~ The Wilkinson Shakespear Hunting Knife ~


For those of us who share a passion for collecting and/or studying antique knives, more often than not it becomes impossible to avoid being drawn into the history surrounding a particular knife.  Our interest may lie in the knife’s design - perhaps when, where and by whom it was made, or around the context surrounding its use and who originally owned it.  Whether or not your research is a cursory investigation into determining the age of a specific piece or a more detailed research project, our thirst for knowledge and a greater understanding of one’s treasured knife is palpable and in many cases, inevitable.

In my own personal experience, one such ongoing investigative project pertains to a knife that continues to draw my admiration and interest.  The 'Wilkinson-Shakespear Knife’ was designed by Henry Shakespear, a British Cavalry Officer, author and noted dangerous game hunter.  It was manufactured by the famed English sword and gun maker, Wilkinsons of London, England - with the final product being as enigmatic as it is beautiful.  Conceived in India during the glory days of the British Empire and at a time when the young Queen Victoria sat on the throne, this defensive hunting dagger, its designer and its maker have a fascinating and unique history.  The history behind this knife has rarely been fully explored, due in part to the lack of factual details available and in no small part due to the extreme scarcity of surviving examples. 

What follows is a study of the Wilkinson-Shakespear pattern of knife; the period and context which inspired its design and its manufacture, the many subtle differences found on surviving examples and importantly, the discovery of the year that Henry Shakespear first proposed the design to Messrs. Wilkinson & Co. Pall Mall, London.  But before we delve into too much detail, it may be useful to take a short historical look back at the time and the man who gave us the Wilkinson-Shakespear knife - or as Henry Shakespear himself would call it - his “Shikar Knife”.

~ Captain Shakespear’s Shikar Knife ~

~ A Knife Of The Empire ~


The Shakespear knife was manufactured in London at the heart of the British Empire and by one of its most prestigious arms makers - Wilkinson of Pall Mall.  It was neither designed nor conceived in that pleasant green land but rather, had its conception almost five thousand miles away on a continent that would come to exemplify British colonialism; British Raj or India under British rule (rāj meaning ‘rule’ in Hindi).

Although the Indian subcontinent officially became part of the Crown and came under British rule as part of the Empire in 1858 (ending in 1947), it had actually been under de facto British rule for the preceding century (since approximately 1757) by the Honorable East India Company; a privately-owned commercial enterprise which not only conducted in trade but also governed and policed under a Royal Charter.  This meant that British influence on the region - socially, economically and militarily - was well established and by the mid-nineteenth century, had integrated into many parts of the Indian culture.

A Wilkinson No1 Shakespear knife serial number 17290 manufactured in 1870.  The model designation of No1 is etched just below the main banner etching and denotes the smallest of the Shakespear knives with blades of around six inches in length (author's collection).

It was under this cultural Anglo/Indian backdrop that a British officer serving in the 25th Bengal Native Infantry and later the Nagpoor Irregular Horse (part of the Bengal Army) started to gain a reputation for his expertise in equine knowledge and his prowess in hunting dangerous game.  Henry John Childe Shakespear (30th April 1814 - 23rd August 1884) arrived in India in 1834 at the age of twenty.  He would have a long career in the Bengal Army, being promoted to Major in 1858 and later retiring in 1861 as Lieutenant Colonel, Commandant of the Nagpore Irregular Horse.  His first wife (Jane Blanche) died in 1857 after eighteen years of marriage.  Shakespear was later remarried to Jane Boxwell in 1863 and on January 10th 1866 they had a daughter Louisa Caroline.

As far as I am able to ascertain, Henry Shakespear penned two books; Province Of Bengal circa 1842 (a copy of which I have yet to find) and The Wild Sport Of India published in 1860 (a significant date as will be made clear later in this article).  The latter of these two books I do have an original (first edition) copy of and for our research here it offers us not only an important insight into the man himself, but also important details on the concept and use of his Shikar knife.  The latter of the two book also offers us specific details pertaining to Shakespear’s link and subsequent meeting with Wilkinson & Son in London.

We know from Shakespear’s own words that he “left the [knife] pattern with Messrs. Wilkinson & Co Pall-Mall London” but no Wilkinson records have yet been discovered that shed any light on the actual date of this.  However Shakespear also goes on to mention that he visited London in 1857, just three years prior to the publication of his aforementioned book in 1860.  

These two dates are extremely significant in the history of the Wilkinson-Shakespear knife.  Shakespear’s clear statement that the knife details were left with Wilkinson (presumably by him and in-person), logically must have been done prior to publication of his book in 1860, a detail that has hitherto been overlooked by previous research.  Further; he goes on to relate details pertaining to his 1857 visit to London during which he purchased one of the new Adams revolving rifles from the London Armory Company.  Interestingly this company was located less than four miles from Wilkinson & Son.  When one considers the significant effort to travel from India to Britain and back again during this period, it stands to reason that such a journey was not undertaken lightly or too often.  Hence it is reasonable to conclude that his visit to both the London Armory Company and Wilkinson were conducted during the same 1857 trip.  No records survive that indicated any further correspondence between Shakespear or Wilkinson, but it would seem reasonable that permission was sought by Wilkinson to use the designer’s name on the etched panels of the blade and for promotional purposes.  Therefore the year of 1857 is almost certainly the date at which Shakespear met with Wilkinson & Son and is the start of the ‘Wilkinson-Shakespear’ knife proper.  This is all the more significant as most previous sources have quoted dates ranging from the 1870’s to the 1880’s whereas this new date takes us back at least more than a decade earlier.

As previously mentioned, Henry Shakespear was a noted dangerous game hunter.  Hunting in a period where double barreled percussion muzzleloaders were the standard of the day for big game (his favorite being a Wilkinson double rifle), his knife design was very specific and was meant to be utilized as a last-ditch defensive weapon worn in the breast pocket of his shooting jacket.  With both barrels spent and under attack by bear, tiger or some other such dangerous beast, the knife was to be drawn from the breast pocket with the little finger disengaging the spring retention catch and then thrust into the beast’s chest!  

This is an interesting concept by today’s standards when we see most knives carried by hunters as ‘all purpose’ tools.  Nevertheless, Shakespear himself recounts a similar event where he dispatched a bear in just such a manner “...the rest of the men had bolted.  I was lame, and, if I had any intention of running, could not have done so.  As the bear, however, performed the usual feat of rolling over on her back, she exposed the horseshoe on her chest; and, before she could recover herself, putting my right hand and shikar knife between her fore-paws, I sheathed it in her heart, killing her dead.  This was about the most delicious blow I ever dealt.”  (The Wild Sport Of India published by Smith, Elder and Co 1860, page 136).  The word ‘šikār’ translates from Urdu and Persian as ‘hunter or hunting’, so by implications Shakespear’s ‘shikar knife’ translates as simply ‘hunting (or hunter's) knife’.  When reading through Shakespear’s exploits one thing becomes very clear; this was a man who reveled in danger and adventure.

A Wilkinson-Shakespear knife.  Although not marked as such, the model appears to be a No1 with a blade length of six inches.  No serial number is present.  Interestingly, this example has a leather ‘pocket’ style belt sheath.  With kind permission, Leroy Thompson collection.

From the mid 1850’s on, Wilkinson started to allocate a unique serial number to their guns, swords and knives and these numbers, along with other details, were recorded in their ‘proofing books’.  Not all of these records have survived the passing of time and in addition to inconsistencies in both the allocation and recording of numbers/details has made researching these arms continually challenging.  Such inconsistencies are especially prevalent where their knives are concerned as many Wilkinson knives appear to have not been allocated or marked with a serial number.  Even when a knife had been allocated and marked with a serial number, details were not always recorded.

~ Production Figures & Serialization ~


This example of the Wilkinson-Shakespear, although not marked as such, appears to be a model No2 with a blade length of around seven inches.  No serial number is present, so determining a precise date of manufacture is not possible.  With kind permission, Leroy Thompson collection.

We can only speculate the reasons for such oversights but one thing is clear; such omissions (where knives are concerned) appear to be commonplace.  The scant details that are available can offer us some assistance and when collated and compared with surviving examples, do provide us with limited insight into the manufacturing history of this rare knife.  However any such research and subsequent hypotheses or conclusions will always be limited and remain for the most part, incomplete.

Within the surviving Wilkinson proofing books only thirty-two knives of varying  patterns are recorded.  Those knives that are recorded only span a three-year period from 1867 - 1869.  Sixteen of these are recorded as a Shakespear knife (of one form or another).  As well as the sixteen examples recorded, I have also noted twelve other surviving examples (some numbered and some not).  In total, then, I have limited records of twenty-eight examples of the Shakespear knife.  Of course this is certainly not representative of the total number produced but simply reflects those that were either recorded or those surviving examples I have thus far observed.  

Let us for a moment look at the sixteen examples recorded between 1867 and 1869.  If we assume that the first recorded knife - number 15425 (recorded as a “flat Shakespear knife”) - is indeed the very first knife produced of this pattern, then this would have been made some ten years after the design was submitted and seven years after publication of Shakespear’s book.  I personally believe this is unlikely.  Just as we see many examples of this knife manufactured well after those that were recorded (1867 - 69) we can also speculate that examples were made prior.  It is far more likely that the three years we actually see mention of these knives in the proofing books was just a reflection of the culture (be it official or otherwise) and how these knives were recorded (or not, as the case may be) rather than a true representation of actual production numbers.  If for a moment we assume that the records kept during that three year period were accurate (I suspect not fully) then we could speculate that at least eight Shakespear knives per year were being made.  In the absence of any other information then that would provide us with a production figure or approximately 344 before the turn of the century (calculated at a rate of eight knives per year for forty-three years).  Such a figure is not beyond the realm of possibility, as low production figures are certainly consistent and reflective of the excessive scarcity of surviving examples today.

Wilkinson, like many London knife makers, was never a mass producer.  Such wares were generally the preserve of the northern industrial town of Sheffield, known the world over for its cutlery trade.  However what the London knife makers lacked in quantity they excelled at in quality and Wilkinson was no exception; knives from this period (be they Shakespear or not) continue to demonstrate a superior standard of workmanship.  This handmade or ‘bespoke’ process is born out of the observation that I have yet to see two Shakespear knives that are identical.  In fact, the array of differential details is quite staggering and actually one of the most interesting aspects when studying this elusive Wilkinson knife.

~ Knife Details ~


Another example of a Wilkinson-Shakespear model No2 (seven-inch blade). Again, not marked with the model number or having a serial number.

At various times Wilkinson offered as many as five different models which were determined by the size of their blade, a policy they also adopted on other models.  These were as follows:  No1 at 6 x 1, No2 at 7 x 1⅛, No3 at 8¼ x 1½, No4 at 7¾ x 1½ and No5 at 9 x 1½ (all sizes in inches).  Although I have noticed that one must take these dimensions as an approximation only due to each blade being hand-ground and finished.  The form of the blade is usually convex and double-edged with a shallow spearpoint.  Larger models with a blade width of 1½ often had a fullered blade.  Wilkinson’s phraseology for a fullered or un-fullered blade was ‘grooved’ or ‘flat’ respectively. 

The standard hilt design remained relatively consistent.  Concave in form, it was interestingly made in a very ethnic Indian style.  No doubt Shakespear was inspired by the many native knives he had encountered in India.  The hilt  is made of hardwood (I suspect walnut) and finely hand-checkered rather like a gunstock grip.  It is held to the tang by three steel pins, the ends of which are also checkered to match the grip.  One example is known where the main area of the grip was left smooth with only the pommel cap having been checkered

The crossguard appears to have been offered in two varieties;  small knives (No’s 1 & 2) with a flush-finished steel guard (offering no guard at all) and larger knives (No’s 3, 4 & 5) having a traditional crossguard with protruding rounded ends similar in style to some of their other knife patterns.  Where appropriate these had a small cut just into the grip and just above the guard to lock the knife into its sheath via a spring clip.  Such a retaining device is often seen on knives manufactured in India, a sure sign of this knife’s origin.  This device went on to became a common feature on many Wilkinson knives as well as those offered by other London makers.  On the Shakespear knife the underside of the steel crossguard was often used as the location to apply the serial number.

With all these differences in size, blade form, guard and hilt, no two Shakespear knives that are known to me are identical.  There is however one area that I have yet to mention which continues this theme of near uniqueness and that is in the area of the etching panels applied to the blade.  If one breaks down the etching panels into ‘five’ distinct components it is easier to catalogue and compare.  For ease, let me refer to these as ‘a’ through ‘e’.  

Component ‘a’ is the makers details; this can be written as ‘WILKINSON. LONDON’, ‘WILKINSON PALL MALL’ or ‘WILKINSON PALL MALL LONDON’.  Component ‘b’ is the reference to the designer and is the most consistent, normally reading ‘SHAKESPEAR KNIFE’, although at least one example has been observed with no reference to the designer at all. The next component ‘c’ is in reference to the model (1 through 5).  This is a very seldom seen detail and from surviving examples I have noted two examples of ‘No1’ and one example of ‘No5’.  

The forth component ‘d’ is the style of etching panel.  I have observed no less than seven different versions thus far, ranging from a simple box to an ornate banner or shield.  The final component ‘e’ is the location of the etching panel.  Regardless of the style of etching, this detail is centrally placed and most often encountered a short distance from the guard, running parallel to the blade.  However this can occasionally be found perpendicular to the blade and again near the guard.  Interestingly and on those larger knives that have a fullered blade (No’s 3,4 & 5) the etching can (but not always) be found carefully placed within the fuller itself.  On these occasions the etching is understandably devoid of any embellishment due to the lack of sufficient space.

It has been well over a century and a half since Henry Shakespear visited Wilkinson & Son to submit his unique design for a defensive hunting knife.  This Victorian gentlemen, soldier, hunter and author was every bit the fearless adventurer of many of his peers, most of whom are now household names.  Henry Shakespear along with his elegant yet purposeful knife may be little known today but for knife collectors and amateur historians like myself, his legacy is every bit as important as the names introduced to us in the history lessons of our childhood.

A rare example of the largest of the Wilkinson-Shakespear knives - the model No5 with a nine-inch blade.  This example is interesting for its omissions; no blade fuller (normally found on this model), no serial number, no model etching and interestingly, no reference to Shakespear!  However the knife does have a handsome Wilkinson Pall Mall London logo within an etched shield placed perpendicular to the blade.  With kind permission, Ron Flook The London Knife Book.

The interesting detail on this example is the addition of a secondary etched banner containing personal details - presumably the original owner's name - ‘Peppi Majo’.  With kind permission, Ron Flook The London Knife Book.

In general, London-made knives from the Victorian period are a fascinating area of study.  The exceptional quality of many of these fine knives seems only to be matched by their scarcity.  The Wilkinson-Shakespear with its unique design and fascinating history is a true example of this and continues to hold a very special place for many collectors.  For me the Shakespear knife has everything one could want; wonderful history, superb quality, a design that is both elegant and incredibly beautiful, an enduring classic in every sense of the word.

An example of the large No5 (nine-inch blade) Shakespear.  This example has that designation as part of the etching panel, which has been skillfully applied ‘within’ the fuller and reads ‘No5 Shakespear Knife Wilkinson London’.  This example also has a Wilkinson serial number (16752) stamped on the underside of the crossguard which dates it to the year 1870.

~ Closing Comments ~



The Wild Sports Of India by Captain Henry Shakespear

Arms Research/Richard Milner (www.armsresearch.co.uk)

Mr. Wilkinson Of Pall Mall (Vol. I) by Robert Wilkinson-Latham

British & Commonwealth Military Knives by Ron Flook

The London Knife Book by Ron Flook

Guns & Ammo (1977) The Shakespear Knife by William R. Williamson

Guns, Weapons & Militaria The Shakespear & RBD Knives by Robert Wilkinson-Latham

Article: Not Shakespeare But Shakespear (unknown author)

Tactical Knives Wilkinson’s Shakespear by Leroy Thompson


The author would like to acknowledge his gratitude to the following for their assistance with aspects of this article.

Robert Wilkinson-Latham

Ron Flook

Leroy Thompson

Mark McMorrow (www.swordforum.com)

Richard Milner (www.armsresearch.co.uk)

Robert Thoresby

Author’s Notes

The extreme scarcity of both surviving examples of the Shakespear knife as well as reliable details about its evolution has meant that some areas of my research are based on fragmented information and/or secondary sources.  As such, I ask the reader to allow for some latitude with the information shared here and  I extend apologies for any errors unknowingly included.

Henry Shakespear

The author holding his No1 Shakespear knife serial number 17290 circa 1870.

Page number 201 from an early twentieth century (pre Great War) Wilkinson catalogue.  The Shakespear knife can clearly seen being featured as part of Wilkinson’s offerings.  Interestingly is referred to as ‘Colonel Shakespear’ and offered in three price ranges, no doubt reflecting blade length.

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