UK Knife History

History of Knife Making in the UK

Summary

The following explains the growth of knife making in the UK, from the early years, the rise of Sheffield as 'Knife City' followed by it's eventual decline. Modern day knife making is re-emerging with skilled craftsmen producing superb knives.

The Early Years

Knives and cutlery of all types were made for many centuries throughout Britain. In the Middle Ages the craft was primarily centered in London, with other smaller centers in Salisbury, York and Thaxted in Essex. Overseas, France was one of the foremost nations, with Solingen in Germany rising to prominence in the 16th Century.

Sheffield's Rise

However, all these places were soon to be eclipsed by a small town on the eastern edge of the Pennines. Sheffield had several natural but initially unused advantages. It is built at the confluence of several rivers and brooks which were easily dammed to provide water power, and by 1740 nearly 100 water driven mills lined these river banks, operating grindstones, forge hammers and rolling mills all vital to knife making. Surrounding Sheffield in the moors and hills were large supplies of sandstone, essential for making grinding wheels.

Then in 1740 Benjamin Huntsman, based in Sheffield, developed crucible or cast steel - the ideal material for knives. These factors enabled Sheffield knife makng to rapidly expand and it soon dominated the worldwide production of knives and edged tools of all types. “Knife City” as it was soon known produced enormous numbers of knives and edged tools of all types. For example, in 1900 Joseph Rodgers and Sons, one of the leading manufacturers, produced three million knives. All the products were of good quality, but Sheffield especially prided itself on producing knives of superb quality and millions of them were amongst the best examples of Victorian engineering at its very peak.

Sheffield's Decline

However, there were the seeds of the city's eventual decline in the organisation of the labour used to make knives. The “little meisters” as they were called worked in factories but were in reality mosly self-employed and each one specialised in one part of the manufacturing process. Each “little meister” had to bid against each other to get work and therefore the owners of the business kept their earnings at a very low level. This resulted in very low morale amongst the craftsmen who made the knives.

Sheffield was gradually eclipsed by mass manufacturing methods particularly in Germany and America. Though these mass-produced knives were often not as such high-quality as the best Sheffield products, there was a dwindling demand for the very best products of Sheffield. Many of these men were self taught and many of them, unlike the “little meisters” skilled in all aspects of making a complete knife. Most of them were working in small one-man workshops, and many did not know of each other's existence. All of them had a tiny but steadily growing group of enthusiasts who admired and appreciated their knives and were keen to buy them.

Knife Making Today

It is not too much to say that in Britain today there are knives being made by a small band of craftsmen which are the equal of any others made elsewhere in the world. Many of these individual makers were often too busy actually making knives to have time to devote to publicity and as long as they were making a satisfactory living they were content. Therefore, although they were known to a small group of enthusiasts, the wider general public did not know of the existence of these craftsmen and the superb knives which they were and are producing. Thus the opportunity for more people to buy these knives and or become interested in making knives themselves was limited. A much wider audience was needed for this largely unknown and slightly fragmented craft.

Annual Knife Fair

The Midland Game Fair is the best Game Fair in Britain and has been running now for more than twenty years. It is always held on the third weekend in September at Weston Park, a large estate in Staffordshire, close to the M54. In 2013 more than 85,000 people came to the event. The Knife Fair has for the last three years been in its own marquee beside the antique marquee and has now developed its own identity. It has rapidly become more widely known and popular and now most visitors to the Game Fair visit it at least once during the weekend. Now nearly every one of the best makers in Britain exhibit there, also dealers who sell a wide range of both old and modern knives and associated products and accessories from all over the world.

Additionally some knife makers are now running courses for people who want to learn to make knives for themselves, and it is here that such people can discuss these courses. Lastly there are a complete range of basic parts and materials needed by people who are just starting to learn how to make knives for themselves. It has also become a meeting place for everybody interested in knives of all types.

There is a tremendous history and heritage of knife making in Britain and these skills are still being practised and are thriving. They are on display every year in the knife fair marquee at the Midland Game Fair. So if you are interested in knives or just want to see engineering at its very best, come to the knife show, details of which are given on this website.

You will be very welcome!