Unlike its famous Bermuda namesake, Sheffield’s ‘John Street Triangle’ makes surprising things appear, not disappear. A ‘build your own crypt, throne room and battlement’ business, for example, exporting laser-cut role-playing game scenery to 15 countries.
“We’re starting to see the kinds of changes that could have happened in the 1990s and 2000s,” said ‘Infinite Crypts’ director James Wallbank. “And they’re starting to happen despite, not because of, strategic help.”
The authorities can’t stop the entrepreneurial spirit of Sheffielders, he added archly. “But they might just be able to help accelerate it.”
Portland Works, one of the centre points of the John Street Triangle inner city business district, held its latest open day last Saturday, just over 100 years since Harry Brearley and Portland Works manager Ernest Stuart slipped under contemporary officialdom’s radar to produce the world’s first stainless steel cutlery.
“This is a significant building for Sheffield, and in 2009 there was a danger the whole place was going to vanish, along with its history and heritage,” said Derek Morton, one of the twelve directors of the Portland Works Little Sheffield Community Benefit Company.
The works appeared set for the traditional ‘once they’re too knackered to restore, sell ‘em for flats’ Sheffield business model for older buildings. What actually happened was that a group of 500 campaigners and tenants got together to raise £250,000 from a community share issue, and together with grants from the council and local trusts, and a loan from the Architectural Heritage Fund, Portland Works was bought from the previous owner, and a long programme of restoration began.
“We had to make the yard safe from falling masonry, replace some guttering, repair the roof, stop water getting in, get some working toilets,” said Derek. Retired builder Bill Gray was one of the shareholders, and drew on his contacts - and a team of volunteers - to get the work ‘bottomed out’ as Derek put it.
Portland Works members have backgrounds in business, academia, teaching, property development, retailing and more, and along with the practical skills of tenants, the works is now steadily becoming a national example of how to set up a community of modern day manufacturing workshops (that really are workshops).
There are now over 30 businesses at Portland, a mixture of long standing tenants making knives and tools along with woodworkers, jewellers, laser cutters, musicians, artists, bicycle builders, a rug maker, a Hackspace collective, and even a gin maker.
The workshops are cheap and cheerful, said Derek, with flexible short term renting, which is often just what new enterprises need. “People can come here and try an idea out, and then move to a bigger premises if it’s working.”
“It’s a multitude of different talented people, in a community where people help each other,” said shareholder Paul Iseard. “People are using new technology, and new methods of marketing like Facebook and social media that’s generating new enterprises that couldn’t have existed before. And ‘Made in Sheffield’ still says something about high quality, I think it resonates more than ‘Made in Nottingham’ or ‘Made in Manchester.’”
Portland Works director Stuart Mitchell has used all these methods to sell his hand made knives at premium prices all over the world: after working at Portland for 30 years, he couldn’t attend the open day last week because he’d flown out to Japan to help in a TV programme about prestige knife making. Derek and the team are still fundraising to keep the roof on and the rain out - Derek is cautiously optimistic about a Getty Foundation grant in the near future, new shareholders are always welcome, and this year’s Music in the Botanical Gardens event will raise money for Portland Works.
In recent months, a formerly rainy wing has reopened to several new businesses, and new workshops will soon be available to the 30 makers on the waiting list. In the longer term, when the buildings are fully refurbished, the surplus generated at Portland will fund more educational work and starter grants to help save similar buildings.
“We could be offering help and advice to help another derelict cutlery works in Sheffield, or a pottery in Stoke on Trent,” said Derek.
“And one day we want to see people making cutlery here again.”
Visit www.portlandworks.co.uk for information.