The History of Industries and Toolmaking in United Kingdom


 
  Tweedale's Directory of Sheffield Cutlery – 2nd Edition 1 of 2  

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The 2nd edition of Tweedale’s Directory of Sheffield Cutlery Manufacturers, 1740 – 2013, by Geoffrey Tweedale covers about 1600 enterprises, active within that time period. These dates are significant. The year 1740 marks the beginning of the commercial production of crucible steel and 2013 marks the centenary of the discovery of stainless steel for the production of cutlery (and tools).

One might ask; why am I talking about cutlery producers in England on this website?

First, I believe that learning about cutlery is as closely connected to tools as steel is connected to tools production. It is a great benefit, especially for those of us who are interested in the history of toolmaking, to know the economic and social setting in which the predecessors of American toolmakers began their ventures – in Sheffield, UK. Tweedale’s Directory provides ample information on the history and settings of old Steel City.

Second, many cutlery firms were also involved in edge tools production, including chisels, saws, plane irons, etc. Hence, the Directory provides an historical view into these companies - a value to everyone interested in the roots of the great tool producers in Sheffield.

The first eight chapters are dedicated to cutlery history, the impact of crucible steel and stainless steel, with an overview of major cutlery firms, the mechanization of production and competition with foreign markets.

For me the most exciting is chapter four, titled Backstreet Capitalism. It is a “must read” chapter for all who have the nagging desire (I do) to understand how all this started and developed. Geoff Tweedale states it in a masterful way:

“Beneath its famous smoke, the Sheffield cutlery industry was remarkably concentrated. Manufacturing took place within an area the covered about 1.5 square miles. Actually, most of that activity was within one square mile.

It was a hive of backstreet businesses and workshops. Some factories, such a Joseph Rodgers and George Wostenholm, employed hundreds. But the smaller enterprises – even world-famous names, seldom employed more than a few dozen. The cutlery ‘factories’ or grinding ‘wheels’ would often be a few rooms in a tenement block and even the most grandly-titled ‘Works’ were often small and shabby, or set in some dreary backstreet.”

Another excerpt from this chapter provides concise explanation of the "little mester" phenomenon which was the foundation of the development of Steel City.

"Beneath the larger firms and merchants, the bedrock of Sheffield cutlery was the ‘little mester’ – the individual manufacturer – who rented a workshop and perhaps employed one or two apprentices or a few workers. It is one of the paradoxes of Sheffield that a city that has always had a reputation for its socialism was one of the most entrepreneurial, where cooperation did not flourish.

As one writer noted: ‘A person worth a few shillings may commence business on his own account as a cutler; and, in this class, individuals are not infrequently journeymen one year and masters another, and conversely’. For a modest investment and limited risk, the little mester could enjoy what Leader termed the ‘moral dignity’ of being his (or occasionally her) own boss. Analysis of the cutlery industry shows that the little mester was a key figure for much of the nineteenth century."

These and other features of Sheffield's industries are explained in straightforward manner, sufficient to grasp the uniqueness of the cultural, social, financial, and workforce structures of the town that gave the world many key advances in tool and steel technology.


 
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