Nostalgia on Tuesday: Cutting edge

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In a commemorative booklet published during the early 20th century, Sheffield cutlers Joseph Rodgers & Sons stated they had been ‘By Appointment Under Five Sovereigns’.

With a registered trademark, rented in 1724, the company had supplied their goods to King George IV, King William IV, Queen Victoria, King Edward VII and George V.

Sheffield’s association with cutlery manufacture may be traced to hearth tax returns of 1297 as these record Robert the Cutler. Over the following centuries Sheffield’s metalworking industry grew considerably, largely due to the area’s close proximity to raw materials such as coal, iron ore and stone for grinding wheels.

The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire was incorporated by an Act of Parliament in 1624 and this gave them control over the cutlery industry in Hallamshire and ‘six miles round’. As a result they maintained impeccable standards, enrolled enthusiastic apprentices and built the first cutlers’ hall in 1638.

For many generations, knowledge of the cutlery trade in Sheffield was passed down from father to son. In 1724 a John Rodgers is first noted renting a house and workshop in Holy Croft (later Hawley Croft formerly located off Campo Lane) though it is presumed the family had connections with the trade before this time. The company’s trademark is a six-pointed star and Maltese cross and was originally granted in 1682 to a William Birks. In 1724 the trademark was let to John Rodgers and confirmed to the firm by the Cutlers’ Company of Sheffield 40 years later.

Around 1780, the company, which now included John’s three sons, John, Joseph and Maurice, moved to 6 Norfolk Street and over a number of years they expanded the site into a magnificent complex.

Following the death of John Rodgers in 1785, the business was left to his son, Joseph, and the company was styled after his name.

Having originally manufactured pocket and pen knives, the company moved into other areas around 1800, turning out razors, table cutlery and, in time, scissors. Throughout the remainder of the century the company remained in the hands of the Rodgers family.

In 1821 the company received its first Royal Warrant. John Rodgers (1779-1859) was introduced to the Prince Regent at Carlton House by Stuart Wortley MP (later Lord Wharncliffe) where he presented a small item of cutlery. Thereafter, the firm was made cutlers to the Royal Family and a little later held the Royal Appointment to the King of Spain.

The British Royal Family appointment greatly encouraged Joseph Rodgers & Son to produce some of their finest world-class cutlery. It was displayed, during the mid-1820s, in a showroom, one of the first of its kind in Sheffield. Eager to experience this novel idea, crowds besieged the showroom.

In 1822 Joseph Rodgers & Sons produced the Year Knife with a new blade being added for each year of the Christian era. Presently, the knife has more than 2,000 blades and is in Kelham Island Industrial Museum.

Another of the company’s most spectacular items was the Norfolk Knife, both a tool and a work of art, having 75 blades. Named in recognition of the company’s base in Norfolk Street, the knife took two years to make and most of the blades are etched, depicting hunting scenes, well-known buildings and famous people. The firm exhibited the piece at The Great Exhibition, an international trade show held in London during 1851. This knife is now in the Cutlers’ Hall in Sheffield.

Joseph Rodgers & Sons became a limited company in 1871 and the public shares offered were snapped up after a few hours. During the last quarter of the 19th century significant expansions took place. In 1882 the Pond Hill factory was built, mainly for the production of pocket knives, and in 1889 a showroom was opened in London.

The reputation of producing quality items bearing the Rodgers trademark was often prey to forgers and a considerable sum of money was spent defending the name and the trademark.

To produce the high-class cutlery, shear steel was employed in the manufacturing process from about 1890 at Leppings Lane, Wadsley, and crucible cast steel was used at the River Lane Works. Heat treatment of the blades was under special control, thus obtaining uniformity of hardness and a lasting cutting edge. The finest ivory, horn and fine woods were also a vital part of many Rodgers items.

At one time the company boasted there was ‘no part of the whole world, civilized or uncivilized where Rodgers’ cutlery is not known’. After the battle of Omdurman (1898), Rodgers razors were found in the dwellings; and Buffalo Bill, in his great duel with Sitting Bull, relied on a Rodgers bowie knife, given to him by General Custer.

Successes achieved in the preceding centuries were not maintained during 20th century. In 1923 the company had, for the first time in its long history, to pass its dividend. The extensive Norfolk Street premises were sold in 1929 and all plant and machinery was transferred to their more modern premises at Pond Hill, River Lane and Sheaf Island. One newspaper report at the time said that ‘even the very best firms have been hard hit by the slump in trade which has so seriously affected Sheffield’.

The workforce once numbering 1,500 at the outset of the First World War had plummeted to just over 300 by the 1960s. During 1971 Joseph Rodgers & Sons absorbed George Ibberson & Co. Fifteen years later, the Joseph Rodgers name and trademarks were acquired by the Eggington Group. Its website notes the Joseph Rodgers & Sons name is still stamped on cutlery made today.

Peter Tuffrey collection

Peter Tuffrey collection

Peter Tuffrey collection

Peter Tuffrey collection