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Ken Hawley

Credit: Photo: Michael Springer

As a young counter hand in a Sheffield, England, tool shop just after World War II, Ken Hawley probably never dreamed that he would someday possess one of the largest and most historically significant tool collections in Great Britain. But when I met him nearly 60 years later, he was busy overseeing what is now known as the Hawley Foundation Trust Collection (www.sheffield.ac.uk/hawley), housed in its own building at the University of Sheffield.

From its humble start with a single joiner's brace acquired from an undertaker's workshop in 1955, the collection has grown to more than 100,000 items of incalculable value. Many of the tools are early production models or prototypes that were never manufactured and could never be replaced at any cost. Touring factories in northern England that were being closed, Hawley managed to salvage tools and cutlery as well as tools used in their manufacture, along with many samples of items at different stages of their creation. By the time his collection no longer fit into all the buildings on his property about 10 years ago, Hawley realized that he had assembled a national treasure, and a trust was created to manage it.

Though providing a culturally significant historical record of many goods that Sheffield works were famous for making for centuries, the collection still awaits a permanent display space–not an easy task as it is competing against the 2012 Olympics for national grant funds. Until then, the collection will wait in its countless bins upon countless shelves with none but cataloging archaeology students beholding its entire grandeur, albeit one piece at a time. The collection is open by appointment but is not easy to access in its current state.

Hawley continues to seek out new items for the collection, but he's not one to part with a tool. He recounted a story about an adamant American collector hot after one of his treasures who insisted that "every man has got his price." But in the end, like his tools, Hawley remained priceless. –Michael Springer