When Britain (Sheffield) Ruled the Waves (or at least Afternoon Tea) — Nick Duggan — 1st July 2019

When is cut­lery not cut­lery? When it’s a fork or a spoon. Nick Duggan was impressed that the major­ity of his audi­ence knew that only some­thing that cuts can be defined as cut­lery. But then we are a Sheffield-based club, after all, and our mem­ber­ship includes three former Masters Cutler.

Even my Oxford English Reference Dictionary gets it wrong: “Cutlery / kɅtlərI / n. knives, forks and spoons for use at table,” they say.

Nick is an expert on all things made in Sheffield, and two days later would be lead­ing us on a tour of the Hawley Tool Collection, of which he is cur­ator (see Visits). But for this talk he was con­cen­trat­ing on his own col­lec­tion of Sheffield-made cut­lery, flat­ware and hol­lowware.

Out to impress the neigh­bours!

Nick’s quest for the best examples moved up a notch when he retired and had a busi­ness idea of put­ting Sheffield cut­lery into frames, with a his­tory of the maker. “This proved quite pop­u­lar, and I star­ted to search for cut­lery in antique mar­kets and on eBay,” he explained.

The latter is pretty stag­ger­ing — search ‘Sheffield cut­lery’ and you get over 1,000 items at any time, search ‘vin­tage cut­lery’ and it’s over 3,000.

I star­ted to real­ise the vast range of items made by a huge number of Sheffield cut­lers. Over 1,000 com­pan­ies are doc­u­mented in Geoffrey Tweedale’s dir­ect­ory [Sheffield Tool Manufacturers 1740–2018] and some indi­vidual man­u­fac­tur­ers had product ranges of over 5,000 items. The Walker & Hall trade cata­logue alone has over 300 dif­fer­ent cruet sets.”

Sardine tongs, Henry Wilkinson.

So, no short­age of objects to look out for. Nick’s per­sonal favour­ite item was the sardine tongs made by Henry Wilkinson, like sugar tongs but with ‘blades’ in the shape of the fish. Nick showed us lots of other items for eating fish — he wondered how they kept it fresh in the days before fridges — such as large serv­ers for whole trout or salmon, and highly dec­or­ated fish knives and forks per­haps used only on Friday.

A lot of these pieces would have been for the higher end of the market. “It’s amaz­ing that some of the spe­cial­ist items were only used when the fruit or veget­able was in season, such as asparagus tongs or straw­berry forks.”

Serving up.

Nick showed us three-pronged forks to serve bread and five-pronged forks for fish and sardines. Oyster forks, with the maker’s mark Allen & Darwin, would have been used in a well-to-do house­hold, as would the cham­pagne syphon and a gigot for hold­ing a leg of lamb.

Buttering up!

Among the more unusual items was a knife that was over 300 years old.

The Victorians loved sugar, and sugar sifters, and we saw a sugar scuttle that would have had a prom­in­ent place on the table.

The mys­tery object. Nobody guessed it was a spoon warmer.

But nobody guessed Nick’s last mys­tery object, which was a shell shaped spoon warmer.





The earli­est men­tion of cut­lery man­u­fac­ture in Sheffield was 1297, and in its heyday there were more than 1,650 firms. Silver plate (EPNS) was inven­ted in 1841 and the scale of the industry was such that by 1851 there were 12,000 people employed, making it the largest group of cut­lers in the world. Peak pro­duc­tion and export was reached between 1890 and 1914.