The making of a metal magnate: Harry Brearley, stainless steel & street art

Andrew Anderson

What links a building-high piece of street art to the invention of stainless steel? One man, and the city he called home.

Take a trip to Sheffield any time soon and you’ll be hard pressed to avoid its street art. And while much of it is pasted up, sprayed on or temporary, there are three house-high portraits of men of note that feel far more permanent: Charles Darwin, David Attenborough and the little-known Sheffield industrialist, Harry Brearley. It was this latter portrait, epic in scale at over forty feet high and created by street artist Faunagraphic, that got us thinking – who exactly was Harry Brearley?

When Sheffield was the seat of a steel empire, Harry Brearley was its king. An entrepreneur and philanthropist, he led a long and successful life in his home town, but there was one thing that turned him from promising prodigy to metal magnate: his invention of stainless steel. Yet for all the eventual success of stainless steel, Brearley had a hard time convincing people that his discovery was a good thing.

He was mocked as “the man who makes knives that don’t cut”

Sheffield is known as the steel city because the crucible method – the first steel mass-production process – was invented there in the 1700s. By the mid 19th century, Sheffield had become the cutlery capital of the world. And it was into this environment that Harry Brearley was born in 1871, on the unpromising-sounding Spital Street, now just a short walk from the rather good and industry-focused Kelham Island Museum. A Bessemer Convertor stands in all its brooding glory against the building’s flanks, while inside the renowned River Don Engine provides an awe-inspiring insight into the volcanic fury of steel production.

These humble surroundings didn’t hold Brearley back, though; the term “self-made man” could have been custom crafted for him. He left school at twelve, followed his father into the local steelworks, studied metallurgy on the side and got involved in research at the Brown Firth factory. Just a quick stroll down the hill from Kelham Island, the Princess Street building (now English Pewter Co.) is typical of Sheffield steel factories: function triumphs over form, and there’s none of the industrial architectural grandeur of the kind that Manchester or Leeds can boast. But no matter, for it was here, on 13 August 1913, that Brearley made his breakthrough.

Depending on which account you read, stainless steel was either the result of a happy accident or careful experimentation – but either way, Brearley knew he had made something special. He shopped his gleaming new “rustless steel” around, but manufacturers kept knocking him back. Rustless steel was hard to work with; Brearley became known as “the man who makes knives that don’t cut”.

Not all was lost. Local cutlery maker Ernest Stuart realised its potential, coined the catchier name stainless steel and a business was born. Stuart operated out of Portland Works, now a cooperative for cutlery makers with occasional public open days. Brearley, meanwhile, went on to become chairman at the Brown Bayley works; the factory itself is long gone but the Brown Bayley Footbridge remains. This forms one of the ways onto the Sheffield & Tinsley Canal, a waterway that bisects this former steelmaking centre. Walking through its green and pleasant spaces today makes it hard to believe it was once the white-hot crucible of steel production.

Harry Brearley apparently never forgot his upbringing. He poured money into good causes, such as a charitable foundation designed to create opportunities for those from less privileged backgrounds (“workmen are often much wiser than their masters,” Brearley argued), and when he died in 1948 stainless steel was just one of the things he was remembered for. Like the city of Sheffield itself, Harry Brearley was hardworking, straightforward and full of unexpected charm. So its feels only right that one of Sheffield’s greatest and most creative sons is remembered on the streets today via a great, creative work of art.

Find out more about how the Harry Brearley painting was made; visit Our Favourite Places for more video and text.

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