Harry Brearley (1871–1948) — Andrew Messer — 27 June 2016

Think of Sheffield and for most, the next thought is stain­less steel. This revolu­tion­ary mater­ial was to trans­form the pro­duc­tion not just cut­lery but everything from aero-engine com­pon­ents to hygienic sur­gical instru­ments, razor blades, arti­fi­cial hips and much more. Our speaker this week was writer, his­tor­ian and comedian, Andy Messer of Dronfield who, using illus­trat­ive mater­ial from his book “Stainless”, was to deliver a most inter­est­ing and enter­tain­ing ses­sion.

Harry Brearley was the young­est of eight chil­dren born into poverty near the Wicker –an unlikely char­ac­ter to make a major metal­lur­gic dis­cov­ery. He left Woodside School Burngreave – which he found unstim­u­lat­ing — at the age of twelve to enter his first employ­ment as a clean faced cellar boy (yes, he did col­lect the beers!) at Thomas Firth’s steel­works. From this humble begin­ning, Harry was to ‘work his way up’ through a number of pos­i­tions includ­ing bottle washer in the firm’s labor­at­or­ies. Here he was encour­aged to improve his pro­spects by the example of his chem­ist boss James Taylor through study at even­ing class and read­ing of tech­nical books. This effort rap­idly developed Harry’s know­ledge of steel pro­duc­tion and its asso­ci­ated chem­ical ana­lysis tech­niques. Having now made his mark, Harry was soon pro­moted to Laboratory Assistant. In 1895 Harry mar­ried Helena Crank being suf­fi­ciently well paid to settle in Dore.

By his early thirties, Harry had earned an inde­pend­ent repu­ta­tion for his res­ol­u­tion of prac­tical and indus­trial metal­lur­gical prob­lems. This led to job oppor­tun­it­ies else­where. In 1901 he moved to Kayser Ellison who had tech­nical con­tracts with the Salamander steel­works in Riga, Russia (now in Latvia). The com­pany was pro­du­cing heavy guns and shells for the Russian mil­it­ary during the war with Japan. Following the shoot­ing of the works man­ager by a revolu­tion­ary, Harry was to over­see the pro­duc­tion of steel from inferior ores the qual­ity of which more than matched Sheffield. Here he gained exper­i­ence of solv­ing cor­ro­sion in gun bar­rels and harden­ing shell cases.

In 1907, Brearley returned to Sheffield to take charge of the com­bined Firth and Brown Research Laboratories. As com­mer­cial and mil­it­ary rivalry with Germany grew, his expert­ise in pro­du­cing mil­it­ary hard­ware –and in par­tic­u­lar steel harden­ing and anti-high tem­per­at­ure erosion tech­niques were much in demand. On the 13th August 1913 Harry cre­ated a steel alloy with chro­mium (which raises the material’s melt­ing point) pro­du­cing a metal that was both hard and rust­less — a dis­cov­ery that, having over­come the scep­ti­cism and received wisdom (“all steels rust”) of his bosses and the cutler fra­tern­ity, was to trans­form the pro­duc­tion of cut­lery and enable the devel­op­ment of many other indus­tries. Brearley was to go into part­ner­ship with Earnest Stewart at the Portland Works (off Bramwell Lane) to make cut­lery which became per­fec­ted with the addi­tion of Nickel to give flex­ib­il­ity to knives. One of the ori­ginal samples that they pro­duced is on dis­play in the Cutler’s Hall.

While man­u­fac­tur­ing pat­ents for stain­less steel were prof­it­ably taken out in the USA, Brearley’s bosses failed to do this in Europe or else­where. This short-sightedness was exploited by such poten­tial rivals as Krupps in Germany. Indeed intel­lec­tual rights dis­putes were to go on for years. His unseen research was to play a major part in the pro­duc­tion suc­cesses of WW2 not least in air­craft engines. But Harry Brearley was to receive recog­ni­tion in his later life includ­ing the Bessemer Gold Award and Freedom of the City of Sheffield.

In 1941, Harry Brearley cre­ated a char­it­able trust, the Freshgate Trust Foundation, to give dis­ad­vant­aged South Yorkshire people the oppor­tun­ity to exper­i­ence travel, the arts and music. He was to write five tech­nical books relat­ing to steel pro­duc­tion. In 1941 he pub­lished his auto­bi­o­graphy “Knotted String”. This self-made and dis­tin­guished innov­ator retired to Torquay where he died in 1948.

Andy Messer con­cluded his talk by shar­ing “His adven­tures with Harry Brearley”. As a keen com­mu­nic­ator with young people in schools and else­where to encour­age them to con­sider careers in Engineering. Andy has got together with others to pro­duce what he described as a ‘graphic novel’ “Stainless” to attract their interest. Several local organ­isa­tions such as Sheffield Vulcan Rotary, Outokumpu, the Assay Office and Kelham Island have acted as spon­sors to meet the £35000 cost of pro­du­cing 14000 copies. These were offered to mem­bers at the reduced price of £8. A PDF of a late draft of the book can be seen here:


Andy’s talk stim­u­lated a wide range of ques­tions and he was warmly thanked for his enthu­si­astic and inform­at­ive present­a­tion.