Our city is scattered with former cutlery works, in various states of use and disuse. There are none, though, where the past, present and future of Sheffield's lineage of makers intersect quite so much as they do at Portland Works.
Sheffield's pretty rare amongst cities: its name refers not just to a place but to a brand. "Made in Sheffield" glistens around the world, engraved in the spines of spoons stirring Yorkshire teas and marked on knives and forks tucking into far-flung evening meals. It doesn't just signify provenance: for years, this mark has assured people that the cuts of steel in their hands are of remarkable quality. And Portland Works played an important part in heightening that international reputation.
Portland Works opened in 1877, an integrated cutlery works in which the production line passed from workshop to workshop. Little mesters (specialist craftspeople) at each stage focussed on one part of the process, until the completed wares ended up either glistening in the showroom out front or shipped off to meet global demand.
Sheffield had, of course, been known for its metalwork for centuries. But that reknown rocketed in 1913 when, in R.F. Mosley's cutlery workshop at Portland Works, the metalworker Harry Brearley created a set of knives that would neither rust nor stain. "Rusnorstain", he called them. And so stainless steel cutlery first came into being.
Though the building was the site of such a landmark in the timeline of modern Sheffield, its recent tenants haven't had it easy. Those tenants are, today, a mix of artists, craftspeople, musicians and small-scale manufacturers – makers of anything from primary school coat racks, to experimental folk music, to the stamps used to brand legit Liquorice Allsorts. Some of them keep alive the building's tradition of steel work. All of them keep alive its tradition of making.
Many of its workshops have remained in use over the years but, with industrial decline and lack of investment, parts of Portland Works fell into disrepair. The building's structure is protected by its Grade II* listed status. But in 2009 the character and livelihoods within came under threat. Its landlord submitted a planning application to carve workshops up into flats, sparking a fundraising campaign by the Portland Works Committee to save the heart and soul of their building. In 2013, with over 500 shareholders on board, the committee triumphed and bought the place – in one of the biggest community buyouts the country has ever seen.
At open days the tenants explain the surviving pieces of machinery that dot the yard. They point out original fixtures that hint at stories of Portland Works past. Like the remains of a hoist that was once used to carry bucket loads of cutlery up to the buffer girls on the second floor – a space that's now used as artists' studios. After seeing old photos of the buffer girls in the gallery, it's quite incredible to superimpose them onto the scene in their former workshop today: mucky aprons and busy hands, polishing along a row of benches, as they gaze out into the courtyard through arched windows – the same windows that now frame the work of women who, using a whole other set of skills, create an altogether different set of wares.
The tenants and shareholders clearly care about the heritage that surrounds them. And it is fascinating. But, at the same time, their eyes are set very much on the future: repairing cracks, restoring original features, and bringing in new independent businesses. Stuart Mitchell's workshop is a perfect meeting of past with present; using the skills and some of the tools that made the city's name, Stuart crafts bespoke knives by hand, selling online to those who prioritise quality and individuality over cheap and mass produced quantity.
The work that went on in the courtyards and under the roofs of places like Portland Works helped form the identity of our city as we know it today. And Portland Works is one of the few works still standing where it's possible to get up close to a little of that history. It's much more than a relic, though; Portland Works keeps alive the city's heritage of making, nurtures it, helps it grow.
Portland Works now regularly opens for guided tours on the first Tuesday of most months – book ahead on firstname.lastname@example.org, suggested donation £3 a head. Or pay a visit at open days, cutlery fairs and craft events. Take any opportunity you can to have a look inside this place. And top off your visit with cake around the corner at Harland Cafe.
- Words by
- Kathryn Hall