#Fake Firm, #Fine razor.
Eric Gilroy traces the history of one special razor, three Sheffield families and one, really expensive lawsuit.
This is another ‘interesting’ razor carefully restored by Huw. At first sight, it looks like another old ‘Rodgers razor’, but upon closer inspection one can see that it was made by George Rodgers and the Trademark is not the usual Joseph Rodgers one. What is this all about?
So, Huw asked me to try to find its story. What I discovered was a tale of intrigue, a fake company, and an expensive law suit linking three Victorian Sheffield families – John Nowills, Joseph Rodgers and John Rodgers.
The Nowill family
The earliest mention of this well-known Sheffield cutlery manufacturing family in the records of the The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire dates as far back as 27 April 1700 when Thomas Nowill became a Freeman after a ten year apprenticeship, and was then able to register his own mark. In 1825, Thomas Nowill (1758-1836), a descendant of the founder, retired and left his business of Thomas Nowill & Co to his sons William (1786-1856) and John (1788-1850). In 1839, the two brothers separated their business interests: William setting up in Rockinham Street; John continued with his sons John, Henry, Thomas and Edward, in Meadow Street, but soon relocated to Scotland Street, trading as John Nowill & Sons.
John Nowill (snr) retired from the business in 1847, possibly due to an impending scandal (more later). He died three years later on 24 October 1850.
John Nowill (snr) retires - The London Gazette 6 November 1847
Joseph Rodgers was a large and very well-respected cutlery manufacturer in Sheffield, England, founded by John Rodgers in 1724. On 6 May 1846 they brought a successful injunction (costing them the equivalent of £200,000 today) against the brothers John and William Nowill for alleged breach of their trademark. They stated that, the Nowills had, previously, agreed to pay an employee, William Rodgers, for the use of his surname on their own cutlery so that it could be mistaken for (the possibly finer) Joseph Rodgers’ work. William Rodgers was the son of a John Rodgers – no relation to Joseph Rodgers.
In the early 1830s there was a John Rodgers registered in Whites 1833 & 1837 History & Directory of Sheffield as a table knife maker and beerhouse owner at 2 Spitalfields.
Probably John Rodgers’ beerhouse in Nursery Street, Sheffield, since renamed The Harlequin
John had three sons – William, George and Samuel. When John was made bankrupt in 1839, George took over the two hearths from his father and became a table blade forger (the maker of this razor). William was a penknife blade grinder working for the Nowills. The third brother, Samuel, took over the beerhouse and also did a bit of scissor grinding.
Until the mid 20th century there were men who travelled all around the country sharpening scissors, edge tools etc. Some also replaced broken scales on straight razors
In the Joseph Rodgers law suit, it was stated that in June 1842 the Nowills took a workshop in Nursery Street Sheffield in the name of "John Rodgers & Sons," but John Rodgers’ son William was alone answerable for the rent, his father John and brothers George and Samuel Rodgers had no business interest in the shop. Certainly, no manufacturing was carried out there, it was just a ‘front’ for the imaginary firm of John Rogers and Sons.
In spite of this injunction, the ‘fictitious’ firm of John Rodgers & Sons was up and running again by 1853. Joseph Rodgers & Sons again sought justice in the courts, but the ruling went against them this time. The matter finally came to an end in 1861 when Joseph Rodgers & Sons bought out John Rodgers & Sons and re-named it Joseph Rodgers & Co.
John’s son, George Rodgers (it is believed that he was born in 1815) was the only bona-fide manufacturer of cutlery in his family. In White’s Directory of 1837 & 1849 he was registered as a tableknife cutler in 54 Lambert Street, Sheffield, where he also lived with his wife Mary. In 1851 he had his wife’s brother, Joseph Holland aged 19, as an apprentice and employed a journeyman file grinder, Joseph Atkins aged 28.
George was not an apprenticed cutler and therefore could not register his own trademark as a Freeman. Instead, he used the monarch’s mark VR (Victoria Regina) and Crown symbol, as did many other smaller cutlers of the Victorian era.
George Rodgers’ business survived the Nowills’ scandal, clearly marking his blades with his name, and in 1852 he was registered as a spring knife, razor, &c. manufacturer at 14 Edward Street; living at 150 Broad lane, Sheffield. Later the firm became George Rodgers & Co. and was registered as a table and spring knife, razor, etc. manufacturers of 13 Norfolk lane; with George living at 36 Arundel Street Sheffield.
As this razor only bears the stamp of George Rodgers it dates from about 1840 to 1855 – looking at the style it was most probably made in the early 1840s.
Whilst researching John Rodgers – beerhouse owner, I came across this interesting article on Victorian beer licensing:
The Government of the 1820s and 1830s were keen to promote beer drinking instead of spirits, especially gin. Widespread drunkenness through gin consumption was believed to be detrimental to the working class and this had led to the rise of the Temperance Society which campaigned for closure of the 'gin shops'. The former drink of the working man: beer, was taxed which meant the cost of beer could be prohibitive to the working classes despite that fact that beer was safer to drink than water. Water at this time was untreated and dangerous to drink.
The Beerhouse Act (1 Will. IV, c.64 1830) was introduced by the Duke of Wellington's Tory government. It abolished the beer tax, extended the opening hours of licensed public houses, taverns and alehouses to 18 hours a day. Previously it was 15 hours. These were subject to the control of the local justices and a license was required.
The Act also introduced the Beerhouse and Beershops. Premises which could sell only beer. The opening hours could be from 4am to 10pm. For a small fee of 2 guineas payable to the local excise officer, anyone could brew and sell beer. The excise licence would state whether the beer could be consumed on the premises (beerhouse) or as off-sales only (beershop). Supervision of these establishments by local justices was severely curtailed which led to many local complaints by magistrates and local gentry keen to control the working classes in their area.
Within a few months over 24,000 beerhouse excise licenses were granted. The beerhouses provided not only beer, but food, games and some even lodging. They were also known by the name 'small beer' or 'Tom and Jerry' shops. In villages and towns many shopkeepers opened their own beershop and sold beer alongside their shop wares. Beer would be brewed on the premises or purchased from brewers.
Many beerhouses became the haunt of criminals, prostitutes and some even became brothels. Concern over law and order resulted in the excise fee being raised to 3 guineas and property qualifications introduced. But it was not until the Wine and Beer House Act of 1869 that a change in the law brought licensing of the beerhouses back under the control of the local justices. Many then closed, or were purchased by breweries and changed to fully licensed public houses.
So, what is the outcome of this strange tale?
Despite Royal recognition and overseas trade, the company of Joseph Rodgers & Sons could not escape the decline of Sheffield's cutlery industry. In the late 1900’s the firm endured a tumultuous time. There were a number of changes in ownership, one of which in 1971 even brought it together with its once fierce competitor, George Wostenholm. The Egginton Group bought the rights to the name and trademarks in 1986 which meant that fine Joseph Rodgers knives would continue to be produced in Sheffield, the home of cutlery.
John Nowill & Sons continued until 1940s. Despite surviving the difficult interwar years, the works were badly damaged in an air raid (possibly December 1940) and the company was sold to F.E. & J.R. Hopkinson in 1947, and later acquired by J. Adams Ltd.
George Rodgers only ever employed about eight workers at the most. It is not known when the firm actually closed, but records of the firm cease in the 1860s and the census of 1871 shows George as retired and living at 28 Robertshaw Street in Sheffield with his wife Mary. He had two children Sarah (1846-1898) and Joseph (1862-1951).
It is believed that George died in 1888.