Under the Spotlight Archive

First World War wire cutters

As we mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme attention will again be focused on the First World War and, in particular, on the experiences of soldiers in the trenches. One of the defining images of war on the Western Front is of the rows of barbed wire used by both sides and for the ordinary soldier the ‘weapon’ against this was the wire cutter.

Barbed wire was invented in the 1860s and used primarily for agricultural purposes until its value as a defensive barrier on the battlefield became apparent. It was used by the British army during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and in other conflicts around the world. Faced with the prospect that they may encounter wire in future wars, the British army introduced a standard wire cutter before the First World War. At the beginning of the war the barriers encountered by soldiers were mainly field fences and simple single strand defences but larger barriers were soon introduced. Artillery was often used against these but wire cutters became an essential piece of equipment for trench raiders and wiring parties and by 1916 they were standard issue to all soldiers.

The design of British Army wire cutters changed during the war and some were also produced for specific purposes. The SMLE wire cutter, for example, could be attached to the muzzle of the Lee Enfield rifle. Various patterns of wire cutters can therefore be found carrying the War Office broad arrow mark. Some also have a maker’s and date mark and a number of manufacturers have been identified. Some were established toolmakers such as Plumpton of Warrington while others appear to be companies which had converted to war production. These include the Chater-Lea Manufacturing Company of London who produced bicycles, motorcycles and cars and Charles H. Pugh Ltd. of Birmingham who patented the design for a long handled wire cutter in 1917. Sheffield companies whose name has been found on wire cutters include Carr, Wild & Co., Cheesman & Co. and Wache & James.

Three jawed wire cutters from the early years of the war. The mark is worn but appears to be ‘Bradbury 1915’
Folding wire cutters, probably of the type introduced at the end of 1916. This example is not marked. They are shown with other similar wire cutters dated 1944 to show the open position. This design remained in production until about 1990.


200th Anniversary of Smith’s Key

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Joseph Smith’s Key, one of the earliest known illustrated catalogues or pattern books from the Sheffield area.
The Explanation, or Key, to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield, with engravings of each article, designed for the utility of merchants, wholesale ironmongers and travellers consists of over 100 plates with engravings of hundreds of tools and items of cutlery. The coverage includes edge tools, files and rasps, saws, planes, table and other cutlery and surgical instruments. As the title suggests, the main use of the Key would have been by tool merchants and salesmen who would probably have selected the appropriate plate(s) to advertise their own products. At this time catalogues did not include prices and a separate price list would have been printed. An original copy of Smith’s Key held by Sheffield Local Studies Library contains printed price lists issued by James Cam and Marshes and Shepherd and these are reproduced in the 1975 edition reprinted by the Early American Industries Association (Hawley Collection: KWH books).

Smith is known to have produced a catalogue for Peter Stubs, the Lancashire tool manufacturer, in 1801 but for many years little was known about his personal circumstances. Research by Tanya Schmoller has provided a much fuller account of his life and revealed that at various times he engaged in the occupations of silver plater or silversmith, engraver and edge tool maker. Tanya’s pamphlet, Joseph Smith: a pilgrimage in search of a Sheffield engraver and edge-tool maker (University of Newcastle upon Tyne. 2001), can be seen in the Hawley Collection, along with some of her research material (Hawley Collection: PR.FH.528). The file also includes notes and observations made by Ken Hawley which help to show how much can be learnt from close study of the engraved plates and the tools they illustrate.
Smith’s Key was in many ways a forerunner of the Sheffield Illustrated List and remains one of the most important 19th century tool catalogues.


Wostenholm tomato knife

During a recent review of the extensive Stainless Steel Collection, a number of interesting  and unusual knives have been identified. The above knife is made of Stainless Steel with a sharpened saw edge bearing five sets of marks.

a) The mark indicating Stainless Steel that dates the knife after 1912

b) The knife is stamped J.Lyons and Co Ltd 57, indicating it was commissioned for one of the Lyons Coffee Houses.

c) The makers name George Wostenholm and Son Sheffield – England

d) The makers trade mark I*XL

e) On the reverse side the knife bears the date 18 Jul 1926 and a Registration Mark no. 474466 dating its sale date to 1929.

In the 1934 Trade Catalogue the knife can be located in the Saw Edge Cutlery section and is described as No. C5708  The Slice Lift - Tomato Slicing and Lifting Knife, Black Handle, Stainless Steel Blade. The knives were also available with a range of coloured handles and a Green handled version is on display in the Gallery.