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Mike Henbrey’s Collection Of Dividers

July 12, 2015
by the gentle author

A few smaller examples from Mike Henbrey’s collection

Yesterday, I went back to visit Mike Henbrey and we photographed his collection of pairs of dividers. “Once every trade needed dividers to make measurements,” Mike informed me, “but when I worked in the secondhand tool shop nobody was interested to buy them.”

Yet this neglect became Mike’s gain and now the walls of his flat are lined with beautiful pairs of dividers of all kinds. As you can see from the two thousand-year-old Roman pair, the design has barely changed over time and Mike was the first to admit that some of the examples he describes as ‘nineteenth century’ could be two hundred years earlier.

Once you start to compare dividers, you eye becomes attuned to the subtleties of design – whether the knops are octagonal or round, the tiny design flourishes, the marks that indicate ownership and, above all, the elegant sculptural forms and proportions. As I handled them, I became aware of the weight and balance of each pair, all designed to sit comfortably in the hand.

It is impossible not to recognise an anthropomorphic quality and gender in the forms of dividers too. Curvaceous ones for measuring outside of things appear undeniably feminine while the straight pairs for measuring inside of things appear masculine. The matching nineteenth century interior and exterior measuring dividers illustrated below even have the proportion of a human couple standing side by side.

There is a sense of power when you wield dividers and, most of all, I thought of William Blake and his magnificent illustrations of Newton and the Ancient of Days. Several of the dividers in Mike’s collection resemble those in Blake’s paintings and are contemporary with him, so it was a small wonder to see dividers as Blake would have known them.

The Ancient of Days from ‘Europe – A Prophecy’ by William Blake

Pair of Roman dividers – two and a half inches tall

Late eighteenth/early nineteenth century pair with hexagonal knop – five inches tall

Twentieth century dividers by Thewlis & Griffith for interior and exterior measurement – six inches tall

Nineteenth century pair for measuring pipes or rods – twelve inches tall

One of Mike’s favourites, a tiny eighteenth century brass pair with steel pins and octagonal knop – one and a half inches

Blacksmith made – thirteen inches tall

Blacksmith made, this pair are marked with the initial ‘W’ on the handle – seven and a half inches tall

Large-scale nineteenth century dividers, large enough to measure beams or a ship’s mast

‘Very pleasing and functional heavy-duty, general purpose engineer’s dividers with notches to indicate ownership’ – thirteen inches tall

Large, early nineteenth century pair in brass and steel – eighteen inches – ‘I bought these for the lovely shape’

Unusual early twentieth century pair – possibly workshop made

Late eighteenth, early nineteenth century pair – ‘I bought these from a cello-maker’s workshop and they fit inside a cello’

Pair with decorative detail and wing-nut bolt – eleven inches tall

Cartographers’ dividers designed to be used with one hand – early twentieth century – eight inches tall

Nineteenth century pair with filed blade used for marking circles in wood – seven inches tall

Small nineteenth century pair with decoration and marked with initials ‘W H’ – seven inches tall

Unusual nineteenth century dividers for both inside and outside measurements – three and a half inches tall

Early twentieth century for engineering use – a wing nut on one side extends the dividers and a wing nut on the other side locks them – seven and a half inches tall

Very crude blacksmith made nineteenth century dividers – four inches tall

Five inch pair for measuring inside a tube – nineteenth century

Five and half inches tall with initials WH and wing nut

‘Nicely-detailed nineteenth century pair’ – six inches tall

The largest in Mike’s collection – eighteen inches tall and blacksmith made

A couple of ‘female’ and ‘male’ dividers by the same maker

A collection of tiny twentieth century dividers

William Blake’s Newton

In Mike Henbrey’s flat

You may also like to take a look at

Mike Henbrey, Collector of Books, Epherema & Tools

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Vinegar Valentines for Bad Tradesmen

Dicky Lumskull’s Ramble Through London

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg Tingey permalink
    July 12, 2015

    Do interior/exterior calliper gauges count?
    I still have & occasionally use one such.

  2. July 12, 2015

    Fascinating! and beautifully sculptural.

  3. Andy from Workshopshed permalink
    July 12, 2015

    Excellent collection, I really need to make some to replace the cheap and wonky ones I currently use.

  4. July 12, 2015

    What a beautiful collection complimented by Blake.

  5. July 12, 2015


  6. viv davy permalink
    July 12, 2015

    what a visual feast. Thanks for this lovely post

  7. July 12, 2015

    I really enjoyed today’s blog on dividers as I come from a family of ironmongers. Our business Was housed in an early eighteenth century building in Queen Street Huddersfield and was full of treasures. Many of these went to the local museum when we closed. I grew up with tools old and new and I’m forwarding this jewel to my brother. He will love it too!

  8. Shawdian permalink
    December 29, 2015

    Absolutely amazing what we have in our private collections in our homes. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Peter McCallum permalink
    March 3, 2016

    I have a photograph image of dividers on which I would value an opinion. Will send on receiving an answer.

    Relief carving in stone dated c 1555-60 : rounded “toad-stool” top, straight-legged with squared ends – indeed there is no tapering of the legs.

    For what purpose would these be used ? They seem more symbolic than practical.


  10. jonathan philpott permalink
    April 22, 2024

    I obtained from an auction in Wickham, Hampshire a large number of dividers and calipers. Upon researching and comparing with the photos in this blog i can say without a doubt i have got Mike Henbreys items. Finding out they came from such a well read avid self educated collector gives me a great deal of joy that i can keep these tools as part of my collection with such joy i use a few of them in my own projects using them for their designed purpose aling with my other antique tools. Thank you for this remarkable story bless you Mike Henbrey.

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