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One Off Article

This article is an updated compilation of my research into the expression 'one off instance'  as used in the Maybrick Diary which shows that there is no way that Maybrick could have written this expression in October 1888 as he is purported to have done in the Diary. 

I want to start with some background about what the position regarding this expression was believed to be prior to my contribution to the subject.  This is important because it explains why the issue was allowed to drag on for years and why the authenticity of the Diary was not disproved long before it actually was.

Shirley Harrison, who was tasked by the Rupert Crew literary agency with researching the Maybrick Diary in 1992, was fully aware of the importance of ensuring that there were no anachronistic expressions in the Diary.  She was equally aware that dictionaries all recorded 'one off' as a twentieth century expression, and she has referred to this as 'my problem'.  By the time she published her 1993 book, however, she gave the clear impression that she had sorted it all out.  For this is what she said in that book:

'In the building industry, 'one off' in the sense of one only, was used when ordering materials (source: records of Trayner's of Kent, 1860). A 'one-off" was also an ornamental brick used in Victorian canals, and similarly, in engineering the term referred to a unique example or a prototype. This is precisely the sense Maybrick employed it in the diary.'

Let's look very carefully at this paragraph. A source reference is given in the first sentence for 'one off' being used in the building industry in the sense of it being a quantity, i.e. 'one only', when ordering materials. Is that what 'one off' means in the expression 'one off instance' as used in the Diary? The answer is no!  I will develop this point below.

For the moment, though, let's just focus on the second sentence. Harrison says firstly, that 'one off' was also an ornamental brick (although what that has to do with the expression 'one off instance' I have literally no idea) and then, secondly, that it was, in the Victorian period, used as an engineering term to mean a unique example or prototype.  To the extent of 'one off' meaning something unique, this IS relevant and is the sense employed in the Diary, as Harrison says. But she doesn't provide any source for this claim (or for the claim that it was an ornamental brick for that matter). It is just stated and left without any support whatsoever.  More than 25 years later, still no source has ever been provided. For all we know, she just made it up.

She returned to the subject in her 2003 book. Here is what she then said she had done ten years earlier:

'I telephoned Traynors, a long established building company in Kent who discovered the phrase lurking in their archives. In 1860, they said, it was used when a new building material was being ordered as a special. A one-off was also an ornamental brick used in Victorian Canals and referred to a unique example or prototype'.

It will be noted that, in the first meaning provided, Shirley is saying that 'one off' was used by Traynors in 1860 when a new material was being ordered 'as a special'. This is not what she said in 1993 when she explained it was used in the sense of 'one only'. How has she been able to improve upon the meaning over ten years to include the word 'special'?

And again she has slipped into the second sentence two additional purported nineteenth century meanings of 'one off' without any source provided at all, unless she is trying to say that all three meanings were provided to her by this single company in Kent (which I don't think is what she is saying).

And what was that building company called? In 1993 it was Trayner's. In 2003 it was Traynors.

I've looked in a number of building and construction directories from the 19th Century and can state with some confidence that there was no building company called Trayner's or Traynors (or similar) in Kent during that century. I've found no record of it in 1993 either.

Harrison's story doesn't make sense in any case on the face of it. One does not simply telephone a modern working building company at random to be told what is in their archives from the nineteenth century. Tracking down such a reference would have involved a certain amount of research work by someone but there is no mention by her of who did this or how long it took.

The truth of the matter, as revealed in 'Ripper Diary: The Inside Story' by Linder, Morris and Skinner (p.56), is that Harrison never actually spoke to any building company and had never actually seen any document supporting the reference. The information, it transpires, was provided to her by Dr Arthur "Tony" Deeson (now deceased), the then general secretary of the Institute of Engineers and Technicians.  Consequently, there never was a telephone call by Shirley to Traynors as she wrongly recalled in her 2003 book.

This was her excuse in 2003 for not being able to confirm the existence of the crucial document:

'As I did not have this in writing at the time, I tried to double-check the information for this edition but the firm was no longer in existence and I have been unable to trace their archives'.

It's very strange. Harrison in 1993 had, in her mind, just managed to find the answer to what she appreciated was a serious problem raised with the Diary about the expression 'one off instance'.  As she says in her 2003 book:

'Webster's gives its first written appearance as 1925. But it was in the building world that I found what I consider the real answer to my problem.'

So, in her version of events, which we now know to be wrong, she's solved her problem by telephoning this building company who have told her that, yes, they have the answer to her prayers but rather than ask to see a copy of this very helpful document so she can check for herself she put the phone down never to speak to them again and the company now no longer exists. 

Well that was the version of events she was asking us to believe in 2003 but, as we now know, there never was a telephone call by Harrison to the building company and, far from Harrison having ever contacted a company called Traynors in Kent, it would seem that she relied entirely on what she had been told by Dr Deeson.  It rather appears that her memory let her down when writing her 2003 book and that she had only spoken to Deeson ten years earlier, not to Traynors. 

But how did Deeson know about it?  We will never find out because he is dead so that there is no corroboration of the claim that 'one off' appeared in the records of any builders in the 1860s.

This is not a satisfactory state of affairs to say the least but regardless of what Harrison was or was not told directly or indirectly by Trayner's or Traynors, nothing that she or Dr Deeson claims to have found suggests that the expression 'one off instance', or similar, had ever been used by a single living soul during or before 1888.  This is because the claim was only ever that the words 'one off' appeared on a document from the 1860s and, even if this was true, it would only be a reference to a single quantity, not to something unique or special (as discussed below).

For the moment, let's see how Feldman dealt with Harrison's information in his 1997 book. He refers to it in a critical passage of his book. I say 'critical' because he has already accepted that any linguistic anomalies would prove the diary to be a fake. He acknowledges the claim by Dr Flint that 'one-off' is a modern expression. He is, therefore, desperate for an explanation as to how 'one off instance' can possibly be in the diary.


Otherwise it's game over and he can't publish his book.


He gladly accepts the life jacket offered by Shirley and says:

'Shirley Harrison, however, discovered the term in engineers' records belonging to Trayners of Kent and dated 1860 - twenty-four years before the Ripper murders and seventy-four years before it found its way into the Oxford Dictionary'.

So Feldman thinks he's got out of jail.  But he hadn't even read Harrison's book properly. Shirley said that Trayners was 'a building company'. Feldman thinks they were 'engineers'. Presumably because Shirley said that the phrase 'one off' was used in engineering to refer to a unique example, Feldman decided that Trayners must, therefore, have been engineers not builders. 

From Harrison's meagre reference of '(source: records of Trayner's of Kent, 1860)' Feldman felt able to state that Harrison had 'discovered' this expression in records 'dated' 1860 even though we now know that Harrison never saw any such records and clearly does not know whether they were actually dated or not.

The fact is that there is no evidence that the 'records' supposedly found by Shirley Harrison even exist. 

Dr Flint has not, in other words, been undermined by this so-called discovery.

Feldman's case, as he admits, would have been sunk without Harrison's 'find'. In the absence of any supporting documentation of Harrison's find, it is sunk now.

We may note that, at a conference held at Liverpool in September 2017, Shirley Harrison was briefly asked by the host, Robert Anderson, about the origin of the expression 'one off' during what must surely count as the most inept and, at the same time, most obsequious piece of questioning, or non-questioning, in the history of the world.  The exchange (with spelling in the transcript posted on JTR Forums by Anderson) went like this: 

Robert Anderson: The latest (textual) controversy is the phrase "one off".

Shirley Harrison: I have the answer for that here.

Robert Anderson: (Laughs) I know that's why I am asking.

Shirley Harrison: I was told by a lot of people that the phrase "one off" was first used in 1904 - I found it in the archives of Trainers, of Kent, who actually worked in Liverpool in 1864 so that's when it was first used.

Robert Anderson: Honestly, that on its own is worth the price of admission to this conference - thank you.

Well Anderson might have been right if admission to the conference was free, because Harrison had revealed precisely nothing of value.  Why Anderson did not ask to see whatever document Harrison was claiming to be in possession of (if that is what she meant by 'I have the answer for that here') is unfathomable but he appears to have been so overcome by the excitement of Harrison's answer that it didn't occur to him to do so. 

This might not have been so bad had I not publicly set out during the previous year, on the Casebook Forum, all the problems with Shirley Harrison's account of the supposed Traynors (or Trayner's or Trainers) discovery.  

We see that Shirley was back to claiming that 'she' had found something in the archives of the building company when we know from 'Inside Story' that it was Tony Deeson and that she had never seen any document from that company containing the expression 'one off'.  Where the year 1864 comes from in her new account remains unknown to this day.  We can see that she was claiming that the building company from Kent, whatever it was called, worked in Liverpool in 1864, although how she can possibly know this bearing in mind that, as far as I can tell, a company with that name or similar never existed, and she then appears to say that because the company worked in Liverpool in 1864 that's when the expression 'one off' was first used, which is not only a non-sequitur but contradicts her previous account that this occurred in 1860.  

Even if by some miracle a secret document dated 1864, or some other date in the 1860s, exists bearing the words 'one off', this still doesn't help Shirley because it would be no more than a notation that a quantity of one of a particular item was required for whatever building work was in contemplation.  She absolutely knows, as we have seen, that she needs to find a nineteenth century example of 'one-off' to mean something special or unique.  Without it she is sunk, and the Diary is sunk. 

It's my contention that 'one-off' did not bear the meaning of 'special' or 'unique' until the twentieth century, as Dr Flint and the OED tell us, that 'one off instance' is a modern expression, and this proves that the diary is a fake.

* * * * * 

The combination of words 'one' and 'off' is as old as the English language.

For example: 'He couldn't see any ships but there was one off the coast of Africa'. Or: 'He put five coins on the table then took one off'.  Or: 'The batsman scored one off the over.'  Or: 'From the pack of cards he removed one off the top'.

So finding 'one off', by itself, in 1888 is meaningless. For it to begin to explain the phrase 'one off instance', there has to be a element of uniqueness or something special in the meaning. 

Strictly speaking, I suppose, 'one off' should be hyphenated, and read 'one-off', but it's not hyphenated in the Diary - just as it's not always hyphenated in printed texts - and, for the purposes of this article, I'm regarding the hyphen as irrelevant.

Engineers in the nineteenth century used the notations of 'one off', 'two off', 'three off', 'four off'…'fifty off', '100 off' etc. to refer to quantities of items involved in manufacturing. One explanation I have found for this is that it means 'one off the stocklist' or 'two off the stocklist' etc.  Essentially, therefore, it means 'one of an item' or 'two of an item' etc. 

So where a plan says, for example, 'Widgets – 3 off' it means 3 widgets required and where it says 'Widgets – 1 off' it means one widget required.

At the same time, within the field of pattern making, there appears to be another valid explanation, whereby pattern makers referred to casting 1 off a pattern (or 2 off a pattern, 3 off etc.).  

Over time, no doubt, '1 off' was the most common use of the notation and came to take on a meaning of something more than a mere quantity, namely something unique or special so that a unique manufacturing project came to be referred to as 'a one off job'.  In fact, as it happens, this development from '1 off', as a quantity, to a 'one off job', to mean a unique item, appears to have occurred entirely within the discipline of pattern making. 

The earliest known confirmed written use of 'one off' to indicate a quantity is found in the American Journal of Railway Appliances dated 1 July 1884.  We can see it in this diagram of what is described as Gartside's Wrought Draw-Bar:

One Off image 1.jpg

The relevant captions read:






Here's a closer look at the 'one off' example (and one 'two off' example): 

One Off image 2.jpg

So we can see that what is being indicated here is unquestionably a quantity.  We have 'two off' used in exactly the same way as 'one off'.  There is no connection here with anything unique or special.  It's just a quantity.


Another good example can be found in the first edition of 'Pattern Making: A Practical Treatise' by Joseph G. Horner published in 1885 (reproducing a passage which had already appeared in one of his articles published in a journal called The English Mechanic and World of Science in July 1884):

One Off image 3.jpg

As we can see, Horner first has a list of sundry items which includes 'Number off, Two' and he then says:


 ' is usually considered sufficient to chalk on the pattern 1 off, 4 off, 12 off, as the case may be...' . 


These are clear examples of 'off' being used to indicate a quantity.  There is nothing different about '1 off' in the way it is being used here compared to '12 off'. 

It may also be noted that in the second edition of Horner's book, published in 1894, it was stated in respect of a certain type of wheel for a carriage:

'Such a wheel can be made with, or without, a complete pattern, dependent on size and the number required off.'

This seems to be another example of the use of the word 'off' to denote a quantity (but any quantity).   

Also in 1894, Wilfred James Lineham published the first edition of his 'A Text Book of Mechanical Engineering' containing a number of diagrams with notations such as '1 off', '2 off', '3 off', '4 off' etc.  Here is one such page:

One Off image 4.jpg

We can see that a bracket for the regulator lever is required 1 off, pins for the regulator lever are required 3 off and links for the regulator lever are required 2 off.

And here is one where cylinder drain cocks are required 2 off, bearings are required 4 off, indicator plugs 2 off and sight feed lubricator for steam chest 1 off.

One Off image 5.jpg

In addition, Lineham also shows that it was possible to include a reference to '1 set off', meaning one whole set required, as below:

One Off image 6.jpg

The origin of the expression 'one-off' to mean something unique can be traced specifically to books, articles or speeches in the early twentieth century concerning pattern making.  A pattern is a shaped model, made of wood, metal or other material, into which molten metal is poured to form a casting of a metal item.  This work would be done in a foundry. Texts which discussed pattern making during the nineteenth century never used the expression 'one-off' to describe unique patterns or castings.  They invariably referred to occasions where 'only one or two' were required or something similar.  Hence, Walter Graham of Glasgow said in his 1868 book, 'The Brassfounders Manual' (underlining added):

'When only one or two castings are required from a pattern, a pattern is "rapped" into the flask, that is, the top part being rammed up, a portion of the sand is removed, and the portion inserted, or "rapped in."' 

Joshua Rose said in his 1878 book, 'Pattern Maker's Assistant' (underlining added):

'Occasions often occur when it is inexpedient to go to the expense of a pattern for making a pulley, especially if the pulley be large and only one or two castings required.'

In the first edition of Joseph G. Horner's book, published in 1885, remaining in later editions, we find this, in a discussion of loam patterns (underlining added): 

'In cylindrical work a loam pattern is advisable when the mould is so small that a man could not conveniently work within it to strike the board round, and yet so large that a wood pattern becomes too expensive. This is usually, in fact, the ultimate consideration: the relative proportion the cost of the pattern bears to the value of the casting or castings. Thus, in the case of a capstan, if we had one or two castings only to make, we should use a loam pattern, but if we required a dozen or twenty castings all alike, we should consider a wood pattern the cheaper....After the pattern is moulded the body thickness is stripped off, and the core is placed in the mould for casting.  Evidently this can be adopted only where one casting is required...'  

He also stated (underlining added):

'In many cases of hollow work, as in those where a single casting only is wanted off a loam pattern, the core intended to be used is struck first and dried, a thickness of black wash laid upon it, and a thickness of loam, representing the thickness of the metal in the casting, is struck on...When several castings are wanted, a separate pattern is made, and the cores are quite distinct therefrom.' 

When P.S. Dingey (of Chicago) attempted to describe what we would now refer to as a one off job in his 1891 book, 'Machinery Pattern Making', he used a convoluted way of doing it.  Hence, he wrote (underlining added):

'There are also some rough patterns made, the kind that is generally "wanted to be cast to-day."  All moulders are acquainted with this kind. It is no use recording such patterns, as they are seldom used the second time; in fact, I think the best way to deal with this class is to break them up.'

A pattern which isn't used a second time but needs to be cast immediately might have been best described as a one-off pattern but that expression wasn't available to Dingey, even if he had wanted to use it, just as it wasn't available to Horner in 1885.  

Similarly, when it came to his 1892 book, 'Principles of Pattern Making', Horner stated that a sheave wheel could be made without a jointed pattern and with cores which 'saves expense, if but one or two castings are required.' 

Two years later, W.H. Wilson, in his 1894 book, 'A Manual of Practical Pattern Making and Moulding', stated that, 'Pipes of irregular shapes to suit particular circumstances...are put together as shown for a standard pattern, or when many castings are wanted, but a readier and cheaper way is adopted when a single casting only is required' (emphasis in original).  

In his 1900 book, 'Modern Foundry Practice', John Sharp stated that (underlining added):


'When only one or two castings are required from a pattern, especially if it should be of an ornamental and delicate character, the coating of black-lead and beer may be applied directly to the naked wood of the pattern'.  When discussing the moulding of short lengths of piping, he also said (underlining added): 'When the number of castings does not exceed five or six, and the pattern is not likely to be required again, the stucco pattern may be used without the expense of making an iron pattern.  Great care, however, is required when the stucco pattern is to be used direct more than once, as it soon draws damp, and becomes easily broken.'

When discussing the cost of making patterns, Sharp said (underlining added):

'In the foregoing details the cost of patterns has not been included...any attempt to obtain an average rate to cover the cost of patterns must fail, because in some instances the casting required is for a special purpose, and the pattern not likely to be used again, whereas in other cases the pattern may be required again and again until it is worn out and unfit for use; between these limits two, three, four or more castings may be required from the same pattern.' 

Had the expressions 'one-off pattern', 'one-off casting' or 'one-off job' been in existence, Sharp might have, and probably would have, used one of them, but at this stage they hadn't yet been coined.

In his 1901 book, 'The Construction of Foundry Patterns', Herbert Aughtie stated: 'The pattern may be considered as ready for the foundry if only a few castings are required; but if many castings are to be made it should be coated with a varnish....' 

In 'The Art of Pattern Making: A Comprehensive Treatise' by I. McKim Chase, published in 1903 it was explained (underlining added):

'...patterns may be divided into three classes and the cost of producing them should be varied accordingly:

a. Patterns of a temporary character, those not likely to be used more than once.  These should be made with as little expenditure of labor and material as possible to enable them to perform their functions.  These patterns should not be preserved as they unnecessarily encumber the pattern-loft.

b. A class of patterns likely to be used occasionally, sometimes at long intervals. These should be preserved, and more pains taken in their construction than with the former, as they have to withstand the usage in the foundry as well as the distortion likely to occur to them during their storage in the pattern-loft.

c. A class of pattern regarded as standard and which are frequently used. These cannot be made too well, and when properly constructed are necessarily expensive in first cost. '  

This record of the different types of patterns may be compared with a similar record included in a 1921 book by Ben Shaw and James Edgar, see below, in which the expression 'one-off patterns' was used for what Chase in 1903 described as patterns of a temporary character not likely to be used more than once.

An article by R. Watson, entitled 'Pattern-Making' in the February 1905 issue of The Foundry Trade Journal and Pattern-Maker stated (underlining added):

'Loam work, as a rule, takes more time in the foundry than when a pattern is used.  No doubt it is the correct method to follow when two or three castings only are required, but when this amount is exceeded the cost of a light skeleton pattern against the extra time each casting will take will take to make should be considered....Another way of handling work of which only one or two castings are required is to make the outside in cores.' 

In the March 1905 edition of the same journal, we find, in an uncredited article entitled 'Stucco Work in Pattern-Making', it stated that (underlining added):

'The usual method, when a number of castings are required, is to make an iron pattern from the stucco, but in many cases, when only one casting is required, say for some special connection, the casting can be made direct from the stucco.'  

George Bale in a 1905 book, 'Modern Iron Foundry Practice Part II', said that (underlining added): 'Wood patterns are used to a considerable extent, and when of large dimensions, or the number of castings to be made from them is small, wood will generally be found more economical, and quite as suitable as metal.'  He didn't refer to one-off patterns or one-off jobs although it might have been suitable for him to do so had he known of such expressions. 

In another book published in 1905, 'Practical Pattern Making' by Paul N. Hasluck, it was stated (underlining added):

'The number of castings expected to be made will...affect the construction and finish of a pattern. For instance, if twenty castings are required from one pattern and one hour's work more on the pattern would save the moulder five minutes on each mould, there would be an economy of forty minutes saved by the extra hour spent in pattern work; while if there was but one casting to be made, and the hour's pattern work was still put upon it, there would be a loss of fifty-five minutes, seeing that the moulder was saved but five minutes work.'

Hasluck also might have referred here to a 'one-off job', 'one off casting' or 'one-off pattern' but such expressions still don't appear to be in the English language, even for pattern makers.

Similarly, in a 1907 book, 'General Foundry Practice', by Andrew McWilliam and Percy Longmore, the authors spoke of 'work of a non-repeat character' and cases of 'comparatively small orders' compared to 'work of a standard character' but not of one-off jobs.

An article by E.H. Berry in the December 1907 issue of The Foundry Trade Journal and Pattern-Maker entitled 'Patterns for Repetition Work' stated (underlining added):

'A pattern which is run continuously for months, or perhaps years, clearly falls within the limits of this paper as being used for repetition work.  And it is just as clear that one which is discarded after a single casting has been made from it should be classed as a pattern for jobbing work.'

Articles of this time contain many references to 'jobbing work' and it may be noted that jobbing production is the production of single items to order.  The same article also stated:

'All patterns will be classed under one of the three following heads: a. Working patterns. b. Master patterns. c. Grand master patterns.

Working patterns used for repetition work shall be  of metal and in most cases, mounted for use on the moulding machines.

Working patterns used for experimental work, or for jobbing work shall be, in most cases, of wood. When practicable, they shall be arranged for temporary mounting for use on the moulding machines.'

Here we have the opposite of repetition work being referred to as 'experimental' work or 'jobbing' work.

According to A. Napier, in the May 1909 issue of Foundry Trade Journal and Pattern-Maker, in an article entitled 'Patterns and Pattern-makers' Timber' (underlining added):

'Patterns are broadly divided into three classes:- (1) Those of a temporary character, and which are not likely to be repeat orders; (2) those patterns that are likely to be used occasionally and at long intervals, and for this reason have to be preserved; and (3) the patterns which are used frequently and are regarded as standard.  Each of these patterns needs to be treated differently as regards the labour spend on them and the wood used.' 

These three classes of patterns, set out in 1909, may be compared to the three classes of patterns set out in 1921 by Ben Shaw and James Edgar (a few paragraphs below) in which the patterns in the first category are then clearly stated (in the second category) to be 'one-off patterns'.

In the December 1909 issue of The Foundry Trade Journal and Pattern-Maker, W. Peters, in an article entitled 'Scrapping of Patterns', said (underlining added):

'The storing of patterns is alright when they are of standard designs and sizes, or are likely to be in constant demand; but if they are only for odd or unusual articles, it is a question as to whether it pays to store them.  There is no doubt that it did pay to do so a number of years ago, when it used to be stated that patterns cost a guinea an ounce; but since then patternmaking has progressed, and a different complexion has been put upon the subject. At that time it was counted as a sacrilege to produce a pattern without bestowing upon it all the care (and sandpaper) that was possible, even though only one casting was required, or simply a makeshift pattern wanted....It is now common practice to make experimental or single casting patterns, as cheaply as possible, both in labour and material, and it is surprising how comparatively cheaply these can be made when the foreman pattern-maker, in conjunction with the moulder, sets his wits to work, and at the same time gives the men to understand that the pattern is likely to be scrapped in place of being stored after using.'  

It's hard to believe that Peters would not have referred to 'one-off patterns', 'one-off castings' or 'one-off jobs' had he been familiar with such expressions. 

In the 1910 publication 'General Foundry Practice' by William Roxburgh, the author discusses moulding an air vessel with boss pattern and says (underlining added in all extracts):

'It will at once be seen that a wooden pattern for such a job as this means money three or four times what should be the cost of the casting from the foundry. But with the use of a boss, tarred as previously stated, the saving all over is considerable indeed where only one or two are wanted.'

It is also stated: 

'...where a taper pipe is imperative and no pattern is available, by all means make this pipe with a boss, or sweep it according to "special" pipe foundry practice; other things being equal, it will be cheapest and best in the end, when only one or two are wanted.'        

Further, Roxburgh also says:

'While standard straight and bend pipes have long been made by special equipment in pipe factories, we still have to mould the "specials" much on the same lines of practice as did others fifty years ago...No doubt means to an end with "special pipe moulding" vary, one shop vieing with another as to which is best and cheapest. One may have a "boss," another a skeleton pattern, and the latter being capable of a very wide interpretation means anything but a standard pattern in wood.' 

He adds: '...whatever excellent methods are adopted in pipe factories for turning out these castings expeditiously, and on the basis of standard or repeat moulding, the question of how to make a bend of ordinary dimensions, when only one or two are wanted, is what these short articles are intended to deal with.'

We can see that Roxburgh used the phrase 'when [or where] only one or two are wanted' three times when he could potentially have referred to 'one off' jobs.  It's true, of course, that a 'one off job' involves one item rather than two but the processes and issues involved are the same for one as for two and 'one or two' would have suited the description of 'one off', being essentially the same thing.  Roxburgh was certainly aware of the expression 'one off' because he used it twice in his book.

Thus, referring to a 'delf-crate pattern', Roxburgh said (underlining added), 'in the case of oval sections and such like where only "one off" is wanted, their utility is an advantage, as a rule, both in practice and economy'. 

Then, referring to stucco pattern making, Roxburgh said (underlining added):

'This division of pattern making is largely confined to the "hollow" and pipe foundry trades.  Still many other departments of pattern making in general engineering and jobbing shops might introduce this method or process of pattern making to much advantage, as this would be specially serviceable where only "one off" in cylindrical section castings was wanted.'

In these examples, Roxburgh clearly appears to have used 'one off' to indicate a quantity (of one) rather than as an indication of uniqueness, as demonstrated by the use of the otherwise tautological word 'only' before 'one off', and he was presumably not familiar with the expression 'one off job', or at least he certainly didn't use it when he could have done, if it had existed.

In a paper entitled 'Theory and the Foundrymen' read by H. Sherburn at a monthly meeting of the Lancashire Branch of the British Foundrymen's Association on 4 March 1911, and published the The Foundry Trade Journal and Pattern-Maker of April 1911, it was stated (underlining added):

'There are two methods by which castings of fairly large surface may be obtained in a straight condition...The former is the most reliable method, but where only one or two castings are required, and the time and expense of making a correct pattern is not warranted, the latter method may be successfully operated with a little experience.'

A translation of an article in The Foundry Trade Journal and Pattern-Maker of March 1912, which had originally appeared in the German 'Eisen Zeitung' (Iron Newspaper), entitled 'Green Sand Moulds without Patterns', stated (underlining added):

'So far as the manufacturer is concerned, the production of the casting is naturally the main thing, and the method of moulding in question is undoubtedly the cheapest where the probability exists that only one casting will be required of the same kind, and where the dimensions are so large that the making of a pattern is attended with difficulty and increased expense.' 

The earliest written reference to a 'one off job' that I have found is from 1912 (which is about 10 or 20 years earlier than the dictionaries state). However, as discussed below, I have found references to making a 'one off' in a manufacturing context from as early as 1903. All the early references come from engineering trade journals and they all relate to manufacturing, producing, designing or casting 'one off' items and similar.

I personally haven't found anything earlier than 1903 and there is some reason to think that what would later be referred to as a 'one off job' was, prior to that, generally known as a 'special' job.  We've already seen Roxburgh use the word 'special' in his 1910 book and, in an article called 'A Peculiar "Special"', in an issue of the Foundry Trade Journal from May 1902, Francis W. Shaw describes to a foreman a job to make a 'special' pipe: a double flanged 4-inch pipe, curving both ways, with no straight joint line anywhere in it, and without a pattern, within 24 hours. The foreman tells him it can't be done:

“We’re not casting to-night, and we can’t make a ‘special’ without core-irons and plate….” 

But the peculiar 'special' was made that day.  It was evidently what we would today call a 'one off' job but that expression wasn't used by Shaw in the article.

Another possible expression used instead of 'one off job' in the nineteenth century appears to have been 'casual job'.  Hence we find it stated in American Machinist of 9 January 1890 that, 'The manufacturer who makes a specialty of any article, no matter what it is, has an advantage over the one who makes the same article as a casual job'. While that may be ambiguous, let us bear that sentence in mind when considering what Joseph Horner said in his 1892 book, 'Principles of Pattern Making'.

Referring to a method of making a centrifugal pump casing without a complete pattern and core box, Horner said:

'Such a method would not of course be pursued unless the pump were a casual job. For standard work a complete pattern and core box would be made.'

When referring to 'casual job' here, both nineteenth century writers were not speaking of a job done in a relaxed or carefree manner but a job done irregularly or perhaps only once (i.e. a one-off job) as opposed to standard or repeat work.

The first known and confirmed example of the use of 'one off' in print in relation to a particular job, or pattern, occurs in a journal called The Model Engineer and Electrician: A Journal of Practical Mechanics and Electricity which included a series of articles by T.D. Garscadden, an instructor in woodwork and pattern making at the University of Birmingham, entitled 'Simple Lessons in Pattern Making', starting on 1 January 1903 and concluding on 28 April 1904.  Interestingly, it seems to show that the expression 'one off' - to the extent it can be called an expression at this stage - was in a state of transition from meaning a mere quantity to something unique.

There are a number of extracts of interest from Garscadden's articles.

The first, from 30 April 1903, in respect of making a bedplate for a compound undertype engine, says (underling added):

'While still in one piece, draw off the length with the cutting end of the drawpoint, using the front end piece as a template, and keeping thick edge to thick edge…Now turn your attention to the crank pits...Now gauge to the various thicknesses on the edges, and plane down, afterwards cutting out to radii as given in drawing of casting. Draw one off, cut it out and use it as a template to draw the rest from, taking care in the doing of it to make them rights and lefts.'

I'm afraid I really have no idea what it means to 'draw off' or to 'draw one off' but it certainly doesn't seem to be connected with the expression 'one off' to mean something unique.

The next relevant extract (26 November 1903) is this: 

'Sufficient to say here that I have designed it [a pattern for a motor cycle cylinder] with a view to one being cast as cheaply as possible in an ordinary moulding box at any jobbing foundry, and it is rather different from what would be made to cast from in quantity, with its accompanying special moulding boxes.' [N.B. the word 'one' is italicised in the original, I have underlined it]

Then (3 December 1903) the author moves on to discuss core-boxes and says (my underlining):

'If a number of castings were required by this method of moulding, it would pay to taper the top or closing halves of prints and make the core-boxes to suit. However, with a proper understanding of above, start making from a "one off" standpoint: it does not matter which one you do first, but all through, have a keen sense of the importance of making each core to fit its imprint, and also to bear a true relation to any other core it has to come in contact with.'

The 'one off standpoint' here clearly seems to relate to making only one casting as opposed to a number of castings.  

In the 1904 volume (14 January), it is stated (underlining added):

'Now, you can easily understand that the contracting forces in a wheel with an odd number of arms are less antagonistic than in one with an even number. Of course, the odd number does not look so well, and I show two other ways (Fig. 65) whereby the same result can be obtained with an even number. The curved-arm one has one decided advantage in that the molecules of molten iron maintain a rotary motion from "gate" to rest, which is most conducive to a good casting; and herein lies the virtue of fillets generally. So much for theory now for the practice...Turn down the outside half to 7/8 in. thick to receive "segments," and mark the exact centre with a drawpoint held to the running job. For the segments, cut a piece roughly as per sketch, and plane to about 5-16ths in. thick, and after drawing one off as shown, saw it out and use as a templet to draw off the others with a pencil, allowing a little over the butts for jointing.'

One Off  image 7.jpg

So again we have the expression 'drawing one off' which doesn't appear to have any connection with 'one off' but is an example of Garscadden using, and modifying, the pattern making expression 'drawing off'.  In this case, he is referring to drawing one (segment?) off so that the 'one off' part of the expression here is totally separate from the type of 'one off' that we are interested in.

A little later, however, (on 18 February), Garscadden makes this crucial statement (underlining added):

'In order to emphasise my reasons for sometimes advocating methods differing from the conventional, and also to teach both ways, I have begun the subject of grooved pulleys by showing a section through mould and pattern of a "plated" one – that is, solid web instead of arms. You will notice that the orthodox method of making the pattern halved, as in Fig. 69 necessitates two "partings" of the mould. Now, while this may be the best method for producing in quantity (questioned by some up-to-date foundries, and the writer) in that it saves core-making, it is different with your requirements of only one or two off at a time…..As to the "one off" way, little need be said regarding procedure…'

So again we have 'one off' apparently being used to refer to a single manufactured item but there is also a critically important reference to 'two off at a time' suggesting that we might well have found the 'Missing Link' at a point between the use of 'one off' as a mere quantity and its use to indicate a special or unique item.  Certainly, there never has been an expression 'two off' in the English language (although it did continue to be used exclusively in manufacturing and engineering journals until at least the 1970s, alongside 'one off', to refer to items for which only one or two were ever made) and Garscadden must here be using 'two off'' to mean nothing more than a quantity of two, suggesting that 'one off' equally meant nothing more than a quantity of one. 

It may be noted that Garscadden also says: 

'As I daresay you will have seen, it has been my constant endeavour to keep the latter fact in mind throughout these lessons, and to show ways and means whereby patterns seemingly difficult to mould may be made to do so quite easily in an ordinary one-parting mould…'

There are then two diagrams labelled as follows:



One Off image 8.jpg

The 'orthodox way' evidently involves bulk manufacture whereas the 'one off way' involves single item manufacture and Garscadden is advocating a method, as he says, 'differing from the conventional'. The explanation is undoubtedly in the diagrams provided (for anyone with pattern making expertise):

One Off image 9.jpg

If Garscadden has coined the phrase 'one off way' then perhaps he was responsible for changing the meaning of the phrase 'one off' from pure quantity to something unique, although the distinction between the two is a fine one.

Either way, I don't think anyone would say that here we have a clear use of 'one off' to mean unique. It's also certainly not language being used for non-engineers or non-pattern makers.  Furthermore, Garscadden never at any time in his series of articles used an expression like 'one off pattern', 'one off casting' or 'one off job'.  Indeed, at one point in his series of articles (29 January 1903) when he could have done so, he said that he had 'found it advantageous to make even very small patterns of pine where only one or two castings were wanted...'.

I might add that in a Queries and Replies section in Model Engineer and Electrician of 3 March 1904, in response to a reader of the earlier articles asking Garscadden for some information about 'the pattern on a 6-in centre back geared lathe headstock', Garscadden refers in his response to a certain plan, 'though the simplest from a "one off" standpoint' being 'apt to leave an ugly "parting" mark all round the casting.'  He then advises 'to make it to mould in the conventional way' i.e. 'with the sole up, and fasten all protuberances on with screws that will be accessible to the moulder as he rams up'. 

Subsequently, on 24 March 1904, a further article by Garscadden, in respect of patterns for a cycle motor stated: '...supposing you take the present finished pattern to a foundry, you would order one off, with the core to penetrate into the casting 3/8 inch'.  To suggest that his reader should 'order one off' implies that it would be equally possible to order two off or three off etc., thus, again, indicating that Garscadden is here referring to 'one off' as a quantity, in the conventional sense as it had been used during the nineteenth century, and not as something unique.

During the middle of the period of Garscadden's series of articles, we find an article published in The Foundry Trade Journal of 18 February 1904 entitled 'A Few Remarks on Jobbing Shop Management', said to have been written by 'An Old Moulder' which said this (underlining added):

'In commencing the management of a new Jobbing Foundry, there are some very difficult things to contend with.  In the first place, you are not assured of a constant supply of work, which makes you have to exercise great caution in regard to the quantity of hands you set on, and also the quality of the same, for you never know the class of work you will be called upon perform: and you have to be prepared to take totally different jobs to what you had any idea of.  And again, you are asked to quote for a firm's work.  This is done; price accepted.  Patterns come in. You then find that there are jobs which you know will tax you to the very utmost to make them pay.  But they have to be taken along with the others. Some of these jobs the writer has found that, to make them simple, the amount of tackle to be made would cost considerably more than, perhaps, the value of the casting. Therefore, there being only one off, you endeavour to do without the tackle, and make the job in its complicated way. Bearing in mind that there is only one off, and if I can bring it through successfully this time, I must arrange, if the same job should come again, to have a price that will pay me to carry it through.'

So we almost have 'one off' being used to refer to a job here, although in saying 'there is only one off' the writer is using the expression rather differently to how it would later be used, and indeed to how it would be used today in the world of pattern making.

A little later in the same article, the author said:

'...I may venture to suggest that there are so many patterns which come into a Jobbing Foundry for one off and two off that, if they were given in hand just as they come, the amount of boxes required would be considerable; and also to make them singly would result in costing a great amount for labour.'

Again, therefore, like Garscadden, we have both 'one off' and 'two off' being used simultaneously in the same sentence indicating that we are still dealing primarily with a quantity here.  (Garscaddden is discussed further in Garscadden Discussed).

Over the following eight years it would appear that the manufacturing industry (or at least those who worked as pattern makers, moulders or foundrymen) started to use the expression 'one off job' to mean a unique or special job.   A manual search of every issue of The Foundry Trade Journal and Pattern-Maker between 1904 and 1912 doesn't reveal a single example of it but it is likely to have been mentioned somewhere. Hence, this is from a speech by T.R. Schofield of Manchester entitled 'Patternmaking and Economies and Developments' presented at the Cardiff Convention of the British Foundrymen's Association in August 1912 as reported in Foundry of September 1912 (underlining added):

'In time past, when patterns were laboriously hand-made and the conveniences now common in up-to-date pattern shops for rapid production were almost unknown, many ingenious methods were evolved, enabling castings to be obtained from a somewhat meager pattern preparation. Such castings were not always as true as might be desired; some of the niceties of design had to be sacrificed and allowance for machining had to be somewhat generous, to cover inaccuracies. Still, such methods and such castings suited the needs of the time. Contingencies still occur when these makeshift methods are justifiable even at the present time, as, for instance, the familiar one-off job in some of its forms, and the bona fide breakdown. Knowledge of these cheap methods formed no part of the patternmaker’s stock-in-trade, but they have tended to become stereotyped into standard methods.'

Although this is currently the first known reference in print to a one off job, from the mention of 'the familiar one off job' it presumably wasn't the first reference to it within the patternmaking world and it must have been in existence for (probably) a few years before 1912, at least, albeit that, with the concept of a 'one off job', known as a special (or rush, experimental or similar), being very familiar, it may simply be that Schofield was referring to the concept as familiar while introducing a (possibly) unfamiliar name for it.

One off image 10.jpg

Interestingly, the same speech was also reported in the Proceedings of the British Foundrymen's Association for August 1912 with the key part being as follows:

'as, for instance, the familiar “1 off” job in some of its forms…'

The use of '1 off'  instead of 'one off' does, I think, show some unfamiliarity with the written form of this expression.  

Even a year after Schofield's speech, The Foundry Trade Journal and Pattern-Maker of August 1913 reported the following exchange between the president of the British Foundrymen's Association and J.W. Worrall of Luton, who had read a paper entitled 'Standard Patterns for Motor Work' at a London Convention of that year (underlining added):

'THE PRESIDENT said...He had had the job a good many times of calculating out of the cost of pattern-making and the cost of moulding, and he used to conclude that if he wanted a large number of castings he wanted a good pattern, but where only one or two or three castings were required, it would not to do spend much on the pattern. The pattern-maker was often ready to do good work, but it was sometimes difficult to get him to do somewhat cheap work that sufficed when only one casting was wanted.

MR WORRALL, in his reply, referred first to the President's remarks, and said that he always made it a rule to give three prices for the pattern, one for the experimental pattern, one for the pattern for a small quantity, and a third for the standard pattern.'  

Look at the way that Frederick W. Turner and Daniel G. Town appear to be describing what might have been referred to as a 'one off' job without using that expression in their 1914 book, 'Pattern-making':

'In a “one-casting” pattern, the burden of labor can safely be thrown on the foundry, and such a pattern would be called temporary and ought not to be stored, but destroyed as soon as used….A pattern to be used regularly for a long period would be called a standard pattern and should be made so that strength to resist use and abuse in the foundry would be its main feature.'  

So Turner and Town evidently plumped for 'one-casting pattern' rather than 'one-off pattern'.

Nevertheless, in an article by D. Gordon in The Foundry Trade Journal and Pattern-Maker of August 1915, entitled 'Plaster-of-Paris as a Pattern-Making Material', it was said (underlining added):

'In many instances jobs of the "rush," experimental, or "one off" variety, tax to the utmost the capacity and ingenuity of both pattern-shops and foundry for the production of the required castings.  These productions, in too many cases, suffer both as regards accuracy and finish, owing to the means whereby they are produced, which are often crude (owing to the time factor being the chief consideration) and lack that craftsmanship which is absolutely necessary when sound, accurate, well-finished castings are desired.'   

As we can see, 'rush' and 'experimental' jobs are regarded here by Gordon as synonymous with a 'one off' job which is described as a job of the one off variety.


Similarly, we find this in 'Unorthodox Patterns' by J.R. Moorhouse, published in the August 1915 issue of Foundry Trade Journal and Pattern-Maker (underlining added):

'...a pattern may be quite practicable and leave much for the moulder to do to complete his mould.  Of such nature are the "one off" variety of patterns; and just where the line should be drawn in regard to what should be done in the pattern-shop and what left for the foundry to do, in view of the entire cost, is of itself a controversial subject. When patterns are required for standard work too much consideration cannot be given to saving labour in the foundry. Such patterns should be build up in the best possible manner for repetition moulding.' 

It's interesting to note the wording of the next article, entitled 'Emergency Jobs' by F. Andrew, in the August 1917 issue of The Foundry Trade Journal and Pattern-Maker which, when referring to moulding job of two square pipes and a half-circular wheel guard, said (underlining added):

'Full patterns and coreboxes were out of the question in the time available, and as one each was wanted off, the expense of such patterns was prohibitive.' 

He could have just said that one of each was wanted but obviously used the pattern makers' 'off' to indicate castings made off a pattern. 

In the same issue we find an article by Joseph Horner entitled 'Common Sources of Error in Castings' in which it was stated (underlining added):

'In the foundries where only single castings, or a few, are made from a pattern, and where, since the cost of the latter has to be borne by the single, or the limited, number of castings made, the outlay on the pattern must needs be kept as low as possible. But when the expense can be spread over a hundred or thousand castings, it may be, and generally is, the highest economy to make the pattern with the nearest possible approach to accuracy, and also to eliminate all risks of error in the moulding.'  

The January 1918 issue of Foundry Trade and Pattern Maker featured a paper by J. Shaw entitled 'Relationship Between Drawing-Office, Pattern Shop and Foundry' read before the Birmingham Branch of the British Foundrymen's Association on 27 October 1917 during which the following exchange was reported between Shaw and the chairman, Mr Harley (underlining added):

'MR. HARLEY said that one important point was the number of castings that had to be made from one pattern.  Where the work was largely repetition work his firm spared no expense on the patterns, stripping plates and core boxes, because they felt that all the money that could be spent in that direction was repaid by advantageous production....Still, he thought foundrymen should make a strong stand with regard to patterns, for there was no satisfaction in trying to mould from badly made and badly designed patterns.  At his works they had a great advantage in having the designs submitted to the foundry department before the patterns were made. They had an opportunity of consulting with the designer, and any suggestions that they made which did not interfere vitally with the design were accepted.  They did not take so much trouble when the work was in the experimental stage, but the moment a job was standardised every care was taken to adapt the design as far as possible to foundry conditions. He thought that the foundry management should be entirely responsible for patterns for standard work.

MR. SHAW, in reply, said that he was quite in agreement with Mr. Harley that under such conditions as Mr. Harley was accustomed to the cost of the patterns was of little moment.  But where only one casting was required the cost was a vital matter.' 

As late as 1917, pattern makers still don't seem to be referring to one-off jobs when given the opportunity.

At the same time, however, James Edgar (who, as we shall see, rarely missed a chance to mention one-off jobs or patterns) said in his 1918 article called 'Templates and Patterns for Pipes', published in the The Foundry Trade Journal and Pattern Maker of September 1918 (underlining added):

'There are, of course, several ways of making the cores for such pipes.  A corebox is practically never made. They are usually one-off jobs, and a core box would be too expensive.'

Similarly, this is from The Practical Engineer of 12 June 1919, under 'Office and Workshop Notes' (underlining added):

‘Often when a costly solid core box seems essential the patternmaker by the exercise of a little ingenuity can contrive a makeshift box, which is sufficiently strong for a few cores. It is grievous when the main core of a one-off job is simple, and time is a consideration to spend a long time in making a branch core box.' 

Interestingly, though, a 1921 book entitled 'Pattern Making' by W. Roland Needham also appears to exactly describe a one-off job without actually using that expression.  Thus, said Needham (underlining added):

'Other Material for Patterns – It often happens that a particular detail has to be cast once and once only…A regular and simple construction of small or medium size can sometimes be worked up in stucco (a kind of plaster or cement), or carved out of wax.  These not infrequently prove to be cheaper and quicker methods than working in wood. Stucco and wax, however, are only used for the once required or most occasional kind of job, nor will they suit more than a very few of even such cases'.

In using the expression 'once required...job', Needham seems to have spurned 'one off job', if he was aware of this phrase.

Nevertheless, another 1921 book, by Ben Shaw and James Edgar, called 'Patternmaking' did use the expression 'one-off pattern'.  In the book it was explained that:

'There are, broadly, three classes of patterns, viz., standard patterns, which cannot be too well finished; one-off patterns, which are cheaply made and probably give the moulder more work; and skeleton patterns.'  

This explanation of the different types of patterns may be compared with the 1903 explanation by McKim Chase and the 1909 explanation by Napier (both quoted above) as well as with other extracts quoted above.

The same authors published another book in 1921 called 'Foundry Work' in which it was stated, in respect of sectional patterns, that (underlining added):

'This practice can be varied for many different kinds of castings, and is particularly useful for one-off jobs or for urgent work.' 

The same two authors - Shaw and Edgar - were responsible for the following extracts from articles in The Foundry Trade Journal of October and November 1922 (underlining added in all):

'The methods adopted in these operations are dependent, to some extent, on the quality of pattern desired, because when a one-off pattern is being constructed, lighter timber can be used and methods of jointing which involve less labour.'


'Skeleton patterns are satisfactory for one-off jobs, but if several castings are wanted, a solid pattern can be made almost as quickly, it is certainly more profitable to make one.'


'For a one-off job the pattern can be quickly made similar to Fig. 6, a distance batten being bowelled on top, as shown, to ensure that the inside walls of metal will remain the correct distance apart when ramming, whereas should a number of castings be necessary the pattern and core box in Fig. 7 would be more economical, because little tooling, if any, would be necessary if the central shape of the bracket is cored out.'


'For a one-off job it is quite satisfactory to leave the stopping over to the moulder, but for repetition work a core-box should be made.' 

Two years later, in a 1924 book called 'Pattern Making' by John McC. Wilson, the author said (underlining added):

'The Plate Flanging Tools for a locomotive smoke-box door form a “one off” job suitable for sweeping in sand in preference to loam, or to making an expensive wooden pattern.' 

In another 1924 book, 'Moulding and other Foundry Work', the author William Bell said, 'Many orders come into the foundry for castings with one off, and to make a whole pattern would cost two or three times the price of moulding it'.  This is an interesting example of the use of 'one off' which seems to relate to the earlier meaning as a pure quantity rather than as something unique.

During 1925, the Canadian Foundryman and Metal Industry News published a number of articles mentioning one-off jobs. 


 In March 1925, an article by James Edgar and Ben Shaw entitled 'Accurate Balancing and Setting of Cores' stated: 'In a jobbing foundry the conditions are entirely different; one-off jobs are the rule, and consequently patterns and coreboxes are frequently crude'.   In the following month, the same authors, in an article entitled 'Building Molding Boxes - the Universal Casting', wrote: 'Molding boxes are interesting because they are often one-off jobs, and they must be made cheaply.  Some ingenious methods are adopted in their construction.'   Later in the year, the same journal published an article by J. McLachlan, entitled 'A Foundation Plate Pattern', which said, 'If a one-off pattern were being made, it would be quite satisfactory to make the print of solid timber. Such a barrel can be built as quickly almost as a skeleton.'

On 6 November 1925, the Western Daily Press carried a report of an address given at a meeting of the Bristol Association of Engineers by the association's president, Mr A.G. Strong, who said:

'The difficulties of administration in a general shop would be easily realised the chief job of which was the "one off" job, involving an estimate, special designing to fit the case, high cost, colossal overhead charges, much anxiety and little profit.  However, the job had to be done.'

As we can see, this is a newspaper report of a speech by an engineer so, unless the newspaper readers were baffled by the language he used, the expression 'one off job' might have been understood, if not used, by the general public from as early as the 1920s.

The Canadian Foundryman and Electroplater carried an article by J. McLachlan in its March 1927 issue entitled 'Wheel Pattern Practice in Small Shops' in which it was stated that: 'The first consideration is as to whether a first-class pattern is wanted on a very cheap one for a "one-off" job.' 

According to The Foundry Trade Journal of 17 January 1929, in an article entitled 'Protecting Patterns and Core Boxes' by the same J. McLachlan (underlining added):

'Patterns are expensive, yet in any shop where high-class work is turned out the life of the average pattern or core-box is much shorter than it ought to be, simply because proper precautions are not taken to protect them as far as is possible against the hard use of the foundry and the often unsatisfactory conditions of the pattern store. Where the work is of a one-off character, such as patterns for marine engineering, their protection against what may be termed atmospheric changes and mis-handling is not of as much importance as in the case of  standard and repetition work, although it is a fact that better patterns, from the moulder’s point of view, are often made for one-off jobs.' 

We can see here the reference to a job being 'of a one-off character' but this is still very much in connection with the production of a physical item.  

In an article in the February 28 1929 issue of the Foundry Trade Journal, entitled 'Patternshop Standardisation', the same J. McLachlan noted that: 'Very often the foreman will say: "Make a good job of it, because there will be twenty off," or alternatively, "It is a one-off job, therefore do not spend much time on it." 

He also wrote that (underlining added):

'Timber that has many knots or a number of wind shakes is not suitable for high-quality patterns or those on which much carving or shaping has to be done, but it is quite good enough for cheap one-off patterns and skeleton work that may never be required after the castings for which they have been made are would be quite impossible for any drawing office, either in a works where repetition castings are made, such as the motor-car works or a shipbuilding yard, where the majority of patterns are of the one-off kind, to stipulate the kind of quantity of timber to be used in constructing patterns.  The foreman of the shop is in a better position to decide what kind of timber to use, and also the class of pattern that should be made. While, as a general rule, plate patterns and small standard patterns, such as valve mountings, can profitably be made of hard wood and one-off patterns of yellow pine, yet there are occasions when it is wise to use hard  wood for a one-off pattern...No skilled craftsman would take pleasure in making a costly standard pattern for a one-off job, and it is sufficient for the drawing office to record on the drawing the number of castings that will be required.'


J. McLachlan also contributed to a 1929 publication, 'Workshop Practice: A Practical Work for the Draughtsman, The Mechanic, The Pattern Maker and the Foundryman', edited by E.A. Atkins.  In a chapter entitled  'Pattern-Making' by J. McLachlan and Charles A. Otto it is stated (underlining added):

'There are usually many different ways of making a core-box as of making a pattern. For repetition work, well made solid core boxes are required, but for "one-off" jobs a core box may be dispensed with altogether, and a board or frame with stickles substituted by which the moulder can sweep a core....There should be as few loose pieces as possible, and when some are necessary, except for "one-off" jobs, they should be dovetailed or dowelled in position in order that they may be accurately replaced.' 

From the Foundry Trade Journal of 28 February 1929, in an article 'Some Notes on Patternmaking' by J. Delaney and R. Ballantine (underlining added):

'It is maintained that the most competent patternmaker is the adaptable man who can produce a pattern for a one-off job, to meet the needs of a one-off job, and afterwards proceed with a first class job in the same adaptable way.' 

Regarding cheap patterns, the authors also said (underlining added): 'It is felt that the use of stucco for pattern-making in the engineering foundries is not given the place to which, by virtue of its qualities, it is entitled. There is unlimited scope for its use, particularly in jobs of one or two-off, and in the construction of master patterns.'  So it seems they were using 'one off' to refer both to a quantity and to a unique job.

The Oxford English Dictionary records the earliest appearance of the expression (or hyphenated word) as being in 1934 with a reference from the Proceedings of the Institute of British Foundrymen of that year saying, 'A splendid one-off pattern can be swept up in little time.'   

One can find pre-Second World War examples of 'one off' being used in newspapers outside of pattern making during the 1930s, albeit very much still within the context of engineering and manufacturing. 

Thus, an advertisement for borers in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 18 September 1937 asked for 'men accustomed to one off jobs'.   An advertisement in the Yorkshire Post of 18 September 1937 stated, 'Horizontal Borers: Wanted in South Midlands for boring large castings, used to one off jobs'.  A company called Covmac advertising in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 23 March 1939 asked for a 'first-class Borer, used to one-off jobs.'   A borer, incidentally, was someone whose job it was to bore holes.

During the Second World War we find an article in Autocar referring to both a 'special' and 'a "one off" product' as interchangeable expressions.  Thus, in the August 1942 issue of Autocar in an article entitled 'A Special "Special"' it is stated that (underlining added):

'A "special" makes a change this week from the manufactured vintage machines that have been described here lately. It is a special "special" too, none other than Leslie M. Bellamy's car, well known to many enthusiasts by its appearance in various events before the war.  Since Bellamy, to put it mildly, "knows what he is doing," and had the resources of his own engineering establishment to draw upon when developing the car, it is obvious that it would be a very different type of machine from the purely home-built special. It might well be supposed from the general appearance and detailed inspection that it was a manufactured and not a "one off" product.  But for the war I suppose that Bellamy would have been able to offer replicas.

There is then a photograph of Bellamy's sports car:

One Off image 11.jpg

While the use of the word "special' doesn't seem to have died out completely, by the 1950s, the expression, 'one off', was sufficiently common within the manufacturing context for one Norman Travah Havart to publish, in 1953, a book actually entitled '"One Off" I build a Ford '10' Sports Car.'

One Off article 12.jpg

So far we have seen two phases in the use of 'one off'.  Phase 1 is the use of the expression as a mere quantity, although it may be wrong to call it an 'expression', it's more of a notation and just meant a number of an item in the same way as ' item x1' or 'item x2' would have done.  Phase 2 is when 'one off' separates from all the other numbers (i.e. 'two off', 'three off' etc.) and takes on a new meaning of a unique or singular item.  But the word 'item' needs to be stressed.  Because in this phase it is only used to mean an actual physical job or a product or casting etc., i.e. something physical which actually exists and is manufactured or designed.  Initially its use, at least in print, is confined to manufacturing trade articles, books or reports of speeches.  

What clearly seems to have happened is that at some point during the twentieth century there is a Phase 3, whereby the expression develops and evolves a metaphorical meaning and is applied in a much wider context by the general public to things which are not manufactured jobs or items but are (implicitly) compared to them.  Thus, unique people start to be referred to in a metaphorical sense as 'one offs'.  They are, in other words, being compared to a unique, one off manufactured item (or job).  The earliest known example of this is from 1946 in a book entitled 'I Couldn't Care Less' by Anthony Phelps in which it is stated:

'The Taxi Pool was under the command of a large Scot who had such a unique personality that it quite baffles description - definitely what an engineer would call a "one-off job"' 

As we can see, the large Scot with the unique personality wasn't actually described as a 'one off'.  Instead he was compared to a 'one off job'.  This makes it certain that people were not, at this time, were being described as one offs. It wasn't yet in the language.

The earliest reference I've found so far to a person being referred to as a 'one off' subsequent to this is in a 1961 edition of The Aeroplane and Astronautics in which, speaking of the late Wing Commander Hugh Raymond Vaughan-Fowler who had died on 25 September 1961, it was said that he was:

'A "one-off" character, his like will not be seen again in Indian aviation.' 

The Daily Telegraph of 9 May 1964 contains a reference to a sailor called Charles McLendon, of whom it was said, 'McLendon is, perhaps, one of the rarest - a "sport", a one-off.'   This would appear to be one of the earliest uses, if not the earliest, of 'one-off' on its own to describe a person. 


In the same  year, an advertising executive, T.E. Johnson, published a book entitled "'One Off': The story of an advertising man'.

One Off image 12.jpg

According to the TV listings page of the Times, there was a television series by Thames entitled 'One off' in which Fred Dineage interviewed various individuals but the focus seems to have been on one off events rather than one off people. This, for example, is the TV Times listing for the episode on Wednesday 3 September 1969:

One off image 14.jpg

One might note the absence of a hyphen in the title of this programme, as indeed in the 1953 and 1964 book titles.


Just as unique people started to be referred to in a metaphorical sense as 'one offs', the same is true of events.  Occasions or instances start to be referred to as one offs.  The concept of the 'one off instance' (and similar) thus slowly crept into the English language and common usage of it. But it is only after the Second World War that we find the real start of the metaphorical Phase 3 usage with 'one off nature' (1953), 'one off event' (1959), 'one off effort' (1960) and 'one off event' (1963).  These can all be regarded as similar to 'one off instance'. The first examples of 'one off occasion', 'one off affair', 'one off episode', 'one off incident', 'one off occurrence' and 'one off appearance' that I have been able to locate have all been from the 1970s.

The earliest example of the exact expression 'one off instance' that I have found in writing is, nevertheless, 1981 but similar expressions such as 'one off event' can be found in the 1960s, and others of a similar nature such as 'one off nature' in the 1950s, so let's allow for it being in use 40 years earlier than 1981. The fact is that, despite carrying out every possible search I could imagine, I haven't found any similar written usage prior to the Second World War.

An interrogation of the British Newspaper Archive reveals the earliest examples of each of the following expressions (when searched in August 2022):

One off event - Portsmouth Evening News, 6 May 1959 

One-off affair - Birmingham Daily Post, 20 February 1965 

One-off play - The Stage, 1 April 1965

One-off drama - The Stage, 1 April 1965 

One off show - Birmingham Weekly Mercury, 24 April 1966 

One-off individuality - Birmingham Daily Post, 3 July 1967 

One-off price - Birmingham Daily Post, 3 July 1967 

One-off programme - Birmingham Daily Post, 7 August 1967

One-off film - The Stage, 27 June 1968 

One-off character [of an item] - Middlesex County Times, 24 January 1969 

One-off opportunity - Liverpool Echo, 4 September 1969 (advert for an Industrial Engineer) 

One-off performance [s] - Birmingham Daily Post, 9 September 1969 

One-off hit - Coventry Evening Telegraph, 30 September 1969 

One-off payment - Illustrated London News, 6 June 1970

One-off success - Kensington News & West London Times, 30 January 1970 

One-off experience - Marylebone Mercury, 5 February 1971 

One-off situation - Birmingham Daily Post, 14 March 1972 

One-off example - Aberdeen Press and Journal, 1 June 1972  

One-off recording - Reading Evening Post, 16 June 1972  

One-off thing - Liverpool Echo, 10 November 1972 

One-off game - Birmingham Daily Post, 3 February 1973 

One off match - Sports Argus, 27 August 1973  

One-off result - Sports Argus, 29 September 1973 

One-off documentary - Belfast Telegraph, 19 January 1974 

One-off market - New Ross Standard, 8 March 1974 

One-off broadcasting - Daily Mirror, 11 September 1974

One-off occasion - Faversham News, 12 April 1974

One off mistake - Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 1 November 1974

One-off incident - Reading Evening Post, 17 June 1975 

One-off decision - Birmingham Daily Post, 18 June 1975 

One-off remark - Central Somerset Gazette, 30 October 1975 

One-off concept - Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 1 November 1975 

One-off musical - The Stage, 6 November 1975 

One-off moment [of madness] - Birmingham Daily Post, 16 December 1975 

One-off broadcast - Aberdeen Evening Express, 30 March 1976 

One-off interview - The Stage, 23 September 1976 

One-off individual [building] - Crewe Chronicle, 30 September 1976 

One-off occurrence - Diss Express, 25 March 1977

One-off character [describing a person] - Belfast Telegraph, 1 June 1977 

One-off triumph - Belfast Telegraph, 15 March 1978 

One-off episode - Coventry Evening Telegraph, 10 June 1978 

One-off murder - Reading Evening Post, 7 September 1978 

One-off achievement - Long Eaton Advertiser, 5 October 1978 

One-off idea - Coventry Evening Telegraph, 20 March 1979 

One-off song - Kent & Sussex Courier, 24 April 1981

One-off failure - Birmingham Weekly Mercury, 28 June 1981 

One-off marketing - Aberdeen Press & Journal, 7 June 1983 

One-off error - Grantham Journal, 16 September 1983 

One-off entry [fee] - Buckinghamshire Examiner, 30 December 1983 

One-off speech - Aberdeen Press and Journal, 17 January 1984

One-off proposal - Aberdeen Press and Journal, 8 December 1984 

One-off revue - Aldershot News, 1 November 1985 

One-off instance - Aldershot News, 15 November 1985

One-off adventure - Gloucester Citizen, 11 March 1986 

One-off romance - Wexford People, 21 December 1989

One-off debate - Daily Mirror, 19 November 1990 

One-off review - Birmingham News, 28 June 1991 

One-off announcement - Reading Evening Post, 3 July 1991 

One-off defeat - Newcastle Journal, 12 March 1992 

One-off statement - Southall Gazette, 9 June 1995 

One-off comment - Crawley News, 10 June 1998 

There is a clear and, indeed, remarkable pattern to be seen here, I would suggest.  The majority of the expressions involving 'one off' were all published for the first time in these digitized newspapers in the ten years between 1967 and 1977, and none earlier than 1965.  That's the period when there is an explosion of the use of the expression 'one off', being used in a 'metaphorical' sense, following a decade in which one finds it confined mainly to newspaper advertisements in respect of manufacturing or engineering jobs and items (in a literal sense) or, at best, news stories about manufacturing or engineering subjects. 

Bear in mind that there were, at the time I carried out the above exercise, over 3 million newspapers scanned by the BNA in the period 1800 to 1949 with just over 262,000 in the period 1950 to 2019 so the results are the total reverse of what would be expected if 'one off' (as in, for example, 'one off instance') was in any way a nineteenth century expression.  It's nothing short of extraordinary that no newspaper contains any of these expressions before 1965 if they existed during that entire period going back to 1888.  It is the clearest evidence, which anyone should be able to accept, that they did not.

One of the above examples is particularly instructive.  As mentioned in the list, the earliest use of the expression 'one off play' is found in an article (by Marjorie Bilbow) in The Stage of 1 April 1965.  This contains a quote by Cecil Clarke, Head of Plays at ATV, that: 'I'm responsible solely for what has come to be known in television as the "one-off" play'.   He also said, 'I've been engaged by ATV to put on one-off plays, one-off drama.'  He continued by saying: 'I'm convinced there's still a place for these single plays, very much so. And I think it's up to people in my sort of job to make quite sure that the one-off play maintains that place in television.'  As we can clearly see, therefore, a 'one-off play' was synonymous with a 'one-off drama' and a 'single play.'  

Similarly, there is an article in a subsequent edition of The Stage of 28 July 1966 with the headline: 'The single play is so vulnerable it must be loved, guarded and given every chance'.  The article began: 'The start of  the eleventh year of ABC's Armchair Theatre was an occasion for rejoicing on the part of everybody who is concerned for the continuation of the single play.'  But it continued: 'Yet when one thinks of the accumulated anxiety that lies behind any "one off" play  - from the author's painful task of creation to the producer's agonised uncertainty whether his choice was right...'   A bit later in the article it is stated that there was a need for 'continual vigilance against pressures that are and may be put on drama departments to cut down on their output of single plays.'   It was also said that, 'Only with the single play is the writer free to use his imagination to the full.' Hence, we can see again that a 'single play' was definitely synonymous with a 'one-off play'.

It's interesting, therefore, that in The Stage of 23 August 1928, we find it stated that, 'It is likely that half of the audience has never heard of these old plays, much less of the recent London failures, which run for a month in town and find their way into repertory after a fruitless search for a single-play touring manager'.  In The Stage of 12 December 1957, it was stated that, for children's programmes on TV for 1958, 'Single plays, usually lasting half-an-hour will be dropped in favour of serials.'   On 23 January 1958, a quote was carried by Owen Reed, who was in charge of BBC Children's Television, which stated that, 'It would be wrong to give the impression that because our serial output is going to be greater we are going to neglect the form of the single play.'  In an issue of 27 December 1962, it was stated that, 'The first single play from BBC-tv Drama in 1963, "Anna Christie," will be produced by Rudolph Cartieron Friday, Jan 4'.  This all suggests that the expression 'a one-off play' was not in use at all in the English language during the early 1960s, otherwise surely The Stage would at some point have referred to a 'one-off play' rather than always to 'single' plays. 

And there's more. On 27 June 1963, we find it stated in The Stage by producer Douglas Allen that, 'An ordinary single play is great fun to do, but it's just one evening's entertainment'.   Then, in The Stage of 16 July 1964, in an article by Marjorie Bilbrow, Philip Mackie of Grenada was quoted saying that drama on television was getting dull and that, 'One reason for this was that the series was taking over.  I don't mean the serials. I mean things like No Hiding Place - where you get a separate, quite self-contained play each week. Viewers were coming to look forward to these as they had once looked forward to the single play.'  He also said that, 'A series gives me much more chance to put the Mackie stamp on it than a single play does' . And then in the issue of 19 November 1964, it is stated that in an editorial that, 'the single play seems to give rise to a great deal of concern not only to the BBC but also to many of our readers' .  On 26 November 1964, in another article by Marjorie Bilbrow, we find a quote from Coronation Street producer Harry Kershaw that, 'It just so happens that for the last ten or twelve years it has been the single play which brings you the publicity, brings you the reviews (good or bad), brings you to the notice of the reading public - not necessarily the viewing public.' . The issue of 31 December 1964 referred to 'the continuing good health of single plays', while, as late as 28 January 1965, The Stage reported that Lord Willis had called on both the BBC and independent television 'to double their output of single plays.' 

As we have seen, it wasn't until April 1965 that The Stage (digitized copies of which are on the British Newspaper Archive going all the way back to 1880) started to refer to a single play as a 'one off play' or a 'one off drama'.  Between 1965 and 1999 there are over 80 mentions in the Stage to a 'one off play' or plays, with none prior to 1965.   Again this is dramatic and easily understandable evidence of how 'one off' outside of a manufacturing context only really entered the mainstream English language in the 1960s. 

The results from the BNA also match what is found in other databases.  The Times, for example, contains mentions of 'one off' between 1944 and 1964 but they are all in a manufacturing context, usually with reference to one-off jobs and similar.  

In 159 years in The Times, from 1785 to 1944, there is not a single use of the phrase 'one off'.

The first time it appears is in an article entitled 'The Making of Craftsmen' by George Wansbrough on 15 May 1944 which states:

'The shop must on no account be used as a cheap production unit…it can be used to some extent for the production of "one off" jobs for experimental or other purposes.'

There are about nine or ten uses of the phrase 'one off job' during the 1950s (mainly in engineering related advertisements) but during the 1960s you can find about one use of the phrase a month and then during the 1970s about one a week, sometimes one every other day, in a wide number of contexts.   

But the key point is that between 1785 and 1944 this very useful expression was never mentioned once in any part of the Times newspaper. That must tell you something. 


The first appearance I located of the expression outside of a manufacturing context in that newspaper is in the Times of 11 May 1964 in which it is stated of fast train speeds that, 'The new generation of railwaymen tend to regard these as "one off" achievements'.  There are some other references to 'one offs' over the next couple of years, but all in a manufacturing context and it's not until 8 July 1966 that we find another use outside of this context, being mention of giro account owners being able to make 'one off payments'. 

In the following year, for the first time in the Times, a person was described in as a one-off.  This was in the edition of the Times of 18 January 1967 when, in a clear example of metaphorical usage, the leader of the Liberal party, Jo Grimand, was described as 'a one-off model'.  Not as a 'one-off' it should be stressed but as a 'one-off model'.    When one searches the BNA for 'one-off model' one finds it repeatedly and exclusively applied to motor cars - manufactured items - between 1952 and 1967 (and beyond) so the Times was, in effect, comparing Grimand to a motor car. (One minor exception to this is a book review in the Birmingham Daily Post of 13 December 1960 which refers to a book about motor cars by J.R. Buckley, entitled 'Cars of the Connoisseur' as 'an effort which is more in the form of a "one off" model'. ) Later uses for individuals would, of course, not use the word 'model' but just describe people as one-offs, although in the Coventry Evening Telegraph of 31 March 1972 it is said of magistrate Edgar May that, 'His house, mature and well-rounded in character, like himself, is a one-off model of grace, style and quiet dignity'...  

Continuing with the Times, we find in an issue of 4 August 1967 a reference to 'one-off social occasions' and, on 9 September 1967, to Wilfred De'Ath's 'strictly one-off interviews with the previously inarticulate'.  From this period on, there are a lot of mentions of 'one-off', still mainly but not exclusively in a manufacturing context, and, as I've mentioned already, in September 1969, Thames TV broadcast a series of interviews by Fred Dineage in a programme entitled 'One Off'. The first episode was broadcast on 1 September 1969 and, perhaps by coincidence, on 3 September 1969 it was said in the Times Diary of producer Peter Morley at London Weekend Television that he 'will produce one-off programmes rather than series, even series of "specials".

Here is a full list from the Times, which was first published in 1785, showing the earliest use of each of the below expressions (outside of adverts):

One-off affair - 16 August 1971

One-off play - 5 September 1970

One-off drama - 2 August 1989

One-off programme - 27 June 1972

One-off film - 2 September 1989

One-off character - 31 July 1983

One-off show - 5 June 1981

One-off opportunity - 16 September 1986

One-off performance - 7 July 1981

One-off hit - 21 March 1987

One-off payment - 22 November 1971

One-off situation - 24 December 1971

One-off recording - None

One-off game - 9 September 1977

One-off event - 21 November 1979

One-off match - 3 February 1981  

One-off result - 29 March 1989

One-off documentary - 29 February 1992

One-off market [research] - 22 November 2002

One-off broadcasting - None

One-off occasion - 24 November 1979 

One-off incident - 20 May 1977

One-off decision - 28 June 1975

One-off remark - None

One-off concept - 28 August 1987

One-off musical - 31 January 1990

One-off moment - None

One-off example - 8 April 1986

One-off broadcast - 29 December 2006

One-off success - 2 August 1988

One-off interview - 30 April 1993

One-off thing - 30 September 1976

One-off individual [purchase] - 9 October 1997

One-off murder - 28 June 2003 

One-off achievement - 4 October 1988

One-off idea - 27 December 2008

One-off song - 6 April 1989

One-off marketing - None

One-off entry [fee] - 8 October 1997

One-off speech - None

One-off proposal - 22 March 1990

One-off revue - None 

One-off instance - None

One-off romance - None

One-off announcement - 15 July 1995

One-off adventure - 11 December 1982 

One-off defeat - 5 December 1996 

One-off experience - 25 January 1991

One-off review - None

One-off comment - None

One-off debate - None

One-off statement - 7 August 1972

One-off episode - 17 June 1985

I might add that the exclusion of advertisements makes little or no difference to the results.  


In the Guardian and Observer database, which, like the Times database, goes back to the eighteenth century (being first published in 1791), we find the earliest examples of these expressions (outside of adverts, which again makes little or no difference) as follows:

One-off affair - 23 February 1973

One-off play - 10 September 1970 

One-off drama - 10 September 1977

One-off programme - 22 February 1972

One-off film - 18 September 1977

One-off character - 28 May 1978 

One-off show - The Stage, 6 June 1975

One-off opportunity - 15 May 1986

One-off performance - 26 February 1969

One-off hit - 30 December 1977

One-off payment - 18 June 1974

One-off situation - 25 August 1974

One-off recording - 29 May 2001

One-off game - 16 November 1977 

One-off event - 25 June 1977

One-off match - 22 January 1981 

One-off result - 21 December 1983

One-off documentary - 10 July 1977

One-off market - 27 June 2001 

One-off broadcasting - None

One-off occasion - 28 April 1973 

One-off incident - 6 April 1980

One-off decision - 4 May 1971

One-off remark - None

One-off concept - 27 June 1968

One-off musical - 23 December 1977

One-off moment - 15 November 1991

One-off example - 17 June 2000

One-off broadcast - 8 March 1995

One-off success - 5 June 1978

One-off interview - 12 June 1975 

One-off thing - 17 February 1978

One-off individual - 9 February 1998

One-off murder - None 

One-off achievement - 27 July 1986

One-off idea - 18 October 1978

One-off song - 29 March 2002

One-off marketing - 22 December 1991

One-off entry - None

One-off speech - 16 March 2000

One-off proposal - None

One-off revue - None 

One-off instance - None

One-off romance - None

One-off announcement - None

One-off adventure [drama] - 6 September 1986 

One-off defeat - 11 May 1994

One-off experience - 17 June 1983

One-off review - None (outside of a 1993 ad)

One-off comment - None

One-off debate - 28 September 1981

One-off statement - None

One-off episode - 26 August 1985

If you are someone who understands that the Diary is a modern fake, this will all make perfect sense to you but if you are someone who thinks that Diary is old, how do you process this information?  How can you think it is possible for newspapers which are searchable all the way back to the eighteenth century to only start to include these phrases from the 1960s onwards if you also believe that someone could have used the expression 'one off instance' as early as 1888?  You must see that it's simply impossible, right?  It just does not compute.

You can check what I'm saying on any database you like.  The results from the Daily Telegraph database (going back to 1855), the Daily Mirror/Daily Express database (going back to 1900) and the Daily Mail database (going back to 1896) are exactly same as from the BNA, the Times and the Guardian and Observer in the sense that the first appearances of the expressions are highly concentrated in the period from the mid 1960s to the mid-1970s, sometimes later but not earlier. There is only one conclusion that can be drawn from this remarkable corroborating evidence which is that 'one off' was not an expression in common, mainstream usage in the English language prior to the 1960s.

If the author of the diary wrote the expression 'one off instance' in 1888 he would have been the first person ever known to have used this expression, or anything remotely similar in a Phase 3 sense and, even if you deduct ten years from the earliest date that I have found any similar expression, this would still mean it was never written again by anyone else in the entire English speaking world for over 50 years! It's totally unrealistic.

For that reason, while it is not, of course, physically impossible that someone could have written the words 'one off instance' in 1888 – there is nothing physically to stop someone having done it - it is what I would describe as linguistically or lexicographically impossible for them to have done so. I say this not based simply on my own research but on the authority of the Oxford English Dictionary, of Websters, of Dr Kate Flint and, indeed, of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Modern Fable, second edition by John Ayto and Ian Crofton, 2006 (underlining added):

One-off. An unusual or unique person, especially positively so. The expression dates from the 1930s and originally applied to a single manufactured object of some kind, often produced as a sample or specimen.

The use of the expression 'one off instance' was a mistake made by the author of the diary not appreciating that this is a modern expression and it is the incontrovertible fact which proves that the Diary was not written in 1888.

There are literally millions of pages of documents, books and newspapers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which have now been digitised and are easily searchable. Many millions more non-digitised pages are reviewed every year by researchers in archives and libraries throughout the country and, indeed, the world.  In the more than 30 years since the Diary was produced, not a single example of 'one off' being used in a metaphorical Phase 3 sense has ever been found anywhere in any document from the nineteenth century or the early twentieth century.  It is the business of the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary and Websters to record uses of phrases and expressions.  The Oxford English Dictionary has been in existence since the nineteenth century but the use of 'one off' only came to its attention as something which was written in the 1930s (and then in an obscure manufacturing trade journal). Yet, the expression 'one off' to mean a unique person or event is an extremely useful one and can be found virtually everywhere since the 1960s. To accept the Diary as genuine would mean that, despite the usefulness of the expression, 'one off instance', or similar, which is supposed to have been used for the first time ever in writing by Maybrick in 1888, no writer of literature, no writer of non-fiction, no journalist, no civil servant or government employee in the millions of official government reports which survive in archives around the country, no surviving letter writer, no known diarist, no compiler of company or union meeting minutes, no judicial writer of legal judgments etc. etc. ever uses it again, or anything similar outside of the context of an actual physical product or job, for at least fifty years.  The conclusion to anyone must be obvious.  The use of 'one off' to mean a unique person or event simply did not exist in the 1880s.  It could not exist.  It doesn't even seem to have existed to mean a unique job or item at that time.  This evolution of the phrase from a quantity to a unique manufactured item or design doesn't appear to have occurred until the 1900s, after Garscadden's series of articles about patternmaking.  And the later evolution from a unique manufactured item or design to a unique person or event doesn't appear to have occurred until after the Second World War.


The first appearance in a dictionary of 'one-off' appears to have been in the Revised Addenda of the Third Edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary published in 1973.  The definition then given was as follows:

'adjective. applied to an article, product etc. of which only one is made; also transferred, not repeated, unique, also as substantive.'

Subsequently, a definition was included in the Sixth Edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary published in 1976 (the Fifth Edition published in 1964 did not include it).  It was a short definition as follows:

'Made as one (article etc.) only, not repeated.'

It's interesting that this early dictionary definition related to only the manufacture, or making, of an item.  It wasn't changed for the Seventh Edition in 1982 but, in that year, a supplement to the original Oxford English Dictionary of 1933 (which was the second supplement to the OED, following one in 1971) was published which gave the following definition of 'one-off':

'a single example of a manufactured product, something not repeated; a prototype.' 

Again, the focus here is on a product.  At the same time, 14 examples were provided, the first eight (between 1934 and and 1965) related to a product or a 'one off job', but the ninth was from the Sunday Times of 29 September 1968 referring to 'a one-off effort', the tenth from the Times of 28 March 1970 referring to 'a one-off purchase', the eleventh is a reference in the Daily Telegraph of 22 October 1973 to a television programme which was 'screened as a one-off' while the twelfth is an author complaining about ''one off' dates'.  The final two, and most recent, examples were about (one off) products.

Interestingly, the 1982 supplement also gave a new definition for the word 'off' which had not appeared in the original OED.  This was as follows:

'Used with a preceding numeral to represent a quantity in production or manufacturing esp. one off.'

Three examples were then given, starting with a 1947 publication which said, 'Manufacturers found it very difficult to give up mass production, in order to make the 200 or so sets off'.  Then there was a 1970 example referring to '60 units off' and, finally, a 1973 advertisement saying, 'Kienzle printers. 6 off, surplus to manufacturing requirements.' 

Also in 1982, an edition of the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English published in that year, updated by Paul Beale, said of the expression 'One off (job)', when used outside of engineering and manufacturing, that it was a later 20th century expression (defined as the period 1960 to 1980). Hence, it was stated:

'In later C. 20 often used to describe something happening, or likely to happen, once only e.g. the police spokesman re. the attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne in 1974 'We reckon it was a one-off job'; or 'We'll do it on a one-off basis', a circumlocution for 'We'll try it once'; by late 1970s familiar S.E.' 

Four years before this, in 1978, the first edition of the Collins Concise Dictionary of the English Language had provided its own definition of one-off as follows:

'n. Something that is carried out or made only once - adj. of something done only once [a one-off job]' 

This was probably also included in the first edition of the main Collins Dictionary published in 1979, a copy of which I haven't been able to track down.  By the time of the second edition of Collins, in 1986, the definition had changed slightly to emphasize the British nature of the phrase (and it was now included as only a noun, not an adjective, with a modifier):

'n. Brit. (a) something that is carried out or made only once. (b) (as modifier): a one off job.'

Collins also followed the OED with a new definition of 'off' which had not been included in the Concise version:

'Commerce (used with preceding number) indicating the number of items required or produced: please supply 100 off.' 

To interrupt our sequence of dictionary definitions, we may note that, in 1988, the journalist Barbara Robinson titled her autobiography (said to be 'Not really an autobiography') as simply 'One Off' (again without an apostrophe):

One Off image 13.jpg

The volume of the Second Edition of the OED, which included the letter 'O', was published in 1989 and carried the same definition as had appeared in the 1982 supplement.

The Eighth Edition of the Oxford Concise Dictionary, published in 1990, gave a modified definition of 'one off' as follows:

'Colloq. made or done as the only one, not repeated'.

We can see the addition of the words 'or done' whereas the previous edition had only stated it was something 'made'.  The dictionary was catching up with normal usage.  

In 1993, the Fourth Edition of the Oxford Shorter English Dictionary gave the definition of 'one off' as:

'(a) n. the only example of a manufactured product; something not repeated; (b) adj. made or done as the only one, not repeated.'

The Tenth Edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary in 1999 included some further modifications:

'informal, chiefly Brit. adj. done, made or happening only once, n. something done, made or happening only once - a unique or remarkable person.'

So we can see the further addition of the word 'happening' and the first mention in a dictionary of 'one off' to mean a unique or remarkable person.  That this doesn't happen until 1999 is instructive.


To summarize; there is a linear and traceable progression of the expression 'one off' whereby it evolves through three distinct phases. Phase 1 being a mere and unremarkable quantity of an item off a stocklist or a casting off a pattern for a manufacturing or engineering project, Phase 2 being a unique manufactured or engineered product or design or manufacturing process (e.g. a one off job) and Phase 3 being the wider and more general use to mean unique people or occasions (or instances). Phase 1 is nineteenth century, Phase 2 is early twentieth century (certainly after 1888) and Phase 3 is later twentieth century (around or after the period of the Second World War). Phase 3 cannot, and never will be found to, come before Phase 2.  But it was the Phase 3 use of the expression which was used in the Diary. 

Consequently the occurrence of this expression in the 1880s to mean a unique person or a unique occurrence would be unhistorical and anachronistic and, therefore, impossible.  It allows us to say without fear of contradiction, and with absolute certainty, that the Diary, with its use of 'one off' to mean a unique occurrence, is a twentieth century fake. 

First published: 28 July 2019 

Updated: 30 January 2024

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