Sheffield Heritage Open Days 2017: How building's new life as a hub of making is in the works

Anna de Lange and Donna Bate at Portland Works. Picture by Andrew Roe
Anna de Lange and Donna Bate at Portland Works. Picture by Andrew Roe
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There's a buzz about Portland Works these days, thinks Donna Bate, who manages the former cutlery works just outside Sheffield city centre.

Four years on from a community-led rescue operation that saved the centre from becoming flats, 35 businesses and creative types now occupy space there, ranging from knifemakers, jewellers and a guitar-maker to a gin distillery that, Donna says, never fails to catch the eye of visitors.

Michael May makes a pocket knife at Portland Works. Picture by Andrew Roe

Michael May makes a pocket knife at Portland Works. Picture by Andrew Roe

"It's one of the things that captures people's imaginations," she laughs.

But the place's new life as a thriving hub of modern-day manufacturing could very easily never have come to pass.

The Grade II* listed works, where the world's first stainless steel cutlery was made on Randall Street near Bramall Lane stadium, became increasingly run-down until, eight years ago, the site's landlord put in a planning application to turn it into student accommodation.

The proposal caused alarm among campaigners, who managed to raise £390,000 to buy the building in 2013 through a social enterprise comprising more than 500 shareholders. A programme of renovation works is gradually taking place, with a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of around £100,000 offering a much-needed boost.

Cynthia King, of Locksley Distilling at Portland Works packages the bottles of gin. Picture by Andrew Roe

Cynthia King, of Locksley Distilling at Portland Works packages the bottles of gin. Picture by Andrew Roe

People will be able to see for themselves the progress being made, and experience what Portland has to offer, on Sunday, September 10 as part of Sheffield's annual Heritage Open Days festival.

Of particular interest will be a refurbished space housing a display of historic items made by Robert Mosley, the works' founder. He opened the complex in 1879, bringing together self-employed craftsmen – 'Little Mesters' with specific skills – who had traditionally been scattered across the city.

"When people come and visit we tend to get new supporters," says Donna.

"They get enthused by the work that's going on. People are interested in the historic side, and the fact the building is still here and not fallen foul of demolition. It's used by people making things, which is what the building was for in the first place."

Emmie Ball, of Baileys at Portland Works makes a bracelet. Picture by Andrew Roe

Emmie Ball, of Baileys at Portland Works makes a bracelet. Picture by Andrew Roe

She says Portland's purpose is to get new ventures off the ground.

"We want to help people get started. Our rents are lower than quite a lot of other places with the idea that we can help people who are starting up."

Time is being spent dividing up larger rooms into more compact units that meet the needs of potential tenants.

"The works was originally built with open spaces because there were a lot of people working in a room doing the same job. A lot of businesses now are just one or two people. By splitting them up we can rent to more people."

Sue Ledger, of PML Plating, at Portland Works. Picture by Andrew Roe

Sue Ledger, of PML Plating, at Portland Works. Picture by Andrew Roe

Part of the lottery grant will be used to mend the roof, which is prone to leaks. The previous owners carried out some repairs, but the results were patchy.

"Hopefully, although you never can tell with scaffolders and builders, we should start the work in September or the beginning of October," Donna says.

"But when this is done we still won't have completed it all. It's a big task because the roofs are so big and high. It's not something our volunteers can do."

Nevertheless, much of the restoration is led by the helpers, who assist with laying bricks, repointing windows, putting down new flooring and sundry other necessary tasks. Materials are recycled where possible from other sites.

"Most of our volunteers are retired people, and quite a lot were in the building trade so they still have contacts. They're also quite happy to ask if they see building materials going into a skip."

A condition of the lottery funding was the requirement to organise more educational activities, so a dedicated events space is being created to provide a venue for school trips and talks, away from any health and safety risks.

Outside Portland Works. Picture by Andrew Roe

Outside Portland Works. Picture by Andrew Roe

And there is much that Portland Works can teach guests, Donna believes.

"We try to attract people who want to make things - and if they're people who want to make things with metal, even better."

The free open day is happening from midday to 5pm on September 10. Visit www.heritageopendays.org.uk for details of all 116 Sheffield events.