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The History of Industries and Toolmaking in United Kingdom

  The Ironmonger - The King of Hardware Trade Journals By Geoffrey Tweedale 1 of 4  

Anyone who has picked up an old saw, plane, or knife soon looks for a trade mark or maker’s name. These can identify and sometimes date an artefact. But one often wants to know more about the history of the manufacturer or individual. Reference books and other published sources – such as newspapers and directories – can sometimes provide a lead. But they do not usually give much detail. Ideally, business records – letters, accounts ledgers, and old pattern books – should help. But not many tool and cutlery enterprises have left an archive trail. So where does one look?

In the late 1970s, I pondered this question, when I was researching the 19th century Sheffield cutlery and tool trades. I tried trawling through consecutive years of one Sheffield newspaper, but soon gave this up as too laborious. Trade journals seemed to offer a more focused source, so I began looking at leading Victorian periodicals, such as The Engineer and Engineering. These were useful and the volumes were often indexed.

However, the space devoted to hand tools and cutlery was inevitably limited. Perhaps surprisingly, Sheffield did not have its own trade journal, but I soon discovered that specialist iron and hardware journals had been published in England since the late 19th century. One in particular looked promising.

That journal was The Ironmonger. The only place it seemed to be available in a complete run was the British Library’s Newspaper Division at Colindale, north London. That was convenient in one respect, because I lived in London. But Colindale was on the distant reaches of the underground railway and a visit involved a three-hour round trip.

The Newspaper Division was an Aladdin’s Cave of newspapers and journals (put simply, its miles of shelving held runs of almost every British newspaper and journal ever published). But it was always a forbidding place to work. I once heard the head of the Division describe working there as like being ‘exiled to Siberia’.

The building was more akin to a depository than a library and in those days was devoid of facilities like a café or even a drinks machine. Worse, it was set in a residential suburb which was similarly devoid of shops and cafés. Volumes could only be ordered from the stacks a few at a time and photocopying was expensive.

It was soon evident, though, that The Ironmonger was a mine of information on tools, cutlery, and general hardware products. I opened my first volume and almost immediately in the issue dated 30 May 1863 discovered a detailed account of Mappin Bros – one of Sheffield’s leading cutlery factories. A quick look through the other volumes on my table showed that it was a journal thick with news items and advertisements on tools and cutlery.

It was like a mine in other respects, too, since it was also apparent that consulting its pages would involve a lot of hard digging. The issues were bound into volumes that were squat, bulky, and often covered only a few months.

Scanning every issue of more than a decade’s run of the journal would be a serious undertaking. Inevitably, I sampled the journal and, after turning up lots of useful information and references, turned my attention to other sources. I always promised myself that one day I would return to The Ironmonger, though I did not think it would be another thirty years before I did so.

In that period, much has changed. Computers and digitization have made 19th century newspapers more accessible, so that the extensive trawls of hard copy Sheffield newspapers I conducted at Colindale have largely become unnecessary. Indeed, Colindale library no longer exists. The British Library has abandoned it and dispersed its stock. Sadly, The Ironmonger has not been digitized and it remains a frustrating journal to consult, because so few libraries have a run.

However, I was recently able to re-acquaint myself with this journal after tracking down another set at the Museum of English Rural Life at Reading University. To look along The Ironmonger shelves at Reading is to be staggered by the sheer bulk of the journal. Not only are the volumes big and heavy (see photo above), but the run seems almost endless, spanning two bays of shelves.

I did not have time to count every volume, but the number certainly exceeds 200. The scale of this publishing undertaking generated a history of its own, which can be usefully explored before assessing The Ironmonger as a source.

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