Billhook makers

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Billhook makers

Postby Billman » Fri Feb 25, 2011 11:47 pm

I am attempting to catalogue the edge tool makers of Britain, particularly the small village makers - of which there were hundreds (thousands???) working in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The last working smith that I know of who marked his tools was Willis of Bramley in Hants, who made billhooks from old farriers' rasps.

The large industrial makers such as Elwell, Brades, Harrison, Spear and Jackson are well documented - but for some, such as Skinner and Johnson of Ranskill in Notts, and smaller but equally well known makers such as William Swift from Kent, there is little known information available...

If you have a tool, billhook, axe, drawknife, stock knife by a lesser known maker , it would be useful to have a record of it. If you do not wish to place this in open forum, please send a PM, or contact me via my website: http://www.billhooks.co.uk - a close up of the makers mark would also be useful

I have created a list of over 4000 French taillandiers, or edge tool makers, who worked between 1830 and 1940 - so I guess similar numbers existed in the UK. I would like to be able to create a similar list for the UK. If you also have any details of the maker, that would also be very helpful...

As I live in the West Country, a few names from there:

Devon: Loder, Knapman, Helson, Morris, Finch
Somerset: Fussell, Padfield, Steed
Wiltshire: Down, Buckland (later Sheppard)
Gloucestershire: Jackson
Hants: Willis, Moss, Fenner
Last edited by Billman on Sat Feb 26, 2011 12:00 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Billhook makers

Postby robin wood » Sat Feb 26, 2011 12:00 am

Billman wrote:I am attempting to catalogue the edge tool makers of Britain, particularly the small village makers - of which there were hundreds working in the 19th and early 20th centuries


All the edge tool makers of Britain sounds a mammoth undertaking. I presume you have talked to folk at MERL I expect they have a lot of records of small scale makers. Tweedale's directory is a big book and covers just the cutlery in Sheffield. Expand it to all edge tools and add in Birmingham and the black country and all the country makers and it sounds like a huge project to me.
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Re: Billhook makers

Postby Billman » Sat Feb 26, 2011 12:04 am

Not been to MERL for several years - one of many places on my list of visits - but Ted Collins paper on edge tool makers gives an indication of some of the records held there: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/economicHistory/C ... ollins.pdf

Many (most??) of the Sheffield cutlers also made small edge tools such as billhooks - especially if you include small gardening billhooks and pruning hooks. Secateurs were not invented until about 1815, and did not come into common use until the second half of the century - so up until then all pruning of roses, vines and fruit trees was by billhook. We have over 2000 years of edge tool making in Britain - most makers made small ladies and gentlemans hooks with a fixed blade as well as larger agricultural and woodland tools, and small folding billhooks or pruning knives date from the Roman period. .

However, marking of edge tools was not commonplace until the early 19th century, so before that date written or printed sources are the only means of identifying makers. Early makers often just used a symbol such as a heart or a star, c.f. cutlers' and armourers' marks, later only intials were used as full name stamps were expensive - name stamps became common from about 1830 onwards, other than in Sheffield and Birmingham where they were in use in the 18th century and earlier..

Yes a big task to undertake, hence my request for help....
Last edited by Billman on Sun Feb 27, 2011 11:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Billhook makers

Postby Brian Williamson » Sun Feb 27, 2011 12:13 am

It sounds a labour of love indeed, and I wish you luck.

I can see that turning up different models from a maker might be interesting, but what do you do if you turn up a new maker? I've got thirty or forty bilhooks ( I'll list them by manufacturer for you when I have a minute), but I've picked them up from farm auctions and car boot sales and ebay and second-hand dealers - it would be impossible to tie down a place of origin.

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Re: Billhook makers

Postby Brian Williamson » Sun Feb 27, 2011 8:33 am

Here are my hook makers:

9 Morris, 8 Elwell, 6 Bulldog, 3 Brades, 2 Knapman, 2 Cornelius Whitehead, 2 Fussell, 1 each of Robert Sorby, Nash, Nash and Sons, Gilpin, and Skelton.

5 seem to be unmarked and 1 is unreadable (possibly a Finch).

Morris and Bulldog are heavily represented because you can buy them new.

A couple of questions for you Billman (if you can spare the time).

Finch seem to have a double namemark on all of my hooks, but I can't make out the second name on any of them. Is it Bros?

Despite the amount of axes that Gilpin seem to have made and chisels that Sorby made, I don't think i've ever seen a second hook by either of them. Presumably they're notthat uncommon?

Elwell seem to have been the biggest manufacturer by far. They crop up constantly in axes and billhooks, and would have made most of the sickles and slashers that I've owned (and lost) over the years. Did they have the biggest out put or were they the longest lasting? Or both? And are you able to date them to any degree by their makers mark? Carefull here, it's a trick question - what I'm really saying is 'if I posted up pictures of the marks could you date them for me'?

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Re: Billhook makers

Postby Billman » Sun Feb 27, 2011 11:12 pm

Finch tools are usually marked Finch Bros - I believe some later tools were made for them by Morris.... I visited Morris about 20 years ago, when Richard's dad Alec was alive - we discovered a box of old name stamps that the firm had used - they made tools for about 10 different well known brand names, a practice that was also common in Sheffield when makers would pass work out to another maker if they did not have the capcity to fill the order. Morris were also owned by Bulldog (English Tools) for some time - Alec and Richard had just bought their site back when I visited. As an aside, I also have a Marples level, that when I took it apart for cleaning was stamped Rabone of Birmingham on the underside of the brass plate.... but I digress.... I was told that Finch always stamped their name upside down, i.e. spine down to read it, but the Morris tools were stamped the other way up.... I do not have any of my tools handy to check....

There were four Cannock firms who produced a wide range of billhooks, as well as many other edge tools: Gilpin; Gilpin and Whitehouse, Cornelius Whitehouse and Whitehouse Bros - obvious family connections there at some time in their history.... Gilpin (Wedges Mills) turns up fairly often, as does Cornelius Whitehouse - the other two are less common (but not rare).

Knapman and Son are common in the West Country - previously Knapman was apprenticed to and later in partnership with Elliott - I have a couple of Elliot and Knapman, but none by Elliott...

Sorby are not that common, but they listed a variety of patterns in their catalogues, as did most other Sheffield makers...

Fussell were common, especially those marked 'Fussells Improved' that were made by Isacc Nash after they bought the name in the 1890's - they also introduced the JF in a circle logo, to match their own logo of an N in a circle - the name was still being used by Spear and Jackson (who still own it) well into the late 20th century...

Elwell of Wednesbury became part of Spear and Jackson, along with Brades (William Hunts and Sons), Staniforth, Tyzack, Nash, Skelton and Harrison - see the S&J Family Tree on the Timeless Tools website, originally from a 1970's S&J catalogue: http://www.timelesstools.co.uk/s&j_family_tree.htm - the Elwell site at Wednesbury beacame a S&J depot in the 1960's and still made billhooks until it closed in 2005... The site was demolished and has now been redeveloped, see: http://www.ironbridge.org.uk/downloads/ ... eaflet.pdf

It is very difficult to date factory made tools - breakages excepted, the same name stamps were used for decades - often a firm had a whole batch of stamps made, and they were used only when a certain style of billhook was made... for the less common shapes stock may have lasted ten or twenty years - so a tool sold in 1960 could have been made in 1950, by a chap who started working in 1930 and marked with a stamp made in 1910.....

Some maker's tools can be given an end date, e.g. from memory Elliot and Knapman were listed in Kellys in 1850, but by 1856 Knapman and Son were running the business, and still going in 1896 - I believe they lasted up to WW1 - Loder closed in 1942 - Gilpin and Whitehouse were declared bankrupt in 1948...

For further information see Prof Ted Collins paper: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/economicHistory/C ... ollins.pdf
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Re: Billhook makers

Postby jez » Tue Sep 13, 2011 6:04 pm

Just been at Essex country Show. Bought a swift and saw two more; also bought a bowdon 734: both double bladed. The swift is either a 43 or a 45 and size 9". I've set and sharpened them both and will use them for river clearance work. Steel edge quality appears similar. I also have inherited a prewar Morris devon billhook.
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Re: Billhook makers

Postby Billman » Thu Sep 15, 2011 8:40 am

Bowden (Bowdon??) were a Sheffield maker - had a good reputation in some regions, so much so that some manufacturers produced a Bowden pattern (others also produced a Moss pattern) - Swift made some nice tools - I believe however the name was bought my a Midlands maker, and later tools mass produced with a poor stamp that lacks the quality of the early deep stamped crowns...
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Re: Billhook makers

Postby Billman » Wed Jan 04, 2012 6:42 pm

Three months and not a single response - so have revamped my website to include billhook makers and suppliers (UK and Europe) - www.billhooks.co.uk
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Re: Billhook makers

Postby ToneWood » Tue Apr 03, 2012 4:57 pm

I have 3 billhooks (possibly 4?) + a hookless bill (or is that a bill-less hook) - like a small cleaver (seems pretty useless but perhaps I just don't understand how to use it?). At least two have been in the family for more than 50 years.At least one (probably 2 and possibly all 3) of the billhooks is Fussell. They vary a little in size, weight and shape but all follow the same basic traditional design. They all have a sharp bill - which is not useful as far as I can tell - some billhooks have a flattened bill, I'd consider that an enhancement/welcome safety feature but I don't own one like that (and likely never will - I have more than enough already, was surprised when my older brother gave me one and also a machete several years ago when he moved house, but perhaps he has others?). I feel like a hoarder - its not healthy, so I guess I'll keep one (the biggest, heaviest), give one to my son (the one I carved a new walnut handle for) and another to my nephew when they are old enough.
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Re: Billhook makers

Postby 81stBRAT » Tue Apr 03, 2012 6:11 pm

The sharp bill is usfull for picking bits up, saves bending right down, ones without bills dont work well in the woods.
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Re: Billhook makers

Postby ToneWood » Tue Apr 03, 2012 8:17 pm

Wow - thanks, had been wondering about that for a while now. It is something of a hazard though.

Just checked the billhooks: two are "Fussell, Improved". The big one that I use (probably my father's) has a 6 or 9 clearly stamped on it , the other is more corroded looks like it might once have been the same size but now worn back significantly by decades of sharpening (this one I believe to have been my grandfather's, its special - I carved a new handle for this one). The other hook has a different mark - a rectangular box with letters or numbers in - I can't make them out though, the first letter might be a B so perhaps a Brades but it looks to be shorter than that, Down perhaps?).

The bill-less hook has no markings, it looks like a billhook where the top section has been cleanly removed across a straight diagonal line - held against the billhooks the remaining metal lines up with the regular billhook. However the handle is different, rounded/turned but rather battered now. I wonder if it might be a thatcher's tool?

One maker's name (Sheppard) & county, above, match those of my grandmother. My younger brother holds a family tree of her family (written by a teacher in a related family) and he tells me there is a line of several generations of blacksmiths in our grandmother's line - so perhaps a relative?! :)
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Re: Billhook makers

Postby Billman » Mon Apr 16, 2012 2:18 pm

Hi - Fussells Improved are tools made by Nash after they bought out Fussell in the 1890's - the trade name is still registered today by Spear and Jackson who also now own Nash, Brades, Elwell, Harrison and many others - I believe even S&J are now part of the Neill group who may now in turn be owned by a French conglomerate....

The NASH stamp is often in a rectangular box - just that, no other stamps apart from the size of the billhook (the 6 or 9 is the length of the blade in inches from shoulder to tip - billhooks are 8 to 12" , smaller spar hooks are 6 to 7").

Straight bills without the 'beak' are to be found in Knighton (Salop) and the Rodding patterns - also Hertfordshire and London (although they usually have a hook on the back of the blade)

The Sheppard dynasty from Netheravon is worthy of much more research - I believe they took over the Buckland forge as well by marriage, but the Buckland name just disappeared from the Census, so there may be more to it than that. It appeared that Sheppard sons were installed in a number of villages in Wiltshire - in our next village, Sutton Veny, the garage on the site of the village forge was run by George Sheppard - I would bet that hus father, or his grandfather, came from Netheravon...

Send images of your billhooks via my website, http://www.billhooks.co.uk and I will try to ID them for you...
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Re: Billhook makers

Postby ToneWood » Fri Apr 20, 2012 7:34 pm

81stBRAT wrote:The sharp bill is useful for picking bits up, saves bending right down, ones without bills dont work well in the woods.
Richard
Yes, the one I have without a hook if quite small and light. In fact now I vaguely recall my brother wondering if a thatcher might have left it behind? I'll ask our current thatcher next time I see him but hopefully that won't be for another 20 years!

Anyway I came across videos on some of Jack Hargreaves's later Out of Town videos on youtube. I quite like the programs, they varied, informative, interesting and relevant to us growing up in the country but my older brother and his friends were REALLY into them. Anyway this one is about copses/coppicing - and it shows a young woodsman putting the billhook through its paces, including using it to split nut sticks in half a process which has a name I think you be familiar with - fro(e)ing (as in the greenwood tool called the froe), which it rocked, to & froin the process. The result is used for wattles, which were used for hurdles,sheep pens and cottage/hovel walls. I expect that is how some billhooks were used around here (and also probably for dragging scrub closer for cutting, as suggested by my brother) - it has the ring of truth and authenticity about it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Bl1HQg7aCo The image quality sadly is quite poor but the content is pure gold.

Watch the above video to the end to see a "break" (or possibly brake?) - a simple alternative to a draw-horse. Also, some rather swiftly made hurdle mortices.
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Re: Billhook makers

Postby ToneWood » Fri Apr 20, 2012 9:04 pm

Billman, I will try to get you some images. Where was Nash? I know a family with that name, they used to be farmers (with shire horses) but no longer. 3 houses were built on the old farm yard.
I know of two family connections with Netheravon both quite old - so perhaps it was a relative.
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