Portland Works, Sheffield – Where Modernity Melds With Traditional Skills
All the little mesters under one roof…
by Michael Glover
Even an old factory can spring a surprise. The great, red-brick chimney which dominates the skyline at the centre of the Portland Works used to funnel smoke from a steam engine. Now it’s topped by a sprightly looking rowan tree.
Five years ago a group of locals saved this remarkable place from destruction. It was created in the 1870s as a fully integrated cutlery factory where all the different ‘little mesters’ involved in the making of small hand tools – forgers, grinders, finishers – could be brought together in a cluster of workshops with a cobbled courtyard.
In 2013, following a citywide campaign, 500 shareholders raised £500,000 to buy the works for the community. This is the place to which, in 1914, the metallurgist and inventor Harry Brearley brought his new stainless steel to be forged into cutlery.
It is also where modernity melds easily with traditional skills. The jewellery-maker works with stainless steel these days. Michael May, fabricator of a pocket knife which has been made in Sheffield for 250 years, has inherited the hand tools of a famous predecessor.
There are metalworkers, artists, and even a rug-maker. Andy Cole, burly and bearded, has worked here for 40 years, and currently specialises in the making of wood chisels. He buys his steel by the ton, from Austria.
His workshop, a murky, greasy, dark interior, reeks of oil. Andy sits astride his wooden ‘saddle’ as you would sit astride the back of any horse – in fact, this way of working is called ‘horsing’ – leans forward, and offers up a metal blade to the grindstone. Water pours down onto it as the sparks fly furiously.
When he is finished, he demonstrates the keenness of the edge by cutting through a sheet of newspaper with a single deft flick. Andy is a productive man when the orders come in. He once made 45,000 steels for pneumatic drills in a single year.