~ Hunting & Sporting Knives ~


By


Wilkinson Sword Of London

~ Wilkinson’s Commercial Knives From Around 1840 - 1940 ~

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If you’re like me, then two of the most enjoyable aspects of knife collecting are the study and research of our chosen areas of interest.  Knowing something of the history of our knives can add a whole new dimension to our passion.  With each new discovery, be it knife or knowledge, comes an education that serves to develop our understanding and enhance our collecting experience.  But collecting is not without its day to day challenges, not least of which is the allure of straying from one’s initial path and collecting goals.  It was one such ‘seduction’ that has brought me to the topic of this article; ‘antique’ Wilkinson knives! 

Having collected, researched and written about the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife for many years and especially those early F-S knives made by the original maker (Wilkinson Sword Co Ltd), I found this passion soon fueled my desire to learn more about the company’s history.  Inevitably this led me to become interested in their other cutlery offerings, specifically those knives from the 19th century up to and just prior to the WWII period which I will loosely categorize as ‘antique’ Wilkinson knives.

Recognizable today by most of us as Wilkinson Sword, this company actually traces its history all the way back to 1772 when it traded under the original founder’s name, Henry Nock (1741-1804).  It may come as a surprise to many that this company, famed for their swords, knives and razors in modern times, actually had their origins not as a cutler at all but as a fine London gunmaker.

Anyone who is a student of late 18th Century English gunmakers would almost certainly be familiar with the name of Henry Nock.  By 1772 (the year Wilkinson identifies as their inception), the young Henry Nock had established himself in London as a gunmaker of some repute.  In the following 32 years until his death in 1804, Mr. Nock would achieve great success in the London gun trade.  A brilliant industrialist, he would craft some of the finest guns of his day and secure many lucrative Government small arms contracts.  Upon his death in 1804, he left behind a very substantial and successful business.  However with no wife or birth children to inherit, the bulk of his estate, including his ‘stock-in-trade’, it was bequeathed to his foreman, James Wilkinson.  Mr. Wilkinson was the husband of Ann, who is believed to have been Henry Nock’s adopted daughter and by marriage this made James Wilkinson Mr. Nock’s son-in-law and heir apparent.

By 1824 the company had adopted a modified trade name, that of Wilkinson & Son London.  This reflected the fact that James’s son Henry (thought to have been named after his grandfather), joined the family business.  Wilkinson & Son were fast becoming one of the foremost outfitters of the day, supplying not only military officers, gentlemen, nobility and royalty alike but also hunters and adventurers.

In 1844 the company was joined by John Latham as manager, however time and circumstances would reveal a more important position for him in the company!  Latham was an accomplished swordsman whose practical knowledge was a welcome addition to Wilkinson & Son.  The timing for such an ambitious and talented asset was fortuitous, as just four years later in 1848 James Wilkinson died, leaving his son Henry at the head of the company.  John Latham would soon become invaluable as Henry’s right hand man.

John Francis Latham would inherit a company in disarray.  With the company’s finances looking rather dismal, he certainly had his work cut out for him.  It was clear that in order to survive Wilkinson & Son had to develop and grow their arms trade while expanding into other markets.  It is at this time that we sadly see Wilkinson move away from the fine gun making of its origin.  In part this was due to the changing face of firearms technologies and developments where a shift from fine handmade guns to a more industrial setting was becoming more prevalent.  This would not, however see the end of the Wilkinson name on guns.  They maintained a strong retail presence in the market, offering fine guns built by other makers such as Webley & Scott and B.S.A. both of whom were better placed to keep pace with the industrial and technological advancements of the times.    However expansion was still key and in 1890 the Figaro Razor Company was purchased.  With Wilkinson’s extensive knowledge in metallurgy and edged weapons this seemed like a good direction to pursue and indeed history confirmed this. 

John Latham would run the company until 1889 at which time a ‘Limited Company’ was created, allowing for previously unforeseen expansion and growth which continued well into the 20th Century.  Although this signaled the end of private ownership of Wilkinson, it did usher in a new era which ultimately lead to the household name of Wilkinson Sword Ltd.

After the death of Henry Nock the company would trade under the name of James Wilkinson.  But for a short time his trade label would appropriately read “James Wilkinson Successor & Son in Law to the late Mr H. Nock”.  James would continue Henry Nock’s legacy and become a fine gunmaker in his own right.  He would continue to grow the company, most notably in the area of sword making, and would not only excel but build a reputation equal to that built by his father-in-law within the gun trade.

An ivory gripped Wilkinson & Son Bowie, shown here accompanied by a Wilkinson double-barreled percussion belt pistol from the same period.  I suspect any Victorian gentleman would have considered himself well-armed with this fine pair of Wilkies!

This massive Wilkinson knife (adjacent) leaves you in no doubt as to it’s name, as ‘FRONTIER KNIFE’ is etching along the full length of it’s huge blade of more than a foot in length.  Retailed by Manton of Calcutta (India) and with one side of the blade resplendent in etching relating to the Royal Artillery, it is a truly magnificent example of a Victorian side-arm by Wilkinson of London 

A seldom seen example of a folding sportsman’s knife by Wilkinson.  Although Wilkinson offered many varying patterns of folding knife, these remain some of the most difficult to find.  The example is a pattern W-1064 and is featured atop a company catalogue of the same period.

Although Wilkinson Sword continued to sell knives right up until its doors closed in 2005, few of their modern knives could compare to the fine quality of their earlier hand-made or ‘bespoke’ commercial sporting knives.  Those superb examples produced during the nineteenth century and the reign of Queen Victoria being perhaps at the pinnacle of knives produced by the company.  For me, the circa 1940 First Pattern F-S Fighting Knife signaled the end of the truly exquisite and finely crafted Wilkinson knife.  However finding any knife manufactured by Wilkinson prior to 1940 is a challenge, let alone one of their exceptional knives that were produced in the heyday of the British Empire during the nineteenth century. 

During the nineteenth and early twentieth century London knife makers were a breed apart and in contrast to the enormous quantity of cutlery that was produced in the northern industrial town of Sheffield, famed for its cutlery trade, those knives produced in London are encountered far less often.  Even with the London knife trade being less prolific, the general quality of knives from this region was very high and many fine examples survive today if one is willing to diligently search.  Such names as Thornhill, Underwood and Weiss have produced some remarkably fine knives much sought after by today’s collectors.  Wilkinson can rightly count itself among the finest of makers from that period, although due to the extreme scarcity of their knives much of their contribution to the cutlery trade has been overlooked by all but the most dedicated collector.

What follows is an overview of Wilkinson’s illustrious history from it’s origin with the founder, the famed London gunmaker Henry Nock in the 18th century right up to the early 20th century and the run up to World War Two. This page is also intended to be an introduction to their knife trade and as time allows I will create a unique page for each specific knife, category or group which can be navigated to by clicked on the desired subject in the above navigation bar.

To my knowledge no one has studied, catalogued or compiled anything like the information shared on these pages specific to Wilkinson’s antique knives, so if you have found your way here then this is likely the largest (and possibly the only) significant reference on this topic available.  However if you have any questions, information or knives to share, then I would love to hear from you.  In the meantime I hope you enjoy perusing some very rare knives indeed.


Cheerio and happy collecting,

Roy .

A splendid Wilkinson pattern W-631 sporting knife with ‘ivorine’ grip.  What may be surprising to many  is that all the the equipment and weapons photographed with this knife are also by Wilkinson!

By the mid 1850’s Henry Wilkinson’s health had started to significantly deteriorate, so much so that by 1858 he had no other choice but to go into early retirement and leave the full running of the company to his manager, John Latham.  Not long after in December of that year, Henry Wilkinson drew up an agreement between himself and John Latham in respect of the company’s future.  It appears that the agreement was extremely demanding and long winded, but ultimately would leave provision for John Latham to buy Wilkinson & Son after his death.  Just three years later in 1861, Henry Wilkinson died and the mantel fell this time (as planned) to John Latham.  The terms of the agreement whereby Latham could acquire Wilkinson & Son were exceedingly strict, and in one way or another would hound him for almost two decades.  Finally during the summer of 1880 all payment and debts were payed in full and after many years of financial struggle he finally became the sole owner of Wilkinson & Son.  Sadly he would not enjoy his grand achievement for too long, as in December of that year he died, leaving his entire estate to his wife, Ann.  Ann would herself die within two years of John’s passing, leaving her estate, which included Wilkinson & Son, to her eldest son John Francis Latham.

A fine example of an early 20th century folding Bowie.  This knife was officially referred to in their catalogue as W-2641 but also known within the company as the ‘Explorer Knife’.

On very rare occasions Wilkinson’s trade name can be found embossed into the leather of a knife’s sheath, as in this example located on the sheaths frog of an RBD Hunting Knife.

This massive and impressive Victorian Bowie by Wilkinson is possibly unique as no other example of a similar pattern has ever been seen

In 1905 in a move to expand their cutler trade Wilkinson purchased the Sheffield based Colonial Works (formerly owned by James Pinder & Co).  The knives produced at this northern facility would carry modified trademarks.  The new Wilkinson blade etching was modified from the original James Pinder logo and took the form of a lozenge enclosing ‘Wilkinson’.  There was also the introduction of a new tang-stamp which read ‘Wilkinson London & Sheffield’.  Along with other trademarks, it is reasonably easy to identify knives from this period, although not all knives carry all of the markings.  It is worth noting at this point that other companies (some in Sheffield) did trade under similar names (W Wilkinson & Son Sheffield for example) which in no way were connected, either by family or business to Wilkinson Sword of London.

A circa 1905 Wilkinson etching panel denoting manufacture (by Wilkinson) at the Colonial Works (ex Pinder) Sheffield.

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