The Cutler’s Tale
It starts with a 15-year-old boy who clocked on for work some 21,000 days ago. And never clocked off….
This is a simple tale from A to B. It contains nothing of the unexpected. The beginning is known, the end is in clear sight. It is in every sense, penny plain and unadorned. Brought up to one life, Trevor Ablett lived it. The end. Yet in an era where the pace of change increases exponentially, and little has value beyond the unforgiving now, where longevity is last week’s fashion, yesterday’s idea, this morning’s thought — it’s a tale worth telling. And it starts with a 15-year-old boy who clocked on for work some 21,000 days ago. And never clocked off. A first day that became his everyday.
Trevor was a Cutler by trade, a Little Mester by designation (a colloquial term for Little Master), and he hand-made ordinary folding pocket knives, “Nothing fancy mind, no mother of pearl or anything. Just ordinary working knives.” It’s a task he carried out for 58 years. And, at 73, he still worked 7 days a week, 70 hours a week. He was bonded to the trade, defined in relation to the knife. Not simply defined, but animated. Each giving life to the other. “What would I do if I wasn’t doing this? Sitting at home watching TV? No, I’ll keep doing this until I can’t do it anymore.”
As compact as the knives he produced, Trevor’s easy wit and quick smiles often pierced the tight solitude of his work, as he broke off to recount an anecdote or explain a process. A creature of habit, and punctual as a priest, his morning unfolded, as they had on countless others, at 7am with strong tea and talk. Drinking his way into the day, while spilling conversation with Reg Cooper. Before the work begins.
At 84yrs old Reg is also a Master Cutler, and rented a bench from Trevor, though he came to the trade later in life. But it’s not pocket knives that Reg makes; it’s America’s most iconic blade, the Bowie Knife. In the heart of Sheffield. And even Sylvester Stallone has one.
Although usually working with batches of 20 knives, Trevor could, if employed on a single knife, take one from start to finish in 3 hours. And what work. There was no breakneck of action, no clangour, no hewing, no smiting — just an economy of effort worn smooth by use, until nothing is left but that which is required to complete each task. It was a workaday love between knife and maker that expressed something of the poetry of the day.
But Trevor’s was not a singular song. His story was also the chronicle of an industry and a city. For no-one’s thread sits alone in time and space. Though never could he have imagined when he first walked into the Cutler’s life, that six decades later he would be the final link in a chain reaching back to the Industrial Revolution. And beyond. For in 1957 the city of Sheffield was still in its pomp, still the crucible of the knife. With the cutlery and steel industries sitting cheek by jowl, exporting the world over. Employing thousands, it appeared the industries, like their products, were indestructible, and their hegemony would continue, rolling forward like steel from the mills. But it wouldn’t last. By the 1970’s and 80s foreign competition and the imperative of the bottom line would draw the strength from this muscular place. And cause a fall that would silence a city.
Yet could those craftsmen, now dead as pins, have seen Trevor at his bench, they would have seen one of their own. For traditionally Sheffield cutlery had been made and marketed by individuals who crafted every step of the journey. Though by the turn of the 19th century this original mode of work was increasingly difficult to persist with, as products became more complex and orders larger. And where once Cutlers where generalists, working on each facet of production, they increasingly became specialists. Engaged on specific jobs — such as grinding or finishing — and in particular areas e.g. surgical instruments or pocketknives. And whilst the city is not without a pocketknife industry — a clutch of small companies, like A Wright & Son, Egginton Bros, and Taylors Eye Witness, still produce beautiful handmade knives. — none work in the solitary manner of the original Little Mesters. Just Trevor.
Although of Lincolnshire farming stock, some twist of fate, or premonition of the life to come, saw Trevor taking his first breath in the Sheffield suburb of Beighton, while on a family visit. His unexpected, though not unwelcome, entry into the world, found his parents so unprepared that his first cot was a drawer. And the visit longer than expected.
Upon returning home, life settled into its familiar rhythm, with his dad employed as a farmworker in good times, and on the road in slack. Literally. Working from traction engines as part of road tarring gangs. Until, at 4 years old, his mum, dad and 3 siblings moved north. To Sheffield. Where his father had found work as a silver-plater.
And time, and life, moved on — from child, to youth, to nascent man. Until, at 15, Trevor left education for the final time. But lacked a life plan. Fortunately his uncle, Emil Berek, who ran a small cutlery business, had a proposition. “He said, ‘Do you want a job Trevor?’ And I said aye. Well I weren’t going to make a doctor was I, I’d left school wi’ no qualifications, so I started working for him.” And so Trevor’s apprenticeship began, as it had for scores of young men before him, with simple tasks, like glazing blades, while slowly working his way up to making whole knives. “You didn’t just jump into making a knife, you did all sorts of odds jobs at first.”
This work was not the culmination of some childhood dream. Not Trevor’s idea of the Promised Land. But time would slowly reveal to him the dignity of the single task. “At first it was just a job. A way to make a living. But I grew into it. Learned each step in the process, until I were making a knife from scratch. And there’s nothing better than making a whole knife. I still love it.”
He worked for Emil for a decade, crafting pocketknives of all types, but particularly military knives. “We had really big military orders for jack-knives, which me and the 5 other Cutlers would turn out by the hundred.” And so it would have carried on, had a youthful disagreement not drawn to a close their time together. “Emil were a real character, a bull of a man. Thick set, and the hardest of workers. He’d work with a sandwich in one hand and a hammer in the other. I liked him, but you know how it is when you’re young, you get an idea in yer ‘ead and think you know better ‘an your elders. Of course I were in the wrong, tho’ I still left.”
But Serendipity smiled, and as he clattered down the steps from Emil’s he was met by Bill Myers, owner of A Myers & Co. — manufacturers of cut-throat razors — that occupied the works ground floor. “Bill said, ‘Does tha want a job wi me Trevor, as tha’s got just the right kinda face fer one of these razors. Fat and chubby?” How could he refuse? And spent the next 5 years there, becoming good friends with Bill. But time is a great healer. Lulling egos to sleep. And Trevor once again found himself walking up the steps that led to Emil’s. And the cut-throat razors loss was the pocketknife’s gain. Picking up where he left off, Trevor continued to work for Emil until, in 1975, his uncle and aunt were killed in a car accident.
Emil’s death was a personal trauma. Bringing change, at a time of change. For it was set against the backdrop of an industry faltering in the wake of cheap imports from the Far East. Initially Trevor and his brother took over running the business, before a seed planted years previously, took root. “I’d thought about going it alone, but it were when Harry Wragg said to me, ‘I’ll show thee how to make a decent pocket knife, a knife that’ll sell. Nothing fancy like,’ that I took that step in 1980.” Harry had also worked for Emil, and long been Trevor’s mentor. “He taught me everything. I owe it all to Harry. But he wasn’t someone who’d spend time praising you. If you took him a bit of work you were pleased with he’d say, ‘What’s this? Do yer want a medal fer doing yer job reet?”
Decision made, and having taken a workshop in threadbare ex-barracks in central Sheffield, the TW Ablett, Sheffield mark quickly appeared on his knives. Trevor and Harry’s knowledge of the companies and characters still functioning in the city’s depleted cutlery trade ensured that they had a steady supply of orders. And they worked together until Harry’s death; producing ordinary pocketknives of a style, and in a manner, that declared they were anything but. “Harry were a great bloke, a real grafter, and a reet one for the horses. Studied the Racing Post like no-one I know. Ah tell thee, by the time he’d finished reading it, he’d know the weight of a horse’s individual legs. And he won a few bob too….Lost a few as well, mind”
After Harry died, and on the lookout for someone to rent a bench, it came to his notice that Reg Cooper was enquiring after somewhere. “I didn’t know Reg, but I knew of him, so I said, for a bit of shop money you can join me. So he did, and we’ve been together for 8 years. Though I don’t know for how much longer.” This was because Trevor received a life-ending prognosis for cancer. Though it didn’t end his life. “There’s nowt they can do fer me, so I may as well come in. Anyway, I’ve never been as busy, and I’d only sit around feeling sorry fer myself if I were home. Getting under me wife’s feet.” So he continued to turn up to his workbench until he was no longer able.
And when time was called on this little world, and he laid aside his trade, it seemed to be no more than the folding away of an ordinary life. Just one of the countless scenes that slide by in the mute drift of years. But time and context will mean the loss will be profound. A simple Cutler, wedded to an everyday pocketknife, whose life and craft was the sound of small places. The tap and dab of objects that once provided the music of this great city.