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Tim Cartmell
Total Likes: 9
Original Post (Thread Starter)
by Tim Cartmell
Tim Cartmell
Does anyone know how prolific Bentley & Playfair of Birmingham was in producing guns? Were they on a similar scale as W & C Scott?

The reason I am interested in Bentley & Playfair is because my shotgun which is a Clabrough & Johnstone (circa 1925) was apparently made at the same premises according to Larry Shelton in his book,’ J.P. Clabrough Birmingham Gunmaker’. In 1914, Douglas V. Johnstone who had purchased the JP Clabrough company in 1892, amalgamated with Hollis, Bentley & Playfair and from that date shared the same premises and workmen in Birmingham.

In correspondence with Larry, I had told him that my Clabrough & Johnstone shotgun had a very high serial # 102xxx; to which he was astonished because throughout his years of tabulation, he said he had never found a serial number over 20,000. He thought my serial number may have come from the retailer possibly the Hudson Bay Company in Canada. Well a little over a year ago Larry Shelton contacted me again and stated that he had found another Clabrough & Johnstone shotgun for sale in England with a serial # 102,258, made circa 1925/1930. So this indicated to me that my serial # wasn’t likely unique to the Hudson Bay Company.

My theory is that possibly when Clabrough & Johnstone amalgamated their works with Hollis, Bentley & Playfair in 1914, that they started using their serial numbers also. The problem being I can’t find a list of serial numbers relating to Bentley & Playfair. They were established early in 1840 about the same time as W & C Scott, and to my understanding made alot of guns. In 1914, W & C Scott had serial #s into the 91,000’s, and by 1924 they were using serial #s into the 105,000’s.

Anyone have knowledge about Bentley & Playfair's production?


Liked Replies
by Roy Hebbes
Roy Hebbes
In the book, The history of the Birmingham Proof House ,page 74 there is a brief history on Bentley and Playfair. We learn that they were government contractors and that the business was founded by Mr Bentley in 1840.
Mr Charles Playfair was Chairman of the Guardians of the Birmingham Proof House from 1892 till his death in 1898.
Charles Playfair was one of the original investors in B.S.A.
Bentley and Playfair amalgamated with Isaac Hollis in 1911.
Lt; Colonel Charles Playfair, son of Charles¨was appointed proof master in 1914 and served till his death in 1941.
In 1949 when my copy of this book was published, Hollis Bentley and Playfair were located at 91 &92 Loveday Street, Birmingham.

Daryl, you have a very fine Birmingham gun!
1 member likes this
by trw999
The IGC listing on first, Bentley & Playfair followed by Hollis, Bentley & Playfair, gives some additional information which I hope is helpful:

Surname: Bentley & Playfair

First Address: 56 Summer Lane

City/Town: Birmingham

Other Addresses:

315 & 316 Summer Lane

20 High Holborn, London; 9 New Broad Street; 60 Queen Victoria Street; Atlantic House, 46a Holborn Viaduct, London

Trade: Gun, rifle & pistol makers

Dates: 1840-1911


Thomas Bentley was born in 1816 in Birmingham. His parentage is not known but he had a brother named Charles with whom he formed a partnership in 1861. Where Thomas served his apprenticeship is not known, but he established his own business as a gun finisher in 1840 in Great Russell Street. The 1841 census records him as a gun finisher living in Great Russell Street (no number stated) with his wife Louisa (b.1821 in Birmingham) and their children Louisa Emma (b.1838) and Hellen Margaret (b.1840). These dates show that Thomas was probably only 20 when he married and Louisa was only 15. In 1845 Charles Playfair (I) went into partnership with Thomas who had probably done work for him, and Charles (II) who had almost certainly been apprenticed to his father, moved down from his father's business in Aberdeen, Scotland, to Birmingham to work with him. The partnership was first recorded in 1849 at 56 Summer Lane as gun and pistol makers, but they were also recorded in White’s Directory at 101 Summerland as a gun and pistol manufacturer. The firm soon produced many kinds of military and sporting guns, rifles, pistols and revolvers. They were contractors to the War Department and had sole manufacturing rights to Baker's central fire breech-loader, Erskine's eccentric action breech-loader and Walker's snap-action breech-loader, all of which were adapted to Eley's pin-fire and centre-fire cartridges. There seems to be no record of Charles (II) in the 1851 census but Thomas was recorded as a gun maker employing 23 men. He was living at Ryland Road, Edgbaston with his wife Louisa and their children Louisa Emma (b.1838), and Hellen Margaret (b.1840). In 1854 Charles (II) married Louisa Emma. Shortly after the date of this census Thomas’ wife Louisa appears to have died and later in 1851 Thomas married Sarah (b.1819) with whom he had a daughter Mary Jane (b.1852) and a son Thomas Charles (b.1855).

In 1860 the partnership moved to 315 & 316 Summer Lane. In 1861 Thomas Bentley formed a separate partnership at 315 Summer Lane with his brother Charles but this partnership, which also traded under the name of Bentley Brothers, was recorded only in that year. A Charles Bentley has been found in the censuses of 1851 and 1861. He was a gun barrel filer (b.1824 in Birmingham) with a brother named John (b.1832) who was a "gunsmith finisher". This Charles may or may not be the same person. A Charles Bentley was recorded in 1863 but only in that year trading in Wilton Street. The 1861 census records Thomas Bentley as a 45 year old master gun maker living at Soho Hill, Handsworth, with one servant. Charles Playfair does not appear to have been recorded. In 1861 Charles Playfair became a founder and a director of BSA. It has been suggested that at about this time the firm built "New Buildings" in Price Street, but they do not seem to have occupied these buildings themselves; if they did build them perhaps they were intended for the most important outworkers of the Bentley & Playfair partnership. The 1871 census records Thomas Bentley living at Richmond House, Sherborne Road, Acock's Green. This was in Yardley, Solihull, south of Birmingham. Thomas was living there with his new wife Sarah, Mary Jane and Thomas Charles. Charles Playfair, previously recorded in the 1868 Electoral Register and living at 315 Summer Lane, was recorded living next door to Richmond House at Bon Accord, Sherborne Road with Louisa Emma and their children Charles (b.1866), Louisa (b.1857), Helen (b.1864) and Kate (b.1869). Charles described himself as a gun maker employing 80 men and 20 boys.

In 1872 Thomas Bentley and Charles Playfair became partners in Abingdon Works (Ltd), a manufacturing partnership founded by them and other gun and pistol makers. At some stage Charles Playfair became Chairman of the Birmingham Proof House. In the 1881 census Thomas Bentley was again recorded at Richmond House but by this time Sarah had died and Thomas was living with a cook and a one other servant. He described himself simply as a gun maker. Charles Playfair, aged 57, was living at Bon Accord with his son Charles (Charles (III) and a nurse and a cook. Louisa was away on the night of the census. Charles described himself as magistrate and gun maker employing 40 men and 10 boys. In 1885 the firm opened a London shop at 20 High Holborn. At about this time the firm made single barrelled shotguns for Holland & Holland. In 1890 they moved it to 9 New Broad Street and in 1893 to 60 Queen Victoria Street. The 1891 census records Thomas Bentley, aged 85, living at Richmond House with Thomas C, aged 46. Both were described as gun manufacturers. They employed two servants. Charles Playfair and Louisa were recorded at Bon Accord. They employed a lady’s companion, cook and housemaid, Charles (II) described himself as a 67 year old gun manufacturer, Louisa was 53 years old. Charles (II) had joined the 42nd Squadron of the Imperial Yeomanry and may have spent time with them in Belfast. In 1897 Charles (II) became a magistrate.

On 19 November 1898 Charles (II) died at Hall Green leaving an estate valued at £34,182. Louisa died in October 1899. His son, Charles (III) took over from him, but not immediately because of the Boer War. He was a Captain in the 2nd Battalion Scottish Rifles which was sent to the Cape Colony and Orange Free State. In the 1901 census Thomas and Thomas C were recorded living at Richmond House and described as gun manufacturers. They were living with two servants. Thomas Bentley died in January 1902 and presumably Charles (III) took over with Thomas C joining him on his return from South Africa. In 1903 the firm became a limited liability company and named the premises in Summer Lane the Colmore Works. Also in 1903 Thomas C married Miriam Joyce Zillah Wilkins (b.1869). On 4 February 1908 Charles (III) registered patent No. 2447 for a humane slaughtering tool. Charles (III) was recorded in the 1911 census aged 45 living at 252 Bristol Road, Edgbaston, with his wife Rosa Jane (b.1867) and daughters Muriel Rosa (b.1890 in Belfast) and Ilfra Thirza (b.1897 in Belfast). Charles (III) described himself as a gun and rifle manufacturer and held the rank of Major in the Special Reserve. They employed a cook and a housemaid. Thomas C was recorded in the 1911 census living at Arden House Stratford on Avon. He had retired after the firm had been bought by Isaac Hollis. He died in June 1916 leaving an estate valued at £15,046 2s. 1d. Charles (III) died on 14 March 1941 at Grove Hill House, Grove Hill, Great Barr, Birmingham. Probate was granted to Dorothy Barnard, spinster. He left an estate valued at £287.2s.1d.

After the sale of the business to Isaac Hollis the firm was re-named Hollis, Bentley & Playfair and moved to Colmore Works, Lench Street. In London they traded as Hollis, Bentley & Playfair from Bentley & Playfair's address at Atlantic House, 46a Holborn Viaduct. The remaining history of the company is to be found in the history of Hollis Brothers, below.

Surname: Hollis Brothers

First Address: 11 Weaman Row

City/Town: Birmingham

Other Addresses:

10-11 Weaman Row

49 Whittall Street

5-11 Weaman Row

Lench Street

Colmore Works, Lench Street

16-17 Loveday Street

Colmore Works, 16-17 Loveday Street; 91-92 Lower Loveday Street. London Addresses: 44a Cannon Street; 83 Cheapside; 6 Great Winchester Street; 26 Billiter Buildings; 101 Leadenhall Street; 9 New Broad Street; Atlantic House, 46a Holborn Viaduct; 143 Holborn; 54 Clerkenwell Road; 84 Goswell Road

Trade: Gun, rifle & pistol makers

Dates: 1840-1953


Hollis Brothers was first recorded trading from 11 Weaman Row in 1840 but appear to have started trading a little earlier. The firm later became Isaac Hollis & Sons and claimed establishment from 1814. Richard & William Hollis were recorded trading in Bath Street (no number stated) from 1814 to 1818 so it may be that the Hollis brothers were descended from them. The brothers were Isaac Hollis (b.1815) and Frederick Hollis (birth date unknown), but Frederick died 20 December 1839. Isaac was recorded in the 1841 census living in Weaman Row (no number stated). He was a 25 year old gun and pistol maker, married to Emma (b.1821). They had two children, Isaac (b.1837), and Henry (b.1839). After Frederick died, Isaac carried on trading under the name of Hollis Brothers until 1845 when he re-named the business Hollis Brothers & Co who traded up to 1848. In 1844 Isaac (I) entered into a short term partnership with William Tranter at 10 & 11 Weaman Row, presumably to complete a particular contract or supply certain parts, this partnership lasted until 1849.

In 1848 Isaac (I) took in Isaac Brentnall Sheath as a partner, and the firm of Hollis & Sheath was established, expanding into 10 Weaman Row. This may have been intended as a long lasting partnership whereas in 1849 (only?) another partnership was established, this was Hollis, Sheath & Tranter which was probably for the purpose of completing a particular contract. In 1851 Hollis & Sheath moved their principal offices to 49 Whittall Street, but in 1853 these moved back to Weaman Row where the addition of the premises at 5-9 Weaman Row gave them the address of 5-11 Weaman Row. The firm either had an unrecorded office in London or they had an unknown agent. There are reports that Charles Rosson was apprenticed to John Francis & Co and worked for Hollis & Sheath, but this is unlikely because of the dates of trading of the two firms. He was probably apprenticed to Hollis & Sheath and then worked for John Francis & Co. In the 1851 census, Isaac and Emma were recorded living in Frederick Place, Frederick Street, Edgbaston (according to the street directories they were living at 45 Frederick Street by 1855). By 1851 they had three daughters, Emma (b.1842), Louisa (b.1847), and Fanny Charlotte (b.1851), and a further son, Alfred (b.1849). Isaac and Emma employed a house servant and a nursemaid so they were comparatively wealthy. The 1851 census also records Isaac (II) and Henry as pupils at Baily Grove School, Champion Hill, East Dulwich, London.

Hollis & Sheath were licenced makers of percussion breech loading guns under Frederick Prince's patents 386 of 1855, and 3036 of 1856. Isaac Sheath himself held patent No. 996 of 26 April 1853 for a revolver part (?). The licence to make Frederick Prince's patent probably passed to the London Armoury Company Ltd in 1861 when the firm changed its name to Isaac Hollis & Sons on the departure of Isaac Brentnall Sheath. On 1 May 1861 Isaac Hollis (I) patented a single piece trigger guard and trigger plate (No. 1082). He patented another in 1868 (No. 4922). In the 1861 census, Isaac and Emma, Isaac (II), Henry, Emma (II), Louisa and Fanny Charlotte were recorded living at 35 Frederick Street with a cook and a housemaid. By this time Isaac (II) and Henry were recorded as gun makers, but Alfred was not recorded. Emma died in January 1867 and in about 1868 Isaac (I), who was 53 years old, married Catherine who was only 18 years old (b.1850). The 1871 census records Isaac (I) and Catherine living at Summerside, Great Malvern, Worcestershire. Isaac (I) described himself as a gun maker but was obviously semi-retired. Not surprisingly, Isaac (I) died in July 1875 only about 8 years after marrying Catherine. By about 1870 Isaac (II) and Henry had taken over the day to day running of the business. Isaac (II) was responsible for overall management and the marketing of the firm's products. Henry was responsible for manufacturing. The firm became volume producers of inexpensive trade guns and sporting guns for the South African and Indian markets, but they also made quality guns for British provincial makers such as Crockart of Blairgowrie.

In 1870 the firm opened a shop at 44a Cannon Street in London; in 1871 this moved to 83 Cheapside. In the 1871 census Isaac (II) was recorded living at the home of George A Terry (b.1836 in Birmingham) at 10 Fenwick Road, Lambeth, London. George Terry was a gunmaker's agent. Henry Hollis was recorded as a gun manufacturer in the 1871 census. In 1869 he had married Harriette (b.1845 Edgbaston) and they lived at 37 Frederick Street, Birmingham. Fanny Charlotte was living with them. They were not recorded as having had any children. On 10 June 1875 Alfred Burdett Hollis registered patent No. 2128 for additional bolting on a breech loading action and a lever to retract strikers. The bolting mechanism comprised one-piece double bolt the bottom part of the bolt engaging with a bite in the rear lump and a top part of the bolt engaging with a lug on the rear of the extractor. The mechanism was actuated by a top lever and link to the top part of the bolt or a side lever engaging with the bottom part of the bolt. Isaac (I) died on 21 July 1875 leaving an estate valued at under £20,000. Isaac (II) died aged 37 on 12 November 1875 leaving an estate valued at under £4000. He never married. In 1876/1877 Henry registered a limited liability company, Isaac Hollis & Sons Ltd, but by 1879 they were again trading as Isaac Hollis & Sons. From 1879 the London shop was at 6 Great Winchester Street.

In the 1881 census Henry was recorded living with Harriette (b.1848 in Erdington) at Spring Villa, Water Orton, Aston, Birmingham. By the time of the 1891 census when Henry was only 51 years old, he had retired. He and Harriette were living at Beechcroft, Westbourne Road, Edgbaston. He died on 30 March 1895 leaving an estate valued at £25,141 3s. 6d. It is not known who took over the business, it may have been sold to Bentley & Playfair (see below). In 1892 in London the firm moved to 26 Billiter Buildings. Between about 1890 and 1894 in Birmingham the firm moved from Weaman Row to Lench Street but, strangely, no number is known. In 1900 the firm's London office moved to 101 Leadenhall Street, but in 1903 it moved to 9 New Broad Street which was the same address as Bentley & Playfair's premises from 1891 to 1892. Bentley & Playfair became a limited company in 1904. On 26 May 1909 R J Petersen of I Hollis & Sons together with H & R Whittington of T Whittington & Sons registered patent No. 12419 for a selective single trigger. On 10 July 1909 R J Petersen on his own registered patent No. 16128 for a parallel rifled barrel with recessed smooth bored choke to fire shot or bullets and therefore compete with Paradox type guns.

In 1911 Isaac Hollis & Sons and Bentley & Playfair Ltd amalgamated to become Hollis, Bentley & Playfair. The Birmingham factory in Lench Street was named the Colmore Works, and in London the firm moved to Bentley & Playfair's old London premises at Atlantic House, 46a Holborn Viaduct. In 1914, at the start of the First World War, the company bought the business of Clabrough & Johnstone and they both occupied 143 Holborn. In 1915 the two firms entered into a joint venture to try and win government contracts. This joint venture, named Standard Small Arms Co Ltd, was located at 90 Cannon Street. In 1916 in Birmingham, Hollis, Bentley & Playfair moved to 16-17 Loveday Street. From 1920 to 1923 the business of Hollis, Bentley & Playfair (Isaac Hollis & Sons) occupied 54 Clerkenwell Road. In Birmingham the business continued as Hollis, Bentley & Playfair only to change to Hollis, Bentley & Playfair (I Hollis & Sons) in 1925. In 1924 the London business changed to trade from 54 Clerkenwell Road both as I Hollis & Sons and as Hollis, Bentley & Playfair (I Hollis & Sons). In 1926 the Birmingham factory at 16-17 Loveday Street was again named the Colmore Works. In 1931 the name Hollis, Bentley & Playfair was revived and the factory moved to 91-92 Lower Loveday Street.

From 1932 to 1933 the London business traded as Hollis, Bentley & Playfair from 84 Goswell Road and I Hollis & Sons from 54 Clerkenwell Road. Perhaps they were involved in different parts of the gun trade. From 1934 the London businesses traded under both names but only from 84 Goswell Road. From 1939 to 1943, when the London offices were closed, the business traded only as Hollis, Bentley & Playfair. Hollis, Bentley & Playfair finally closed in Birmingham in 1953.

1 member likes this
by Daryl Hallquist
Daryl Hallquist
Tim, what a fine gun. You are fortunate to have it. Just a small percentage of Bentley and Playfair, and Hollis Bentley and Playfair guns are marked with their own names. Attached is a bit from their ca. 1911 Catalog showing offerings for others in the trade to finish up. Note the multitude of quality offerings and the action types. They seem able to take barreled actions to any % of completion desired by the buyer. Also, I find it interesting that those breech ball carvings found on a few high end guns, maybe like Woodward, are called Claw Fences.

[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]

[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]

[Linked Image from i.imgur.com]
1 member likes this
by buckstix
This is a very informative thread. Thanks for posting.

I also have a Bentley & Playfair Ltd - A Double Rifle. It was re-finished and given as a gift.

[Linked Image from buckstix.com]
1 member likes this
by lagopus
They were very much into making military weapons of all types prior to branching out into sporting guns after military rifles became more mass produced by machinery.

Tim, English guns have some odd serial numberings often starting with a high number that contains some sort of code as to year etc. Very few started at number 1 and worked through. Makes life difficult when trying to sort out things. Lagopus.....
1 member likes this
by Daryl Hallquist
Daryl Hallquist
I cannot figure out the Hollis Bentley and Playfair numbering systems. I had two of their very highly engraved sidelocks that were nearly identical. One was numbered in 4 digits and the other in the 88,000 range. The company did have a London address, so maybe during that relatively short period the London serial numbers were in a separate group.

Your thought about Bentley and Playfair, later in ca. 1911 with Hollis, seems correct to me. Bentley and Playfair made guns 60 years before the amalgamation for many makers as well as a few with their own brand. Their catalog describes themselves as makers to the trade and gives prices for many gun mechanical and decoration styles, in various states of finish, to be sold , and/or finished up, by others.
1 member likes this
by Daryl Hallquist
Daryl Hallquist
Tim, the gun serialed in the 3000 range was marked on the top rib, Hollis Bentley & Playfair, London. The serial no. was on the trigger guard, barrel underside and receiver. See below.

The gun in the 88,000 range was serial no. marked on the under rib only. The top rib was marked Hollis Bentley & Playfair, Birmingham and London, all in gold. See below.

My thought was that both guns were made between 1911 and the war. I also "guessed" that the high number was a Birmingham number and the 3000 range number may have been a London number.
1 member likes this
by Daryl Hallquist
Daryl Hallquist
I think that Bentley and Playfair made mostly guns for the trade. A look at the 1911 catalog will show their advertising to other gunsmiths, with good illustrations of details you probably have seen on many guns with the names of others on them. They offered guns in various states of finish. I have one currently for sale marked Charles Playfair, Aberdeen. I have seen or owned Bentley and Playfair manufactured guns by Braddell of Belfast, Monk, and many others. Again , the details in the catalog of 1911 will show up on guns of many provincial makers that one may have seen.
1 member likes this
by SKB
I have a nearly identical B&P gun being cleaned up and getting ready for sale soon. Nice guns and wonderful engraving.
1 member likes this

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