A Knife to the Heart of Sheffield

Article excerpt

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. …