Friday, May 18, 2018


Eye-Witness to industry

One of the things that impressed me about Sheffield was that there are still remains of its industrial past right in the centre of the city. Most visitors must be aware of this – a walk down the central Arundel Street reveals a number of former factories; some of them have been beautifully restored; all the buildings are at least in use. My walks around the city took me west of these buildings, until I came to Milton Street and found Eye-Witness Works, which, my Pevsner City Guide to Sheffield tells me, is the only traditional integrated cutlery works still in operation in the city. Except that it isn’t any more: I arrived to find notices on the doors with details of the firm’s new address. Eye-Witness works, meanwhile, bears a ‘for sale’ sign.

What one can see from the street is a long, three-storey brick building that fronts three courtyards. Looking at the brickwork, and the style and position of the windows, it’s clear that the building is actually the result of several different construction phases. The part in the foreground, with the round-topped windows at first-floor level, is from about 1852, the other parts came later, with the long range at the far end added in about 1875, when the older sections were also heightened (see the change in the colour of the brickwork). The early part of the building, at least, is not totally utilitarian – the corner has some stone dressing and there’s a Venetian window above the first cart entrance, to add a visual highlight. Mostly though, this factory is plain and businesslike and must have served its users well for decades.

The lettering however, as can be seen in my lower photograph, is barely hanging on. The paintwork has deteriorated and some of the letters have fallen off, while others are coming to pieces. They look to be wooden letters, and naturally have not proved as durable as the carved stone signs on some of the other former factories in the city. It would be wonderful if the purchasers restored this lettering, so that we are never in any doubt that this was ‘Eye-Witness Works, Cutlery and Plate Manufacturers’, the message as clear as it was at the time the sign was first erected, perhaps in the late-19th century, when it must have been as shiny as Sheffield plate.
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* I have a feeling there may be one or two more Sheffield posts coming up.


Chris Partridge said...

This is a classic example of the bind that militant conservationism gets into. Taylor’s Eye Witness could not continue in the old buildings which have no foundations or insulation, and the layout is on several levels making production inefficient, but they were not allowed to redevelop behind the original facade - the entire building had to be retained. This means redevelopment will cost more than the site is worth, so it could not even be sold to fund relocation to a new site. Luckily for Taylor’s the council was so desperate to keep cutlers in the city they effectively gave them a modern factory near Sheffield Parkway and took over the old buildings. Clearly they still haven’t found a buyer prepared to take on the massive restoration costs.

Philip Wilkinson said...

That's really interesting, Chris. Thank you. A pity a compromise could not have been found. Looking at the way redevelopments of listed buildings are creeping through the city centre, they do seem to be heading in the direction of the area where Eye-Witness is sited. But at the moment that area seems to be bleak, if marginal, and no doubt won't easily attract the investment needed for a proper conservation/redevelopment job. Which will leave the building quietly decaying away.

Stephen Barker said...

Leicester City also former factories and warehouses close to the city centre. Many of these have been either converted to either office or residential use. The problem for most cities is that there is an unattractive fringe of buildings outside the city centre before you enter the suburbs or newer industrial or business parks. A problem that is likely to be made worse with the decline of High Street shops.

Perhaps the pattern of zoning housing, shops and work places needs to be reversed so that these are more intermingled and that people are not having to drive so much.

Hels said...

I thought Sheffield was an alternative name for a silver plate, not the name of a large city. But like all Australians in the 1960s, we married and left for the UK in the same week. Joe was offered a hospital job as a registrar in Sheffield, and spent some time there, looking around. He thought the city was very attractive.