Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/My knife


Perhaps I am wrong in calling it a knife; it is one of those small buck’s-horn tool-chests weighing nearly a pound. On one side of it there are six blades of various sizes, a file, and a saw; on the other, lying snugly beneath a long hook designed to pull stones out of your horse’s hoofs, but useful for unlacing boots, there are a gimblet, a corkscrew, a bradawl, a button hook, and a pair of compasses. At one end there is a screwdriver; at the other a sort of nail-brush. Sheathed in the handle are a tooth-pick, a packing-needle, a pair of tweezers, and a foot-rule, jointed; and affixed to the handle is a square piece of steel, which serves the purpose of a hammer. For the possession of this invaluable instrument, I am indebted to phrenology. In my younger days, my father, who was a believer in that and most other new ’ologies, took me to a travelling professor, who, after running his fingers through my hair, made out a “chart,” for which he charged the inconsiderable sum of one shilling.

My father asked him for what occupation he thought me fitted.

“That, my good sir,” said the professor, smiling blandly and writhing apologetically, “comes under the denomination of advice, for which we charge five shillings.”

A transfer of coin took place.

Dropping the money into his pocket, and the elbow of his right arm into the palm of his left hand, the professor placed the forefinger of his right hand upon his forehead, and closing both eyes, compressed his face into the smallest possible compass, and seemed lost in thought for some moments. Arousing himself at length, he gave utterance to the following judgment: “Constructiveness, very large—should be encouraged. The boy is, by his developments, fitted to become a great engineer, a great mechanic, or a great architect. He may become neither of these, but if the constructive faculty be properly cultivated, he should become either one or all of them.”

The knife was purchased on our way home—not as a “mere plaything,” as my father somewhat unnecessarily explained to my mother, who looked with horror upon the instrument, but as “a cultivator of the organ of constructiveness.”

“Cultivator of the organ of fiddlesticks!” replied my mother, somewhat irreverently, “it will tear his pockets to pieces, and I shall not have a decent piece of furniture in the house by the time his holidays are over.”

My mother’s prophetic instinct proved a more correct exponent of the future than the deductions of the philosopher. The only organ the knife cultivated was the organ of destructiveness. Before those ill-fated holidays were over, there was not a cork in the house that was not drawn, nor a door through which the gimlet had not passed. Minute slices were shaved off the angles of the tables and sideboards; crosses were filed in all the door-knobs and bell-pulls. The chairbacks were for the most part ornamented with geometrical tracery, the work, it is needless to say, of the compasses; and my initials, in carving bold and deep, disfigured every wooden surface both in the house and in its immediate vicinity. An attempt to operate with the tweezers upon a stray hair on my father’s face while he was asleep, one afternoon, brought my home-labours in the cause of constructiveness to a close. The knife was impounded, and not returned until the morning on which I again started for school. From that day to this it has never been out of my possession. It has been the companion of my travels half the world over, and though its weight and bulk were rather inconvenient at first, I have found it one of the most useful travelling companions I could possibly possess. But good as it was, it was not perfect. It required repairing now and then, and happening to be in Sheffield on one of these occasions, not long ago, I took it into a shop to have a few blades put in and a few of the tools put in order.

“Whoy, that’s a knoif it oi had a hand i’ the makking ov twenty year sin,” said the old man into whose hand I put it.

“Is it indeed?” I replied. It had never struck me before that the knife had been made. That the buck’s-horn handle once adorned the most graceful of creatures—that the blades had lain deep down in the strata—that the foot-rule had erst grown in the Brazils, and the brush bristled on the back of a wild boar, were thoughts that never entered my mind. Nor had I ever considered what advances must have been made in science and its applications, and how many workmen must have been employed, before these materials could be brought to their present condition. To me the knife had never presented itself in any other shape than that it now bore. That was the shape in which I had received it; that, too, was the shape in which it had always been useful to me. But now there was a new light thrown upon the matter, and as I am naturally of a curious turn of mind, I began asking the old man some questions, which he answered by giving me a note of admittance to one of the largest cutlery manufactories in the town.

I had not time to inspect that manufactory then, but I have now, and if the reader feels inclined to take a run down to Sheffield, or up to Sheffield, or over to Sheffield, as the case may be, I am at his service, and so is my note of admission; it says on the face of it—“admit So-and-so and friends.” So away we go; it may be down the Great Northern, it may be up the Sheffield, Manchester, and Lincolnshire, and it may be along the Midland; but from whatever point we approach Sheffield, we shall be horrified at the first glimpse we catch of it. I said “first glimpse,” because, by a curious combination of circumstances, all the railways converge upon the dirtiest part of the town. But passing along “t’Wicker,” up “t’Waingate,” by “t’Taan’s Hall,” and into “t’High Street,” we find that Sheffield is not so black as it has been painted. Its street architecture, it is true, is not very imposing, but its streets are well paved and well drained, and there is an air of dingy cleanliness about the town that speaks volumes for the efforts of its inhabitants to subdue the necessary dirt by which they are surrounded. But without pausing to look at the town generally, for our time is short, we will, if you please, press forward to our manufactory.

Passing through the entrance and down a flight of steps, we find ourselves in a courtyard, surrounded by some thirty or forty smithies, roaring and ringing in chorus, and peopled with workmen, stripped and grimy. We enter one. Its occupants are a “maker” and a “striker,” the former being the skilled artisan who fashions the work, the latter being the labourer who submits brute strength to the better guidance of his companion. A long strip of steel passed over a chisel, stuck end up in the anvil, is smitten at a given signal by the striker, who wields a huge hammer, and at every blow, a piece of steel the length of a pocket-knife blade falls into a bowl placed for its reception. And then the bellows are blown, and the sparks and the dust hiss up, and the pieces of steel are thrust into the fire; and, while the striker blows, the maker with his pincers turns the pieces over and over, thrusts them further in, draws them nearer out, and dredges them with sand to intensify the heat, until at length they are ready for forging. That point reached, the striker leaves the bellows, and the maker brings one of the pieces to the anvil; and while the latter turns it over and over, and deals it skilful little blows with a small hammer, the former, armed again with his great “sledge,” comes down upon it with heavy blows, that smash out sparks in all directions. In an incredibly short time the piece of steel assumes a shape somewhat resembling a knife-blade, and being now too cold to yield longer to the hammer, it is again thrust into the fire. One by one the remaining pieces are similarly treated, and that done, they are all drawn out again, to be jammed by a blow from the striker into a mould which completely shapes the whole blade. And so the work goes on—a continual round of heating and re-heating, and turning over and over, and tapping and striking, until the back of the blade is thick, the edge thin, the nick for the thumbnail cut, and the trade-mark stamped. That done, the blade, which has now become soft as iron, is hardened by being thrust red hot into water as often as necessary, and is then ready for the grinder.

Passing on through the ranges of smithies to the grinding shop, and peeping through the open windows on our way, we find one pair of smiths forging scissors, another razors, another files, another forks, and others other articles of cutlery; but as the processes are similar to the one we have witnessed, we need not linger to inspect them. So on we go, over the great boilers, through the engine house, up this pair of stairs and down that, until we come to an aristocratic looking smithy, where there is quite a little colony of comparatively clean workmen. Stopping for a few moments here, we find it is the file-cutting shop. What a marvellous educator practice is! There stand these men, each with an embryo file before him, and each with a chisel in one hand and a hammer in the other; and from morning till night they keep up a ceaseless bewildering “tap, tap, tap,” cutting the “teeth” of their files with a rapidity and precision that know neither pause nor error. There are the lines, every one parallel to the rest, and all of the same width and depth, and yet they were cut at the rate of a hundred and sixty a minute, the workman’s hand and eye being his only guides to accuracy. Look at the file in my knife, cut on both sides and on both edges. There is a man cutting one like it. He began a minute since; he will finish a minute hence.

But we must pass on, for there is a great deal to see yet and time runs short. Hurrying through shop after shop—one filled with workmen, another with workwomen, all resounding with the busy hum of labour, we at length descend into another courtyard surrounded by ranges of shopping whose windows and walls are bespattered with yellow mud flung off the grinding stones that are whirling madly round inside, amidst a steam-driven labyrinth of bands and a grating, grinding, hissing whiz that fairly sets one’s teeth on edge. Entering, we find grindstones and polishing wheels of all sorts and sizes, and behind each a workman bending closely over his work. Some are engaged in “wet-grinding,” and some in “dry-grinding.” The grindstones of the former dip as they revolve, in shallow troughs of water, and bespatter the grinder with yellow mud ; the grindstones of the latter, dipping in no water, fling off a cloud of mingled steel and stone dust, which being drawn off into a large tube, passes away into the courtyard without. It was not always thus. Not many years ago the dry-grinder, whose services are mostly required in the grinding of forks, received that dust into his lungs, and there it settled and grew in bulk until it surely brought about his early death. Even now, I am sorry to say, the evil has not wholly been overcome, but what with air tubes and respirators, the dry-grinder’s life has been much prolonged. Let us hope that in course of time a perfect remedy may be devised, for human life is a heavy price to pay for forks. But the “Grinder’s Asthma” is not the only danger to which these men subject themselves in the earning of their daily bread. It not unfrequently happens that one of the great stones is whirled asunder, and its huge fragments flung in all directions. In the roof of the very building in which we now stand, there is a great hole, rent, as we are told, by the passage of a grinding stone so broken; and while three persons lie at the Infirmary with broken limbs in consequence, the body of a fourth lies in the adjoining shed awaiting the coroner’s inquest. But with that strange disregard of evil contigencies characterising all engaged in dangerous occupations, the survivors work on as calmly as if nothing had happened. One here is grinding his knives, another there his forks; a third is busy upon his razors, and a fourth upon his scissors. But what is going on amidst all that cloud of white dust at the far end of the room yonder ? Passing into the midst of it, we find a saw-mill in miniature, and half-a-dozen miller-like workmen reducing, by its agency, great horns, and bones, and pearl-shells to knife-handles in the rough, which, being passed on to the grinders, are ground into shape, and afterwards polished on the leather-bound wooden polishing wheels. It is astonishing to see what is effected by this gradation of wheels. The article to be ground and polished is passed over wheel after wheel, from the coarsest stone to the closest grained leather, until, if it be a blade, it becomes keen and dazzling, or, if it be a handle, it becomes smooth and glossy as glass. And now having seen the blades and handles separately prepared, let us pass on to see them put together.

“But your knife,” says the reader, “has more than blades and handle; it has a file and a button-hook, a gimlet, a corkscrew, a saw, and I don’t know how many more useful tools.”

Well, we have seen how the file was made. The saw was forged and ground, and its teeth were produced by filing. But I am sure you would not like to go within hearing distance even of the shop where saw-teeth are filed—that dreadful “screech, scrych, skri-ik” of the files is excruciating. How the workmen endure it all their lives I cannot understand. Then, as to the corkscrew—that was simply a piece of tapered steel wire wound two or three times round a small cylinder, and then pulled out lengthwise. The gimblet was a thicker piece of steel wire, grooved at the end, and twisted to a point while hot. The other implements were either too simple in construction to need description, or were not made at such works as these. The putting together of the several parts to form one whole knife is, as may be well imagined, the simplest process of all. One man drills holes through the various materials, another rivets the bone, or horn, or pearl to a thin plate of steel or brass; and a third rivets the handles and blades, and such other accessories as may be necessary, together. The knife is then passed on to the final polishers and burnishers—generally women—and is then ready for the market.

A Sheffield pocket-knife, therefore, passes through many hands before it is complete; there is a division of labour in its manufacture that has its advantages and its disadvantages. The advantages are, that each man, spending a lifetime in one branch of the trade only, is a better workman in that particular branch than another who has divided his attention amongst three or four branches. And thus it comes to pass that Sheffield cutlers are famous, above all others who do not make a similar division of labour, for the excellency of their manufactures. But out of this same division of labour there arises a grievous evil. Every class of workman is necessary to the making of a knife. If the drillers cease to drill, the knife cannot be made; if the strikers cease to strike, the same result follows. And thus it comes to pass that the trade of Sheffield is crippled by a trades-union tyranny. The workmen, knowing their strength, have trades-unions for each branch of the trade. If the makers at a particular manufactory feel aggrieved they “strike,” and the works are stopped till the master comes to terms, the men on strike being supported meanwhile by their brother makers at other manufactories. If a few unhappy makers chancing not to belong to the union remain at work, another branch of the trade “strikes,” and it not unfrequently happens that the non-unionists find their houses half blown up at night by some “infernal machine” dropped down their cellars. The punishment devised for dry-grinders being non-unionists or “knobsticks,” as they are called, is gunpowder, which, being placed under their grindstones at night, explodes with the first spark of labour in the morning, and blinds or maims the workman. Such outrages are very dreadful, but they are the price Sheffield pays for her superiority in the manufacture of edge-tools; and until education shall teach her workmen better, there is little hope that her social life will be worthy her commercial greatness.

J. L.