James Woodward & Sons

Beautiful Woodward gun on a leather background.
This Woodward “Under & Over” was the only one that the company made in 24 bore. Photo by Matthew Brown.

Unraveling the mystery of an enigmatic gunmaker

In the history of London gunmaking, there are few companies so little understood as James Woodward & Sons. As was even noted by writers during the late 19th Century, the company presents the peculiar contradiction of having been highly respected by its peers while maintaining an extremely low profile. In 1949 the firm was purchased by James Purdey & Sons, which has worked the Woodward “Under & Over” action as its own for the past 75 years, keeping alive some of Woodward’s history and, indeed, its legacy. However, there has always been a distinct lack of information on Woodward in comparison to some of its contemporaries, and over the years this has frustrated many collectors who wanted to better understand the company and its history.

One such individual was Joe Toot Jr., an American who has been a lifelong collector and aficionado of Woodward guns. In the late 1990s Toot started digging into the Woodward records when time and work allowed. In October 2021 he approached me to work with him on a history of Woodward. As I am not only Purdey’s Gunroom Manager, but also the company’s Archivist, I am familiar with both Purdey’s records and those of Woodward, having previously written a biography of Tom Purdey, the fourth generation of the family to run the business. We knew that the task would be extremely difficult, but a format was agreed on and a title for the book eventually suggested: James Woodward & Sons: Its History and Enduring Legacy. We then faced the obvious challenge: With so few surviving records, how were we going to uncover the story of not only the company, but also the family?

Digging Up the Family Tree

Those who have ever attempted genealogical research know just how challenging it can be, particularly if one is searching for a relatively common name. There were a number of James Woodwards who potentially fit the time frame, and the fact that I was looking for both a James Sr. and Jr. further complicated matters. Thankfully, enough had been written about the family to provide certain key dates, and using these it became possible to pinpoint the right men in the historical record and draw out a timeline for each family member. The first James was born in 1813 in the Lewisham area of London, where his father was working for the Board of Ordnance. By the time James was 14, his father was working at the Tower of London and had moved the family to a house nearby. It was that year, 1827, that James was apprenticed as a finisher to gunmaker Charles Moore. 

Although mostly unknown to modern shooters, Moore was from a well-established gunmaking family and had shops in London and Paris, his own shooting ground, and a reputation for making high-quality game and pigeon guns. He was also “Gunmaker-in-Ordinary” to King William IV, something that not even his near neighbor Thomas Boss was ever able to boast. Moore’s connection to James appears to have been very close, culminating in 1844 with the formation of Moore & Woodward. Many writers have assumed that this union was between the master and his former apprentice, due to the death of Moore’s son, William. However, I was able to prove that this was not the case, with William’s will showing that it was he who was in partnership with James until his death in 1847 at the age of 34. Whether Charles stepped back in at that point is unclear, but this unfortunate event was a significant factor in the creation of James Woodward & Sons 25 years later.  

Where There’s a Will . . .

Wills turned out to be hugely important in understanding key moments in the story of both the Woodward family and the company. They often allow a person’s character to come through, even in the formalized language of such testimonies. William Moore’s will, for example, was extremely brief and written just before his death, suggestive of a deathbed testimonial. That of James Woodward Sr., in 1899, is extremely detailed, bearing the hand of a shrewd and successful lifelong businessman. He had invested heavily in property and left behind a portfolio of 22 leasehold properties that he divided amongst his three children. His will also lacks any reference to the company that bore his name, giving a strong suggestion that he had fully retired from the business, passing it to his two sons, James Jr. and Charles.

Left: Charles Woodward, the last family member to run the business (photo courtesy of Stephen Grist). Right: Pages from the notebook of Under & Over designer Charles Hill (photo by Matthew Brown).

James Jr.’s will told another story, as when he died, in 1900, just over a year after his father, the future of the family company may have appeared uncertain. His younger brother, Charles, had already died and, with no children of his own, James knew that the company’s fate now rested with his 23-year-old nephew, Charles Littleton Woodward. James therefore took steps to ensure that his thoughts on the future were clear. This resulted in him allocating part of his estate to buy out the share of the company inherited by his late brother’s heirs. This allowed him to make the business’s manager, William Evershed, an equal partner. William was older and much more experienced, and James appears to have hoped that he would provide support and guidance to Charles. The partnership was eventually dissolved in early 1916, apparently after Charles had made William’s life in the company too unpleasant to continue. 

The Men Behind the Guns

Evidently William Evershed was not the only victim of Charles’s bullying nature, as Charles divorced his wife that same year, having previously been accused of deserting her. According to family lore, he also fell out with Charles Hill, the company’s talented actioner behind the famous Woodward Under & Over design. All three men appeared on the two patents in 1913, but Hill was the gunmaker responsible for the gun’s design and construction. He appears to have left the company shortly after the end of the First World War, setting up as an independent actioner in Watford, England. This left him free to build actions, including Woodward-style over/under guns, for other companies. His notebook shows that he built examples for Henry Atkin, E.J. Churchill and Woodward’s near neighbor Ogden Smiths & Hussey. This led to tensions between the neighbors when Charles Woodward seized an Ogden over/under that he claimed was built on his action. Careful negotiation was required before he would return the gun to its rightful owner.

An original Woodward action; a Henry Atkin over/under, most likely actioned by Charles Hill, using Woodward’s action patent; an Ogden Smiths & Hussey Imperial Ejector using a simplified form of the Woodward action developed by Charles Hill.

From top: An original Woodward action; a Henry Atkin over/under, most likely actioned by Charles Hill, using Woodward’s action patent; an Ogden Smiths & Hussey Imperial Ejector using a simplified form of the Woodward action developed by Charles Hill. (Photo courtesy of Roger Woolridge)

After Charles Hill’s death, around 1930, his notebook as well as some orders from Churchill for over/under actions passed to his nephew, Jesse Hill. Jesse’s grandson, Haydn, continues the family tradition today in the Midlands and was kindly introduced to me by Robin Brown of noted Birmingham gunmaker A.A. Brown & Sons. The notebook shows not only the minor differences between the actions Charles built for each company, but also notes the 296 hours required to action a pair of Woodward Under & Over guns in 1921. Details like these allowed me to include a small insight into aspects of Woodward’s production that were otherwise unrecorded. They also provide a direct comparison with how we at Purdey build the same actions today. 

Passing on the Tradition

The transfer of knowledge in the gun trade has always been a peculiarly difficult thing. Each company developed its own processes and procedures based upon its individual approach to the operations required to build a gun. In the case of Purdey, this resulted in a unique “dialect” of gunmaking terminology. In the case of much smaller companies like Woodward, knowledge of certain key operations often resided in the heads and hands of perhaps only one or two men. There are no records of how many workers Woodward employed at its height, but only one man is known to have been working at the company when it was sold to Purdey: Frank Banister. He is believed to have actioned all of the Under & Over guns completed after Charles Hill left the business and up until Charles Woodward sold the company, in 1948. As the intellectual property of the action was a key part of the deal struck with Purdey, it was therefore critical that Banister should pass on his knowledge. According to Harry Lawrence, a fully trained gunmaker who served as both Factory Manager and Managing Director for Purdey, it was his younger brother, Ernest Lawrence Jr., who was taught how to build the actions. Ernest was quickly put to the test, as before the end of 1948 Woodward forwarded at least two orders for guns, including one from Sir Joseph Nickerson that became the first “Purdey-Woodward” gun, No. 26,113.

As part of the Woodward sale, Purdey purchased a number of action forgings and parts that could be used to build new guns. Along with this came Woodward’s two Dimension Books, which contain the production records of the company between gun No. 3000 (c. 1871) and No. 7184, completed before the company was sold, in 1948. These include a mix of hammer and hammerless guns, some of which were built on the famous “Automatic” lever-cocking action, introduced in 1876. Alongside these are double and bolt-action rifles as well as 233 Under & Over guns and just 10 single-barreled trap guns. There were also four account ledgers covering the last 30 years of the business. While much more was known to have survived in Woodward’s final shop, at 29 Bury Street, most of the historical records were destroyed, as was sadly often the case when companies closed. The tooling, machinery and other items that remained in the workshop in Great Ham Yard, in Soho, were more saleable. Charles Woodward approached Jack and Tom Wilkes of John Wilkes Gunmakers, whose shop at 79 Beak Street was only a quarter-mile to the north. They purchased a number of pieces of tooling and machinery, including a forge and three belt-driven lathes. According to Wilkes family lore, these were moved over the course of a week by Jack’s two sons, John and Tom, who borrowed a barrow from the nearby market. The lathes were installed in the basement of the Beak Street premises and remained in use until Wilkes closed its shop, in 2003. The vibration from the belt drive was so bad that the whole building shook when the lathes were in use. 

Woodward No. 6528, one of the last made using the original design.

Woodward No. 6528, one of the last made using the original design before the ejectors were modified to the current design in 1921. (Photo courtesy of Bonhams Auctioneers)

There were also other items that, although not noted on the list of items bought by Wilkes, ended up in the company’s possession. These included a number of wooden forging patterns that were used as reference pieces for ordering parts from Woodward’s suppliers. Thankfully, they were gifted by Wilkes to collector and historian Stephen Grist when the shop closed, as they are extremely rare survivors of a style of working that has now disappeared. Stephen was kind enough to loan the collection to me to be photographed, allowing their part in the company’s history to be recorded. Although most of the examples date to the late 19th Century, Woodward continued to use the patterns until the end. The last one in the collection is very roughly shaped as the pattern for a .410 Under & Over action and is incised with lines showing how Banister planned to shape it up. Its simplicity is reflective of the fact that just two .410 actions were made, although this is double the number of 24- and 28-bores. Although Purdey has built 28-bore and .410 actions, they were redesigned from the ground up and were not reintroduced until 1959 and 1977, respectively.

An Enduring Legacy

While the Woodward family line ended with Charles’s death, in 1951, the company’s over/under design has remained in continuous production under Purdey’s stewardship. That it has survived the past 110 years relatively unchanged is a testament to Charles Hill’s ingenuity. His use of fixed trunnions rather than a full-width crosspin allows the barrels to sit as low as possible in the action, keeping the overall height to the absolute minimum. In fact, a 12-bore Under & Over is less than a half-inch taller than an equivalent side-by-side. This also means that there is very little excess weight, making the Under & Over extremely handy and light compared to some later designs. It has also proven to be extremely versatile, having been built in every bore from 12 to .410 (excluding 32) and used for shooting everything from driven birds to ducks, live pigeons and competitive trap. 

A modern Purdey over/under, incorporating all of the elements of the Woodward action as built after 1921 as well as some minor aesthetic changes.

A modern Purdey over/under, incorporating all of the elements of the Woodward action as built after 1921 as well as some minor aesthetic changes. (Photo courtesy of James Purdey & Sons)

While the design itself remains one of the oldest still in production, its influence and success can also be seen in how many gunmakers have used it as the basis for their own actions. I found that, beyond the three companies mentioned earlier that sold Woodward-derived actions in the inter-war period, there are as many as a dozen companies in the post-war period that have worked with or still work with similar designs. Some, like Birmingham’s A.A. Brown and Westley Richards, have used the original Woodward design but given it their own unique shape. Others, like London’s Watson Bros. and Italy’s Perazzi and Fabbri, have used the Woodward action as a starting point and, like Charles Hill a century ago, modified it to create their own designs. As Ivo Fabbri commented when presenting Joe Toot with his new gun: “It’s nearly a Woodward.” Quite the testament from one of Italian gunmaking’s foremost names to the durability and versatility of Charles Hill’s original design. 

James Woodward & Sons: Its History and Enduring Legacy is a 224-page hardback fully illustrated with color and black & white photographs, including rare archival images. It was printed in two editions, all signed and numbered by the author, with a run of 250 cloth-bound copies with illustrated dust jackets priced at £75 ($92). An additional 25 deluxe editions bound in scarlet leather, to mimic Woodward’s house case lining, and with blue cloth-bound slip cases are priced at £495 ($608). To order, email enquiries@purdey.com.

Nicholas Harlow read History at King’s College, London, and in 2006 joined Bonhams Auctioneers, where he spent six years as a cataloger for the Sporting Gun department. Since 2016 he has been working at James Purdey & Sons, where he is both Gunroom Manager and Archivist. In 2019 he received his doctorate from the University of Huddersfield, writing on the British Army’s rifle training prior to the First World War. He recently received the Historical Breechloading Smallarms Association’s President’s Cup in recognition of his work on James Woodward.

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