A Commemorative Table for a Community Leader
This oak presentation center table represents a rare example from the nineteenth century practice of creating commemorative furniture from materials taken from buildings, ships or wood in particular locations. Perhaps the most notable piece from this tradition is the chair in the British Royal Collection, fashioned from an oak tree that grew on the battlefield at Waterloo by Thomas Chippendale the Younger in 1820. Another important example previously in the Carlton Hobbs Collection was a striking table created circa 1840 by Guillaume Grohé (1808-1885), one of the most celebrated and fashionable French cabinetmakers of the 19th century. Commissioned in France by the Pécoul family, who had extensive interests on the French Caribbean island colony of Martinique, the table’s top was constructed of a single massive specimen piece of Spanish cedar (Cedrela odorata) presumed to have come from a tree that grew on their large and successful sugar plantation.
The present table consists of timber and stone from several fascinating ancient locations, primarily in the West Riding of Yorkshire, especially from the environs of the great steel manufacturing city of Sheffield. The selection of materials from a tight locality appears to have been intentional, as an inscription on the table together with a remarkably unusual accompanying folder of documents, confirm that it was created in 1835 as a gift, to be presented to local community leader and businessman Benjamin Sayle (1770-1846).
Sheffield in the 1830s was booming. Although the steel industry had been present in the area for centuries, it was beginning to grow exponentially in the early decades of the nineteenth century. In 1787 there were eleven steel manufacturers, by 1856 that number had grown to 135. There is much evidence available that suggests around the time that this present table was made, Benjamin Sayle was at the forefront of local affairs in the city. He is frequently listed as an ‘Iron Master’ and as a partner of Booth and Co., who ran the Park Iron Works in the Brightside district. It is apparent that the company was highly successful; the great philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham obtained quotes for the commissioning of the metal fittings for his planned national penitentiary in 1808 and the company was responsible for complex projects such as the construction of a 900 ton steel bridge in Dunham, Nottinghamshire which stood from 1832 to until 1975.
From early in his career Sayle was involved in his community. He was a Trustee of the Brightside Sunday School by 1805, and in later decades his involvement in local affairs would broaden. Around the time the table was made he was involved in defending the interests of the Sheffield General Infirmary and prominent in the Sheffield Shakespeare society, where some of his speeches were published. He was a supporter the city’s Mechanics’ Library, a place where the working classes could learn and read, purchasing for display there a bust of James Watt, and a portrait of Samuel Glanville by John Raphael Smith, who established the first regular stage coach service from Sheffield to London in 1760, an entrepreneurial spirit whom he presumably admired. His political life is especially interesting; Sayle was a leading light in the Sheffield Reform Society, and by in 1836 was its chairman. The reform movement, which strove for improved parliamentary representation via the abolition of “rotten boroughs” and increasing MPs for the northern industrialized cities, dominated the short seven year reign of king William IV. Although the movement enjoyed considerable success achieving the Representation of the People Act in 1832, and further acts in 1835 and 1836, many still felt that suffrage was too narrow, and the campaigns would persist up until the twentieth century. At a pubic dinner held in 1825 to thank the important local humanitarian James Montgomery (1771 – 1854), a figure who is still associated with the abolition of slavery and the banning of children chimney sweeps, Sayle gave a lengthy speech, the chair was Lord Milton; the future Earl Wentworth. Indeed Sayle’s active community life appears to have put him in touch with the most prominent landowners of the area notably the Earl Fitzwilliam and the Duke of Norfolk. There is evidence in archives in both Sheffield and Nottingham that Sayle was in touch with these local grandees over various issues including a letter to the fifth Viscount Gallway about a new surgeon for the Sheffield Infirmary and another to Lord Milton, the future Earl Fitzwilliam, asking about his plans for the forthcoming elections.
The broad range of activities mentioned above give us an idea of Sayle’s political, charitable and religious preoccupations and his impressive connections. We should therefore not be surprised that he would receive such a gift as the present table. The piece has a brass band running around its edge that appears to explain the reasons for its commission and its presentation to Sayle. Frustratingly after nearly two centuries this has become close to illegible. However we can be confident, given Sayle’s activities, that it was some kind of gesture of gratitude, perhaps from one or several of the societies with which he was involved. To gather together all of these different materials used in the table from these various locations would have been no mean feat, and represents the clear esteem in which Benjamin Sayle was held by members of his community.
The places represented in the table have clearly been selected to reflect the history, culture and importance of the local region. Tankersley Hall is now a ruin, however it did enjoy a long history, and was home to the leading local Wentworth family until they built the much larger and grander Wentworth Woodhouse in the 1650s. Similarly, only a wing of Sheffield Manor remains standing. This was originally built in 1516 as a hunting lodge and country retreat for the fourth Earl of Shrewsbury and was used later in the century by the Sixth Earl as a prison for Mary Queen of Scots. Like many of the surrounding area it was inherited by the Dukes of Norfolk in the late seventeenth century. Two castles are mentioned; Pontefract, which remained an important strategic stronghold in the north of England up until the civil wars of the 1640s, and Conisbrough, famed for its particularly striking keep which still stands today. Religious institutions are well represented, including the ruined Roche Abbey, one of England’s finest cathedrals York Minster, and Trinity Church Sheffield, which would later become the city’s cathedral. For Sayle to be presented with this piece, made from some of the finest local antiquarian landmarks is clearly intended as a symbolic gift, and is comparable to being presented with the freedom of the borough, or the key to the city.
This was a perfectly selected gift for Sayle, as it is apparent he had considerable antiquarian interest and pride in it. The remarkable survival of a specially hand-made folder, likely to be original, with letters and notes relating to the woods and stones and their origins confirms that Sayle contacted historians and the donors of the materials for more information to keep with the table. It also contains two information cards on Tankersley Hall and a letter from a J. Hall of Greasbrough on which these cards appear to be based. Also included is another card on the history of Sheffield Manor and some more letters, on Conisborough Castle, one that mentions both Roche Abbey and Conisbrough Castle, one that deals just with Roche Abbey and another on Trinity Church Sheffield. Also within the folder is a diagram that appears to explain where each section of the table came from, in addition to the locations mentioned in the letters, it includes Pontefract Castle and York Minster. It is this diagram that clarifies sections of the table were presented with the blessings of the Earl Fitzwilliam and the Duke of Norfolk.
The last confirmed owner of the table was General Sir Henry C. Jackson K.C.B. (1879-1972), a senior British Army Officer in the early twentieth century, a descendent of Sayle’s. Sir Henry C. Jackson was the son of Henry Jackson O.M. (1839-1921) an eminent English Classicist and Senior Academic at the University of Cambridge, who was born in Sheffield. It was his grandfather, also Henry, a Sheffield Surgeon, who married Benjamin Sayle’s daughter Olivia in 1801.14 Thus a direct line own ownership can be traced from the table’s creation to almost the present day.
This table is a piece of industrial history, a symbol of philanthropic and civic pride, community interaction and nineteenth century antiquarianism.