I think this is a nice and fitting conclusion to the story of the pair of Damascus Barrel guns, which both I and new owner Gary Duffy have both posted about, to show that they have made their way through the restoration and on to a new life in the field doing what they do best!
A Very Happy Thanksgiving to you all, we hope you have a wonderful day with family and friends!
Turkey Hunting has always fascinated me, I have heard so many hilarious stories from people sat for long hours, dressed in cammo under trees and whistling in Turkey’s to no avail, but always highlighted by a magnificent tale. It is a hunt I always wanted to try but just never seemed to be in the right place at the right time.
I know in Iceland at Christmas it is the man’s job to go into the hills and shoot Ptarmigan for the Christmas table, a task that is getting harder and harder as you need one per person. I assume in USA at one point, perhaps a similar duty fell for the preparation of the Thanksgiving feast. So for all those who managed to serve up their own hunted turkey today, congratulations! Probably the wild turkey are as tough as old boots and the market version is preferred!
Over the coming weekend we have a variety of offers on our website shop. Today 10% off the whole shop, Friday 20% off our History book, on Saturday the beautiful range of Faliero Sarti scarves at 20% off making a perfect gift, on Sunday a free Westley Richards Tweed cap from our range of 20 styles with any piece of Cashmere knitwear ordered, on Monday a free tie with any W R & Co. shirt. These will be coming through on our email newsletters.
The discount codes for the weekend are;
Thursday – Thanksgiving – WR10TG
Friday – History Book – wrbook20
Saturday – Faliero Sarti – sarti4xmas
Sunday – Cashmere & Tweed – wrcashcap16
Monday – Shirt & Tie – wrshirt&tie16
On my ‘Bucket List’ for the past 20 or so years has been the re-patriation, to where it rightfully belongs, of the original painting of The Bishop of Bond Street which currently hangs in the Holland & Holland Bruton Street gunroom.
When Malcolm Lyell left Holland & Holland in the late 80’s and the company was sold to Chanel, the painting had been hanging in an office at Holland’s with little attention paid to it. Malcolm when he had bought the Westley Richards agency in the early 50’s had use of much of the contents of our Conduit Street shop. These included, furniture, signs, record books, William Bishop’s Clock (which I now have back), his portrait and many other items from our past.
Roger Mitchell who took over as MD of Holland’s approached my father with an offer to buy the painting and one which my father accepted. He blames the fact that he didn’t really know what he was selling as hadn’t really seen it that much. Whatever, the painting passed into Holland’s hands and has remained there since.
In its own right the painting is a very good portrait executed by Henry Barraud in 1848 and one that shows the character of the Bishop very well, a man who was never caught without his Top Hat off! As a painting that hangs in another gunmakers gunroom I have never quite understood the relevance and why they would not rather promote their own history, founders and managers. It has always seemed strange that they allow the ‘good management’ of a Westley Richards gunroom to be displayed with such importance in their own place of business.
Over the years, I and many other of my good customers have tried to get the painting back, alas to no avail. I tried again once more last week and asked the current MD Daryl Greatrex if there was any chance to buy or exchange for money and a painting I have of a notable Holland client shooting and was told ‘no’ he thought there was no chance! I don’t believe in all these years that the question has ever been asked of the man who could or would actually make the decision to let the painting return to the company it rightfully belongs but perhaps one day that will happen.
I think now I have to expose the painting and ‘link it’ permanently in peoples minds to Westley Richards so that when anyone visits the Holland & Holland gunroom they immediately think Westley Richards. Perhaps in the end this is better advertising use than having it myself!
Obviously any help from a ‘well connected’ person in getting the picture back would be most appreciated!!
We have to be quite secretive about who we work with in this field, especially in the area of engraving where quality work is competed for. Hence I am afraid this will be a ‘no names’ given out piece of writing!
A year or so ago, I was approached by a man determined to get into gun engraving as a second career, I invited him to the factory and he came to visit me and showed me his practise plates. He had done a wide variety of work, scroll, game scenes, inlay and I think even perhaps a little relief work. All the work had been done with only a little advise and help from one of our more regular engravers who had steered him over a period of months. The work was very impressive considering mainly self taught and the dedication to doing the work even more so. There was however the confusion of too many subjects and techniques being used, none of them mastered, very nice work but not ready to put on one of our guns.
Over a period of months I handed out various practise and unpaid projects which were taken on board and executed as carefully as possible. I emphasised, as I tend to do, that the basis for all engraving is getting the design and execution of fine scroll down and looking great before trying to move on to the more elaborate work. There is always a tendency with people starting to engrave, to race in and try and compete with the master engravers in the game scene and relief work arena, an area I have always felt best avoided until the scroll is mastered, why run before you can walk! After all who wants a game scene surrounded by badly executed scroll? There is scroll, be it fine or bold on every gun, but by no means do all guns have game or other fancy engraving work specified. Scroll and perfect lettering are the fundamentals as far as the gunmaker is concerned.
This 20g hand detachable lock gun is now the 4th gun the engraver has executed on commission for us in the traditional Westley Richards pattern. My message in this post is to thank him for his work, for listening and staying with the programme to get the fine scroll nailed. I know for both him as an individual engraver and for us a company the method will pay dividends and for my part it will be a great pleasure watching his work develop over the coming years into what I am quite sure will be something very special indeed, after all I have seen the practise plates and what is to come!
In a red-brick workshop, built when Victoria reigned, on the southern side of Birmingham, in the hamlet of Stirchley, the clock stopped a hundred years ago. Through a gray metal door, up 14 worn wooden steps, you enter the world of Haydn Jonathan Hill—a fifth-generation action filer to the British gun trade who makes guns by the same methods and machines his great-great-grandfather used more than a century past.
Rip out the flourescent lights and electrical wire, and there isn’t much in this workshop that Haydn’s ancestors didn’t or couldn’t use. Along three south-facing windows is Haydn’s workbench, cluttered with files, chisels, hammers, strips of emery—the sundry implements of traditional handwork.
At the back of the shop are the machines. Haydn flicks on an electric motor, and a line shaft suspended near the ceiling begins to turn, driving pulleys hung with a web of worn leather belts that are connected to lathes, millers, shapers and slotters below. The years roll back as the machines begin to chug and hum, and the Edwardian era is upon you. Here is a belt-driven vertical miller from Germany’s Friedrich Deckel; The Denbigh, another miller from A. Finney & Co.; and yet another from Alfred Herbert. All were in use when Britain’s soldiers marched off to France in 1914.
Haydn appeared bemused at his American visitor’s wide-eyed wonderment. “This is just normal for me,” he said. “I just work from basic machinings I do here, and then make guns with these parts by hand.”
Making guns by hand is what Haydn’s family has done since at least the 1860s. His earliest known ancestor in the gun trade was his great-great-grandfather, John Hill (born in Birmingham in 1844), a gunmaker and engraver who had at least two sons follow on: Jesse Hill (born in 1867) and Charles Hill (in 1877). Jesse—Haydn’s great-grandfather—and Great-Great-Uncle Charles were action filers skilled enough to be recruited to live and work in London by Holland & Holland in the 1890s, when the firm erected its own factory on Harrow Road. In time Jesse became a foreman at Holland’s, and he was joined there by his son, Jesse Jr. (born in 1886), probably in the early years of the 20th Century, because apprentices started work around age 14.
The younger Jesse stayed at Holland’s until just after the First World War, when he moved back to Birmingham to set up as an independent action filer to the trade in the city’s gun quarter—initially on Price Street, later on Steelhouse Lane, and then Great Brook Street. Jesse Jr. was in turn joined by his son, Henry Radford Roland Hill (born 1921 and better known as Harry), and the pair worked together until Jesse Jr.’s death, in 1961. Three years later Haydn was born to Harry, ensuring another generation would continue the family’s profession as action filers (or actioners as they are called today).
The family name Hill suffuses the history of the Birmingham trade—Nigel Brown’s British Gunmakers Volume Two lists 24 separate Hills as gunmakers in the 19th and early 20th Centuries. “I know almost nothing about them,” Haydn admitted, referring to who among them was related to whom, and how and where they lived, worked and died. Like so many craftsmen now forgotten, these were working men who labored in anonymity for larger gunmakers who had established their names as retail brands. In an age that was hierachical and class-bound, those who worked with their hands were seldom recognized; their achievements were even less often celebrated or recorded.
Recognition, if not fame, had come tantilizingly close for at least one family member. From his grandfather’s desk, Haydn pulled a small, tattered black book dating to 1919. It had belonged to his Great-Great-Uncle Charles, who at some point in the early 20th Century had left Holland & Holland for London’s James Woodward & Sons, where in 1913 he co-patented (Nos. 4986 and 9562, with Charles Woodward and W.P. Evershed) the firm’s enormously influential sidelock over/under. Charles has been credited by British gun historians such as Nigel Brown and David J. Baker as being largely responsible for the seminal design, and lore has it that he later left because he felt he had not received enough credit for its creation. Today the gun is not known as the Hill/Woodward over/under, rather only as the Woodward.
Cracking open the book, its pages brittled by time and darkened by generations of fingers smudged with smoke black and gun oil, Haydn pointed to an entry of hand-drawn dimensions for a 12-gauge sidelock over/under. At the top of the page bearing the drawings, in faint pencil in Charles’s hand, was the word “Woodward.”
“Good heavens,” said English gunmaker Robin Brown, who had accompanied me to Haydn’s. “Now that is a page of gunmaking history.”
A cache of correspondence dating from the 1920s through the ’70s and pages from a ledger book revealed just how many of England’s storied gunmakers had used Haydn’s great great uncle, grandfather and father to make their actions at one time or another: Grant, Lang, Hussey, Harrison & Hussey, Beesley, Jeffrey, Rhodda, Gibbs, Army & Navy, Osbourne, Powell, Holloway, Cogswell & Harrison, and Churchill, among others. There were orders for A&D boxlocks; screw-grips of all grades; sidelocks of conventional, Beesley, and Baker-design; double rifles; pigeon hammerguns; and over/unders.
“Best”-quality sidelock over/under actions built to the Woodward pattern—very difficult to make—were evidently a specialty, not only of Charles’s but also of Jesse’s. A letter to Jesse from E.J. Churchill (Gunmakers), Ltd., dated September 5, 1933, for an “urgent order” of an over/under pigeon gun reads as follows: “You have been recommended to us as the most likely person to suit our requirements and we are therefore placing this order with you and if satisfactory several other orders will follow . . . . This gun has to be shipped to New York at the end of November so you will appreciate no time can be lost.”
Jesse and Harry Hill did an enormous amount of work for Churchill’s from the 1930s until the firm closed, in 1980, and, according to Haydn, both knew the charasmatic owner well. In the mid-1950s Robert Churchill tasked Haydn’s grandfather with simplifying, perfecting and building his firm’s new Zenith over/over, a nettlesome triggerplate design that—according to Harry as quoted in Don Masters’ The House of Churchill—“almost drove his father [Jesse] mad.” Said Haydn: “I think my grandfather was under a lot of pressure to make the gun work.”
Despite the Zenith’s noteriety—Churchill promoted it in his popular book Game Shooting, and the story of its development became something of a consuming passion for British gunwriter Geoffrey Boothroyd—only two are believed to have been completed of the five originally envisioned. It was simply too complicated and too expensive to build commercially.
Haydn walked to the corner of his workshop to a bank of wooden drawers, pulled one open and, to the clanking of steel, rummaged through a nest of old actions to extract an over/under-body machining coated in a fine patina of rust. “It’s for a Zenith,” he said. “Never made up.” Then he found a set of barrels, with the breeches sculpted in the distinctive serpentine shape peculiar to Churchill’s gun. I could only imagine what Boothroyd would have thought if he’d seen them.
In 1958, when redevelopment in inner-city Birmingham flattened their premises at Great Brook Street, Jesse and Harry moved to the current workshop, bringing their ancient machines with them. In 1980, at 16, Haydn joined his father, then working alone, and began training under him as an apprentice action filer.
“You’ll have soon finished your apprenticeship,” quipped Robin, who also started work under his father at age 16 at A.A. Brown & Sons.
“There’s always something new to learn, isn’t there?” Haydn replied.
By the early ’80s, the Hills were mostly making sidelocks for the trade. A gunmaker typically would supply them with the barrels made up, machinings for the action and forend, and a set of locks. As actioners, Harry and Haydn would make, fit and regulate the internal components, chamber the barrels and joint them in, file up the action, fit the furniture, and have the gun proofed. The gunmaker-client would then take the action in-the-white back to be stocked, engraved, hardened and final-finished under its own name.
Harry taught young Haydn by allowing him to rough machine small components. “I didn’t take them to the finished stage,” Haydn said. “My father would finish them off by hand. After about a year he decided to push me further on, to actually fitting the parts. Then I moved on to fitting leverwork, ejectorwork, safework, then connecting it all up, until he thought I could do most of it.”
Learning to joint the barrels to the action—that is, the time-consuming, skill-intensive job of mating the bearing surfaces of each to the other—came last. “I was never allowed to do much jointing until later on—after maybe 10 years,” Haydn explained. “Too much at stake; if you scrape a pair of barrels, you’re in big trouble.”
And it wasn’t until his father suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1993 that Haydn began to consider himself a gunmaker in full. “I was thrown in the deep end really,” he said. “One day he was there; the next he wasn’t.”
After his father died, in 2005, Haydn became sole owner of Jesse Hill Gunmakers, and despite ups and downs in the British gun trade, he has never lacked work.
Today Haydn enjoys a reputation as a first-rate jointer, a craftsman who works to best standards and is possessed with a flair for filing up actions with elegance and grace. As an actioner to the trade, he declines to discuss the identities of current clients, but as an example of ongoing work, he revealed a massive large-bore action on his workbench. It was a boxlock with a hidden third-fastener, and Hayden had sculpted it by hand with large bolsters and was still in the process of jointing in its rifled barrels—a difficult job, given its Saurian size and weight.
“How many times have I been in here and you’ve had a moan about it?” Robin said.
“Yeah, yeah,” Haydn replied. “Hard work to joint, it is. Makes my shoulders ache.”
Yet for Haydn, traditional gunmaking—using manually operated machines to mill, drill, slot and rough out components, and then push a file and wield a chisel to literally craft a gun by hand from them—presents not only a challenge to rise to but also an accomplishment to take pride in. “A proper gun is as good on the inside as it is on the outside,” he said.
Haydn has never been asked to make a gun from the CNC-milled, wire- and spark-eroded components made close to final tolerances that are now ubiquitously used in the trade. Would he ever do so? “I would, yeah,” he said. “Can’t turn down work. But I don’t think I’d enjoy it. A machine-made gun is just a kit. It’s not really gunmaking, is it?”
The answer is complex, beyond the scope of this article, but Haydn’s question is an existential one that goes to the heart of artisinal gunmaking’s future—in England, in Europe, in America, everywhere.
At 50, Haydn Hill is still young, as gunmakers go, and his skills ensure years of work to come. “I don’t think there are many jointers out there with my experience.” But he acknowledges that he is among the last of a type: a gunmaker trained before the trade’s adoption of CAD/CAM technology. “Gunmaking—as I know it—is a dying art.”
He will likely also be the last of his line of Hills to make guns in Birmingham. Without a son, he shakes his head at the thought of bringing along an apprentice. “This is the sort of trade where you follow on from your father, who followed on from his, and he from his.”
One day he may consider making a gun or two with the Hill name on it—a handful exist from his grandfather’s day—but “it’s not something I’ve given much thought to.”
In the meantime there are actions to make for others and guns to build. “Well . . .” said Haydn, looking anxious to return to the century-old bench that he has known since he was a boy. “I’ll be here until I drop. It’s all I’ve ever done.”
Author’s Note: For more information, contact Jesse Hill Gunmakers, Ash Tree Rd., Stirchley, Birmingham, B30 2BJ, England.
Vic Venters is Shooting Sportsman’s Senior Editor.
My sincere thanks to Ralph Stuart Editor of Shooting Sportsman Magazine for allowing me to publish, in full, this article by Vic Venters on Haydn Hill.
Finally I would like to add..
“Given that London gunmakers often regard Birmingham craftsmen as little more than blacksmiths it’s ironic that one of the world’s most expensive shotguns — the Woodward over/under as built today by J Purdey & Son — actually has Birmingham origins….”
One of the photo projects I discussed with Brett, many months ago now, when he was teaching me to use the Leica M system and had asked me to suggest locations I would enjoy photographing, was a visit to this workshop owned by Haydn Hill in Birmingham. It was a project we never managed to fulfil together. This is a workshop that is ‘totally normal’ to Haydn himself and totally historic to all of us involved in gunmaking, it is a museum.
So it was actually with great reluctance that I commissioned Brett last week to go and do the job for me, an excellent decision I feel as the resulting images are worthy of the location rather than it having been a students playground.
To add the story to these images I am sincerely grateful to both Vic Venters and Ralph Stuart of Shooting Sportsman Magazine for allowing me to publish Vic’s article which appeared in the magazine which you will find in the preceding post.
About Brett, the photographer.
At the tender age of six, a plastic camera and darkroom kit started Brett’s lifelong passion for photography. After leaving school he got the break that put him on the path to a fulfilling career as a photographer, when he was offered an apprenticeship at the Birmingham Post, England. Brett graduated to open his own portrait studio and was awarded Kodak Photographer of the Year at the age of 25.
His love of art and architecture led him to further hone his craft in the field of commercial & industrial photography using large format cameras. His motivation to capture everyday scenes within a special day and to find the extra in the ordinary led him to tell the story of weddings with his camera of choice, the Leica M.
Brett went on to consult for Leica Camera coaching enthusiast and professional photographers at Leica Akademie, Mayfair and in workshops worldwide.
He also undertakes bespoke commissions and personal projects. His signature look is the synergy between street photography, documentary and lifestyle imagery.
The day’s pass rapidly by and I am very conscious that I have been negligent on keeping the new posts put up here on The Explora, we value your visiting the site and following our story. Please let me reassure you that I have not disappeared and the normal frequency will be resumed now that I am back at the factory, I had a short and I feel, well deserved break away! I am pleased to say that there are some very nice and nicely illustrated subjects coming up shortly.
Recently I sent photographer Brett (ByBrett) on a day’s shoot at Vaynor Park, a shoot which has always been one of my favourite days out in the field, a classic English driven bird shoot on the most beautiful estate.
Brett has also photographed for me the “Birmingham Trade”, the small workshops in the Birmingham Gun Quarter which are homes to individual craftsmen’s business’s. Nobody is sure how long the Gun Quarter will survive in its current guise as the developers continue to transform Birmingham. Also visited was the remarkably preserved and interesting Birmingham workshop of Hayden Hill. Hayden maintains a full compliment of belt driven machinery which is unique these days and which compliments his family’s quite formidable gunmaking history.
It would not have been sensible to not shoot new photographs in our own workshops whilst we were at it, so a fresh new look at the workshops is also coming shortly.
In the new gun department we have some super Bolt action rifles just completed and a pair of .600 NE rifles, the first pair we have made. In the finishing shop we have 3 pairs of 28/.410 guns each set engraved in a different style by engravers Lepinoise, Spode and Silke.
We have been busy also with our used gun department and will shortly be showing our recent acquisitions. These include guns, bolt action and double rifles of our own make as well as those by J. Purdey, Holland & Holland, J. Rigby and Fabbri.
Once again thank you for your patience and my time “off”.
It was some months ago now that I posted the first photographs of this .470 rifle, just after it had been case colour hardened. I posed the question about leaving the colour on, or brushing the colour off, the post attracted numerous opinions. (Previous Article).
Here, at last, we see the finished rifle together with the final choice of the client, the case colour left on, the rifle ready for the bush and the natural wear that will occur over time.
In my opinion the correct choice, I always liked the big carved R.B.Rodda rifles with their case colours and I believe this rifle continues in that vein. In the opinion of Paul Lantuch the engraver, the incorrect choice as I know he wanted to see the rifle showing off the engraving at its best!
Either way this engraving work is spectacular and the rifle has, and I am sure will continue to receive many favourable comments from people who have seen it. Not a bad slab of timber also!
A Westley Richards .470 Hand Detachable Lock double rifle. Engraving by Paul Lantuch. Cased by Westley Richards leather shop in a traditional lightweight green canvas Safari style case.
Somewhere, in USA I believe, lies the 3rd matching gun of this set of three Joseph Lang 8g guns. These were purportedly built for 3 wild fowling friends to the exact same specification and on consecutive serial numbers in 1911. The only noticeable difference you will spot is the case label initials, every other detail is that of a paired guns, minor stock measures aside, which are hardly noticeable!
These, once again, like the Lancaster guns and Howdah pistols I showed recently are in remarkable condition and show no sign of use. It is always exciting to find guns in this condition now, a condition which is seemingly so scarce now and guns and rifles found of this quality easily form cornerstones of a collection. These are the types of guns which I have always considered ‘bullet proof’ when it comes to future values, they are guns which no dealer can ever pick fault with in an attempt to realise a (lower) value!
J.Lang 8g Sidelock Underlever side by side shotgun #15061. 34″ chopper lump barrels bored .840 in both with extra full choke. 3 1/4″ chamber. Concave game rib with single bead foresight. Sidelock non ejector action with dolls head third fastener, double triggers and manual safety. Full fine scroll engraving with 95% plus colour remaining. Rounded pistol grip stock with horn extension and engraved oval. English splinter forend with push rod release. Weight 13lb 1oz. Complete in best oak & leather case with velvet lining and compliment of tools. Stock measures 13 1/2″ pull, 1 13/16″ x 3 1/8″ drop, cast off 1/4″ at heel and 5/16″ at toe.
J.Lang 8g Sidelock Underlever side by side shotgun #15062. 34″ chopper lump barrels bored .840 in both with extra full choke. 3 1/4″ chamber. Concave game rib with single bead foresight. Re-proofed in 1980 but only logical reason is that this gun was originally proofed as a 9/2 bore. Sidelock non ejector action with dolls head third fastener, double triggers and manual safety. Full fine scroll engraving with 95% plus colour remaining. Rounded pistol grip stock with horn extension and engraved oval. English splinter forend with push rod release. Weight 13lb 1/4oz. Complete in best oak & leather case with velvet lining and compliment of tools. Stock measures 13 1/2″ pull, 1 13/16″ x 2 13/16″ drop, cast off 1/4″ at heel and 1/4″ at toe.