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.