Sharing delight in saving historic site

Portland Works shareholders
Portland Works shareholders

A FOUR-YEAR campaign to save an old Sheffield cutlery factory as a home for 21st century ‘Little Mesters’ has ended in success, it is being announced today.

Community shares have been bought by more than 450 people to secure the future of Portland Works in Randall Street, off Bramall Lane, as a base for metalworkers, engineers and craftsmen, furniture makers, artists and musicians. Many shareholders put in £100, but the average was around £500.

It means that the grade II* listed building, which was once earmarked for conversion into apartments, is now in community as opposed to private ownership.

Built in 1877, it became the first place in the world to manufacture stainless steel cutlery, and is currently occupied by 23 tenants, working in low-cost units. Now attention will turn to raising the money to renovate the rundown warren of buildings - 130 windows need replacing, for example.

Today, though, the focus is on celebrating the achievements of a dedicated group of volunteers who have steered the campaign and the response of local people who not only wanted to preserve part of Sheffield’s industrial heritage, but also to encourage those following in the footsteps of the ‘Little Mesters’ who made Sheffield famous.

The sale was completed after the share issue raised £300,000 over 18 months.Legal difficulties nearly stopped the process in December, but the previous owners lowered the price for a revised cash deal, and an urgent community appeal generated over £80,000 in three days to wrap things up.

Derek Morton, who chairs the Community Benefit Society, which will run the works, said: “This isn’t a financial investment in the normal sense. No-one will make a killing out of this project. We just need people’s cash for quite a long time, which is quite a big ask these days. Thanks to these far-sighted and generous supporters we have it! They’ve seen it’s a valuable project and they’ve been magnificent.”

Mr Morton said metal working was part of the DNA of Sheffield, and the campaign had struck a chord with community-minded local people. “Half the people of Sheffield have heard of the project through the village network.”

Appropriately, the breakthrough has been achieved in the centenary of Harry Brearley’s invention of stainless steel.

The Master Cutler, Neil MacDonald, said: “This is a great result in the year when Sheffield celebrates 100 years of stainless steel. Portland Works is where Harry Brearley brought his new material to make the world’s first stainless steel knife and then made the city synonymous with quality cutlery. Sheffield has much to be proud of.”

Fundraising from community shares will continue, but the emphasis will be increasingly on securing grants towards the restoration of the premises. One of the applications will be made to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Many of the roofs are leaking and, over the next year, priority will be given to making the buildings watertight, improving the electrics and fire prevention and installing toilets. The structure of the Victorian complex is relatively sound.

The refurbishment programme is being mapped out over at least ten years, and it is expected to cost around £1m. Much of the work will be contracted out but a group of volunteers are ready to get their hands dirty on working days.

Meanwhile, small manufacturing businesses and independent artists and craftspeople continue to go about their business. “This building exists for the tenants and they are our priority,” said Derek.

In the longer term, it is hoped to attract more tenants, to support start-up businesses and to develop a centre of excellence for traditional crafts and training.

More open days and tours - one was sold out last Sunday - will be held in what is now being described as “the world’s only community owned cutlery works.”

The society has 11 directors. “They are a brilliant group of people with a wide range of skills and experience,” added Derek.