Edward Preston Tools History:
John Adamson charts the history of Birmingham’s greatest tool manufacturer and reveals the potential for adding Preston to your collection.
Of the many ways to build a collection of early tools one that is particularly rewarding and infinitely fascinating is to amass the tools of one maker or manufacturer. Choose a tool-maker with a significant output and who was active over a long span of years and you find yourself immersed in the evolving history of material culture as well as acquiring items that are awe-inspiring and often beautiful.
So for any craftsman or tool lover who wishes to build up a collection of vintage hand tools, a wonderful place to start might be to visit the world of Edward Preston & Sons of Birmingham. In its heyday, this firm produced a wide range of hand tools in wood and metal that are ergonomically sound, utilitarian but elegant – and affordably priced. Today, we can enjoy a twofold legacy: some of the firm’s designs live on in tools made later by other tool-makers; and many of the original tools are still available to buy, often at prices that vie with those of newly made tools. Whether you wish to showcase your Preston tools or work with them at the bench, they are a delight to behold – or to hold.
To be sure there is wizardry in working with such tools. Often they handle well; and have good balance, but there is also the thrill of reconnecting with the craftsmen of the time of the tools’ manufacture. Unearthing the historical background to the tools you gather together is part of the fun of collecting.
The workshop of the world
Little has been written about Edward Preston & Sons, but to some extent the tools speak for themselves. It is up to us to observe and interpret the tools as well as try and find out more about who made them. The firm claimed its year of foundation to be 1825. No documentary evidence has yet come to light to confirm that to be the case; all we can rely on is later documentation in which references to that date are made by the firm. Nevertheless, it is likely to be around that date, for checking the records of the first national census in 1841, we find an Edward Preston, plane-maker, living (and most probably also working) at 77 Lichfield Street in Birmingham. Genealogical websites such as findmypast.co.uk enable us to access historical census records currently up to 1911. Edward Preston’s age is given as 40 years old. We cannot be sure that this is accurate and even allowing a margin of error of a few years either way, online records do not yield a date for the birth of an Edward Preston in Birmingham at around 1800. Further research through the International Genealogical Index, also online through familysearch.org, does, however, give us an Edward Preston, christened on 26 March 1798 at the church of St Philip. Now, this English Baroque church, elevated to the status of cathedral in 1905 with the creation of the Anglican diocese of Birmingham, is not at all far from where Lichfield Street once lay. We can only surmise, for want of further evidence, that the child baptised on that day would one day become the founder of one of the great British tool-making firms of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
The disappearance of Lichfield Street is part of an interesting story in its own right. While he was mayor of Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain arranged for the Council to clear a slum area of 43½ acres of the inner city in the wake of the Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act of 1875. This included Lichfield Street, where the Preston family had lived and where the old workhouse had stood. New building began and the first portion of Corporation Street opened in 1878, with the street reaching Old Square by January 1882.
The French historian and statesman Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835 how taken aback he was by the burgeoning industry of Birmingham on a visit to the city: ‘The whole place is like the streets of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. It is an immense workshop, a huge forge, a vast shop.’ Already the city had earned its reputation as the ‘workshop of the world’.
A family affair
City directories, many of them searchable online, confirm that Edward Preston of 77 Lichfield Street was carrying on a business as plane-maker. The Birmingham Directory for 1835 lists him as: ‘plane maker, Lichfield street’; but, interestingly there is another Preston (William) operating at nearby ‘57 Steel House lane’. Pigot’s Directory of 1837 lists Edward Preston as a plane-maker at 77 Lichfield Street (and also, importantly, as we shall see later, a John Rabone as rule-maker at 61 St Paul’s Square, near the Jewellery Quarter). Robson’s Birmingham & Sheffield Directory of 1839, however, refers to Preston as ‘dealer in all kinds of carpenter’s & cabinet maker’s tools’. The University of Leicester, which holds a remarkable hoard of historical directories of England and Wales in its Special Collections Online, was the passport to much of this information.
Going back to the census records we see in 1841 that one of Edward Preston’s children is his six-year-old son Edward. When we turn to the census for 1851 this boy is now listed as a 15-year-old youth, working as plane-maker, like his father, at 77 Lichfield Street. This census provides, for the first time, details of where each person was born. We learn that both father and son were born in Birmingham. The father’s age is now given as 54. Arithmetically, this now tallies better with the baptismal record of 1798. Business has grown, for the census states also that Edward Preston Sr has two men working for him.
Come the 1861 census, Edward Preston Sr is entered as being 63 years old, working still as plane-maker but now living at 97 Lichfield Street. Edward Jr is not listed but his younger brother Henry is, as a 16-year-old plane-maker. Evidence suggests that the younger Edward had set up his own successful tool business around that time; the 1871 census lists him aged 35 in the civil parish of Aston, as ‘Rule and Spirit Level Maker’, ‘employing 20 men, 17 boys 1 youth’. Meanwhile his father is listed at another Aston address as a 73-year-old ‘Master Plane Maker employing 3 men 1 boy’.
The son’s new line of business is confirmed by an advertisement from 1876 stating that the firm of ‘Edward Preston, Jun.’ had removed from 26 Newton St to Whittall Works, Whittall Street, and was the manufacturer of ‘Box and ivory rules, wood and brass plumb rules, engineers’ round and square tube spirit levels’ and much more – but not planes. The Whittall Works were located in the inner city at 22–24 Whittall Street, not far from what was then called the Birmingham and Midland Free Hospital for Sick Children, established in 1862 in Steelhouse Lane.
The 10 January 1880 issue of the New South Wales newspaper Northern Star, reporting on the continuing and astounding success of the Sydney International Exhibition which had opened three months earlier, highlighted the ‘fine ironmongery’ put on show there by Edward Preston, listing rules, spirit-levels, planes, joiners’ tools, tin-openers and corkscrews among other sundries. Edward Preston won the highest awards at the Sydney fair and again at the Melbourne fair in 1880. At the Adelaide Jubilee Exhibition in 1887, the firm won a first order of merit.
A talent for innovation
It is unclear when the younger Edward Preston began making tools other than rules, levels and can-openers, but it is likely to have happened not long after the move to Whittall Works in around 1876. The 1881 census records the continuing growth of the firm with the younger Edward listed as rule-maker and master, employing ‘53 men, 11 boys / 29 females’. A bill-head dated 1888 features planes, improved iron spokeshaves and joiners’ tools among the items manufactured by the firm, by then called Edward Preston & Sons, reflecting the partnership formed by the three sons of Edward Preston Jr with their father. The firm was incorporated in 1898 as a limited company. In the 1901 census Edward Preston Jr is listed as living in Edgbaston and working as ‘Maker of Rules, Planes, Wood + Metal spirit Levels and other tools used by Carpenters and others’. This is borne out by the Preston catalogue of 1901. Entitled Illustrated Price List of Rules, Spirit-Levels, Planes and Tools &c., Manufactured by Edward Preston & Sons, it was reprinted in the United States in 1979 with an introduction by Kenneth D. Robert. The firm’s 1909 catalogue The “Preston” Catalogue: rules, levels, planes, braces and hammers, thermometers, saws, mechanic’s tools &c.: Catalogue No. 18, May 1909 confirmed the continuing output of a wide range of tools. This catalogue, with outline history by Mark Rees, was reprinted by Astragal Press in the United States in 1995.
A move to cast metal
By the 1880s Edward Preston was making a range of cast-iron products, among them shaves, routers, and shoulder and bull-nose planes. In the picture below, on the left, is a 4in adjustable bull-nose side-fenced rebate and chamfer plane, with maker’s mark of Edward Preston, Birmingham, and model no. 1335. There are three fences, two for chamfering and one side fence. The cutter is adjusted by a milled head screw. Centre and right are two planes with maker’s mark of Edward Preston & Sons Ltd, Birmingham, the left-hand one, without adjuster, features in the Preston 1909 catalogue, whereas the plane on the right with set-screw adjuster may be a later model.
A lasting legacy
The report of the death of Edward Preston Jr in the Lichfield Mercury of 26 September, 1913 refers to the establishment of the firm on the site of the Victoria Courts, Corporation Street, 10 years before he
was born in 1835. This lends weight to the assertion that the firm was indeed founded in 1825.
‘Mr. Preston was decidedly of an innovative turn of mind,’ wrote the newspaper, ‘as many of the machines in use at his works as well as of the tools produced were the invention of himself and his three sons, who now manage the business.’ Business by 1913 was carried on at the Whittall Works in Cheston Street, Aston, Birmingham.
When the firm fell on hard times it was acquired in 1932 by John Rabone & Sons, the long-established Birmingham makers of rules. Two years later, manufacturing rights to some of the Preston range of
planes were sold to the Sheffield firm of C. & J. Hampton, the forerunner of the Record Tool Company. Some of the Preston plane designs were directly added to the Record line, whereas others were modified.
It is interesting to think how rules and spirit-levels were very much part of the Preston success story. We can draw a parallel between the way the Stanley Rule and Level Company evolved into Stanley Tools in the United States and the way Edward Preston Jr’s firm grew out of being rule and level makers to become innovative general hand-tool manufacturers in Great Britain. Both companies were targeting the same mid-priced market. Stanley’s competition became increasingly fierce and in spite of Preston’s ingenuity it undoubtedly contributed to the English firm’s demise.