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A Story of Sheffield Treasure

Sheffield Unchained reports on a visit to the inspirational Portland Works on Randall street; a bedraggled building which contains real Sheffield treasure.

The Grade II listed building is located in the historic ‘John Street triangle’ behind a football stadium named after the Bramall family – file and graver manufacturers – and home of Sheffield United Blades football club. The area, known as ‘Little Sheffield’, was once bustling with small courtyards and tall chimneys surrounded by cutlery and tool workshops, a microcosm of the booming international metal trade and cutlery industry led by the city of Sheffield.

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Portland Works from the top floor. Courtesy Portland Works

The squat sprawling building looks grimly industrial – outside the red brickwork is grimy and stained; inside, the only sign of grandeur is a beautifully detailed steel balustrade supporting stairs to the old showroom and manager’s offices. This area is now a light and airy renovated space hosting independent artists, craftspeople, events and educational activities.

The building was commissioned by Robert F Mosley & Co Ltd in 1876 and by 1888 was described in a directory of Sheffield Industries as containing every facility for the cutler’s trade – rooms for silver and electroplating, hand forges, a steam grinding mill, and luxuriously finished handles and cutlery cases. Much of the building remains unchanged, the hand forge and grinding mill are still in place and many artefacts from the era have been discovered amidst the dust and debris.

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Courtesy Portland Works

The most remarkable aspect of Portland Works is its place in the history of stainless steel. In 1912, Harry Brearley, from a poor family in Spital street, Sheffield, discovered ‘rustless steel’ while working as a metallurgist in a Sheffield research laboratory. His friend, Ernest Stuart, happened to be cutlery manager at – you guessed it – Mosley & Co at Portland Works! Within a few weeks the first ‘stainless steel’ knife blades had been manufactured at the Works and a cutlery revolution had begun.

Saved from destruction

Derek Morton, a director of the social enterprise Portland Works Little Sheffield Ltd, highlights the battle to save this strategic old building from destruction in 2009 when it was threatened with conversion into flats. He attributes the success of the campaign to a ‘snowball effect’, which started with tenants who had run businesses from Portland works their entire lives, using traditional methods and original machinery installed in 1876.

One of the tenants, Andrew Cole, has worked in the 19th century smithy using the original forge in the centre of the courtyard since he was fourteen years old. The steel business he joined as a ‘little mester’ (little master apprentice) in 1958 no longer exists, but since 2012 as A Cole Tools, he manufactures hand-forged quality chisels, mainly for select customers in the USA.

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Andrew Cole at his forge. Courtesy of Portland Works

Stuart Mitchell, was apprenticed to his father in the family business, Pat Mitchell Cutlers, at 15 years old and was one of the earliest campaigners to save the building, after 32 years as a tenant. He is now Chair of the social enterprise and owner and director of Stuart Mitchell Knives.

Derek Morton reports that it took over four years of volunteer time and effort for the ‘snowball effect’ to grow enough to attract over 500 investors. Eventually the funds pledged and loaned bought Portland Works outright, and created what is now one of the largest community benefit organisations in the UK. Today, a core team of volunteers can be seen scraping and cleaning, stripping and painting, restoring the old Works window by window, wall by wall.

Derek states:

So many people come through the gate, look around, sniff the air and say ‘This is what it was like– the sound and smell of industry.’

It is this tenacity and passionate commitment to treasure the essence of Sheffield, to preserve and promote ‘the sound and smell of industry’ that moves and inspires. Portland Works is a graphic symbol of the heritage and spirit which characterises the city and people of Sheffield.

Inspiring new little mesters

The story of Sheffield does not end here –it begins again. Derek explains that his involvement in the project results from his past experiences as a secondary school teacher in Design and Technology. At one time his students were able to find work experience in many places like Portland Works – then suddenly these disappeared.

As he puts it:

There are all sorts of threads to the project. This is what is left of the Cutlery industry – we should protect and preserve it. This is a fine building – we should be restoring and using it. Places like this have a role. We want to create some new little mesters in order to help create new traditions.

Currently the low rates and monthly tenancy supports start up businesses. There are thirty tenants; among them metal workers, wood turners, artists and designers, bookbinders and engravers, who as a community of ‘makers and doers’ help each other with tools, resources, skills sharing and information. Educational links with institutions nearby also provide new apprentices with technical placements.

People can support the project and help protect the treasure through membership of the Friends of Portland Works charity, set up in order to raise the desperately needed funding to complete the restoration of the building, develop educational areas, fund community events and recruit volunteer time and skills.

 

Portland Works is a member of SU Listings