History of Reads Cutlery… 17th, 18th & 19th/20th century chapters!

In Ireland, the Dublin Cutlers’ Guild was started during the reign of Charles II in 1670 as part of the Guild of St. Luke the Evangelist and which comprised of three groups: Cutlers, Painter-Stainers and Stationers (including Printers).  Their records comprise of sixteen volumes of the Guild’s meetings and include details of their members, wardens and masters.
From 1675 these posts, which would include one member from each trade, were balloted.  The first officers, as such, were Samuel Cotton (cutler) as master and Richard Carney (p-stainer) and John North (stationer) who were elected as wardens.  Failure to accept these posts resulted in fines of £10 for the master and £5 for a warden.  A beadle was also elected, presumably to mind the door and admit or deter visitors and to arrest those Guild members who failed to comply with the Guild’s rules (largely quality of work) – his post would bring a fine of £1, 10 shillings for non-compliance (Keatinge, 1900).  Dublin’s corporation, at that time comprised 26 Guilds and each could send a member (St Luke’s contributed 3 members) to each meeting.
The firm of Read Cutlers began as a small enterprise when in 1670 James Read purchased a knife and sword-making shop, complete with forge, in Blind Quay, Dublin (now re-named Lower Exchange Street).  What we know is that James Read was born of  William Read 2 and Catherine, c. 1695-1698, who were tenant farmers and brewers of ‘beer’ at Oughterard in Co. Kildare. This would have given the Read family enough money to send James to the capital in 1712 where he was apprenticed to the cutler James Fox in 1712 for 7 years.  During this time Fox must have been evidently impressed with James Read as he appears to have taught him all that he needed to know to set up as a working cutler.  Apprentices generally had an easy if dull and routine time work-wise since their masters were not always willing to share trade secrets that might set them up as eventual business rivals.  James Read acquired an existing cutlery business at Blind Quay in Dublin (started c. 1673) and started, under new ownership as Reads cutlery c. 1720-30, so with some extrapolation, one could say that Reads had been in the cutlery-making business since c. 1670!  It is quite likely that his erstwhile employer died and that his widow managed to sell him the business, over some short time, using earnings of his own and savings from his Father’s farming and small beer businesses in Oughterard.
Although Read Cutlers manufactured table knives and weapons from this period these are very scarce.  They would likely have conformed to the style as produced in Sheffield and London, the knives with cartridge-shaped hafts and square-pointed, triangular-pointed or scimitar-shaped blades as were the standard up to c. 1700.
Trade In the 18th and 17th Centuries in the Area:
The development by the Wide Streets Commissioners of Parliament Street in the 1760s gives a valuable insight into pre-existing trade profiles.
The names of some of the artisans and merchants who were displaced and compensated are recorded in the minutes of the Commissioners meetings.
  • Mr Francis Booker who was one of the foremost makers of Looking Glasses was awarded £850.00 for his interest in a property in Essex Street.
  • William Bibby, a neighbour of Bookers is listed as a Glass Grinder and Cabinet Maker.
  • Boulter Grierson whose family had leased a property in Essex Street from 1690 was a prominent printer and the family had been appointed to the role of King’s Printers.
  • George Faulkner was also a printer and leased his premises in Essex Street in 1751.
  • Edward Fitzsimons leased no 26 Essex Street from Mr Faulkner from 1723 as the Merchants Coffee House.
  • Samuel Goodbody a Tobacconist leased 30-31 Essezx Street in 1749 from Lord Molesworth.
  • James Read opened a knife and sword making shop including a forge on Blind Quay (Now Lower Exchange Street) in 1670.
  • John Nott of 14 and 16 Crane Lane valued his interest at £500.00 and was described as a ‘Grocer and sells wines and has a tolerable business’
  • John Read, James nephew inherited the business in 1744 and in 1760 bought a small property at 3 Crane Lane where he continued the trade.
Other businesses in Crane Lane included Peter McDermot a Wigmaker, Zacariah Browne a Stay Maker, Christopher Clarke a Watchmaker, John Sterart a Paper maker, Ignatius McQuires Bordeaux Warehouse and George Wynn a Vintner and owner of the Bear Tavern.

The 18th century and the flourishing of Thomas Read & Company.

The business was evidently successful as John’s son, John Read 2, opened an additional shop in the more prestigious College Green (no. 8) sometime between 1790 and 1800.  Despite the few cutlers who really succeeded and became household names such as Joseph Rodgers and George Wostenholm in Sheffield, the name of Read would have been well known in Ireland but less so elsewhere.  Cutlery-making was considered to be quite a lowly trade and cutlers’ lives were often hard, dirty and hazardous.  This is born out somewhat by the 11 children born to Edward and Esther Read between 1754 and 1767!  So many of their children died and only 4 survived and even then only 2 achieved adulthood.  Despite their physical and mental hardships Esther Read (nee Sumner) reached the age of 62 before she died in 1792, outliving her slightly younger husband by some 12 years.
The businesses of John Read 2 and Thomas Read 2 were already at a zenith in the early 1800’s.  John Read 2 died however in 1803 but his son William Read 5 (born 1790) would have been rather too young to take over his father’s business at College Green at the time and it is assumed that Thomas Read would have overseen both businesses until William became a freeman of the Cutler’s Guild of St Luke the Evangelist in 1800.  Thomas Read and his wife Sophia produced an heir in 1796, Thomas Read 3.
The Read families, related by the Cutlery Trade (not all were cutlers) attended St Werburgh’s Church (Church of Ireland) at this time and records of their baptisms are still extant.  This was also the time that the Read cutlers produced most of their surgical instruments, many of which are held by the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland (see separate chapter).  As with all cutlers, they moved with the times producing cutlery in the styles of the period.  In 1808 Thomas Read became Thomas Read and Company. Testimonials as to the excellence of the Read families’ products reached a second zenith when in 1817 the firm of John Read’s business was granted the title of High Sheriff knife and sword cutler.  In 1821, Thomas Read was granted a Royal Charter by King George IV to supply cutlery and surgical instruments to the Royal Household and to his Majesty’s forces in Ireland.
The present, faster-moving society has resurrected many former patterns and has produced convenience cutlery—disposable plastic or cheap Taiwanese wares made in one piece for the dishwasher. The ‘designer trend’ in table cutlery has, however, increasingly gathered momentum. There are bespoke makers such as Michael Bolton and his widow Mary, John Paul Cooper, Leslie Durbin (mentored by Ramsden), David Mellor and many other contemporary goldsmiths, including Continental cutlery makers, producing boldly designed and aesthetically pleasing sets of cutlery to grace our dining tables. Custom makers of folding knives have also stepped across the functional line—not that we are likely to see many carbonitride-coated ceramic, or Damascus-steel blades hafted with meteoric iron, fossilized bog oak or other exotic materials outside of collectors’ vitrines.
With the appearance of these artistically-designed table pieces merging cutlery with flatware, plus the re-introduction of lapidarian materials for knife blades after nearly 4,000 years, the style of table and other eating cutlery has come a full circle, with the added fork and folding knife; a suitable benchmark to finish this history except that the Read family should have the last word.
Although College Green premises closed for business as indeed did a shop in Little Charlotte street in Portsmouth,UK, the Parliament Street premises remained open for business for much longer.  Jack Read-Cowle was the last of the Read family to own the business and he was interviewed by Éamon Mac Thomáis (author of Priceless Me Jewel and darlin’ Dublin)  After Jack died, the business closed and the shop was shut and ceased to trade.