The Story of English Silver

Silver: Precious metal which is lighter and slightly less malleable than gold, but unlike gold is prone to tarnishing due to chemical reaction with pollutants in the air. Silver products are made from an alloy of pure silver and a small proportion of a base metal such as copper to improve strength and durability. The proportion of pure silver varies according to standards set by different countries. See britannia standard, hallmarks, and sterling standard.

English silver has, for hundreds of years, been accepted as the finest in the world. We can thank both the unique system of Hallmarks and the jealous and zealous traditions of the Guild of Goldsmiths.

For over six centuries no article has been allowed to be sold in England as sterling unless it has been first tested at the “Hall” to determine that its quality is up to the required standard of nine hundred and twenty-five parts of a thousand pure silver. The remaining seventy-five parts of alloy were usually allowed to be copper which, together with the process of fashioning and aging, give silver a fine blue “patina.”

At the Hall, silver which passes the purity test is stamped with a number of identifying marks:

  • The Lion standing sideways with its front paw raised to show it is of the required quality.
  • The insignia of the town or city in which the test was made. (London, for example, is known by the mark of the Leopard’s head, Birmingham by an Anchor, and Sheffield by the Crown.)
  • A letter of the alphabet is used to illustrate a given year, thus representing the date. Since many cycles of alphabets can be written in different ways (A, a, A, etc.), many years can be covered.

In addition to the above marks, the silversmith may place his own identifying mark upon the silver, usually his initials. From the hallmarks the following may be quickly determined:

  • Purity of content.
  • Town of manufacture.
  • Date of manufacture.
  • Identification of the craftsman.

By virtue of the laws of the Guild, silversmiths were required to serve an apprenticeship of seven years to learn the craft. At the end of that period the apprentice became a full member of the Guild as a Master Silversmith. In this way, quality of metal and quality of craftsmanship were protected. At the end of the 17th century, when Protestants were being persecuted anew in France, the cream of French silversmiths (Huguenots), fled to England seeking the religious freedom they knew could be obtained there. Since many of those craftsmen were equal to England’s finest, their influence in design has lasted to the present day.

A New Era

The 18th century saw the birth of the industrial revolution and the introduction of tea as a national drink. These two factors provided wealth for the ordinary person to buy silver and also inspired the need to use it and to show off one’s worldly possessions by means of a display of silver. At that time, the crafting of silver was considered a major art form, and it must be remembered that the world was on a silver not gold standard.

Antique Sheffield Plate

Thomas Boulsover introduced Old Sheffield Plate around 1745. This method consisted of joining a thick ingot of silver to a thicker ingot of copper by fusion, after which the single ingot was rolled out into sheet form, from which articles of “imitation silver” were made. The quality of Sheffield was determined by the ratio of silver to copper and that was controlled by the silversmith in the beginning ingot stage. The success of this form of silverware was fantastic. Then, in 1784, tax was placed on Sterling Silver, causing Sheffield Platemakers to increase and multiply rapidly. By law, no marks may be placed on Sheffield Plate to resemble sterling marks, and one often finds the fine old pieces unmarked, sometimes only with a maker’s mark.

Old Sheffield Plate is a term familiar to those whose business includes buying and selling English silver and plated ware. The name covers silver plated goods made in Sheffield and Birmingham in the so-called “Sheffield Century.” That era ranged from about 1750 to about 1840, when the introduction of electroplating, with its economy and production advantages, superceded the original method of plating.

The exact date of the discovery that led to the production of Sheffield Plate is not known, but it was probably sometime between 1740 and 1750. Thomas Boulsover, a Sheffield silversmith, was working on the repair of a silver handled knife when he accidentally overheated it. As a result of his mistake, the silver became fused with a piece of copper which he was using. Intrigued by the result of his mistake, Boulsover tried fusing together a block of copper and a block of silver, rolling the two together into sheet form. He subsequently produced the first sheet of fused silver and copper…thus, the name “Sheffield” for its place of birth.

The steps involved in manufacture of Old Sheffield Plate were as follows:

A. The surfaces of an ingot of copper and a strip of fine silver were flattened by hammering.

B. The silver was bound to the copper by heavy steel wires. The two metals were then fused by a furnace at a high temperature.

C. The fused metals were rolled into sheets. At this point processes varied, depending upon the article to be manufactured.

SINGLE ROLLED PLATE: A silver strip was placed on one side of the copper ingot. When the item was made, the underside was covered with molten tin to conceal the copper. This explains the “black” appearance of the underside and inside of many old Sheffield pieces. Tin-backed pieces became known as “Poverty Back” items.

DOUBLE ROLLED PLATE: Silver strips were placed on both sides of the copper ingot in the initial process. Then the final product would show silver on both sides. Most Old Sheffield Plate pieces were shaped from a flat piece of metal by hand-hammering. Many flat pieces – tea trays, salvers, dishes – were stamped with hand-cut dies. Both methods were tremendous feats in their day and required an untold amount of knowledge and skill. Considering the great amount of hand labor required, today’s economy, combined with current labor rates, would cause Sheffield to cost more than sterling.

Old Sheffield pieces invariably had fancy mounts. They were filled with a metal composition and carefully soldered to the item. Handles and feet of trays, waiters and dishes were made in a similar manner.

The final process included hand-burnishing of all silver surfaces. This hardened the silver and gave it a bright finish.

ENGRAVING: At first, engraving was impossible. It would have exposed the copper. At the end of the century a method of “letting in” a silver shield was devised. A small shield was cut from the piece. Then a sterling silver shield was cut of exactly the same shape and size and substituted under heat. Great care was taken to ensure that the surface of the sterling silver shield and surface of the area into which it was fitted was clean and flat.

MARKS: Not all pieces of Old Sheffield Plate were marked, as marking was not required by law. For the most part, marked pieces were done by silversmiths who took pride in the merchandise they created. Such men included Thomas Law, Matthew Boulton, and the Creswicks, to name only a few. Where marks were used, it was still impossible to determine the exact date of manufacture because often only symbols were employed. However, experts can determine the approximate date of most items with reasonable accuracy by examining shape and decoration.

NOTE: It is interesting to note that the Sheffield process lasted slightly less than 100 years, from about 1745 to about 1840.

The discovery of electroplating by Dr. Smee in 1843 sounded the death knell for plating by fusion. Electroplating was faster and less expensive to use. With only slight alteration, the same method has been handed down from father to son in a long line of craftsmen. Briefly, the electroplating method is to fill a “vat” with a weak solution of acid containing certain salts, into which is placed an “anode” of pure silver. The article to be silvered is then suspended into the vat and a weak electric current is passed through the acid which attracts particles of silver from the anode and throws it onto the piece immersed alongside. Suspension time determines the quality and thickness of silver coating. At the desired time, the piece is removed from the vat. After a washing with water and acid, it receives its fine finish from the hands of a skilled craftsman who uses a fast spinning buffing machine.

Victorian Plated Ware

“Victorian Plated Ware,” as the term implies, is used in respect to plated articles made during the latter part of the Victorian period. Such articles are of high grade manufacture on various hard metals, such as Electroplate on Nickel Silver (E.P.N.S.), or white metal.

Most of these wares are fashioned from designs created in the earlier periods and subsequently developed according to the dictates of the decorative arts as well as consideration for utility. It may be further noted that Victorian Plated Ware fills the need for those who would have “nice things” yet less costly than old original antiques.

It should be observed that Old Sheffield or Victorian Plated Ware is often referred to in regard to the date as “C.1810” or “C.1880,” an abbreviation for the term “Circa (Ca)” – “around.”

Manufacturer’s emblems or trademarks on Victorian and modern plate should not be confused or associated with the often misquoted term of “Hall Marks.” The latter are found only on English antique or modern gold and silver wares.

It should be noted that most English Silversmiths over the centuries have concentrated on good quality and design instead of price. That is why one can find English silver and English silver plate scattered all over the world. Good quality is the reason it has lasted so long and will continue to be enjoyed by future generations.

The Story of English Silver
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