Little Mester Pete is Sheffield's history in action and a craftsman like no other
Chest retractor. Bowel retractor. Amputation knife. Bone gauge. Artery clamps. Is this some sort of medieval torture chamber?
Actually, it is living history, the Sheffield workshop of the last remaining craftsman of his kind.
Meet Pete Goss, an 81-year-old working Little Mester, based at Kelham Island Museum.
He is a surgical instrument forger, which explains the artery clamps. “I never do those these days,” says Pete, as his furnace glows red, lighting up the array of equipment which still sounds frankly frightening.
His workshop can be seen from Alma Street and it is from here that he produces the specialist equipment no-one else does.
Pete is the last remaining hand forger in the country. His skills and craftsmanship are unique and it is a matter of concern at the museum as to how to preserve and record these processes. Pete seems less concerned.
“People keep saying to me why don’t you show someone the ropes, take an apprentice,” he says, clearly having heard this far too many times. “The answer is there’s no work to sustain someone for a career.”
A realist. From the school of hard knocks. Pete’s story swings from triumph to tragedy and it takes some beating.
He was born in Firth Park and went to school at Walkley County. “I enjoyed sports, football mainly and played at junior level for both Wednesday and United.
“At 15 I dreamed of being a footballer. I scored six goals against Upperthorpe once, but wasn’t good enough to be a professional.”
He left school at 15 not knowing what to do. “I didn’t have a clue, but I wanted to work outdoors so I finished up on a building site on Monday after being at school on Friday.”
They didn’t do careers advice in those days. But they did do jobs.
Pete had found work with a building firm on Crimicar Lane, Fulwood, and got thrown in at the deep end. “I was building the central wall of a semi-detached house. I would have liked to have gone to university or college for two years, but they put a trowel in my hand and said ‘Build a wall’.
“That night I played for Sheffield Boys on the Wednesday ground and I couldn’t raise a gallop.
“That job lasted three weeks up to Easter. I got up one day and it was snowing and I thought that’s enough for me, I’m not doing this.”
A family connection helped him out as his uncle was a hand forger for a surgical instrument maker called Skidmore’s and got him a job. There were three roles for new boys - forger, filer and fitter or glazing and polishing.
“I fancied forger, but the role was taken. Fortunately, the lad left and I started.” He says fortunately, but this turn of fate almost killed him.
One of Pete’s jobs was to light a furnace. “I had to fetch a light and bring it to these four gas jets. I got my head down to see what I was doing, not knowing the jets were still on.
“I shoved the light in and it nearly blew my head off. My head was so far down the fireball missed me. It was the luckiest moment of my life.”
He worked at Skidmore’s on Cemetery Road, in view of what was then the Locarno club on London Road, home to a dance hall. “At lunch, we used to go for a bop,” says Pete.
The stint at Cemetery Road lasted for 12 years until the firm moved to Upper Allen Street, Netherthorpe. During this time, came Pete’s darkest hour when brother Philip died aged 21 in a road accident.
“There were 10 years between us. I looked after him when he was an infant because mum and dad were working.” Pete pauses. “That was my worst moment.”
Work carried on but the process was moving with technology. “By this time, they were doing more and more stamping by presses, one blow and it is done,” says Pete.
“We had to hit so many times, so things were changing, it happens in all trades.”
After 10 years, the firm moved again, this time to Rutland Road, Neepsend. The work got less and Pete was asked to go self-employed, which he did.
He was now 40 and knew he could get work Skidmore’s either could not or would not do. Unfortunately, it didn’t last.
“The work got less and less until I got a phone call from the Kelham Island Museum asking me if I wanted to move in.”
It was 1988 and at first, Pete had three businesses coming to him. He was struggling. The closure of surgical instrument maker Downs on the Parkway changed his fortunes.
He continued to get some work from Skidmore’s and people he had worked with at 16 were starting businesses - suddenly he was too busy. “I had 16 firms coming to me, some from London. It was unbelievable, I was busier than I had ever been.”
This is why Pete’s story is a rollercoaster, which is also reflected by the people he’s worked with. When he started at Kelham, Graham Clayton was making penknives. When Graham left, legendary knifemaker Stan Shaw moved in. Sadly, both are dead now.
So what of the legacy? Few are employed in the heavy or light trades and a long era of history is coming to a close. Pete gives museum visitors the opportunity to view the processes and skills involved in his work.
A DVD was produced to provide the museum with a catalogued video record of the Little Mesters at work, a valuable record for the Trust’s archive which represented a specialised period in Sheffield’s industrial past. He’s also been on Tv’s Time Team when Tony Robinson tried to make a Bowie knife the traditional Sheffield way.
But DVDs and Tv don’t distract Pete, who is a realist. “Over the years people have died and the Little Mesters don’t get the work any longer.
“This isn’t a living, it’s a hobby. I’ve got one firm I do work for. I don’t worry about the skills and the tools when I go. I would if there was a place for it to go, but one firm isn’t enough.”
Understood, but Pete won’t be going without a fight. Aged 63, he was described by a reporter from a national newspaper as ‘not far off calling it a day’.
The reporter said when Pete retired, his trade would die. “There's no one wanting to take on a job like this,” Pete was quoted as saying. “My old gaffer used to say they'll always want one hand forger, but when I go there won't be one left."
Yet here he is, still going at 81, so how does it feel now to be the last remaining forger? “I don’t give it much store,” Pete says, with typical modesty.
“I’m proud I can still forge at 81.”
He won’t tell you, but Pete has prospered thanks to hard work and dedication. It shows in the little finger of his left hand, which he can’t straighten due to gripping a hammer so tightly for so many years. And somehow, you knew he wouldn’t stand still, so it was no surprise when Pete diversified again in his 70s.
He started making wedding rings with a technique he used for making the finger bows of surgical scissors. The handmade wedding rings can cost as little as £20 and Pete does commissions.
“I’ve been doing that for about five years. They’re in stainless steel and I have to get it right because the size is crucial. You can size them, but it’s best done right first time.”
So much of what Pete does is in his head, it is instinct, the result of years of trial and error. He would struggle to teach that.
For example, I ask him how hot the furnace needs to be. He grins. “Don’t ask me about temperature! I go on the colour of the flame, I’ve never had a dial.”
Pete now lives in Wadsley with wife Mary, 82. They’ve been married 62 years and have two children. Pete is proud of that. “Mary is the best decision I made in my life.”
He’s as fit as a fiddle, running around the workshop with the enthusiasm of a 20-something, no doubt helped by the fact he doesn’t smoke or drink.
“My only vice is Sheffield Wednesday,” he says, with a wry smile. This might run in the family as he says his grandson Thomas Hardy is interesting Sheffield Wednesday.
So maybe Pete can dream again of those schooldays, when he longed to get outside and play football professionally. Which reminds him, he wants to hear from anyone who was at Walkley County School in the early 1950s. “I’d like to meet them again, talk about those days, just to have a chat about the old times.”
To buy one of the stainless steel rings, call the museum on 0114 272 2106 and leave a message for him.
Better still, visit the museum where Pete still works on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. This living legend is history in motion, a craftsman like no other and a gentleman.