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History of Cutlery and Tools with Geoffrey Tweedale

  Gunpowder and Saws: The History of Wheatman & Smith by Geoffrey Tweedale

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When Richard M. Hoe – the New York manufacturer of printing presses – decided to branch into saw manufacture in the 1830s, he lacked two things. One was any mastery of the complex art of making high-grade steel (at that time melted in clay crucibles). The other was workmen skilled enough to forge, grind, and hammer such steel into saws. Hoe needed to look overseas. He found both crucible steel and skilled labour in Sheffield, which was then Europe’s leading steel and saw making centre.

One of the workmen Hoe recruited was John Wheatman (1812-1873), a young apprentice saw maker. He had been born in Sheffield on 4 September 1812, the son of John (a saw maker) and his wife, Mary.

John Wheatman Jun. began his career at Sanderson Brothers, which was one of Sheffield’s leading steel firms. Since 1776, Sanderson’s had combined crucible steel making with the production of high-quality tools, such as saws. It soon had a thriving American trade. One of Sanderson’s customers was R. Hoe & Co.

Hoe, Sanderson, and Wheatman

The relationship between the two firms is documented in the Hoe company records, which are lodged at the Butler Library, Columbia University, New York City. The papers do not make for easy reading, as this author discovered on a visit to New York some years ago. The letter-press copybooks are flimsy and the ink on the tissue-thin pages is sometimes impossible to decipher. Fortunately, historian Frank E. Comparato wrote a hefty business history of Hoe’s (published in 1979), which explored the company’s saw making in some detail.

Hoe quickly established a relationship with the senior partners at Sanderson Bros (one of whom was based in New York). Sanderson’s was soon sending regular supplies of saw plates to Hoe.

Sanderson’s helped in other ways. When Hoe’s requested help in establishing its machine-shop, Sanderson’s sent John Wheatman to New York. He was one of a group of six English saw makers at the factory (Iron Age, 20 March 1890).

Wheatman became foreman. He made documented trips to the USA in 1834, 1835, and 1838 (and may have made the transatlantic crossing on other occasions). He liaised with both parties by recruiting Sheffield workers for the Americans and passing a stream of orders for saw blanks to Sanderson’s.

The launch of Wheatman & Smith

Wheatman apparently left New York in about 1843. There was no disagreement. Wheatman would continue to correspond with Richard M. Hoe and provide the New Yorkers with materials and personnel. But Wheatman had plans of his own. In Sheffield, he found a partner in John Smith (c.1822-1885).

Smith had been born at Hunslet, a district in Leeds, and was the son of mason and builder George Smith (c.1791-1880). George moved to Sheffield and combined his work as a builder with running a pub, the Sawmakers’ Arms in Russell Street, near Kelham Island. This was in the heart of a burgeoning industrial suburb, which stretched for a mile or two along the River Don. The renowned Globe Works of steel and tool maker Ibbotson Bros was located in this district.

In the Census (1841), George Smith was living in Russell Street with his first wife, Sophia, and son John (an apprentice saw maker). In the Sheffield directory (1845), John Smith was listed as a saw maker at No. 62 Russell Street. John Wheatman manufactured saws at No. 45. It was at about this time that they joined forces.

Wheatman & Smith advertised in White’s Directory of … Leeds, Bradford, etc. (1847) as a manufacturer of saws. In 1849, the firm appeared for the first time in a Sheffield directory at Russell Works, Russell Street.

By 1853, Wheatman & Smith had relocated Russell Works to nearby Kelham Island – a site which fronted the River Don on an ‘island’ created by a goit (or mill race).

An advertisement in the Sheffield directory in 1856 described the firm as a steel converter and refiner, and a manufacturer of saws, files, and edge tools. Not every product would have been made by Wheatman and Smith, but they certainly manufactured saws and files and had a crucible melting shop.

Once the transfer to Kelham Island had been completed, Wheatman and Smith chose a trade mark – a brawny arm raising a heavy hammer – which was granted in 1860.


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Ibbotson Brothers
Globe Works

Tweedale’s Directory of Sheffield Cutlery Manufacturers

2nd Edition

The early history of Globe Works was intertwined with the Ibbotson family.  This was a relatively common name in Sheffield, so untangling the history of the factory is difficult.
Find more in the Directory.

Take a Look >>

W. & S. Butcher



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