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The Challenge Sewing Machine


Joseph Harris




  Alex I Askaroff

Alex has spent a lifetime in the sewing industry and is considered one of the foremost experts of pioneering machines and their inventors. He has written extensively for trade magazines, radio, television, books and publications world wide.

See Alex Askaroff demonstrating antique sewing machines on YouTube


Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is brought to you by Alex Askaroff.


The Royal Sewing Machine Co



The Challenge Sewing Machine



The Challenge sewing machine was manufactured by the Royal Sewing Machine Company. It was on sale from around 1870 as treadle or hand sewing machine.


However the story gets mixed as companies merge buy each other out and combine during and explosive period of boom and bust in the Victorian era.


The Challenge was made exclusively for Joseph Harris & Co, read on, I guarantee you'll need headache pills...


The machine came with a host of attachments and later a patented stitch indicator.



 A first class lock-stitch machine of perfect manufacture


Joseph Harris 1870


The Challenge sewing machine circa 1870. This is the later model with improved stitch system now in my Sewalot Collection.


The Challenge sewing machine was a beautiful piece of British engineering and commands high prices whenever they do appear on the market.


The Challenge Knight. His glove has been cast down in challenge and he waits with his sword ready for combat. Nearly all Challenge sewing machines had this brass side plate. A heraldry expert may know what armour and house our knight is from. He is possibly St George.



Now before we get to Joseph Harris and The Royal Sewing Machine Company of Small Heath, Birmingham, England, and the machines they produced, we must talk about the Agenoria.


The reason is that the Agenoria sewing machine was around slightly before the Royal Sewing Machine Co bought out the company that made it. The machines and companies are closely intertwined. It will become clear I promise.


This page will give you the history of some of the most beautiful sewing machines ever-made and then incorporate the Royal Sewing Machine Co and Challenge sewing machine into its story. It is brief but interesting period of Middle England and British engineering.






The Royal Sewing Machine Company was, in its time, a successful middle England firm that hand-built superb and collectible machines. The ones that survive today fetch excellent money when they do appear on auction sites. And it is no wonder they epitomised Victorian perfection in engineering and they were built to withstand time itself.



The Royal Sewing Machine Co was responsible for the manufacture of many models. They were patentees makers of the following:



The Royal Milton


The Avon


The Times


The Monarch


The Regent


The Shakespear


The Challenge


The Agenoria (once it bought the rights)


The Windsor


The Eureka


The Eugenie


The Royal


The South Kensington





£4.4shilling bought you one of the finest sewing machines of the Victorian age. This is a woodcut on the first Challenge model. They soon increased the casting thickness.




So now let us get to the Agenoria sewing machine one of the favourites in my collection and her connection to Challenge.




The Agenoria


The Agenoria Sewing Machine circa 1870

Agenoria or Agenora was the Roman Goddess of Silence and Industry giving relief from pain and anxiety. She was a popular goddess among the industrious Romans and also the protector of Rome. She was offered prayers and worship when Rome was under threat.  Her annual festival was held at sunset on the Winter solstice, December 21, the shortest day of the year. She was often shown with a finger to her lips as if imploring silence.

The Goddess Agenoria

The goddess has inspired many people over the centuries with ships, steam engines and many others being named after her.


Arthur Isaac Maxfield gave the Agenoria name to his factory as well as his most stunning sewing machine. The Agenoria was designed in the 1860’s when beauty and practicality went hand in hand.

 The Victorian Agenoria has often been called the most beautiful sewing machine ever made.

The Agenoria sewing machine by Maxfield Pre-Royal ownership. Now in my Sewalot Collection.

Considered one of the most beautiful sewing machines ever, excuse the dust! I call it protection from ultraviolet.

The superb Agenoria sewing machine design was registered in 1869 and patented on Aug 20th 1870. The Agenoria sewing machine was originally manufactured by Arthur Isaac Maxfield at his Agenoria works in Birmingham incorporating the Joseph Harris & Judson patented movement and had a balance wheel that could be completely disengaged for bobbin winding. (More of them later).

In fact Maxfield actually advertised the machine as the Patent Loose Wheeled Model. The first models went on sale for the princely sum of £4. 4s. (Four pounds and four shillings) around two months average wages in 1870! Wow, can you imagine paying that today for a sewing machine. It just goes to show how important they were.

The Challenge stitch regulator used by the Royal Sewing Machine Co as well as The Imperial. Look how complicated it is when
Weir just used a screw.

On the brass needlebar cover of the Agenoria was a Registered Design lozenge for 24th February 1869 (just beneath the machine's name). On many models this was on the casting itself.

Below is an image of the Goddess Agenoria herself sitting beside a lion while quietly working.



The brass end-plate showing the Goddess Agenoria and date lozenge.

The Agenoria sewing machine was an instant success winning the silver medal of excellence at the International London Exhibition of 1870. Later a special silver plated model was presented to Her Royal Highness the Princess of Wales. She loved the machine and gave her seal of approval to the Agenoria. The Agenoria then became by Royal Appointment.  Copies of these silver plated models were sold for £6. 6s. The attachments were silver plated on all models. I have never seen a silver plated model!


Winners of the silver medal in 1870

Maxfield must have run into financial problems or been offered a price he could not refuse for he later sold the Agenoria to The Franklin Sewing Machine Company of Park Road, Soho, Birmingham.

They produced Maxfield’s machine at the Franklin Works, Birmingham, England. Engraved on the cloth plate during this period was the company trade mark, a bobbin with crossed needles with The Franklin Co around it.

The engineering on the Royal Challenge sewing machine is superb, this is the shuttle and feed mechanism.

By 1875 The Franklin Sewing Machine Co was taken over by Joseph Harris & Co who continued to produce the superb Agenoria and renamed the newly enlarged company to the Imperial Sewing Machine Co. But not for long...

The Challenge Sewing Machine
Made exclusively for Joseph Harris & Son
By the
Royal  Machine Manufacturing Co Ltd

At last we get to Joseph Harris and his connection with Arthur Isaac Maxfield, the Royal Sewing Machine Co, Royal Manufacturing Company, Franklin Sewing Machine Company and Imperial Sewing Machine Co. I told you this would make your head hurt.

Joseph Harris was born in Birmingham in 1831 and had worked at the Handsworth Draper's run by George Briggs. This founding in the sewing trade would give Joseph Harris a keen eye when it came to ordering his own sewing machines later in his career. He knew what his customers wanted.

The Challenge sewing machine trademark by Royal Letters Patent

Later Joseph went to work for his uncle, still in the rag trade, but this time dying cloth. By the age of 24 Joseph had come into a sum of money and used it to put a down-payment on his uncle's business and over the next few years bought him out lock-stock and barrel.

Joseph Harris was expanding fast, he had a good grounding in the rag-trade and by 1866 he was already selling sewing machines through his stores, bought from wholesalers and agents. Joseph Harris later became an agent for several makes of sewing machine.

As well as a successful businessman and entrepreneur Joseph Harris was a designer and designed and registered his own treadle base for his sewing machines and several other minor but useful improvements to his own Challenge sewing machine.

Joseph Harris
Oriel House,
 41 Bull Street

By 1872 Joseph Harris had struck a deal with the Royal Sewing Machine Company, then run by  Shakespear and Illeston, to supply a unique machine, called Challenge, direct to his stores. And so the Challenge Sewing Machine was born.

This was a brilliant idea as it meant that he could sell a sewing machine at a reasonable profit that no one else had and so no one could undercut him as no one else supplied it.(Ironically it was the Royal that later bought his sewing machine company from him, we'll get to that).

Agents for Challenge Sewing Machines
Liddiard & Company

Joseph Harris did so well with the Challenge, sold through his stores, that he was ordering over 2,000 sewing machines a year. By the early 1870's Joseph Harris was not only selling his Challenge sewing machine to his customers but actively seeking agents around the world and selling the machine to other wholesalers.


Boxes were pine or walnut depending on the price

Keen to exploit the huge and expanding demand for good sewing machines Joseph Harris took over the Franklin Sewing Machine Company.

Now at last we can see all the pieces of the messy puzzle coming together.

Under the Franklin Sewing Machine Company with the help of John Judson, Joseph Harris continued to improve upon the Challenge sewing machine.

However recession and competition was looming and his initial expansion failed to continue so he decided to concentrate on his still very profitable cloth-dying and fabric business.


The Royal Sewing Machine Company

In 1877 the firm was taken (over once again). This time it was by the Royal Sewing Machine Company of Small Heath, Birmingham. So the world had come full circle. The company had been making sewing machines very successfully for many years, even for Joseph Harris.

It was formed by Thomas Shakespear (no e on the end) & George Illiston in 1868. See I told you I would get to it eventually...



The Challenge sewing machine was sold with several different treadles

By incorporating all the machines including the Challenge and the Agenoria the Royal Sewing Machine Company had removed some competition and increased their range, a simple business tactic.

Their factory was at Herbert Road, Small Heath, Birmingham and from then on the sewing machines that they produced had a mixture of their patents. From 1877 the Agenoria also had a new patents including the Illistone patent incorporating changes to the shuttle and stitch length mechanisms.

In 1882 The Royal Sewing Machine Company Ltd was also in trouble and diversified its range of products and became The Royal Machine Manufacturing Co.


The machines were sold to dealers such as Cole & Co of Edinburgh and A. R. Farm of Renfield Street, Glasgow.


They also supplied machines marked with other businesses names to some larger suppliers such as Collier & Son sewing machines in London who had their own Collier badged R. M. M. Co machine.


The most profitable agent was E. Pepper of Crescent Buildings, Bridge Street, Newcastle-Under-lyme.

All these machines are immediately identifiable as made by the Birmingham company due to the similarities of design.

Joseph Harris, though out of the sewing machine manufacturing side since 1875, carried on in the rag-trade handing his business down to his son. He died in Handsworth in 1913 just at the outbreak of the Great War. He was 82.

The Royal Machine Manufacturing Co out-paced by the giants such as Singer, Jones and the hundreds of German manufacturers springing up finally ceased trading in 1888.



The collapse of the Royal Machine Manufacturing Co made little news at the time as all the papers were focused on the brutish murders in Whitechapel by the infamous Jack the Ripper.

While the company may have faded into history they have left behind a legacy of some of the most beautiful sewing machines of all time.

Confusing or what! But like many companies profits go up and down, factories merge and close, businesses get swallowed up. The Challenge sewing machine was one small cog smack in the middle of a fascinating period of British engineering.  


Most of us know the name Singer but few are aware of his amazing life story, his rags to riches journey from a little runaway to one of the richest men of his age. The story of Isaac Merritt Singer will blow your mind, his wives and lovers his castles and palaces all built on the back of one of the greatest inventions of the 19th century. For the first time the most complete story of a forgotten giant is brought to you by Alex Askaroff.

News Flash! Alex's books are now all available to download or buy as paperback on Amazon worldwide.

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News Flash! Alex's books are now all available to download or buy as paperback on Amazon worldwide.


  Well that's it, I do hope you enjoyed my work. I spend countless hours researching and writing these pages (complete with mistakes) and I love to hear from people so do drop me a line and let me know what you thought or if you have anything to add: alexsussex@aol.com



CONTACT: alexsussex@aol.com

Copyright ©

Hello Alex,
I love your site it was the main inspiration behind me starting my own  small collection, and my love of sewing machines, thank you,
Kind Regards,
Mim McCormack



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