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

Well, you did it! You made it to the last part of this story. Hasn't it been awesome? In this installment, we're going to:

  • Learn a little about the character of George Wostenholm

  • Understand how Wostenholm used "drilling" to maintain high quality knives

  • Learn about the ceremonious "Banging of the stidies."

  • Get a rare glimpse of the goings on of one of the world's best ever cutlers: W. H. Wragg

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from a man who rose above, despite the odds, to become a world-class cutler, teacher, and musician. It's an amazing story, and we're lucky to have it!

As a little thank you to those who have enjoyed the read, I've included another story about Mr. Coward at the end. So don't be shy, let's get started!



It was about this time that I first came into contact with the very well-known head of the firm, Mr. George Wostenholm, J.P. and ex-Master Cutler, popularly known as "Georgie." He was a good type of the successful manufacturer, masterful, keen, energetic, and far-sighted, whose whole thought and ideas apart from realizing a fortune seemed to be centred in achieving in his cutlery the legend of his trade mark, I.X.L.

I used to marvel at the way he struck the blades on a tiny anvil to find out any defect. I thought, at the time, he was foolish to run such risks of breaking the blades. It was part of his plan, for above all he would have sound blades in every knife he sold. Though some of his business usages were open to criticism such as his "Bounty System” by which he bound men to serve him through advancing loans of 5 or 10 to be repaid by installments, his rule of "fourteen to the dozen," and other things, which were all in his favour he was considered a good master, and the men earned good wages because he saw the advantage of giving work out in large quantities and not in the antediluvian “half-dozens.”


To the apprentices he was a sort of divinity, and it will be readily understood how startled I was when one day as I was waiting in the warehouse the great " Georgie " called me to him and said, " Well, young man, what is your pleasure?" I stammered out, "Music is my pleasure, sir." He grunted, "This is a nice pleasure to have," in a way that showed little sympathy with music. He then asked what I was waiting for, and then I understood what he meant by his first question.

The next time I received special notice from him was in my twentieth year, when he was drilling some of my work, for by this time I was working alone. "Drilling" was the term used to denote that critical examination of every knife which was a custom peculiar to Wostenholm's. While it was a good means of securing a high standard of work, and not unreasonable when carried out fairly, it could be, and often was, made a means of petty tyranny in the hands of the under-managers. I mention this now for what will follow later. When " His Majesty " was in a genial mood, as he could be, there was a rush to get the work examined, but when "The Little Devil" was on the throne no one went unless forced.

As I said, he was drilling my work, and he was making the blades "walk and talk" and passing complimentary remarks to me about them, when he turned to the men who were waiting their "kail," and said, "This is a smart young man ; he knows how to make a good knife," and held one up while he worked the blades; then prestissimo he got through the lot. He then took a pen and asked me to write my name and make the figure 8, which figure was not to his liking, as he said I commenced it the wrong way. He had very probably heard of my activities in other directions, and being pleased not only with my workmanship but with my somewhat neater appearance than was usual, he was preparing the way for a proposition he made some time afterwards. This event got talked about in the shops, and added to the reputation which my doings outside the factory was building up.



One day the chief (George Wostenholm) left the office in a hurry, and by mistake put on Mr. Brown's overcoat, in which he found a tuning-fork. When he returned he called Mr. Brown to him and inquired what the small steel article was. Mr. Brown told him it was a pitchfork. A senior member of the staff told me of what then happened. The chief said, " What the devil is a pitchfork? Mr. Brown replied, "A tuning-fork, sir, to enable musicians to get the correct pitch of a tune." Then "Georgie" blazed forth like Vesuvius. What! "said he," you are busying yourself with such d--- nonsense as music ! You might as well go to the devil as go into music. Let me tell you that business and music do not mix, and you must drop all connection with it or go from here."

The above is a mild version, because when G. W. got into a rage it was something to remember. When the choice lay between business and a condemned hobby, the result could be easily forecast, and music lost a very efficient official, to the benefit of the firm of which he is now secretary. I still have grateful memories of his great assistance, and we have been the best of friends ever since.


Just before the close of my apprenticeship there was an industrial exhibition in the Botanical Gardens, under the auspices of the Band of Hope Union, through which I had the gratification of paying a compliment to my uncle's instructions by gaining the first prize for my handiwork. The prize was a small case of cutlery, of which some of the pieces are still in use.



On the 26th of November, 1870, when I entered the shop there was set up a great commotion the hammering of the "stidies," the banging of the anvil, the striking and rattling of bars of suspended steel while one of my "choilers " (vociferous supporters) fired off a small cannon, all of which was to announce that one of their colleagues had passed from being an apprentice to legal manhood. There was the usual "loosing" festivities amongst the men, and then I commenced life under different conditions.

When I left Ellis Street to live with my mother, my uncle, aunt, and myself parted with mutual regard. They were proud of my doings, and I had only tender feelings towards them, and as I write these lines tears of gratitude to Uncle John and Aunt Ann spring up as I recall all they did for me during the twelve years I was with them.



In the spring of 1871 Mr. George Wostenholm sent for me to ask if I would like to become one of the warehouse staff. I said it would just suit me if I had not to "drill." My reasons for objecting to becoming a "driller" were chiefly that in bad trade it was made an instrument of petty tyranny, and it tended to make the drillers unjust. Scores of times I have seen work "cuckoo'd " on frivolous pretences and, a couple of days after, accepted without comment. My answer did not please " His Majesty," and he said he would see me again.

He had not the opportunity, because I had a visit from Mr. W. H. Wragg, a "little mester," probably the best cutler in the trade. He made the best class of sportsman's knives, and supplied the leading firms of the town with them. He told me that he had seen my work at the exhibition, and thought that I should be able to make his class of knives. He was willing, therefore, to take me as an improver for two months at fourteen shillings per week, after which, I should be able to earn good wages. It seemed a great sacrifice after having served twelve years, but I had begun to see the value of sowing for the future, therefore I accepted his offer and severed my long connection with Washington Works, until some years after, when, under happier conditions, I went to assist Mr. Cooper Wing, then the managing director, in his farseeing and wise scheme to improve the condition of the employees of the firm, thus anticipating the “Welfare Movement" of the present day.

Before dismissing all references to George Wostenholm from these pages it should be said that, in addition to the great benefit and credit he has brought to the town by his great enterprise and commercial gifts, he has a large claim to our gratitude and high regard for his far-seeing innovation in laying out the Kenwood estate, by which he made this charming suburb to be his ever-present monument.


Mr. Wragg's forecast of the advantages of working for him proved true, and until I left the cutlery trade I earned good wages fifty shillings to sixty shillings per week which, with the twenty pounds received from my singing classes, made me feel quite prosperous.

It will be inferred that my plans for the future were not settled, but I was thinking seriously about it, because it seemed as though I was the only one in my set who had not decided on his future career, unless I remained a cutler. It should be said that five of these achieved more than local fame in their walks of life.

By the end of the summer I had decided to leave the workshop as soon as there was an opening, but it is one thing to have the desire and another to be able to realize it, therefore I got no "forrader” “Will" Robinson, " Jack" Ball, a scissors-grinder, and myself often discussed the subject as we walked to business…


...We had also casual visits from Mr. John Thompson, the headmaster of the Parish Church School. It happened that Mr. Thompson was a cousin to Mr. F. Wolstenholm, who worked at the next bench or "side" to myself. Through him Mr. Thompson sent me this message: "Tell Coward that he is a born teacher, and he should therefore get into a school as soon as possible." I thanked him for the message, and said, "Opportunity is a fine thing." At the same time it caused me furiously to think.


One Friday morning, a few weeks after, my colleague Wolstenholm came into the shop, and said, " Have you seen this advertisement in the Independent for a teacher?" and he handed me the paper, in which I read "WANTED, a Third-year Pupil Teacher for Zion School, Attercliffe.” A good opening for a young man willing to improve. Salary, 20 a year. Apply to the Head Master, Thomas Bowker, at the School."

After I had read it he reminded me of John Thompson's message, and strongly advised me to take the situation, which was within my grasp. I got a piece of chalk and made a rough calculation on my " side," and found that I should lose heavily for four years, but by that time I should be better educated, better fitted for musical developments, and that I should overtake all monetary losses in ten years or less, and should have a higher status as a conductor. This decided me. I had just finished my last dozen of knives, for which I was paid the high rate of 36s. (5s. 6d. each), so instead of beginning a new order I went at once to see Mr. Bowker, who gave me a cordial reception, told me he knew of my musical work, and asked me to give a singing lesson to a large class, which I did, teaching the scholars the round "For health and strength." Mr. Bowker was very pleased, and he immediately engaged me to commence duties on the following Monday morning. I went back to the workshop and told Mr. Wragg, who kindly liberated me at once. Then I gave my tools away with the proviso that they were to be returned if I came back within six months.

Thus I rounded off my life as a cutler, and left it forever with the good wishes of all my shop friends at the end of February, 1872, and commenced my scholastic career at the age of twenty-two years and three months.

The End.


The Musical Times, Vol. 43 - 1902 features a nice bio of Henry Coward. In this bio, the following words are spoken:

If Dr. Coward is anything, he is a character, and no one can be in his presence five minutes without finding it out. In a large factory containing a thousand men, this individualality asserted itself, and the boy became affectionately known as "Bumpy," from the circumstance of him having read and mastered Fowler's 'Handbook of Phrenology.' Nothing would do but he must feel the bumps of all the men who would submit to his manipulation, and there were seers who prophesied a great future for him as a phrenological lecturer. In time, however, music asserted her rightful place, and phrenology was relegated to the limbo of extinct superstitions.


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