Richard Bell's Wild West Yorkshire Nature Diary, Saturday, 7 August 2010
MY GREAT-GRANDDAD, George Swift (centre) followed in his father's footsteps to start work at the Sheffield cutlers, Joseph Rodgers (background) aged 11 in 1851. His younger brother Arthur (left) followed him in 1857, aged 13, and finally the youngest brother Fred (right) started work ten years after George in 1861, also at the age of 13. By the time this photogaph was taken on Tuesday 4 April 1911, the three brothers had put in a total of 164 man-years between them for the cutlery firm.
It's Fred who most closely resembles my granddad, Maurice Swift, son of George, while Arthur, with his Edwardian moustache seems very much in the mould of his namesake, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
Family photographs so often show relatives dressed for some formal occasion, such as a wedding and in this period studio portraits put them against some fanciful parkland backdrop, often alongside a potted palm. It's a shame because I feel that it would be more interesting to see people at work, so I'm delighted to have these portraits of the Swift brothers just as they were when they were called from the shop floor for the group photograph.
As an added bonus, if I want some idea of what they would have seen as they looked out of the window on that April day, I've got these details of the passing traffic from an illustration of the Rodgers' Norfolk Street works, which suggest that Sheffield of the time must have resembled the set of a Sherlock Holmes movie.
It was my mum who came across these images (which I've stitched together in Photoshop). She recently got herself onto broadband and she rang this afternoon to tell me that, with the help of her granddaughter Hannah, she'd just found this missing link in our family history. It's the kind of image that experts helpfully unearth for celebrities on the genealogy programme Who Do You Think You Are?
With Hannah's help she soon found a publication, available online as a PDF, Under Five Sovereigns (1911), about the history of the firm.
It includes a group photograph of 36 of the workers at Rodgers' who had served for more than 50 years. My mum remembers that her father briefly showed her a copy of this photograph when she was at his office one day, so you can imagine her surprise and excitement when it popped up again 70 or 80 years later, on the screen as she scrolled through the document.
My great grandfather George Swift, then aged 71, is on the front row, third from the right, his two brothers behind him on the back row. There's another George Swift, aged 63, a grinder at the firm, fourth from the right on the middle row and the bearded man who looks like an old testament prophet in the middle of the front row is a John Swift, who, like my great-granddad was then aged 71. I guess they might be distant relatives of mine.
In 1851, when George started work, one of the products in the Rodgers manufactured was the 'dagger knife'; these are often described as the Bowie knives in the United States. The firm had a worldwide reputation for quality; in Persia, India and Ceylon the word 'Rujjus' or 'Rojers' was used as an adjective expressing superlative quality of any product.
The booklet tells us that 'These men have been happily described as "the aristocracy of labour" and it has been no uncommon thing for three or even four generations of the same family to be at work at the same time.'
We've got a rare example of the design work that George's father, Samuel Bergin Swift produced for the firm . . .