The coat of arms of the Cutlers’ Livery Company is – perhaps surprisingly – the elephant and castle. The exact reason for of the choice of an elephant has disappeared in the mist of time, but is presumed to relate to the ivory used to make knife and sword handles. Of old, the cutlers were responsible for producing metal items with a sharp edge, the emphasis shifting over time from implements used in warfare to those for domestic use. The arms were granted to the Company in 1476, although the elephant and castle did not come in until 1622. The original blazon reads: ‘Gules, three pairs of swords in saltire argent, hilts and pommels or Crest: An elephant’s head couped gules, armed or’.
Cutlers have been practising their trade in London since Roman times (the word ‘cutler’ comes from the Latin ‘cutellarius’). In medieval times, the cutlers worked in the Cheapside area and in the 14th century, a guild was established to protect the interests of the members and to ensure quality control. In the 15th century, they requested a Charter from Henry V, which they received in 1416. The Cutlers’ Company as we now know it, is therefore one of the oldest in the City of London. In those days, a fair amount of specialisation meant that other artisans who also worked on the finished product, such as gilders and grinders, were not incorporated in the Cutler’s Company, but by the 16th century, these ancillary skills were also brought under the aegis of the Cutlers’, making them the sole controllers of the entire trade.
By the 19th century, sword making had declined dramatically and cutlery and razors were made elsewhere in England, so that the Cutlers of London moved towards the production of surgical instruments. They also expanded their charitable educational activities.
The earliest recorded (1285) meeting place of the Cutlers is the ‘House of the Cutlers’ near the site of the present Mercers’ Hall. In the early 15th century, they had a Hall in what is now Cloak Lane ‘next to the tenement formerly belonging to the famous Richard Whityngton, sometime Mayor’. In the early 1660s, it was decided to rebuild the Hall, but a few months after it was finished, it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. They rebuilt the Hall straight away and used that until 1882 when the Metropolitan and District Railway Company acquired the site by compulsory purchase.
The fifth and present Hall was built in Warwick Lane on the site where the Royal College of Physicians had been until 1825. In between the Physicians and the Cutlers, the site had housed a foundry.
The present Hall came into use on 7 March, 1888. On 10 May, 1941, an explosive bomb destroyed a neighbouring building and took away the north wall of the Hall. The damage could be repaired and after the War, the Hall once again stood as it had been in 1888.(1)
The Warwick Lane Hall was designed by Thomas Tayler Smith (1834-1909), the Company’s Surveyor. Smith was the son of Thomas Smith, an architect from Hertfordshire, and styled himself ‘architect’ in the census reports up to 1891. In 1887, he got into financial difficulties, not released from his trustees until April 1889. On this release, he is stated as “carrying on business at 4, Circus-place, Finsbury, London, at 101, London-Wall, and residing at Bush Hill-park, Enfield, Middlesex”.(2) His occupation is given as ‘surveyor and electrical engineer’. In the 1901 census, he states his occupation solely as ‘electrical engineer’. He died 22 October 1909 at 7 Kildare Terrace, Bayswater. His estate was worth as little as £37.(3)
The terracotta frieze on the Hall façade, showing cutlers at work, is by the sculptor Benjamin Creswick (1853-1946). Creswick had been a pupil of John Ruskin and was a cutler himself from Sheffield. After he had had to leave the trade because of ill-health, he became interested in sculpture. Not many of his works still exist, but you can find an overview here. An article in The British Architect of 6 April 1888 by T. Raffles Davison described the frieze as follows:
“The design comprises four sections-Forging-Grinding Hafting and Fitting (and finishing of scissors). In the first section commencing with the ‘forgers’ the first figure appears plunging the hot scissors into the hardening trough. The next fig. 2 is forging scissors and fig.3 is at the bellows heating the iron and figs 4 and 5 are the maker or ‘smith’ and the ‘striker’ forging table knives. Fig. 6 is bringing a bundle of steel into the smithy.”(4)
(1) Information on the Cutlers’ Company from their website.
(2) London Gazette, 15 March 1887 and 30 April 1889.
(3) England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1909.
(4) Information on Creswick from benjamincreswick.org.uk and Philip Ward-Jackson, Public Sculpture of the City of London (2003), pp. 429-432.