The Cutlers' Company has weathered many crises and will survive Covid too says Master Cutler
The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire survived the Great Plague of 1665 and it will survive Covid, according to the Master Cutler Nick Williams.
In a history dating back to 1624, it has weathered many storms and emerged to continue representing manufacturers and maintaining the standards of Sheffield-made cutlery and steel products.
That said, Mr Williams has seen his year in office - and hectic schedule of prestigious events - shut down by the pandemic. But his decision to stay on for a second year is not unprecedented.
William Ellis stayed in office for four years in the First World War and William Wood did the same in World War Two.
In the 17th century, records show several Masters with the same names, but whether they are the same men, and if they are, why they stayed on, is lost in the mists of time.
But history provides but a crumb of comfort in the context of people, colleagues, losing their lives.
Mr Williams said: “I’m not the only one staying on. The Lord Mayor of the City of London has extended for a second year as have a number of livery companies
“I’ve missed a few good dinners that I’d never in a lifetime attend unless I was Master Cutler. But that doesn’t even feature when compared to losing your job or life. For the first time recently people I know have died, they were colleagues.
“I have been very lucky, I live in the country, have shopping delivered and have no need to go out. But it must be so worrying for people and businesses. The future is going to be a challenge.”
The Cutlers’ Company has 368 Freemen who are either senior managers, directors or owners of manufacturing companies in Sheffield City Region.
It is based in the historic Cutlers’ Hall on Church Street, opposite the cathedral, and has hosted thousands of important dinners and business events.
But it has been mothballed since March.
Mr Williams said: “The first time things changed was at a dinner in London in March when people did elbow bumps and the funny traditions like passing round the loving cup were stopped.
“The last event at the Cutlers’ Hall was on March 17, a joint awards with the Armourers and Brasiers for apprentices. There was no lunch and no works visit. That was the last time I wore my jewel of office.”
Some 18 staff at the hall were furloughed, but the company received no support grants, falling through the cracks of support for hospitality, he added.
But it was an opportunity to refurbish and redecorate the building ahead of the company’s 400th anniversary celebrations in 2024.
Recently, the chefs were called back to cook food for hampers costing up to £190 that some firms bought to give staff in lieu of Christmas parties.
Mr Williams said: “They made mince pies, Christmas puddings, biscuits, cured meats and chutneys, they’re damn good chefs. Everything in the hamper was made in Sheffield apart from wine from Hathersage and Yorkshire cheeses. But it was all tasty stuff, not like the weird hampers you get where you wouldn’t eat most of it. They really took off.”
Just as the Company was forced to innovate this year, so have manufacturers.
A few weeks into the first lockdown, business secretary Alok Sharma wrote to them all, full of praise for their work and urging them to continue operations for the good of the country.
Since then the company has heard nothing from government, Mr Williams said.
Staff at his own stainless steel finishing business in Attercliffe were furloughed for the first months but are back and busy now.
An engineering business next door is having its best ever year. But surface grinders on the other side are sending people home at 11am due to lack of work.
He added: “Talking to Freemen, they are positive, they are busy but they have had to adapt. One tool company has started online selling rather than through merchants.
“But the big problem will be unemployment and lack of training for youngsters. Schools are more anxious to take part in our Better Learners Better Workers scheme but they have other problems.
“How are we going to get youngsters into work when older people are also looking for jobs? That’s where government also has to help.
“I believe manufacturing is the way out of this mess. Our record debt has to be paid back somehow.”
The 1624 Act of Incorporation states that a Company must be elected each year consisting of a Master, two wardens, six searchers and twenty-four assistants.
Masters are chosen well ahead of their year in office to give them time to prepare for the arduous, hectic and self-financing role. It is a full-time job and requires the incumbent to take leave from their firm. The cost of expenses, travel and accommodation can top £100,000.
Sheffield is also home to the Master Pewterer this year, after cutlery manufacturer Chris Hudson of Chimo Holdings was installed at a ‘crowning court’ on the Thursday before Michaelmas in September.
The Worshipful Company of Pewters was granted its first charter in 1474.
Sheffield has three of the largest pewter manufacturers in the country: Wentworth Pewter and Edwin Blyde in Darnall, and English Pewter in Burngreave.
Mr Hudson said: “Master Cutler Nick Williams and I can join forces to make the 110 livery companies in London more aware that Sheffield is still an important manufacturing city.”