A celebration of Sheffield’s ‘little mesters’
If you’re interested in Sheffield history, there’s a good chance you’ll have one of Peter Machan’s books on your shelves. An industrious local historian, author and rambler, Peter has penned works including Made in Sheffield: A Photographic Survey of Little Mesters Workshops; The Dramatic Story of the Sheffield Flood; and Sheffield in Verse.
Peter’s latest book, The Little Mesters: The Rise, Decline and Survival of Sheffield’s Traditional Trades was published in March 2023, and we were delighted to find Ernest Wright profiled in its uplifting final section: ‘The trade today; stories of survival and revival’.
It’s a privilege to take our place in the same volume as many great ‘little mesters’ and cutlery firms, past and present. The small-scale manufacturers featured in Peter’s book have fuelled the quality and diversity of Sheffield’s cutlery trade, right from the start.
WALKING The Crofts with Peter Machan
A fascinating section of The Little Mesters… guides the reader through five historic walks around traditional crafting areas in Sheffield. We laced up our boots and tried the first of these guided walks: ‘Cutlers and Steelmakers of The Crofts area’. This happens to be where we still craft scissors today – in the Hollis Croft district – and Peter has made our workshop the starting point of his guided walk.
This area of Sheffield was brimming with cutlers from the 1700s till the 1900s. As we’ll see, the mark that these craftspeople made has not yet been erased, despite property developers’ interest in the area. Several former cutlery works remain, some of which are now protected as listed buildings. And, remarkably, Ernest Wright is not the only firm still making cutlery (and yes, scissors are cutlery) in The Crofts.
We set out on Peter’s walking route on a bright April day, and soon found ourselves immersed in a dream of the past, enjoying the historic cutlery-making sites that still stand here among the endless student accommodation towers.
On Garden Street, you can see the former workplace of Stan Shaw, a legendary maker of pocketknives and penknives, who passed away in 2021. The ale still flows at The Crow pub, where a saw grinder named James Lindley was murdered by gunshot following a union dispute in 1860. And near the end of the walk, you’ll marvel at a towering cementation furnace, whose 1,100-degree heat was used for over a century to turn iron bars into steel, until the site was retired in 1951.
What’s remarkable about taking Peter’s guided walk is the number of traditional craft businesses you’ll encounter which are still making cutlery to this day.
Jack Adams Ltd., a knifemaker on Scotland Street, currently employs 20 staff and makes kitchen, butcher, survival and commando knives, as well as supplying blanks for the manufacturing of swords to the Ministry of Defence. Yates Bros., a cutlery-maker on Trinity Street, specialises in stamping cutlery handles using ornately patterned dies. The list goes on.
Peter’s walk through The Crofts is a heartening reminder that Sheffield’s traditional trades never quite vanished – and that some craftspeople are thriving anew. Along the route, you may hear the clanging of hammers on metal; the whirr of grinding wheels; the hum of machinery. If you peer behind the new highrises, the derelict lots and the encroaching buddleia, you’ll find that The Crofts is still a living, working place of craft. We’re proud to be a part of it.
Interestingly, the guided walk also takes us to a derelict works which was once a part of Ernest Wright’s living heritage, but which has long since fallen out of manufacturing use: the former Kutrite Works on Snow Lane. For a long and fruitful period, starting in the late 1960s, as many as eighty Ernest Wright employees crafted scissors, shears and other tools at this site, and shipped them out to customers in over 45 countries. Who’s to say that cutlers in The Crofts can’t hit such heights again?
An enriching tour through past and present
Walking briskly, and stopping to read Peter’s book from time-to-time, it took us a couple of hours to complete the ‘Cutlers and Steelmakers of The Crofts Area’ guided walk. If you plan on walking this route, we would recommend taking a drink and snack with you, as there aren’t many shops in this area. The walk is hilly and therefore quite sapping, but the upside to this is that you’ll see some fine views of Sheffield – especially from Solly Street and Furnace Hill.
Be sure to take Peter’s book, The Little Mesters… along with you, too. The walk is greatly enhanced by the author’s explanations and anecdotes – from his description of working conditions at the John Watts factory site on Lambert Street, to his discussion of architectural features at Titanic Works. Peter’s tales of the little mesters and industrialists who lived and worked in The Crofts animate the area’s history, and contextualise its intriguing present.
Peter’s guided walk through The Crofts is essentially his book in miniature: an enriching tour through the glorious past and resilient present of Sheffield’s traditional crafts.
The Little Mesters: The Rise, Decline and Survival of Sheffield’s Traditional Trades by Peter Machan is available to buy from Amazon and Waterstones.