Ken Hawley
Ian Beesley Ken Hawley

Ken Hawley, a world renowned tool collector and industrial historian, died this August at the age of 87. His collection of tools, photos, and documents— known as the Hawley Collection— is housed at the Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield, England.

Hawley began collecting in 1950 while working as a tool salesman; he was demonstrating an electric plane at a customer’s workshop when he noticed an unusual wooden joiner’s brace hanging on the wall. He acquired that tool and in the decades that followed went on to collect more than 100,000 items, mostly from his hometown of Sheffield England—a hub of cutlery, steel, and tool production since the 1300s.

Among the items contained in the collection are 2,000 joiner's planes, 1,000 table knives, 260 micrometers, 50 anvils, 4,000 catalogues and thousands of associated photos and documents related to the sale and manufacture of tools (Hawley recounts the story of his life as a collector in the video at the bottom of this page).

Former Tools of the Trade Executive Editor, Michael Springer, visited the collection and interviewed Hawley for a story we published in 2007. According to Springer, “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.”

One of Hawley’s early major acquisitions came in 1965 during a visit to the William Marples firm. The business manager told him the plane-making shop was about to be shut down and Hawley, knowing the company was the last in the world to make a particular type of wooden plane asked if he could have one or two. He got that and more, eventually acquiring the entire contents of the shop including the workbenches.

Hawley did more than collect tools; he collected information, the kind that is frequently lost to history because no one else recognizes its value. Universities are filled with historians who can tell you about kings, queens, and politicians—but good luck finding one who understands the details of how a particular tool (or manufactured item) was produced at a particular place and time. Hawley understood, because he studied the subject. An obituary in The Guardian describes him this way:

“He pursued knowledge with an extraordinary meticulousness, worrying away at puzzles that most other people would not even have noticed; how, for instance, could someone making handles for knives bore a hole that went exactly down the centre of the handle and came out at the other end also exactly in the centre? To answer that, he looked at a film of the operation again and again until he noticed that in repeatedly offering up the handle to the rotating drill bit and clearing out the drilled material, the operator each time rotated the handle a fraction of a revolution, ensuring that the drill continued its central path. This almost trivial-sounding piece of research perfectly brings together Ken's extraordinary persistence, his attention to detail and his fascination with how the craftsmen learned on the job what was necessary for the high-class work that made Sheffield cutlers and tool-makers famous.”

That Hawley would go to the trouble to do this shows how much he respected people who build and make. And that's no surprise, given his early introduction to manufacturing—as a teenager he worked at a machine guard factory owned by his father.

The Hawley Collection’s home page says this about the passing of its benefactor:

“Ken Hawley was 'The Collector'. For over fifty years he collected the tools, the 'tools that made the tools', catalogues, photographs and information connected with the Sheffield tool, cutlery and silversmithing industries. During his working life, including thirty years selling tools in his own shop in Sheffield, he acquired an unrivalled knowledge about Sheffield's industrial heritage. It was Ken Hawley's wish that the Hawley Collection stay in Sheffield to provide exhibitions, displays and information for the people of Sheffield and visitors to the city. He saw the Collection as a tribute to the craftsmanship, skills and excellence displayed over the centuries by Sheffield firms and workpeople.”

The Hawley Collection is housed within the Kelham Island Museum, which is part of the Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, and is open for visitors year round.