Saturday, November 8, 2014

Vanished Tool Makers: Rabone Chesterman, England

Linen tape rules were once the standard before steel rules reached a level of quality that could replace them.  This particular elegant, leather-bound rule was made by John Rabone & Sons of Birmingham, and carries the British “broad arrow” mark on the brass handle that signifies a tool made for the British war department or ministry of defense.

Below, a No. 1167 boxwood rule made by the firm:

Interestingly, Rabone made the same rule for Lufkin.  See below (Rabone No. 1167 top, Lufkin No. 3752D bottom):

Michael Rabone created his rule- and tool-making company in 1784.  After his death in 1808, his wife ran the company until her son John took it over in around 1835.  

He introduced steam-driven machinery, although the workers resisted and one man even stabbed him the chest when rebuked for not using it!  In 1871 the company moved to a new factory which it named the Hockley Abbey Works (their logo later incorporated three triangles signifying Hockley Abbey).  In 1877, the company became John Rabone & Sons.  

James Chesterman started his own business in Sheffield in 1820. He invented an automatic rewind tape measure and in 1837 the company adopted the name “Bow Works” with a bow becoming their trademark.  The company was known for the quality of its tapes, steel rules, callipers and squares.  

In 1945, the company went public as James Chesterman & Co., Ltd.  In 1961, they had 550 employees. 


In the 1960's, a number of specialist tool making firms in England had to join forces or go under.  So, in 1963, the Rabone and Chesterman companies merged and their products were marketed under the Rabone Chesterman name.  

In 1970, with the acquisition of Fry's of London,  another British toolmaker, the company was renamed RCF Holdings (Rabone Chesterman Fry's).  A year later, Parry and Bott joined the group.  Then, in 1981, the company was acquired by the Bardsey Group.  

In 1989, Stanley Tools, one of the Great White sharks of tool empires, purchased the assets of Rabone Chesterman from Bardsey PLC.  The sale didn't come cheap:  $14 million changed hands.  Since then, the name has disappeared from their product lines.  Pity, although one suspects that under Stanley's ownership Rabone Chesterman would have been just a label.


  1. Hi there, I'm grateful to your blog for helping me to name a splendid Rabone Chesterman tool that I found in my Dad's garage!
    It is apparently a "Precision Vernier Height Gauge".
    I have all the associated "bits" and it is in the original bespoke wooden box.
    Now all I need to do is find a buyer! lol

  2. Hi, I started at Klargester, a firm making and selling cesspools, cesspit and bio waste units. One of my first tasks was to get some new tools from stores, including a retractable tape. When I was made redundant, this fine product accidentally made it into my toolbox! Just a bog standard cream coloured, plastic cased retractable rule. I've just got it out of the kitchen cupboard and although it's a standard item, it got 'Made in England' proudly printed in red on the scale. I looked up the make and found this page. This thing is 37 years old and works like the day it was manufactured, so smooth in its operation, locks beautifully and I'm sure it will last another 37 years, I just hope I don't lose it. Thanks Rabone and Chesterman for a wonderful product! Out of interest, it's the SK 3 MES.

  3. Thank you for this information, now I know my rabone and Chesterman wooden ruler is from 1963-1970 looked older. Not worth a lot but sure cool to have that in the tool box. It will out last my next 20+ new cheaply made tape measures for sure
    You don't find quality like that anymore

  4. Too many old top quality manufactures have gone the same way. damn shame

  5. I just removed a kitchen from my 30 yr old home and when i ripped the old cupboards up, on the floor i found a 90cm hold out wooden Robone Chesterman ruler. It's in mint condition!! Obviously the builder didn't notice it there as he placed the cupboards over it 30 odd yrs ago.

  6. Today I found a 2ft Rabone ruler, must have been my Dad's. Bit of elbow grease and a small wad of Brasso and it looks great. I'll leave it out on my desk top and hear what comments my grand kids will make of it!

  7. Finding old tools, always a pleasure!

  8. Hi guys, I've got a rabone set square (engineers square) it was my grandads and I've used it for a good decade. Any idea how old they are or how to find out? And any ideas in how to clean it up?

  9. Can you send a picture?

    1. Yes I will send one when I'm back at the workshop. I should be back there on Thursday!

  10. Retractable 3m rule. Nothing special I thought when I came across it in my old tool bag from the days when I worked offshore in the North Sea. I think this was employer supplied, it is branded RS - I am old enough to remember when RS was Radio Spares!
    This little tape was probably never used, not much call for it when I was offshore. When I noticed the Rabone Chesterman name it was not one I was familiar with. (My Dad would have been.). It is now in daily use in the front pouch of my workshop apron. What a discovery!


  11. Hi iv just been given one of the tapes like to picture if anyone collects them let me know

  12. Hi There,
    I bought a Rabone Chesterman levelling instrument in 1990.
    Today cleaning it I noticed it says Made In South Africa.
    When did they started producing in SA?

  13. My rabone chesterman duoline black an silver can any one tell me how old it is

  14. Hi all, i have an old level of my fathers. It has an almost illegible sticker on it that due to this page I think says Rabone Chesterman. It also has a brass cover over the spirit level reading R.Rabone & Sons Birminghame Made in England. Also has N9113. Does this mean anything to anyone?

  15. Hi all, i have an old level of my fathers. It has an almost illegible sticker on it that due to this page I think says Rabone Chesterman. It also has a brass cover over the spirit level reading R.Rabone & Sons Birminghame Made in England. Also has N9113. Does this mean anything to anyone?

  16. Thanks for your comment. You can send a picture to me at and I'll add it to the post.

  17. I have a few Rabone Chesterman tools, I have just taken the buble out of a Maxi view level No 1403 1mtr/40 inch. Anyone know where I might get a replacement ??. Never realized these tools were so old, I'm still using them...