The different swordsmiths of the 19th century are well known in HEMA circles, Mole, Weyersberg, Klingenthal or Wilkinson are all names that are easily recognised among collectors and fencers alike. Although there are many aficionados of walking stick combat through the different styles of Bartitsu, La Canne or Irish Stick little attention is given to the famous cane makers of the time. This is why today we will explore the history of one company which could probably be best described as the Wilkinson of canes; Henry Howell & Co.
The Howell Company was founded in 1832 London by John Howell at 76 Aldersgate, but it is only in 1859 that the company really became known for its canes under the leadership of John’s son Henry. Henry married into a cane maker family and started his own shop which merged with the original one in 1867. The company expanded to become one if not the biggest producer in the world, employing nearly 500 people and reached its pinnacle around 1910. While of course not every walking stick was meant as a self defense implement, the Howell Company made sticks out of extremely resilient woods and tested each their sticks for solidity. A gentleman looking for a cane to defend himself in England or America would have probably felt confident carrying a Howell cane.
Unfortunately for the company the Great War killed many of its expert employees and in the following years fashion became much more sober, slowly letting go of the cane as an accessory leaving it only for those who needed it as a walking aide.
The recognizable marks of a Howell stick are the button which is a disk usually containing the inscription “Howell London England”, a practice quite similar in nature to Wilkinson’s “Proved” disk. The letters J.H. can also befound on the cane, although other makers copied the practice. Also some of the sticks will bear the mark “tested” and sometimes will identify the type of wood used for the shaft such as ironwood or ironbark two types of woods well known to users of fighting sticks today.
Here is the collection of the great grandson of Howell –who is also preparing a book on the company- as shown on Antiques Roadshow: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p016nqqs
By clicking on this link you will find a complete video from 1912 showing the whole production process of Howell’s canes: http://www.eafa.org.uk/catalogue/215257