Retro: Works that swallowed home

John Watts' Lambert Street Works
John Watts' Lambert Street Works
Have your say

The John Watts Works on Lambert Street was one of the last surviving complexes to retain structural elements of three centuries of continuous expansion and alteration.

In the Crofts character area, development within the plots formed by former narrow fields appears to have been little regulated. Historic mapping shows a high-density mix of steel production and other industrial complexes alongside residential buildings until the early 20th century.

This picture shows the state of the building prior to it being wonderfully renovated.

This picture shows the state of the building prior to it being wonderfully renovated.

Early residential buildings are now rare, as a result of clearance programmes. The John Watts cutlery works on Lambert Street contains rare exceptions, having absorbed five 18th-19th century domestic courts as it grew.

This character area also preserves a number of late 19th-century public houses and a few institutional buildings spared during clearance.

The most notable historic trace within this area is the curving line of the streets and of property boundaries, which fossilise the shapes of post-medieval fields, formed by enclosing strips within a former open or town field.

Two of the earliest structures on the site were stone-roofed cottages which had been incorporated into later buildings, being completely concealed by the addition of a suspended floor and workshop range above the roof line.

This shows one of the cottages that was swallowed up by the company's expansion.

This shows one of the cottages that was swallowed up by the company's expansion.

The company was formed by Michael Shaw, a clog clasp and dog collar maker. After 1833, Mr Brian was at the helm, 20 years later Bates was joined in partnership with John Watts. In 1862 the partnership was dissolved.

Bates died after a long, painful illness in 1882 at the age of 79. Watts, who was one of Bates’ executors, took control of the firm and began to expand its operations.

During the 1870s and 1880s he concentrated his business in a small tenement-style factory in Lambert Street that had once housed various cutlers and at the back had long been used by coffin makers.

In 1881, two men and eight women were employed, a very small workforce for the time.

After John Watts died, his son, John Robert Watts (1859-1939) also regarded himself a clasp maker. However he transformed the firm into a full-fledged cutlery maker, selling pen and pocket knives, razors, besides graining combs, skates and clasps along with stampers and piercers.

By the First World War, Watts had acquired most of the courtyard workshops at the lower end of Lambert Street.

J R Watts marketed a safety razor in the 1890s. This was well before Gillette appeared on the scene and it is tempting to claim that he was a pioneer.

He was the first to market such a razor in Sheffield and did take out patents for a safety razor, a cyclist’s knife, scissors/razor sharpeners and a trouser press.

Although the firm remained well known for cutlery until well after the Second World War, especially for gadget knives, it was also known for clog clasps, cloggers’ knives, shoe knives, toe plates, abrasive wheel dressers and cutters, ice skates, can openers, surgical scalpels and wardrobe fittings.

Many products were factored in Birmingham, London and Solingen in Germany.

Watts became a limited company in 1929 and operated from the Union Wheel, Corporation Street and Burnt Tree Lane. John R Watts died in 1939,aged 80.

The company remained in business until almost the end of the century. It was last owned by the Bishop family, who wound up Watts in 1999.

The workshops and machine shops contained evidence for the whole manufacturing process, from the packaging rooms, safes and cupboards in the accounts office, benches, machines and extensive line shafting.

At Lambert Street works in the late 1960s, the specialist craftsmen (little mesters) worked in a separate room.

All these expert “top quality” men, the majority over 70 and some over 80, one by one suffered an illness or died. It was by then impossible to find replacements so their work in hand was left on the bench, no-one touched it.

This perilous state of affairs continued until the last man died or retired. The room was then simply locked up, everything left just as it was. All very sad.

After Lambert Works finally closed its doors, visitors found a gem of a survival of Sheffield’s social past. Behind the crumbling plasterwork frontage, that still bravely proclaimed “JOHN WATTS ESTABLISHED 1765“, was a rabbit warren of nearly 90 rooms and five floors, lined by corridors and covered courtyards.

Dusty office ledgers, Dickensian high desks and stools, grinding wheels and even a complete cutlery workshop lay abandoned.

By 2007 the Lambert Street factory had been converted into modern apartments. I found this information in my Bible, Tweeddale’s Directory.

Today John Watts goods are still eagerly sought after by collectors all over the world.

John Watts lived at Lea Wood House Pitsmoor, indications are that the Watts family had it built in 1870,he died at home on the 22nd July 1896 aged 66 he was laid to rest in Fulwood Christ Church graveyard. In his will he left £7,314 and a thriving business.

Lea Wood house was sold and renamed Osborne House.After it was left empty from the late 1990s on October 2, 2002 it was sold for £100,000. The vandals thought they could improve it and set it ablaze. Today it’s boarded up awaiting its fate.