Campaign to save old city workshops shows its steel

Portland Works, Sharrow: Stuart Mitchell, knifemaker, in his workshop
Portland Works, Sharrow: Stuart Mitchell, knifemaker, in his workshop

A LONG-RUNNING campaign to save a complex of Sheffield Victorian industrial workshops that was the first place in the world to produce stainless steel is being stepped up a gear.

Petition organisers have collected more than 1,000 names in just over a week as they seek to increase the pressure on the council in the run-up to a decision on a scheme to convert Portland Works in Randall Street, near Bramall Lane, into flats.

Portland Works, Randall  Street, Sheffield

Portland Works, Randall Street, Sheffield

The listed building currently offers low-cost workshop space to small manufacturing businesses and independent artists and craftspeople, including metalworkers, engineers, furniture makers, artists and musicians.

They are seen as following in the footsteps of the ‘Little Mesters’ on whom Sheffield made an international reputation – and campaign organisers want to maintain the city’s tradition of craftsmanship by taking the building into social ownership.

Marketing officer Kiera Chapman said the aim was not to preserve the building in aspic. “It’s about the future of Sheffield, preserving local thriving businesses that have traditional skills but are also innovative”.

She said the online petition, which has attracted signatures from Europe and America, was designed to take the campaign “up a notch. Hopefully it will send a strong message to the planning committee that they don’t want this (housing). They see the alternative and see it’s viable.”

The big step will be to create a social enterprise by raising up to £750,000 to buy the building, which was built in 1877. It is hoped to launch a community share issue, with shares worth £100 to £20,000, within six to eight weeks.

Already there are pledges totalling £50,000.

“We have finished all necessary surveys and are now working hard to get the business plan ready for the share issue,” said Kiera.

Sheffield Town Trust has awarded £4,000 to support the purchase and restoration of the works.

Organisers are encouraged not only by the response to the petition, but also the enthusiastic reaction on open days at which there were demonstrations of grinding, forging, knife making, engraving and plating, and the support of nearby residents, councillors from the main parties and community and historical groups.

One of the tenants, Stuart Mitchell, has had a workshop making custom-made knives at Portland Works for 26 years, serving an apprenticeship under his father.

He said: “This is an important building for the history of Sheffield. Once this place has gone, there is nothing else to save from that era.

“The worrying thing is the planning application. Should it be approved, it pretty much leaves us dead in the water. It would push up the value of the building beyond a level we could afford.”

But he added: “It’s a great campaign, all by volunteers, and there is a lot of momentum. We have got to keep the momentum going.”

Councillors are being asked to grant permission for 77 studio apartments in a project that would retain the “vast bulk” of the building and its courtyard and would make “a marked contribution to the regeneration of the area”.

Their officers are currently assessing the impact on the listed building and the principle of switching the use to housing.

Stainless steel inventor Harry Brearley approached Portland Works owner occupier RF Mosley just before the First World War to become the world’s first manufacturer of stainless steel cutlery.