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Thread: What did a sword cost in 1863?

  1. #1

    What did a sword cost in 1863?

    Hi Everyone
    Brand new to the forum... Today is my first day.
    I have always been interested in military history. I am also a (retired) fencer.
    It thus seemed fitting that at the end of last year my spouse and I acquired our first antique sword.
    An 1845 pattern Wilkinson Sword Infantry Officer's Sword (British obviously), that we picked up in a local antique shop. The owners of the antique shop new virtually nothing about the sword, so I put my historian training to good use and did some sleuthing...
    I have managed to find out a bit about it... We were able to identify the person who bought the sword, via the Wilkinson Sword archives (we were able to see the sword's serial number) and I then found out where and when he was born and I traced his military career from 1863 to 1892 in some detail...
    I shared this with my family (poor people) where upon my mother in law asked me 'how much did the sword cost when he bought it in 1863?'
    I was unable to ask her... I assume it must have been a fairly pricey piece of kit. But what did it actually cost new?
    I immediately jumped onto Google and asked how much did a sword cost in 1863? Nothing useful turned up.

    So, I turn to you experts in the field... How much would a sword, presumably custom made for my guy (his initials are on the blade and it s a very pretty blade) have cost? I am not looking for an exact figure, but something more useful than 'a lot' would be nice ;-)

    Thank you (in anticipation)
    DJ

  2. #2
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    Hi,

    I have a sword etched with the owners crest and regimental insignia that was purchased in 1856 for £3 and three shillings; this was not a Wilkinson sword though, it was a trade quality sword from an outfitter.
    Robert Wilkinson Latham is the expert in Wilkinson swords and in response to a query about my sword listed a number of costs for Wilkinson swords in 1866. A best quality sword for an infantry officer with a brass scabbard, chased and engraved , cost in excess of £5. (£5-2-6), a basic trade quality Wilkinson infantry sword was £3-18.
    It is worth noting that Wilkinson was the BMW of sword manufacturers at that time so cheaper swords were available!

  3. #3
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    Price alone is of some use, but to put the cost in perspective, what was a newly commissioned lieutenant paid per month in the 1860s?
    "Courage is fear holding on a minute longer."--Gen. George S. Patton

  4. #4
    With many British officers at that period coming from the so-called "Upper Class", I suspect the cost of their sword was not a huge concern...

  5. #5
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    Welcome to SFI Dickon. You ask a very good question for your first day of using the forum.

    I ask myself the same question when I was writing a book on German sidearms from between the wars until the end of WWII. German catalogs with price lists from this period survive and after study I found there could be a wide swing of prices depending upon what additions to the basic sword (edged weapon) were chosen. Personalized etching on the blade could substantially increase cost as could the type of steel used in the blade manufacture. A photo of your sword would help us better determine if yours is a "Plain Jane" or a "Presentation Grade" sword.

    Again, welcome and thanks for your thoughtful question.

    George
    "You can't please everyone, so you have to please yourself." Ricky Nelson

  6. #6
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    Many newly minted Lieuts did not have assets and went into debt to buy their equipment required. Monthly mess dues etc. also put a strain on their earnings sometimes leaving them broke. Participating in battles enabled them to acquire wealth with the booty and in turn buy commissions to higher ranks.
    The lucky ones came from wealth so we see higher end swords and cheap tailor swords all to fit one's budget.

  7. #7
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    I think that when compared to the rest of their equipment and the fact that to many officers the sword was just part of the uniform, a standard regulation sword wasn't that expensive. Special non regulation items, like custom hilts and blades obviously raised the price quite a bit. However a 3-5 GBP sword to a mid-19th century infantry sergeant getting "raised from the ranks" as an ensign would have been a noticeable expense. I think in this case context is important. And as Will points out, even among officer ranks there was a wide range of income. I think I read somewhere, maybe in Holmes "Redcoat", that an officer was expected to have around 300 pounds annual income to met his expenses.
    Last edited by MikeShowers; 03-03-2018 at 12:35 PM.

  8. #8
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    Only officers purchased their equipment including swords though a young subaltern would not be paid very much.
    I have searched but can't find my 1831 dated book with rates of pay etc.
    Then I thought internet, page 475 for pay lists https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?...ew=1up;seq=564
    Last edited by Will Mathieson; 03-03-2018 at 10:46 AM.

  9. #9
    Hi Everyone
    Thank you for the very warm welcome and kind words of encouragement.
    Thank you also for taking the time to assist and read what I thought may be a thread of little interest. It is nice to see that there is some interest in this topic.
    Also, thank you to those of you who have given me some good guestimates of the price that may have been paid in 1863 for this weapon. It has helped me in my thinking and I am sure my mother in law will be interested in the answers.

    I would like to know more if any of you are able to supply more information and therefore, as requested, here is some more information about the sword.
    It is indeed a genuine Wilkinson Sword and the blade was embossed with the owners initials as well as some other decorative features. Sadly the blade seems to have been 'browned' and there is also a fair bit of rust damage so this has detracted a little from the beauty of the work. But the work was done and it is still visible.

    Sadly someone replaced the original handle with a rather crude wooden handle at some point in the sword's life... Also, sadly, the sword has become separated from its scabbard. The hilt and guard seem to be original and the guard appears to be the standard brass guard of the time. it is not hinged and it seems to be brass not steel as I have heard some smart officers did to customise their weapons and provide a sturdier more protective guard.

    I have done a bit of research on the weapon's owner and I attach it (word doc) for anyone interested.

    I also attach some photos, showing how the blade is currently being displayed with a replica pith helmet (bought at Isandhlawana if you are interested) as well as some photos of the Wilkinson Trade Mark, the owners initials as well as some of the other decorative markings. I have a digital copy of the Wilkinson Sword register with the serial number but I have not reproduced here as I am not sure about any copyright considerations.

    Apologies for the limited photographic skills, I did my best.

    I am looking forward to your replies and continued interest.

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    Attached Files Attached Files

  10. #10
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    Hi Dickon,

    Nice starter sword! It’s OK to post a copy of the proof book entry here, and that might help us find out a little more about the original owner. As it stands the initials are a bit worn.

    John

  11. #11
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    The blade is interesting with its unstopped fuller running into the proved disc. Not many swords at all have these particular features overlapping.

  12. #12
    Hi John
    The initials are PHS which tallies perfectly with the proof book entry for the serial number. Phillip Henry Smith purchased thew sword.
    I appreciate they are tricky to see in the photos but they are clearly visible on the blade with the naked eye.
    As you can see from the word doc I attached I already know quite a lot about Lt Col Smith... Not sure what more you could learn from the proof book entry...
    The only detail I omitted from the story and that is ascertainable is that the blade was a 32.5" by 1" blade.

  13. #13
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    The proof book entry can tell quite a bit. Can you post a photo of it? Some short forms Wilkinsons used can describe the blade, it does not appear to be a 1" wide blade and the standard blade would have a stopped fuller. Have you measured the blade width as close as possible to the guard?

  14. #14
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    The blade characteristics are very similar to early Garden Patent Hilts.

  15. #15
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    Except, I recall Garden’s proof discs were slightly off center as compared to this one.

  16. #16
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    Knicks in blades and bent hilts tend to romanticize and feed the imagination.
    The most likely cause of damage is poor storage and children playing swords. Swords were not used as in the movies blade contacting blade.
    This sword fighters tend to avoid bashing blades and go for the quickest kill possible.
    Most officers did not train with the sword to a competent extent, this being a generalized view, their pistols/revolvers were their first weapon to use since you can be further away from an opponent.
    Of course here are contradictions to this being a period of revolvers that were not 100% reliable.
    There are very few swords documented to have actual battle damage, one is a Col Hagart of the 7th Hussars with its guard partly missing.

  17. #17
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    Did you mention Hagart’s sword Will

  18. #18
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    The one and only!

  19. #19
    Hi Will

    Given the fact that someone replaced the handle at some point makes me think that the damage sustained by the blade was in the 20th century after it passed from Lt Col Smith's ownership. The new handle is very 'utilitarian'. So it seems someone wanted a weapon with a handle that could be used but was not able to afford to have it done 'properly'. If the sword was in South Africa in the 20th century this could be an even more probable theory as there was a fair bit of political violence in the country and having an edged weapon like a sword could have been useful. Just a theory.

    Another theory is that yes a kindly father/uncle/grandfather could have fashioned a new handle for the sword so that the kids could have played with it and that the damage could have been sustained that way and the guard could have been damaged in storage... we will never know.

    As an ex fencer and an avid military historian I think I know a little bit about how swords may (or may not) have been ACTUALLY used...

    BUT all of this is all rather off topic...

    Ok Ok here is the proof book entry
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    The blade is 819 mm (32.2") from guard to tip and 28mm (1.1") wide at the guard so that corresponds rather closely to the 32.5" x 1" dimensions on the proof. I can fully see how with continued sharpening by an unskilled person (in an attempt to get a 'better' point) the blade could have lost a little length over the years...
    Last edited by Dickon Jayes; 03-10-2018 at 01:50 AM.

  20. #20
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    A closeup of the grip would be useful since this sword never had a grip covering. In fact this is a patent tang and these are made of pressed leather and later ones made of a hard material Guttta percha or Vulcanite of black to brown.
    Quite possible the grip has not been replaced, only worn. These grip plates were pinned then the usual grip wire. This could resemble wood to the untrained eye, then again it may just be a wooden replacement.
    Last edited by Will Mathieson; 03-10-2018 at 04:53 AM.

  21. #21
    Here you go, here are some pics of the grip.

    Quote Originally Posted by Will Mathieson View Post
    A closeup of the grip would be useful since this sword never had a grip covering. In fact this is a patent tang and these are made of pressed leather and later ones made of a hard material Guttta percha or Vulcanite of black to brown.
    Quite possible the grip has not been replaced, only worn. These grip plates were pinned then the usual grip wire. This could resemble wood to the untrained eye, then again it may just be a wooden replacement.
    The grip wasn't covered? Really? All the pictures I have seen of 1845 pattern swords show grips covered with wire and what looks like a fish skin cover (a grey rough looking material)...
    Or am I misunderstanding you?

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    As you can (hopefully) see:
    1. There are two distinct colours to the grip. One side is darker than the other.
    2. The one half of the grip is bigger than the other half (and you can feel the difference in your hand between these two sizes)
    3. The grip is sitting 'proud' of the blades tang and you can see gaps between the tang and the grip plates.
    4. There is a definite 'grain' visible (especially on the lighter of the two plates.
    5. The workmanship is a little crude (especially on the one plate) with a lack of attention to detail wholly out of keeping with the rest of the sword.
    6. The grip plates are too big. The grip just feels slightly 'wrong' in the hand and they look too big to the naked eye when compared to the other examples I have seen (admittedly only online or behind a display case in a museum)... The grips remind me more of holding a spade with a wooden handle than a sword... the grip has that 'agricultural' feel to it... Which is sad as the weapon is otherwise very well balanced and feels light yet very sturdy in the hand.
    7. The backstrap seems to be in quite good condition all things considered... So MAYBE the grip wasn't changed... But it seems to me that it was.

  22. #22
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    Yes the grip was changed but still uses the two securing pins, the holes are present in the wood grips.
    The original grips may well have been leather and rotted away, the man made materials used in Patent hilt grips in later times would have lasted to this day.
    Without disassembly it is possible to have the grip plates made for this sword and installed with the 2 pins.
    The patent hilt now that I think of it is responsible for the way the blade fuller comes back to the proved disc as other swords with the patent hilt can have this feature.
    Most officer swords have stopped fullers, unstopped fullers normally seen in trooper swords from 1853p to the last 1908p.
    Being a patent hilt does add value.
    The sword is also early enough to have small holes in the guard as an attachment method for the black patent leather hilt liner.
    Last edited by Will Mathieson; 03-10-2018 at 05:49 AM.

  23. #23
    Thank you... this is all very interesting...

  24. #24
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dickon Jayes View Post
    Sadly the blade seems to have been 'browned' ]
    I would suggest that the blade has been separated from the scabbard for some time had has just oxidized (rusted). Originally the sword would have been carried in its scabbard and there would have been no need to "brown" the blade. Nice bit of research on Smith. Hopefully you can find out more about his post Army life.
    Last edited by MikeShowers; 03-10-2018 at 09:53 AM.

  25. #25
    Thanks Mike, I had a lot of fun finding out about Lt Col Smith. Indeed I found out a lot more than I expected I would...

    British troops serving in South Africa definitely browned their bayonets, swords and rifle barrels from the 1880s onward. This was done to try and limit the effectiveness of Boer marksman at very long ranges.
    I have not found direct evidence of the British doing this in the 1860s, but that may just be because nobody has written about it, because there was not much by way of military engagements in the 1860s in South Africa.

    Given the fearsome reputation of Boer marksmen and the tensions in the interior of South Africa in the 1860s and the very real prospect that there would be some ,ilitary action if British diplomatic pressure on the Boers failed, I can see that a smart officer would absolutely brown his kit.

    However, this is just me working from first principles rather than any specific knowledge of what a browned sword blade would even look like

    For anyone interested in a little more detail wrt PH Smith:
    He left South Africa for good on 10 July 1870, he was on home service until 2 February 1875.
    During this time Philip met (?) Georgina Harriet Bingham Smith, who was born in India, and the happy couple were married on 14 March 1871, in the city of Bath. On 2 April 1871 the newly married couple (Philip Henry Smith, aged 26 and Georgina Harriet Bingham Smith, aged 27) are recorded as being in the household of Georgina’s father, Charles Smith (aged 62), who was the Retired Inspection (sic) General of Hospitals, Indian Army and her mother Margaret Smith, aged 60. The household was located in Montague House, Parish of Walcot, Bath, Somerset.


    On 2 April 1911, at the age of 66, the sadly widowed Philip is living in Sheet House, Sheet, Petersfield, Hampshire. He is living with his two unmarried daughters, Annie Gertrude Osborne Smith, aged 34 and Margaret Georgina Smith, aged 32 and two unmarried female servants, Mary Clarke, aged 29 and Clara Kate Amey aged 21. By now, Philip has retired from the army and his final military rank is confirmed in the census records as Colonel.
    Philip died in December 1928 in Petersfield Hampshire at the age of 84.
    Last edited by Dickon Jayes; 03-11-2018 at 03:05 AM.

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