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A little piece of Sheffield history returns to its rightful home

The Reverend Canon Keith Farrow with the trowel he bought at auction. Picture: Chris Etchells
The Reverend Canon Keith Farrow with the trowel he bought at auction. Picture: Chris Etchells

It looks very much like a fancy cake slice - a delicate piece of silverware, carefully stowed in a box for special occasions. But the inscription on its blade - 'Sheffield Cathedral, St George's Day 1937' - bears witness to the keepsake's standing as a little piece of history.

The object is in fact a ceremonial trowel, used by one of a family of Sheffield steelmakers to lay the foundation stone in the cathedral's chapter house more than 80 years ago.

The trowel comes in a presentation box with a handwritten note. Picture: Chris Etchells

The trowel comes in a presentation box with a handwritten note. Picture: Chris Etchells

Fanny Louisa Tozer, who had the honour of dabbing the mortar on the freshly-laid stone, was the daughter of one of the Steel, Peech and Tozer company's founders, and paid for the chapter house to be built in memory of her parents.

Her tribute remains an integral part of the church today. But the trowel embarked on its own journey, finishing up at an auction house in Chichester, where it was spotted for sale online by the cathedral's Reverend Canon Keith Farrow - a collector of silver who stumbled across the listing by sheer chance.

He won the auction with a bid of £60, and has put the tool on show in the cathedral along with a handwritten note that tells its story.

Rev Canon Farrow said he had 'no idea at all' the item was about to be offered for sale.

"I have an interest in silver and these days most auction houses are on the internet. I collect little bits of silver, so I was putting in the search engine 'Sheffield Cathedral silver' and this popped up. I thought 'Right, it needs to come home'. The day after, I got on to the auction and began to bid for it."

He admitted that £60 was 'not an enormous amount', but winning the sale was not guaranteed.

"I think someone else was bidding for it. I was hoping it wouldn't go too high, there was a point where I would have had to stop. For a piece of Sheffield history it's not an expensive thing. Who wants a trowel with Sheffield Cathedral inscribed on it, other than Sheffield Cathedral?"

Made by silversmiths Walker & Hall, and given as a gift to Fanny, the trowel was one of two used on April 23, 1937. The other was presented to Princess Mary, Countess of Harewood, the only daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, who laid the foundation stone of the cathedral's wider extension, which the chapter house formed part of.

"The chapter house would have costed a king's ransom with the stained glass windows and all of the carving," said Rev Canon Farrow. Fanny's parents were Edward Tozer, a former Master Cutler and Mayor of Sheffield, and his wife, also called Fanny.

"These were the days of the great steel magnates. These moneyed families were philanthropic, putting money back into the city. A lot of these families gave money for the rebuilding of the cathedral after the war."

How the Tozer trowel arrived in Chichester is 'a mystery'.

"That I'm not sure about. I don't even know if there are any Tozer family left. They must have lived in Sheffield. Certainly her brother was the Master Cutler, they were an influential, industrial family. On the day, she would have just touched the mortar. She would have lifted a hand up, the bishop would have blessed it, the master mason would have levelled the stone, and that would have been it."

The other gift 'must be at Harewood House or in the Royal Collection', he said.

"I just read online 'Sheffield Cathedral, St George's Day 1937', and knew on that day the foundation stone was laid. Some people may not have known, but I thought 'I'm on to something here'. When I got it through the post it had a bit of paper inside, written - I believe - in Fanny Tozer's hand.

"But it does look like a cake slice. I could serve canapés on it quite easily."