Plans had been submitted to turn the rabbit warren of Little Mester workshops, home to independent metal workers, into studio apartments, and many thought it only a matter of time before another slice of Sheffield’s manufacturing history was lost.
However, in a last-ditch attempt to both prevent the building from becoming yet another anonymous flat development and safeguard the dozen or so businesses which operate out of the sprawling red brick building a campaign was launched and, against the odds, it might just succeed.
The original plans submitted to Sheffield City Council by the Portland Company, which owns the site, were withdrawn and the company has now agreed to give the campaigners a six-month stay of execution. At the end of January, if they have raised enough money to buy the building, it will be theirs. If not, well, at this stage they’re trying not to think about the possibility of failure. “Initially the aim was to raise awareness about the threat of redevelopment and oppose the original planning application,” says Derek Morton, chair of the Portland Works Committee. “But now we have a new vision. We want to raise enough funds to not only buy the building, but also to restore it to its former glory.”
It’s an ambitious plan, but one the committee hopes to achieve by setting up a co-operative. The first £100,000 of community shares have already been bought, but they need to sell at least another £150,000 before their deadline expires in the New Year.
“It is ambitious, but the response so far has been fantastic,” says Derek. “This place is part of the fabric of Sheffield and many of those who have bought shares already have an emotional investment in the place, but this is not something we dreamed up overnight.
“We have prepared a 25-year business plan and ultimately we aim to return all the money that is being sent to us to buy shares, so effectively it’s more of a long-term loan.”
Like many of Portland Works’ supporters, Derek found himself involved in the campaign quite unexpectedly. During Sheffield’s Galvanize festival, which was set up to celebrate the city’s metal work trade, the retired teacher signed up to an open day at Portland Works.
“I was a design and technology teacher and during my career I saw a lot of pupils who were really talented at making things, but I also saw there were less and less opportunities for them to make a living out of it. It’s sad really and when I heard what might happen to Portland Works I thought that I might be able to help.”
Built 140 years ago, Portland Works, which lies in the shadow of Bramall Lane football ground, was the first forge in Sheffield to begin manufacturing stainless steel cutlery and since then it has provided a base for successive generations of welders, engravers and metalworkers.
In the workshops, most things are still done by hand, but in recent years the traditional craftsmen have also been joined by bands looking for affordable rehearsal rooms and artists in need of studios.
“This is a one-off chance to save something special from Sheffield’s history, to keep a working space for local businesses and artists and to restore the building to share with the rest of the city,” says Derek.
“Getting the initial investment is the hard bit, but if we can sell enough shares we will then be in a really strong position to apply for Heritage Lottery grants and other sources of funding to actually restore the building. We’ve had a survey done and the good news is that it is structurally sound and it has a really viable future.
“It’s a fantastic place – you don’t often get manufacturing businesses working side by side with musicians and there is something very special about Portland Works which we really should try to preserve.
“The people who work there have said to me that until this project started they never thought of it as a community, but that’s exactly what it is. Come January we will know whether we have succeeded. I’m cautiously optimistic that we will, but whatever happens at least we will have given it our absolutely best shot.”
For more information about Portland Works and for details of the share scheme visit portlandworks.co.uk or write to Portland Works Committee, c/o Sharrow Community Forum, The Old Junior School, South View Road, Sheffield S7 1DB.