Public Art Research Archive: Sheffield Hallam University

To coincide with the presentation of the Millennium Canteen to the City of Sheffield, Sheffield City Museum held an exhibition of its Cutlery Collection for which this introduction was written by Molly Pearce - Principal Keeper, Applied Art.


The City’s collection is world-wide in scope, but its core is the collection of Sheffield made cutlery, which has been gradually built up since the Museum was founded in 1875.

Knives and scissors are known to have been made in Sheffield since 1297. The same document which mentions Robertus le Coteler also lists Stephanus, Jurdanus and Simon Cissor. In the Middle Ages knives were made in many towns, but the mention by Chaucer of a 'Sheffield thwitel' indicates that Sheffield knives were becoming well known. The earliest Sheffield knife in the collection was excavated on the site of Sheffield castle and dates from Chaucer’s time. When water powered grinding was introduced at the end of the fifteenth century, Sheffield with its many fast flowing streams had an advantage over the other centres of cutlery production and gradually became pre-eminent.

In 1624 the Worshipful Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire was established and a continuous record of cutlers’ marks exists from that date, so the identification of a mark and the accurate dating of a knife becomes much easier. The Museum has a brass handled knife made by William Creswick in 1632 and bone handled examples from later in the same century. At that time a knife was regarded as a prized possession and generally carried on the person.

By 1700 Sheffield was making new products like spring folding pocket knives and forks. Our earliest pocket knife was made by Thomas Wilson and has the date 1679 and a ‘Cutler’s posy’ on the blade. "Lend mee not long/where cookes are throng". Although cutlery was still being made in London, Sheffield was now the most important cutlery making centre in Britain, and from 1740 to 1914 Sheffield cutlery was exported to all our overseas colonies to the United States and to many parts of Europe. Brass pocket knife scales recovered from the "Colebrook" an East Indiaman which sank in the Indian Ocean in 1778 match complete pocket knives in the Museum collection and bone scales from the Manasquan wreck off the coast of New Jersey match pocket knives of around 1830 in the collection. We have some of the long bolstered "Barlow" pocket knives for which Tom Sawyer longed and Green River knives and Bowies which were so important in the conquest of the American West. Wherever British emigrants settled, they used Sheffield knives for work and Sheffield flatware for eating. In the eighteenth century canteens of cutlery were produced for the first time and our earliest example is a set of twelve silver pistol handled knives and forks in a sharkskin case made by Edward Fox in about 1780. Spoons were not made in any quantity until the elaborate electroplated flatware services in King’s Pattern and a wide range of other designs were made from the mid Victorian period onwards. Sheffield cutlery could be bought all over England and also from the shops which Dixons, Rodgers, Mappin & Webb and Walker & Hall set up in Capetown, Karachi, Bombay, Calcutta, Adelaide, Sydney and Montreal.

Brearley’s discovery of stainless steel is the greatest contribution which Sheffield has made to the cutlery industry this century and the Museum has a good collection dating from the earliest commercially produced stainless steel knives which were made by Moseley’s in 1917. We also have a fine group of Art Deco flatware presented to us by Roberts and Belk, which includes Plain Pine, the design with which the Queen Mary was equipped. Periodically the Museum acquires a selection of cutlery being produced at a certain date. This was done in 1963 and in 1997, to mark the 700th anniversary of the Cutlery industry the Museum has bought a very wide range of the scissors, pocket knives, razors, trade knives and table cutlery currently being made.

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This page maintained by Simon Quinn
Slide Collection, Learning and IT Services,
Sheffield Hallam University.
Last altered on 23 August, 2005