In October last year the South Yorkshire Art Fund provided me with an opportunity to see Butcher Works, an unusually austere example of Sheffield’s surviving cutlery factories, dating back to 1819-20 but mostly built c1855-60, led by Oliver Jessop, the archaeologist who investigated the site before and during its redevelopment.
Here, edge-tools, cutlery and files were made by the independent workmen who were known in Sheffield as the “Little Mesters”, contracting and sub-contracting their specialised trades and, often, hiring workshop facilities from factory-owners such as William and Samuel Butcher.
Up to the end of the eighteenth-century Sheffield’s cutlers worked in small water-powered forges. Their workshops were often referred to as “wheels”, as in the preserved Shepherd Wheel in the Porter Valley.
The name persisted when steam-power arrived, and even though the Butcher brothers’ four-storey courtyard factory stands in the middle of town on Arundel Street, where the 9th Duke of Norfolk had unsuccessfully sought to develop a select residential development, it was always known as Butcher’s Wheel.
These bleak, grimy workshops, which produced some of the finest cutlery and silverware in the world, have become rarities, and there are some moribund examples still, such as Leah’s Yard within the footprint of the stalled Sevenstone shopping development.
The last working tenants left Butcher’s Wheel in 2004, and it’s now been redeveloped as apartments above the workshops of the Academy of Makers [http://www.academyofmakers.co.uk], a gallery, the Fusion Café [http://www.academyofmakers.co.uk/fusion-cafe.html] and the Ruskin Organic Bakery.
The works is also home to Freeman College [http://www.rmt.org/freeman], which caters for marginalised students and those with special educational needs, especially those on the autistic spectrum.
The activities of the other occupiers, the craftspeople and the café provide the students with work-experience as part of the process of equipping them for independent living.
All this modern activity pays for its restoration, yet buried within are unexpected remains of its industrial past, a grinding shop (called a “hull” in Sheffield), an intact hand-forge and a magnificent Bramah pan-closet relocated from its original site next to the directors’ board room.
The informative historical information panels about Butcher Works are accessible at http://www.strazors.com/uploads/images/Butcher_Works_Panels_1-7.pdf and there’s an aerial view of the site before renovation in Nicola Wray, Bob Hawkins & Colum Giles, ‘One Great Workshop’: the buildings of the Sheffield metal trades (English Heritage 2001), p 50.