the first-named year, soon afterwards considered by a Select Committee of the House, and speedily passed into law.  

It was entitled "An Act for the good order and government of the makers of knives, sickles, shears, scissors, and other cutlery wares in Hallamshire, in the county of York, and other parts adjoining," and provided for the setting-up, by charter, of a Cutlers' Company, incorporate and perpetual, of all persons engaged in making cutlery ware within the liberties of Hallamshire, such company to be governed by a master, two wardens, six searchers, and twenty-four assistants thirty-three officials in all.  

The thirty-three were to remain in office for one year, and were themselves to appoint their successors (who have usually been themselves) on each succeeding Feast of St. Bartholomew August 24th.  The Charter conferred powers on the Company to make laws and regulations for the government of all masters, workmen, and apprentices in the Sheffield cutlery trade and to inflict penalties on all disobedient members.

The first master was Robert Sorby (a name which, under one spelling or another, frequently appears in the Burgery Rolls); the first two assistants, Godfrey Bisley and John Rawson, names also well known in the town; and the first membership roll included 360 names, a proof that the trade was then firmly established.  Fourteen years later the Cutlers' Company built its first Hall, on a site adjacent to the Parish Church. 

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