When my mate retired as a dentist, he surprised me by trotting off to the Sheffield Assay Office [http://www.assayoffice.co.uk] with a jamjar. It turned out that he’d been collecting scrap gold fillings for thirty-odd years to cash in on his retirement. Melted down into a dull-looking ingot (the colour, I’m assured, caused by the presence of other precious metals), this produced a healthy little nest-egg. The Assay Office provides a certificate of the metallic content which is immediately acceptable to precious-metals dealers and offers virtually instant conversion to a satisfying cheque.
It’s an indication of Sheffield’s status as a manufacturing city of fine metalwork that, like Birmingham, it supports an assay office alongside the capital cities of London, Edinburgh and Dublin. Eighteenth-century manufacturers of cutlery and silver ornaments in Sheffield collaborated with the metal workers of Birmingham to obtain the right to test the quality of local precious-metal products in 1773. The meetings to campaign for the necessary Act of Parliament took place at the Crown & Anchor pub on London’s Strand: as a result of the toss of a coin, it is said, Birmingham took as its place-mark the anchor and Sheffield the crown. (The crown symbol was changed in 1975, and now Sheffield ware is identified by a Tudor rose.)
I had an opportunity to tour the Sheffield Assay Office earlier this year with the Art Fund South Yorkshire Group [http://www.artfund.org]. Emma Paragreen, the Assay Office’s Librarian/Curator, gave an introductory talk, and there was a tour of the analytical and marking areas of the new Guardians’ Hall, opened in 2008.
The interiors of the new premises in Hillsborough are decorated with oak panelling from the previous building, carved with the complete sequence of Sheffield date marks from 1773 onwards. A selection from the Assay Office collection of silver is displayed, including new items which are commissioned from local craftsmen and women annually.
The culture of the Sheffield metal trades combines practicality with elegance. The clothes brushes in the splendid gents’ lavatory are hand-made. We do things properly in Sheffield.