Four years after the battle to save Portland Works, the landmark’s future is secure. Nik Brear went to meet the team behind the campaign...
FOG shrouds the tops of the buildings, casting a quiet gloom on the courtyard below.
From my spot on the roof, I have a perfect bird’s eye view of the entire Portland Works site. The Victorian buildings, dating from 1871, are dilapidated but beautiful. Next to me, company ‘directors’ Julia Udall and Stuart Mitchell proudly behold their newly-acquired empire.
“That chimney stack used to be twice as high, but they had to pull it down because it became a target for bombers in the war,” says Stuart, indicating a brick structure in the middle of the works.
Julia points at the building to our left. “Def Leppard and Arctic Monkeys both got their start in there,” she informs me, as I follow her gaze to Stag Works, which backs directly on to Portland Works and contains the largest concentration of music studios in the north of England.
Impressive. And it is, everything about Portland Works and what it represents – a community of local craftsmen working side by side to produce local products – is impressive.
The building, I’m told during our walkabout, is structurally sound, though in need of a facelift – and that’s just what the team has in mind. A plan for a 10-year programme of work, that will restore the rambling site to its former glory, is already in place.
And it’s easy to understand the enthusiasm that has carried them this far – potential seeps out of Portland Work’s aged pores. After all, it was here the first stainless steel knives were created, after Harry Brearley brought his discovery to Portland 100 years ago, guaranteeing the site a place in manufacturing history.
Knifemaker Stuart joined his family business at the works in 1985 and remembers clearly the day he was told it was to close.
“When the campaign first started I didn’t hold out much hope, because you don’t see many ventures like this succeed,” said the 43-year-old.
It’s been a year since the original purchase deal was struck – in which Portland Works Campaign agreed a £420,000 deal with the owner of the Randall Street site.
The deal is believed to be one of the biggest community buy-outs in the UK. The process has been awash with legal difficulties, and the deal itself nearly fell through in December, but finally keys have been handed over. Stuart now joins a society of 11 directors – the Portland Works Committee – who will run the works, guaranteeing a home for its tenants. The PWC will report to 420 community shareholders.
Stuart said: “The campaign came at a time when people were fed up with watching places like this disappear. I think the community realised if it didn’t dig in and save Portland Works, sooner or later there’d be nowhere left to save.”
Derek Morton had never heard of Portland Works when he first visited for a tour three-and-a-half years ago. Today the retired teacher is chairman of the PWC and has devoted three years of his life to preserving the site.
“I told my wife I fancied taking on a hobby once I retired, something I could devote a couple of hours a week to,” reveals the 63-year-old, a twinkle in his eye.
Derek, a retired technology teacher, explained his sadness at seeing fewer of his former pupils pursuing careers as metalworkers and craftsmen as places like Portland began to disappear.
“I realised that complaining and protesting wasn’t achieving anything. We raised half a million pounds to buy the building before the owners started to take us seriously.”
Architect Julia Udall fell in love with the works instantly after first being contacted for her advice during the planning application process.
Now, in addition to her days spent teaching design at Sheffield University, Julia, 31, has found herself a company director.
“It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting when I came into this,” she admitted.
“It’s a big commitment and we directors are having to learn as we go, but it really is worth it to be part of something so special.”
First and foremost, the plan is preservation.
“Almost without effort, the works still does today what is was built to do 140 years ago,” said Stuart.
Julia agreed: “It’s about preserving a future of making and mesters in the city.”
Derek added: “We’re proof that campaigning really can make a difference and, in setting this precedence, we hope to make it achievable for more people to do the same.”