While the South Yorkshire city was known around the world for its knives, blades and swords, when it came to forks and spoons, the West Midlands was where it all went on.
“The two trades used different materials and processes, and it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the two elements came together,” says Simon Price.
Simon’s great-grandfather was one of the thousands of people who worked in the West Midland cutlery trade towards the end of the 19th century. Arthur Price spent 20 years working for various cutlery manufacturers in the Birmingham area, mastering every skill required.
As the years went on, he gradually started accumulating secondhand machinery, with a view to starting his own business. After a 12-hour shift in the fork-and-spoon works, he would go home and spend the evening making his own tools. By 1902, he was ready to go it alone, turning the Price family’s front room in north Birmingham into his first workshop.
This year the Staffordshire-based company celebrates 120 years of producing high-end cutlery, and the company has certainly come on a long way over that time.
Today, Arthur Price produces implements for the Queen’s dining table. And for Prince Charles’s too. If you eat out at The Savoy, there’s a good chance you will be holding Arthur Price cutlery. If you have had the privilege of taking a flight on Concorde, it supplied the utensils for that too.
But probably its best-known commission came as the company was preparing to celebrate its first 10 years, when it was asked to supply the ill-fated transatlantic liner RMS Titanic, which infamously sank on its maiden voyage 110 years ago this month.
Today the company, based in Lichfield, is run by Arthur Price’s great grandson, Simon, assisted by his own son James. “The first factory was at 16½ Gem Street in Aston, Birmingham,” says Simon.
“My great-grandfather employed 12 people including his eldest daughter, my great aunt Maud, who was the company’s secretary from 1905 until the outbreak of the Great War. The factory had no electricity and used a small gas engine to cast the nickel silver ingots used for making the cutlery.”
Breaking into the established closed shop, with 20 other cutlers in the area was no easy task, says Simon, but eventually Arthur’s acumen and hard work paid off.
“Competition was stiff, however he was soon able to acquire a series of larger premises to house his new equipment. By 1911, the business was prospering, and all the products produced were being exported overseas.
“We were the first company to make spoons and forks of chromium plate, the forerunner of stainless steel and constantly innovated and adapted as time went by.”
There were difficult times along the way. Cutlery production was halted during both world wars, when the company was turned over to munition manufacture. But it was the period that followed the Second World War that saw the company transformed into a global player.
Arthur’s grandson John Price decided it was time to bring the left and right hand together, metaphorically speaking, by opening a factory in Sheffield. This meant Arthur Price could produce knives, forks and spoons in Britain. Predicting the impact of cheap, imported tableware, John decided to reposition the company at the luxury end of the market.
And while Sheffield would become the focus for cutlery manufacture, the Birmingham foundry would become a centre for silver holloware, such as coffee pots and sugar basins. The Birmingham site also produces silver accessories such as candelabras and coasters.
With the company now being a split-site operation, John decided in 1982 to set up a head office midway between the two locations, and it fell to his son Simon – who had just joined the family firm – to set up the Lichfield headquarters.
The company first started exporting products from its Birmingham factory in 1910, and today Arthur Price products can be found in shops, restaurants and hotels around the world. In the early days, America was a major market, but today the company also has a large customer base in the Middle and Far East, Australia, Africa as well as mainland Europe.
“Arthur Price is an international British brand, sought-after by people wanting something quintessentially British with the knowledge that the product will be quality and so too the service whether it be the finest silverware to everyday items,” he says.
Simon, who this year celebrates his 40 years at the company, says the work has often been tough, but his main motive has always been carrying on the family tradition.
“I am merely a custodian of the Arthur Price brand,” he says.
“My job is to maintain the high standard and pass this knowledge and passion on to future generations. It’s great to have James here learning how I did with my father and together with everyone at Arthur Price and customers, celebrate a truly amazing milestone.”
One of his biggest sources of pride is the length of service that many of his staff have with the company.
“We have scores of people who have worked for us for over 20 years, many who have worked over 30 years and one person in customer service has been around longer than me,” he says.
“When someone comes in with a 40-year-old knife and needs some help, we have someone in our customer service team who can help. You can’t buy that sort of experience.”
The coronavirus pandemic saw the machines fall silent for the first time in the company’s history. But he says the pent-up demand that followed, with restaurants and hotels across the globe investing in new tableware or sites, has seen the company pick up significant new orders in 2022.
And for customers who have questions about whether its products are dishwasher safe, Simon Price observes that when divers examined the wreckage of the Titanic in the 1980s, they discovered a dishwasher full of Arthur Price cutlery. He adds that the Dubarry-patterned cutlery at the bottom of the Atlantic was used in the Oscar-winning film starring Kate Winslett and Leonardo DiCaprio, and is still available to purchase today.
Simon hopes the company will still be around in another 120 years’ time. He said: “I do bet that even with all the technology that will be around then, we’ll all still be using cutlery.”
Arthur Price timeline:
October 2, 1902: Arthur Price opens for business from the front room of his home in Aston, Birmingham
1912: Company supplies cutlery to RMS Titanic
1936: Arthur’s sons Arthur Jr and Frederick take over
1948: Frederick’s son John joins the company
1976: Arthur Price supplies cutlery for Concorde
1977: The company is granted a Royal warrant by appointment of the Queen
1982: John Price’s son Simon joins the company, relocating the headquarters to Lichfield
2010: Arthur Price supplies bespoke items to the newly refurbished Savoy hotel
2012: James becomes the fifth generation to work for the family business
2022: Arthur Price celebrates 120 years