A Filecutter’s Hammer from the Hawley Collection

by Joan Unwin


Figure 1. A filecutter’s hammer,weighing c.1kg, early 20th century (H.C.)

This article is a personal interpretation of the words ‘Materialising Sheffield’. I propose to take an ordinary object and use it as the key to open the doors on aspects of Sheffield’s heritage. The particular object is a filecutter’s hammer from the Hawley Collection of Sheffield manufactured tools and cutlery. This will not be a comprehensive overview of Sheffield’s manufacturing history and traditions, or a detailed exposition of file manufacture, but it will try to show how one object can illuminate some of the fascinating events in the City’s industrial history.

Figure 2. Ken Hawley outside the Hawley Building, University of Sheffield

The Hawley Collection was assembled over a working lifetime by Ken Hawley who, as a toolshop owner in Sheffield, had a comprehensive view of the Sheffield manufacturing scene during the second half of the twentieth century. His wide knowledge of products was augmented by an appreciation of manufacturing methods and the desire to retain objects and information about the core trades in Sheffield, once it became evident that many firms were contracting and even disappearing.

The Hawley Collection has documents from the early 19th century relating to Sheffield metal manufacturing trades. There are around 3,500 trade catalogues for British and foreign hand tools, cutlery, holloware, surgical instruments and machine tools, plus miscellaneous archival material. Linked to these resources are photographs, audio tapes and film. All this is backed by a huge range of artefacts – finished and part-finished tools, etc, plus the ‘tools that made the tools’. Since 1992, a charitable Trust has overseen the Collection develop from a personal collection to one housed at the University of Sheffield to be a focus for study and research into aspects of the Sheffield trades. The redevelopment of the City is exposing archaeological sites, including many cutlery and tool factories and the Hawley Collection is proving to be invaluable in the interpretation of sites and finds.

The resources within Sheffield for studying its manufacturing history are superb and include the remarkable archives held by the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire . This body oversaw the cutlery trades for almost two hundred years from 1624 and then continued as a trademark sub-registry and as a mouthpiece of the cutlery, steel and edgetool industry. Its rules insisted that all apprenticeships in the cutlery trades had to be registered at the Cutlers’ Hall, thereby assembling a wealth of biographical detail for over 30,000 people.

Figure 3. The Cutlers’ hall today.

Further resources can be found at the Kelham Island Industrial Museum , Sheffield Archives and the Local Studies Library .

Figure 4. A file forger’s hammer (top)
and a file cutter’s hammer (bottom) (H.C).

To return to the object in question. A hammer is a striking tool with a weighted head set on a shaft and used in a variety of ways, for driving nails into wood, striking chisels to carve stone, for hammering punches to produce decoration on silver, etc. The weight and shape of the head differs according to the work and the shape and length of the handle/shaft also varies. In cutlery and tool manufacture, a hammer was used by many craftsmen involved in manual operations such as forging, but mechanical hammers, driven by waterpower or steam, were developed to ease the work load. While machines such as drop stamps became increasingly common throughout the 19th century, the hand forger in parts of the cutlery and tool industries continued to work until the last years of the 20th century, and many blades carried the proud boast of being ‘hand forged’.

The Hammer – why I like it

This particular hammer represents, for me, so much of Sheffield’s industrial history – the core trade of filemaking, the work practices of specialist craftsmen, the effects of the introduction of machinery, the persistence of obsolete skills and finally it stands for the death of a traditional trade. It is an ordinary object, but rare and priceless, being a conduit for oral traditions and for exemplifying change and continuity. Plus, it represents my personal interest in the generations of craftsmen who make up my family tree.

The head of this filecutter’s hammer has been forged from wrought iron and faced with steel. The shaft, set at an angle of about 60° to the head, has been used long enough for the craftsman’s hand and thumb to wear it into an ergonomic shape. It has also been repaired with wire after it threatened to split during use.

Figure 5. Filecutter’s hammer showing the steel face (H.C.).

Figure 6. The hammer showing wear and repair (H.C.).

Figure 7. Filecutting hammer, chisel for a file (right) and a rasp punch (left) (H.C.)

Figure 8. A range of file blanks, the top blank has not been ground (H.C.).

Figure 9. A page from the 1892 Sheffield Illustrated List showing the range of cuts produced on files and rasps (H.C.).

Its function was to strike a small chisel which cut a single line into the smooth surface of a file blank. Thousands upon thousands of these ‘lines’ or ‘teeth’ had to be cut in order to produce the rough surface of the file, done with such speed that an onomatopoeic name for a filecutter was ‘nicker-pecker’.

Files are tools which were once required at almost every stage of manufacture in the pre-standardisation age. Because many items were hand-made or made singly, filing and fitting was necessary in any assembly work. For instance, files were used in the construction of spring knives, where they also produced decorative features on the backs of the springs. Files came in almost endless varieties. Not only was there variation in lengths from a few centimetres to about a metre, the cross-sections could vary, such as round, half-round, triangular (called ‘three square’), and straight or tapered. Then there are many differences in ‘cut’, that is, the arrangement and depth of the teeth or ridges giving very fine or rough files. A rasp has individual pointed teeth and is used for wood and soft materials. Again, they come in a range of sizes, shapes and cuts.

My Family – a long line of filecutters

It is gradually being forgotten just how many people in Sheffield were once directly or indirectly involved in the cutlery and tool trades. The popular past-time of tracing one’s family tree can produce satisfying results for people whose ancestors remained relatively static, both socially and geographically and particularly when ancestors can be shown to have been witness to big events. In constructing a family tree, documentary evidence for a person’s existence is vital and the search for more and more generations, reaching back into the 19th and 18th centuries, can become almost addictive. For many, it is enough simply to know the names and dates of ancestors (and the more names the better), but often neglecting to put flesh on the bones of the story. Because of the powerful and pervasive influence which the Cutlers’ Company had over the cutlery manufacturing trades for two hundred years until the beginning of the 19th century, their records have become a focus for people with roots in Hallamshire. The result is that many Sheffielders can find evidence for the lives of their ancestors in the Company’s archive.

All my male ancestors on my father’s side, except my father, were filecutters and can be traced back at least six generations to one of two John Leadbeaters who both became filesmiths in 1792 and all these men lived through some interesting times in the trade. Although they did not play a pivotal role, they do ‘materialise’ occasionally in documents, which relate to events in Sheffield’s history.

Figure 10. Apprenticeship record of John Leadbeater, son of John, 1778 (C.C.)

The generations of these Leadbeater filecutters looks like this:

  • I my father, Edwin (1914-1972)
  • II my grandfather, Edwin (1892-1981) filecutter, then window cleaner
  • III his father, Edwin (1867-1946) filecutter and shopkeeper
  • IV his father, Thomas (1842-1915) filecutter and publican
  • V his father, David (baptised 1801 – ?), filecutter

his father, was either

  • VI John, (c.1764 – ?) apprenticed in 1778 and a Freeman in 1792, filesmith
  • VII his father, John, husbandman


  • VI John, (c.1764 – ?) apprenticed in 1778 and a Freeman in 1792, filesmith
  • VII his father, Joseph, (c. 1737-?) apprenticed in 1751, filesmith
  • VIII his father, Joseph, husbandman

Figure 11. Freedom record for John Leadbeater, son of Joseph, 1792 (C.C.).

And this is where the trail in the Cutlers’ Company records ends. It is strange that two boys called John Leadbeater were apprenticed in the same year, to different master filesmiths, both becoming Freemen of the Company of Cutlers in 1792. One was the son of a filesmith and grandson of a husbandman, the other was the son of a husbandman. The similarity of names, occupations and apprenticeship dates, suggests they might be cousins, that Joseph, the filesmith and John, the husbandman were brothers. There were twenty-six other Leadbeaters in the Company records; the first in 1638 and apart from the filesmith Leadbeaters in my family tree, all the rest were cutlers.

Figure 12. Ken Hawley demonstrating how to
hold a filecutter’s hammer and chisel

So what did my Leadbeaters do? During production, a file undergoes a series of processes, whether using handtools or powered machines. High carbon steel is required, otherwise the friction of metal on metal as the file is used, would reduce its effectiveness and wear it away too quickly. The heated steel bar is shaped by hammering to produce the correct length and cross-section of the file and to draw out the tang, onto which a handle can be fastened. The file is annealed and then ground to give a smooth surface on which to cut the teeth. As with the grinding of other items such as knives, the implement is held against the face of a rapidly revolving grindstone, originally made of natural sandstone, but later was of a man-made abrasive composite material. Hand grinding of file blanks was similar to other branches of grinding. The grinder sat astride a wooden seat called a ‘horsin’ and bent over a revolving grindstone, suspended on an axle above a trough or ‘trow’ containing a small amount of water. This kept the surface of the stone wet. In machine file grinding, introduced in the later 19th century, several file blanks were placed on a flat bed and passed underneath a revolving grinding wheel. A finer, smoother finish could be achieved by ‘stripping’ the file blank, i.e. a hand process using a fine file to remove any remaining unevenness.

Figure 13. A wooden stock and metal anvil (stithy). An old shoe makes a useful tool holder (H.C.)

The next process, cutting the teeth, must have been one of the most unbelievably tedious processes in all the cutlery and tool industry. The equipment and process was very simple, but it required considerable skill to produce a fine file.

A leather strap on the anvil on top of an anvil stock held the ground file blank. The face of the ‘stithy’ (anvil) was covered with a lead sheet or with a lead mould shaped to hold specific files, such as three-square files. Lead was used so that the cut side of the file, in its unhardened state, would be protected from any damage. The teeth of the file or rasp were cut using hand-held straight-edged chisels or pointed punches, varying in size. They were struck with a hammer, which also varied according to the size of the chisel, determined by the size of the file to be cut.

Figure 14. A range of filecutter’s hammers (H.C.)

Figure 15. Ken Hawley demonstrating the position in cutting a file

Hardly anything has been written about the manufacture of files, except manufacturing details in trade literature, such as the reports from the File Research Council, Sheffield, operating in the 1950s and 1960s. However, these papers were often confidential and restricted to the trade. The basic text about files is La Lime, written in 1920 by Charles Fremont and translated from the French by George Taylor under the title Files and Filing. Principally describing the continental manufacture of files and use of files, it has interesting facts about the speed of hand file cutting and illustrations of early file cutting methods, though these are poorly referenced. It is probable that the illustrations were taken from Das Hausbuch des Mendleschen Zwölfbrüderstiftung zu Nürnberg. Illustrations of a German filecutter in 1534 shows him using a chisel and hammer in a conventional manner, but a German craftsman a century earlier, is shown using a chisel-edged hammer to cut the teeth.

Figure 16. A 14th century German filecutter (Taylor, 1920, 29)

Figure 17. A 16th century German filecutter (Taylor, 1920, 30)

Figure 18. A hand-cut file showing the minor inconsistencies in the evenness of the cut (H.C.).

Fremont goes into a detailed description of the action of filecutting, the angle of the chisel to the face of the file, the weight of the hammer, the height it is raised, the energy required to lift it, etc. (Taylor, 1920, 105). The speed at which early filesmiths could cut a file is not known, but at the beginning of the 19th century, a boy was timed cutting a three-square file, 5 inches long, with a ‘double’ cut, i.e. having two sets of teeth cut into each side. (Rees, 1819, 374). The file had 1,350 teeth and the boy made 225 strokes per minute, taking about 6 minutes to cut the file! Fremont, in 1920, writes that a filecutter using a five kilogram hammer (c.10 lbs) could make 88 strokes per minute, but averaged 50, while a hammer weighing two and a half kilos, allowed a filecutter to make 114 strokes per minute, averaging 75. This is a much lower rate than the slightly unbelievable rate of the 19th century boy, but the boy would have used a much lighter hammer. However, these numbers do indicate the enormous number of strokes made during a working day.

Figure 19. Table showing the number of teeth per inch, Bury and Co. catalogue, c.1910 (H.C.).

In 1987, a delightful film of an 80-year-old file cutter, Wilf Davies, was made at the Lock Museum , Willenhall. Wilf carefully shows how the file is held on the anvil, how he holds the chisel and hammer and how he cuts the teeth. Timing his work from the film, he was averaging 88 cuts per minute, but he did not say how heavy the hammer was and he may not have been working at the ‘proper’ speed. Following the cutting of the teeth on all the sides of the file, the file is then hardened by heating it and quenching it in salt water. The correct salinity was tested by floating an egg in the water!

Filesmiths in the Cutlers’ Company – do files cut?

Figure 20. Map of Hallamshire (Leader, 1905, 3).

In Sheffield manufacturing terms, cutlery is ‘that what cuts’ i.e. items which have a blade or cutting edge. (Spoons and forks do not qualify and are termed ‘flatware’). Cutlery therefore includes razors, scissors, sickles and shears. The Sheffield cutlery trades have had centralised control since at least the mid-16th century because of the interest of the resident Lords of the Manor of Hallamshire – the powerful Earls of Shrewsbury. Hallamshire is an anciently named area consisting of the parishes of Sheffield, Ecclesfield and Handsworth, lying at the southern edge of Yorkshire.

Figure 21. Page from the Great Mark Book, showing marks registered by filesmiths in 1682 (C.C.).

The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire, incorporated in 1624, continued to control the work practices of local cutlery craftsmen for nearly two hundred years until 1814, resulting in an impressive run of documents. The Cutlers’ Company restricted the number of apprentices by insisting they were registered through its organisation and that, following at least a seven year training period, a man could opt to become a Freeman, entitled to record an individual identifying mark and train apprentices. The Company also insisted that the cutting edge of knives, etc. was made of steel and as part of its customer protection, could and did search out and destroy ‘deceitful wares’. Craftsmen who did not register a mark were non-Freemen, and were required to take on work from a Freeman.

The basic processes in cutlery and edge-tool manufacturer are forging, grinding and assembling, but might include extra processes such as file cutting or putting together scissors. One trained man in simple premises could do these processes. The primary production unit was the master or Freeman, who trained an apprentice and may or may not have had journeymen working with or for him. The workplaces and the tools were relatively simple, but some of the processes, such as the heavier forging and grinding required power sources.

Over time, many men specialised in one or more manufacturing processes, becoming forgers, grinders or assemblers, or they made one specific type of knife, etc. This flexibility meant that masters could accept orders and then send out to other craftsmen to have the work completed. This led to increasing specialisation, fragmentation with the ability and/or the need to accept small orders.

In 1682, the Sheffield filesmiths (the makers of files) elected to enter this world of close control. Why? In the 1660s, the government of Charles II believed that the best method of taxation was on people’s hearths, or properly chimneys, being an easy asset to identify and assess. (Becket et al, 1988, vii) The 1662 Act provided for a annual levy of two shillings on every hearth and stove, but the mechanics of collection added confusion to what had seemed a clear and easily administered tax. One source of confusion was over the exemption of industrial hearths such as kilns, blowing houses and stamp furnaces, but because the wording was open to different interpretations, bakers’ ovens and smithy forges were sometimes taxed but not always. (Arkell, 1992, 38) The confused exemption of smithy hearths was locally extremely important and local opposition to the tax seems to have won over the Collectors, at least for a time.

Figure 22. Page from the first account book, 1674 (C.C.).

There was national opposition to the Hearth Tax, especially about this confused interpretation. Birmingham and Sheffield were areas where numerous metalworkers owned or rented small workshops and the tax on their smithy hearths hit them hard. The opposition in Sheffield was coordinated by the Cutlers’ Company on behalf of its craftsmen within Hallamshire and the first Company account book records that, throughout the 1670s and early 1680s, it spent hundreds of pounds lobbying for support both locally and in Parliament. In 1671 and 1672, the Company spent almost thirty pounds in legal challenges to the Tax, including visits to the York Assizes. In 1673, a cheaper alternative was tried when Mr Bright, the local J.P., was presented with a case of knives costing sixteen shillings. In 1674, the Clerk spent much of the year in London and, with more cases of knives, the Company spent almost £100 in its battle. In 1682 the Collector, Mr Truman, was prevailed upon not to distrain cutlers’ goods for non-payment of the Tax and in 1683, either as thanks or as further pressure, he too was given a case of knives.

One important consequence of the Hearth Tax opposition was that more craftsmen were induced to submit themselves to the Company rules and control. From 1624, the Cutlers’ Company had controlled the affairs of cutlers, scissorsmiths, shear- and sicklesmiths, but there were other metalworking craftsmen in Hallamshire. At the height of the opposition to the Hearth Tax, twenty-six awlbladesmiths joined in 1676; thirty-three scythesmiths registered their marks in 1681 and in 1682, twenty-nine filesmiths joined the Company. One of their motives can only have been their appreciation that the organisation would benefit them and certainly the Hallamshire craftsmen were far more successful in their opposition to the Hearth Tax than similar craftsmen in the rest of the country. (Purdy, 1991, 24) Because of this local episode in the national story of taxation, the filesmiths came to be recorded in the Cutlers’ Company archives.

Sheffield Radicalism – Joseph Mather

The Cutlers’ Company records show that the filesmiths was not the largest craft group within the organisation. The records show that they apprenticed their own sons, took on apprentices both locally and from outside Hallamshire and gradually expanded the trade. The graph in Table One shows the number of apprenticeships per decade increasing from the 1680s to the 1810s, apart from the 1720s decade. This dip was not caused by any population or trade crisis, but by a disorganised Clerk to the Company, who failed to keep adequate records and the jump in numbers in the following decade is the result of ‘catching up’.

Table 1 The number of filesmith apprenticeships and freedoms of per decade, 1682-1814.

Although the numbers of apprentices increased, the numbers of Freemen remained static until the 1791s. At the age of twenty-one, an apprentice could apply to become a Freeman, with his own identifiable mark, protected by the Cutlers’ Company, and the right to take one apprentice at a time. He benefited by having identifiable goods to sell, plus the use of an apprentice’s labour. This cost money of course, but a non-Freeman without a mark, had all his work counted as the product of his master or employer. Even if a non-Freeman worked as a specialist in his own workshop, with his own tools and taking in jobs from several Freemen, he could not sell his work to customers. Nor could he train apprentices, no matter how skilled he was. So why did fewer and fewer trained filesmiths chose to become Freemen?

Figure 23. Drawing of the second Cutlers’ Hall,1725-1832 (C.C.)

Much of the answer lies in the growing disillusionment with the increasingly outdated role and restrictions of the Cutlers’ Company, not only by the filesmiths, but also by all the craftsmen. The middle decades of the 18th century saw ever more people involved in all branches of the cutlery trades in Sheffield. Hallamshire overtook London as the premier cutlery manufacturing centre in the mid-18th century, producing quality items to complete with the London products. The gap between the thirty-three Freemen who made up the Cutlers’ Company and the rest of the trained workforce, known as the Commonalty, was widening and the imposition of restrictive practices such as, enforced ‘holidays’ and limits on the numbers of apprentices, was increasingly irksome.

During the 1780s, in a climate of rising radicalism, views began to polarise which resulted in serious questions being asked of the Company. Agitating against restrictions, the filesmiths began to wonder if they should have been allowed into the Cutlers’ Company in the first place. A seemingly trivial question was – does a file cut, in the strictest sense of the word? By 1789, it had been agreed that the filesmiths did belong and could continue to be part of the Company’s jurisdiction.

These arguments in Sheffield coincided with the revolutionary fervour in France. Mounting radical feeling and unease was not helped by men such as the rebellious Joseph Mather, a filesmith, who composed slanderous songs, often about the work practices common in the cutlery industries in Sheffield. Joseph Mather, who came to Sheffield from Chelmorton in the Peak District in 1751, was apprenticed to William Hellifield, a filesmith. He did not become a Freeman and seems to have spent a lot of his time in alehouses singing scurrilous songs, including one vilifying the Master Cutler Jonathan Watkinson, for the insisting on counting thirteen knives to a dozen.

“…..That offspring of tyranny, baseness and pride,
Our rights hath invaded and almost destroy’d,
May that man be banish’d who villainy screens,
Or sides with big W—- with his thirteens.”

The chorus goes on to describe Watkinson as ‘that blood sucking, bone scraping wolf’. (Vicinus, 1975, plate 4)

Figure 24. Price List, known as a Statement,
showing the prices for cutting files, 1926 (H.C.)

In 1791, a new Act of Parliament attempted to redress some of the grievances and the Company opened its door to anyone. Men without a recognised apprenticeship, on payment of twenty pounds, could register marks as Freemen. Still with a belief that the Cutlers’ Company was an important institution, many non-Freemen decided to register also and Table One shows the filesmiths’ rush to be Freemen, similarly repeated in the other craft groups. But the Cutlers’ Company control over the cutlery trades finally ended in 1814 and nascent trade unions saw themselves as its successors. From the early 19th century, they entered into negotiated rates of pay for work with their employers, producing List Prices or Statements, which reveal the myriad processes involved in manufacturing knives, etc and show how difficult it was to control rates of pay and costs of manufacture.

Not surprisingly, trade relations were often acrimonious as employers tried to maintain a united front in the face of union demands for increased pay and restrictions on non-union men. Often, the employers’ only recourse to settlement was to take out warrants on troublesome men to appear before the Justices of the Peace. Enter one of the Leadbeater filecutters.

In 1829, the larger manufacturers formed ‘The File Managers’ Association’ and held weekly meetings to discuss the state of the trade. Their minute book (H.C. Fil.1/1) records unrest in the trade, with damage to machinery, files and tools being stolen and demands for pay increases. In July 1829, a Mr Wing (there were several in the association) had warrants issued for Nicholas Betts and David Leadbeater to appear the following day before the Justice of the Peace, Mr Alderson. They did not attend and further warrants were issued. David Leadbeater, in his late twenties, seems to have annoyed Mr Wing, though he was one of several brought to court. Unfortunately, the minute book does not record the result.

Figure 25. Extract from the File Managers’ Association Minute Book

‘When desultory conversation went round but nothing important, adjourned to Friday the 10th. On which day Mr Wing got warrants for Nicholas Betts + David Leadbeater and Mr Martin [got warrants for] Matthew Brook + George Swinden. To be tryed on Tuesday the 14th but they had absented themselves which was the cause of Mr Wing taking warrants for Wm Naylor Wm Clithero Thomas Whitaker John Smith John Clithero Wm Bradshaw to be tryed on Tuesday the 21st but on Friday the 24th Mr Wing took out warrants Matthew Jackson and Wm Bradshaw….’

The number of warrants suggests the situation was getting out of hand. The minute book goes on to say that George Marriott and Sons issued warrants for five more men and Thomas Turton for a further two. One of these last two was a man called George Linley. The minute book records that he refused to be persuaded (to change his plea?) and said he would choose imprisonment for a month. After the trial, a ‘mob of filemakers’ violently assaulted three of the managers including Thomas Turton.

This incident was a tiny part in a much larger struggle in Sheffield’s labour relations as the trade unions strove for the right to insist that all men in any trade should be members of the union, as the Cutlers’ Company had asserted its control over every Hallamshire cutlery craftsman. Also, as the Cutlers’ Company had fined recalcitrant Freemen and non-Freemen, so the unions believed they too could punish men who refused to join the union, pay their dues or employers who employed non-union men. Intimidation was common, like the practice of ‘rattening’, when a man was punished by having his tools taken by the ‘rats, and returned when he settled his union dues. Sheffield hardly considered it a crime, but increasingly violent methods were used. In 1857, when the saw grinder, James Lindley, was accused by the union of taking on too many apprentices, he was followed around Sheffield for several weeks before being shot and killed. Four years later, a house in Acorn Street was attacked with gunpowder and an innocent lodger was killed. In 1866, Thomas Fearnehough, a saw grinder, at odds with ‘the trade’, had gunpowder placed in his cellar, resulting in damage, but fortunately, no one was hurt. These explosions and shootings caused a nation outcry.

In 1867, a Commission into Trade Unions was set up, with a sub-committee to enquire into Sheffield’s outrages. (Pollard, 1971, 152-158) The Commission heard evidence about the activities of local unions, especially methods used by officials to deal with non-union labour, employers and wayward members. The inquiry concluded that, although several unions and their officials were guilty of intimidation to a greater or lesser degree (the filecutters were not implicated), union craftsmen were mostly honest, hardworking and upright members of society. Sensationally, at the centre of several shooting and gunpowder attacks was William Broadhead, secretary to the saw grinders. Broadhead was an important local figure, who held a national position as the treasurer of the Alliance of Organised Trades, and had always protested loudly at unions being unjustly incriminated in the outrages.

Women’s Work – the art of multi-tasking

Women have found that their domestic duties limits their ability to earn money and in the 19th century, cutting files in the kitchen while cooking and watching the children was one solution. Women, and younger children, could be set on stripping files and then cutting the smaller files with lighter hammers. When the Cutlers’ Company controlled the cutlery craftsmen, it was probably not easy for the wife and children of a filecutter to give more than causal help. Other craftsmen would soon know if a man’s output increased without the aid of an official apprentice or journeyman. But it must have happened and, by the 19th century, women had become an accepted part of the filemaking workforce. Filecutting was a tedious, repetitious job, but was easy to adapt to domestic working.

Figure 26. Workshop backing 27, Creswick Street, Sheffield – typical outworker premises in a yard, c.1950s (H.C.)

The trade organisation of the local cutlery trades was complex, developing out of the system fostered by the rules of the Cutlers’ Company. The small-scale production units and the relatively simple technologies meant that employees were not necessarily in the same workshop as their master. As steam power was introduced and the larger firms developed in the early 19th century, many men continued to work in their own workshops, being known as ‘outworkers’. Outworkers were found in all branches of the cutlery trades, often narrowly specialising in a specific process, of which the filecutters were typical. Many filecutters were employed in the emerging large factories, while others continued to collect file blanks from a supplier and work in their own premises. This system suited women who had domestic responsibilities.

Figure 27. Union Card for M Oxley, for the 1950s (H.C.).

The trade unions which developed in Sheffield, represented different specific trade groups. By the mid-19th century, the file trade unions were well-organised, with many women cutters and in the 1860s, it had 6,000 members, but by the 1890s, the numbers had dropped to 3,500, though the number of women and girls was proportionately higher (Pollard, 1959, 140). The 1891 census records that there were 1,362 women involved in filecutting and file scouring.

With the spread of filecutting machines in 1880s, hand filecutting by women and children was considered a ‘sweated’ trade. The cutting of a file required minimal tools and a stiddy could be set up in a kitchen or workshop in a yard and, with a hammer, chisels, and supplied with file blanks, a woman could keep an eye on children, the dinner and earn money.

Hand versus Machine – the outcry

Figure 28. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of a
filecutting machine, 1505 (Taylor, 1920, 33)

During the 19th century, many skilled craftsmen saw their position being eroded by the introduction of machines which could replicate, more or less, the hand skills. Filecutting was no exception and even though hand filecutting continued into the 20th century, machines were inexorably introduced when machine cut files were shown to be equal to those which were cut by hand. Perhaps more importantly, machines now could be operated more cheaply by women.

One would imagine that after enduring the tedium of hammering a chisel at the rate of approximately 100 strokes a minute, depending on the size of the file, a filecutter would welcome a machine. But like many skilled craftsmen and women, they resisted the manufacturers’ introduction of machines in the 19th century. It is perhaps significant that the development of filecutting machines took place outside Sheffield; in America, where there was a severe shortage of skilled men, and on the Continent. The resistance was not merely a Luddite response; there was a genuine belief that the machine-cut files were inferior to the hand-cut files. Filecutting machines were introduced into Manchester in the 1850s and ten years later into Birmingham, but the quality of the files was considered poor. Also, file grinding machines which could grind several file blanks at once, were resisted by the powerful filegrinders’ union, who objected to having to hand grind the machine ground blanks to finish them. (Pollard, 1959, 127) As the machines improved, they were accepted but only after the file unions had been broken after a sixteen week strike in 1866.

Figure 29. Filecutting machine, c.1930 (H.C.)

Figure 30. Woman machine filecutter at Thomas Turner, Sheffield, 1902 (Hobson, 1902,)

Not surprisingly, the wages for women were less than those paid to men. The unions and trade societies were involved in negotiations about rates, but since there were hundreds of variations in size, shape and the teeth of files, these rates were carefully listed and printed out. They were rarely revised; any differences in increases or decreases in pay were calculated by plus or minus so many percent of the negotiated price. In 1891, men filecutters could earn between sixteen and twenty-two shillings for a 60-70 hour week. By 1910, on piecework, a man could earn between 25 and 40 shillings.

In a video made in 1999 about Ken Hawley, there are interviews with a variety of craftsmen and women. Mrs Irene Sellars tells of her work as a machine filecutter. Descended from a line of filecutters, she comments particularly on the noise of the machines, being unable to hear her colleagues speak and that they only earned about half the pay of the men.

Figure 31. From the 1926 Price List for men machine cutting files, undated revision. (H.C.).

Figure 32. From the 1926 Price List for women machine cutting files. (H.C.)

Whatever the virtues of the machine cut files over hand cut files, the man (or woman) working in an outhouse in the yard of a terrace house, obviously could not afford to install such a machine. The machines were for larger firms, with capital and power to drive them. But not all filemakers were little ‘mesters’, working in small workshops, with minimal equipment and resources. As the 18th century progressed, some of the filesmiths could invest in premises and steam engines to drive their forging hammers and grinding wheels. Interestingly, the some of these filesmiths developed into steel manufacturers.

Men such as John Spencer belonged to a family which had been filesmiths since at least the 1770s. He was the son of Matthew and registered a mark as a filesmith in 1827, which continued to be used by the firm. This was how the early steel manufacturers sometimes appear in the Cutlers’ Company mark books, by virtue of making files. Not until the 1860 Act of Parliament, were the steel manufacturers and edgetool makers eventually allowed into the Cutlers’ Company.

John Spencer worked for his family’s company, Matthias Spencer & Co, steel merchants and file manufacturers. He became Master Cutler in 1835 and led the campaign for the building of the Sheffield and Manchester Railway along the route via Woodhead Tunnel, which was eventually completed in 1845.

Figure 33. Portrait of John Spencer (?-1874) in the Cutlers’ Hall. (C.C.)

A similar firm was Bury and Co., Regent and Philadelphia Works. Situated on the banks of the River Don, north of the City centre, this was one of string of large firms being established in the 19th century on the flatter ground near the river.

This early 20th century trade catalogue has a number of photographs showing its different departments, plus a panoramic view of the entire site.

Figure 34. Front cover of Bury and Co.’s trade catalogue, c.1910s (H. C.)

Figure 35. Bury and Co., Regent and Philadelphia Works, with the River Don in the background. (H.C.)

This is the point where the Leadbeater family re-enter the story. Their lives were affected by a terrible disaster which befell Sheffield one stormy Friday evening in March, 1864. High up the Loxley Valley to the north-west of Sheffield, the recently completed Dale Dyke dam wall cracked and collapsed, sending millions of gallons of water down the narrow valley towards Sheffield, destroying grinding wheels, corn mills, houses and stables. People living near the river had little chance to survive and according to the Chief Constable’s return, 238 people died. The raging waters of the Loxley joined the river Rivelin, rushing through Hillsborough to join the River Don. As it flowed on to Sheffield, the wider Don valley allowed the water to spread out and flood more houses, cellars, cutlery factories, workshops, the Union workhouse, silver manufacturers, public houses, tanneries and breweries. At Lady’s Bridge in the City centre, the river Don turned north-east past the emerging steelworks, the floodwaters now carrying debris and bodies towards Conisbrough.

Figure 36. Interiors of Bury and Co., showing the File Department, c.1910, though there is no way of knowing how like this is to the 1864 department (H.C.).

After the flood , there was an inquiry into the cause (probably a little understood geological fault) and then compensation was demanded of the Sheffield Water Company. This is where the Leadbeaters come in. David Leadbeater, who had fallen foul of the File Managers’ Association, was working as a filecutter at Bury’s with two of his sons, Edwin, born in 1840 and Thomas, my ancestor, born in 1847, both filecutters. All the claims for compensation were recorded in books, assessed and then payments made. Bury and Co. claimed £1,647.6s.6d and was paid £1,400.5s.d. (Flood claim number 4822) The record of damages gives a superb insight into the factory and the workpeople. Water ruined the crucible steel melting shop, the offices, the blacksmith shop and the file department.

Figure 37. Facsimile labels from the Bury
and Co. catalogue, c.1910 (H.C.)

There are no claims for filecutting equipment, but some indication of the size of production is given by the fact that the firm claimed £25 just for the paper for rewrapping and labelling 25,000 dozen files!

Bury’s, like many others, claimed the wages for its employees, including forty filecutters, ten file forgers and three file strikers who would be forging large files. The wages claimed for David Leadbeater and his sons, Edwin and Thomas, were £1.7s.0d., £1.16s.0d and £1.4s.6d. respectively. These men had made a claim for loss of wages in their own right, but withdrew them when Bury’s claimed also. Their home was away from the flooded area, so they were luckier than some. They just had to wait until Bury’s was made fit to work in again.

The March of Time – Redundancy of skills

In the mid-19th century, when the varieties of files ran into the thousands, people could not conceive of a time when files would be redundant. They could not have imagined a time when no more would be made, by hand or machine, not just in Sheffield but in the whole of Britain. This is the situation today. Parts used in manufacture can now be made with precision and few files are needed. The last file manufacturer in Sheffield, Jack Ralston, closed down in 1996 when he realised there was no future, since he could import finished files from China, cheaper than he could buy steel bar – so what was the point? This is the rather sad end to hundreds of years of sweated labour – the skill of the filecutter has been brought down. His product is not needed.

However, there are intriguing reminders of the skill of the filecutter. The steel used for files was top quality, so once a file had been used so much that its teeth no longer performed adequately, there were two options. It could be sent for re-cutting. The tedium of cutting files is perhaps nothing compared to the soul-destroying task of re-grinding and re-cutting the files to give them a new life. While this must be applauded for the environmentally correct idea of conserving raw materials, it is rather sad that an industry existed to soften, grind flat and then re-cut such an abused tool as the humble file. But it was done and the business kept many firms afloat.

Figure 38. Examples of tools made from old files and rasps (H.C.)

Figure 39. Close-up of a pair of pliers showing clearly the teeth from the old file (H.C.)

The other method of reclamation was to use the file for a completely different tool. Here, the craftsman, engineer or workman would see the potential in the metal of the file and turn it into something he wanted. It did not come free, since the effort required was often fairly substantial, but the high quality steel did not go to waste. Files and rasps used to make such diverse tools as a hammer, pliers, etc. have been preserved in the Hawley Collection and in the collection held at La Maison de l’Outil et de la Pensée Ouvrière in Troyes, south-west of Paris.


Filecutting was one of the most dangerous jobs in the metalworking industries. Hand grinding was the most dangerous, with the ever-present risk of inhaling stone dust and the serious risk of the fast spinning grindstones shattering. Filecutters worked in a cramped position and often in some of the worst tenement workshops. They ran the risk of lead poisoning and developing wrist and hand problems. Life expectancy was low. It is not so surprising then that my immediate Leadbeater ancestors chose to leave the trade and follow another occupation.

Figure 40. Lead block protecting the file teeth during filecutting (H.C.)

This filecutter’s hammer is an honest, workmanlike tool, well-used, with the wear on the shaft a testimony to its effectiveness and the effort of the filecutter. It has been chosen because, through it, so many fascinating aspects of Sheffield’s social and industrial heritage can be highlighted. It as emphasised the value of material at the Hawley Collection and the Cutlers’ Company. It has linked the family of Leadbeater with the turmoil in the Cutlers Company, with the trade union struggles and the Sheffield Outrages. It has been a connection to one of the worst civilian disasters in England, outside wartime bombings. And finally, it stands as a memorial to the thousands who worked so hard to produce such a tool as the humble file.


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Beckett, J.V. et al, Nottingham Hearth Tax 1664-1674 , Thoroton Society Record Series, XXXVII (Nottingham 1988)
Binfield, C. and Hey, D. Mesters to Masters: A History of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire (Oxford 1997)
Cass, J., ‘The Flood Claims: A Post Script to the Sheffield Flood of March 11th and 12th 1864’ Transactions of the Hunter Archaeological Society 1989, vol.15, 29-37
Fremont, C., trans. Taylor, G., Files and Filing (London 1920)
Harrison, S., A Complete History of the Great Flood at Sheffield (Sheffield, facsimile 1974)
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Hey, D. 1990, ‘The origins and growth of the Hallamshire Cutlery and Allied Trades’ in English Rural Society: Essays in Honour of Joan Thirsk edited by Chartres J. and Hey, D. (Cambridge 1990) 343-367
Hobson, A.J., Handicrafts that survive. Souvenir of the Master Cutlership of Mr Albert J. Hobson, Senior Partner of the Firms of Thomas Turner & Co. and Wingfield Rowbotham & Co., 1902-3 (Sheffield 1902)
Leader, R.E., Sheffield in the Eighteenth Century (Sheffield 1901)
Leader, R.E., History of the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire, vols. I and II, (Sheffield 1905, 1906)
Lloyd, G.I.H., The Cutlery Trades (London 1968 reprint)
Melton, V.L., (Sheffield 1902) Trade Unionism and the Sheffield Outrages, Local History Sheet, no. 6 (Sheffield 1973)
Pollard, S., The History of Labour in Sheffield (Liverpool 1959)
Pollard, S., Introduction to Trade Union Commission: The Sheffield Outrages (facsimile 1971)
Purdy, J.D., Yorkshire Hearth Tax Returns, Studies in Regional and Local History, No. 7 (Hull 1991)
Rees, A., The Cyclopaedia or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Science and Literature (London 1819)
Unwin, J. and Hawley, K., Sheffield Industries – Cutlery, Edge Tools and Silver (Stroud 1999)
Vicinus, M, Broadsides of the industrial North (compiled), (Newcastle upon Tyne 1975)
Videos Wilf Davies, filemaker, Making files by hand, I.A. Recordings, Compilation No.21. (Shropshire 1987)
‘You’ll not be wanting this then, will you? Ken Hawley, a collector’s tale’ (Sheffield University Television 1999)

Hawley Collection
Bury and Co. Trade catalogue, undated c.1910, C.415
File Managers’ Minute Book, 1827, Fil.1/1
1926 Price List for forging, grinding and cutting files, Eph.fil.09)
Photograph of a filecutting machine, c.1930, Ph.fil.007)
Photograph of a workshop, c.1950s, Ph.fil.023

The Cutlers’ Company
Apprenticeship records, 1777-1790, C5/4/4
Freedoms records, 1791-1810, C7/9
Account book of the Masters Cutler, 1625-1790, D1/1
The Great Mark Book, 1624-1791, L1/1/1


The primary material is drawn principally from the Hawley Collection (H.C.) and the Cutlers’ Company (C.C.). I would like to thank the Hawley Collection Trust and the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire for access their collections and to photograph items and documents used as illustrations.