How Ken Hawley’s dedication led to a collection that became internationally renowned with more than 100,000 items at Kelham Island Museum
If there was one person determined to keep alive Sheffield’s reputation for craftsmanship and skills, it was Ken Hawley.
He was passionate about collecting the tools and knowledge on which the city forged its name around the world.
After running his own tool shop, his experience and single mindedness produced the Ken Hawley Collection that has become internationally renowned in its own right, now reflected in more than 100,000 items in their own gallery at Kelham Island Museum.
On his death at the age of 87, tributes were paid this week to “a true son of Sheffield”, one of the most important historians of the region’s tool, cutlery, iron and steel trades.
His legacy is the tools, the ‘tools that made the tools’, catalogues, photographs and the information he pulled together over more than 50 years and which chronicle Sheffield’s tool, cutlery and silversmithing industries.
And, crucially, he also leaves behind a team of volunteers whom he inspired to keep alive the industrial spirit of Sheffield.
Keith Crawshaw, who chairs the Ken Hawley Collection Trust, described Ken as “one of the city’s real legends”.
The name may not be familiar to some people, he said, “but it was his collecting zeal for collecting Sheffield-made tools that has meant a major pillar of the city’s reputation for high quality skills and craftsmanship has been preserved for future generations.
“His now world famous collection provides the context for how the city developed its skills, not only in the 19th century, but right to the present day.
“His collecting and thirst for knowledge was not just about preserving the tools themselves, it was about how they were designed, made and further developed. “Some skills and craft have been lost with the passing of generations and the development of new technologies, but the collection represents the best of Sheffield and what it became famous for.”
Ken reflected many of the character traits the city is recognised for, added Keith, “open, friendly, loyal, generous, albeit laced with single mindedness and the occasional awkwardness”.
“Yes he could be difficult at times, but the thirst for learning and ambition to improve the quality of what he did never left him. Although modest himself in recognising it as a skill, he was able to generate interest and a desire to listen to what he had to say with an audience of young children on the one hand and VIPs such as in the recent visit from the Duke of Gloucester, on the other.
“I still remember Ken telling the Duke he wasn’t listening during an exchange with him – it was said in a way that meant it but ensured his visitor remained engaged in what Ken had to say.”
Ken Hawley started in the tool retail trade after the war, opening a shop off The Moor as a specialist tool merchant and carrying the sign ‘We sell nowt but tools’.
The story goes that it was when he saw a 19th joiner’s brace on the wall of a firm where he was hoping to sell some more up-to-date tools that he first came out with the immortal words: “You’ll not be wanting this, will you?”.
His collection started to grow - and the phrase was to become the title of a film made about him and his work by the University of Sheffield.
He was renowned for a meticulous attention to detail and respect for the craftsmanship of Sheffield’s cutlers and tool makers.
For 40 years, he inspired a team of volunteers and members of the South Yorkshire Industrial History Society into restoring the 17th century water-powered iron forge at Wortley, for which he was awarded the MBE.
For a lifetime in helping to preserve the city’s industrial heritage, he was made an honorary Fellow of Sheffield Hallam University, and he was President of the Tools and Trades History Society.
Ken was fond of saying that he “rowed his own boat” - and he never stopped rowing. When an £83,300 lottery grant was given this year so that Kelham volunteers can continue to pass on the skills and knowledge embodied in the Hawley Collection, Ken said: “I am trying to pass on the information in my head to keep as much of it alive as possible after I have gone.”
He met visitors from all corners of the globe. “People still come to see examples of when we were the best in the world,” he said.
One of the last things Ken said at Kelham was: ‘You mustn’t forget Hawley 3’ - a reference to the hoped-for latest extension to the gallery.
Some sort of memorial event is to be planned at Kelham. The trust is aiming to see Ken’s collection grow further, despite him no longer being there to steer it.
Meanwhile, there is little chance of forgetting the inimitable Ken Hawley.
He lived in Hillsborough, and leaves his wife of 60 years, Emily, sons Clive and Duncan, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.