James Vickers (c.1737-1809), a filesmith, was apparently the son of James (a husbandman). He was apprenticed in 1758 to Christopher Greaves and granted his Freedom in 1763. He reputedly discovered Britannia (white) metal in about 1769. This metal was mostly tin, mixed with antimony and copper. According to Bradbury (1912)1:
‘What [Sheffield] plated ware did for those not wealthy enough to furnish their tables with sterling silver, Britannia metal did for the classes unable to afford silvered copper; and the household requisites now brought within their reach were made of a material far more serviceable than the once predominant pewter’.
As with most innovations, there is a ‘story’ of its discovery – related by Bradbury – and rival claims (e.g. Nathaniel Gower). Vickers’ material was similar to other metals that had been used before the 1760s (Scott, 19802). The key contribution made by Vickers (and other Sheffield makers, such James Dixon & Sons) lay in the cold rolling of the metal and the use of steel dies to produce consumer products.
A Directory of Sheffield (1787) listed James Vickers as a ‘white metal’ manufacturer in Garden Walk [Garden Street]. Vickers was listed as a plater under the head, ‘BITS & STIRRUPS’. However, it was noted that Vickers also made ‘measures, teapots, castor frames, salts, spoons, etc.’ James was one of Sheffield’s first Methodists and son-in-law to the Holy family. He died on 17 April 1809, aged 71. He was buried at St Peter’s, leaving an estate of £1,500. His son, John (1768-1842), succeeded him. In 1811, the firm was listed as James Vickers & Son, ‘original manufacturers of Britannia metal goods, table knife cutlers, and general dealers in hardware’, Garden Street. By 1817, the works address was Britannia Place. By 1837, John Vickers was a ‘gentleman’, residing in Broomhill. He died at Broombank House, Glossop Road, on 21 May 1842 and was buried in St Peter’s churchyard. His business had been acquired in 1836 by Ebenezer Stacey, who was the son of John Vickers’s sister, Hannah.
1. Bradbury, F, History of Old Sheffield Plate (London, 1912)
2. Scott, Jack L, Pewter Wares from Sheffield (Baltimore, 1980)