What was the most significant
and widely used tool in nineteenth-century Sheffield?
The answer is not immediately
After surveying publications on the history of tools and
exploring the world of tool-collecting buffs, one might imagine
that woodworking tools (saws, planes, and joiners’ braces) were
of prime importance. If not those, then perhaps another category
of edge tools, such as shears or scythes, were paramount. Or
maybe engineers’ tools – spanners, wrenches, hammers, and drills
– took first place.
The answer might surprise. As far back as 1787 – when a
Sheffield directory provided the first reasonably detailed
breakdown of trades by category – file making had become the
primary tool trade.
In that publication, 47 individuals or enterprises were listed
as file makers – thus outranking any other category of tool. By
the mid-nineteenth century, well over a hundred file enterprises
were active in Sheffield. Not all of these would have
manufactured files, so employment figures offer a better
perspective. In 1851, about 4,000 workers were involved in file
manufacture (from a total workforce in the tool sector
By the start of the 1890s, the figures were even more
astonishing: the 6,200 workers in the Sheffield file industry
were at least equal to all the other tool categories combined.
File making even surpassed cutlery as an employer. Before the
First World War, workers in the file-making trade unions had
more members than any other tool or cutlery trades union group.
So why has file manufacture been overlooked? After all, it was
the tool that made the tools. Almost every industrial product
needed shaping, filing or abrading in some way. A craftsman’s or
engineer’s cabinet or bench would not be complete without a file
– more usually an array of files (many of a specialised nature).
As American manufacturer Henry Disston & Sons put it: ‘There are
few tools more essential in the development of industry than the
file’. Disston added: ‘Perhaps for the very reason that it is so
universally used and so absolutely indispensable, the file does
not commonly receive the attention it deserves’.
files (and rasps) were regarded as too dull to be noteworthy. In
Sheffield, they never seem to have featured in illustrations in
trade directories until the 1880s (unlike other cutlery and tool
products). Such is the paucity of data that it is even difficult
to say which firms were the leading producers.
One report in The Sheffield Independent (2 October 1852), ranked
file makers according to the number of hearths (forges). The
industry leader was Thomas Turton & Sons at ‘Sheaf Works’,
closely followed by W. & S. Butcher, and Matthias Spencer &
Other names that featured were Charles Cammell and William Hall.
That sounds about right, though several Sheffield firms later
established a reputation for file manufacture: notably, J. &
Riley Carr, John Bedford & Sons, Alfred Beckett & Sons, and
William Spencer & Son.
Contemporary data can only be approximate, not least because the
file industry mixed factory and domestic production. Many
workers (of both sexes) laboured independently at home as
‘outworkers’ (albeit supplying the factories). In villages
around Sheffield, such as Ecclesfield and Oughtibridge, file
making was a cottage industry. The sound of hammers and chisels
in these quiet hamlets led to the name ‘nickerpecker’ (or
woodpecker) for the file cutter.