CHRISTOPHER GABRIEL MITRE PLANES
Ornamental custom made continental mitre planes were made as early as the 16th century renaissance era and seem to have disappeared in the late 18th century.
These early mitre planes from the European mainland were made as one-off efforts or in small quantity batches. They were typically decorated, sometimes even ornate. This one has a bronze body sweated to a thick iron two-piece sole. It was found in Germany. Typical of the style, it has a complex, turned baluster bridge, and a protruding front hold or tote. The wedge is made of cormier wood, a hardwood almost exclusively found in continental Europe. Sole is proud of the sides, and the front extension has a hang hole, which can be observed on other similar examples.
Curved front totes on these early mitres were probably derived/inspired by the horn at the toe of early Continental wooden bench planes, and still offered on some new German planes. E.C. Emmerich is a prominent German maker of new wooden planes featuring a horn, which makes pulling the plane, as an alternative to pushing, easier.
This laborious method of construction was practiced after the earlier method of brazing iron components together in ovens. Note the fine mouth, which is placed near the middle of the sole: its an important feature which affects cutting characteristics.
The no-nonsense, clean and simple English mitre plane design first appeared around 1780. So there was likely some overlap between the end of ornate European mitres, and the introduction of the English box mitre. Yet stylistically and functionally, a great chasm existed between the two plane designs. Functionally, the blade angle was lowered from 30 degrees to 20 degrees. As a result of this lower blade angle, the mouth was moved forward from close to the middle of the body, to around a third of the length of the sole, as measured from the toe of the plane. The Continental mitre used tenons through the sole to attach the body, and the sole was ‘proud’ of the sidewalls. Early English mitre planes, in contrast, had a sole flush with the body, and the former tenons could then be dovetails on the perimeter of the sole. Forming dovetails on the edge of the edge of the sole was a less laborious operation as compared with drilling out the sole for multiple tenons. English mitres could now be used on their sides for shooting mitre joints. Dovetailing the sole was also a considerably more robust construction method when compared with simply brazing the body to the sole, a common practice in making early European metal planes.
By the 1770s and ’80s, the production capabilities created by the industrial revolution made it possible for a craftsperson to readily purchase strips of iron for the sides of the planes, and obtain tools such as files and chisels for making them–see the Malade shop inventory above. Other tools included metal cutting chisels, hand drills, and metal burnishers. Earlier makers of metal planes on the European continent (before c.1760) did not have these advantages, which is why they are found in even lower quantities. Some of the preceding information was drawn from the 2010 blogs of Joel Moskowitz on mitre planes, and that is appreciated.
Gabriel mitres emerged with the now familiar box-like form, with wrought iron sides dovetailed to a two piece steel sole. Other English planemakers, contemporaries such as John Green and John Sym, as well as succeeding generations, adopted this general pattern for the mitre plane. Mitre planes were the only generally available metal plane, followed by the rabbet plane by Robert Towell around 1815-1825, then Stewart Spiers and others introduced a range of metallic infill bench planes in the 1840s and 1850s. A notable exception to this would be metal instrument makers planes, which first appeared during the Renaissance era, and made more or less continuously until the present.
Christopher Gabriel very likely used a piecework system like this, especially as his business and production levels grew in later years.
In the 18th century, what we now know as mitre planes were simply called “iron planes.” The 1793 shop inventory for the French harpsichord maker Pascal Taskin made references for “iron planes.” Gabriel’s business record book for 1800 made the first English reference of “mitre planes,” albeit for wooden mitre planes with a mouth closing block or stop.
Gabriel still used the term “iron plane” to notate his iron mitre plane in the 1800 ledger. Subsequent usage of the term mitre plane can be found in the Sheffield tool dealer J. Wilkes catalog of c. 1829:
707. Strait block 2 1/4″ 3 0………………..4 6 (Double)
708. Mitre do. with stop and iron reversed…….9 0
709. Iron do. steel faced…………………………25 0
From “British Planemakers from 1700″ 3rd Edition, by Jane and Mark Rees. Page 111.
Early English mitre planes were expensive.
The “Strait block” (strike block) plane was around 14 inches long and configured with the bevel of the cutting iron facing down with a bed angle ~40 degrees. Historically, the strike block plane had a single iron, but by 1829, a chipbreaker, or “double” iron was available for a higher price. Strike block planes, which had parallel sides at 90 degrees, were primarily used for end grain, often with a shooting board. Original examples are extremely elusive, however modern replicas are available.
Christopher Gabriel (b.1746 in Cornwall) started making planes in London by 1770, and he continued making them until his death in 1809. His sons continued making planes as late as 1822. During the 1790s, after Christopher’s sons took over, the firm diversified into making beds and chairs, as well as parts for pianos. A few years later, the family continued as a large wood supplier in London, and they remained in business until well into the 20th century.
“Gabriel & Sons, Pianoforte makers, chair and looking glass manufacturers.” -Holden’s London Directory, 1799 .
In “Christopher Gabriel and the Tool Trade in 18th Century London,” Jane and Mark Rees came to the following conclusion regarding Gabriel’s involvement in piano making: “It has been suggested that the entry as pianoforte makers was an error in the directories but it is probably correct. The firm were unlikely to have made complete pianos, but may have been producing the movements, or more likely, the very numerous parts that made up the movement. The manufacture of piano and harpsichord movements was an early application of mass production techniques in the woodworking trades, It would seem entirely logical the Gabriels would have tried this market alongside the chairmaking and other beechwood items they were making. In this respect, the Gabriel firm is similar to other planemakers who had diversified product ranges based principally on their raw material.”
For well researched historical figures like Gabriel or Spiers, I have chosen not to follow up, or expand on previous work. A thorough review of Christopher Gabriel, his business and contemporaries can be found in Jane and Mark Rees’ fine work on Gabriel cited above.
The mitre plane, as it entered the marketplace around 1780, had arrived in its mature form, as created by Christopher Gabriel, John Sym, and John Green. Overall proportions, construction, and features of the mitre plane remained remarkably stable throughout its production period, which finally ended in obsolescence with the onset of World War One. Despite that general obsolescence, old-fashioned piano makers such as Steinway used the mitre plane for specialized tasks, like crowning the keybed, into the early 21th century. Crowning the keybed required a large mitre plane, with at least a 2 inch iron, in order to meet production requirements. “…A miter plane is a design rendered obsolete by mechanization early in this century.” –Maurice Fraser “Fine Woodworking” 1993
Secondary GABRIEL stamp into the front plate of no. 220. It is the embossed type, similar to some of Gabriel’s stamps for his wood planes. This stamp was obscured by oxidation for years. Both stamps into the metal on no. 220 are partially legible, and therefore, only partially successful.
From Gabriel’s early years, a full range of woodworking tools were supplied, but wooden planes always remained his core business. Mitre planes were not stocked in anything but small numbers, and while relatively new and innovative in the English box mitre format, they were not a primary focus of the Gabriel enterprise.
In this book about Gabriel, Rees examined 6 mitre planes:
“Perhaps the most interesting feature of these planes is that five of the six are marked with what appear to be serial numbers – 415, 492, 700, 701, and 720. This feature has not been noted on the mitre planes made by other contemporary makers such as John Sym of Westminster (1753-1803), and the Ponders, the Gabriels’ successors in the plane-making business.” Another signed Gabriel mitre plane with 309 stamped on the bridge, was featured in a blog by Joel Moskowitz. Moskowitz estimated that there are around a dozen Gabriel mitre planes remaining extant, and that based upon the low volume of mitre components in Gabriel inventory records, mitre plane production was quite limited. I believe that there are more than a dozen, especially when one adds in all of the unmarked mitres having Gabriel characteristics.
After a few more years of observing Gabriel mitre planes, I have arrived at a new tally of 10 stamped and numbered examples. Of course the number of examples are inadequate, but this is what’s available. Numbers span a total of 500, ranging from the lowest at 220 and the highest at 720. The numbers are: 220, 270, 309, 372, 394, 415, 492, 700, 701, and 720. Gabriel nos. 220, 270, 394, and 700 are available to me for direct study, while nos. 309, 372, 492, and 701 I have observed through multiple photographs. The infill woods used are beech, mahogany, rosewood, and walnut. There is a general pattern of wood chosen relative to the sequence of numbers: beech tended to be used early on, with rosewood, mahogany, and walnut used somewhat later. Exceptions exist–no. 220 has rosewood infill and appears original. Three of the low numbered, or early planes have pinned infills: 220, 270, and 372, while the remainder are screwed in at the front and back. Nos. 220, 270, and 394 have exactly the same shaped front infill, with identical mouldings at the back. Gabriel nos. 309 and 372 both have a plain beechwood front infill, with no moulding at the back. The higher numbered, or late planes, 700, 701, and a similar unmarked example have thick bridges ~3/16″ with a bevel along the crescent recess at the front. 700 and 701 also have a reeded front infill attached with a cheesehead screw through the front plate. The unmarked example also has a reeded front infill and cheesehead screw. All of the other earlier examples have thinner bridges, closer to 1/8″ thick, without the bevel along the curved front edge. No. 220 has a weak GABRIEL stamp on the bridge, with the numbers etched instead of stamped. The next two numbers, 270 and 309, have GABRIEL stamped on the rear of the front infill. Metal (hardness) used for tool stamps would have advanced during Gabriel’s metal plane production (1780-1822) which may explain the weak stamp on #220, and the stamps on the wooden front infill for numbers 270 and 309. Subsequent Gabriel mitres had strong GABRIEL stamps into the iron bridge, which would suggest utilization of a harder steel for the name-stamping punch. So there is some limited indication that Gabriel mitre build details are linked in clusters with the ascending numbers. That would be consistent with production in batches over the passage of time.
Here is a list of early features in Gabriel mitre planes:
- GABRIEL embossed stamp into back side of front infill (270, 309; except 220, weak stamp into bridge)
- Beech primarily used as infill wood (270, 309, 372, 492; except 220, with rosewood infill)
- Bridge 1/8″ thick (220, 270, 309, 372, 394, 492)
- Front infill top surface 1 3/4″ to 2″ long (220, 270, 309, 372, 492)
- Infills pinned into place (220, 270, 372–screwed and pinned)
Here is a list of later Gabriel mitre plane features:
- Infills screwed into place (309, 372–screwed and pinned, 415, 492, 700, 701).
- Cheesehead screw attaching front infill (700, 701, 1 unnumbered example).
- Use of rosewood, mahogany, and walnut for infill wood. (700, 701, several unnumbered examples).
- Bridge 3/16″ thick, with bevel on crescent-shaped cutout. (700, 701, several unmarked examples).
- Front infill top 3/4″ to 1 1/8″ long, with long trailing exposed moulding at ~45 degrees. (700, 701, unnumbered examples).
Some foundational build characteristics consistent throughout:
- Thin 5/32″ wrought iron sides dovetailed to a thick 1/4″ blister steel sole.
- Two dovetails in front of mouth, three dovetails behind the mouth, on each side.
- Front and rear soles dovetailed together at the mouth.
- Horseshoe bend in the sidewalls at the heel.
- Bridge attached to cheeks with two tenons (rare exceptions), on each side.
- Very rounded front flange, sometimes with extra long extension.
- Cheesehead screw into heel to secure infill (most examples).
Gabriel mitre no. 220 has the earliest production number, and early features, with the exceptions of the use of rosewood for the infill and wedge, and proprietary stamps into the metal rather than wood. Joel Moskowitz, owner of Tools for Working Wood, woodworker, and antique tool collector, had the following insight into no. 220, plausibly informed by his own experience as a merchant: “My own idea about the numbers is that when Gabriel was making these planes they were rare and expensive – and like expensive things serializing them makes some sense. It’s also reasonable to assume that as expensive items (…he had parts in his inventory but no completed planes) the planes might have even been assembled as needed and customization very common. –On a budget, beech; feeling proud, a few pence more, rosewood.”
This Gabriel reeding plane is of a general type that would have been used to make reeded mouldings. More specifically, the type of plane that was probably used to cut the Gabriel infills was a multiple reed plane. “The development of the reeding plane required improvements in the construction of moulding planes in that they have many quirks, all of which need to be boxed if the plane is to be accurate and long- lasting. In some cases full boxing became the preferred option. The Gabriel firm seemed to be at the forefront of these developments…[c. 1780].” From “British Planemakers from 1700,” by W.L. Goodman, third edition by Jane and Mark Rees.
“The number of braces (stocks) and parts of braces included in the two inventories is evidence that these were a regular product of the Gabriel workshop. We have examined four marked braces during the preparation of this publication, three plain, and one plated. We are aware of at least two other braces by Gabriel that we have not seen and suspect that there may be others.” From “Christopher Gabriel and the Tool Trade in Eighteenth Century London” by Jane and Mark Rees. Another marked Gabriel brace was included in “Antique Woodworking Tools,” by David R. Russell, no. 1430, on page 470.
Stephen Ponder took over the 31 Banner St. Gabriel tool business around 1823. The plane is marked “Ponder” on the front plate. It is 10 1 /2″ long with a 2 1/8″ J. Fearn iron. This gunmetal Ponder mitre plane was included in “Antique Woodworking Planes,” by David R. Russell, no. 872. Construction and details of the plane appear more or less identical to those of Gabriel.
Thomas Gabriel and his successors occupied Gabriel’s Pier and Wharf off of Commercial Road in Lambeth, from 1815 to c. 1930.
Gabriel Wade and English, Limited continued to trade as late as 1968 in other locations.
MOON MITRE PLANES
Thomas Moon (born 22 Oct 1770; died ~1821), and later, son John Thomas Moon (Baptism 16 Mar 1791- died 16 Sept 1829) made planes and other tools from around 1795 to at least 1829. After John Thomas’ death, his wife Ann Moon, née Aldam (1794-1851) ran the retail operation located on 4 Little Queen St. from 1831 to her death in 1851. It is unclear who made Moon’s tool merchandise from 1829 to 1851, possibly in part by their son Henry (born 1820) after 1835 or so. Along with John Moseley & Son, the Moon business was one of the few tool warehouses in London that presented their tools in a true retail setting.
In 1795 Thomas Moon set up his original shop here at no. 145. The Moon Tool Warehouse remained at 145 St. Martin’s Lane until the area was razed in 1830. Earlier, Thomas Chippendale & Son also had a shop on this street, no 60-62 from 1754 until 1813 (bankruptcy). Chippendale wrote the influential book, “The Gentleman and Cabinet-maker’s Director,” which was a collection of furniture designs in Gothic, Chinese, and Rococo styles as well as domestic pieces. It was published in 1754. Chances that Moon and Thomas Chippendale Jr. never met would be close to none.
This Moon mitre plane is visually similar to a Towell mitre until one lines the Moon up next to some Towells to see that they do not match. It is not known who made the mitre planes from 1829 to 1851, even whether or not they were made in-house by employees or bought in. Moon mitres also featured a Cupid’s bow on the bridge, as did many English makers of wrought iron mitre planes in the early 19th century.
EDWARD COX PLANE AND LATHE MANUFACTURER
Edward Cox made some first rate planes, and he was an innovator: Cox was an early maker of lever caps. Additionally, Edward Cox experimented with eliminating the nut on cap irons and threading the cap iron itself, in order to clear the underside of the lever cap on his bevel down planes. Cox was was not a well known lathe maker. I contacted lathe expert Tony Griffiths in the U.K., regarding Cox, and he was not familiar with Cox lathes. A small number of Cox planes survive, and an even smaller number of pictures of them are available.
Edward Cox was born in Godmanchester, Huntingdonshire, on 11 June 1806 to Edward and Elizabeth Cox. Godmanchester is a small town about 17 miles northwest of Cambridge, U.K.
By 1833, Edward and his wife Sarah moved to London and Edward established his toolmaking business at 26 Little Queen St., just down the block from Ann Moon’s Tool Warehouse.
With a cupid’s bow bridge in iron, rather than gunmetal, I would estimate this example could have been made as early as the 1830s. The wedge is similar in shape to the 10 1/2″ inch long Moon mitre plane.
It is true that so many cupid’s bow bridges look similar, and while these two are not identical, they are both ‘undersized’ for their spaces in a like manner. Was there a Moon and Cox connection?
15 Great Queen St. was right around the corner from Ann Moon’s Tool Warehouse at 4 Little Queen St. Having been in the right place at the right time, Edward Cox may have been a supplier of mitre planes and other tools to the Moon tool warehouse. In several legal publication entries, Cox was described as a “chapman,” (i.e., cheap) which was an archaic English term for a merchant who bargains. Such a description was indicative of a willingness to sell his tool products wholesale to the trade. Indeed, the death of Ann Moon and loss of business from the closing of the Moon Tool Warehouse circa 1851, may have played a role in forcing the bankruptcy of Edward Cox in 1853.
“Improved planes” were likely the new models featuring a lever cap. Along with Holtzapffel, Cox was listed under “Lathe and Toolmakers,” in Kelly’s London Trade Directory for 1851.
With four employees and a notable address, Cox must have had a fairly high overhead. In subsequent years, 15 Great Queen St. was home to prominent lawyer, Charles S. Parker, the Arliss Printing Company, and the Masonic Depot.
1833 represented the year of establishment for the business. This is based on the numbers given for a multitude of listing entries.
After his bankruptcy in 1854, Edward Cox moved to Sheffield.
By the time Edward Cox arrived in Sheffield, with his recent bankruptcy, he was probably done with trying to run his own business. There were any number of factory shops that could have employed him as “Manager of machinery for Tool Maker (Plane Making).” Because of its proximity and prominence, I have pointed out the large “Spital Hill Works” of the Sorby edgetool making dynasty.
Brightside, Sheffield. Heavily industrial at the time.
ROBERT TOWELL MITRE PLANES
A few salient characteristics of Towell mitre planes:
- Consistently long rosewood front infill, with the lip of moulding directly over the mouth.
- Cupid’s bow cut more deeply into bridge–often at 45 degrees–than contemporaries (exceptions exist).
- At the heel, there are two bends (corners), rather than one large horseshoe bend, as with Gabriel mitres.
- Sidewalls 3/16″ thick compared to Gabriel mitres at around 5/32″.
- Two dovetails in front of the mouth, three dovetails behind the mouth, on each side.
- Bridge attached to cheeks with two pins, on each side.
- Front and rear sole pieces dovetailed together at the mouth.
- Front flange has ~3/8″ long straight section protruding from the front plate before making the curve at the extreme toe.
Because little has been known about Robert Towell (Born March 28, 1790–died November 17, 1871) generally, I have included the following information on his life. Robert Towell’s vital documentation has been known to a handful of genealogists for a number of years, but within the antique tool arena, an absence of information on Towell was noted in “British Planemakers from 1700,” by Goodman and Rees, Third edition, 1993, as well as in “Antique Woodworking Tools,” by David Russell, in 2010. As recently as as 2016, a major collector who has done research, wrote an email to me regarding a lack of documentation for Robert Towell. Information was sourced from the free website, familysearch.org, and also, ancestry.com:
Robert Towell was born 28 March, 1790 and Christened 25 April, 1790. His parents were Robert Towell and Elizabeth, and the Christening place was on Cambridge Road, Independent, Bethnal Green, London, England.
Robert Towell married Ann Gray on 29 January, 1816, Robert and Ann had a number of children, including the following: Robert Jr., b 22 Dec 1816-d 1863 Shoreditch, London; Elizabeth b 3 Oct 1819-1893; Ann Frances, b 11 Sept 1820; Martha, b 01 October, 1822; Joseph, b 21 June 1824; Anna Maria b 8 Dec 1826-1848; Eliza Caroline b 12 Nov 1830-1869. During this time Robert Towell and his family lived in Marylebone, and the Christenings took place at St. Mary’s, St. Marylebone Road.
Initially, during the 1816-1830 period, Towell lived and probably worked in the Marylebone district of London. Sometime after the 1830 birth of daughter Eliza Caroline and before the 1841 U.K. census, Robert and Ann moved their family and business to Shoreditch. Robert Towell, 51, lived on Edward St. in Shoreditch in 1841, and he stated his trade as “tool maker.” For the remainder of his long life, Robert Towell remained in Shoreditch.
Robert Towell’s location on Edward St. in 1841; Tyzack’s 8 Old St. 1861-67; 347, 343, 341 & 345 Old St. (various numbers given at different times for the same buildings), 1872-1975. Gabriel’s earlier addresses, were just east of map section. Map from Edward Weller’s 1868 map of London.
1851 census. Robert Towell, “Iron Plane Maker,” address 12B Martha St. Shoreditch.
Shoreditch was an area where Robert Towell would have had an excellent customer base, with many highly skilled craftspeople needing the fine planes that he produced. Here is a description of Shoreditch during the period of Robert Towell’s productive years, circa 1810 to 1863:
“In Shoreditch artisans operated from small workshops where they lived. Tailors, ironworkers, leather workers such as saddlers and cordwainers (shoe and boot makers) were all common. Printing and furniture makers were another two predominant industries in this area, particularly in the later period. The furniture industry boomed in the south Hackney area when the Regents Canal was completed in 1820, as this eased the transport of heavy goods and materials. The furniture trade provided work for many small specialist trades such as french polishing and veneering, likewise with printing there was work for bookbinders and stationers.
By Victorian times, although the industrial revolution had resulted in most industry moving from areas around the City walls to places where land was cheaper and goods could be produced on a large scale, some craftsmen had escaped the threat of mass production. These were people working in the finishing trades and with high value artifacts. Being close to fashionable markets, Shoreditch was ideally placed and traditionally the area had a pool of semi-skilled labour. The furniture trade’s centre was Shoreditch and it flourished partly because of the Regents Canal, built in 1820, which was utilized for transporting the heavy hardwoods needed. Piano makers and showrooms abounded too. By 1901 there were over five thousand piano, cabinet and other furniture makers in Hackney and they had spread out from Shoreditch as far as Homerton.” From http://www.bonsonhistory.co.uk/html/hoxton___shoreditch.html
At the time of the 1861 UK census, Robert Towell, 71, widower, was living at 10 Clarence Terrace East in Shoreditch. Robert Towell still reported his occupation as “Iron Plane Maker,” and that he was working with assistance of his son Robert Jr., born 1816. In the summer of 1863, Robert Jr. died, and Robert Sr., a widower by then, went into the St. Leonard’s Workhouse at 213 Kingsland Road.
Note the Regents canal, which was essential for the local piano and furniture making industry and their ancillary trades in the 19th century.
The Regent’s Canal was especially important from 1820, it’s year of completion, to the 1840s, after which the railroad began to predominate. Even so, the canal was used commercially into the 1960s.
Horse pulling a barge along the towing path on the Regent’s Canal. Somewhat overlooked today, Regent’s Canal is still used for recreation and boating.
By the 1871 UK census, Robert Towell, 81, widower, was a retired “cabinet maker,” and presumably an infirm “inmate” at St. Leonard’s workhouse in Shoreditch, London. Robert was most likely destitute in old age.
Born in 1790, Towell would have commenced work around 1810, but until late in his working life, Towell likely confined his efforts to traditional box mitre planes and rebate planes. In 1861, Robert Towell still declared himself as an “Iron Planemaker” in the U.K. census, with the help of his son Robert Jr. With that assistance and support, Robert Sr. would have plausibly worked right up to the 1863 death of his son. All told, its at least a dozen years longer than having stopped working before 1850 as previously thought. In late career, Robert Towell worked contemporaneously with iron planemakers such as Spiers, Kerr, Syme, Cox, Badger, and others. It is inferable that Towell’s innovations shown above–iron smoother plane, iron panel plane, lever cap, and experimental mitre plane– were introduced in the 1850s, even early 1860s. This would have been around the same time that other makers began making lever caps and iron bench planes. Influence between makers was manifested in the 1850s: for example, Joseph Fenn’s November 12, 1844 patent lever cap was adopted in various forms relatively quickly and widely.
I. (John) Smith mitre planes:
During the last decade, I have observed more than half a dozen I. Smith mitre planes, two of which were in the Russell Collection, nos. 886 and 887. All of those Smith mitre planes had a classic mitre plane profile, with dovetailed construction. Most I. Smith mitres had an early style bridge like the example shown above, but two I’ve observed had a shallow cupid’s bow cut into the bridge. One Smith mitre with cupid’s bow was depicted in David Russell’s “Antique Woodworking Tools,” no. 887, and the other sold on Ebay U.K. In addition to smaller mitres such as the 8 inch model, Smith made full sized mitres ranging 9 to 10 inches long, with two inch irons.
An indication regarding John Smith’s age, was his use of “I” for “J” (John) for his proprietary stamp on his iron planes. Using “I” in this context was a practice that was ending by the beginning of the 19th century. For example, the spelling of edgetool maker “I. Sorby” (John) on their Sheffield plane irons was implemented in the late 18th century, and then retained in later stamps, as a tradition.
John Smith mitres, made in the early to mid-19th century, were somewhat old-fashioned when they were new. Smith also made iron rabbet planes. Nigel Lampert in “Through Much Tribulation Stewart Spiers and the Planemakers of Ayr” estimated I. Smith’s rabbet planes to have been made during the 1840s and ’50s. That estimation has been borne out after uncovering a random 1849 article on a fireworks accident in the London-based “Evening Mail.”
In this fireworks accident, 59 year old Martha Jones was killed “at the 11th instant,” and her husband William Jones was grievously injured. A jury was assembled at the New Workhouse in Kensington. William Jones was involved in making firecrackers, and many of the rockets were set off in the fire, which took place at No. 1 Duckmanton Yard, Market Court, Kensington. Metal planemaker John Smith, was also partner with William Jones in fireworks making, as a sideline. Serving as witness, John Smith stated that William Jones was actively involved in making the explosives when the accident occurred. Jones denied that he was working with gunpowder just before the firestorm. Just five minutes before the explosion, John Smith had been in the house where the tragedy occurred. The jury returned a verdict of “Accidental death, resulting from the explosion of a large quantity of gunpowder.”
John Smith was born in the small town of Bickerstaff, located in West Lancashire in 1782, which placed him as one of the earliest makers of English metal planes. Bickerstaffe has had a population of around 1,100 in recent years. Based on the following description, Bickerstaffe was not a difficult place to leave:
“Bickerstaffe may be described as an unpicturesque open country bare of woodland, with the exception of a few plantations mostly composed of birch tree, characteristic of moss land. Fields, divided by low hawthorn hedges are mostly cultivated. The country is waterless, with the exception of two small streams on the south, The farms and houses are considerably scattered and nowhere can be said to form a settlement of any size, The western half of the the township consists geologically of the upper mottled sandstone of the bunter series of the new red sandstone. By a fault running due north and south the middle coal measures are thrust up in the eastern half.” –“A History of the County of Lancaster:Volume 3,” Farrer and Brownbill, London, 1907.
Hunters in the Bickerstaffe area, which appears considerably more bucolic than the 1907 account. Perhaps a lot of trees have grown up in the last century.
In any case, it must have been difficult to make a living in Bickerstaffe in the early 1800s.
Sometime before 1823, the year John and Elizabeth Smith’s son John Jr. was born, the family moved to London. Based on Smith’s early style dovetailed mitre and rabbet planes, his metal planemaking began circa 1823 or earlier.
John Smith, “Plane Maker,” was living and working at 4 James Place, Kensington, during the time of the 1851 U.K. census. John Smith, 68, was living with his wife Elizabeth, 65, and son John Jr., 28.
After arriving in London, John Smith did not appear to wander far from his familiar corner of Kensington. Section of Edward Weller’s 1868 map of London, showing 1 Holland Place and 4 James Place in Kensington, where metal planemaker John Smith was based in 1849 and 1851 respectively. Before 1860, metal planemaking was still limited to a handful of makers, so there is no doubt that this John Smith is the individual who made the rabbet and mitre planes considered here.
In Kensington, as late as the 1820s, many open fields were farmed. Market Court was already densely populated then.
This 1830 entry is not definitive, but given Smith’s economic circumstances, and willingness to branch out into fireworks making, this John Smith could well be the same person. Many carvers and gilders were involved in elaborate picture and looking glass (mirror) framemaking. A need for mitre planes and the proclivity to make them would be a natural extension of this allied trade. Mitre planes would have been used to shoot the 45 degree angles at each corner of the frames. In the United States, mitre planemaker William G. Scott was involved in producing flyscreens, which was a similar combination of skill sets.
“Kensington Improvements” was the site of No. 1 Duckmanton Yard, Market Court. Market Court was a Dickensian slum full of fire hazards and extreme poverty, quite the opposite of the upscale tony neighborhood that it is today. Building code violations abounded, including exposed wood siding over internal wood framing. Overcrowding led to many tuberculosis and cholera deaths.
Residential courts south of Kensington High Street were torn down. Kensington High Street was widened at that spot, to address the injury accidents caused by the narrow turn in this busy section. Stores were built along the throroughfare, establishing the foundation for Kensington as a shopping destination.
Planemaker John Smith had been gone for ten years before this picture was taken. He belonged to an earlier era. Photo from British History Online.
Brompton Cemetery is on the South side of Kensington, bordering Chelsea.
Original article from the “London Evening Mail,” 14 September, 1849. Other coverage included the “Hampton Advertiser,” and “The Mechanics’ Magazine Museum, Register Journal and Gazette,” 5 January, 1850.
While on the long search for metal planemaker John Smith, I came across Joseph Smith, author of “Key to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield.” a tool catalogue published in 1816. Joseph Smith was the engraver of the catalogue, which was used by various salesmen to represent several Sheffield maker’s product lines to customers. The early catalogue is well worth a look.
EARLY LISTINGS FOR LONDON PLANEMAKERS
Large English gunmetal mitre plane, with 15 dovetails and one tenon, circa 1840. Towards the mid 19th century, mitre planes in England trended larger, and this mitre, featuring a 2 1/2 tapered iron, is an example. Most of the larger mitre planes in this 1840-1860 period were cast iron, however. Many early mitre planes were unmarked, some of them were one-off amateur efforts, and others were done professionally within the trade at a high level of craftsmanship. While I generally prefer marked tools, this one caught my eye. The ogee arch on the bridge, was a design developed in ancient Persian and Moroccan architecture. In the Gothic Period, around the 14th and 15th centuries, the ogee arch spread to the British Isles. Quite popular in architecture, the full ogee arch never caught on in Western tool making, as compared to the ogee moulding. Full ogee arches can be seen in the 1865 photo of Kensington High Street in the section on John Smith.