There are many striking features to Sheffield’s Cutlers’ Hall – its Tardis-like appearance, its elegant Georgian rooms and stunning fixtures. But nothing is as extraordinary as its contents.
Nestled within thousands of square feet of Georgian civility is an eclectic range of priceless objects – some stranger than others.
And Mistress Cutler and former Cutlers’ Hall archivist Julie MacDonald is the expert on the hall’s contents.
“This building stretches all the way out to Fargate,” she says, walking through the hall.
It’s a fact that’s hard to believe, considering that the entrance to the hall is halfway down High Street.
Julie’s first stop on her tour of the hall’s unusual objects is a half-finished portrait by David Jagger, which hangs proudly in one of the main function rooms.
“It’s of the Duke of Edinburgh in 1948 and it was for the Welsh Guards but the artist died before he had finished it,” says Julie.
“But the Welsh Guards didn’t want a half-finished painting.”
It’s hard to see why the Welsh Guards wouldn’t have wanted it – the unfilled grey background and red look very striking.
“David Jagger was a Sheffield artist so when the Welsh Guards didn’t want it the Cutlers’ Hall decided to hang it.”
David Jagger trained at the Sheffield School of Art and graduated to become a portrait painter. His subjects included Sheffield entrepreneur JG Graves – who donated Graves Park and Ecclesall Woods to the city of Sheffield, Queen Mary and, of course, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Julie then moves on to the next point of interest, a room with beautiful floor-to-ceiling sycamore and mahogany panelling.
“This was all off the Olympic ship – one of White Star Line’s liners and the Titanic’s sister ships. The parts were sold by a ship-wrecking company called Thomas Ward’s in Sheffield.”
But the panelling isn’t the Cutlers’ Hall’s only nautical treasure. A stunning oval brass chandelier hangs in the same room, taken from the same ship. And then, as if these weren’t impressive enough, a huge glass cabinet runs along the entire length of the wall.
“This contains a hallmarked piece of silver made in Sheffield from every year since the Assay office opened in 1773.”
The silver engraving and plating industries have been central to the city’s signature cutlery-manufacturing for decades, even today. And Sheffield’s Assay Office is one of only four in the country.
“Hallmarking in Sheffield has always been very good,” says Julia, pointing to a silver gauntlet.
“You can see there’s a crown mark there – that’s Sheffield’s hallmark symbol.
“Birmingham’s symbol is an anchor, which is funny because Birmingham couldn’t be further from the sea, but it’s because when members of the Birmingham and Sheffield Assay Offices would meet to have discussions about lobbying Parliament, it would always be at a pub called the Crown and Anchor.”
Julie then walks down what appears to be a maze of corridors, stairwells and doors to a darker panelled room, in which a huge turtle shell hangs on the wall, complete with its stuffed head.
“It was tradition to serve turtle soup at the Cutlers’ Feast in the late 18th-century and part of that tradition was bringing a live turtle into the kitchen.
“But this one particular year the turtle jumped up and latched on to the chef’s private parts. They couldn’t get the turtle off so in the end they chopped its head off, which is why it’s here.”
And then, just down the corridor, in a narrow dining room, is a cabinet of trophies. “These are race cups from the Sheffield horse races,” she says.
“They’d race from Fulwood Road, down to Broomhill and past the Botanical Gardens. These are the cups from 1777, 1779 and 1781, which was the last race.”
Beneath the race cups is another historical gem – a plate made up of symbols of the 12 livery companies.
“This is interesting,” says Julia. “There are 108 livery companies and they choose the City of London Mayor.”
But there were always rivalries between the companies, the most notorious of which was in 1484, during the Mayor of London’s river procession, when violent brawls broke out between guilds.
From that point the Mayor, who was Robert Billesdon, made it so companies took turns as to which position they had in the procession. And in 1516 a fixed order was established, as Julie explains.
“The Skinners and Merchant Taylors had to alternate every year as sixth and seventh position so that’s where the phrase ‘all at sixes and sevens’ comes from.”
Then, at the end of the room, crowning these quirky items is a painting that dates back to 1638, when the hall was first built.
“That’s the oldest painting in the building and shows the cross daggers, which is the sign of Sheffield, and an elephant, which was also a symbol of Sheffield because all the best cutlery was made with ivory handles.
“But what I love most is the elephant – it looks like Dumbo. The artist had probably never seen an elephant but then, how many Sheffielders would have seen an elephant in 1638?”
The Cutlers’ motto, painted on to the painting, reads Pour y Parvenir A Bonne Foi, which means ‘To Succeed through Honest Endeavour’. And it’s a fitting phrase.
The Cutlers’ Company came into existence in August 1624.
The first Master Cutler was Robert Sorby.
Every year since 1624 the company has elected the next company, except during the First and Second World Wars.
The Cutlers’ Company has three halls. The first hall was built in 1638 and the present hall was finished 1832, with additions in the 1860s and 1880s.
The Cutlers’ Hall is a Grade II Listed Building, which is owned by the Cutlers’ Company.
In 1638 the Cutlers’ Company bought the land for their hall – which is still used as the current site – for £69.12s and paid £86.3s.10d for the construction of the building itself.