Every so often I find a straight razor made by a mystery maker. In my experience, they are usually finely made razors too, which makes the lack of information about their makers even more frustrating. Razors such as these don't deserve their anonymity, forgotten in a world of more familiar makers.
In an age when so much untrustworthy information is available, how can light be shed on the history of the razors and their manufacturers?
I usually turn to my friend Eric, who not only has a great eye for a fine razor, but is probably the best historian of English straight razors in the world. He never ceases to amaze me with his research. Eric's collection of antique straight razors is also a joy to behold. I have had the pleasure of maintaining and restoring some of them too.
So sit back and enjoy the story of how the history of a razor's manufacturer was discovered. A little history from a mystery. Enjoy.
This classic rags-to-riches story came to light when I was researching one of Huw’s ‘mystery razors’. Here's the razor.
The rare Gilpin razor
It transpired that the very rare razor was made by William Gilpin in the early 1820s, when George IV was king of England. The razor was probably made under the direction of Cornelius Whitehouse – an accomplished sword smith. This is William’s story.
William Gilpin was born on 22 Feb 1755, to Thomas and Hannah who ran a butcher’s shop and nearby The Red Cow Inn at 19 Dudley Street, Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, England.
At the age of 14, William Gilpin became apprenticed to a Mr Fieldhouse (a shell auger maker, established 1763). Fieldhouse frequented the Red Cow and was well known to William’s father - who would have paid Fieldhouse a large sum of money to take William as an apprentice.
In those days, apprentices lived with their Master. Fieldhouse had a little smithy at the back of his house in Hollow Lane, Wolverhampton - making tools and shell augers for the shipwrights in his Majesty's dockyards in London. The only edge tool makers in Wolverhampton in those days were blacksmiths, who confined their operations mainly to agricultural implements.
At some stage, Fieldhouse decided that it would be more profitable to make his augers nearer to the dockyards that needed them, and therefore moved to London, taking William with him. Here William was to discover the huge variety of edge tools used in shipbuilding, and the future potential for a lucrative business of his own.
William completed his apprenticeship at the age of 21 and returned to the Red Cow to start his own smithy. So, his father cleared out his few pigs from the barn at the back of the inn, and William set up his forge there, trading as Wm Gilpin & Co. He almost certainly bought Fieldhouse’s auger business – together with the lucrative Government contracts. As orders increased he employed Edward Smith a horse nail maker by trade, but who’s family had been making augers for many years elsewhere in Staffordshire.
On 6 May 1784 William married Jane Bradney (1761 – 1817). Jane’s father George had long frequented the Red Cow and was well known to William’s father, who probably made the match. Initially, George Bradney was a 'coal higgler,' – someone who buys coal at the pit and sells it around the houses for domestic use. But in recent years he had become a very successful and wealthy gentleman farmer and cattle dealer in the Cannock area. He thought Jane had married beneath herself, and was at first a reluctant father-in-law to William who was working in a converted pig-sty!
As work increased more space was needed and so, in 1786, William bought an existing smithy in London Row, Wolverhampton, where he started his first rudimentary edge tool works. Here he never had more than three hearths; he used one, Edward Smith another and an apprentice, Morgan, the third.
Hearths comprised a bellows and hot bed of coals, and were used to heat steel to enable it to be forged (hammered) into the required shape. The steel was then ground on a rotating abrasive wheel to give it a cutting edge.
And now William’s genius began to show, that would eventually found a long standing and wealthy dynasty. Because of limited space at his Red Cow workshop he had been paying others to finish off the grinding of his edge tools – which naturally reduced his profit. With his larger workshop he now had a gin horse to power a grinding wheel (steam then not having been thought of for that purpose, and no water power being available).
Typical ‘gin horse’ supplying power to a workshop.
But, soon William realised that he needed water power to drive the grinding wheel faster and thereby improve the quality and speed of his grinding, and he also needed more space to expand his growing business.
In 1790, Jane’s father bought a disused water powered mill called Wedges Mills near Cannock. This was formerly a Blade Mill (for making edge tools), and included two acres of land. Corn had last been ground there but edge tools had been produced there in the past. He initially left it vacant, being undecided what to do with it.
In 1792 The Wyrley and Essington Canal was inaugurated by an act of Parliament which received the Royal Assent on 30 April 1792, entitled "An Act for making and maintaining a navigable Canal from, or from near, Wyrley Bank, in the county of Stafford, to communicate with the Birmingham and Birmingham and Fazeley Canal, at or near the town of Wolverhampton”. This opened up the whole area around Wedges Mills to industry, as raw materials could now be brought in and finished goods could be moved more quickly and efficiently to where they were needed.
As the canal neared completion in 1794, Jane’s father gave William, and William’s son George Bradney Gilpin (1785 – 1841), his land and property at Wedges Mills. William moved his business there and eventually built a grand house at nearby Longford (now a 'Beefeater Restaurant'). This was to be the Giplin family home for many years.
William also built an extension from the new canal directly to his works at Wedges Mills to supply it with coal, iron and limestone – so that he could produce his own steel, rather than buy it. Tramways led from the basin to the mill. The Gilpin family rented the land for the basin from 'Squire' Charles, of Pelsall Hall, into the 1860s. The canal however did not last very long, and was largely derelict by the 1840s and abandoned ten years later due to improving road and rail transport becoming available in the area. Wedges Mills gave William the space to expand his business, making a huge variety of edge tools – which are still prized today for their quality.
Below is a photograph of Gilpin’s basin and works at Wedges Mills.
As the works expanded, William took on many more workers and built cottages to rent to them.
The row of three-storey terraced cottages that William built; it was pulled down in the 1950s.
During this time, William was buying his coal for the works mostly at the nearest coalfield at Essington Wood. But he realised that, all about Wyrley, coal could be mined and he came to the conclusion that the richest fields were on the land that his neighbour, farmer Brown, owned at Wyrley. So, he rented some of the land, and formed his own mining company, and soon William had some thirty miners at work. He then opened a large wharf on the canal at nearby Churchbridge, which found a profitable market for coal in the more immediate neighbourhood.
As with the coal, William initially bought his iron, generally patronising the works at Rugeley, but he decided to be his own iron master so that he could supply his own works and cut out the middle man. So, in 1806, he opened a second larger works at Churchbridge in Great Wyrley, 1 mile east of Wedges Mills. This was situated opposite his coal wharf, and soon he had a forge, a tilt hammer, rolling and grinding mills, and furnaces for converting and refining iron into steel. This also supplied steel to his works at Wedges Mills for working up into edge tools.
By 1820, William had a very large and still growing business and decided to move his main operation to Churchbridge. It was at this point that the 25 year old Cornelius Whitehouse joined the firm, bringing with him invaluable expertise in the manufacture of fine quality swords.
Cornelius (1795 – 1883) was born in Oldbury and his father Edward was an expert sword maker, producing high quality swords at a time of high demand during the Napoleonic Wars. Cornelius and his brother worked for their father in his Birmingham workshop and became expert sword makers and gunsmiths in their own right. Cornelius became a recognised craftsman and was even offered a job as a Government sword inspector, but turned it down. After the defeat of Napoleon, the demand for guns and swords naturally declined and so the Whitehouse family moved to Wyrley to work for William at Edges Mills.
Interestingly, for a short period, some of the firm’s tools were stamped Gilpin & Whitehouse. William Gilpin's eldest son, George, had just returned from time he had spent on his own initiative improving his knowledge of edge tool making in other parts of the country, notably with a large and flourishing firm in Liverpool.
Cornelius did not work for William very long and moved to Wednesbury Forge in 1824 to work for Edward Elwell making edge tools. He eventually opened his own works in Churchbridge and continued in the metal wares industry for the rest of his life, notably making high quality iron and steel tubing.
In the 1820s and 1830s the Gilpin empire continued to grow and William even opened two pubs in Churchbridge (the Red Cow – in memory of his father’s pub in Wolverhampton, and the Robin Hood) and also a brewhouse on the Walsall Road. These pubs were conveniently located opposite the Mill gates and enabled William to brew and sell beer to his employees (he may well have paid his employees partly in tokens that could only be used in William’s establishments).
In 1834 William died on a business trip to Birmingham, and his eldest son George Bradney Gilpin took over the business. But, only seven years later George died, his son Bernard (1824 – 1902, later to become a County magistrate) and William’s son Frederick Henry (1804 – 1887) jointly took over the business.
The family continued to run the business for more than forty years until, in 1885, the Churchbridge and Wedges Mills works were closed and work focused on a sister company W. Gilpin Senr & co, at Halesowen.
From the Chase Courier (August 1885):
The following year Ernest Wildman Burnett (the husband of Fanny Adelaide Gilpin - Bernard’s daughter), bought the business, together with the Red Cow and Robin Hood inns. And here the family involvement in the business ceased.
William Gilpin,Senr.,& Co.(Tools ) became a limited company on 20 December 1922 and finally ceased production in the 1980’s, and was eventually liquidated on 5 Dec 2014.
An interesting receipt of the time. Notice the “Established in 1763” this was when William would have been 8, and so it probably refers to the business of Fieldhouse.
From a converted pig sty in the 18th century, to a huge company selling edge tools all over the world into 21st century – didn’t the boy do well?
Is this razor the only Gilpin razor in use today?
So, not all the great English razors were made in Sheffield! Thanks to Eric Gilroy for the article and Mr Stuart Linford for photographs of the Gilpin razor.