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Saving Portland Works in Sheffield
Portland Works entrance
Portland Works on Randall Street near Bramall Lane was Sheffield's first purpose-built cutlery works, in 1870

By Grace Parnell
BBC Sheffield & South Yorkshire

Portland Works near Bramall Lane in Sheffield has long been the home of knife and toolmakers, and in recent years artists and musicians have taken up residency there, too.

It was built in 1870 as Sheffield's first dedicated cutlery works, but in late 2009 a planning application was made to turn the building into flats and office space. Since then, the tenants have been campaigning passionately to save it.

Currently Portland Works is home to around 20 businesses, employing 35 staff. A couple of workshops are unusable for health and safety reasons, but around 75% of them are full.

The building is Grade II* listed but this protects the fabric of the building; not the way it is used. If Sheffield Council approves the planning application for flats and offices, many of the businesses say they could not relocate and would disappear forever.

The set-up of Portland Works echoes 19th century industrial Sheffield. Little Mesters' workshops were scattered across the city, until a local cutler came up with the novel idea of bringing them all together under one roof:

Letter boxes for the businesses at Portland Works
The 20 businesses at Portland Works include tool and knife makers, carpenters, artists and musicians

"Robert Mosley wanted a factory where the blade grinder was next to the blade finisher," explains Stuart Mitchell who has a workshop making handmade knives. "Instead of carting the blades two miles across town in a barrow, the next stage of the cutlery process was literally in the next workshop. It was very revolutionary in its day."

Now Portland Works' tenant list includes tool and knife makers, cabinet makers and carpenters, electricians and engineers, engravers and steel erectors, welders and silver platers, artists and musicians - and even a chastity belt maker!

Wigfull Tools is the longest residing business, having traded from Portland Works since 1958. The company forges standard and specialist hand tools. Andy Cole is the longest serving tenant with a record of 34 years on-site, and also in the Wigfull workshop is the oldest forger in Sheffield, 75-year-old Ray Turner.

Like much of Portland Works, Wigfull Tools' workshop is like a working museum. The original 1870 forge is still in use, and on the ceiling are the line shafts which used to run the hammers before electric motors took over.

One of the attractions for the tenants is that as in the days of the cutlery workshops, any skill is close to hand: "It's a very informal co-operative," explains Stuart Mitchell. "People call on each other's services. There's the forge, people who repair machinery, an engraver across the yard... It's a thriving community."

Stuart Mitchell's handmade hunting knives are made in an upstairs workshop. His parents' business moved there in 1980 from the nearby Stag Works, and Stuart took over the family firm in 1996. He says it was a big shock to find out that plans had been submitted to make the building into flats and office space:

"It was probably always the landlord's plan but it does come as a shock when it actually happens. Portland Works is so important to Sheffield's history, to its heritage of cutlery manufacture and metalwork. This place has been doing what it was built to do 140 years ago, and it does it so well. I can't think of any other environment where that could be replicated and I can't think of anywhere else in Sheffield still doing what Portland Works is doing."

One of the artists' studios
Portland Works diversified in 2003, when artists and musicians moved in

The muffled sound of drums and guitars can be heard through an iron door. It's The Gentlemen, a Sheffield band which has performed alongside artists like We Are Scientists, Audio Bullys, The Saturdays and Ash.

Portland Works diversified in 2003 to keep thriving. Artists and musicians moved in and now the place is open 24 hours a day. "As the businesses close at 5.30pm, the musicians come to life. It never closes. It's a diverse mix," says Stuart Mitchell.

Artists Clare Hughes and Alison Douglas moved in to the studio in the early days. They have been at the forefront of the campaign to stop Portland Works being turned into flats, organising an exhibition of tools and artwork at Bank Street art gallery. Clare Hughes says that the tenants would ideally like to own the building themselves, so that they could ensure its future:

"The way to preserve Portland Works is for people to be able to carry on working, but to try and get some money together to do the desperately-needed repairs. If possible, all the people who work here can form a co-operative and buy the building to make sure it will be preserved."

Mary Sewell also has an art studio: "Flats aren't necessary in Sheffield, but a space where artists can work is necessary. This is an amazing building and a fabulous place to work. It's a secret space; from the front you can't see that there's anything going on."

Although Portland Works is successful as an informal co-operative and a hotbed for crafts and creativity, it is falling into disrepair, and the tenants know that it cannot carry on the way it is. One of the artists' rooms is currently unused because of severe damp and a leaking roof, and Wigfull Tools has a leaking roof too.

Save Portland Works campaign posters
In late 2009, planning permission was submitted to turn the Grade II* listed building into flats and offices. A campaign is underway to keep the current use of the building as it is.

Foliage grows out of the brickwork and in winter an icy chill whistles through broken windows. Stuart Mitchell thinks it is imperative to come up with a plan for the building's future while maintaining its use:

"We need to convince the planning board of the importance of this place staying as it is. Everybody agrees that it can't carry on as it is right now - there's no investment and without that it will literally just fall apart. But we need a viable alternative - maybe something more official amongst ourselves like a trust or a co-operative. The Grade II* listing only protects the fabric of the building - but we need to protect what's happening inside."

Portland Works has parallels with the 19th century industrial mill town Saltaire near Bradford, which was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2001. Stuart would like to see Portland Works granted with some sort of status to protect its use - albeit on a much smaller scale:

"If the redevelopment goes ahead a lot of the skills here will be lost. Many of the businesses can't set up elsewhere, the cost will be too inhibitive and it will literally be end of days for them."

The next major hurdle for the tenants of Portland Works is Sheffield Council's planning board decision - anticipated to be at earliest in the summer. Meanwhile they plan to keep the campaign moving and fight the application.

Academics at Sheffield University's School of Architecture have offered to lend their expertise to explore alternative futures for the building.

Lecturer Dr Cristina Cerulli says they want to help the tenants build an environmentally, socially and economically viable future for Portland Works:

"We want to look at how this informal group of makers can take on the financial management and organisation of their workspace, and how this hotbed of unique local skills could survive creating its own economy."

The owners of Portland Works have declined to comment on the planning application.

You can see full details of the application here.

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Paul Madin, Sheffield

I, along with many other local bands, used Portland Works for rehearsal space in the 1970s, some of which have achieved massive fame and wealth. Def Leppard used to virtually live there so they might want to add their weight to the campaign to keep it available for future pop stars.

Emma Shaw, Sheffield

We should be trying to save the traditional industries in Sheffield not turning them into yet more offices. There are many office spaces standing empty in Sheffield, why do we need more? The trades working from Portland Works are part of the history of the city and should be preserved.

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