There can’t be many garden tools that have caused hundreds of people to demonstrate in the streets against their introduction. But that’s precisely what happened in 1840 when a committee decided to test a new device against traditional methods and equipment. The protests would be the other way round now if gardeners were forced to give up what is probably the most popular and easy to use hand tool in the shed.
So what on earth am I talking about and if it’s so easy to use what caused the problem?
Apologies if you were hoping for a firework related post but I did that last year with Here Be Dragons and Marvellous Contrivances so check them out!
Noah at work in his vineyard, c.1350
It was none other than the secateur, and the people who were complaining were French vineyard workers around Beziers who wanted to continue pruning with their traditional knives. News of the unrest reached Britain and was widely reported in the press early in Feb 1840.
If you’ve ever tried to prune with a knife then you’ll be wondering why the fuss, but like other forms of improved technology their concerns were largely about employment. If secateurs were quicker, easier or more efficient than pruning knives – which they obviously are – their introduction would cut the number of workers needed and so put people out of a job.
To back that up it was also claimed that secateurs or pruning shears as they were sometimes also known were simply not as good a way of vine pruning, because they crushed or bruise the emerging vine buds where the cut was made. This idea carried weight for several more decades even though it’s not really true. It took decades to convince vineyard workers they were simply making life harder for themselves.
So what was it they were so attached to? Before the invention of secateurs gardeners and agricultural workers would have relied on billhooks for most cutting tasks but these days you won’t find one in many garden sheds. They are hand-held tools, usually with a curved blade running in the same direction as the handle and used for hedging, coppicing and pruning. The billhook is one of the oldest types of cutting tool known – along with the axe, the sickle and the knife – and examples have been found all over Europe dating back to pre-Roman times, and indeed everywhere else in the world that had a tradition of iron working.
You might think that one billhook is pretty much like any other billhook but, given the fact that these would have been handmade by local craftsmen and adapted to local conditions in fact there is a huge variation. Many have slightly different shaped blades, while some are combined with a hammer, an axehead, a chisel or even a nail puller.
If you’re interested in knowing more about billhooks there is only place to go: billhooks.co.uk run by a billhook fanatic named Bob Burgess who has amassed a collection of more than 6000 of them. His website has a comprehensive history and examples from all round the world. It even covers tools which look like billhooks that aren’t – including everything from a gooseberry hook to corn knives, leather cutters knives, banana knives and a slater’s axe.
So where did this monstrous invention come from? Who was trying to put vineyard workers out of a job by devising something that was easier for workers to use but also enabled the work rate to be doubled? The word secateur is pretty obviously derived from French and in turn from Latin secare meaning to cut and that’s not surprising because in 1829 the newly-founded Revue Horticole had an article about the new invention in its first issue which luckily also includes a short paragraph about its history.According to the Revue the man responsible was a French aristocrat, Antoine-Francois Bertrand, the Marquis de Molleville. He had briefly been Minister for the Navy and Colonies and later chief of the secret police, who escaped to Britain in 1792 to avoid the guillotine. During his exile he wrote an eye-witness account of the events leading up to Revolution. As a sideline he turned his attention to gardening, inventing the secateur, which he introduced to France on his return in 1814. They are first mentioned in the French press as early as in 1818 in the gardening almanac Le Bon Jardinier.
But de Molleville’s model was pretty basic and others began to devise improvements. So, for example, in 1829 the Revue Horticole has not only an article about a sophisticated form of them – the secateur a coulisse or literally sliding secateur – but also an engraving of one. This had been invented in 1827 by a Monsieur Maquinan, following discussion with a Monsieur Camuzet of the Jardin du Roi in Paris. In this version one of the arms was movable along a ratchet allowing the user to increase the gap between the two blades and thus allow thicker branches to be cut. The Revue goes on to suggest further improvements that might be possible.
They certainly were. The annual show of the French Royal Horticultural Society in Paris in 1843 had several stands selling secateurs, and even one which apparently had no screws or nuts holding it together, and which won a medal.
By 1860 the Bon Jardinier had pages, literally pages, of different designs and variations. I don’t want to be too technical and boring but here are just a few of them. Monsieur Vauthier had a notch cut the blades to enable the user to cut wire while Monsieur Aubery had blades with several broken curves, allowing the user to choose the most appropriate size for the task in hand. Some had coil, others springs between the blades and one even combined the secateurs with a billhook to get the best of both worlds.
It was about this time too that the secateur began to find favour in England. It wasn’t that it hadn’t been introduced earlier but French peasants were not the only people who put up resistance and stuck to their billhooks and pruning knives. British gardeners did too. They had actually been available, probably as imports from France, soon after their invention but in 1827 Loudon in reviewing the state of French gardening dismissed them as “more adapted for the use of the amateur rather than the practical gardener” and unusually didn’t even bother to include an illustration as he did with most other innovations.
Somebody must have been manufacturing them in Britain by 1847 when Robert Thompson reported on their potential in the Journal of the Horticultural Society of London, because he’s clear they were not as well made as those he had seen in use in gardens in and around Paris. However Twelve years later in his Gardeners Assistant of 1859 Thompson talked about secateurs now being well known tools. Nevertheless it would seem their use still wasn’t that widespread and it wasn’t untilWilliam Robinson, the great gardener and garden writer started to champion their use that the popular mindset changed.
Robinson spent a lot of time in Paris reporting on French horticulture for the British press and in 1867 when giving an account of the great Paris Exhibition [see earlier post] he talked about a display of tools he had seen there. “I also believed in the knife but when I saw how useful is the secateurs to the fruit growers of France,, and how easily and effectively they cut with it exactly as desired,, I became at once converted… this is an instrument that every gardener should possess himself of at once.”
He followed his magazine articles with his 1868 book Gleanings from French gardens In it he stressed recent horticultural innovations in France, giving over a whole chapter to them, including a couple of pages on the various forms of secateurs. Gleanings was widely reviewed in the national and local press, and it helped that garden writers and editors backed him up in promoting them and refuting the claim that secateurs caused damage to plants.
Knowledge and enthusiasm spread rapidly round the country. A gardening columnist in the Kelso Chronicle referred to only as HK when writing about pruning in April 1871 says “we have a very useful instrument for this purpose. It is much handier than the knife, and doesn’t jar the wrist in cutting off a large branch. I allude to what is termed by the French, secateur, or hand pruning shears. The best of all the many kinds in use is the one made by a working smith at Versailles, by the name of Prevost, who supplies all gardeners in that part of France. Why it is better than the rest is simply this, that the blade is riveted onto the handle, instead of it forming a part of the handle as in the case of all others. The danger of cutting the hand is lessened in using this secateur in lieu of the knife, and, moreover, more work can be done in a given time.”
Nor did take long for gardening supply shops to catch on to the new trend. In another article in December that year HK told his readers that “those having a good deal of pruning to do should procure a secateurs from Messrs Stewart and Mein: double the work maybe got over with this clever instrument. A man may prune three bushes as quickly as one with a knife.” Sadly I can’t trace HK – he’s not in Ray Desmonds otherwise pretty comprehensive Dictionary Of British And Irish Botanists And Horticulturists so if anyone knows anything more about him please get in touch.
If a garden shop in a small Scottish town like Stewart & Mein were importing secateurs so presumably were plenty of others. In the same year, 1871, Down in Yeovil in Somerset a shop run by BR Davis was advertising “the SECATEUR or new FRENCH PRUNER; requires only to be seen to be appreciated” along with his new bulbs and bouquets. He also included them in his extensive printed catalogue. His adverts ran weekly, varying little although he did claim to obtain from the inventor – which could be true if it was one of the many variants we have seen. By the end of 1873 he is claiming to be the sole importer locally, buying them direct from the manufacturer, meaning “Price is therefore a much below those who obtain them secondhand.” and also telling his customers they have obtained 63 gold and silver medals at various shows and exhibitions. By 1875 he’s offering “a large and various assortment of the superior Pruner, from two shillings and sixpence each”. By 1876 he is claiming to be the wholesale and retail agent for the new French Pruner which “for saving labour and efficiency, this is acknowledged by hundreds of gardeners to be the best.”
Its clear from other newspaper and magazine articles and adverts that there were British-made secateurs around the same time but they don’t seem to have a good reputation, or maybe it was just a lack of social cachet?
An article in the Nottingham Guardian in 1883 said: “The French make the best and we advise buyers to accept no other kind. Any seedsman can procure them. Several supply Sheffield-made secateurs, but they are clumsy and not nearly so good is the French, at least such as we have seen.”
A quick check via Biodiversity heritage library of references in books and magazines showed that by the time of the First World War secateurs had won and become the preferred method of pruning shrubs, roses and fruit trees despite the fact it “seems to be pretty generally admitted. [that] secateurs require much less skill than the knife.” [The Book of Roses, Louis Durand, 1911]
After that it’s proved quite hard to track down more recent history of the development of secateurs, although the biggest single innovation is probably that introduced from Germany in 1923 of the world’s first anvil pruners. They were exhibited by Rolcut of Horsham at the 1927 Chelsea Flower Show. After that there seem to be plenty of reputable British firms adding secateurs to their production and stock list.
However, I’m not the only researcher who has found more recent developments elusive. Alan from the Vintage Horticultural and Garden Machinery Club wrote a long article for their website in 2017 about secateurs. It included some interesting discoveries, such as the fact that severe wartime shortages meant that they were virtually unobtainable by amateur gardeners and that even commercial growers had to get a permit from their local County War Agricultural Executive Committee if they wanted to buy them. But he also admits there are gaps in what we know and asks if anyone else has more information. So if you do, please let us both know, .
For more information that article is a good place to start. There are lots of good photos of all sorts of other secateurs, billhooks and cutting tools in Garden Tools by Suzanne Slain and others, Abbeville Press, 1996
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