5 Mar 2013

Industrial heritage

Exploring areas of our towns and cities is a fascinating experience if you have an interest in history and old buildings.
Unfortunately, many of our historic buildings in our inner cities have been demolished to make way for offices, apartments and transport systems and the tangible evidence of our heritage, especially in the traditional industries, has been lost.  Places for small businesses and artisans' studios are difficult to find and opportunities to learn traditional skills are few. One Grade II listed building complex of historical merit in Sheffield city centre that was threatened with redevelopment with a view to converting it into apartments is Portland Works.
It was here that Robert Fead Mosley first manufactured stainless steel knives.  He already had an established business making cutlery, scissors, pen and pocket knives and his workshops employed
200+ workers in the 1880s.  Later, Mosley saw the potential of Harry Brearley's process for making stainless steel and allowed experimentation at his workshops to develop the manufacture of stainless steel knives.
As one of the earliest integrated workshops in Sheffield, Portland Works is an important historical site
and when the plan to convert it into flats was put forward a campaign was launched to preserve and manage it for community use as well as providing facilities for training, educational work and the
promotion of the city's metalworking heritage. The project is an on-going one, but today a community of over 20 small businesses, including workers in light metal, woodworkers, crafts people, artists and musicians are based on the site.
You can read more about this on the Portland Works website.
Last Sunday, Portland Works hosted an open day and in the afternoon my husband and I found the guided tour very informative, especially as we were able to talk to supporters of the project,
learn more about the buildings and manufacture of metal items and see some of the workshops and studios. Here are some collages giving an impression of our particular visit.  (Click on them to enlarge).

We were shown around by a guide whose parents had worked there as the trade, under the Mosley family, was still active, although less prominent, until the late 1940s. Many of the supporters of the project have personal links with the metal working industry and their stories make our recent history come to life.

In the old workshops a new generation of skilled artisans are at work. Stuart Mitchell showed us some of the processes in making handcrafted knives with handles made from natural materials.

We climbed up to the some of the first floor areas that would have been the grinding and buffer (polishing) shops that are now being used as artists' studios by Nuala Price, Christine Kennedy and other equally talented people.  It was explained that the floors were very robustly constructed to house the heavy machinery.  The cast-iron metal poles held up the roof and the original stove is still in place.  Being a Grade II listed building, any conservation work has to be approved,  architecture preserved and replacement windows etc. have to be sympathetically restored to the original design and material. 
We were pleased to have had the opportunity to visit Portland Works on an open day and there will be similar events in the coming months so its a project well worth supporting with a visit in an interesting area of the city.


  1. Oh that was fascinating Linda. I love visiting these old factory/museums they have so much history about them.
    Patricia x

  2. I can easily imagine who fascinating the tour of the workshops must have been. Converting a historical building to some other use is preferable to tearing it down, but it is so much better that it can be used in ways that are similar to its historical use. Good for Sheffield for preserving this wonderful old building.

  3. What a fascinating tour and one I know I would thoroughly enjoy.
    So glad you were able to attend and share with us here.

  4. I believe there is going to be a series on TV this week specifically about people who were brave enough to save historical buildings in the face of town planners. I think it's called Heritage. Jx

  5. What a great place, Linda. I hope that the community is successful in keep this historical building... The same thing is happening in this country. Old historical and fabulous buildings are being replaced with apartments and other modern things... SO SAD... We also are losing our local and skilled business owners here too--since the big chain companies are taking over and putting the small businesses out of business... Again, it's SAD...

    Glad you had a chance to visit Portland Works and find out more about all of the artisans --and the skilled work they did... SO IMPORTANT... AND--it's something we need to hold onto...

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. I love the Portland works - we had a tour around in September. It is a fascinating place and the craftsmen and women working there are an inspiration. The Industrial history of Sheffield is brilliant and great that so much of it is being preserved now. Ive also done the Botanical gardens this week too!! We are following each other around! The cemetery is well worth a good look around. They have a website so you can find out some of the stories on there too. xxxx