The object collection contains all classes of tools, particularly edge tools, cutlery, measuring instruments and silversmiths' tools with over 100,000 items including finished products, work in progress items, raw materials and 'tools that make tools'. As such it represents a comprehensive record of the processes and people involved in these industries. Most of the material dates to the 1800s and 1900s, has direct local and regional associations and was collected locally or given by local people.

Thousands of items relate to the core Sheffield trades in the manufacture of cutlery, edge tools and silver. Sheffield also had major manufacturers of measuring instruments such as Chesterman, Moore and Wright and Shardlow. Some notable groups in the Collection are, for example, the UK’s largest collection of micrometers, a unique collection of boxwood rules, and, most importantly, standards of foreign measures dating from 1768 and an early example of the World’s first steel measuring tape dating to 1845.

Research has revealed two objects that have important political significance - see article below:

Plane Speaking: two radical objects in the Ken Hawley Collection

by Geoff Preece

On 7th May 2015 there will be a General Election to return local MPs to the House of Commons. Almost every citizen over the age of 18 will be able to vote and this is known as universal suffrage. This was only achieved through radical action and mass protest, and there are two objects in the Ken Hawley Collection Trust in Sheffield which are a key part of this story: a trade union banner for the United Tool Makers and an oversized spirit level. The banner is thought to be the oldest trade union banner in a Yorkshire collection and is a remarkable survivor.

The growth of the industrial revolution throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries resulted in significant population movements away from rural occupations and into the expanding industrial towns, especially the northern manufacturing centres. Towns and cities such as Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester expanded rapidly in the early 1800s, but had no representation in Parliament despite their contribution to the national economy and the taxes that were levied. This was in stark contrast to places like Old Sarum (a deserted Iron Age hill fort) which returned two MPs until the 1830 election, and was one of a number of ‘rotten boroughs’. Other constituencies were entirely within a landed estate, making it easy for the landowner to influence the result. But very few people were entitled to vote anyway, and those who did had to publicly declare their choice. It was a corrupt mess, but it often suited those who benefitted from it.

Legislation to reform and democratise the voting system was passed by Parliament in 1832, 1867 and 1884 (and further extended in the twentieth century), but in all cases there was strong opposition to this from the House of Lords. When this became apparent, mass demonstrations took place across the country mainly by working people in the great manufacturing towns. It was this constant pressure which ultimately ensured progress.

The two objects which relate to this struggle are of Glasgow origin and were brought to Sheffield in 1959 by Jack Ridgway. The Sheffield-based firm of William Ridgway purchased the Glasgow firm of Alexander Mathieson in 1959, partly to take over their auger manufacturing business and partly to capture their export tool market to Brazil. According to a note with the banner, the objects were found in a cellar at Mathiesons and brought to Sheffield with the remaining trade stock. At some later time they were gifted to Ken Hawley who had by the 1960s established a major private tool collection in Sheffield, later to be formed into a charitable trust and museum.

The firm of Alexander Mathieson was established in 1822 and had premises at 26 Gallowgate, Glasgow. In 1823 they acquired the plane-making business of John Manners which had been established in 1792. This meant that larger premises were required and so they relocated to East Campbell Street, Glasgow in 1823 where they gradually expanded their Saracen Tool Works over the next 30 years. Mathiesons adopted a star and crescent trade mark to reference their premises, and they remained there until closure in 1958.

By the time of Mathieson’s founding, Glasgow – as with many other manufacturing towns with an emerging working class population – had developed a strong radical tradition. This was assisted by the repeal of the Combination Acts in 1824 which had effectively muzzled the public face of trade unionism. Workers in industrial trades were heavily involved in the movement for political reform, which would result in the first Reform Act of 1832. Mass demonstrations were held in most manufacturing towns in May 1832 to press for the passage of the Bill which was seen as being impeded by the House of Lords. Demonstrations in Glasgow included the display of trade union banners, some of which had been made especially for the event.

The banner appears deceptively plain at first and is of moderate size (62” x 38”; 158 x 96cm). It carries the title UNITED TOOL MAKERS with the motto BE JUST AND FEAR NOT beneath. The banner has a dark blue background which is a common Scottish motif (known as a ‘blue blanket’) and references a much older Presbyterian or Covenanting tradition. The lack of other overt symbolism on the banner may suggest that it dates to the late 1820s when the newly-emergent trade unions were still feeling their way. But the iconography is particularly interesting and shows a great deal of pride in their members’ working lives.

The central shield device has illustrations of the tools that were made at Mathiesons: at the top left of the shield is an unhandled wooden smoothing plane, whilst to the right is a wooden jack or bench plane. Beneath these is a wooden joiner’s brace, possibly with a brass frame. Above the shield and beneath the union title are three planemakers’ floats tied together. These are specialist plane-making tools like rasps which were used to accurately cut out the mouth which accommodates the plane iron and wooden wedge. Above the union title is a round-faced hammer with a tapered pein which is very similar to a boilersmith’s riveting hammer which appears in the Mathieson tool catalogue of 1878. There would be no shortage of demand for such hammers in the Clyde shipyards. The hammer is surmounted by a crown, which could indicate a national organisation keen to operate under the law.

The shield is enclosed by sprays of thistles and roses, indicating an aspiration to be a national union. The later addition of an overlaid title banner at the top (CARRIED AT DEMONSTRATION 1832) indicates that the banner had gained a degree of reverence and would have been proudly carried at the later Reform Act demonstrations of 1867 and 1884.

The wooden level, or plumb level, is later in date. Levels do not appear in the 6th edition of the Mathieson catalogue (1878), but do appear in the 7th edition (1887). It is an oversized level (61½” x 6¼” x 2½”; 156 x 16 x 6cm) with a softwood body stained to resemble mahogany, and was probably made especially for the 1884 demonstration. The underside of the level has two holes drilled up into the body at either end so that it could sit on two supporting poles and be carried high above the heads of the crowd. Although such a level would never have been made to this size or in a soft wood, the brass caps and glassware appear to be authentic works fittings and the top plate is stamped with the Mathieson name and trade mark. One side is neatly hand-lettered “LEVEL” the House of LORDS in a style that is consistent with an 1884 date. Radical anti-Lords slogans were common in the 1884 reform demonstrations in Glasgow which were described in great detail in the local newspapers.

These two objects form part of a continuous story in which working people have campaigned for a more just, inclusive and democratic society. From the 1819 Peterloo massacre onwards, people have paid with their lives so that we can all now vote, even if that basic right is sometimes taken for granted.

Further reading

Nick Mansfield, ‘Radical Rhymes and Union Jacks: a Search for Evidence of Ideologies in the Symbolism of Nineteenth-Century Banners’, Manchester Papers in Economic and Social History, 45 (2000) pp. 1-33.
Nick Mansfield, ‘The Contribution of the National Banner Survey to Debates on Nineteenth-Century Popular Politics’, Visual Resources, 24.2 (2008) pp. 133-143
Nick Mansfield, ‘Why are there no Chartist Banners? – The ‘Missing Link’ in Nineteenth-Century Banners, Social History in Museums 25 (2000) pp. 28-32.
Mark Nixon, Gordon Pentland and Matthew Roberts, The Material Culture of Scottish Reform Politics, c.1820–c.1884, Journal of Scottish Studies 32.1(2012) pp. 28-49.

Year Knife

This magnificent knife, made by Sheffield cutlers Joseph Rodgers & Sons in 1821-2, was used for display in their new showrooms in Norfolk Street, Sheffield. They claimed that the Knife had 1,821 blades to match the date it was made, and that further groups of blades would be added regularly.

There is no other knife in the world that has as many blades! The blade patterns include scissors, a cork screw, nail file, hacksaw and a button hook. Some blades were added for special years, such as the 1953 Coronation and the 1966 World Cup.

In 1969 the Year Knife was bought by Stanley Tools (UK) Ltd to make sure it stayed in Sheffield and they continued the tradition of adding blades. In the year 2000 (the Millennium) a final silver blade was added bearing the Sheffield hallmark from the Sheffield Assay Office.

The Year Knife was formally donated to the Hawley Collection Trust by Stanley Black & Decker in January 2023 and is normally on display in the Hawley Gallery. It serves as an iconic permanent recognition of the superb trades and skills to be found in Sheffield.