Words by Simon de Burton – a journalist and author based in Dartmoor, South Devon, specialising in heritage and luxury living. He writes for the Financial Times, Country & Townhouse, Daily Telegraph, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among many others.
Welcome to our new series, Purdey Pieces, where each month we’ll hone in on a historical highlight from the Purdey archives. To start, allow us to introduce the unassuming but nonetheless significant mallet and chisel.
They might look like the discarded relics of a workshop clear-out, but the stocking mallet and chisel that take pride of place in the celebrated Long Room at Purdey’s Mayfair headquarters are among the company’s most coveted possessions. Why? Because the battered tools, heavily patinated and carrying the dents and scars of rigorous use, are the very objects used by James Purdey around the time that he founded his eponymous gun making company in London’s Princes Street back in 1814.
Together, the mallet and chisel tell a story not just of a business, but also of the man behind it. The premature death of his father meant Purdey was apprenticed to his own brother-in-law, Thomas Keck Hutchinson, at the age of 12. Hutchinson was a stocker based in Southwark, south London – meaning that was the first craft of gunmaking that Purdey mastered. He went on to become head stocker for another acclaimed maker, Joseph Manton, before setting-up on his own at the age of 30.
In all likelihood, Purdey used this very mallet and chisel to rough-out the basic shape of the stocks for his first guns and, in so doing, established the famous ‘Purdey stock’, which remains one of the features that sets a Purdey gun apart from all others. In themselves, the tools are not rare or special. But, they would have been the best possible quality that Purdey could afford at the time, and the fact that they carry the signs of hours of loving – if robust – use demonstrates just how well they served him.
A testament to hard-won handcraft
We can only speculate as to the number of stocks Purdey roughed-out using his trusty tools, but the mallet alone suggests that it must have been many dozens. Combining a traditional, drum-shaped head with a handle of around five inches in length, the upper lip of each end is worn away more than the bottom – evidence that Purdey favoured this part of the tool to make the thousands of well-aimed strikes at its counterpart chisel.
Probably made from boxwood, the mallet’s handle was likely ebonised along its length, but hours spent in the master craftsman’s hold have worn through the coating to reveal ochre-coloured patches of the natural wood that show exactly where his fingers and thumb would have gripped it.
The chisel, meanwhile, bears even greater testament to many hours of hard work. Its inch-and-a-half wide blade is not designed for finessing, but for chipping-out the basic, initial form of the stocks from solid blanks of wood. The tapered top of the blade is rammed into the wooden handle and secured at the base by a simple, white metal collar. But, while the middle portion of the handle is smooth and burnished from being encircled by Purdey’s hand, the top is anything but. Split and mushroomed into a flattened dome shape, it has clearly suffered thousands of blows.
The chisel was, however, clearly a favourite tool because, rather than discarding it when a large chunk of the handle sheared off, Purdey jammed a collar of forged iron over its top to further extend its life.
From then, until now
“We don’t know when James Purdey stopped stocking in order to be able to give more time to managing his growing business, but it’s clear that he must have used these tools for several years,” says Dr Nick Harlow, Gun Room Manager at Purdey. “It’s quite possible, in fact, that James passed them on to his son [also called James] and they may have been taken to France in 1878 for demonstration purposes when Purdey appeared at the Paris Exhibition.”
“They are certainly among the most wonderfully tactile historical artefacts in the company’s possession – and an incredible link to its founder and the original creation of the Purdey stock.”
Next month, Purdey Pieces will be focused on a particularly special gun, one whose stock could possibly have been hewn using the founder’s mallet and chisel…