Knives to Grind!

I was sitting quietly at home last weekend when I heard an unusual sound. A man’s voice, quite far away, in a plaintive, sing-song cry. Two rising notes, A, C. A few seconds later it came again, nearer and louder, slightly different words this time but the same two notes.

By this time, I had worked out what it was. An itinerant knife grinder was making his way up my street and every 15 seconds or so he would announce his calling in the ancient way, alternating several stock phrases but always to the same two-note call: “Knives-to-Grind”, “Grind-ing”, “Sharpening-Knives”, “Sharpe-ning”. It was rather beautiful, but haunting. Listen for yourself (it is quite faint to begin with but gets louder after c.30 secs) :

‘Knives to Grind!’

The Knife Grinder has been a presence on London’s streets for hundreds of years, and his cry certainly pre-dates the Civil War. The first pictorial reference I can find, of a grinder with his treadle-operated grindstone, is from 1655, in the splendidly illustrated The Cryes of London with their Severall Notes:

Detail of Knife Grinder from ‘The Cryes of London, with their Severall Notes… (1655) (image courtesy British Museum)

Here are several other later images,

Knives or Cisers to Grind, by Marcellus Laroon, 1688


The Enraged Musician, by William Hogarth 1741

Detail of Knife Grinder from Hogarth’s ‘The Enraged Musician’ 1741

Knives, Scissors and Razors to Grind, by Francis Wheatley, c.1792 (courtesy Bishopsgate Library)

Knives to Grind, by William Marshall Craig 1801

Knives or Scissers to Grind, by Thomas Rowlandson, c.1804

Knives to Grind, by Andrew Tuer 1876 (courtesy Spitalfields Life)

The Knife Grinder

The rich grind the poor, is a saying of old

The merchant, the tradesman, we need not be told

Whether Pagan, Mahometan, Christian you be

There are grinders of all sorts, of ev’ry degree

Master Grinders enough at the helm you may find

Tho’ I’m but a journeyman – Knives to Grind!

(The Myrtle & Vine, or Complete Vocal Library (Vol. II). C. H Wilson, 1803)

If you would like to learn more about the Cries of London, there are many fascinating posts at the Spitalfields Life blog, where you can also obtain The Gentle Author’s Cries of London book on the subject.

The Gentle Author’s Cries of London

Gobbets of the week #30

Here are links to the top 10 gobbets of London history we liked this week:

1. Cries of London! The Gentle Author announces the launch of the latest Spitalfields Life book with a programme of events to celebrate centuries of London’s street trading culture. 

2. Punk London – the 40th anniversary of punk to be marked with a year-long celebration in London. 

3. What inspired the Red Telephone Box? 

4. Her Majesty’s Rowlandsons. 

5. Unbuilt London: IanVisits explores A Giant Pyramid for Hyde Park. 

6. From Paper to Copper: fascinating clip explaining how a copper etching was made.

7. Vanished London: The Ticket Porter in Arthur Street. 

8. The secret history of the London Plane Tree. 

9. All change at Maggs Brothers: one of London’s best antiquarian booksellers moves house. 

10. Nightwalking: a nocturnal history of London.

Further Reading

If you like our weekly gobbets, you may enjoy the following posts where we explore each of the City of London’s wards:

Poppies and Pepys and Ghastly Grim (Tower Ward)

Fishwives and Firestarters (Billingsgate Ward)

Magnus, the Monument and Mice eating Cheese (Bridge Ward).

Gobbets of the week #24

Here are links to the top 10 gobbets of London history we liked this week: 

1. A brief but lovely history of London maps.


2. Visscher redrawn. The panorama of London 400 years on. 

3. Agatha Christie’s London. 

4. More Cries of London from @thegentleauthor. 

5. The Barbican Estate: a town reconstructed from its cellars. 


6. Regency London, John Nash and the Third Reich: visiting Carlton House Terrace. 

7. Battle of Britain: the Crisis. 

8. First ever public tours of Henry V’s chapel. 

9. Postman’s Park – one of London’s most unusual memorials. 


…and finally, two pieces on London’s Northern Heights…

10. Highgate’s hospital history and Hampstead Heath Pergola.