Many names spring to mind when one thinks of the most famous, important or influential engravers to have worked in the English gun trade over the years and you could reel off a list as long as your arm, but one name which should always be near the top of that list, if not the top, is Henry ‘Harry’ Kell. He was a pioneer in game scene and animal engraving and pushed the boundaries of artistic, unusual and life like styles of engraving. For three quarters of a century the name Harry Kell, both father and son, was associated with the very best London gun making.
Considered to be possibly the most famous work Harry Kell did was three miniature guns that were presented to George V on his silver jubilee and of course the pair of Purdey guns he engraved for Queen Mary’s Doll House. He engraved for all the best London gun makers but most of his work was unsigned. His work inspired a new generation of engravers, most famously Ken Hunt, who was apprentice to Harry and was taken on by Purdey’s in 1950.
Harry Kell, born Henry Albert Kell in 1880 into a family of engravers served an apprenticeship under his father, Henry John Kell (1860 – 1929), also known as Harry. Henry learnt his trade under Thomas Sanders and worked for his engraving business, Thomas Sanders & Son, which he joined around 1875. Thomas Sanders employed a small team of engravers doing work for much of the London trade and established his engraving workshops, which were based in Soho at 13 Dean Street, in 1862, moving to 6 Greek Street in 1866 and just before the outbreak of the First World War, he moved to 142 Wardour Street where he remained until the business closed in 1919.
In 1919 Henry Kell, who was already a partner in the business, took it over and named it Henry Kell & Son. Henry kept the business at 142 Wardour Street for a few years until moving it to 38a Broad Street in 1921. The business remained there until 1937 when it was moved to 45 Broadwick Street (Broad Street renamed) where it saw out the Second World War and remained until 1957.
Harry Kell was apprenticed to his father around 1894 and took over the company when his father died in 1929. Harry changed the name of the business in 1952 to Henry Kell, but remained at 45 Broadwick Street until 1957 when failing eye sight and health forced him to move into the Purdey factory, he died a year later in 1958.
The latest used gun to pass through our hands is a Purdey 12g sidelock engraved by the great man himself. Completed in 1932 as the No. 2 of a pair it was made as a lightweight gun weighing only 6lbs 3oz, with 28” barrels made for M.M. Johnson Esquire. Beautifully engraved game scenes with pheasants flushing from a wood, surrounded by intricate rose and scroll on the left lock, partridges in a woodland scene, again surrounded by rose and scroll on the right and a retrieving spaniel on the bottom of the action with more rose and scroll. The gun retains some lovely case colour and is a truly superb example of what between the wars engraving had become and what lead the way for future engravers, pioneered by the likes of Harry Kell.
On our travels we are always on the look out for any interesting ephemera, photos and journals that may have a link to either the history of Westley Richards or the sport of hunting itself.
Last week in the US we picked up several vintage postcards that certainly make for fascinating viewing. Published in 1910 they depict various hunting scenes from the epic safari of Theodore Roosevelt’s which was conducted from 1909-10. At the time this was the largest safari ever conducted in Africa and involved some of the greatest hunters of the day including F.C.Selous and R.J.Cunninghame.
Over 500 animals and birds were collected by the former US President and his son Kermit, all of which were carefully skinned, prepared and shipped to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. This huge safari set the standard for the luxury safaris that were to follow and clearly put East Africa on the map for the dedicated US hunter.
Today Africa remains a magical safari destination where sportsmen from around the world can still participate in one of the last great adventures. Whether or not you would be able to send postcards such as these today is another matter altogether!
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Birmingham, the city is currently undergoing quite the transformation. The skyline is changing at a rapid pace and from the factory floor window I can count half a dozen cranes building new offices, multi story car parks and old Victorian factories being converted in to luxury apartments. HSBC are in the process of moving their retail division from London to Birmingham and big firms like Deloitte and Deutsche Bank are already present. With high speed rail coming to town in the next 10 or so years it will change beyond all recognition.
It is therefore, in these modern times, easy to forget what this city of ours once was, what it produced and what it stood for. And I’m sure it’s not unfair to say that it’s my generation and younger that are guilty of not knowing the routes of the city and in particular its gun making history. There’s no doubt a large proportion of society that would like disassociate guns with Birmingham and not so long ago a petition very nearly saw the name of our historic Gun Quarter changed and resigned to the history books. Luckily it was successfully fended off and common sense prevailed, a rarity in these times.
For me the gun making history of Birmingham is hugely important and something that should be remembered, not just in sporting gunnery but military as well and never more so than when our great nation faced the unimaginable prospect of World War One.
Leslie B. Taylor – Westley Richards Managing Director 1899 – 1930
In the years running up to war we were busy inventing and perfecting our sporting guns, under the expert guidance of Leslie Taylor who became managing director in 1899 and saw Westley Richards through the First World War. It was a busy time supplying the domestic market as well as the far reaching empire with guns and rifles and the Anson & Deeley action, the Droplock, the Explora and Fauneta guns were all in production by this point and the company was certainly in a state of advancement and success. Not long after we celebrated our centenary in 1912, Europe was at war and not only did the company see huge changes but the city and country as a whole.
Orders for sporting guns were generally suspended although some orders were taken through our London agency, which at the time was run by Arthur Gale, and the sole focus concentrated on the war effort. This was a time for carrying out government orders and taking up military contracts which while they would have put a huge level of intensification and stress on the company and to quote Mr. Taylor the work was ‘exacting and tedious’, there certainly would have been money to be made from the contracts and under Mr. Taylor’s famously logistical brain and management skills the company geared up for war.
A small pamphlet issued after The Great War to explain the work that had been carried out by the company during that time and to apologise for not completing orders that had been placed.
In 1914 we received an urgent order from the government to convert 10,000 service rifles to a ‘modern type’ for use of our army. The government ordered the employment of all of our highly skilled labour and early and late working for the rifles were badly needed. We were also involved in what was known as the Peddled Rifle Scheme which was basically a collaboration of various manufacturers to make a complete rifle, each factory would produce what it was they were most proficient at. We made complete rifle barrels with the blade front sight and complete rear sights which was closely monitored by the government inspection team that was set up in the factory over see our work.
Leslie Taylor also set up a Rifle Repair Department for reconditioning used guns which had been broken, damaged or had parts missing whilst used on the battlefield. Over the course of the war Westley Richards was responsible for repairing or converting over 200,000 rifles. We, of course, were one of many factories and gun works that produced or repaired weaponry or munitions for the war but perhaps the most famous of all was the Birmingham Small Arms company situated in Small Heath. They produced, amongst many other arms, the short magazine Lee Enfield .303 infantry service rifle and the Lewis machine gun, also in .303 and were producing around 10,000 rifles a week. There would have been several subsidiaries of the BSA and many back street workshops producing component parts to supply the bigger industrial factories. Many Ministry of Munitions employees were on ‘piece work’ and would have been paid for every part, round or task completed. People with, what was known as ‘reserved occupations’ such as engineers, were spared being sent to the front line as their skill set was deemed more valuable to kept back in England. So many people like tool makers were drafted to work in the gun making factories as their skills were transferable. However even with the drafting of men from other sectors, Westley Richards had to employ many unskilled men and boys to carry out delicate and detailed gun making such was the shortage of workers. At the peak of the war our work force had quadrupled in size and the factory ran day and night with our week starting at 7 o’clock on Sunday evening and the machines running without stopping until 5 o’clock the following Saturday afternoon.
A page from the centenary catalogue of 1912 showing the various departments at the Grange Road factory.
While many men would have joined up to fight right away, Leslie Taylor lobbied very hard to keep key workers from being called up while the factory was on munitions work. Some of our unskilled workers from our London agency were called to fight however Mr. Gale in fact wrote to the War Office to keep one particular man from being drafted.
A letter from the Ministry of Munitions of War in reply to Leslie Taylor and Arthur Gale’s request to keep workers from being called to fight.
While the government contracts took up most of the production, the London shop did take some sporting gun orders, with delivery postponed until after the war. Several men from the London shop were sent up to Birmingham to help out in the factory. We also took several private orders for rifles suitable for training and arming territorial personnel. In 1915, Sir Henry Bunbury of Manor House, Mildenhall ordered twelve .303 Martini rifles with bayonets, for a ‘Training Corps’. Ipswich Volunteers ordered eighty Westley Richards .303 Martini rifles. The Lincolnshire Territorial Army also placed an order for four Mark 1 Star Lee-Metford magazine .303 bore rifles with telescopic scopes and the Regent Street Polytechnic placed an order for one hundred .303 Westley Richards Martini Long Infantry Rifles for the Polytechnic’s Volunteer Training Corps.
The assembled gunmakers of Westley Richards photographed just prior to The First World War.
The war contracts actually continued up to 1920 but by then the sporting gun production had been restarted. Sadly as the government contracts finished there was an inevitable slump for most British industry. In 1920 the management of Westley Richards, which at the time was Leslie Taylor the managing director, the chairman – George Dawson Deeley the son of John Deeley the Elder and Charles Gardener was the export manager, had to reduce the workforce from 300 to 100 as well as a reduction in wages for the 100 who remained. Not much of a reward after the strains of the war!
The first world war had changed Westley Richards and Birmingham forever and gun making played a pivotal role in the industrialisation of Birmingham. The numerous factories all over the city making guns and munitions were so successful that sewing machine, bicycle and later car manufacturing all took inspiration in terms of manufacturing techniques and mass production from how Birmingham made guns.
Birmingham was always known as the city of a thousand trades and gun making has always been a proud part of its history. As the city changes its appearance and a new age of people take up residence I feel it important and necessary to acknowledge our gun making predecessors and the city and what they both achieved in our country’s time of need over 100 years ago.
I am fortunate, that in the Westley Richards used gun department, we deal with a wide variety of guns and rifles made by a whole host of different makers and it is with genuine excitement and intrigue that when a ‘new’ preowned gun comes through the doors, I get to unwrap the parcel and find out what’s inside. Sometimes my excitement is short lived when the gun is not what we’re looking for but luckily, for the majority of the time, the excitement stays with me as we offer the gun for sale.
This gun is the perfect example of that. It’s a beautiful Westley Richards Heronshaw boxlock ejector in superb original condition. Featuring 28”barrels, 2 ½” chambers, choked ¼ & Full which nearly all Heronshaw guns were choked. The action is a fixed lock, double trigger with all the normal Westley features, snap lever work, model ‘C’ dolls head extension and beetle back safety. The engraving is of our classic Westley scroll style which is unusual for a Heronshaw as they normally were engraved with a basket weave. It retains a good amount of original case colour hardening and the stock is highly figured with a very nice finish to it, measuring 14 5/8 to centre. The gun was completed in 1935 and comes in a leather case with accessories. It will be on our used gun site shortly at £4,995.
The first models of the Heronshaw were built from around 1920 onward and were sold as more of a value ejector gun as an alternative to the more expensive hand detachable lock. Priced at £52 and 10 shillings for a double trigger and £63 for a single, the Heronshaw proved to be a popular model with some later models having single selective triggers and hinged cover plates for inspection. It is a personal favourite of mine and is a solid, well made boxlock ejector that carries its own style of beauty and certainly stands out from the other boxlocks on the market. Should you not be lucky enough get your hands on this one, I have two more due in very soon!
I was kindly lent this old original tool which was made to take apart and reassemble the first Anson & Deeley boxlock shotguns. The purpose of the tool is to compress the main spring and allow the hammer to moved into position so the pin which goes from each side of the action through the pivot hole of each hammer can be aligned up.
If anyone can do a better technical explanation I would be happy to put it here! I am better at managing the ephemera collection it seems than doing the explanations of use!
The Nizam of Hyderabad’s Armoury was the largest single armoury that my father, Walter Clode, purchased during his times in India. The size and expense of the armoury led to a joint venture between his old friend and former manager of Westley Richards London, Malcolm Lyell. Malcolm went on to combine his acquisition of the Westley Richards Agency London with Holland & Holland. The joint venture between Holland & Holland and Westley Richards was a financial split and my father taking care of all the purchase and logistics getting the armoury home from India with which he was much more capable than the other party involved.
Over the weekend I was talking to my father about various times past and this little catalogue was brought out of some cubby hole and given to me. I had seen it many years ago but forgotten about the display cabinets which it represents. I have no idea how many were ever made and sold but I have never seen them appear on the market since.
I am sure that many of you who follow the market and auctions will have seen in recent months various collections being disposed of which were made at the time of this deal taking place. Hyderabad weapons featured quite strongly in these collections and were all magnificent items. I hope that the content of the catalogue will provide the information on the cavalry pistols so I have not repeated it.
For me this catalogue reminded me the attention to detail that Malcolm Lyell applied to the work he did at Holland & Holland. Rather than just sell the pistols individually he created and had made these displays which keep a group of the pistols together, a very nicely considered piece of marketing.
Every year Malcolm would have some special exhibition piece to draw attention to the company and sell, the carved guns by Alan Brown, Saurian 4g, Herculean 4g, the Rococco .410 gun, cased sets of rifles and sets of guns. These items went under the term “Products of Excellence” an annual offering which was immediately stopped by Roger Mitchell when he took over from Malcolm. I have always thought that a very, very stupid move!
At home discussing the ‘old times’ including Hyderabad with my father last weekend.
It is always nice to find rifles with good provenance and the Potocki family certainly bring that. This .318 carbine rifle is very nice in a few ways, we don’t see many surviving Westley Richards rifles in this original carbine format, rarely when we do will they have the original telescope and pouch. To have it in its original case and with provenance is the icing on the cake in this instance. This rifle was built for the 3rd Count Alfred Potocki who inherited the family estates during the first world war and who was reputed to be the wealthiest man in Europe. Descendent of William the Conqueror, godson to Kaiser Wilhelm II, this final Count Alfred was related to virtually all the royalty of Europe. Though land and legal reforms in the 1920s stripped him of some of his inherited properties and noble priviledges, Count Alfred was believed by some to be the wealthiest man in pre-Second World War Europe. Educated at Oxford and Vienna, Alfred traveled the world visiting royalty, hunting on safari, collecting impressive works of art to add to his palace collection and tending to his many properties throughout the continent. In the years before World War II, royalty and the super-wealthy dined, hunted and vacationed at Count Potocki’s palace and his several impressive lodge houses throughout the area.
Another famous member of the family Count Józef Potocki (1862-1922) inherited his mother’s estate in Antoniny, while his elder brother Roman was master of Łańcut. A man of remarkable talent and energy, he turned the 55,000 ha property into a very profitable entreprise. His gains financed the expansion of a stud via acquisitions of new stock in Egypt, India and the Middle East, which brought him in contact with Anne & Wilfred Blunt. His true passion however was hunting. Józef organized several remarkable expeditions in the 1890s to India, Ceylon, Somaliland and later to the Sudan, recounted in beautifully bound and illustrated books. One of them was translated in English under the title “Sport in Somaliland” and this book remains one of the most expensive and collectable books in the big game hunting department, often commanding prices in excess of £6000, a copy of which I have never ‘manned up’ enough and bought!
It is well known that the Birmingham gun trade, in addition to servicing its own requirements, supplied an enormous variety of individual parts, part finished and finished guns to the both the London and the provincial gun trade. There are many examples, for example I have a copy of the records of the London gunmaker James Lang & Co. Ltd and its later incarnation as Lang & Hussey and I’ve lost count of the number of times the name Osbourne appears in the ledgers under the heading “from”. In the past I believe that this was perhaps an inconvenient truth to some people, but now the same knowledge is recognised for what it is; unequivocal evidence of the diverse range skills and entrepreneurship of generations of craftsman from Birmingham and the Black Country. What was often of less concern to many in the past was the supply of parts and part-finished guns from Birmingham to the provincial gun trade. I’ll put my cards on the table; I am a strong advocate of the hypothesis that numerous examples of guns can be found bearing the names of provincial makers that are unknown to many but are at least equal in terms of quality and craftsmanship to those that carry the name of many well-known London makers.
My paternal line has at least part of its origins in Manchester and I have in my possession a memorial plaque or “Widow’s Penny” sent to soldier’s families during the Great War bearing the name of my Great Grandfather, Private Thomas Newton of the 1st Battalion King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, who fell at Ypres on 2nd May 1915. When I learned that there was also a Manchester gun maker called Thomas Newton, I had all the excuses I needed to start a collection.
One of the first Thomas Newton guns I acquired was an early 20th century Anson & Deeley type box ejector. It was in overall good condition but there were a few dings and scratches on the stock which had also been spoiled with a varnish-like finish, so I set about to strip the old finish, raise the dents and apply a proper hand rubbed oil finish.
When I took the forend wood off the iron work, I found the words ‘Westley Richards & Co’ a number, which I assumed is a part number, and ‘WR’ in a triangle engraved on the ejector box.
I had started researching the history of the maker Thomas Newton and the businesses which subsequently traded under his name and now another piece of the jigsaw had just fallen into place. What else might it tell me I thought? I got in touch with Karena Clode whose business card I had picked up at a CLA Game Fair, I emailed a picture of the ejector box and asked if these marks could be used to date the part or if anything was known about the supply of these to the Manchester gun makers such as Newton ? My email was forwarded to Trigger who quickly confirmed that the marks were original and it was a genuine Westley Richards supplied part, but unfortunately no records existed to show when such parts were supplied to the trade or anything else.
As quickly as that door on the history of Thomas Newton’s business had opened, it had closed, but never mind it was further proof of the provenance of my Manchester gun; Westley Richards played a part in creating my wonderful box lock ejector before it moved north to Manchester. My collection of guns, both hammer and hammerless and other pieces of shooting ephemera bearing the name Thomas Newton, has grown since I discovered the connection with Westley Richards’ work for the gun trade. Now, I’ve always wanted a Westley Richards and I’m wondering is this the excuse I need to start another collection?
The breech loader got its real introduction to England in 1851, when Casimir Lefaucheux exhibited his breech-loading pin-fire at the Great Exhibition in London’s Crystal Palace. Legend has it that Edwin Hodges, a multi-talented ‘gunmaker to the trade’ with Islington workshops, made an adaptation of the Lefaucheux gun for the established West End firm of Joseph Lang.
Lang’s gun is widely credited as the first proper sporting gun in Britain that successfully combined pin-fire cartridges with a usable, forward facing, under-lever locking mechanism with barrels that drop in a hinge. The idea stuck and breech-loading pin-fires were to dominate the scene for the next fifteen years.
While this step-change in technology was instigated by a London gun maker developing a continental idea, as with so much else in the history of sporting gun development, Birmingham firms, including Westley Richards, were at the forefront of perfecting new concepts and devising better operating mechanisms.
Pin-fire ammunition, though quicker than muzzle loading, was imperfect and the quest to improve upon it was quickly underway. However, in tandem with ammunition developments, the other challenge was to provide a quick, efficient and safe method of locking barrels to breech face. Many sportsmen were afraid that the new breech-loaders would come apart in their faces. Others claimed no breech-loader would ever ‘shoot as hard’, to use a then common phrase, as a muzzle-loader.
The development of the Dolls Head. From Bottom, Pull back lever, Rotating with developed Dolls Head, short lever rotate over extension, Top the first breech opening gun sold by Westley Richards
Among the first and most influential improvements on the rather flimsy Lefaucheux locking mechanism was the Westley Richards ‘doll’s head’. This is based on a projection from the breech ends of the barrels, extending from the rib. It has a rounded ‘head’ with a slot and the whole is drawn into a corresponding cut-out in the standing breech. The slot is engaged by a sliding top-bolt, preventing gravity from pulling down the barrels once the gun is closed.
Very early guns built with doll’s head rib extensions had a simple, long turning lever, which blocked the path of the doll’s head when closed. The first of these was made in 1858 as a pin-fire.
The first version of the, now familiar, system employed on Westley Richards guns features an 1862 patent sliding top-lever, rather than one that pivots. It most closely resembles the more commonly encountered Horsley of 1871 in the way the lever is operated. When the lever is pulled back with the right thumb, it slides the locking bolt out of the slot in the doll’s head.
The second version quickly followed in 1864 and became the basis of a classic. While examples of the first version are rare, those of the second version are legion. They span the pin-fire and centre-fire eras. In this second version, the lever rotates to the side when pressed with the right thumb. This rotation operates the removal of the top-bolt from it’s slot. This is still the sole means of securing the barrels to the action. To modern eyes it seems flimsy but it works and many guns built this way are still in regular use. It was employed on both shotguns and double rifles.
The third version of the Westley Richards action retains the doll’s head with its top-bolt as an effective third bite. However, the main holding mechanism is Purdey’s patent double under-bolt of 1863. The combination of the Purdey bolt and the Westley Richards bolted doll’s head is retained to this day in the firm’s double rifles and shotguns.
The Westley Richards treble-grip bolting system was used by other firms in the wider gun trade but far less commonly than the combination of top-lever, Scott Spindle, or Greener lever-work, operating a Purdey bolt. The wider trade favoured simplicity and the doll’s head concept was often imitated in the form of similar looking devices without a third bolt or grip. Third grips became a feature of Birmingham guns, while many London makers preferred the cleaner lines of a gun without a rib extension, preferring to rely on well-made actions and a Purdey bolt alone.
Greener’s rival ‘Treble Wedge Fast’ concept consists of a simple vertical slot in the breech, accommodating a rib extension that drops in, drilled with a hole to accommodate a round-section bolt, which slides into place horizontally, thereby bolting the barrels to the action through the fences, as well as via the Purdey under-bolt. The wider gun trade adopted versions of this system in all grades of gun. When made well, it is very secure but in lower grades, where the fit of parts is not perfect, the benefits of the Greener top-bolt are dubious.
Some firms even adopted a version of the doll’s head without any kind of bolt. The concept persisted with designers and the doll’s head extension became a key part of the Webley & Brain screw-grip action that was so widely used throughout the gun trade in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Westley Richards hammer guns of the 1860s bridged the development in ammunition from pin-fire to centre-fire. After Daw introduced the centre-fire to the British market in 1861, it began to gain traction. Today it is possible to find Westley Richards hammer guns, as described above, made as pin-fires or centre-fires and a number will be conversions from pin-fire to centre-fire.
The aesthetic norms for hammer guns developed along with the mechanical improvements. Early Westley Richards guns will typically be of bar-in-wood form, with most of the metal of the action covered by a veneer of stock wood, extending to the knuckle. The forend wood is similarly shaped, with wood enveloping the forend iron and looking somewhat like the hinges in the exoskeleton of a crustacean, hence the widely used term ‘crab joint’ to describe this style of gun.
As the 1870s progressed, hammer guns gradually lost their wood coverings and became the familiar pattern of exposed locks and actions with stocking limited to the areas behind the action and forend wood reducing to the, now familiar, ‘splinter’ style, with an exposed iron fitting into the knuckle.
Westley Richards were early to the party when hammerless guns began to gain favour. As patentees of the Anson & Deeley action in 1875, the firm were quick to favour this simple, brilliant and reliable hammerless gun as their house style, while many other firms continued to make hammer guns and experiment with various styles of hammerless action. I think that in the minds of the Westley Richards directors at the time, the hammer gun era was over in 1875.