Restorations - Old Sheffield cutlery factory's 'story and space' are good for homes

Who knew in 1852 the bricks and trusses and windows and even miscellaneous iron brackets banged into the walls of Eye Witness Works would be so admired 169 years later?

Friday, 2nd July 2021, 4:50 pm

You can imagine the builders back then laughing at the idea this purely functional cutlery factory would one day be turned into homes highly prized for their aged and worn and battered features.

That’s if the concept ever entered their head, which is unlikely.

But having seen so much and survived for so long - not least dereliction - the works on Milton Street inspire love and admiration, from the masons replacing crumbling bricks to the developer willing to splash £21m on bringing it back to life to, hopefully, the buyers keen to make it their city centre home.

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Andy Bargh, development manager for developer Capital & Centric at Eye Witness Works on Milton Street.

It is fascinating to ponder the mix of craftsmanship, history, authenticity and identity that drives the whole multi-year, multi-million pound process.

But back then Sheffield’s cutlery bosses had something else on their mind - how to efficiently make the best knives.

John Taylor’s factory had a lot of natural light in workshops with windows on both sides, which necessitated four internal courtyards.

The rooms weren’t too big or high so they could be warmed easily and there were several entrances on different streets.

Bricklayer Mick Marshall.

“That’s why they are so good for living spaces,” says Andy Bargh, development manager for developer Capital & Centric.

Restore and expose wooden roof timbers and weathered brick, with new lime mortar wire brushed to give just the right look, and their modern day desirability goes up further.

The firm plans to top it off with kitchens and bathrooms and mod cons. Top floor flats will also benefit from the extra height of a pitched roof and one could have a log burner attached to a landmark chimney which is reinforced with old iron expansion straps.

Andy added: “You could throw a rugby ball in some of these spaces. Capital & Centric is keen on natural light. There are quite a lot of instances were windows were bricked up over time and we’ve obtained approval to reinstate them.

Bricklayers Tony Sheldon, left, and Arran Wilkinson.

“The rustic nature is completely characterful and people like telling the story.”

A strip out started in December before construction began in January, ramping up in March.

Today there are 10 trades on site including joiners, bricklayers, scaffolders, plumbers, electricians and roofers and more than 50 people.

That is set to rise to 20 trades when the kitchen fitters, tilers and acoustic floor fitters, among others, start, aiming to finish by September next year.

Pocket-knife cutlers at work in 1897. Credit: Picture Sheffield.

As well as the restoration, a new six-storey block on the site of the former Brunswick Hotel is being built. Co-ordinating them all is Sheffield firm JP Mooney Ltd.

Joiners, and brothers, James and Matthew Scott, of Bowen Joinery in Sheffield, have been on the job for three months. They decide whether to repair or replace roof trusses, rafters and purlins.

James said they enjoyed transforming a big old building and bringing it back to life.

Bricklayer Max Andrew, of Phoenix Brickwork in Pinxton near Alfreton, said a small hole often meant removing up to eight bricks around it with replacements of a similar age.

He added: “The building was derelict as well as old. You’ve got to match them up as best you can.”

In amongst the brickwork they had found an old cut-throat razor and copy of The Star from 1973, he added.

The workshops were used for the 'handcraft processes of cutlery manufacturing including grinding and hardening shops, buffing, filing and knee polishing'.

One piece of machinery remains to tell the story of the activity that took place over generations.

A large ‘Dutrannoit Charleroi’ screw press stands in one courtyard. It will be a feature in a communal space with tables, chairs and free wifi for residents. Andy said the plan was grow ivy up it.

On the new building, a full height green ‘living wall’ will be grown, he added.

“Our preference is to sell to people who will live here long term and build a community. With 97 homes there could be 180 residents with a wide demographic. This is our first proper project in Sheffield but hopefully not our last.”

Last month, Capital & Centric secured £10.7m from the South Yorkshire Pension Fund and £3.5m from Homes England to turn Eyewitness Works on Milton Street into accommodation.

The development will include 97 loft apartments and town houses - within the building but with their own entrance doors - along with a café-bar.

For 150 years the works were home to Taylor’s Eyewitness Ltd, a Sheffield company that provided the world with cutlery.

A heritage report states the buildings were almost exclusively workshops used for the ‘handcraft processes of cutlery manufacturing including grinding and hardening shops, buffing, filing and knee polishing shops and handle finishing’.

It adds: ‘The Taylor’s trademark was registered in 1838…The company merged with James Veall in 1876 and Tyzack’s in 1879 to become Needham, Veall and Tyzack.

‘During the 1960s the company became Taylor’s Eye Witness. It was later bought by Harrison Fisher & Co, which changed its name to Taylor’s Eye Witness Limited’.

‘The view of the continuous frontage of the Eye Witness Works and Beehive Works along Milton Street provide an evocative impression of the former scale of the Sheffield cutlery industry and its location close to the city centre’.

The Taylors Eye Witness company only left in 2018, moving to Parkway Close.

Its website states: ‘This Grade II listed building was the only traditional works remaining in Sheffield which still manufactured its original products at the time’.

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Thank you. Nancy Fielder, editor.

Joiners, and brothers, James and Matthew Scott, of Bowen Joinery in Sheffield.
An old screw press will stand in a communal courtyard.
The 'whetting and wiping' pocket-knife room at Eyewitness Works in 1897. Credit: Picture Sheffield.
Bricklayer Max Andrews.
The chimney is held together with iron straps.