‘SORBY’ is a well-known name in Sheffield tool and cutlery
The family was an old one, whose members became
prominent in the town’s affairs as magistrates and local
government officials. The first Master Cutler (the head of the
local craft guild) in 1624 was Robert Soresby (the name has had
various spellings). Other Sorbys later held that post.
By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, several
Sorby tool and cutlery businesses thrived in Sheffield. Their
history is featured in tool reference books, on internet sites,
and in company literature.
Much has been made of the family’s ancient links to the first
Master Cutler, its worthy municipal record, its illustrious
descendants (one of them was the scientist, Henry Clifton
Sorby), and the longevity of its industrial activities.
Unfortunately, that reported history is incomplete. Moreover,
the complex family and inter-firm linkages have bred endless
confusion. Sorby’s business history therefore merits further
Sorby, Hobson &
The tool-making Sorbys originated in Attercliffe – a village in
the River Don valley, which was within two miles of Sheffield
town centre. A view of Sheffield from Attercliffe appeared in
Joseph Hunter’s Hallamshire (an antiquarian tome published in
1819). Attercliffe’s rural character is evident, but the distant
chimneys and smoke are harbingers of an industrial tidal wave
that would soon swamp this area beneath some of the biggest
steel works in the world. Even when Hunter wrote, Attercliffe
was known for iron forging and scissors manufacture. Other
trades prospered, too.
View of Sheffield and the River Don from Attercliffe, 1819.
John Sorsby (1712-1795) was a linen weaver or draper, who had
married Hannah Corker. They had three sons: Thomas (1752-1801),
a schoolmaster and later factor; John (1755-1829), an edge tool
maker; and Samuel (1758-1815), a weaver and parish clerk.
In one antiquarian pedigree (Hunter), Thomas is described
cryptically as ‘deformed’. However, by 1790 he had entered the
tool trade as a partner in SORBY, HOBSON & SORBY. This firm
traded as a factor in the adjacent district of the Wicker. It
was listed in a directory in 1797. The other ‘Sorby’ was
probably Thomas’s brother John (later owner of JOHN SORBY &
SONS). Jonathan and George Hobson were also partners. John Sorby
withdrew in 1799. Thomas died on 9 May 1801, aged 49, and was
buried in Attercliffe.
Until 1810, Jonathan Hobson continued to
trade on behalf of Thomas’s executors (which included himself,
another Jonathan Hobson – presumably his son – John Sorby, and
Joseph Turner). Thomas’s descendants included a daughter, Ann
(1784-1868), who in 1803 married William Lockwood (whose family
also operated an edge tool firm).