A knife to the heart of Sheffield

After 700 years at the sharp end, little is left of a celebrated cutlery trade. But, writes Chris Arnot, the edge is still there

Chris Arnot
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:27

Just along from the pillared portals of Sheffield's imposing Cutlers' Hall is the entrance to the much more modern Orchard Square Shopping Centre. Every quarter of an hour, the doors of a particularly kitsch clock tower open to regale passing shoppers with the sight of two slowly revolving dummies: a knife grinder and a "buffer girl" of the sort once employed in considerable numbers in the city's cutlery trade.

Few of the locals bother to look up at this Disneyesque representation of an industry that was once as synonymous with Sheffield as beer with Burton-on-Trent and fine worsted with Huddersfield.

Back in the 1950s, some 30,000 people were turning Sheffield steel into Sheffield knives and forks, plying their trade in back-street workshops that had changed little since the 1850s. In the mid-1990s, not many more than 2,000 earn their living from the trade. Walk around what remains of those back streets and the shrinkage is all too evident.

Take Arundel Street, for instance. The name Herbert M Slater can still be clearly seen over a former medium-sized cutlery works which now houses the local branch of the British Shiatsu Association. At the other end of the street stands the grandly gabled former premises of J Elliot and Sons, whose knives, forks and scissors once spanned the globe. Today, the ancient workshops behind the frontage house a French polisher, a moulder and not much else. Weeds are flourishing in the eerily-silent cobbled courtyard.

Between Elliot's and Slater's there is a bit of forging and plating, but nothing like the intense throb of industrial activity that once characterised this street and many around it.

"Sheffield always wanted to make high-quality products. It never adapted well to the challenge of low-cost imports aimed at the cheap mass-market," says Geoffrey Tweedale, author of The Sheffield Knife Book*, part collectors' guide and part history. Its publication has been timed to coincide with next year's 700th anniversary: the first Sheffield cutler registered for tax purposes in 1297.

Dr Tweedale has taken a sharp blade to an industry he accuses of failing to face up to the threat posed by cheap imports from the Far East. Judging by some of his comments, it is perhaps just as well that he lives in Manchester where he lectures on industrial history.

The reasons he gives for decline could be levelled at any number of British industries which peaked before the First World War: complacency; reliance on an essentially Victorian structure; failure to invest; and a lack of integration between manufacturing and selling. "Even abroad," he writes, "cutlery was sold mainly through agents, who secured orders for a commission but did not carry stocks or order on their own account."

In this industry, at least, trade unions are absolved of blame because only a fifth of the workforce were unionised. Instead, Dr Tweedale pillories conservative managements whose companies were ill equipped to meet the challenge unleashed by South East Asia in the 1960s.

As a result, there are only three survivors of any size. And only one of these, Harrison Fisher, is what you might call a characteristic Sheffield family firm of the type which flourished in the 19th century. The other two are outsiders: one an Australian-owned multi-national, the other with its headquarters in the West Midlands.

Arthur Price of England makes silverware in Birmingham and cutlery in Sheffield. The present chairman, John Price, warned the British Cutlery and Silverware Association in 1965 about the Asian threat. But his predominantly South Yorkshire audience greeted his address with a stony silence. "They didn't want a Brummie upstart telling them all about their business," he says.

What he saw at the time were "old families" using their firms as "piggy banks", apparently unaware of the need for investment and marketing. Mr Price went on to build up a profitable company by selling high-quality tableware through concession shops within department stores.

The major Sheffield-based cutlery company is Richardson Sheffield, which has been foreign owned since 1960 - first by Regent of the United States and, since 1986, by McPherson's of Australia. Through much of that period, the firm was given continuity by the presence of Bryan Upton as managing director and later as chairman.

Dr Tweedale's book records how Mr Upton's engineers began building their own automated machines. Then he applied flow-production ideas, got rid of piecework and introduced computers. The parent company invested heavily in research and development. Hence the "laser" kitchen knife, which was introduced in 1979.

Under the present managing director, Len Corley, the R&D department has developed the even more long-lasting "fusion edge", coated with tungsten carbide. Top chef Anton Mosimann has been signed up as part of a pounds 1m autumn advertising campaign.

Thanks to the far-sightedness of companies like Richardson Sheffield and Arthur Price, the British Cutlery and Silverware Association can claim that more knives are being made in Sheffield than ever before, in terms of unit volume.

But those who once relied on this staple industry for their living will take some convincing.

q 'The Sheffield Knife Book', by Geoffrey Tweedale, is published by the Hallamshire Press at pounds 25.

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