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.