Short Biography: Johann Justus Runkel (1751-1808)

Signature of J.J. Runkel. Image from the Swords Collection blog.

I am interested in working with antique swords, since studying the original items can tell us much about the construction and use of swords in history. I have a small (but growing!) collection of antique swords, and some of them bear a signature on the spines of the blades, indicating that a “J.J. Runkel” had something to do with the manufacture or sale of the swords. This was an avenue for research, and so I endeavoured to find out more about this person, so that I could understand the antique swords in my collection a little better. This article presents my findings as a short biography of this interesting character from history.

Biography

Johann Justus Runkel was born in Germany in 1751. Between 1751 and 1779, he lived in the parish of Renysdorff, Neuwid, Prussia.[1]

He emigrated to Britain, either in 1779 or in 1780, where he practised his profession as an importer of swords and sword blades from Solingen. He had a shop in London at 8 Tookes Court, Castle Street, Holborn,[2] sometimes also listed as Chancery Lane as which ran adjacent to Tookes Court,[3] where he sold swords both to military officers and to other sword retailers; his main business was selling unmounted blades to other English cutlers, for modification and mounting as they saw fit.[4] He also imported and sold un-manufactured steel.[5]

Although it is common to find Runkel’s name on infantry and cavalry swords, there are also examples of Scottish basket-hilted broadswords with Runkel’s name on the blade.[6] It is rare for swords found in America from the time period in question to be marked with Runkel’s name on the blades.[7]

In 1786, the East India Company arranged a “quality trial” for swords, at the demand of Thomas Gill (another English sword manufacturer). Around 1400 of Runkel’s blades were tested, and of these, 28 were rejected for failing to meet the necessary quality standards.[8]

In 1787, Runkel was brought to trial at the Court of Exchequer for the alleged undervaluing of imported goods. The trial did not run to completion, but concluded when Runkel agreed to settle and pay two thirds of the value of the confiscated swords, as well as all court costs and expenses.[9] His payment for the swords came to £1480,[10] a sum that in 1787 could be worth around £172,600 in today’s money.[11]

Even with these court cases and opposition from other sellers, during the period from 1795 to 1808, he was probably one of the most important merchants involved in the trade of Solingen blades in London. He became a naturalised British subject in March 1796, and in May of the same year he became a freeman of the Cutlers Company. Most of his imports came through the port of Enden in Saxony: a port that handled many different items of export from the Ruhr Valley, that Runkel seemed to favour for his business. His monthly imports were usually measured in the hundreds of blades per shipment, sometimes in thousands.[12]

In 1803, Runkel arranged a large order for the Prince of Wales’ Regiment of Dragoons. He imported 500 swords and 100 blades from Solingen, bringing them into Britain on the on the ship Vrouw Maria.[13]

In March 1806, the British government confiscated 1650 swords and blades imported by Runkel, because he undervalued them to reduce his import tax bill. He was required to pay a penalty of £5 per unit, £8250 in total;[14] a sum that in 1806 could be worth around £614,000 in today’s money.[15] In June of the same year, the British government confiscated an imported cask of un-manufactured steel, for the same reason again.[16]

Nonetheless, in July of 1806, business was still good enough to warrant Runkel taking on an indentured apprentice (as was the fashion and method of the time).[17] His new apprentice was Abraham Neef from Solingen, the son of a long-standing family of Solingen cutlers; it has been suggested that it was from the Neef family that Runkel bought most (if not all) of the blades that he imported between 1780 and 1808.[18]

Runkel died in 1808.[19]

Footnotes

[1] “Runkel, Johann Justus (c1751-1808).” Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie Archive, http://www.mq.edu.au/macquarie-archive/lema/sword/runkel.html

[2] “Runkel, Johann Justus (c1751-1808).” Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie Archive, http://www.mq.edu.au/macquarie-archive/lema/sword/runkel.html

[3] True Briton. London, Issue 1660, Thursday 19th April 1798. Page 3.

[4] “Sword Cutler.” Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie Archive, https://www.mq.edu.au/macquarie-archive/lema/sword/cutler.html

[5] “Runkel, Johann Justus (c1751-1808).” Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie Archive, http://www.mq.edu.au/macquarie-archive/lema/sword/runkel.html

[6] “Scottish basket hilted broadsword Late XVIII century.” Swords Collection, http://swordscollection.blogspot.co.uk/2012/02/another-broadsword-from-late-xviii.html

[7] E. Andrew Mowbray. The American Eagle-Pommel Sword: The Early Years 1794-1830. Andrew Mowbray, 1988.

[8] Richard Bezdek. Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland. Paladin Press, 2003. Pages 148-149.

[9] Law Report. Court of Exchequer.” Times. London, Issue 916, 5 December 1787. Page 3b.

[10] “Runkel, Johann Justus (c1751-1808).” Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie Archive, http://www.mq.edu.au/macquarie-archive/lema/sword/runkel.html

[11] Purchasing Power of British Pounds from 1270 to Present.” MeasuringWorth.com, https://www.measuringworth.com/ppoweruk/

[12] E. Andrew Mowbray. The American Eagle-Pommel Sword: The Early Years 1794-1830. Andrew Mowbray, 1988.

[13] Richard Bezdek. Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland. Paladin Press, 2003. Pages 148-149.

[14] Richard Bezdek. Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland. Paladin Press, 2003. Pages 148-149.

[15] Purchasing Power of British Pounds from 1270 to Present.” MeasuringWorth.com, https://www.measuringworth.com/ppoweruk/

[16] “Runkel, Johann Justus (c1751-1808).” Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie Archive, http://www.mq.edu.au/macquarie-archive/lema/sword/runkel.html

[17] “Sword Cutler.” Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie Archive, https://www.mq.edu.au/macquarie-archive/lema/sword/cutler.html

[18] Richard Dellar and Rob O’Reilly. “John Justus Runkel – Sword Merchant of London.” Classic Arms & Militaria Vol XIV, Issue 3. Pages 48-51.

[19] Richard Bezdek. Swords and Sword Makers of England and Scotland. Paladin Press, 2003. Pages 148-149.

Keith Farrell

Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers.

I have authored Scottish Broadsword and British Singlestick and the award-winning AHA German Longsword Study Guide, and maintain a blog at www.keithfarrell.net where I post regularly.