UK Makers of Edge Tools

Edward Elwell's works at Wednesbury c 1870

In the UK as in most of Europe there existed hundreds of small regional edge tool works, often one or two man works. Some like Buckland of Netheravon (Wilts) or Fussells of Mells & Nunney (Somerset) became quite large, but even they could not compete with the large industrial makers from the Midlands (Birmingham to Sheffield) and by the beginning of the 20th century most had disppeared without trace or record.


Some like Finch Bros of Sticklepath (Devon) and Morris of Dunsford (Devon) managed to keep going into the 20th century, and after various closures and family buy-backs the Morris name is still being continued by Richard Morris, grandson of the ex Gilpin's worker who moved to work for Helson's in the inter-war period.... Due to antiquated nature of the machinery and processes used, Richard works alone, as the factory does not comply with modern H&S legislation and he cannot employ any other workers.


As the larger companies moved into supplying tools in other parts of the country they started to produce pattern books to show the tools that they could offer. By 1900 these had often become large illustrated hardback books, showing the range of tools for the different trades. Those that included billhooks and similar tools often had several pages showing the patterns the manufacturer could offer.

William Hunt & Sons (Brades) 1878
Pages of billhook patterns from the 1878 and 1905 catalogues of William Hunt & Sons, Brades Works near Birmingham.
Brades Catalogues 1878.pdf
Adobe Acrobat document [936.1 KB]
Isaac Nash 1899
Pages showing billhooks from the 1899 catalogue of Isaac Nash, Wollaston Forge, Stourbridge. Nash offered many small, regional patterns such as one for Imber (see below).
Isaac Nash 1899.pdf
Adobe Acrobat document [4.0 MB]
Brades (William Hunt & Sons) circa 1922
This catalogue from the collection of Brian Moss, who is best known for his collection of Moss tools, and his research into the family history.
WHS Brades Catalogue 1922 (Brian Moss)..[...]
.pdf File [12.5 MB]
Knapman & Son circa 1939
The small Devon firm of Knapman & Son survived for over 100 years, finally closing in the 1950's. The catalogue is from the collection of fellow billhook enthusiast, Scotty Dodd:
Knapman Son Catalogue c 1939..pdf
.pdf File [1.5 MB]
Nash and Fussell 1951
Pages from Nash's 1951 catalogue showing both Nash and Fussell patterns
Nash Fussells Billhooks 1951.pdf
Adobe Acrobat document [5.1 MB]

From the 1899 Nash catalogue, pattern 369 - Imber billhook

With a maximum population of less than 450 (87 households) in 1851, which had fallen to only 252 inhabitants in 1911 (70 families - 138 males), how many billhooks would a village the size of Imber need??? The war memorial records that 28 young men from the village fought in the Great War (1914-1918) of whom 3 were killed in Gallipoli and France and 4 wounded. By 1921 the population was only 188, and in 1931 only 152. Sitting in a valley in the middle of Salisbury Plain, some 5 miles from Warminster (which also had its own pattern of billhook), it was an isolated and lonely place with no mains water or electricity... With no industry, employment was limited, and apart from the village pub and the blacksmith's shop, most of the men would have worked in agriculture.


The only Census data for employment is for 1831, when, of the 89 males aged 20 or over, 5 were employers; 9 were 'middling sorts' i.e. small-holders or farmers not employing other men; 60 were labourers or servants and 15 were classed as 'other' (which would have included the blacksmith, other tradesmen and the publican, as well as the elderly and infirm). Those unable to support themselves, or who did not have family to support them, would have been moved to the Poor Law Union Workhouse in Warminster (opened in 1837 and closed in 1929).


It is likely the demographics changed little over the next 100 years - the last census for Imber is 1931 as in 1943 the inhabitants were moved out because the surrounding land was owned by the War Department and was used as a live firing range. In the lead up to D Day the village was intended to be used for urban training by American troops, but this did not happen, and remarkably the village survived the war little damaged. However the surrounding area contained blinds (unexploded shells) and live rounds, and would have been prohibitively expensive to EOD clear. Post war, the village was subsequently used for Urban Warfare training by troops destined for duty in Northern Ireland, and later for Cold War training. Today, of the original buildings, only the brick built buildings: two farm houses, the school, some cattle sheds, the pub and the manor (Imber Court), remain standing - the rest, mainly cob houses, would have melted back into the landscape once their thatched roofs had gone....


In 1915 it is likely that half of the men of working age would have been fighting in the War, probably in the Wiltshire Regiment or the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry. Nash's inclusion of an Imber billhook in their catalogue was probably an attempt to persuade local ironmongers in nearby Warminster, Westbury and Devizes to stock their products in preference to those by other manufacturers (I doubt the fact that the village blacksmith was named Albert Nash had any effect on the decision)....


I guess only a few dozen of Nash's Imber pattern billhooks were ever made (the minimum order was usually half a dozen) and even less were sold and of these very few are likely to have survived....

British billhooks shapes from within the Spear and Jackson group.
This file contains copies of pages from catalogues of some of the companies that disappeared into the S&J brand during the 19th and 20th centuries. There may be some duplication with the above.
Spear Jackson.pdf
Adobe Acrobat document [6.3 MB]