Beware the buffers

Cutlery Manufacture, Sheffield Spoon & Fork Buffing Shop in 1920
Cutlery Manufacture, Sheffield Spoon & Fork Buffing Shop in 1920
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THEY were foul of mouth, bawdy of behaviour and, at the end of the working day, filthy of hands and face.

They also had a fearsome reputation for targeting any young lad who dared walk into their workshop.

“One man told me,” wrote Gill Booth in 1988, “when he started work in the cutlery trade he was grabbed by them, and they removed his trousers and rubbed him down with sand and oil.”

These were Sheffield’s legendary buffer lasses – a breed of working women who have gone down in city folklore.

For underneath their loud, swaggering exterior, these girls were, more than anything else, renowned for their huge hearts, huge humour and hugely hard labour.

They polished the spoons and forks – thousands each day in dozens of buffer shops across the city – which were sent around the globe. For more than 100 years, from around 1860 to the early 1980s, they stood hardy at their wheels, the last link in Sheffield’s steel chain.

It was, thus, in 1988, as the trade slowly died out Gill Booth, a film maker with the Sheffield Film Co-Op, created a docu-drama to preserve for posterity those ways of life.

And it is, thus, one year after Gill passed away, aged 68, the film will be released on DVD for the first time and a one-off screening will be held at the Showroom Cinema.

Called Diamonds In Brown Paper after the paper leggings the buffers wore, and shot in various city buffer shops, it charts a group of the girls between 1928 and 1980.

“Gill wrote the film after talking to many cutlery workers,” says Christine Bellamy, who was a founding member of the co-op, which ran from 1975 to 1992. “We went into some of the best little mesters and saw the skills of buffers in action. Conditions were filthy but the end product was the most beautiful silverware. The film was a tribute to them.”

And well they deserve it.

For as an accompanying book of the same name published in 1988 makes clear, these were Sheffielders through and through.

“I first came to Sheffield in the early 1960s,” wrote Gill. “When shopping on The Moor I was intrigued to see a number of women with shiny black faces and dirty overalls, their legs wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. I discovered they were buffer lasses who worked in the cutlery firms, polishing spoons and forks on a buffing wheel with a mixture of sand and oil.”

It was said at their height in the inter-war period every family had a buffer girl and that if you walked through certain areas of the city – including the warren of back streets around Arundel Street or behind The Moor – you would hear them singing above the noise of those wheels. They worked for such city firms as Harrison Fisher and Mappin & Webb, and although the job was considered unskilled, it was often dangerous.

“Accidents were fairly common, especially injuries to the hands,” wrote Gill. “It was by no means unusual for someone to go to hospital to get her hand stitched up and be back at work the next day with a glove on.”

“They were incredible women,” says Christine, 67, of Hunter’s Bar. “It was very hard work and they had a notorious reputation but they were big-hearted, independent women who should still be cherished.”

n The screening will be shown next Wednesday at the Showroom Cinema at 4.30pm. DVDs will be available at the screening. For more information email chris.bellamy22@btinternet.com