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History of Cutlery and Tools with Geoffrey Tweedale

  The Tool That Made the Tools by Geoffrey Tweedale

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What was the most significant and widely used tool in nineteenth-century Sheffield?

The answer is not immediately obvious.


After surveying publications on the history of tools and exploring the world of tool-collecting buffs, one might imagine that woodworking tools (saws, planes, and joiners’ braces) were of prime importance. If not those, then perhaps another category of edge tools, such as shears or scythes, were paramount. Or maybe engineers’ tools – spanners, wrenches, hammers, and drills – took first place.

The answer might surprise. As far back as 1787 – when a Sheffield directory provided the first reasonably detailed breakdown of trades by category – file making had become the primary tool trade.

In that publication, 47 individuals or enterprises were listed as file makers – thus outranking any other category of tool. By the mid-nineteenth century, well over a hundred file enterprises were active in Sheffield. Not all of these would have manufactured files, so employment figures offer a better perspective. In 1851, about 4,000 workers were involved in file manufacture (from a total workforce in the tool sector approaching 7,000).

By the start of the 1890s, the figures were even more astonishing: the 6,200 workers in the Sheffield file industry were at least equal to all the other tool categories combined. File making even surpassed cutlery as an employer. Before the First World War, workers in the file-making trade unions had more members than any other tool or cutlery trades union group.

So why has file manufacture been overlooked? After all, it was the tool that made the tools. Almost every industrial product needed shaping, filing or abrading in some way. A craftsman’s or engineer’s cabinet or bench would not be complete without a file – more usually an array of files (many of a specialised nature).

As American manufacturer Henry Disston & Sons put it: ‘There are few tools more essential in the development of industry than the file’. Disston added: ‘Perhaps for the very reason that it is so universally used and so absolutely indispensable, the file does not commonly receive the attention it deserves’.

Perhaps files (and rasps) were regarded as too dull to be noteworthy. In Sheffield, they never seem to have featured in illustrations in trade directories until the 1880s (unlike other cutlery and tool products). Such is the paucity of data that it is even difficult to say which firms were the leading producers.

One report in The Sheffield Independent (2 October 1852), ranked file makers according to the number of hearths (forges). The industry leader was Thomas Turton & Sons at ‘Sheaf Works’, closely followed by W. & S. Butcher, and Matthias Spencer & Sons. Other names that featured were Charles Cammell and William Hall.

That sounds about right, though several Sheffield firms later established a reputation for file manufacture: notably, J. & Riley Carr, John Bedford & Sons, Alfred Beckett & Sons, and William Spencer & Son.

Contemporary data can only be approximate, not least because the file industry mixed factory and domestic production. Many workers (of both sexes) laboured independently at home as ‘outworkers’ (albeit supplying the factories). In villages around Sheffield, such as Ecclesfield and Oughtibridge, file making was a cottage industry. The sound of hammers and chisels in these quiet hamlets led to the name ‘nickerpecker’ (or woodpecker) for the file cutter.


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Sheaf Works of
Wm. Greaves & Sons

Tweedale’s Directory of Sheffield Cutlery Manufacturers

2nd Edition

Sheaf Works of Wm. Greaves & Sons, was built in the 1820s to supply the American demand for tools and cutlery (such as razors and Bowie knives). This firm is one of hundreds profiled and illustrated in Tweedale's Directory.

Find more in the Directory.

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English Tools


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