The Royal Sewing Machine Company was formed by Thomas Shakespear and George Illston in 1868, with a factory at Bishop Street, Birmingham before moving to Small Heath, Birmingham in late 1871.

The Company produced the Royal lock-stitch machine on the Wheeler & Wilson Principle and a hand version known as the Royal Alfred. In 1869 the Shakespear (No "e") was introduced.

In 1871 Joseph Harris commisioned the company to produce a new machine called the Challenge using Shakespear & Illston's patented shuttle movement. Production was about 2000 machines a year. The agreement was terminated in 1874 when Joseph Harris and John Judson produced their own version of the Challenge using their own patentented movement and a slightly differently designed casting to the base.

Freed from its contract with Harris The Royal Sewing Machine Co. produced machines named The Avon from early 1874 based original Challenge design.

In January 1877 The Royal Sewing Machine Company became a limited company and purchased the Imperial Sewing Machine Co. which had been formed by John Judson and Joseph Harris in 1873. The latter became a director of The Royal Sewing Machine Co. Ltd in January 1878.

Principal machines manufactured were The Royal, Royal Alfred, Shakespear, Challenge, Avon, Challenge (Imperial/Harris), Eugenie, Milton, Windsor, Agenoria (Imperial/Harris) and the Times.

In addition to the Challenge produced for Harris, the company also produced labelled versions of its machines such as the Sleath (Avon), Steel's Family Help (Avon), the Regent (Eugenie) and Monarch (Shakespear) for Smith & Co to commemorate the Royal visit. The Windsor was produced as the Arcadian, South Kensington and the Hyde Park.
The company also incorporated its patented movement in specially commissioned castings such as the Royal Anchor for Thomas Bradford, and an octagonal version of the Shakespear for Colliers.

In early 1882 The Royal Sewing Machine Company Ltd became the Royal Machine Manufacturing Co. and seems to have concentrated on its range of Royal Mail Cycles. The company went into Vountary Liquidation with the assets of the company being auctioned off in February 1888.

No production records for the company survive however I keep a register of the most common Royal machines and it appears in total some 50,000 Shakespear/Challenge/Avon machines were produced which were numbered sequentially. However in late 1877/early 1878 the serial number was modified by adding a one as the first digit so serial numbers jumped from 38,xxx to 138,xxx.

A-Z of British
The Agenoria Sewing Machine
Bradbury & Co.
Busy Bee
Sewing Machine Co.
The Franklin
Sewing Machine Co.
Gresham & Craven
Sewing Machine Co.
Hopkinson Bros
Howe Machine Co.
Sewing Machine Co
Sewing Machine Co.
Jones & Co.
Kimball & Morton
Maxfield & Co
Moldacot Pocket
Sewing Machine Co.
Newton Wilson & Co.
The Royal
Sewing Machine Co.
Sellers & Co.
Shepherd, Rothwell
& Hough
Sewing Machine Co.
Smith, Starley & Co.
Tailor Bird
Sewing Machine Co.
W. F. Thomas & Co.
Universal Sewing Machines Ltd
Varley & Co.
Vickers Ltd.
Edward Ward
James Weir
Return to
The Gallery
Contact Us

 Shakespear sewing machine c1873

The Shakespear Serial No. 16179.

This machine was probably produced in about 1873. The machines name - The Shakespear appears on the brass needlebar cover along with an embossed image of the bust of William Shakespeare with sits on top of a plinth bearing the legend "Not for an age but for all time". The timber framed house in the background appears to depict Anne Hathaway's cottage.

The company name appears underneath and a Registered Design lozenge for 19th September 1871 appears at the bottom left of the needlebar cover with the name J. Moore just above (not shown on the photographs).

The machine stands on a heavy cast iron base, sadly the decals are worn but the Company's Trade Mark - a representation of William Shakespeare is still visible under the arm.

Engraved on the cloth plate is W H Shakespear 122 Bold Street Liverpool. William Shakespeare was the Company's agent in Liverpool from late 1872 before emigrating to Auckland New Zealand in early 1878 where as the Local Manager he opened and operated the company's Depot.

 Shakespear needlebar cover

 The Shakespear

The Shakespear Serial No. 19941.

A slightly later example of the Shakespear this time on a wooden plinth. The image on the needle bar cover now depicts the bust of William Shakespear in profile on a pillar with Anne Hathaway's cottage on one side, a church the other, and at the base of the pillar are four books.

The cloth plate is engraved with C. Isted & Co 16 Above Bar Southampton. Charles E. Isted was a retailer of sewing machines and the earliest documentary evidence we have for his business dates to 1868 when he was an Agent for the Florance Sewing Machine Co. The business appears to have been taken over by his son Albert Ernest Isted between October 1884 and February 1886 before closing in 1891.

 Shakespear needlebar cover

 Steel Family c1877

Avon - Steel's Family Help Serial No. 37443.

This is an example of the Royal Sewing Machine Co Ltd's Avon machine but labelled for James Steel & Co. and has Steel's Family Help on the arm. The Avon is a renamed version of the Challenge machine the company had produced for Joseph Harris between 1871 and 1874.

Steels name

As the word Limited has been added at the end of the address it is likely this machine was manufactured shortly after July 1877.

Steel clothplate
 steel faceplate tag.jpg

The face plate is plain steel rather than the elaboratley embossed Avon/Challenge versions.

James Steel & Co had premises at 90 High Street, Cheltenham and by 1875 he had opened another shop at 12 Eastgate Street, Gloucester. James Steel entered bankruptcy in 1887 and his shop fittings and stock-in-trade were auctioned off in November 1887. However by April 1888 he was once again selling sewing machines this time from 19 Winchcome Street, Cheltenham

 Steel Balance wheel.jpg

The balance wheel has no provision to be disengaged during bobbin winding and has a porcelain handle.

Steel Bobbin winder

The boss does not have the usual Company's Trade Mark - a representation of William Shakespear. Note the primative bobbin winder.

 Steel Family c1877
 Steel Family c1877

 Shakespear sewing machine c1880

The Shakespear Serial No. 144208.

This is an early example of the improved Shakespear probably manufactured around 1879. Whilst it retained the overall shape and used Shakespear & Illston's patented shuttle movement, it featured a take-up lever, improved bobbin winder with level wind an a fast & loose balance wheel.

Less than 1,400 of this improved model were produced by the Royal Sewing Machine Co Ltd before it became the Royal Manufacturing Co. Ltd in early 1882. The new company continued to produce the this model in limited numbers with just around 4,500 machines being made before the company closed in 1888.

 Shakespear 144208 needlebar cover

The casting for this particular machine seems to have been manufacturered for the earlier model and various holes which had been drilled have been plugged - These are visable on the top of the needlehead, arm and between the two spool pins.

 Shakespear 144208 Bobbin Winder

When I purchased this machine I had no idea that some 140 years ago this Shakespear and the Avon below would have been assembled at the Small Heath factory almost certainly on the same day being just six machines apart. Now after all those years they are have been reunited - is that coincidence?

 Shakespear 144208 Balance Wheel

 The Avon sewing machine c1875

The Avon Serial No. 144215.

The Avon is a renamed version of the Challenge sewing machine which had been manufactured by the Royal Sewing Machine Co. for Joseph Harris in 1871/73 and which used Shakespear & Illston's patented shuttle movement.

The later Challenge produced by Harris/Imperial from 1874 uses a shuttle movement patenteted by Harris and Judson and the casting to the base is solid rather than having seperate feet.

 The Avon needlebar cover

The name The Avon appears on the brass needlebar cover along with Sole Patentee's and an embossed image of William Shakespeare - the company's Trade Mark. Engraved on the cloth plate is company name and address along with the machines serial number. The decals are heavily worn and it is missing its slideplate although the shuttle is present.

Very few examples of The Avon appear to have survived.

 Windsor sewing machine c1879

The Windsor Serial No. 2505.

Although this machine has no identifying marks we believe it is an early version of The Windsor sadly the needlebar cover which would have confirmed this is missing.

The Royal Sewing Machine Company produced machines such as The Shakespear and The Avon (see above) which were already outdated at the time they were made. The Windsor appears to have been an attempt to produce a more modern machine along the lines of the Bradbury Wellington and although it is sometimes referred to as a Jones Hand look alike it certainly was not a direct copy of that machine. Production of Windsor machines seems to have started around 1873/74

This machine was probably produced in c1877. The main differences between this and the later versions of The Windsor machine (see below) are the design of the balance wheel and the location of the bobbin winder. On the later machine the bobbin winder is mounted on the gear guard and runs on the inside of the balance wheel. On the early machine it "sits" into the bed and runs on the outside of the balance wheel.

 Windsor bobbin winder

 Windsor sewing machine c1879

The Windsor Serial No. 21776.

A later version of The Windsor made by The Royal Sewing Machine Co. Ltd probably in the late 1870's.

Although the centre decal has long since gone the remaining decals are in reasonable condition with the name 'The Windsor' visible on the arm. This name is repeated on the brass needlebar cover along with an embossed image which represents Windsor Castle which is a Royal Palace. The Company name, address and the machines serial number are engraved on the cloth plate.

In keeping with the Royal connection a labelled version of this machine called the South Kensington was produced for the sewing machine distributor Charles Todd, 10 Elm Park Terrace, Fulham Road, London who used an image of the Albert Memorial on his machines.

The Albert Memorial stands opposite the Royal Albert Hall on the South side of Kensington Gardens, in London. Completed in 1876 it was designed by Gilbert Scott and paid for by public subscription.

 Windsor needlebar cover

 Windsor sewing machine c1880

The Windsor Serial No. 23936.

This is an example of the improved version of The Windsor made by The Royal Sewing Machine Co. Ltd probably around 1880. Note the introduction of a take-up lever, with the tension discs mounted on the face plate instead of the arm. The bobbin winder has had a level feed device added.

The centre decal shows the head of William Shakespeare which was the company's trade mark. This machine came in a wooden case with various attachments and a poor condition manual.

 Windsor c1880 side view

 Royal sewing Machine Co Ltd Oil Bottle

Royal Sewing Machine Co Ltd Oil Bottle

This Oil bottle was made between 1877 and 1882.

Given it's around 140 years old and its fragility it's a rare survivour and is the first from this manufacturer that I've come across in 25 years of collecting.

It has The Royal Sewing Machine Company Ltd on the front, Small Heath one side and Birmingham on the other. The back has Pure Machine Oil. On the bottom is C T & Co presumably the company that moulded the bottle.