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18 June 2014
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Modern day 'Little Mester'
Pete Goss forging, Kelham Island Museum

© Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust
What now for Sheffield’s Little Mesters?

The cutlery and tool trades

Sheaf works
Sheaf Works, Sheffield, from Illustrated Guide to Sheffield, 1879
Traditionally, Sheffield cutlery and tools had been made and marketed by individual craftsmen. One person would make a knife or tool from start to finish, and would also sell it themselves. But, as the cutlery and tool industries grew in size in the late 1700s, they also expanded to include a wide variety of increasingly sophisticated products. It became very difficult for one craftsman to undertake the complete manufacture of a single item, and satisfy the growing number of orders for work. The first cutlery factory in Sheffield, the Sheaf Works of Messrs. Greaves & Co, opened in 1823, and within thirty years, there were five more firms operating with over a hundred workmen each. However, the system of individual craftsmen working for themselves continued unabated, and firms often employed these ‘outworkers’ to meet their orders.

A new system which developed involved Master Manufacturers (people who had enough capital to finance all the stages of production) marketing finished goods. The Little Mesters carried out the different stages of production of the goods, which had been ordered by the manufacturer.

The increased number of products was accompanied by an increase in diversity, which meant more specialisation in their manufacture. Little Mesters concentrated on the individual aspects of forging, grinding or finishing. They would also specialise in particular products, such as razors, penknives or surgical instruments. They were contracted to carry out specific work, rented their own workshops and provided their own tools and equipment for themselves and their workmen.

Words: Emma Green and Natalie Murray

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