Old Silver Platers and Their Marks: Being a Copy of the Register of the Sheffield Assay Office of the Persons Concerned in the Manufacture of Goods Plated with Silver
by Bernard William Watson M.A., Assay Master
Published by Sheffield Assay Office, 1908
It is desirable to point out clearly at the outset that the marks of manufacturers of Sterling Silver Plate and of what is now known as "Electro Plate" are both entirely outside the scope of this book. Attention has been strictly confined to the marks and makers of wares in which the coating of silver was rolled upon copper and which now commonly go by the name of "Old Sheffield Plate" to distinguish them from those made by the more modern process mentioned above.
Before the Assay Offices in Sheffield and Birmingham were established in 1773 by 13 Geo. III. Cap. 52 for the purpose of Hallmarking Wares of Silver a Parliamentary Committee appointed to enquire into the manner of conducting of the several Assay Offices then in existence reported to the House of Commons
"That the Artificers are now arrived at so great a Perfection in plating with Silver the Goods made of base Metal that they very much resemble solid Silver; and if the Practice which has been introduced, of putting Marks upon them somewhat resembling those used at the Assay Offices, shall not be restrained, many Frauds and Impositions may be committed upon the Public."
This is no doubt the reason why Section 15 was inserted in the above Act which provides
"That if any working Silversmith or Dealer of Wrought Plate, or any Worker or Dealer in any other Metal plated or covered with Silver, shall strike, or cause to be struck, any Letter or Letters upon any Vessel, or other Thing made of Metal plated or covered with Silver, or upon any Metal Vessel, or other Thing made to look like Silver, such Person or Persons so offending shall forfeit the Sum of One hundred Pounds; to be recovered and disposed of as aforesaid."
which curiously only aims at preventing the confusion of the marks upon plated wares with that part of the Hallmark known as the Date Letter and the Maker's Mark.
In 1784, eleven years latter, the Sheffield Office obtained powers under 24 Geo. III. Cap. 20 to increase its charges for marking silver wares, and the Act also contained the following provisions relating to silver plated articles, viz.:-
Section 2. -- "And whereas it is by the said recited Act" (of 1773, Vide supra) "enacted, That if any working Silversmith, or Dealer in wrought Plate, or any Worker or Dealer in any other Metal plated or covered with Silver, shall strike, or cause to be struck, any Letter or Letters, upon any Vessel or other Thing, made of Metal, plated or covered with Silver, or upon any Metal Vessel, or other Thing, made to look like Silver, such person or persons so offending shall be subject to the Penalty therein mentioned ; and Doubts have arisen whether a Manufacturer of Goods plated with Silver can or may strike his Name upon such Goods, without incurring the said Penalty; and by reason of such Doubts the Manufacturers of Goods plated with Silver have been deterred from striking their Names upon plated Goods, whereby a proper Distinction betwixt plated Goods of the different Manufacturers is prevented, and all Emulation in that Branch of Business is destroyed; to the certain and manifest Prejudice of the said Manufactory: for obviating such Doubts, be it further enacted by the Authority aforesaid, That it shall be lawful for any Manufacturer of Goods plated with Silver within the said Town of Sheffield, or within One hundred Miles thereof, to strike, or cause to be struck, upon any Metal Vessel or Thing, plated or covered with Silver, his or her Surname, or, in case of any Partnership, the Name or Firm of such Partnership, and also some Mark, Figure, or Device, to be struck at the End of such Surname, or other Name or Firm; such Mark, Figure, or Device, not being the same, or in Imitation of any Mark, made use of by any Assay Office established by Law for assaying of wrought Plate, without being subject to any Penalty or Forfeiture for so doing; an Thing in the said Act to the contrary hereof notwithstanding.
Section 3. -- Provided nevertheless, That every such Surname, or Name, or Firm, as aforesaid, shall be in plain and legible Characters, and struck with One Punch only ; and every such Mark, Figure, or Device, shall, before the same is made use of, be submitted to the Examination of the said Company of Guardians of the said Sheffield Assay Office, and be approved of them at some of their publick Meetings, and registered in a Book, to be kept for that purpose; for which Registry there shall be lawfully demanded and taken, from any Manufacturer of plated Goods on whose Account such Registry shall be made, the Sum of Two Shillings and Sixpence, and no more.
Section 4. -- And be it further enacted and declared, That in case any Manufacturer or Manufacturers of plated Goods within the said Town of Sheffield, or within One hundred Miles thereof, shall at any Time hereafter strike any Name, Mark, Figure, or Device, upon his plated Goods, which shall not have been previously registered at the said Assay Office for the said Town of Sheffield, or which shall have been previously registered at the said Office by any other Manufacturer of plated Goods, every Person so offending shall, for every such Offence, forfeit and pay, to the said Wardens, the sum of One hundred Pounds, to be recovered in like Manner as any Penalty or Forfeiture is, by the said recited Act, authorised or directed to be recovered, and to be applied as any other Money is herein-before directed to be applied."
It is in accordance with the above Section that this Register of Marks was kept and a detailed examination of their provisions will therefore be found useful. It will be noticed that the new provisions are permissive and not compulsory. This left the manufacturers the option of selling plated wares without any mark at all upon them as they had hitherto done or of marking them with the marks now authorised. All other marks upon plated wares were made illegal. The granting of the powers by Parliament and the wording of Section 2 would suggest that considerable use would be made of these new marks, and we should therefore expect to find them without difficulty upon Old Sheffield Plate today. Such use however can hardly have been the case for examples of Old Sheffield Plate bearing these marks are now very rare, and the number of different marks known at the present time must be a small proportion of the total recorded in the Register.
From the comparative frequency with which pieces are found bearing no mark at all it would seem that the manufacturers preferred selling them in this way; or perhaps it was done to avoid disclosing to the customers of shop-keepers or dealers, outside Sheffield and Birmingham, who the real manufacturers were. The heavy penalty prescribed by Section 4 applied not only to Sheffield Manufacturers but also to those within a radius of one hundred miles, and this area included the Birmingham Manufacturers. Attempts were made to evade the Act, and considerable penalties were recovered at different times from Birmingham offenders for using marks on plated wares which had not been registered in Sheffield in accordance with Section 3.
The inconvenience under which the Birmingham Manufacturers laboured was probably the cause of the attempt to remedy matters by a clause in the Bill promoted by the Birmingham Office when seeking in 1824 to extend their powers to the marking of Gold as well as Silver wares. This clause was strongly opposed by the Sheffield Office, and it was ultimately withdrawn by the promoters on the understanding that the Government intended passing a consolidating Act dealing with this and other kindred matters. So far as the writer has been able to ascertain no such Act has ever been passed, but from that time the Birmingham Manufacturers appear to have ignored the Act of 1784 with impunity and immediately ceased to record their marks. The Sheffield Manufacturers followed their example, and in 1836 the last mark was entered on the Register. Since then these Sections have fallen into complete desuetude without any explanation of this fact being placed on record, or indeed the slightest reference made to it, so far as the writer is aware. Such is briefly the history of the legislation on the subject: let us now turn to the Register and the marks themselves.
The method employed of recording the marks consisted of smoking the face of the punch and of then impressing it upon the page of the Register against which the other particulars of the entry were recorded. The portions of the mark depressed by the punch thus appear in black, the name and device being shown in white. In some few instances the whole mark appears in black and without a field or margin. This is due to an incisive punch being used, where the name and device only come in contact with the paper. Examples of both kinds of impressions are seen upon page 2;-- The impressions were originally in some instances imperfectly recorded, and in others they have been rubbed in the ordinary use of the book over the long period which has since elapsed, rendering some of the details of the impressions indistinct. In such cases the record has been interpreted in the light that the mark would have complied with the requirements of the Sections at the time of entry, and the illegible letters supplied accordingly. There is very little room for doubt as to the substantial accuracy of the marks as a whole, but attention has been drawn to cases where the reading is uncertain. The process of reproduction employed has been to enlarge the photograph of the impressions in the Register, and then blacken the field and "touch up" in white the letters and device upon them by hand, carefully preserving all the details of the original. This enlargement is then reduced again by photography to the size required, reproduced upon wood, and afterwards engraved upon it. At the various stages the marks have been carefully compared with the originals, and every care taken to make the reproductions correct copies in all respects except size. Although the original impressions are of different sizes the reproductions have been made one common size for convenience. The exact size of the original punches entered on the Register can hardly be of importance as the marks struck upon Plated Wares were not necessarily so large as those entered; for the practice appears to have been to cut an unusually large punch for purposes of registration, in order to clearly display the details of the mark, and to strike a smaller copy of it upon the wares themselves. As some punches may, however, have sufficed for both purposes, the length of each mark is given in the column headed "Remarks." The reproductions are as a rule somewhat larger than the original. The distinctive feature of these marks is the use of the surname, or firm name, in extenso combined with a device; and in seeking to identify the maker of any given example of Old Sheffield Plate by the aid of this Register this characteristic should be borne in mind. In the letter-press the quaint spelling of the original has been retained and also the lack of sequence in the datal order of the earlier entries. This latter may in some cases, but not in all, be accounted for by the date given in the date column being that on which the original entry was altered or corrected. Attention has been drawn to such cases, and a few explanatory notes added in the Column for Remarks. The number of marks entered during the 52 years from 1784 to 1836 by the manufacturers in the different towns is shown in the following table from which it appears that the makers of Old Sheffield Plate in Birmingham outnumbered those in Sheffield.
Marks entered by 76 Birmingham Manufacturers... 80
Marks entered by 51 Sheffield Manufacturers ... 52
Marks entered by 1 London Manufacturer ... 1
Mark with entry incomplete ... ... ... ... 1
Total ... ... ... 134
In conclusion the writer desires to acknowledge the assistance rendered by Mr. A. Nicholson, one of the Acting Wardens of the Office, in photographing and enlarging all the marks here reproduced.
B. W. W.