Henry Wilkinson was born in 1788 at Norton Hammer, where his father was a file manufacturer. He was apprenticed as a scissor smith, but joined John & Thomas Settle in the silver-plate trade. When Henry Wilkinson joined, it was known as Settles & Gunn. According to a newspaper (Sheffield Independent, 15 February 1873), Henry ‘took the North Road, and was so successful in obtaining orders that he may be said to have created the trade of the firm north of York’. Gunn retired and the firm became briefly Settle & Wilkinson. In 1831, Henry Wilkinson & Co, silversmiths and platers of Norfolk Street, registered a silver mark. Wilkinson prospered. He retained the outlet in Fleet Street and in 1852 the firm took out a licence for electro-plate from Elkington. By 1868, besides electro-plate, Wilkinson was manufacturing silver and plated wares, cutlery, forks, and spoons. Further silver marks were registered in Sheffield 1852 and 1890; and a mark in London was registered in 1857 (Culme, 1987). Trade marks included ‘HW & Co’ and crossed keys, which had been granted to J. Parsons & Co in 1784 (Bradbury, 1912).
Henry Wilkinson told the Children’s Employment Commission (White, 1865): ‘Our establishment … probably gives a fair specimen of the whole manufacture as carried out in Sheffield. We do the plating ourselves … We have casting shops; and we also make plated cutlery’. Wilkinson lived at Endcliffe Edge, Fulwood Road. In the 1840s, he became, in turn, a Town Councillor, Mayor, Alderman, and JP. In 1870, he became a Town Collector. Described in the press as an ‘uncompromising’ Liberal Unitarian, he was also Ottoman vice-consul. In 1871, Wilkinson, aged 83, was still the owner of the company, which employed 125 to 140 workers. But he had recruited a chairman (J.E. Cutler) and director (Frederick Ward). In 1872, Henry Wilkinson & Co became a limited company with a capital of £45,000 (of which only £15,000 was called up). This would have marked Wilkinson’s retirement from the concern. He died from a stroke on 14 February 1873 at his residence in Endcliffe Edge, leaving under £30,000. His wife had predeceased him, and he left no family.
Cutler and Ward, and H.B. Price (the company secretary), continued the firm, but in contrast to other silver makers Wilkinson’s faltered. Between 1877 and 1891, annual dividends averaged a mere 2 per cent. A journal noted: ‘The process of decay has been so gradual as to be scarcely perceptible, but just as the unwelcome truth dawns upon an individual that he is growing old, so the fact has been reluctantly realised by the company that its day is past’ (Watchmaker, Jeweller & Silversmith, 1 March 1892). In 1892, the business was liquidated, and the assets bought by Walker & Hall for £1,000. It was said that not the least valuable part of the purchase was the large stock of dies, as Wilkinson’s had been conducted on ‘high art principles’ (WJS, 1 April 1892). Walker & Hall registered a silver mark for Henry Wilkinson & Co – ‘the oldest silversmith firm extant’ – in 1904.