Anyone who has picked up an old saw, plane, or knife soon looks for a trade mark or maker’s name. These can identify and sometimes date an artefact. But one often wants to know more about the history of the manufacturer or individual. Reference books and other published sources – such as newspapers and directories – can sometimes provide a lead. But they do not usually give much detail. Ideally, business records – letters, accounts ledgers, and old pattern books – should help. But not many tool and cutlery enterprises have left an archive trail. So where does one look?
In the late 1970s, I pondered this question, when I was researching the 19th century Sheffield cutlery and tool trades. I tried trawling through consecutive years of one Sheffield newspaper, but soon gave this up as too laborious. Trade journals seemed to offer a more focused source, so I began looking at leading Victorian periodicals, such as The Engineer and Engineering. These were useful and the volumes were often indexed.
However, the space devoted to hand tools and cutlery was inevitably limited. Perhaps surprisingly, Sheffield did not have its own trade journal, but I soon discovered that specialist iron and hardware journals had been published in England since the late 19th century. One in particular looked promising.
That journal was The Ironmonger. The only place it seemed to be available in a complete run was the British Library’s Newspaper Division at Colindale, north London. That was convenient in one respect, because I lived in London. But Colindale was on the distant reaches of the underground railway and a visit involved a three-hour round trip.
The Newspaper Division was an Aladdin’s Cave of newspapers and journals (put simply, its miles of shelving held runs of almost every British newspaper and journal ever published). But it was always a forbidding place to work. I once heard the head of the Division describe working there as like being ‘exiled to Siberia’.
The building was more akin to a depository than a library and in those days was devoid of facilities like a café or even a drinks machine. Worse, it was set in a residential suburb which was similarly devoid of shops and cafés. Volumes could only be ordered from the stacks a few at a time and photocopying was expensive.
It was soon evident, though, that The Ironmonger was a mine of information on tools, cutlery, and general hardware products. I opened my first volume and almost immediately in the issue dated 30 May 1863 discovered a detailed account of Mappin Bros – one of Sheffield’s leading cutlery factories. A quick look through the other volumes on my table showed that it was a journal thick with news items and advertisements on tools and cutlery.
It was like a mine in other respects, too, since it was also apparent that consulting its pages would involve a lot of hard digging. The issues were bound into volumes that were squat, bulky, and often covered only a few months.
Scanning every issue of more than a decade’s run of the journal would be a serious undertaking. Inevitably, I sampled the journal and, after turning up lots of useful information and references, turned my attention to other sources. I always promised myself that one day I would return to The Ironmonger, though I did not think it would be another thirty years before I did so.
In that period, much has changed. Computers and digitization have made 19th century newspapers more accessible, so that the extensive trawls of hard copy Sheffield newspapers I conducted at Colindale have largely become unnecessary. Indeed, Colindale library no longer exists. The British Library has abandoned it and dispersed its stock. Sadly, The Ironmonger has not been digitized and it remains a frustrating journal to consult, because so few libraries have a run.
However, I was recently able to re-acquaint myself with this journal after tracking down another set at the Museum of English Rural Life at Reading University. To look along The Ironmonger shelves at Reading is to be staggered by the sheer bulk of the journal. Not only are the volumes big and heavy (see photo above), but the run seems almost endless, spanning two bays of shelves.
I did not have time to count every volume, but the number certainly exceeds 200. The scale of this publishing undertaking generated a history of its own, which can be usefully explored before assessing The Ironmonger as a source.
The journal can be traced – perhaps appropriately – to an ironmonger. It was founded by William Vaughan Morgan (1826-1892), who came from an entrepreneurial Welsh family. In 1852, William acquired a hardware business in London and was soon joined by his brothers – Septimus, Thomas, Walter, Octavius, and Edward. (The group photo shows William seated in the middle behind the table). In 1855, the firm became Morgan Brothers.
The brothers issued a price list. As the business began to thrive, the Morgans expanded the scope of this list by adding items of trade news. The result was a monthly circular that was offered to ironmongers and tradesmen for a subscription. On 31 May 1859, the first issue of Morgan’s Monthly Circular & Metal Trades Advertiser appeared. Three months later it became THE IRONMONGER & METAL TRADES ADVERTISER.
Within a few months the circulation had rocketed from under a thousand to 10,000. By 1860, volume II had 112 pages and was priced at 5 shillings a year [25 pence/42 cents]. Almost immediately, the brothers launched another journal, The Chemist & Druggist, which was an offshoot of the druggists’ sundries side of the Morgan’s factoring business. The Morgans also started other long-running trade papers, such as The Grocer (1861) and The British Trade Journal (1863).
The Ironmonger was not a technical journal, but a trade paper, and as such was a pioneer. The publishers later claimed – with some justice – that it was the first trade newspaper. It was published in London and until 1930 the managers and editors were based at No, 42 Cannon Street, EC. By 1865, each issue had sixteen pages of news and 40 pages of advertisements.
In 1878, the journal began publishing weekly and in the following year The Ironmonger Diary & Hardware Buyers’ Guide was launched as a companion.
William Vaughan Morgan was briefly the first editor. But the family had other profitable interests (notably the Morgan Crucible Co, of Battersea, London). Eventually, other full-time editors and journalists were appointed, though the Morgan family remained involved in the 20th century. After the First World War, the firm was known as Morgan Brothers (Publishers) Ltd.
The Ironmonger was still going strong in 1959. A direct family link with the founders of the business was maintained. The journal had an editorial staff of ten, a supplements department, and an enquiry section with five full-time staff answering phone and mail questions from subscribers.
In that year, the publishers prepared a special Centenary issue. In true Ironmonger style, this was no mere pamphlet, but a glossy 328-page paperback, filled with advertisements and special essays – including a detailed history of the enterprise itself.
Sadly, the Centenary volume was a swansong. The disappearance of the traditional ironmonger in Britain, combined with the decline of so many of the country’s traditional hardware manufacturers, robbed The Ironmonger of its market.
The journal (and The Ironmonger Diary) disappeared in 1966 and Morgan Brothers was soon swallowed by rival publishing conglomerates.
The editors had a clear vision of the role of the journal. In the words of one director: ‘It is concerned with helping people to make a living’, by disseminating business news quickly and in a permanent form. Thus a large part of each issue has solid blocks of print, which present trade reports, information on new products, and tours of the latest exhibitions, both national and international. Most issues had trade reports from the hardware districts – Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Sheffield, Leeds, Cleveland, and Scotland.
The report (shown right) for Wolverhampton and district, 25 April 1885, commented:
The iron bolt door business lacks animation. Fish-tail bolts for South America have also become tame. Mr R. Lees is doing more on home than export account. The washer and kettle and bucket ear trade does not improve, and galvanised goods are particularly the subject of severe competition. This, at any rate, is the view taken by Lealey & Lees, who have an extensive connection.
This extract gives a flavour of the reports: broadly descriptive, often arcane, but useful. The range of industries covered by The Ironmonger is enormous. It is a major source on the history of the iron, steel, and gun trades. The staples of ironmongery – nails, buckets, pots and pans, lawnmowers, sanitary and plumbing requisites – are covered in overwhelming detail.
The journal is, of course, a treasure trove of information on woodworking tools. Makers of saws, planes, axes, and joiner’s tools feature in almost every issue. Company profiles and ‘tours’ of the works were an Ironmonger speciality.
Awards and official appointments were well ‘puffed’. In the late 19th century, the annual appointment of a Master Cutler in Sheffield (such as J.F. Atkinson in 1892) usually merited an article and an addition to the ‘Portrait Gallery’.
Besides the pages of gossip, ephemera, trademarks, and obituaries, one notable feature of the journal was the publication after 1868 of special supplements several times a year.
For example, a ‘Supplement on the Paris Exhibition’ appeared on 19 October 1878. It featured, inter alia, a discussion of the saws of Henry Disston, Philadelphia (while noting that leading English houses, such as Spear & Jackson, had not exhibited). This was a recurrent theme in the journal in the late 19th century: Britain’s standing in the world, compared with rivals in the hardware trade, such as the USA.
On 7 December 1878, for example, an article compared ‘English and American Axes’ and betrayed anxiety at US advances in the trade.
Perhaps the most striking feature of The Ironmonger is the amount of advertising. It was not called the ‘Trades Advertiser’ for nothing. By the 1880s, advertisements packed the back pages and took up a substantial part of the journal.
Even The Ironmonger Diary was dominated by advertisements. For example, one copy in the author’s possession (1952) has a diary section of about 100 pages; but advertisements cover nearly 600 pages! Victorian advertisements often included fine engravings, woodcuts, and fancy letter-work depicting factories, products, and trade marks.
By the next century, advertisements were becoming plainer, though even in the interwar period the art work (sometimes in colour) could be striking.
These advertisements are not simply visually appealing; they also help identify leading firms and products, without spending hours or days searching the journal’s text.
Of course, one should remember that The Ironmonger is not simply a source for in-formation on woodworking tools. Its pages are laden with articles and advertisements on general hardware products: everything from washing machines to vacuum cleaners; from chimney sweeping machinery to sanitary wares; from mousetraps to steel wool.
To turn the pages, even as late as the 1950s, is to be reminded of the vast range of products Britain once produced. It is a mirror for a vanished age, when manufacturing reigned supreme and when customers were spoiled for choice from a seemingly endless range of products.
Inevitably, that ‘mirror’ image is refracted through a particular lens. The journal was owned by self-made men and written for ironmongers, shopkeepers, and manufacturers of similar mind.
The tone towards captains of industry was respectful and often fawning. It is not a journal to read, say, for its reports on labour and health and safety issues.
One wonders, too, about The Ironmonger’s accuracy. Its editors were usually knowledgeable journalists – for example, William Edwin Frier (editor, 1878-98) had a wide experience of the Sheffield trade – but the journal must have relied on freelancers. The need to create ‘copy’ every week would have added other pressures.
The reports from the districts are sometimes bland and uninformative.
Not all the data and opinion can be taken as gospel, since often the main source was manufacturers and tradesmen themselves. Profiles of individuals and factories need to be read with caution.
Generally, the standard was good and the editors were not always afraid to take a strong line.
One of the most persistent Ironmonger themes was the threat of foreign competition and the failure of some British manufacturers to meet this challenge. Overall, one can make allowances for the subjectivity of the trade press. More difficult to overcome is the size of The Ironmonger and its availability.
Morgan Bros Centenary (1959) noted that since May 1859, 4,457 issues of The Ironmonger had been published. One might expect that runs of the journal and individual issues would be plentiful. But the journal is surprisingly rare. Perhaps the sheer volume of paper generated year by year meant that subscribers soon threw it out.
As far as I know, the libraries in the former hardware centres of Sheffield and Birmingham do not have a run. In nearly forty years of research, I have never seen a copy of The Ironmonger in Sheffield. It is sometimes possible to acquire second-hand copies of The Ironmonger Diary or the Centenary volume, but even these are less common than one might imagine.
The British Library retains the run of the journal I saw years ago at Colindale. Now that the latter has been closed, the journal can be consulted at the British Library’s main St Pancras site. London is crowded, expensive (especially for out-of-towners), and the British Library does not allow the use of digital cameras. So it is difficult to feel enthusiastic about working there.
I would, however, recommend the library of the Museum of English Rural Life at Reading University (http://www.reading.ac.uk/merl). It is set in pleasant surroundings, the librarians are very helpful, The Ironmonger is on open shelf, and one can use a camera. Moreover, the library has runs of other journals, which vie with The Ironmonger for their coverage of the tool trades.
These include The Implement & Machinery Review and the Hardware Trade Journal. If one becomes bored with reading dusty old journals, then a tour of the Museum provides an excellent diversion.
Most of The Ironmonger has never been read by contemporary researchers. Its riches remain locked within its vast volumes. I have never had time to do more than sample its pages. This is due to its bulk, the lack of finding aids, and the Everest-like challenge of ever reading it from cover to cover. But the Museum at Reading at least provides comfortable surroundings for those who are mad enough to make the attempt.
Geoffrey Tweedale is a specialist in the Sheffield cutlery and tool trades.
His latest publication is Tweedale’s Directory of Sheffield Cutlery Manufacturers 1740-2013: Revised and Expanded 2nd Edition (2014), pp. 740. This volume contains histories of over 1,600 cutlery manufacturers. It is available from LULU.com.
His previous publications include
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