Entry for John Sym in Goodman’s “British Planemakers from 1700,” third edition. Sym was listed as an uncommon maker:
**************** "SYM, John LONDON (Little) Almonry, Westminster 1753-1786 3 Dean St., Westminster 1787-1803 Planemaker. [b.] 1731: John Sym baptised at St John's, Westminster. 1746: Apprenticed to David Lucas, joiner. 1753: Admitted to Freedom of Joiners' Company. Took as apprentices: 1772: James Higgs. 1784: John Davies. ... John Sym's business was continued by John Ames. ..."
In late 18th/early 19th century Britain the connection between early metal planes, essentially mitre planes, and the piano industry was less exclusive than it was in the 19th century United States. Nevertheless, the connection was there, and well-known planemaker Bill Carter from Leicester, U.K. voluntarily confirmed this when I bought an early mitre from him, after he learned what I do for a living. Also, Robert Towell, the first full time infill planemaker, (working circa 1810-1855) located his workshop in the Shoreditch area of London, close to a number of pianomakers in and around Shoreditch and St Pancras. Towell’s decision to locate there was no coincidence.
In France, there was also a connection between early metal planes–almost exclusively mitre planes–and keyboard instruments. Pascal Taskin (1723-1793) was a French harpsichord and early fortepiano maker, and this is part of an inventory of his workshop, made two weeks after his death:
“The Workshop of Pascal Taskin. Archives Nationales, Minutier Central, XIV, February 22, 1793. In the shop on the fifth floor facing the street: 4 benches; ….; six jointing planes, ….; twelve jack or small planes,…; 46 items such as small grooving planes, moulding planes and others, …; an iron jointing plane, a bar of iron, and two planes also of iron…” From “Three Centuries of Harpsichord Making,” by Frank Hubbard 1965.
The inventory goes on to document many chisels, files, clamps, hammers, vises, drills and “glue pots–of yellow and red copper.” Chances are high that the remaining two iron planes were mitre planes, and they could have either been Continental or English. There was much trade between England and Europe in the late 18th century.
In this page, I will examine parts of five different mitre planes with J. Sym markings. These can be difficult to make out, even for people with good pattern recognition, because many of the markings are faint, and because they were often overwritten by Sym himself. These markings can appear anywhere on the plane: on the sides, on the inner cheeks, on the front toe, on the iron, the wedge, and sometimes even on the sole. Sym’s markings were most often etched into the metal using all capital letters: they can be extremely small, or sometimes very large in scale. In some cases, the lettering appears to be some kind of acidic discoloration in black rather than an etching into the metal. On wood infills and wedges, the same applies: the markings can be very light, partial, and they can also be quite deep, leaving impressions that almost look burned in. Besides overwriting himself, Sym would often etch successive repeated letters, but they are always letters contained within his short name. Initially, these markings look like user-type inscriptions, but given John Sym’s early working years (1753-1801), its easy to understand why he did not have a proprietary stamp for his wrought iron planes. Steel was in limited supply in the 18th century, because the types available then–blister steel and crucible steel–were only possible to produce in small quantities. The Bessemer converter was decades away, introduced in the mid-19th century.
It makes sense that what little high quality steel was available in the eighteenth century would be confined to essential items such as the best cutting tools.
Much of Sym’s inscriptions and markings give the impression of either graffiti or street art in the modern era. But in doing other historical research, I came across a circa 1830 Grammar book, where the the margins and first and last pages were filled with names being practiced over and over, with, the letters repeated many times also. The level of literacy was much lower then, both in terms of percentage of the total population as well as the overall skill level involved. So I think that Sym’s inscriptions on his planes were at once personal practice, proprietary recognition, as well as artistic expression. -More on this one later.
In “Antique Woodworking Tools Their Craftmanship from the Earliest Times to the Twentieth Century,” author David Russell included the following tools made by John Sym: a wooden brace, page 470; a chamfer plane, page 338; moulding planes, pages 181, 182; plough planes, pages 194 and 214; sash fillisters, page 227; two mitre planes, page 301. One of the the mitres was attributed to John Sym, and the other had a signature inscription:
“882 Steel, brass, rosewood; 1753-1805; Maker’s mark: John Sym, London 9 7/8 inches; cutter 2 inches; 19 degree pitch. Struck on the infill with the almost illegible stamp of John Sym and three stars, this finely dovetailed plane is typical of this maker, who operated out of Dean Street, London. Admitted to the freedom of the Joiner’s Company of 3 July 1753, he took on several apprentices during the following thirty years and made his name as an innovative tool designer. The round-headed iron is stamped “FOREIGN” surmounted by the number 2.”
John Sym was actively making planes for over fifty years, if one counts the time between 1846 and 1853 while he was an apprentice under David Lucas. It has been known that he made iron mitre planes, but precious few of them have been found in our present time. Even if early iron mitre planes were made at a low production rate commensurate with specialized demand, given the long period Sym was in business, there should be more of these planes extant.
In my line of work, I’ve been trained to use my senses in specialized ways. The obvious one would be listening, as that’s what’s done in tuning by ear, voicing a piano to alter its tonal qualities, or hunting down difficult sympathetic vibrations. Another skill is doing certain operations blind, such as removing keyblock screws under the piano, adjusting upright wippen spoons, or adjusting escapement eye screws in a grand with the action in the piano. In the latter example, my eyes are on the hammer letting off under the string, while moving the small let-off wrench from eye screw to eye screw by feel without looking. The relevant skill here, though, is spotting difficult inscriptions to discern that are surrounded by a chaotic background. An example of this would be picking up stringing scale numbers on a dirty piano bridge or plate that were written in pencil at the factory, as much as 125 years ago. Another example would be looking for signatures on various components, such as keysets that were also written in pencil by the specialist at the factory many years ago. All of this would be done while watching the clock during work hours, and maintaining both quota and schedule. Discerning markings while working has helped me to see some of what I am about to show you. Its important to put aside the notion of a bold and incisive maker’s impression made with a hardened steel stamp made for wrought iron. This is before that time.
I hope that you are able to see some of these inscriptions. If you cannot, you might want to try looking early in the morning, let’s say 30 to 40 minutes after you wake up when your eyes and mind are fresh. I know that I do not see as well in the evening after work, as I do in the morning. Age is a factor too–I’m in my late 50s. If you are interested, you may want to bring out some of your early, unidentified mitres. A closer examination might reveal some of these inscriptions on a relatively small number of mitre planes.
At the top of the front face on the gunmetal mitre are the letters which look more like an acidic discoloration rather than an etching into the gunmetal. Immediately after this inscription is a run-in with further letters; ‘Sym’ is repeated there as well as below that. The steel toe also has this inscription.
SIX EARLY MITRE PLANES WITH MARKINGS
A rather large range of planemaking construction techniques and styles are to follow. Which raises the question: did Sym’s successors and later family members continue this rather mysterious practice of marking planes?
Tax assessments were made for John Sym throughout his entire working life, and he was universally levied the “poor rate” for all of them. For research of Sym, I have taken a sample of a half dozen of these assessments, and they ranged from 1762 to 1801. Almonry, Little Almonry, New Tothill street (a short two block street running perpendicular to Tothill St.), and Dean Street West, were given for Sym’s workshop.
“City and Liberty
in the County of
An Inquisition Indented, taken for our Sovereign Lord the
King at the Parish of Saint Margaret
within the Liberty of the Dean and Chapter of the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster ,
in the County of Middlesex , the Twenty fourth day of July in the Twenty second Year
of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord GEORGE the Third, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain,
France and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, and so forth, before Thomas Prickard , Gentleman,
Coroner of our said Lord the King for the said City and Liberty, on View of the Body of
Edward Steele then and there lying dead, upon the Oath of John
Sym , William Denny , William Baldwin , Job Birch
John Gillcot , Hygh Payne Robert Bradfield George Livesay
William Brooks , Thomas Scott , Edward Taylor and
John Hayman good and lawful Men of the said Liberty, duly
chosen, who being then and there duly sworn and charged to enquire for our said Lord the
King, when, how, and by what Means the said Edward Steele came to
h is Death, do upon their Oath say, That the said Edward Steele on the
said Twenty fourth day of July in the Year aforesaid died
Suddenly in a Hackney Coach in Mill Bank Street in
the Parish of St. John the Evangelist within the Liberty
and County aforesaid, That no Marks of violence appeared
on the Body, and that the said Edward Steele departed this Life
in a natural Way, and not by any hurt or injury from
any Person to the Knowledge of the said Jurors
In Witness whereof as well the said Coroner
as the said John Sym Foreman of the said Jurors,
on the behalf of himself and the rest of his Fellows,
in their presence have to this Inquisition set their
Hands and Seals the Day Year and Place abovewritten,
Tho. Prickard [mark] Coroner
John Sym [mark] Foreman”
24th July, 1782.
John Ames took over John Sym’s planemaking business in 1800. Ames was born to John Ames Sr. and Elizabeth, on 2 September, 1776, and was baptised at St. James, Westminster, on 16 September, 1776.
|Roland AMES||LONDON (U.K.)|
|25 Tothill St., Westminster||1852|
“Son of planemaker John Ames. This business was the continuation of John Sym [starting in 1800]. The business was varied, as evidenced by the 1837 and 1842 P.O. directories which noted “Saw mills for Brush-Board, Cartridge Boxes etc.” at the Great Almonry premises and “Plane, saw and general tool manufacturer” at the Tothill St. address. In 1859 James Syme is recorded as being at 25 Tothill St.
It appears that the business of Joseph Sims was incorporated into the firm around 1834 and there are also a few planes with the additional mark of J. Davis. Both these firms were later acquired by A. Aitkin & Sons. Planes from this maker are common.” –From planemakers database.
Joseph Sims and James Syme were almost certainly related to John Sym, and their names were variations of spelling the surname. This practice was common for the period.
James Syme did not produce large quantities of metal infill planes, but he was at the forefront of their development during the 1850s. Syme produced some of the earliest shoulder, chariot, and bullnose planes before that decade came to a close. A Syme bullnose plane in gunmetal (no. 830) is shown in “Antique Woodworking Tools,” by David R. Russell.
An 1855 assessment tax for James Syme at 25 Tothill St. gave him the “poor rate.” In 1869, another assessment was levied to Syme, 25 Tothill St., for “general, sewer, and special rates.”