Retro: Sheffield buffer girls were ‘diamonds in brown paper’

Buffer girls at Mappin & Webb in June 1964
Buffer girls at Mappin & Webb in June 1964
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No A to Z of Sheffield workers would be complete without some of the most famous women, the ‘buffer girls’ who were a vital part of the cutlery trade

It was a filthy job, with the only protection from flying muck generally an overall called a buff-brat, a scarf or neck rag and brown paper.

Buffer girl Dorothy Canning told her story to Retro three years ago.

She said: “I started work at 14 years old, straight from school in 1936 at Leppington’s Cutlery Works where top-class cutlery was made. I worked in the warehouse.

“There were three departments – the cutlers on the ground floor where xylonite handles were put on the blades.

“These went up to the warehouse on the next floor where the handles were wrapped in tissue paper before being sent to the mirror-polishing shop on the next floor. Here the blades were mirror-polished.

“The ladies and girls there used the brown paper aprons and also round their ankles.

“This was given to them from the warehouse each week and woe betide if they dared to ask for more.

“I worked there for 10 years until leaving to be married and in all those years I never once heard them being called buffers – they were always mirror-polishers!

“On the top floor was the showroom. It was a long room with windows along one side and the wall opposite had glass-fronted show cases and down the centre was a long glass topped case all full of lovely cutlery.

“I was sometimes given the job of having a quick dust round if the Leppington was having visitors and lighting the small coal fire at one end of the room. It was really no bigger than a bedroom fireplace.

“Above the fireplace on the wall was a large replica of a cutlass which was Leppington’s trademark and it was on all the knife blades.

“When I left to be married I was given a 24-piece set of cutlery which I still have to this day, well worn of course.

“Leppington’s cutlery went to Australia – Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth – so I should imagine there must still be some out there somewhere.

“They were lovely days and Mr Leppington was a good employer and the manageress Miss Redfearn used to keep things in order!

“I think what stands out in my mind most is Armistice Day, November 11, when folks from all the factories along the street used to stand outside for the two minutes silence. It was very moving.”

Sheffield buffer girls were renowned for their bawdy behaviour and had a fearsome reputation for targeting any young lad who dared walk into their workshop.

The late film-maker Gill Booth made a docu-drama with the Sheffield Film Co-Op called Diamonds in Brown Paper in 1988 to capture the trade, which by then was dying out in the city.

She wrote: “One man told me when he started work in the cutlery trade he was grabbed by them, and they removed his trousers and rubbed him down with sand and oil.”

Christine Bellamy, another founding member of the film co-op who died last year, said: “Gill wrote the film after talking to many cutlery workers.

“We went into some of the best little mesters and saw the skills of buffers in action. Conditions were filthy but the end product was the most beautiful silverware. The film was a tribute to them.

“They were incredible women, ” said Christine.

“It was very hard work and they had a notorious reputation but they were big-hearted, independent women who should still be cherished.”

Peak District-based author Berlie Doherty also told their story in her book for children, Granny Was a Buffer Girl.