A favored piece in my own collection is an example I own of a Howell walking stick. In its time, the cane manufacturer known as Henry Howell & Company, London, England was the largest and one of the world’s most prestigious makers of fine walking sticks. Their canes are much sought after by collectors today and are often, but not always, identified by the distinctive Henry Howell Co. badge or button. This is a small (1/4” to 3/8”) brass disc inlaid into the wood of the shaft and stamped with the maker’s mark. Howell canes that which pre-date the use of this marker can also be identified by the initials HH incised on either the ferrule or the collar.
The Howell shop, established at number 76 Aldersgate in London in 1832 by John Howell, was highly regarded among Londoners and featured high-class hosiery and a variety of fashion accessories. After John’s wife, Sarah, died in 1851, the shop was jointly operated by John, his son Henry, and daughter Amelia. A few years later, a nephew, Jonathan, was recruited as apprentice from a branch of the family living in Wiltshire. Among the high end accessories offered in the family business would have been a line of fashionable walking canes.
In 1859, Henry married a widow named Sarah Akerman, whose first husband had been a manufacturer of walking sticks for the wholesale market. Three years later, Henry had left the family shop at Aldersgate and established a cane merchandising concern under his own name on Old Street in London in a building formerly occupied by James Thomas Akerman, a long time manufacturer of walking sticks, parasols, and umbrellas. It is unclear whether Henry purchased and took over the existing cane works, or if he began anew merely occupying the site of the former manufactory. What is known is that Henry Howell & Company flourished as a business, expanded rapidly to become one of the world’s leaders in the production of high quality walking sticks, and made Henry Howell a very wealthy man.
In 1867, Jonathan, the sole remaining proprietor of the original family store on Aldersgate, closed shop and joined his cousin Henry in the manufacturing of canes. Henry and Jonathan continued to expand the firm together until 1888, when Henry, a childless widower, died and left everything he owned to Jonathan. By 1895, Henry Howell & Co. employed 460 people and declared itself the largest single manufacturer of walking sticks in the world. The business continued to thrive for many more years under the able stewardship of Jonathan Howell and probably reached its pinnacle around 1910. Henry Howell & Co., however, was destined to suffer greatly in the wake of the great World War. A devastating loss of many of the skilled laborers needed to man the factory, along with a simultaneous somber turning away of the public’s taste for the frivolities of fashion, and further accompanied by an unfortunate series of dry winters that decimated the umbrella portion of the business, all worked together to drain the company of its assets, weakening its financial position in the years between the wars.
Shortly after Jonathan Howell’s death in 1934, the new directors, in a desperate effort to maintain a forward-looking position, invested the remainder of the company’s cash reserves in the building of a new factory at Burnt Oak, Hendon. The project quickly floundered and Henry Howell & Co. went into receivership and was no more. But many of the thousands of beautifully crafted Howell canes produced in the company’s happier days can still be found in the antique markets and make a welcome treasure to any collector appreciative of the history of walking sticks.
In addition to the telltale “button” or round plate inscribed “Howell London England” as seen in the picture below, the classic Howell maker’s mark has the letters “J.H.” stamped inside a diamond shape. Most Howell canes had the diamond background; however, there were some that had the “J.H.” stamp inside a rectangular background. Unfortunately, there are many other makers who used the initials “J.H.” inside a rectangle, in addition to other background shapes, but it is fairly easy to determine which are not Howell sticks.
I challenge any reader to find a stick with a Howell button AND a hallmarked silver or gold embellishment with a date pre-1884. The makers’ punch will NOT be a Howell one, but would be evidence for the stick having been sold in Henry Howell’s Aldersgate shop before Henry actually began making them.
Editor’s note: All of the historical material, as well as the wonderful vintage photograph of the Howell factory, has been graciously contributed by Chris Howell, the great, great grandson of Jonathan Howell.