HISTORY OF THE SHEFFIELD KNIFE INDUSTRY



Sheffield has been the centre of cutlery for the best part of the last thousand years. Although there were many knife making and cutlery centres in Britain over the centuries, Sheffield became the pre-eminent centre for many reasons.

Sheffield has good natural resources, five rivers that flow from the surrounding hills down through the Sheffield area powered the water wheels that drove the grinding wheels for the cutlers. Coal for smelting and forging, and iron ore for making the blades were also both mined locally. Finally, nearby quarries provided the sandstone for the grindstones with which items were sharpened and polished, and it was the quality of these grindstones and the large number of water powered workshops using them that really gave Sheffield the edge above other cutlery making centres.

The first recorded mention of a Sheffield knife is in the inventory of King Edward III's possessions in the Tower of London in 1340. King Edward must have greatly valued the knife, as he was very specific about leaving it to a beneficiary in his will. In the 1380's Chaucer wrote about a Sheffield knife in the Reeves tale, and can be seen wearing such a knife in the portraits that were painted of him. By the 1580's, Sheffield penknives were being recommended as the first choice for schoolmasters in 'The Writing Schoolmaster' a contemporary publication.The first recorded mention of a Sheffield knife is in the inventory of King Edward III's possessions in the Tower of London in 1340. King Edward must have greatly valued the knife, as he was very specific about leaving it to a beneficiary in his will. In the 1380's Chaucer wrote about a Sheffield knife in the Reeves tale, and can be seen wearing such a knife in the portraits that were painted of him.  

By the 1580's, Sheffield penknives were being recommended as the first choice for schoolmasters in 'The Writing Schoolmaster' a contemporary publication. Another reason for the success of Sheffield's cutlery industry must be due to the system of organisation. Under George Talbot, Lord of the Manor of Sheffield, the cutlers operated under a system of guilds, with the Lord of the Manor at the head. Unfortunately, after George Talbot's successor died in 1617, the guild system collapsed as there was nobody to take over the position. The Sheffield cutlers were so concerned by the disorganisation, that within four years, they presented a bill to Parliament to form a new controlling body. This Act of Parliament formed the 'Company of Cutlers of Hallamshire'in 1624 (which covers the whole Sheffield area) and under this new authority, the cutlery industry flourished. The company is still around today, and although it lost its authority in the early 19th Century, it still has some important functions, and is still active today in Sheffield.

The Sheffield Cutlery trade grew throughout the 17th and early 18th Centuries, gaining extra growth when new developments in increasing the quality of steel gave the cutlers a finer basic product to work with. Specialisation of tasks also helped the industry to grow, and by the mid 19th Century, the Sheffield cutlery trade was very large, employing ten thousand people, and by the end of the Century more than fifteen thousand. In comparison, London had only one thousand at the start and 500 cutlers at the end of the 19th century. By the 1920's an important new invention stainless steel started to be used, developed by a Sheffield metallurgist it has been the standard material for knife blades made ever since.

In the 1970's and 80's the Sheffield cutlery industry went through a leaner period as cheaper, lesser quality foreign imports came into the country. However, the values of care, quality and the finest craftsmanship that marks out the Sheffield cutlery trade were never compromised. The Sheffield cutlery industry is now undergoing a renaissance, generated by the development of the Camlock knives collection and the recognition that if you want the finest quality, you have to use the finest craftsmen. If you want to own cutlery that will become a family heirloom, there is no doubt, it has to be made in Sheffield.

We always talk about knives and forks, never forks and knives, probably because the knife has the longest history. The first very simple cutting edges were made from flint and date back two million years, but recognizable blades were made out of stone from five hundred thousand years years ago during the Paleolithic period (500,000-10,000 B.C.). By the Neolithic period four to seven thousand years ago (5000-2000 B.C.), stone blades were being polished and were fitted with crude handles along the top edge of the blade, which were made of wood or animal hides to protect the users hand.

Metal blade knives were first made from copper and then bronze in the years 3000-700 B.C.and they have many features that we still see today. Bolsters and tangs were added so that a handle could be fitted to the end of the blade (just as they are today), and shapes developed that can still be seen in many carving knives that are still produced today. After the bronze age came the discovery that an iron blade had a much sharper and long-lasting edge, and iron knives were widely made since about 1000 years BC.The Romans in particular developed many different types of knife to suit a wide number of uses (including ritual animal sacrifices and knives for cutting hair). Knives were considered to be very important possessions, and were treasured items. People had their own personal eating knives which they carried with them (they would not be provided at the table) and it was not unusual for people to be buried with their personal knives.