Author: Philip R. West
- John Griffiths(i)
- The Griffiths/Gabriel Connection
- The Fire of 1818
- John Robert Griffiths(ii)
- Hannah Griffiths
- The Later Period
- Horace Griffiths
- Griffiths – Their Planes and Other Products
- Other Norwich Planemakers
- The Griffiths Commercial Succession
Since the Middle Ages, the city of Norwich has been the principal administrative and commercial centre of the county of Norfolk. Trade in wool had always been a prominent activity in the city and during the 17th and 18th centuries the weaving of fine cloth which was sold not only in England but also on the Continent gave added prosperity to the city.
In other parts of England, the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution led to the development of manufacturing and trade on a national or even international scale and resulted in the rapid growth of manufacturing towns. Norwich however was not significantly affected by the industrial development of the 18th century but it did remain an important county and regional centre of trade and production of goods for local use.
By the end of the 18th century the development of water-powered centres of weaving in the Pennines had caused the Norwich weaving trade to decline. Nevertheless, the city had developed into a considerable commercial centre whose influence extended not only to the county of Norfolk but to the larger regional area of East Anglia.
The size of the city is shown by Peck's Norwich Directory for 1802 which gives the following statistics: in 1788, population, 40,051 and in 1801, 36,832.
The decrease was explained.
It is to be observed that in the returns of 1801 those serving in the Navy Arms and Militia are not included. Norwich during the present war has furnished at least 4,000 recruits.
Many other and much smaller towns (for example. Lewes, Newbury) had tradesmen specialising in the production of planes by the second half of the 18th century. It is perhaps surprising that a city of the size and regional importance of Norwich did not have a planemaker numbered amongst its craftsmen until the arrival of John Griffiths(i) in the city in 1803. Despite much research, the author has been unable to find an earlier maker there.
It must be assumed therefore that before 1803 the demand for manufactured planes was met from outside the area. It is known that the London planemaker, Christopher Gabriel (1770-95) was selling a large proportion of his production to Norfolk as, in 1798, the following income was recorded in the Gabriel Ledger.1
John Griffiths, then aged 38 years, moved to Norwich in 1803 with his wife and three children, Elizabeth, William & John Robert. He was baptised in Fetcham, Surrey on 17th March 1765 but little else is known of his early life, although there are some intriguing clues. In the 1861 Norwich census John Griffiths' son William was shown as having been born in Westminster, London. It seems likely that John was already a planemaker and from the evidence of his early planes it would appear that he was making planes in the 18th century. To date, nothing else has been found regarding his time in London.
Evidence exists in the Gabriel Ledger to suggest that there might be a connection between Christopher Gabriel and John Griffiths. On 28th June 1793 a John Griffiths loaned Christopher Gabriel, planemaker the sum of £50. On 15th July 1794, he again loaned Gabriel money, this time £20. It is also interesting and perhaps significant, that at this time, the records sow that Gabriel had an extensive trade with Norfolk. After 1800, however, the Gabriel sales figures no longer included Norfolk. Had they perhaps come to some trading agreement?
Griffiths' situation after moving to Norwich is more certain. Between June and September 1803 he settled in the parish of St. John Sepulchre and rented premises previously occupied by a Mr Hatch. Although Norwich was experiencing some expansion in trade at that time, it must have taken courage and foresight on the part of John Griffiths to make this move, particularly with a wife and young family with another son, Henry, born sometime after the move. (Unfortunately the relevant baptismal records of St. John Sepulchre are missing, so it is not possible to be more precise.) John remained in these premises until 1812 when he moved to the nearby parish of St. John Timberhill, where he again rented accomodation until the beginning of 1816. Presumably it had taken some time for his business to become established but by 1816 he had sufficient capital to purchase and move to his own property at 35 Pottergate Street in the parish of St. Gregory.
Not long after this move disaster struck. On 25th October 1818 fire destroyed the workshop and equipment belonging to the firm and its employees. However the parishioners of St. Gregory rallied round and the following week a notice appeared in the Norfolk Chronicle newspaper which read as follows:
A Distressing Case of Fire.
William Griffiths Pottergate Street in the parish of St. Gregory, Plane and Toolmaker, with his journey-men and apprentices, having sustained a heavy loss by fire: the Minister, Churchwardens and principal inhabitants of the said parish, beg to lay the circumstances of this distressing case before the charitable and humane.
The fire has consumed the manufactury of the said William Griffiths worth £200, most of his stock of dry wood, all the work benches, mother planes, utensils in trade, together with the chests and tools of his journeymen and apprentices, worth full £753 more. The said poor sufferers are not insured for more than £250 so that an honest and industrious tradesman with a large family is by a sudden calamity, reduced to very distressing circumstances, as are also his journeymen and apprentices who when they lose their tools, lose their all.
The Minister, Churchwardens and principal inhabitants of the parish of St. Gregory, having fully investigated the above case are firmly persuaded that the fire did not arise from any carelessness on the part of the said Wm. Griffiths, his journey men or apprentices. They most anxiously, therefore, recommend the case of the said poor sufferers, and trust, that some assistance will be rendered them, to go on with their trade.
Subscriptions will be thankfully received by the printers of this Paper, by the Rev. C. D. Brereton, and by Messrs. Titter & Co, 32 Pottergate Street, [they were upholsterers and cabinet makers] who have accommodated Mr Griffiths and his men with shops etc., till they can be able to build new ones.
It is interesting that the notice is headed “William” and not “John” Griffiths. One explanation might be that John Griffiths was at that time one of the five Churchwardens of St. Gregory's and therefore it was felt wise to insert his son as the owner of the business.
In the event, subscriptions were subsequently received totalling £205 11s 6d, some monies coming from as far afield as Sheffield, as indicated by donations from Messrs. Wade & Co. and Messrs. Eyne & Co.
Together with the insurance monies, this subscription was sufficient for the firm to continue.
Although at least two of his sons, William and John Robert(ii) were planemakers, it was clear that he had earmarked John Robert(ii) as his successor to the business. John Robert(ii) married Hannah Norton on 26th June 1825. In 1827 his father acquired a dwelling house and shop in nearby Lower Goat Lane for them. About this time John Robert effectively took control of the business and, judging from the rates payable, his premises appeared at that time to be larger than those in Pottergate Street. John Robert remained a tenant of his father in Lower Goat Lane until 1832, when the property was conveyed to him. John Robert and Hannah had none children, the first born boy being another John Robert, who died in infancy. However, their next child was also a boy, baptised on 16th December 1832 and also named John Robert(iii). Therefore, at this date there was John(i) the founder, John Robert(ii) his son and John Robert(iii), his grandson.
Sometime between 1832 and 1844, John(i) conveyed the Pottergate premises to John Robert(ii), as, after the latter's death in 1844, he left all his estate to his wife Hannah, which included
his real estate at Lower Goat Lane and Pottergate Street. In his will, John Robert was described as a planemaker of the city of Norwich, and when this was proved on 4th January 1845, it was noted that he left effects sworn at under £600.
After John Robert(ii)'s death on 14th September 1844, Hannah Griffiths, his widow, became the proprietor and she, together with her sons and brothers in law, guided the firm for the next forty or so years through the period when it was most prosperous. Shortly after she had taken over the conduct of the firm, Hannah Griffiths placed an advertisement in the Norfolk Chronicle which gives one of the earliest records of the type of tools made by the firm.
Plane, Saw and General Tool Manufactury.
Lower Goat Lane, Norwich
In returning thanks to her friends for the kind support rendered to her late husband for the last 17 years, begs to solicit a continuance of their patronage for the support of herself and her family of seven children. Hannah has the kind assistance of her brother-in-law whose experience in the trade for 30 years offers a guarantee for the supply of the articleson sale to be of sound workmanship and good materials.
All orders punctually executed and the articles of best quality. Coachmaker's tools made on the most improved London plan. All debts owed to the late John Robert Griffiths are requested to be paid forthwith to Mrs. Hannah Griffiths, the sole Executrix.
It will be noted that both planes and saws are mentioned. It is not clear, however, whether saws were actually made by the firm or whether they were obtained from elsewhere. The advertisement also clarifies the date when John Robert(ii) had taken over from his father, (17 years previously, that is 1827 or thereabouts). The notice further states that her brother-in-law (singular), who had bee in the business for 30 years, would assist. This would have been Williams, the eldest son of John Griffiths(i). By this reckoning he must have started work in 1814 when he was approximately16 years old.
It was in 1845, shortly after John Robert(ii)'s death that the first rail link between Norwich and London was opened. This must have opened up a whole new market. Before the establishment of the railway link to London and soon thereafter to other parts of the country, Norwich trade either went by the coastal shipping ports up and down the country including London via the Thames Estuary or in the case of lighter goods, overland by coach or wagon. The coming of the railway must have enabled the firm quickly and cheaply to transfer its products to London and thus compete with the established London and other provincial makers.
In the 1851 census, Hannah is named as being head of the house, 45 years of age and a plane manufacturer employing 12 men. Two of her sons, the before-mentioned John Robert(iii) and Isaac were living with her and were employed by her. In 1853, the found, John Griffiths(i), died at the age of 88. He must have been pleased to see that his efforts had produced such an acclaimed planemaking firm with his family still actively involved.
The importance of Norwich as a local centre of trade at this time is clearly recorded in White's Directory of Norwich for 1854 which lists 18 firms of coach builders, 47 cabinet makers, 18 coopers, 20 wheelwrights and 95 joiners and builders.
In the 1861 census, Hannah is named as a planemaker employing 10 men and 3 boys.
In 1872 the firm is named as
Hannah Griffiths (late J.R.Griffiths) Manufacturers of planes, saws, braces and bits, squares, bevels, gauges, spokeshaves, benches and hand screws, saw frames etc., Lower Goat Lane, Norwich. This shows both that the firm was thriving and that Hannah was still at the helm. In March 1881, she was still responsible for the Board of General Health Rate for her house and shop at Lower Goat Lane. However by this time John Robert(iii) had moved into the premises previously occupied by his grandfather in Pottergate Street and, following the death of Hannah on 14th September 1881, he became owner of the Lower Goat Lane premises.
John Robert(iii) married twice and by his second wife, Charlotte had at least eight children. Four were sons, namely Ernest, Alfred, Charles and Horace. It was this quartet, together with their Uncle Henry, who carried on the family business. Eventually only Horace was active and he remained with the firm until its demise.
In an interview in 1953, Horace Griffiths, the last of the Griffiths planemakers, stated that around 1880-90, the firm was selling about 6,000 planes a year, had 7 or 8 workmen and
never had a slack time. It is interesting to note that the number of employees had declined since the middle of the century. The reduction could have been the result of a decline in the sales of wood planes caused by increasing mechanisation in woodworking and the introduction of metal planes in larger numbers. Alternatively it could indicate that the firm's output had not declined, but that production efficiency had improved. Although the actual manufacture of wooden planes was, as far as is known, not mechanised, the roughing out of the stock had probably been more mechanised during the 19th century.
In 1896 the firm was re-named Henry Griffiths & Sons, Henry being John Robert(iii)’s younger brother. Until 1925, the firm was known by this name. It then became H. Griffiths & Co. As can be seen from the two invoices shown in Figs. 1 and 2, sometime between 1920 and 1930, the heading “Plane Manufacturers” had been dropped and the business in Goat Lane, the retail outlet, had been taken over by E.C. Ward. Kelly’s Directory of 1937 shows that the Griffiths business was concentrating on saw repairs and had moved to 91 Pottergate Street. The final mention comes in the 1941 trade directory, which lists the business as H. Griffiths, plane and tool makers, grinding repairs, saw repairs, 91 Pottergate Street. This was Horace Griffiths trading from his home.
Horace Griffiths was the last of the long line of planemakers. He was born in 1878 and was apprenticed as a joiner to John Manning Builders. After moving to and working in London for a time, he returned and joined the family planemaking business. It is interesting to note that he stated that for the 30 years prior to 1953, the firm had never been asked for more than five of the patterns of bench planes from their list of several hundred types. Those who knew him said that he was slow of speech, methodical and a true craftsman. One of those who knew him well was Walter Grint of Hellesdon, near Norwich. Mr Grint, a cabinet maker, was apprenticed in the city at the North Heigham cabinet works and he visited Horace's home on numerous occasion. He first met him in 1914 when Horace collected saws and planes for sharpening from the North Heigham cabinet works which was some one and a half miles from his home. Horace made the journey to and from the works on foot, frequently carrying a load of saws. Walter Grint remembers him as a
fine old boy wearing a battered old trilby hat and wire-rimmed glasses who, although slow in speech, was always proper and correct.
Mr Grint often went to Horace's home and after a time was invited into the workshop at the back of the house (91 Pottergate Street). He describes it as being untidy with mother planes, templates and jigs everywhere and with half-made planes on the bench. This is borne out by the photograph of Horace (Fig. 3) taken in 1953. Horace actually made a smoother and a toothing plane for Mr Grint who greatly praised his workmanship. When setting and sharpening saws, Horace would use a hammer and anvil and tested the saw by sliding a needle down the full length of the tool. His charges for this work were 9d for setting and sharpening a back saw and 2d to 3d for grinding a plane iron.
Mr Raphael Salaman also met Horace and the following is part of his account of the meeting on 27th April 1949.
Old Mr Griffiths received me very easily and was very friendly, but he had a strange way of answering questions. When I asked him one, he would stand silent for almost two minutes, and even then, instead of replying he would walk up to a bedroom or outside workshop and come back with the tool or implement that I was asking about. He must have been about 70 years of age. His wife had died and he lived alone in this old house with the derelict workshop behind. He occasionally did some odd jobs, including sharpening of saws. His workshop was indiscribably untidy, the ground thick with half-finished planes, plane templates, shavings, chair legs, cooper's swifts and pieces of wood of every size and shape. I found that when standing at the bench I towered above it for I was standing on many years of debris that was lying on the ground.
Horace Griffiths died in 1958. It is with more than a touch of sadness that one reads and listens to these accounts of him. Although all the information about this firm during its most successful period is sketchy, the picture is of a thriving, bustling manufacturing firm producing a first class product for both a local and national demand. Then in the last days, the picture is of a lonely skilled craftsman who, through no fault of his own, has lost the market for his specialist skills and as a result has had to resort to relatively menial tasks to support himself. However, at least we have the evidence of the firm's skill in the form of its tools which are still used by many craftsmen.
Directories prior to 1859 refer to the firm as planemakers and without doubt the business was built around the production of planes. The history of the firm has already been outlined above. However, the tools themselves also help to establish their date of origin. Moulding planes can be approximately dated by style and form. The length, the shape of the wedge, whether their wedges are flat or rounded, are all distinguishing features. From this information, a plane with flat chamfers and a rounded wedge can be placed fairly accurately in the 18th century. Although he was not operating in Norwich until the 19th century, some of the Griffiths planes have these characteristics, which gives rise to the possibility that John Griffiths was making planes prior to moving to Norwich.
The earliest of his planes are marked “I. Griffiths”. Three Griffiths planes in the author's collection have this mark. Of the three, two have flat chamfers and round wedges (although one might be a replacement) but the third one has rounded chamfers. (Fig. 4.) This would indicate that John Griffiths was making planes in the transitional period between planes being made with flat chamfers and the later style of rounded chamfers. The date of this transition cannot be determined exactly as it varies from area to area but it is likely that it would not be later than 1790-1800. Unfortunately no bench plane (i.e. smoother, jack or tryplane) bearing this particular stamp has been recorded as yet.
Another feature that assists in the dating of tools is the type of name stamp used to imprint the maker's name. As a general rule stamps with serrated borders were used until about 1850 (although some collectors consider that the transition started early, from about 1825) after which time the more popular and legible incuse stamps were used.
The Griffiths business spanned this period and there are many examples of both styles of stamp on their planes. Fig. 5 shows an illustrated description of the stamps discovered to date which have been arranged as far as possible in chronological order, although this involved some conjecture.
It is apparent from the List of Prices Settled by the Trade of PlaneMakers.Mr.Griffiths' Shop (reproduced separately in this Journal) that Griffiths made a great variety of planes including many of the more unusual ones. Fig. 6 to 9 give some idea of the planes made by Griffiths and also shows some of the above mentioned different types of name stamps.
Planes were the mainstay of the Griffiths enterprise but every firm had to keep abreast of developing areas of interest and need. In the earliest price list known to the author, headed “J. R. Griffiths” the firm is described as being brace and saw manufacturers as well as planemakers. It is doubtful however whether Griffiths actually made braces and saws, although the wooden brace shown in Fig. 10 is stamped with one of the earlier Griffiths stamps (pre 1820). Whilst it is possible that this was made by the firm, it is one of only two known to the author. The implication is therefore that it is more likely that braces were “bought in” from Sheffield or Birmingham for resale.
It is known from irons found in planes made by Griffiths that they purchased irons from a variety of makers including Ward, Marples, Turner & Co., Moulson Brothers, Sorby and Fenton & Marsden, all of Sheffield. However, reference to the plan of Pottergate Street and the Lower Goat Lane area of Norwich reproduced in Fig. 11 (which was produced by Chas. E. Goad Ltd for insurance purposes in the late 19th century) clearly shows a smithy immediately behind and forming part of 35 Pottergate Street. This plan also shows the Griffiths tool manufactury behind and the retail outlet of the firm at 26 Lower Goat Lane. It is probable therefore that some of their metal work was carried out on the premises.
The two price lists held by the Bridewell Museum (Figs. 12 and 13), one undated from around 1850, the other dated 1872, use similar wording in the heading, advertising the same tools in that heading. The 1872 list also advertises other tools at the foot including two particularly interesting items.
The Jennings Screw Bits must have been obtained from Sheffield. The sole agency for these American bits was only ever held by two firms: Henry Brown & Sons in 1864 and then William Marples & Sons between 1864 and 1883.3
Metal Planes ready for fitting were presumably metal castings from another manufacturer which Griffiths would fit with wood of the purchaser's choice.
It can be seen from Fig. 14, taken at the turn of the century that, although planes still remained the firm’s principal manufactured product and for which it is best known, the window of Griffiths’ shop are full of tools other than planes. The author believes that the gentleman standing outside the shop is John Robert(iii).
Unfortunately, there is no record of what happened to the workshop equipment either when the firm moved from 35 to 91 Pottergate Street or when Horace died in 1958. When Mr Salaman visited 91 Pottergate Street after Horace’s death he discovered that the whole workshop had been cleared out by a neighbour and dumped. However, one of the name stamps and a half-made jack plane were rescued. The jack plane (Fig. 15), now in the author’s collection, clearly shows the lines drawn by the planemaker in preparation for cutting the mouth of the plane and the stamp, a rare one, is the “general purpose” broken “H” stamp.
It is known that the Griffiths shop sign was the “Golden Plane”. This is recorded on a billhead of 1856 (Fig. 16) and the author thinks that John Griffiths used this sign from soon after he established himself in Norwich. It is tempting to speculate that the choice of shop sign was influenced by Gabriel’s address in Golden Lane, London. The sign used by the firm survives today in the Stranger’s Hall Museum, Norwich. (Fig 17)
The various Norwich census returns also provided information on a number of
relationships between the Griffiths family and other families with planemaking connections.
In the 1851 census, the list of residents living with Hannah Griffiths included her daughter,
Elizabeth Bray, 25 years of age and married. In the next census (1861), Hannah had her grandson,
Harry Bray living with her, then aged 7 years. In 1887, Henry Bray (presumably the “Harry” mentioned in the 1861 census) is recorded in the baptismal register as the father of an infant, Edward Charles Bray. His occupation was given as planemaker of 35 Pottergate Street, Norwich. This was Griffiths' manufacturing address at that time.
John Carver moved to Norwich just after John Griffiths. In 1808 his banns were read, in the parish of St. John Sepulchre, for his marriage to a Maria Butterfield. (It is interesting to note that this is the same parish in which John Griffiths lived when he first moved to Norwich.) John and Maria Carver had 4 children. In the registration of the baptism of two of them, (Maria in 1814 and Amelia in 1817) John Carver is described as planemaker.
In the 1841 census he is listed with his wife and daughter, Maria as living at Timberhill Street, but by the 1851 census, he was living at Wooden Entry, an area near to Lower Goat Lane, Pottergate Street. He is described at that time as 68 years old, a pauper planemaker, born in Stroud, Gloucester.
It is interesting that on those Carver planes known to me, his stamps have all been incuse. This seems surprising as it is generally held at the incuse stamp was not widely used until after 1820 and it seems likely that Carver was making planes before this date.
William Henry Clarke
William Henry Clarke married Elizabeth Griffiths, the eldest of John Griffiths(i)'s four children. He was witness to John Robert(ii)'s will and in the 1851 census is recorded as living at 6 Pottergate Street. He is described as being 56 years of age, a planemaker, born in Windsor, Berkshire. Also living in the house was Elizabeth Clarke', his wife aged 60 years born in London and Geoffrey Frederick Clarke his son age 18 years, a planemaker, born in Norwich
|Year||Name of Firm||
(family members active in firm in brackets)
|1827||J.R. Griffiths||John Robert Griffiths(ii)|
(late J.R. Griffiths)
|1883||Hannah Griffiths & Son||
John Robert (iii)
|1886||H. Griffiths & Son.||
|1916||H. Griffiths & Co.||Horace|
|1941 to 1958||H. Griffiths||Horace|
The author wishes to thank all those who have given him assistance in the preparation of this article, in particular, Norfolk Museums Service, Norfolk Records Office, Reg Eaton, Walter Grint, Ken Hawley, Philip Walker and Sheila Wyer. However, one person needs special mention and this is my close friend and associate Reg Fowle, whose knowledge of Griffiths' planes and marks is second to none and it was he who compiled the list of marks which forms part of this article.
Fig. 1,2,12 and 13 are reproduced by kind permission of the Norfolk Museums Service (Bridewell Museum). Fig 3 and 11 are reproduced by the kind permission of Norfolk Records Office.
- The Gabriel Ledger, thought to be still in the possession of the Gabriel family. For further information, Furniture History. Furniture History Society, article by W.L. Goodman. Vol. XV11, 1981.
- From Price List now in The Bridewell Museum, Norwich shown in Fig 13.
- Roberts. Kenneth D. Some 19th Century English Woodworking Tools. Fitzwilliam, N.H. 1980, p.442, p.445.
Much of the information for this article has come from the Births, Baptismal, Marriage and Death records in the Norfolk Records Office, Norwich.