Who was ‘Owd Bashforth’?

There was a colourful sketch of an 18th century schoolmaster in the summer issue of the journal of the Sheffield Family History Society[1]. “Owd Bashforth” terrorised some 50 Sheffield children with his succession of canes drawn from the basement of the schoolroom, including James Bussey the author of the extract from the Weekly Independent. Who exactly was this formidable gentleman?

John Bashforth was baptised 26 December 1750, the son of a filesmith of the same name and his wife Susan (née Ashmoore). He came from a line of filesmiths stretching back into the 17th century[2]. To begin with he would have followed his father’s trade, learning the skills in the home workshop. It is possible to date his change of occupation from baptismal records for his children.

John married Ann Cooper on 3 June 1782 and the couple baptised their first child Mary on 5 March 1783, John giving his trade as filesmith. When they came to baptise the second child William on 11 November 1785, John gave his profession as schoolmaster. He continued to do the same for all the remaining children: Ann in 1788, John in 1790, Thomas in 1793 and Joseph in 1798.

The description in James Bussey’s recollection of his schooldays sometime before 1810 explains the change of profession. “Owd Bashforth” was missing his left arm. The trade of filesmith could be very dangerous to health: inhalation of dust from grinding, lead poisoning and problems with the wrist and hand. Every groove in a file was made by hand using a specially shaped and weighted hammer against a chisel at a rate of anything around 100 strokes a minute. Equally dangerous was the practice of sharpening tools on a grinding wheel, which could be inclined to shatter catastrophically.

Something like this may very well have happened to John Bashforth between 1783 and 1785. With one arm he had no chance of being able to practice his trade any longer. Fortunately no particular qualifications were needed to be a schoolmaster other than a decent level of literacy, numeracy and knowledge of the Bible. John Bashforth had a role keeping good order at the entrance to St Peter’s church and this would have been enough to give him sufficient standing in the local community. Of course, he still had one good arm with which to wield his cane with all the vigour of a former filesmith!

Personal memories such as these are absolutely priceless for family historians trying to put humanity into the basic records from registers and lists. The hard work of people in local societies is the collective endeavour that brings it all to life.

[1] The Flowing Stream, Vol 36 No 2 pp 15-21

[2] Some of the details of this ancestry are sketchy in the surviving records.