Our area of Sheffield is mainly student flats and offices these days – apart from our workshop. However, the district’s slick present-day appearance belies a fascinating industrial past.
A few weeks ago, archaeologist (and scissors fan!) Lisa St.Martin-Raison kindly shared with us a research paper about ‘Urban Development in the Hollis Croft Area of Sheffield’.
While ‘Hollis Croft’ is now familiar as the name of a street near our workshop, Lisa’s usage refers to a small district which includes our own Broad Lane. This broader use of the placename originated prior to the Industrial Revolution, when the same area was commonland, and later, private agricultural land.
Lisa writes that the Hollis Croft district was the first to be built outward from Sheffield’s mediaeval town boundaries. Documents from 1750 onward show that the growing cutlery industry and associated trades had established works in the area, likely attracted by low rents and permissive landowners. By 1820, Hollis Croft had more workshops than any other district of Sheffield, and was home to a “busy, thriving community with a wide variety of workshops and tradesmen”.
Most of these workshops were small – perhaps owing to the steepness of the streets and the availability of affordable rents for new businesses. The number of recorded cutlery workshops grew through the 1830s from 83 to 188, and reached a record 197 in 1850. Among those working in the district were cutlers, knife-makers, file-makers, etchers, gilders, handle-makers and scissors-makers.
Due largely to mechanisation and globalisation, the number of workshops in Hollis Croft plunged between Victorian times and the present day. Much of the land once occupied by workshops and workers’ homes is now bristled with high-rises.
You could glimpse the crafts heritage buried beneath these streets, for a time in 2017, when the firm behind a new mixed-use development on Hollis Croft ordered an archaeological survey of the site.
Digging inTO the past
A 25-strong team from Wessex Archaeology pitched up for a 5-month dig, and unearthed what they have described as “the story of Sheffield in miniature”. The excavators found well-preserved industrial structures including steel-making furnaces and a network of brick-built flues, as well as traces of workers’ housing and two pubs, ‘The Cock’ and ‘The Orange Branch’.
We were fortunate enough to be visited at our workshop by Mili Rajic, an archaeologist who worked on the dig. Inspired by the project, Mili created a historical comic book, ‘Hollis Croft: A Matter of Time’, with illustrations by cartoonist Dave Howarth. The book jumps between past and present, alternately telling the story of the Wessex Archaeology dig and dreaming up dramatic events set in 19th-Century Hollis Croft. It’s an absolute must-read for anyone with an interest in Sheffield’s industrial heritage – so if that sounds like you, read the PDF or order a print copy to keep. You can view it online, or download it here.
Much of the bricks-and-mortar legacy of Hollis Croft’s metalworking past has been dismantled or built over, and we must now look to historical works by the likes of Mili and Lisa to recall details of the area’s past. Nonetheless, traces of the district’s spirit have survived. Lisa’s report concludes:
“The evidence for the increase of mechanisation in the area only towards the end of the nineteenth century testifies to the longevity of skills handed down from generation to generation, and to the continuing demand for a product that had been produced in the area for centuries. The area must have been noted for the quality of its workmanship, good location and low rates […].”
While we can’t necessarily speak to the low rates of yesteryear, we’re glad to say that the Hollis Croft district remains a superb place to craft quality scissors.
Our own premises at 58 Broad Lane were built relatively late, likely in the 1930s. Ernest Wright started renting the building in 2012, and we purchased the premises in 2021 with a view to long-term stability and expansion. The metalworking history of Hollis Croft is long, fascinating, and not over yet.