Star Interview with Richard Blackledge: Where traditional Sheffield crafts meet the 21st century at pewter factory

Sheffield's metalworking heritage is intertwined with the history of the city over many centuries.

Wednesday, 4th January 2017, 7:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 11th January 2017, 3:20 am

But, today, the challenge for manufacturing companies lies in keeping centuries-old skills alive while ensuring their wares stay relevant in the modern age, says Richard Abdy, director of Darnall-based Wentworth Pewter.

Pewter is one of the country’s oldest industries in continuous production, brought to Britain by the Romans in the second century, and once employing hundreds in Sheffield.

However, in 2017 the family-owned Wentworth business is one of just four pewter companies left in the city, and one of the last in the UK.

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Each of the firm’s products is handcrafted, one item at a time, at Monarch Works on Catley Road, from flasks and tankards to goblets, baby gifts, tableware and trophies.

Pieces have featured in films, as well as gracing the shelves in some of the world’s most luxurious stores, including Tiffany’s and Liberty.

The company is owned by Richard’s mother, Maggie, and his sister Jayne Abdy is also involved in running the business, acting as the lead designer.

Richard explained that Wentworth is constantly hunting for fresh ideas. One of the latest creations consisted of two vases, candlesticks and a bowl, fusing together pewter and concrete in a nod to Sheffield’s brutalist architecture of the 1960s, chiefly Park Hill flats.

“It’s about trying to make people aware that pewter can do lots of different things,” he said.

“People tend to associate it with very traditional tankards and flasks and trophies, and that sort of thing.

“It’s not something that lives in a gallery. It’s got a life and a use and can fit into a home.”

Craftsman Arthur Richard Wentworth founded the pewter firm in 1949. He died in 1982, before Richard’s father, Stephen, bought the business along with metal-smith Alan Hollingsworth.

Stephen, who acted as the company’s accountant, died in 2002.

Richard admitted his role ‘has its challenges’, but added: “Like any family company you wouldn’t want to do anything else. I left university in 1996, came here for a few years and never left. I still don’t consider it a proper job.”

The 25-strong team are responsible for an array of tasks, each intricate in their own way.

“We’ve got buffing, which is a very old Sheffield trade, and polishing, casting and engraving as well. We’ve got some very old kit which is generations old in terms of spinning lathes and buffing and polishing machines.

“At the same time we’re investing in new technology, like laser cutting machines, and we’ve got a 3D printer here as well. We try to be as 21st century as we can while not losing the traditional hand skills.”

Finding new staff and teaching them the all-important skills is a constant difficulty. “Ideally we would have some more. It’s a tricky one because it takes five or six years to train someone up fully. Persuading someone to stick around long enough is a challenge. But we’ll get there.

“There’s a growing respect for hand skills and traditional manufacturing, but for the last 10 or 15 years it has been an uphill battle for people to accept that it’s a job worth doing.”

Though with changing attitudes come certain benefits, Richard pointed out.

“There’s more respect for the craft which means there’s more value in the product now.”

Pewter – a tin-based alloy – is a soft metal, so manufacturing can take place under lower temperatures than with many other materials.

The key part of pewter production is the spinning process – ‘where you take a circle of metal and form it into a shape’, said Richard.

“It sounds easy but it takes a lot of skill and strength. It’s all done by hand. Then there’s the buffing and polishing afterwards. The guys we’ve got spinning now – Bill and Brian – are both in their 60s and have been doing it since they were teenagers.

“They were fully competent after about five years, but after carrying on for 50 years they’re still learning – every job is different. There’s a different challenge with every job. They will find new ways to do something all the time.”

The Park Hill series – the Topian collection – was a collaboration with industrial designer Steve Anwar, who has a studio in Parson Cross. Steve set each pewter component on an austere, concrete plinth.

“We’ve worked with artists before but not really focused on Sheffield-based artists. We made a distinct effort to find someone a bit more local. We did the launch at the Town Hall courtesy of the Lord Mayor, which was very nice. That was very well-received and got lots of interest. Lots of local retailers liked it.

“Brutalist buildings are a bit Marmite, but when we went up to Park Hill we realised what a good job they had done with the restoration, from how they were left to how they have been updated.

“They knocked so many of these buildings down 15 years ago. If we saved them, we could have done something really nice with them. Like the Hole in the Road, for instance. If we hadn’t filled it in, in 1989 or whenever, its time would have come again.”

In years to come Wentworth Pewter may be forced to ‘mechanise some of the simple tasks’ at Monarch Works.

“We’ll probably have less staff, and the skills are that much harder to replace. But we’ll keep working with artists such as Steve and keep developing new products all the time. If you’re just making the same product day in, day out it would make it very tedious.”

Keeping a close eye on pricing will also be necessary – as the value of the product rises, a fine balance will have to be struck between ‘not ripping anybody off, developing more and investing more into the business,’ said Richard.

“It’s been the same every since I started but we’ll keep working at it.”