company history
The history and development of Robert Sorby are closely intertwined with those of its home city of Sheffield. Some of the earliest history has become clouded with the passing of time but there are sufficient pointers to give an impression of how the business developed from a small workshop in the centre of Sheffield to one of the leading manufacturers of its kind today.
Since the sixteenth century high quality cutlery has been the cornerstone of Sheffield's international renown. When the earliest cutlers, who were local farmers, started out, they had abundant natural resources on their doorsteps.
Most critical is that Sheffield sits to the east of the Pennine hills from which run five fast flowing rivers into the city. These were dammed and water-wheels erected to create the earliest form of power known to the cutlers. At one time there were as many as 150 water-wheels in the area. Only a handful can be seen today.
They had other resources closeby. Local gritstone quarries produced grindstones, whilst there were abundant deposits of coal and iron ore in the region. All of these were the ingredients which enabled the cutlers to set up in business.
Thirteenth century tax returns confirm the earliest presence of cutlers in Sheffield. Their renown spread and in his fourteenth century epic poem, "The Canterbury Tales", the poet Geoffrey Chaucer refers to "a Sheffield thwithel". This was a short-bladed handy knife commonly used at the time. The word "twithel" no doubt has the same root as the current word "whittle".
In those days cutlery was a competitive business with rival groups in London, and York all fighting for the same business. Not unnaturally this gave rise to some less than ethical deeds. One of Sheffield's problems was that it focused almost exclusively on lower quality cutlery.
The cutlers themselves operated in the form of a guild with control exercised by the lord of the manor. But the death of Lord Shrewsbury without a successor in 1616 meant this system fell into disrepute.
By the early seventeenth century cutlery was only really available from Sheffield or London, but intense rivalry continued to exist. The cutlers of Sheffield therefore endeavoured to create a code of conduct which would serve to improve quality standards and place their product ahead of their competitors.
The Sorby family - or Sorsbie or Sorsby as it was variously known - played a key role in that development. Way back in 1624 - just after the Pilgrim Fathers had arrived in the New World - the Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire was formed by Act of Parliament "for the good order and government of the makers of knives, sickles, shears, scissors and other cutlery wares in Hallamshire". Hallamshire was a general term used to describe the parishes of Sheffield and some outlying parishes.
The formation of the Company was a brave attempt at a time when skulduggery was rife to bring some discipline to their trade. Their main aims were to ensure high standards of workmanship, to grant and establish a register of approved marks, and to strictly control apprenticeships. This philosophy was the cornerstone that ensured the "made in Sheffield" tag was to be a symbol of assured quality craftsmanship recognised around the world for centuries.
The Company consisted of a Master, two Wardens, six Searchers, and twenty-four Assistants. The role of the Master Cutler was paramount. Although elected annually, he controlled the Company. He was responsible for finance, for granting trade marks, and for issuing penalties against those in default. Consequently he held a pre-eminent position in the local community.
The very first of those Master Cutlers in 1624 was one Robert Soresby. Clearly he was a man of great importance. In 1614 he had already been recorded as the Collector of the Sheffield Town Accounts.Such was the esteem in which he was held that he was re-elected to the position of Master Cutler in 1628.
During the next forty years two of his sons also held that high office - Malin in 1647 and 1657 and Robert in 1669. Like his father Malin was also appointed Collector of the Sheffield Town Accounts.
This was obviously a family of substance. During the seventeenth century cutlery marks were granted to no fewer than five members of the family - Malin in 1635, Robert in 1658, Thomas in 1682, John in 1699 and Ephrim in 1710. At that time 35% of the menfolk of the Hallamshire population of 6000 was engaged in cutlery either as cutlers themselves or in allied trades.
The family owned great tracts of land around Sheffield and Robert, grandson of the first Master Cutler, was described in records as the Lord of the Manor of Owlerton, an area now in the northern suburbs of Sheffield.
However, the early eighteenth century saw the blossoming of analogous manufacturing trades - scythes, sickles, razors, scissors, files, saws and edge tools. These trades too began to adopt the disciplines of the cutlers and in that century scissorsmiths' marks were granted to another five members of the Sorby family - Josiah, Thomas, Jeremiah, Benjamin and a second Thomas.
But the line which leads to today's Robert Sorby becomes less clear. There had been three generations - Robert, the first Master Cutler, Malin, and John - involved in cutlery in Sheffield. The next two generations were employed in the nearby parish of Attercliffe as weavers, not a trade traditionally associated with Sheffield.It is however well documented that the Sorby family owned considerable land in the Attercliffe area. In the following generation Thomas Sorby (1752 -1801) was first of all a schoolmaster but in 1796 formed a partnership with his brother John and Jonaathon Hobson to form Sorby, Hobson and Sorby who were merchants in the Wicker at the end of the eighteenth century. The Hobson family were well known file and pen-knife makers.
Company details become much clearer at the start of the nineteenth century. The partnership between the two brothers and Hobson was very short-lived. Thomas Sorby died in 1801 but his brother went on to form John Sorby and Sons in nearby Spital Hill. There was also a Sorby and Turner at the same time and it is likely that John - or possibly Robert, the son of Thomas - was a partner in that business.
As Sorby and Turner quickly disappeared, so Robert Sorby and Sons was first registered in Union Street Sheffield in 1828 as a manufacturer of edge tools, saws, scythes and hay knives.
The invention of crucible steel by Benjamin Huntsman in Sheffield in 1742 was a real boon to the edge tool manufacturers for this uniform, higher grade of steel - far superior to anything else available in the world at the time - gave them a march on their competitors worldwide. In 1833 there were 59 edge tool and 74 saw makers registered in Sheffield. By 1860 these figures had increased to 78 and 100 respectively only to decline by 1888 to 68 and 86. Of those edge tool makers registered back in 1833 only Robert Sorby survives to this day.
Indeed, it may be that Robert Sorby is the oldest manufacturer of hand tools in Sheffield. Certainly it is one of the oldest surviving companies of all types in the city.
Many of those businesses were little more than one- or two-man operations based on the cutlers' "Little Mesters" principle whereby many workers were self-employed and allowed to rent space in a workshop.The nineteen century saw many fall by the wayside whilst the more succesful absorbed their smaller neighbours to reduce the competitive element.
Having first been registered at Union Street, Robert Sorby and Sons moved in 1837 to new premises nearby at 2-10 Carver Street. Both locations were in the heart of an area in central Sheffield occupied by a plethora of small workshops with a labyrinth of alleyways and passages running between them. No longer were workshops located alongside the rivers, for steam power had overtaken water-wheels.
Robert Sorby, the great-,great-,great-,great grandson of the very first Master Cutler, ran the business until his death in 1857. He, like his forebears, had attained high office. He was appointed a Justice of the Peace and maintained the family home at Park Grange in the Norfolk Park area of Sheffield but sadly was never appointed Master Cutler.
Under his guidance the business had grown to include the manufacture of axes, augurs, joiners tools, hooks and sheep shears. Like many of its competitors it had also diversified into merchanting and the manufacture of crucible steel which was sold for tool manufacture.
In the first part of the nineteenth century it was from the ranks of cutlers and edge tools manufacturers that there emerged the new breed of Sheffield steelmakers who were to sustain the city for a century. By 1850 there were in Sheffield no fewer than 150 steelmakers, many of them small businesses, seeking to exploit the growing worldwide demand for steel.
During this period many of Sheffield's leading businessmen had been forced to seek new markets overseas and travelled widely. This was often reflected in the name of the factory or the brand - Atlantic, Toronto, Philadelphia, Lion, Elephant were all well known names.
In the case of Robert Sorby and Sons the factory was known as Kangaroo Works. The kangaroo itself was one of a number of registered trade marks used extensively until the 1980's. The presence of Robert Sorby in the Antipodes is further reflected by medals and diplomas of distinction awarded in both New Zealand and Australia as well as in London, Edinburgh and Calcutta.Robert Sorby left these Kangaroo Works in 1934. The building was demolished in 2008 with only the archway surviving. This has been lovingly restored and opened to the public in March 2010 as part of the Hawley Collection at Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield - www.simt.co.uk
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      Above, the archway at the original works, and as it is now 
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Parallel to the development of Robert Sorby and Sons was that of a separate and totally different company by the name of John Sorby and Sons which first appears as registered in the Wicker in 1797.
John Sorby was the brother of Thomas and hence uncle of Robert. He too was engaged in the manufacture of edge tools, joiners tools, saws, sheep shears, files and followed the family tradition by being appointed Master Cutler in 1806. After his retirement his two sons, John and Henry, continued the business and started to use the trade mark "I & H Sorby".
Although John Sorby & Sons was acquired first in 1849 by Lockwood Brothers - cousins of the family - and later by both Turner, Naylor and Co and William Marples, the "I and H Sorby" mark was still used well into the twentieth century.
The picture is further clouded another edge tool manufacturer, C & J Turner - latterly Joseph Turner and Co - using the "I. Sorby" trade mark which they acquired from Sorby and Turner.
On Robert's death in 1857 the business passed to his sons Robert and Thomas Austin. Robert died shortly after his father. In 1864 he had been elected Warden in the Cutlers' Company which meant that he was due to be appointed Master Cutler, But he died prematurely in 1865. His interest was handed in turn to his son, Robert Henry Sorby who died in 1885 without heirs.
Thomas Austin Sorby was engaged in Robert Sorby and Sons all his life until his death in 1885 at the age of 63. In his obituary notice in the local newspaper he was described as being "connected with one of the oldest and most respected of Sheffield families". It was also confirmed that he was a descendant of the first Master Cutler.
Thomas Austin Sorby, himself a Justice of the Peace, had lived all his life at the family home in Park Grange and devoted his energies not only to the business and but also to the church.
On his death control passed into the hands of his sons, Robert Arthur Sorby and Thomas Heathcote Sorby both of whom left the family home to settle in the leafier western suburb of Endcliffe. Robert Arthur died around 1896 shortly after which the business moved a few hundred yards to a new factory in Trafalgar Street, Sheffield.
An advertisement of the time shows that the product range now encompassed adzes and axes, augurs, edge tools, joiners tools, saws, scythes , hooks, sheep shears and crucible steel.
At the turn of the century the business was under the management of Thomas Heathcote Sorby, grandson of the founder. In 1901 he acquired John Wilson Marsden. John Wilson was one of the myriad of small edge tool manufacturers who had flourished in the heyday of the late nineteenth century. Marsden Brothers, which had only just been bought by John Wilson, too made edge tools but were better known as suppliers of ice skates to the Royal Family, claiming to have been in business since 1696 Amongst their accolades was the "by appointment" sobriquet.
The addition of skates in particular to the portfolio was significant as they contributed hugely to the turnover. In many years sales of skates - which were marketed under a number of different trade marks under both the John Wilson and Marsden Brothers brand names - exceeded those of edge tools.
On the death of Thomas Heathcote in 1904 the final link with the original family had been severed. He was the great-, great-, great-,great-, great, great-, great-grandson of the very first Master Cutler.
Catalogues of the era were sumptuous affairs. As they were printed only every ten years or so these were hard-backed editions with supplements being added from time to time. The 1907 edition runs to 144 pages and includes an extensive selction of special chisels (many of which are still made today), carving tools, planes and plane irons, circular saws, wood saws, butchers saws and cleavers, garden tools, pruning knives. coopers' knives, bricklayers tools and joiners tools. Clearly Robert Sorby acted very much as a merchant but even then wood turning tools which were to become so important are featured. Cast steel turning chisels and gouges occupied just one page of the 144!!
Against this background business continued to flourish and in 1922 James Howarth and Sons of Bath Street, another leading manufacturer of edge tools and joiners tools, who had been a supplier to Robert Sorby was acquired. Then in 1923 Robert Sorby and Sons itself was bought by Hattersley and Davidson, a Sheffield enineering company.
However, rather than being absorbed by its new owners, it retained its own identity and operated as a separate trading entity. It was not until 1934 that Robert Sorby and Sons again moved location to join Hattersley and Davidson at its new works on Chesterfield Road, less than a mile from its current site.
There was still a certain dependence on sourced products through until the 1960's. The 1958 catalogue, the first produced since the war, shows an increasing range of general hand tools including pliers, hammers vices , cramps.However, it was the edge and garden tools together with ice skates which were still branded with their original marks which remained the cornerstone of the business.
It was during the 1960's that there was a change of approach. Out went the huge range of sourced product and particular emphasis was placed on manufactured lines. It is at this time that wood turning tools particularly came to the fore.
Throughout the history of Robert Sorby two themes shone through. The first was the emphasis from the very earliest days of only supplying a quality product. The second was the importance of marketing on a global basis. Robert Sorby built up a strong reputation in North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and in many parts of Europe
In 1985 Robert Sorby and Sons demerged from its parent company, sold off its gardening and agricultural tool and ice skate interests, changed name to Robert Sorby and moved to the fifth factory in its history - all within four miles of each other.
Whilst it is almost a century since the last Sorby family member was involved, the Sorby name remains strong in Sheffield not just in the name of the local natural history society, but also in the name of a university hall of residence.
Both of these are named after Henry Clifton Sorby (1826-1908), who was the grandson of John Sorby, founder of John Sorby and Sons, and hence a nephew of Robert Sorby. Family wealth meant that Henry Clifton was recorded as a "gentleman", whose genius lay in scientific research. His initial interest had been geological, studying rock formations under a microscope. He applied the same skill and diligence to the study of steel which brought about the development of some specialist alloy steels.
His research led to the introduction of the science of metallogaphy of which H.C. Sorby is viewed internationally as the founding father. He was also largely instrumental in founding a technical school at Firth College, which a few years later was to become the University of Sheffield.
Robert Sorby now occupies a site three miles to the south-west of Sheffield between the A61 road leading to Chesterfield and the A621 to Bakewell. It has over 40 employees many of whom use traditional hand skills passed on from the early days of the cutlery industry. All are committed to a level of service, quality and innovation for which Robert Sorby has become internationally synonymous.
Today the company is an autonomous division of large hand tool manufacturing group which includes other well known Sheffield names - Spear and Jackson, who were one of the 74 saw manufacturers registered in 1833, Eclipse founded in 1889 and Moore & Wright who started out in 1909.
Robert Sorby products are sold all over the world to hobbyist and professional woodworkers alike who seek tools of the highest quality. The product range is by no means as wide as in previous years but is far deeper with particular specialisation in three woodworking areas - wood turning, wood carving and cabinet making.
In 1999 Robert Sorby took the radical step of opening its own retail store in the UK which has subsequently developed into a thriving e-commerce business - www.turners-retreat.co.uk. It is dedicated to offering a wide variety of supplies to the woodworker - not just Robert Sorby tools, but also wood, glues, project accessories, machinery, polishes, pen kits, books and much more. It is truly a 'one-stop shop'.
Out of those humble beginnings in a simple workshop in the middle of Sheffield has evolved an influential, international company with over 65% of its production sold overseas. Employees now regularly travel around the world demonstrating their products and are a familiar sight at many national and international woodworking shows. But Robert Sorby still has its roots close to the cutlers who were instrumental the development of their home city.
Click here to see the Robert Sorby family tree (We are indebted to Lynn D Baker of Cotter, AR for compiling this detailed family tree)