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Tuesday, 7 July 2015

A little Peace (& Spafford) of Sheffield toolmaking history

I recently acquired this lovely Victorian 14" sash saw, which was made at the Eagle Works, Green Lane, Sheffield by Peaces, Spafford & Co.

The saw is in remarkably good condition, a little damage to the top horn, a little pitting on the sawplate, but overall it has survived 150+ years very well. It looks like it has spent most of it's working life in the service of a left handed craftsman, evidenced by a lovely depression in the left cheek of the handle where his fingertip has rested. Unlike many tools, it has not been stamped with any owner's marks, and close inspection of the parts not polished smooth by a left handed grip also reveals the faintest traces of rasp marks left by the man who made it.

This mark is of particular interest to collectors because it is very accurately dateable to a particularly good period of sawmaking. Peaces, Spafford and Co first appears in the Trade Directory in 1854 and again in 1856. Further research suggests that Abraham Spafford left to form his own company in 1858, so I'm pinning the manufacturing date down to between 1854 and 1858.

The Peace family started out as filemakers in the early 1800's, they started making steel in 1816, and by 1836 had set up Eagle Works - the factory where this saw was made some 20 years later. The new factory had 50 staff on the books, twin cementation furnaces and an impressive 'double 12 hole' crucible steel furnace that could brew up about 360 kilos of crucible cast steel at a time; they weren't playing at it. 

The site of the Eagle Works is currently being redeveloped for housing and was excavated by archaeologists before building work commenced. In the archive assessment by Lauren McIntyre, archaeologist Roderick McKenzie notes that the cementation furnaces were some of the best pre-1850 examples yet excavated and may have been among the first 50 such furnaces to be built in the city of Sheffield.

In the early 1860's the firm outgrew this factory and moved across the river to the Harvest Lane / Mowbray Street area (where our Thomas Flinn Pax and Dorchester saws are still made today), by that time they were employing some 150 people. They took the name 'Eagle Works' with them and the green lane factory was taken over by Ibbotson Brothers and renamed Globe Works.

The 1850's were a fascinating period of history, 1851 saw the great exhibition at Crystal Palace in London, in 1854 Britain declared war on Russia over the strategically important Crimean Peninsula, and in 1857 two men called Nathaniel Creswick and William Prest invented a new game called football and set up the world's first ever football club - Sheffield F.C. - I wonder what they would make of a world cup final today!

Back at the day job, saw manufacturers were working hard to compete with London's reputation for producing the best saws, there was nothing gentlemanly about their tactics. Factory seconds had poorly finished London pattern handles put on them and the blades were stamped with fictitious 'London' makers marks in order to damage the reputation of London manufacturing. They were fairly subtle about it, the 'London' saws were perfectly usable, just not quite as nice as the ones that had Sheffield stamped on them.  This practice still causes confusion among collectors seeking rare but very high quality London made saws. If you want to check before you buy, Simon Barley has kindly published a list of the known fictitious brands on the TATHS website here.

The decade was also marked by the growing power of the trades unions, who sought to control Sheffield manufacturing in the same way as the Company of Cutlers did, but by rather more violent means. There were rattenings (stealing the tools of a man's trade), beatings, shootings, bombings and murders. You might think that all this would have been directed against the factory bosses, but usually it was the workers themselves that the unions sought to control. One example is Thomas Fearnehough, a saw grinder who had quit the union and gone to work for a manufacturer whose workers the union had withdrawn, for which crimes he was murdered. In 1857 his home was blown up with gunpowder (with him in it) on the orders of William Broadhead, secretary of the saw grinders union. Broadhead's trial nine years later made the papers as far away as Australia and California.

Parliament deftly and effectively hobbled union power in the 1870's by forcing the Company of Cutlers to accept workers as well as factory bosses. Company membership soared, and as it did union power declined, owners responded rapidly by adopting mechanisation wherever they could, siezing the opportunity while it was there.

So this saw would have been among the last to be fully handmade, by well paid and highly qualified craftsmen under the protection of a strong union. It was made by a successful firm to compete with the very best in the world at the height of British imperial and industrial power, a perfect storm of factors that positively influence quality, which is why it is such a desirable saw.

I'm going to resist the urge to joint and file the teeth of this old girl, there is a good chance that the plate will have become embrittled and the teeth will pop off if I try to set them.
Instead, to fulfil my need for a main user (and my heroin like addiction to saws) I have ordered an almost identical spec, new, fully handmade, English sash saw from Skelton Saws. The quality of Shane's saws is even better than the Peaces Spafford would have been when new, and his production methods are almost identical to those that would have been used in the 1850's. All of which leaves me wondering where these two saws will end up 150 years from now?

skelton saws


1 comment:

  1. I like the history lesson. You can't know where you are going till you know where you came from.