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The Reminiscences of Henry Coward: A Sheffield Cutlery Apprentice - Part I

Henry Coward: 1849-1944




Adapted from: Coward, Henry. Reminiscences. United Kingdom, J. Curwen, 1919.


I adapted this post from the above book. Most of the book centers around this man’s famous music career, but I found the recounting of his time in the cutlery industry so poignant that I want this portion to live on. I've assembled the cutlery-related sections from the book and into a three-part series. The writing maintains chronological order and dividers are used where necessary to indicate sections preceded by non-cutlery writing.

Of significance in this book:

  • Accounts of outwork

  • Reminiscences of a cutlery factory

  • Cutlery genealogy

  • Stories of some of the cutlers

  • Encounters with George Wostenholm himself

  • Cutlery slang

  • Cutlery wages

  • The effect of the American Civil War on Sheffield

  • An accounting of W. H. Wragg



In view of the plethora of biographies and reminiscences, why should there be yet another inflicted upon a long-suffering public? This is a hard question, but I will endeavour to answer it in order to justify the appearance of these short memoirs.

When in my ‘teens, I was greatly excited and stimulated in spirit by reading Smiles’ “Self-Help” and kindred works, as were my companions also. To me, and to them, the struggles and successful achievements of men who had everything against them acted as a tonic, an inspiration, and an incentive to effort, a spur to try and do something to get from under the constant cloud of poverty which seemed always to hang above us. Young men nowadays scarcely realize the “hard times” that apprentices had in those days (1860-70). There were frequent periods of “bad trade” even in ordinary times, but during the American Civil War the spectre of want and starvation was very real. To take one instance, the “stint” (maximum allowance in wages) for my master and myself at Messrs. Joseph Rodgers & Sons, the world-famed cutlers, was ten shillings weekly. We had to eke out a living by doing odd jobs for “little mesters,” but these were very few. It was the constant aim of most workmen to get an assured income, however small, and great was the rejoicing when two of our companions “landed in clover,” one by becoming a postman and the other a lamplighter at fifteen shillings a week.


The Beginning

Doubtless my ancestry is ancient enough. I care only to trace it back to my grandfather, John Coward, who was of humble origin. The fact that small feet is a family trait might be said to predicate a riding noble ancestry. But possibly the founder of our clan, the original “ Cowherd ”—compare “ Shepherd ”—may have ridden as he tended his herds of kine. Be that as it may, I shall not go farther back than my grandfather, John Coward, who was apprenticed to William Wild, knife-maker or cutler, of Sheffield, on the 21st of December, 1801. The very interesting Indenture of Apprenticeship, after reciting the many duties to be performed “for full seven years,” enacts, amongst other things, that “Taverns and Alehouses he shall not frequent,” “Fornication he shall not commit, or Matrimony contract,” “any unlawful Game he shall not play,” etc. etc. He was to be paid, as “meet and fitting wages, sixteen pence yearly”; that is, a penny per month, with the magnificent cent sum of one penny on each of the four chief holidays—Shrove Tuesday, Easter, Whitsuntide, and Christmas—with which to run the risk of riotous festivities. During the last ten months he was “to have six shillings a week to prepare him for entering man’s estate.”

It will be seen that, at the best, the life of an apprentice was not a “bed of roses,” but it was purgatory when he had a shrewish mistress to “strafe” him. This was my grandfather’s fate, and it was through being “clemmed ” that he died quite young, leaving behind a widow, two sons, John and Henry, and one daughter, Jane. I know little of his life beyond the above; that he was one who helped to build Ebenezer Wesleyan Chapel, and that he was buried in St. Philip’s churchyard, Sheffield.


My father was placed as an indoor apprentice to “Iosey” Crossland, and he worked as a pen-blade grinder all his apprenticeship with Thomas Turner & Sons, Suffolk Works. Mr. Crossland and my father were very friendly, and I was invited twice or thrice to stay with the family, from which I infer that the apprenticeship was a happy one.


My father was such a general favourite with the customers (editor's note: he had served his apprenticeship in cutlery and had become a musician), especially the seafaring men who came in large numbers, that he was constantly asked to “take a drink” with them, which he did, to the ruin of his health. I never heard of him being the “worse for liquor,” but the constant “nipping” affected his heart so seriously that he died on May 1st, 1857, at the early age of thirty-two, and he was buried ‘in St. James’ Cemetery on May 3rd.



This was a serious loss, and as my uncle, John Coward, had intimated that he would take me and teach me the trade of making pen and pocket knives, I began to work with him at the cutlery business, just before I was nine years of age, and I worked with him continuously as an apprentice until my twenty-first birthday. Thus I served an apprenticeship of over twelve years.


“As apprentices went,” I had a good place. I had to work hard, long hours each day, and had very few holidays, but both my uncle and aunt treated me as one of their own children. My usual hours were 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays, and 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays.


My uncle worked for George Wostenholm, at the Washington Works, Wellington Street, and, except for a period during the American War, I worked there till I was a little over twenty-one.

Factory life as it was fifty or sixty years ago was not very elevating, everything was so crude and sordid: makeshift buildings, shops, and closets, while hygienic conditions were never considered or even thought of. But it was not factories alone which were thoughtlessly built, for even our schools were models of “Oh, anything with four walls will do!” Washington Works at that time was certainly lacking in “tone.”

The dirty shops, the disregard of sanitary demands, and the arbitrary way the workmen were treated, all tended to low ideals of life. I may say that since then the change for the better has been immense, chiefly owing, I believe, to the enlightened policy of Mr. Cooper Wing when he was managing director.



A broad-spoken workman was asked how many languages he knew, and he said three: Sheffield (dialect), Bible language, and swearing. Everyone at the works knew the first, a fair number the second, while not a few were experts at the third. As I had not been brought up in such rough surroundings I spoke with a different accent, and therefore I was, for some time, nicknamed “ gentleman’s boy,” but assimilation soon set in, and I grew familiar with the dialect in a short time, but never with its broadest accents.


End of Part I

In Part II:

  • A recounting of individual characters at the Washington Works

  • A cornucopia of cutlery lore

  • A personal understanding of how the American Civil War impacted the Sheffield cutlery industry


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