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History of Cutlery and Tools with Geoffrey Tweedale

  Sorby: A Famous Sheffield Tool Making Family by Geoffrey Tweedale

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‘SORBY’ is a well-known name in Sheffield tool and cutlery manufacture.



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 investigation.

Sorby, Hobson & Sorby

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).


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