Colonel James Skinner CB, 1st Regiment of Local Horse, c.1836
Oil on canvas by an unknown artist, a copy of the portrait by William Melville, c.1836 (in the vestry of St James’s Church, Delhi).
The Anglo-Indian soldier James Skinner (1778-1841) was the son of a Scottish officer in the East India Company’s service and a Rajput lady. Formerly an officer in the Maratha Army, Skinner raised two cavalry units for the British, later known as 1st and 2nd Skinner’s Horse. Nicknamed ‘The Yellow Boys’ for their flamboyant saffron-coloured uniforms, they were famous for their horsemanship and skill at arms.
Skinner was well rewarded, enabling him to acquire a town house in Delhi and a large estate at Hansi, Haryana. He maintained a close interest in Indian culture and was an important patron of the arts, commissioning a number of paintings recording his life and exploits.
Skinner lived in princely style and liked to be addressed by his Moghul title, ‘Nasir-ud-Daula, Colonel James Skinner Bahadur Ghalib Jang – Most Exalted, Victorious in War’. Although he was brought up as a Christian, his household included a number of Hindu and Muslim wives and mistresses. He built a church in Delhi, but also a mosque and a Hindu temple.
Such a cross-cultural lifestyle had few admirers among the following generations of soldiers and politicians in India. Towards the end of his life, although promoted to colonel and created a CB by the British, Skinner was conscious that his mixed race status had denied him the highest rewards for his military skills and leadership.
To answer this question I have selected excerpts from “Swords: How they are made and something about curious ones” by Frank Lamburn, Pearson’s Magazine, Vol. 2, July to December, 1896, which details how Wilkinson made swords.
The early stages of the process are essentially similar in a
broad sense to those passed through by most other pieces of cutlery. The steel,
of Sheffield make, is drawn into strips, equal in length to two blades, cut in
half, heated in a furnace, and hammered out until it resembles roughly a sword
An iron tang, designed eventually to receive the hilt, is
welded on to the steel and the blade is tempered. In tempering, each blade is
made hot singly, plunged into a bath of tepid water containing certain chemical
ingredients, drawn out–at this stage it is glass hard, being so brittle that
if dropped it would break in a dozen pieces–and slowly heated over the fire
until sufficiently tempered.
This operation can
only be performed at its best when the day is bright. During the winter month,s
on account of the poor light, the average time available for hardening is only
two days a week.
Beyond this point the blade may not again be worked in the
forge; further heating would decarbonise it. In converting blades from one
shape to another they are reheated, with the result that too great a quantity
of carbon is extracted and the steel becomes soft and of inferior quality.
After the blade has been cut and trimmed to the regulation
size, it passes to a man at one of the enormous Newcastle and Leeds stones
constituting the grinding department. During this operation five or six ounces
of metal are removed from the blade before it is finally brought down to
correspond with the rough gauges of thickness and width. Although the stone is
particularly hard, the steel causes it to fly off in thin, wet streams, and
wears it away to a degree that results in a stone seven feet in diameter being
reduced to two feet in diameter in about six months.
When the blade comes from this room it is a dull bright, and
requires to be polished, but it is never sharpened before it leaves the factory
unless in compliance with a special order. Before going on active service, the
bayonets and swords of all the soldiers and officers ordered away are returned
to Enfield to have a cutting edge put on them.
Before the hilt and guard are fixed to Government blades,
they undergo a number of severe tests on the premises at the hands of a
Government inspector. So far as the blade is concerned, the polished blade is
laid in a trough–a length of solid, three inch thick steel, with the exact
shape of the blade cut in the surface–and it has to fit this at every point
along its edge.
Next, the blade is bent round a semi-circular sheet of steel,
covered with a wire netting to protect the operator in the event of breakage,
after which it is placed in a machine that causes it to strike with its edge a
block of oak with a force of 160 pounds, and on its flat sides a sheet of iron
with a force of 80 pounds. In another machine it has to bear a vertical
pressure of 180 pounds without bending. When the handle is fixed, the weapon is
struck by hand on a solid block of oak, and the operator can tell by the ring
whether the blade is sound and if the grip is securely attached.
In testing cavalry swords, the blade is struck under the
same conditions as the bayonet, is placed in a machine and pressed on the top
while in a vertical position, until it is shortened four inches, and must bear
a 28lb vertical pressure without bending. As the result of a scientific
investigation instituted by the Government, it was recently discovered that in
pressing on a blade so that it bent first on one side, then on the other–a
common practice among infantry officers–the fibre of the metal was injuriously
strained; when, therefore, the vertical pressure test is applied and the blade
sprung, a small cross is stamped on the convex side to denote that the sword
may be sprung only on that side.
The sword-grip is automatically carved from a block of hard
Italian walnut. A block of wood is placed in the machine and left for three
minutes, when it is taken out in its completed form. This grip is covered with
the skin of a Japanese fish–the only suitable material–and bound with silver
wire after which the guard, stamped or cut, according to the quality, from a
flat sheet of metal is attached.
Although the average weight of the British officer’s sword
is only a pound and three-quarters (this is heavier than the French and United
States sword, but lighter than those of other nations), it is quite possible
for him to avert a blow delivered from a heavy tulwar, provided he catches it on
that portion of the blade nearest the hilt, and is sufficiently skillful in the
art of fencing. It is essential, of course, in a case of this kind that the
steel should be of the finest possible temper, and for this reason British
blades are sent out to the Indian Army, where they are fitted by regimental
armourers with hilts of regulation pattern.
The fate of old swords is very ordinary. Those belonging to
officers are, as a rule, preserved in the family, being handed down to father
and son; and in order to assist in carrying out this custom, the Wilkinson
Company keep a record which enables them to return the sword of any officer
killed on active service to his relatives at home. The swords of privates, when
returned to the Government Stores, are retested, and, if serviceable, are again
issued, or if unserviceable, are cut in half, the proof marks effaced, and sold
as scrap. They are then sent to Belgium, where they are welded together again
and returned to this country and offered for sale.
Below: Making swords at the Wilkinson Sword factory.
Still making them as they were made in the 19th century!
Additionally, here is an account of how swords were made at Charles Reeves’ Toledo Works factory in Birmingham, from England’s Workshops by Dr. G.L.M. Strauss, Charles William Quin, John Cargill Brough, Thomas Archer, William Bernhard Tegetmeier, and William Jeffery Prowse, London, 1864.
The steel from which the swords are made is supplied (by Mr.
John Sanderson of Sheffield) in long pieces somewhat tapering at each end, and
having a square portion in the middle, which being cut through, leaves material
for two blades, the bisection of the square leaving a shoulder at one end to
receive the iron “tang” by which the blade is afterwards fixed into the handle.
The manufacture of these blades is almost entirely effected by the forgers, who
hammer them into the required shape upon the anvil, a mould running down the
centre of which secures the hollow which in swords extends for about two thirds
of the length from hilt to point. In a little street of smithies the musical
clink is being sounded by a score of stalwart arms, either forging the rough
steel into form or hammering the formed blade into perfect shape and symmetry,
an operation which requires it to be kept at a certain heat lest the embryo
blade should be injured in the process. Once perfected as to proportion, the
hardening commences, and the blade is thrust backward and forward into the
furnace until it has acquired a proper and uniform heat, at which point it is
removed and instantly plunged into cold water. This process, which has
obviously suggested the Turkish bath, renders it hard indeed, but at the same
time so extremely brittle that we whisperingly suggest the propriety of
contracting to supply our enemies with weapons and neglecting to carry them
beyond that particular stage of preparation when they may be snapped with the
fingers. Carefully supported, however, the blade is again subjected to the
fiery ordeal until it attains a slaty-blue colour and a beautiful and elastic
temper, which has been partially secured by the previous hammering. By the
process of forging it has become about six inches longer than the pristine
steel shape, and by the tempering it has attained a springy strength which
enables it to be bent in a curve sufficient to bring the hand five inches
nearer the point.
There is yet another operation before the blades are taken
to the finishing-shop, one of the most important, too, since it is no other
than grinding, a process which secures an exact and uniform thickness, and
increases their elasticity.
We are standing at
the open end of a long, vast, and gloomy shed-like building, supported by iron
pillars. On each side through the entire length a series of enormous
grindstones spin round amidst sand and water and the mud from both. Seated
astride the bodies of wooden horses, whose heads seem to have been transformed
into these wheels, the grinders seize upon the blades, and each fearless rider
rising in his stirrups–or what looks much the same standing tiptoe till he no
longer touches his saddle–throws himself forward and presses the sword,
matchet, or bayonet on the wheel, at the same time guiding it deftly with his
left hand till its whole surface has been smoothly ground.
Along the whole line of whirling stones fly the lurid red
sparks; and as the grinders, with squared elbows, seem to curb the struggling
and impetuous wheels, we think of the wild dreams of Callot or Dore, and fancy
a double rank of riders bestriding horses strangely foaled by some hideous
After polishing, which is completed by wooden wheels bearing
a coating of leather covered with emery, the swords and matchets go to receive
handles, and the bayonets locking-rings. The handles of swords are made of
walnut-wood covered with the skin of the dogfish, while the hilt and guard are
formed from a plain flat sheet of steel, in shape not unlike one side of a pair
The Illustrated London News from Saturday, February 22, 1908. This image, more than any other, cemented the reputation of the kukri as a fearsome weapon in the imagination of the western reading public.