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History of Cutlery and Tools with Geoffrey Tweedale

  Stainless Cutlery and the History of Portland Works in Sheffield by Geoffrey Tweedale

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In 2013, Sheffield celebrated an important centenary – the discovery of stainless steel for cutlery. The anniversary was duly marked by various events, exhibitions, and publications. It was an opportunity to reflect on the individuals and companies involved in this revolutionary breakthrough.

The steel and cutlery firms that shaped the introduction of stainless steel a hundred years ago have long since disappeared. Indeed – although one hardly dare whisper it – Sheffield no longer manufactures forged table-knife blades (though a handful of firms, it is true, continue to market cutlery). However, factory buildings last longer than people.

One of them is Portland Works. It is situated in a suburb on the outskirts of the city known as Little Sheffield, which was once a thriving centre of cutlery manufacture and light engineering. It is quieter today, but a century ago Portland Works was home to R.F. Mosley Ltd, a company which played a key role in the manufacture of the first stainless knives.

R. F. Mosley’s Early Career

Most cutlery manufacturers were Sheffield born and bred. Robert Fead Mosley was unusual in that respect. He was born in 1841 in London. He was the eldest son of Cornelius Lewis Mosley, a prosperous jeweler and steel pen manufacturer in Hatton Garden – a well-known London jewelry thoroughfare.

Robert Mosley arrived in Sheffield as a teenager in 1856. Presumably, Cornelius had contacts there. Robert was soon lodging at the house of George Oates, who was a leading scissors manufacturer. It seems likely that Robert acquired his business experience as a clerk in Oates’s office.

After Oates’s death in 1861, Mosley (aged 20) launched his own enterprise in Sheffield as a manufacturer of scissors and table cutlery. The next important event in his life, though, took place in London. In 1865 at Highbury Wesleyan Chapel, he married Martha Ann Hobson. She was the eldest daughter of Henry Hobson, a Sheffield cutlery retailer, who was very active in the capital city. Robert and Martha moved into Rutland Lodge in Collegiate Crescent, Sheffield. This was a sign that Mosley was doing well, as that Crescent was one of the better-class roads in Sheffield. By 1874, he had purchased Croft House in Brincliffe, which was an even more salubrious suburb.

Mosley’s business was soon on the move, too. In 1870, he relocated first to West Street at Beehive Wheel (later known as Portland Works) in the town centre. By 1876, Mosley was ready for a major move from West Street to Little Sheffield. Mosley’s newly-built factory in Randall Street – on the corner with Hill Street – covered about three-quarters of an acre on the usual Sheffield plan: two to three stories of offices and workshops around a central courtyard with a tall chimney. Mosley named the building Portland Works.

In 1881, Mosley apparently employed 240 workers (200 men, 20 boys, and 20 girls). This made Portland Works one of the larger cutlery enterprises in Sheffield. A vanity publication, Industries of Sheffield: Business Review (1888), provided an engraving of the factory and noted:

A valuable feature of their business, and one which has been made a specialty by them, is the manufacture of case goods on an exceedingly artistic and extensive scale. These cases are fitted up with satin and velvet linings, etc., for the reception of cutlery of the best and highly finished kinds, also for silver dessert and table spoons, forks, fish knives, etc., mounted in pearl, ivory, silver, metal, and other choice mountings.

Mosley had recognized the importance of the burgeoning market for silver and electro-plated goods. In 1883, he registered a silver mark in Sheffield under his own name. Further silver marks followed in 1886, 1890, 1894, and 1907. In 1897, Mosley’s became a limited company, with a capital of £35,000 (£24,170 paid up). Most of the shares were held by R.F. Mosley and his eldest son, Henry Hobson Mosley (1867-1928).

The Alexander Clark Connection

Mosley had made his mark in Sheffield, but he was not a public figure. He took no part in local politics. He apparently never became a freeman of the local craft guild, the Company of Cutlers, and never held the office of Master Cutler (the nominal head of that body). Unusually, he never adopted a trade mark in the nineteenth century and his name is surprisingly scarce (given the size of his factory) on cutlery. This may have reflected a personal dislike of politics and publicity. However, it also reflected the fact that Mosley’s chief outlet for table cutlery and silverware was in London.

By 1890, Mosley had developed links with The Alexander Clark Manufacturing Co in London. This silverware retailer had been launched by Alexander Clark (1857-1938), who had acquired prominent showrooms in Fenchurch Street and Oxford Street. Robert F. Mosley and his second son, Robert Frederick Mosley (1870-1926), became partners in Clark’s.

By 1901, Robert Frederick was living and working in Market Place, off Oxford Street, where one of Clark’s showrooms was located. Intriguingly, directories stated that Clark had a Sheffield office and factory at Welbeck Works in Randall Street. Hence Clark’s trade mark: ‘WELBECK, SHEFFIELD’.

Randall Street was also the location of Portland Works, which inevitably raises the question of the precise relationship between the two companies. This was considerably clarified after the author noticed that an antiquarian bookseller had an Alexander Clark trade catalogue for sale.


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Joseph Rodgers' Cutlery

Tweedale’s Directory of Sheffield Cutlery Manufacturers

2nd Edition

In the 19th century, Joseph Rodgers & Sons in Sheffield was the most famous cutlery firm in the world. Its mark - the Star and Maltese Cross - was the most prestigious (and most imitated). Rodgers' is one of hundreds of enterprises profiled and illustrated in Tweedale's Directory.

Find more in the Directory.

Take a Look >>

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