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 A history of the Phoenix Works

 

My scythe and hammer lies reclin’d

My bellows too have lost their wind

My iron is spent, my steel is gone

My scythes are set, my work is done

My fires extinct, my forge decay’d

My body in the dust is laid

 

 I came across the above verse, written in my Father’s handwriting, on a slip of paper which he had used as a bookmark, in a book titled “Sheffield Its Story and its Achievements” by Mary Walton. This book was one of several passed down to me on his death in 1968. He had also written on the piece of paper “Epitaph, Believed to be in Norton Churchyard”. Norton Church is less than three miles from Ridgeway.

The sentiments expressed in this verse, applying to that one single scythe maker,  can now be applied to an entire scythe and sickle  industry. This once thriving industry was one in which Ridgeway and its neighbouring villages were pre-eminent for several hundred years. Willis Fox, in his excellent book “Ridgeway and Its Industries” states that the earliest recorded date of the presence of a scythe smith, John Parker of Norton, was in 1459.  Ridgeway’s later dominance, can be clearly demonstrated from a list of scythe and sickle makers, together with their locations and trade marks in “Directory of Sheffield including manufacturers of adjacent villages” compiled and printed by Gales & Martin of Sheffield in 1787, extracts of which are shown below. Of the 31 sicklesmiths listed, 25 (80%) are located within a 3 mile radius of Ridgeway.

 

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In a similar vein, Mary Walton, makes an intriguing comment in her book “but there were more smiths and cutlers, in early times in Handsworth than in Sheffield”.

Within Ridgeway itself, the family firm of Hutton & Co. was one of the major producers and there cannot be many Ridgeway families who have not, at some time or other, depended on this company for their livelihood, none more so than my own.

Over the years, the Company developed its business at several locations in the area, but is perhaps best known for its activities at the Phoenix Works. The photograph here shows the Phoenix Works before 1899 with the 1822 extension built by Thomas & Joseph Hutton marked with a commemorative stone (shown in detail). Another section extracted from the photograph indicates the employment of women and children.

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The earlier part of this brief history about the Phoenix Works draws heavily on notes made by my Father, Joseph Edward Rippon, about four years after he became Works Manager in 1933.

From Frank Fisher's collection.

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The partnership of the brothers Joseph and Ezra Hutton formed in 1791, ten years after Ezra and his wife Mary had Lion House built. Their workshop premises were nearby and called the Palais Royal, later to become the Queen’s Head public house. During the two years 1794 and 1795 the combined output of scythes and sickles was approximately 8,400 items. Ezra died in1802 and part of the work was moved to the site of the Phoenix Works on High Lane before work on the existing building started in 1822. The High Lane location had the advantage of being opposite an open cast mine (shown in the photograph on the left) from which coal to fuel the steam boilers was readily available. During the first two years in the new building, the combined output had increased to a total of 50,500 items but sadly, the remaining partner Joseph died in 1823 when the new building was just completed.

Joseph’s two nephews, Thomas and Joseph (Ezra’s sons) took over and production continued to expand. The marriage of Thomas to his cousin Ann Slagg enabled the Huttons to acquire what was to become their most well known trade mark, BY, which can be seen from the list of early marks, to have belonged to Thomas Slagg of  Ford. During the two years 1825 and 1826, orders from the South East of England, Sheffield District, Ireland and Scotland reached over 102,000 with the last two markets absorbing about two thirds of this total. The workforce required to produce this quantity in 1826 numbered 33 plus grinders, about 40 in all. This same year, Joseph Hutton died.

Fortunately the Wages Book for the period March 29th 1828 to November 19th 1831 still exists, and is shown in this photograph alongside a rather elegant brass candlestick, once used as a source of lighting in the Phoenix Works office.

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This book of 90 pages lists the fortnightly payments made to each individual member of the workforce, and typical extracts can be viewed below.

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Although the grinders are only occasionally referred to by name, the common practice was to refer to them collectively, sometimes with location:

25th July 1829  

Never Fear Grinders £1/9/2

8th August 1829   Chapel Wheel grinders as p. Bill £4/2/-

 

The entry of the Chapel Wheel payment is interesting, as this appears to be the only evidence that Ridgeway scythe & sickle makers used this wheel in Eckington. Many single payments in the book covered the work of two family members, or more:

 

25th July 1829  

Sarah Godly and Daughter 4/7  N.Rippon 2/6 £-/7/1

25th July 1829   George Rippon & Mother £1/11/6

 and some payments appear to cover work elsewhere:

13th September 1828   

Martha Booth   Harvesting  9¾  days @ 1/- £-/9/9

After Joseph’s death, Thomas was left to continue alone and expanded the business by first taking over the Skelper Dam and Works from the Mullins Brothers and then the Birley Hay Works a year later in 1836. The additional facilities at Birley Hay, enabled the production of the patent Crown Scythe to be transferred from the Phoenix Works.

Thomas now formed a partnership with his son John Jermyn and nephew Edward Newton in 1845, thus changing the company name to Hutton & Newton. One of the first things which they did, was to buy the Bird’s Eye trade mark for £250 from Mark Webster, because it had a high reputation in Poland. Some Polish made tools actually  carried counterfeit Hutton marks. Later, in 1881, another Mark Webster mark MW was registered with the Trade Mark Protection Society by Hutton & Co. This mark had already been used by the Company on tools exported to Russia.

Although Thomas Hutton died in 1849, the Company continued to trade as Hutton & Newton throughout the mid 19th Century, the age of the industrial exhibitions. There was the 1851 Great Exhibition of the Works of  Industry of all Nations in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, followed by the Great Industrial Exhibition in Dublin in 1853 and The Universal Exhibition of Agricultural and Industrial Products in Paris in 1855. Correspondence relating to two of these is shown below.

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Documentary evidence exists to show that Hutton & Newton exhibited some of its products at the first two and  although they were sent initial information by the Board of Trade about the Paris exhibition, there is no evidence to indicate their attendance. In later years, they participated in exhibitions and trade fairs around the world, Sydney 1879, Cape Town 1904-5, Rio de Janeiro 1922-3 and the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924.

A very detailed inventory was carried out at the Phoenix Works, and the Skelper and Birley Hay Wheels in 1861, with items listed by room or workshop, with some of the workshops identified by the name of the occupier. The total value of the items being £432/16/6. Extracts from the inventory can be seen below.

From Frank Fisher's collection

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One can feel certain that a few years later, an initial  feeling of shock, followed by  sympathy, was felt by the workers at the Skelper, Birley Hay and other wheels along the Moss Valley  when the news arrived of the terrible fate of their fellow tilt hammer workers and grinders at wheels along the Rivers Loxley and Don. At almost exactly midnight of the 11th - 12th March 1864, the dam holding back the Bradfield reservoir burst. The force of the escaping waters not only killed sleeping inhabitants and workers who were working through the night but completely washed away several wheels and  their buildings. The contemporary record referring to the Rowell Bridge Wheel for example, states “The grinding wheel of Messrs. Darwin and Oates was completely swept away, not one stone being left upon another to mark its position”. The death toll reached 240, several bodies being recovered at Doncaster, 27 miles away and understandably, 35 were impossible to identify. Workers along the Moss Valley must have felt fortunate that their wheels couldn’t suffer a similar fate, although on a much smaller scale, a message chalked on an oak beam at the Phoenix Works, tells us that  “The Skelper Dam burst its banks on 28th January 1809”, alongside it, an unrelated but interesting message “On May 9th May 1853 there was a foot of snow at Ridgeway”.     

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The exact date of the end of the Hutton & Newton company name is not known but when John Jermyn Hutton died in 1867, the business was carried on by his widow and Trustees, until his son, also called John Jermyn, was old enough to take over in 1883 and it is under this enterprising member of the family that a program of modernisation really began. Up until this time the grinding work had been carried out at a variety of local wheels, among them Skelper, Never Fear, Chapel, Birley Hay and Birley Moor. Although the latter two wheels share similar names, they are two and a half miles apart as the crow flies and much further by road. The Birley Moor site actually consisted of two wheels, the Upper Sickle Wheel and the Lower Sickle or Nether Wheel approximately 400 yards apart. They were both jointly owned by the Huttons of Ridgeway  and the Staniforths of Hackenthorpe.

These wheels were powered by water from the Shire Brook, sometimes called the County Brook, this now relatively insignificant but once very important brook, forming part of the boundary, in Saxon times between the kingdoms of Mercia and Northumbria, later between Derbyshire and Yorkshire and also between the ecclesiastical provinces of York and Canterbury. First rising in the high ground near Gleadless Town End, initially flowing underground near The Red Lion public house it then flows eastward through Hollins End and Birley Vale to join the River Rother near Beighton. The Birley Moor wheels were located near to Normanton Spring, the Lower wheel closing down about 1887 and the Upper wheel about 1890.

These closures almost certainly resulted from the introduction of steam power at the Phoenix Works in 1885, the same year that the Old Wheel and Haft Turning Chamber was built. The first boiler was of the vertical type which was replaced ten years later with a horizontal model and the vertical boiler retained for use at Birley Hay. The commissioning of the new boiler led to the following letter from “The Engine, Boiler and Employers Liability Insurance Company Ltd”.

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The turn of the century saw another period of expansion, with the machine shop being built in 1902, a chamber above the Old Wheel in 1905 and the grinding wheel shop in 1910-11. These changes were to satisfy the increase in sales, particularly to South America and Mexico. This required extension to the land in 1910 and further extensions were to follow in 1921.

The trade mark “RK” of J.Haslam & Sons was purchased in 1911.

In the run up to the First World War, trade had its ups and downs but once the war had started, foreign countries could no longer use mainland Europe as a source of sickles and a great demand for British tools developed.

During the War, Mr. J. G. J. Hutton, the son of the head of the Company, joined the army and gained a commission with the 6th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, the same regiment which several young men of the village joined. Eighteen of these, including brothers, sadly did not return.

The pre-war demand continued for two or three years after the war was over and in 1919, the turning of handles was completely mechanised. In order to continue to reduce the cost of production, the replacement of steam power by that of a suction gas plant and gas engine for driving the grinding wheels was carried out in 1921.

For the next five years or so, trade fell with few improvements being undertaken, when the one person who had been responsible for the earlier extensive progress, John Jermyn Hutton, died on March 30th 1927. The funeral was held on Sunday 3rd April in the village church where workmen had worked night and day since Mr. Hutton’s death, to build a new vault, as the original family vault was full. Beginning at The Newlands, the funeral cortege passed Kent House where it was joined by representatives of various local organisations. The service itself was brief and no hymns were sung. Within the church itself, all 600 seats were occupied with approximately 200 mourners standing at the rear. Outside another 200-300 people assembled, making it almost certainly, the largest funeral that the village had seen.

Mr. Hutton was replaced as Head of the firm by his son and partner, Joseph Gilbert Jermyn Hutton who now sought to maintain the firm’s earlier progress by not only continuing to carry out improvements which his Father had planned, but also taking over the Mosborough firm of Thomas Bolsover.

Steam power in the machine shop was replaced by oil power in 1928 and consequently seven years later, the obsolete boiler was removed together with what had become a familiar landmark, the tall chimney, which can be seen below in the 1920s artist's impression of a bird's eye view of the Works. Improvements continued throughout 1937, when the suction plant was removed and its engine converted to run on crude oil.

From Frank Fisher's collection

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In the Sheffield Telegraph of the 24th May 1935, an article had appeared about the Birley Hay Works and led with the headline “Where the Tilt Hammer is Still Supreme”. Sadly, this was to be short lived, when almost exactly three years later, the main drive shaft fractured and the cost of considerable changes to satisfy Factory Act requirements, led to plans being drawn up for the transfer of production back to the Phoenix Works where pneumatic hammers were installed for the drawing of scythe backs.

 

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The press article included two photographs (shown above), one showing furnace man Fred Whitaker with forger Leonard Nicholson working at one of the tilt hammers and one showing James F. Wall.  A plan of the tilt hammer workshop is shown in Keith Renshaw’s article about the history of Birley Hay, where there is also a mention of Jim Wall.

In his article, Keith also mentions  that the anvils at Birley Hay were seated on a bed of locally grown heather. Another comment about the seating of anvils appears in the book “Memories of a Sheffield Toolmaker” by Ashley Iles “it must be set in horse manure. Anything but horse manure will set solid and the percussion (unable to dissipate through the anvil) will return up the hammer shaft, in time causing paralysis”. In my research for this article, I haven’t come across any other mention of paralysis and therefore we must congratulate the smiths of Ford and Ridgeway upon discovering a much more user friendly material.

A letter to Mr.Fisher at Birley Hay dated 27th September 1937, signed by my Father, lists the prices to be paid to the grinders there. These new prices can be compared to those applying 20 years earlier in January 1917 and show an average increase of 27%. Oddly, one size, 24-26 inches remaining the same.

 

From Frank Fisher's collection

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 Workmen at Birley Hay occasionally joined the workmen at the Phoenix Works for group photographs, as shown below.

From Frank Fisher's collection

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This photograph, in which almost all of the men can be identified, was taken before 1933 and includes the owner Mr. Gilbert Hutton together with my Grandfather, Mr. Walter Rippon, the then Company Secretary. Among the workmen standing against the wall are my Father, second from left and my Uncle George, fifth from left, standing at the junction of the wall and window.

Some of the workmen appear in another earlier photograph, shown below, which does not include members of the management. My Father is the young man in the centre of the front row, who joined the Company in 1915 at the age of 14 years, which, from his appearance, would date the photograph then or one or two years later.

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My Grandfather, Mr. Walter Rippon lived in Lion House into which he kindly invited members of the Phoenix workforce and other members of the village, to come and listen to radio commentaries of football matches on one of the few radio sets in the village. A photograph, taken in Lion House shows the men surrounding a table upon which is a model of a football pitch divided into numbered squares: A second commentator would call out the number of the square where play was taking place and one of the men would point to the relevant square using a stick.

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Many years later, possibly as part of the 1953 Coronation celebrations, the Phoenix Workforce raised a football team to play against a team from the village on the ground near Kent House:

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This match was attended by Mrs. Hutton and Mr. Peter Clegg, the managing director who had taken over the running of the firm upon the death of his uncle, Mr. Gilbert Hutton in 1947. Mr. Clegg had earlier led a very distinguished career in the Army winning a Military Cross at Alamein in 1942 and second one at Arnhem in 1944.

 As part as Village Coronation celebrations in 1937 and 1953, what was known as the “Phoenix Big Bang” took place. This involved the firing of a small canon, pointing towards the Village, from the rear of the Phoenix Works near the Tedding House. In May 1937 the Big Bang was fired by Harry Kirkby and Tom Renshaw.

Also at the rear of the Works was the first floor warehouse from which bales of goods were lowered by pulley onto lorries for shipment abroad:

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All scythes and sickles were exported to such widespread destinations as, South Africa, Venezuela, Tonga, Mauritius, Malawi and Newfoundland. Exports to Kenya in 1952, especially those of the machete type, were restricted due to a government request, as they were being used by the Kikuyu tribesmen during the Mau Mau uprising, to kill white settlers.

In order for purchasers to make best use of the scythe, the Company published a small booklet describing the fitting, cutting and sharpening of their number 10 and number 15 riveted scythe. The booklet is shown below and includes photographs of James Fisher demonstrating the various actions.

From Frank Fisher's collection

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Another small booklet published in the early twenties, gives a brief history of the Company and the ethos behind the BY “Best Yet” corporate mark. The booklet describes the relationship of the workforce to the firm as being most happy and that some of the workmen are the fourth generation of families who have worked all of their lives for the firm. The workforce was later described in a press interview in May 1976 when Mr. Clegg said “This is a team effort. Our men are versatile. We don’t carry anybody at our works and if they have a problem, I’m always around”. Mr. Clegg’s personal assistant at this time was Stephen Johnson and Stephen’s brother Frank was one of the forgemen.

After the shutdown of the sickle works in Conisborough, the Phoenix Works became the only remaining scythe and sickle works in Britain until 1988 when, due to the retirement of the existing directors, the edge tool business was put on the market and the Hutton name taken over by Hand Tools of Dronfield. The business now operates as “Sorby Hutton” based in Sheffield. The buildings themselves became converted for residential use.

In the same year that the Phoenix Works closed down, 1988, my own employer, St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School, merged with Imperial College. As a result of this merger, I had to attend various committee meetings there. The distance between the two sites could be easily covered with a 30 minute walk across Kensington Gardens, I would enter the park on the north side and walk straight across to the Albert Memorial on the south side. As I went up and down the steps at the base of the Memorial, I was often reminded of a letter sent to Hutton & Newton at the Phoenix Works from the Lord Mayor of London, Thomas Challis, requesting financial support towards its cost. The letter included examples of early donations e.g. Isambard Kingdom Brunel gave £50 and a Professor Faraday £10. I have not managed to find out if any contribution was sent from the Phoenix Works.

In 1990, during an evening visit to an art exhibition in the Consort Gallery at Imperial College, a colleague introduced me to a someone he described as “Archivist to the `1851’ Exhibition” which occupied offices in the same building. During the conversation, I mentioned that I had several papers relating to the 1851 Exhibition which had been originally sent to a company which had exhibited there, called Hutton & Newton, where my family had worked for several generations. She asked if she could see them and I later took them along to the Archive Office where she explained that the reason she was interested was that although the archive had lots of examples of paperwork which had been sent out to exhibitors for completion and return, they had none which would have been retained. There and then I decided that the best thing to do was to donate them to the archive. A week or so later I received a letter of thanks saying “It is the first time we have received a donation of this kind: it is a valuable donation in itself and an intriguing complement to the official archive”.

The Phoenix Works may have closed down, but it is satisfying to know that a unique record of its expertise, albeit of a relatively brief period in its 166 year history, is safely lodged in one of the most prestigious archives of our Nation’s industrial heritage.  

Tony Rippon

August 2008


References:

Sheffield Its Story and its Achievements by Mary Walton, 2nd Ed., 1949. Pub. The Sheffield Telegraph & Star Ltd.

Ridgeway and its Industries by Willis Fox, 1950

Twentieth Century Ridgeway Remembered by Jack Hambleton, 1997. Printed by Jaks Graphic Design & Print, Sheffield.

A Directory of Sheffield. Pub. Gales & Martin 1787. Reprinted in facsimile and published by Pawson & Brailsford. Sheffield, 1889. A more recent facsimile, 2004, has been published by the Tool & Trade History Society.

Memories of a Sheffield Tool Maker by Ashley Iles. Pub. The Astragal Press, New Jersey, USA, 1993.

A Complete History of The Great Flood at Sheffield by Samuel Harrison. Pub. S. Harrison, “Sheffield Times” Office, 1864. Reprinted 1898 by Independent Press Ltd. Sheffield.

History in the Shire Brook Valley. Leaflet pub. Sheffield City Council, Parks, Woodlands and Countryside Department.

 

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