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Women in Charge


This week, I want to wind back a bit, to the mid 1800’s.

In 1838, Thomas Wilkinsons made and presented Queen Victoria with a pair of beautiful, elaborately produced, scissors. It is recorded that 67 files were used in their manufacture. They were, obviously, entirely man-made from a piece of crucible steel. See Pic 1.

If any tiny part had snapped off, then the horrified maker would have had to have started again from scratch – doesn’t bear thinking about.

Two pairs were made, one of which had coloured enamels on the royal coat of arms. One was presented to Queen Victoria and one was lent to the Sheffield Museum in the 1870’s. I saw the hand written entry in their ledger of the time. When I went to retrieve them about 15 years ago, they were lost; some weeks later the curator noticed a Philips & Drew Auction catalogue in which they were featured!

We were appalled! It turned out that the council had lent them to steel company to display in their foyer, which subsequently went bust and the receivers were about to sell the scissors…. Anyway, cutting a long story short, the council’s lawyers said we had to prove ownership if we wanted them back and there was no problem with that at all! So they delivered them back and presented them to me on a velvet cushion, still in their original case. See Pic 2.

1849. My great, great, great grandfather died, and his widow, Elizabeth, took over the running of the firm. She was a highly enterprising character and set about turning Whiteleys into a force to be reckoned with. She travelled around Ireland and built a good market for scissors there. She smoked a clay pipe, wore clogs and ran Whiteleys for 20 years. I wish I could have known her as I expect female scissor makers were as thin on the ground then as they are now! Sadly, there are no pictures of her.

During her tenure, William Whiteleys made scissors for the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was organised by Prince Albert to bring together all great products from Britain and the Empire, at the specially built Crystal Palace in Hyde Park (it burnt down in 1936). Some of the scissors in the exhibition case in our office are marked “E. Whiteley”. Some years later, in 1879, Whiteleys bought Thos. Wilkinson, who also exhibited and won medals at the Great Exhibition. See Pic 3.

If you have time, it’s worth checking the Great Exhibition of 1851 out – some wonderful stuff was made and shown from all over the World; six million people visited it and the proceeds were used to build the V & A Museum , Natural History Museum and the Science Museum.

Thomas Wilkinson made some exquisite scissors, which won prize medals at the above mentioned 1851 Exhibition, and also at the Exposition Universelle, Paris 1855, signed by Napoleon Bonaparte 3rd and the International Exhibition 1862 on the site of the Natural History Museum in London.See Pic 4.

Pic 1 Queen Victoria’s Scissors

Pic 2 Q V Scissors in their case

Pic 3 Exhibition Case

Pic 4 Certificates.

Comments (2)

What a fascinating story. Keep them coming!

Thank you. Blog 5 up soon.
Sally Ward

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