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.

These are links to high resolution images of SW England edge tool maker's marks, in new windows:-
Spar hooks
Billhooks
Browse/Furse/Bramble hooks
Note that some makers stamped their tools upside down.

Note that in the images below the tools have new ash handles fitted, as older billhooks that I find almost always seem to have missing/very decayed/completely inappropriate handles. Replacement handles are based on traditional forms or catalogue images.


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 Morris billhook

A. Morris & Sons of Dunsford, Devon.Devon pattern spar hook.



image of Morris billhook

A. Morris & Sons of Dunsford, Devon.Browse/gorse/bramble type hook, original handle with ring.



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

Probably 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

image of CONGRESBURY

Froe 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, but this tool was most probably intended for faggoting work, i.e. trimming and gathering into bundles twiggy material for fuel (as used in a baker's oven) - hence the term Fuel Hook as seen in old catalogues like Knapman's.



image of Helson spar hook

J. Helson, Dunsford, Devon. Spar hook, old but probably not original handle.



image of Loder sparhook

Frederick George Loder, Holbeam Works, West Ogwell, Devon. A tool probably dating from 1920s, although Frederick's father John was working at the forge in the late 19th C. This hook has a lovely shape, very distinctive. When found it still had a very decayed handle attached, looking/feeling like willow - see below.



image of Loder sparhook

Loder sparhook handle, as found.



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 Lidstone billhook

Lidstone, Kingsbridge, Devon. Very well worn bill, wrought iron body, steel bitted. Probably mid to late 19thC, but could concievably be earlier, given that Lidstone's had been on the same site for 100 years in 1874! To quote Kingsbridge And Its Surroundings, 2nd Edition 1874:-

"In Duke Street is situated Lidstone's iron foundry, which it seems, is in Kingsbridge; but as the stream which divides the parishes is underneath Duke Street, it is not easy to discover to which some of the houses belong. Mr. Lidstone's foundry stands on the site occupied by the same business in possession of the same family for more than a century. The blacksmith's department was first founded, but has been gradually increased and added to, and at present iron-founding, smithery, and practical engineering are all carried on, with the assistance of the varied appliances of modern machinery, turning lathes, iron planing machines, boring and punching machines, all of which are worked by steam."


image of Lidstone billhook marking

"All kinds of edge tools, agricultural machines, and implements, as well as steam engines, are manufactured on the premises. Salcombe being the nearest port to the Channel Islands, a large trade (principally in edge tools) is carried on with them, in connection with the fisheries of Newfoundland and Labrador, and there is also a considerable amount of business with the whole of the South Hams."



image of Lidstone billhook

Lidstone, Kingsbridge, Devon. A smaller hook at about 9", with larger lettering. Older than the one above?



image of Knapman billhook

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



image of Knapman spear or spar hook

Knapman & Son, Totnes, Devon. Spear or spar hook Late 19th C. probably:- large lettering with serifs, no marking of "Best Steel".



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.


For useful information on regional tool makers see A Load of Old Billhooks

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

Contact me by email:

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

Back to top

© Ian Swain 2019