From humble beginnings, Viners became the largest cutlery factory in the country by the 1970s. Its specialities were household plated holloware and flatware, including all types of table knives. The founders were a Jewish family (originally named Viener), who arrived from Germany in the late nineteenth century. By 1901, they lived in Mile End, London, where Ludwig Viener – the head of the family – was an auctioneer. One of Ludwig’s sons was Adolph Viner, a commercial traveller, whose son Ruben (born at Newcastle-upon-Tyne on 21 August 1907) eventually became the dominant individual in the business. When the Vieners began dealing in cutlery, this led to contacts with Sheffield firms, and eventually the Viener clan settled there in the early 1900s.
In 1908, E. & W. Viener, electro-platers, occupied Tiger Works in West Street (formerly Deakin, Sons). The directory in 1911 listed Ludwig’s sons: Adolph, Emile, Max, and William (Willie) Viener. The oldest brother, Willie, became the driving force. Recalled Ruben: ‘As was not unusual in those days, they lived on the premises. This was most useful and probably considered essential as it enabled them not only to put in a full day’s work, but a full night as well, to the great delight of Mr Willie, who appeared to enjoy this immensely’ (Viners, 1970, 1995). In 1912, the Vieners moved to Broomspring Works, Bath Street, where about 70 workers produced plated holloware. Viners later claimed to have been the first firm to produce this in such large quantities. The company’s progress was interrupted in 1914, when the brothers were briefly interned: but they were quickly released and contributed to the war effort by making helmets. Willie left the firm in 1921. Adolf and Emile, who became naturalised in 1923, continued the business. Another brother, Samuel Viner, who traded independently (Crusade Cutlery), also adopted British nationality. Max was a partner in Viners during the 1920s, but apparently left the business in the following decade.
Viners was one of the few Sheffield cutlery firms to expand in the depressed inter-war period. In 1923, ‘MAZEPPA’ and ‘PLATA REUSS’ – marks formerly used by Reuss & Co in South America – were bought for £500. (The MAZEPPA mark was later sold to B. Worth & Sons.) In 1924, A. & E. Viener Ltd was incorporated by Adolf and Emile with £25,000 capital (it became Viners Ltd in 1925). The Broomhall Street factory was publicised as the largest and best organised in the plate and cutlery trades (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 31 December 1931). ‘They work on a sort of Ford principle’, noted The Sheffield Daily Independent, 21 February 1931, ‘with goods starting in the crude at one end of a long factory and emerging … as the finished product at the other end’. Viners also had a reputation for taking over small companies and then employing the ex-owners as managers, with Viners guaranteeing to take the output at an agreed rate. The managers then paid the workforce and pocketed the difference. Amongst the firms taken over was Thomas Turner & Co, which was absorbed in 1932. Two years later Ruben Viner became its manager and he ran it separately for the next twenty years. In 1934, Viners became a public company, when Adolf and Emile increased the capital to £255,000. The workforce was over a thousand. By the end of the 1930s, Viners had taken over the responsibility for all the staff in its factories, signifying its marked growth.
Viners diversified into nickel-silver spoons and forks. It targeted the mass market for cheap tableware, which it often sold behind its brand and company names, such as Viner & Hall and particularly Thomas Turner & Co (Cutlers, Sheffield) Ltd. Baines, Cattell was apparently another subsidiary. This may have been partly an attempt to disguise the foreign origins of the company. ‘RESILCO’ was apparently the only trade mark registered by Viners. The company lacked the prestige of Walker & Hall and Mappin & Webb. On the other hand, it began making silver products, as demand grew from big cities, such as London. In 1936, Viners was granted a Warrant of Appointment to King George V. Profits in-creased steadily from £31,296 in 1929, to £38,008 in 1940, and to £76,703 in 1946. The workforce increased to about 1,250 at the end of the Second World War – a peak figure for the firm. In 1948, a prospectus was published and £50,000 in ordinary shares was offered to the public – though the firm was still controlled by the Viners (Financial Times, 2 February 1948). In 1949, over seventy per cent of the business was in stainless, silver, and electro-plated holloware (often sold in canteens and cases); while a quarter of the trade was in other cutlery.
Adolf Viner (chairman and joint-managing director) died at his home in Clarendon Road on 11 December 1953, aged 70, and was buried in Ecclesfield.
The succession passed to his 65-year-old brother, Emile Viner (1888-1978), who became chairman. Ruben Viner became managing director (when Thos. Turner was also absorbed completely). In 1959, Harrison Bros & Howson was acquired. Ruben became chairman in 1966, when Viners employed 800, making its cutlery factory in Broomhall Street the largest in Sheffield. He and his team had begun to reorganize the company – which until the late 1950s was still a collection of separate workshops – on a more unified production-line basis. Manufacturing processes were simplified, the product line drastically reduced (sterling silver table-ware, for example, was gradually abandoned because it was selling too slowly) and cheaper styles of stainless cutlery were promoted vigorously. Viners was progressive in its marketing and hired freelance designers and consultants to develop distinctive products. Between 1957 and 1969, for example, silversmith Gerald Benney (1930-2008) designed stainless steel cutlery for Viners. His patterns – ‘Chelsea’, ‘Studio’, ‘Design 70’, and ‘Sable’ – were designed to exploit the latest automatic production technologies (Hughes, 1998). In the early 1970s, the Australian silver jeweller, Stuart Devlin, designed limited edition goblets, champagne glasses, and fancy letter-openers.
The Viners had ‘arrived’. They were prominent in the local Zionist community, which included Armin Krausz (Harris Miller) and Isodore Lewis (Lewis, Rose). Adolf was described as the ‘embodiment of charity’ (Krausz, 1980). Emile became a JP and a freemason. He was wealthy enough to acquire Stoke Hall, Grindleford, which had once belonged to the Hunter family. Ruben became a town councillor, president of the Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, and between 1958 and 1961 served as president of the Sheffield Cutlery Manufacturers’ Association (Quality, March 1965).
Far Eastern competition was growing at this time, but Viners found a short-term solution by reaching an exclusive agreement with Chuang’s Cutlery Ltd. This firm, based in Hong Kong, had become the biggest cutlery manufacturer in the world. In the early 1960s, Viners International Ltd was established, which enabled the company to import cutlery from Hong Kong (and later Korea) and then badge it as Viners. This coincided with a major strategic decision. In about 1968, the board – Ruben, his sons (Roger and Brian), and stepbrother Leslie Glatman (1923-1982) – launched a massive five-year expansion plan. Expensive capital equipment was installed (such as a computer-controlled electro-plating plant) and factories were acquired in Ireland, Australia, and France. The new plant expanded production enormously, based on the assumption that with a large enough marketing effort (partly through advertising) Viners could push its output rather than simply react to a demand. The impact of these changes at Viners was dramatic. In 1953, its turnover was £419,830; by 1974 it was over £7 million. Meanwhile, profits had jumped from about £65,000 to nearly £750,000. The workforce was about a thousand.
However, Viners’ importation of foreign cutlery proved controversial. Ruben and his sons were influential figures in the UK Cutlery & Silverware Manufacturers’ Association and in the Company of Cutlers – trade bodies that were tasked with defending Sheffield’s interests. Indeed, Ruben had been on the latter’s advisory committee dedicated to the protection of the name ‘Sheffield’. Ruben had won plaudits for brokering a voluntary import quota in the late 1960s with the Japanese. In the 1970s, Brian Viner continued to press for import controls, whilst admitting that his company imported from the Far East (Quality, July/August 1977). Not surprisingly, Viners dealings in Hong Kong were questioned – most notably by John Price, who managed Arthur Price. Price accused Ruben of under-mining local industry by importing foreign cutlery and stamping it with a Sheffield name. According to Price, this practice accelerated the spread of imported cutlery into the country’s shops. But whatever benefits Viners enjoyed proved transient as stainless steel flatware from the Far East began flooding the market. Suddenly, Viners’ £1.2 million investment programme in the early 1970s looked ill-timed. As Ruben recalled in an interview with the author: ‘there was a sudden large drop in demand. We were carrying large stocks (with inflation stock was better than money). Most of our market was at home, but we had factories in Australia, Ireland and France. We put capital into these, but they were not showing much return’ (Viners, 1970, 1995). Profits were not flowing fast enough to finance the increase in working capital. Crippled with interest charges on its loans, the end came quickly. In 1980 Ruben Viner, aged 73, retired and became honorary president. In 1982, Viners went into receivership.
Ruben’s death at the age of 88 was reported in Sheffield on 21 August 1996. A Conservative and Freemason, his obituarists recalled a man who had been known as ‘King Cutler’. After the company’s demise, Viners became wholly a retailing brand owned first by Oneida Ltd and then in 2014 by the Liverpool-based Rayware Group.