top of page

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

If you haven't read part 1, you can find it here. This second installment paints a picture of many of the colorful characters that worked at Washington Works. We also receive a first-hand account of how the American Civil War impacted Wostenholm and its cutlers, as the company had mainly focused on the American market at that time.



In this notable factory of several hundreds of workers there were all types of men and boys, and as a microcosm of the whole I will give a thumbnail sketch of the men in my shop as a sample of those with whom I rubbed shoulders for a dozen years. In the corner of the room was the “side” or bench of my uncle, and I was next to him. I have often been glad he had this position, because he had the - to me - delightful habit of singing, very quietly, while he worked. In this way I learnt a great number of old hymn-tunes and hymns which doubtless were a legacy of his early connection with Ebenezer Sunday School. In after years, when I edited the Primitive Methodist Hymnal, these old tunes proved of great value to me. He also knew a large number of old English and current ballads, and these I also drank in.

The next “side ” was occupied by “Jem” Stacey, cousin to Dr. James Stacey, late Principal of Ranmoor College. “Jem” was a good-hearted, wild sort of fellow, erratic in his conduct, but in the main was a very likeable man. I mention him on account of a diverting story he used to tell against himself, in connection with Dr. Stacey, which showed that the very precise, staid principal was not devoid of a touch of humour. When, as youths, they both worked at Joseph Rodgers & Sons, Jem wanted sixpence very badly, and applied to his cousin James for it. He at first refused to advance it, but yielding to Jem’s earnest entreaties, he agreed to find the cash if Jem would eat the half of a tallow candle. Necessity made Jem consent, and he took a bite, chewed it and chewed it, but could not manage the task. James was satisfied with the attempt, and earned the gratitude of Jem by handing over the sixpence.

A contrast to Jem worked at the next side. “Bishop” Revill he was called, because he was a local preacher, a shining light at Mount Tabor Chapel. He exercised a salutary influence in the shop by living the Gospel he professed and, with the permission of the other men, adorning the place with the “British Workman Almanack” and similar pictorial publications.

Next to Bishop Revill worked Joe Riley, who varied knife making with finding” rabbits which happened to be constantly crossing his path. I have seen him pull out of a large pocket of his velveteen coat a rabbit, and say, “Aw fon this i’ t’ hedge bottom as aw cum tut’ shop this morning; if onybody wants it he can have it.” He did not lack candidates for his find.” “The Lincolnshire Poacher” was his favourite song, and he did not half troll out the chorus—

“O! ’tis my delight on a shiny night

In the season of the yeere."

His next neighbour was a keen follower of the Hallam and Stannington Hunt, who tried, in cracked voice, to rival the poacher with the well-known local hunting song:

“All my fancy dwells upon Nancy

I sing ‘Tally O!’ "

Jack D - the next in order, was an oddity or “character.’ He had a most violent temper, and was so easily provoked that we all left him severely alone. When anything went wrong with his work - a broken blade, a cracked scale, a poor file or glazier—he would begin a series of oaths and swear-words, and would keep it up for over an hour, a redeeming feature being that he said them to himself sotto voce. A ministerial friend at the front told me that another friend, Lieut. Colonel Davies (Rev.), wishing to reprove tactfully a sergeant who was swearing at his men, went up to him and said, “ Do you call that swearing? If you want to know what swearing is go and listen to Major X, and then you’ll hear what it sounds like.” Major X might be great in his “langwidge,” but he could have picked up points from Jack D--. But this was merely a detail, as his chief characteristic was his response to the call of the countryside, which came to him every year, especially at haytime. The scent of the hay and the breezes from the hills round Sheffield made him feel “moorish,” and then suddenly he would rush off “somewhere,” to work in the fields or roam in the wilds as his gipsy spirit moved him. He would stay away for weeks, or even months, when, quite as suddenly, he would reappear and begin his half-finished job as though he had never been away, no one making a remark, unless the speaker desired an explosion of unparsonic phrases.

Charles Caterer, who occupied the end of the room, was the most brainy man there. Owing to his devotion to his garden he was called the “garden smith.” He was a sort of umpire in disputed points, and from him I received my first decided progressive impulse. In those days the walls of the shop were papered or covered with pictures from the Illustrated London News, which were changed from time to time. When a series of fine pictures of old English castles was put up I asked Caterer how it was that Oliver Cromwell was able - as it stated on each illustration - to destroy or dismantle so many castles, seeing he was not a king. Caterer replied, “That’s easily answered. Cromwell used his ’e-ad (head), an’ it’s them ’at uses their ‘ ’e-ads ’ that does things.” The words struck my imagination and set on fire my youthful ambition (for even at that age I had begun to dream dreams), and showed to me the importance of the mind and brain, and from that hour I began to use my “ ’e-ad.”

“A Medley of “Hot ‘Uns”

Of course there were other “characters ” who may be added to the picture gallery of my associates in the shops adjoining the one in which I worked. There was “Billy Muck” (Horner) the prize fighter, who killed one of his opponents by a “knock-out” blow-fighters did not wear gloves then - and who just escaped prison by a legal technicality.

The Darley family, the centre of the betting and “bookmaking” blight which infected most of the factory. Then there were in the corridor shop, through which I passed several times a day, the “Iconoclasts,” six loud-mouthed followers of Charles Bradlaugh, who at this time lectured often at the now defunct Hall of Science under the name of “Iconoclast.” Some of the above were not very desirable characters to mix with, but, taking my shopmates as a whole, they were a jolly, sociable lot, and trade being good, life went on very smoothly for one in my class. Food, if not dainty, was abundant, and as it was the current opinion that the working classes had nothing to complain about if they were above the poverty line, we were quite content.


Fifteen minutes were allowed for breakfast and “drinking” (tea), and if this time was exceeded my uncle used to repeat the lines—

"Sharp at meat, sharp at work,

Sharp at neither’s good for nowt."

He certainly imbued me with a sense of the disgrace of “sliving” (idling) and with the honour attached to working hard. When my file slipped over hard steel he would say, “Lay on, and get thi file warm and it will then bite; sweat o’er thi work and tha’il en‘oy it.” This is true, for I learned to have the same kind of pleasure in perspiring effort that a cyclist, cricketer, or tennis player finds in his strenuous pastime. With us, the wretched criminal “ca’ canny” did not exist, nor did we value our sweat at a guinea a drop as some trades do now.


A change came over the scene when the American Civil War broke out. Nearly all the trade done by George Wostenholm & Sons was American, therefore business at Washington Works came practically to a standstill in a short time after the War of Secession began. A cheaper class of cutlery, marked J. S. Fisher, with considerably reduced wages, kept things going for a while, but ultimately my uncle had to leave. Trade was so bad that he was obliged to become an outworker for Joseph Rodgers & Sons, to make "beanheads," a very common class of knife, at the weekly "stint" (the wage limit) of ten shillings for both of us. This amount was raised by casual common work, including "Wadsley Flatbacks" for several "little mesters."

These were hard times for us, and few realize the poignant response in our hearts to the words of the popular song, then much sung:

'Tis the song of the sad and the weary,

Hard Times! Hard Times! come again no more;

Many days have you lingered around my cabin door,

O Hard Times, come again no more.

As one instance of the strain, a friend of mine, whose father was a well-known "little mester," took a gross of knives weekly to pawn at Fretson's in Division Street, which, being unredeemed, were ultimately sold to "Cheap Jacks."


When the Civil War was over, and slavery had received its death-blow through the splendid tenacity of the great-souled Abraham Lincoln, the cutlery trade revived and we migrated back to "Georgie's," as Washington Works was called. Although during the interval between going from and returning to George Wostenholm's the general experience and outlook had been dark, to me the retrospect was decidedly bright, because several things had happened which beneficially influenced the whole of my future, and I went back with higher aims and ambitions than I had before I left, and with quite a different outlook upon life. How this change came about I will now explain.




Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page