Modern Little Mesters bid to stay at steel landmark

BEHIND one of those corners of inner-city Sheffield we tend not to notice, Stuart Mitchell makes knives from Damascus steel.

Nearby, Andrew Cole and his colleagues make brick rakes and scutch chisels.

Along the way, there are cabinetmakers, silver platers, artists, coat hanging designers, electric motor makers and musicians. At the moment

there are, anyway.

"But in six months this could be an empty shell and the builders could be in."

That, says Derek Morton, is his fear for the future of Portland Works, the 140-year-old Little Mesters workshop near Bramall Lane which in the early 20th century housed the first factory in the world to make stainless steel cutlery.

"There used to be a plaque on the wall for Harry Brearley," remembers Stuart Mitchell, the latest in his family to make knives at Portland.

At the time of the First World War, Brearley brought his new invention of 'rustless steel' to R F Mosley's works at Portland, where the manager renamed it 'stainless'.

Next month, a Sheffield council planning board will consider an application to turn the site of Harry Brearley's first stainless steel production run into 64 apartments and 186 square metres of offices.

There is, as one might imagine, some opposition.

"Portland Works should be part of Sheffield's future as well as its history," says local Green councillor Jillian Creasy. "It's not enough to save the physical building, we need to nurture the living heritage of craftsmen, artists and musicians sharing workspace and skills."

"Portland Works was the first place in the world to produce stainless steel cutlery and remains an active centre for metal working today," adds Central parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party, Paul Blomfield. "We've got enough city centre flats. Let's turn Portland Works into a Heritage Working Museum, maintaining its workshops and showcasing the skills of its craftsmen and women."

Derek Morton is a retired design and technology teacher who was inspired by Portland after a visit during the city's Galvanize festival.

"I'd worked with kids who wanted to go into this kind of work," he says. "But the skills here are being lost."

There is an opportunity, he and many of the Save Portland campaigners agree, to use the enthusiasm of people like Stuart Mitchell and tool forger Andrew Cole to inspire and teach the metalworkers of tomorrow.

Stuart is happy to be called a Little Mester and he'd welcome the opportunity to work with apprentices.

"People have been sat here doing what I'm doing for 100 years," he says.

He believes that a growing number of young people are taking an interest in his kind of work and a future for Portland should involve education, training and apprenticeships, as well as simply keeping the place open for the 20 companies and 30 or so individuals who currently work there.

The planning proposal is the second to be made by the building owners but thanks to a campaign led by Portland craftspeople, along with enthusiasts like Derek Morton, local politicians and local groups like Sharrow Community Forum, over 50 objections have already been received.

The site has an English Heritage grade II* listing and the redevelopment proposals suggest a sympathetic reworking, similar to Cornish Works, to retain the character of the 1870 building.

"But character is about more than bricks and mortar," says Stuart Mitchell.

"This is actually the last building of its type in Sheffield," adds Andrew Cole. "And it's not derelict; we're still in it!"

It should remain open to do what it was built to do, says Derek Morton.

Derek is pleased to have enlisted the support of the Green and Labour parties and he's hoping the Lib Dem candidate for Sheffield Central, Paul Scriven, will also support the campaign. "It's too important to be

party political," he says.

Objections can still be lodged at the council's planning website, which is available through the Portlands Works website.

Other key issues include the proximity of the Stag Works building, host to several noisy bands whose night-time practice could be an issue to residents in the new flats, and the counterpart is that the day-time noise of forges and grinding wheels would make it hard to rehouse the workshops.

"I'd probably have to wind my business up," says Andrew Cole of Wigfull Tools. "It would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to move my machinery and it wouldn't be viable."

"I love this building," says Stuart Mitchell. "I'd like to see it done up but to turn it into flats would be sacrilege."

The campaigners agree the building needs some renovation but Derek says it is structurally sound and in the long term, they'd like to see it providing educational opportunities as well as a base for modern craftspeople, artists and metalworkers.

Ideas include a trust or a cooperative and maybe even bids to heritage charities or the National Lottery to set up a working heritage site.

"It would be nice for schools to be able to come down and see how things are made," says Andrew Cole.

"It's the final chance to grab a piece of our working heritage and do something constructive with it," says Derek Morton.

The centenary of Harry Brearley's creation of stainless steel is in 2013 and it would be nice if the site of its first manufacture were still here then, says Stuart Mitchell.

"Once it's gone, it's gone," he says. "I'd hate to think that in another 100 years' time there might be a campaign to build something to commemorate the history of stainless steel. Not while we're already here."

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