Jo Ahern celebrates the long history of the Yorkshire city’s steelwork.
THERE is nowhere more synonymous with cutlery than the city of Sheffield, with the first mention of “cutler” being made about a Robert the Cutler in the 1297 tax records of what was the town of Sheffield at the time.
It’s true that our idea of cutlery may differ somewhat from what was produced then, as forks had yet to make their way to us from Byzantium, but cutlery, as the name suggests, began with knives and all things designed to cut, like scissors and scythes, and it is there that the history of this famous Sheffield trade began.
In 1379 around 25% of the working population of Sheffield were noted as being metal workers, which shows just how dominant the trade was in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The local geology had a part to play in this with its fast-flowing rivers and supply of raw materials like iron ore and charcoal.
The trade needed little in the way of materials when compared to the dedicated artisan craftsmanship that was – and still is – required to turn out some of the pieces.
Up until the death of Gilbert, the Earl of Shrewsbury, the Lord of the Manor in the Sheffield area, in 1616, the lords took a sustained interest in the trade and the cutlers’ marks, apprenticeships and practice were overseen by a body set up by the manorial court.
Then, in 1624, an Act of Incorporation was passed in Parliament, creating the Cutlers’ Company in Hallamshire which took over the protection of the trade and its practices in the area.
From the 17th century, industry stepped forward with the introduction of new metal-working processes, but the “little mesters” (small workshops specialising in one aspect of the cutlery-making trade, like forging or grinding) were still solid producers of the items – and this was the case right up until the 1950s when such methods fell out of favour.
However, as with many artisan crafts, there are still a number of little mesters making cutlery today . . .
In the early 19th century, America was one of the largest Sheffield cutlery markets with the Bowie hunting knife, reportedly so-named after frontiersman James Bowie, becoming a highly desirable piece.
The Sheffield Cutlers made Bowie knives for the American market until the Civil War saw trade to America wane and American production increase.
The creation of stainless steel changed the cutlery industry completely, with new machinery and new processes signalling a marked drop in the need for a skilled labour force.
Factory closures and economic downturn in the 1970s and 1980s saw the cutlery industry in Sheffield decline even further, but the legacy of the cutlers is too strong to die out completely.
There are still a number of cutlery firms manufacturing in the city today and Sheffield Cutlery is still considered a cut above the rest! n
Working at Viners Cutlery.
The crown hallmark indicates Sheffield.