SELF MADE IN SHEFFIELD:
This year the steel city is preparing to honour one of its greatest men.
ARRY Brearley was an original, a one-off from a unique mould. He discovered something while he was actually looking for something else and it changed the world – stainless steel.
But first he invented himself. The products that eventually flowed from the resourceful hands and brain of this scientist and industrialist became known in every household. Yet he had never been to university nor had any business training. Incredibly, he had never even been to school properly.
His career flourished because he always remained his own man and had a ferocious capacity for work. His method was to progress one step at a time and then only after the next move had been verified by his own tests, observations and judgement.
That’s the pragmatic side of the man. But sketch out his personal story and you have the makings of a plot for one of those massive three-decker Victorian novels by George Gissing.
Indeed Harry, a man of broad sympathies and imagination, did consider a career as a writer but rejected the idea because it was too insecure. In outline, here was a boy from nowhere, virtually starving on Sheffield’s streets, who went to work at the age of 12.
Young Brearley rose up the ladder of one of Sheffield’s greatest steelmakers and eventually found himself in charge of a steelworks they owned in Riga in Latvia, then part of Russia.
It was 1905 and the Russian revolution kicked off not long after Harry took over. The steelworks were torn by strife – hitmen turned up on the site and murdered the foreman and the workforce was riven by strikes and intrigue. Harry, a socialist who believed skilled workers knew better than the masters when it came to workplace decision making, found it a bruising experience.
He came back in Sheffield in 1907 and in the year before the First World War he discovered how to make stainless steel – an invention which his employers promptly pooh-poohed.
They saw no value in it and the story went round that Harry was the inventor of “the knife that will not cut”. When they did see the light and the money that was to be made from Harry’s new material, they fought tooth and nail for years to deny him his fair share.
Some people are born with a silver spoon. Harry’s was base metal. Indeed there seem to have been hardly any spoons at all in the house of Jane Brearley. She and her steelworker husband John were already bringing up seven children in a house in a backyard off Spital Street when John was born on the 18 February, 1871. The couple were to have nine offspring all told and their house has since been lost under a Tesco.
Harry’s beginnings were not so much humble as desperate. But his