With my move to Devon, I'm staring to take more of an interest in South West edge tool makers, and local pattern tools. Devon and Somerset had several edge tool makers, and as well as supplying the agricultural and forestry markets these also tended to serve the mining and quarrying industries.

One maker, A. Morris & Sons of Dunsford in Devon, is still manufacturing edge tools, run by Richard Morris. Among the better known of the rest, Fussell (comprising James, Isaac and John in 1882) of Mells and Nunney, Somerset, became part of Isaac Nash in 1894. Finch Bros. of Sticklepath, Devon, closed in 1960, after a roof collapsed. Knapman of Hill Mill, Harberton near Totnes, closed in 1954, but tools from all these makers are still in use here and there.

The South Western edge tool hook types are distinctive, and tend to have a more pronounced curved beak or nose than most others, often ending in a blunt, cropped end. Another common feature is a notch in the blade just by the handle. This feature is often considered a mystery:- why is it there, how did it originate? The only light I can throw on this is that a few 20th C photographs show hedgers using a leather guard or boot (sometimes literally an old item of footwear) around the hook's handle, secured through the toe at the notch, and at the boot's heel with a ring on the end of the hook's tang - which tends to explain the ring as a feature too. For a good example see page 2 of Devon Hedges - details on my Reading page.

This is a link to a high resolution picture of the SW England maker's marks, in a new window. Note that Finch Bros. stamped their tools upside down.

image of Morris billhook

A. Morris & Sons of Dunsford, Devon. A fairly typical Devon half turn billhook in shape. Well forged, relatively light and very well balanced. Probably mid 20th C.

image of Fussell browse hook

James Fussell, Mells, Somerset. Marked "Mells", but from the era of the Nash takeover, so place of manufacture uncertain. This is a Gorse, Furze, Bramble, Trimming or Browse hook - catalogues use many terms for this sort of tool. It is a little unusual as it is "dished" (i.e. the blade isn't flat). The tools is wider and heavier than a Grass/Fagging/Bagging Hook (which are on the face of it similar in shape) and so is good for cutting heavier material. My understanding is that the name of the tool may have originated from the old practice of cutting green leafy material from hedges as animal fodder, i.e. browse. Gorse (Furze) was considered particularly good browse, and was ground up prior to feeding. Gorse is now known to be rich in protien. I've also heard hedgers talk of "browsing out" a hedge as the initial clearing out of excess growth. This is not a shape of hook that is used much any more, I feel. Finely forged, wrought iron with applied steel bit. Late 19th C.

image of Fussell billhook

Isaac Fussell, Nunney, Somerset. Another product of the Fussell tribe. Wrought iron with applied steel bit. Nice bold maker's mark, probably mid Victorian.

image of Coombs spar hook

Possibly made by Robert Coombs at Doulting, near Shepron Mallet, Somerset. Spar hook, marked "COOMBS" without serifs - the mark is upside down.

image of J E Ford froe

image J E FORD RSS marking


Froe almost certainly made by James Edward Ford, Congresbury, Somerset. This tool is unusually well marked:- "J E FORD RSS" and "CONGRESBURY". RSS is "Registered Shoeing Smith". Date, probably early 1900s. The Fords had a forge in Brinsea Road up until the 1960s. Congresbury History Group, ...scroll down to page 14 for a picture inside the forge.

image of Helson billhook

J. Helson, Dunsford, Devon. The Helsons ran Dunsford forge before the Morris family took it over, and J. Helson was the son of the original encumbent, so I would date this tool roughly to the end of the 19th C. A very pronounced nose on this billhook, and looks awkward to me - I'll try it when the opportunity arises, it may work better than it looks!

image of Finch browse hook

Finch Bros, Sticklepath, Devon. Finch Brothers ran the Finch "Foundry" in Sticklepath, making edge tools and mining equipment. No foundry work was carried out there (certainly in latter years) as far as I know - this was a forge. You can visit the site, as it is preserved by the National Trust. This tool is a Browse or Trimming type hook, with a ring at the end of the tang.

image of Finch bill hook

Finch Bros. Half Turn Hook. Much like those from other local makers, but with a sharp point on the nose - although this maybe due to wear and sharpening, as the catalogue shows a more typical blunt tip. These were available with this style of handle ("Plain"), or a "Knob" handle, also referred to as caulked.

image of Finch spear hook

Finch Bros. Spear (or Spar) Hook. Finch's catalogue refers to this as a Spear Hook, Spar Hook is a more common term, but I've also seen them described as a Spit Hook. Whatever the name, the most common use would be preparing thatching spars from cleft hazel.

image of knapman billhook

Knapman & Son, Totnes, Devon. No3. Half Turn Hook, 20th C. Knapman of Hill Mill, Harberton near Totnes, closed in 1954.

image of knapman bramble hook

Knapman & Son. Bramble or Browse Hook. The body of the blade is wrought iron, with a steel edge applied, so probably a 19th C tool.

image of Finch browse hook

Elwell 3412 Patch Hook. Of course the big manufacturers from the Midlands catered for the South West tool buyers too. This is a Devon Patch Hook, made by Elwell of Wednesbury. It is a broad bladed spar type hook with a blunt ended beak - what its traditional use was, I'm not sure - doesn't look ideal for spar making.

image of Gatland billhook

Elwell 3413 Devon Billhook size No4. This is Elwell's version of a Devon billhook, and is nicely balanced. Number 4 is the largest size at 10&1/4": for some reason these ran as No1: 8&3/4", No2: 9&1/4", No3: 9&3/4". Later on Elwell deleted this pattern, and made the 4583 Devon - not such a nicely weighted item, and with a caulked handle rather than the round type, and in rationalised sizes of 8,9,10 and 11".

image of Gatland billhook

Parkes Biped 1548 Devon Billhook Another Midlands manufacturer's version of a Devon hook, a light one, and with a sharp point rather than the clipped off bill end.

If you have information or memories about edge tool makers in South West England I'd be delighted to hear from you!

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See also: photos of billhooks made by manufacturers in the Midlands and photos of handbills made by edge tool makers in the Weald.

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© Ian Swain 2019