Last of the Little Mesters — Peter Machin — 24 October2016

Ever heard of Trevor Adlett, Reg Cooper, Harry Double or Fred and his Buffer Girl wife Ivy? Ever wondered what was there before the con­struc­tion of yet another stu­dent res­id­ence or that car park where the ticket machine always jams?  Our speaker this week, retired Headmaster and local his­tor­ian Peter Machin, was to stim­u­late our memor­ies and ima­gin­a­tion about what is now an almost lost world of small scale cut­lery man­u­fac­ture in Sheffield.  Not only were we to be intro­duced to a fas­cin­at­ing range of char­ac­ters from the vari­ous spe­ci­al­ity and craft trades (from shoe knife forger to scis­sor putter together) but to an illus­trated his­tory of many of the lost or defunct build­ings, which were once typ­ical in our city and whose ori­ginal pur­pose has now been trans­formed from cut­lery to per­haps com­puters or con­sultancy.

Sheffield cut­lery and tools have been made and mar­keted by indi­vidual crafts­men since at least the early Middle Ages. We were shown pic­tures of stained glass win­dows dating from 1360 in the Cathedral’s Chapter House depict­ing scenes of the three main stages of man­u­fac­ture: for­ging, grind­ing and fin­ish­ing. Production typ­ic­ally took place in rural sur­round­ings which provided not only water power and grind­ing stone but char­coal and iron ore.  When water was in short supply, as in summer, crafts­men would rely on their small­hold­ing. Later, pro­duc­tion became more spe­cial­ized where crafts­men cooper­ated to   con­struct and oper­ate the small mills seen in the Loxley, Porter and Sheaf Valleys with their water races and ‘Hammer Ponds’. Abbeydale and Wire Mill Dam date from around 1640.

Transport restric­tions, the vari­at­ing nature of water power and the short­age of char­coal were to inhibit devel­op­ment until the early 19th Century, when coal fired steam power encour­aged move­ment into the city.  Sheffield’s pop­u­la­tion was to double in size every 40 years, reach­ing 500,000 by 1900. The arrival of canals, rail­ways and steam­ships opened up new sources of supply and mar­kets in the Americas and the Empire.  By the 1880’s It also brought com­pet­i­tion„ espe­cially from Germany.  But des­pite the growth of large scale man­u­fac­tur­ing of steel in the flat east of the city with firms often employ­ing thou­sands, cut­lery and small tools remained on a much smal­ler scale. There was still space for the crafts­man and his seven year appren­tice­ship, spe­cial­ising in one aspect of pro­duc­tion and often sub con­tract­ing or ‘out­work­ing’ to a larger firm from whom he also may have rented premises.

These larger firms or ‘Master Manufactures’ with access to out­side cap­ital to fin­ance all stages of pro­duc­tion and market goods were to play  an increas­ingly  import­ant role. The first cut­lery fact­ory in Sheffield, Greaves & Co, opened in 1823. Others fol­lowed, includ­ing Joseph Roberts (Pond Street) George Wolstenholme (River Lane) Butcher Brothers (Arundel Gate) Taylors Eye Witness (Milton Street) and Joseph Elliott (Arundel Street).  But like their smal­ler  brethren these com­pan­ies have felt the winds of com­pet­i­tion and social change, caus­ing the industry to all but col­lapse.  It had become anti­quated in terms of pro­duc­tion, premises, equip­ment and mar­ket­ing. Potential cus­tom­ers com­plained that man­u­fac­tures “will send us a cata­logue but no one to sell”.  By the 1960s Britain had become a net importer of man­u­fac­tured goods and since the 1980s the cheaper end of the market  has become dom­in­ated by imports from the Far East and Pakistan.

Looking to the future the higher end of the market has allowed a number of firms and Little Mesters to sur­vive.  Among the firms ‚Taylors Eye Witness con­tinue to pro­duce high qual­ity hairdress­ers’ scis­sors and will shortly be moving to new premises, while Swann Morton supply arti­fi­cial hips and knees and other med­ical equip­ment world-wide.  Last year they pro­duced 500K sur­gical blades every day.  Meanwhile the remain­ing Little Mesters con­tinue to pro­duce bespoke knives for the American market, sport­ing trophies and present­a­tional items, pen­knives, cork­screws.  Sheffield goods are now better pro­tec­ted by regis­tra­tion and it was to be hoped that the remain­ing char­ac­ter­ful build­ings -so much part of our history- would be pre­served.  But to ensure the sur­vival and com­pet­it­ive­ness of the label ‘Made in Sheffield’ greater atten­tion will need to be given to  such areas as appren­tice­ship, cap­ital equip­ment and mar­ket­ing.

Peter Machin was warmly thanked for his most inter­est­ing talk.