It started with one, 700 years ago. A solitary cutler first plying his trade in Sheffield. And so it ends with one. A single master cutler, laying aside his craft, after more than 21,000 days at the bench. A person’s working life has a beginning and an end, and for Trevor Ablett, 2015 marks the final chapter.
In retiring, Ablett full stops an industry that built a city. An industry that, cheek by jowl with steel, employed tens of thousands, placing Sheffield on the map of Britain and the world.
But how could he know, even have guessed in 1957, that the callow 15 year old who took his first steps in the cutlers world would be the final thread. For he was one of many, and the industry was still in its pomp. Yet nearly six decades after first clocking-on, his clocking-off draws a strand of history to a close. Trevor is the last of Sheffield’s Little Mesters (colloquial for Little Masters) still pursuing his trade in the manner of the cutlers of yesteryear. Craftsmen who where involved in every step of the knife making process.
Trevor hand makes pocket-knives. It’s all he’s ever known, and at 73yrs old he still works 70hrs a week, 7 days a week. “They’re just ordinary working knives. Ones yeh use, wear out, and chuck away. Nothing fancy, like.” Simple in name only, for the materials, craftsmanship, and finish, give them a personality and presence that marks them as anything but ordinary. And whilst a threadbare gaggle of Sheffield firms still produce a limited amount of pocket-knives – like Egginton Bros, and Arthur Wright & Son - none labour in the solitary manner of the original Little Mesters. Only Trevor.
This original mode of work had gradually disappeared by the turn of the 19 century - reflecting advances in industrialisation, which saw escalating order sizes and increases in product complexity. The repercussions of such developments were significant for these master cutlers, with a shift from generalisation towards specialities in a fixed skill, such as grinding or finishing, and in specific industry areas, like pocket-knives or surgical instruments. Yet these Little Mesters would remain the backbone of the industry for many years, until economies of scale and tight margins devoured them. And their industry.
Working out of a ramshackle old barracks near Sheffield’s Bramall Lane, he fills a space many before have occupied - a man, a bench, his tools, and the knife. His universe. “I’ve been lucky, me hobby is also me livin'. And it’s never been boring, each knife is different, each has its own problems. That’s why I still love making a knife from scratch, there’s no better feeling.” Usually working with batches of 20 knives, if he were to work on a lone knife it would take him some three hours to complete. To watch him work is to see time collapsed into an instant. A solitary blink. The 15yr old boy, the 73yr old man. Memories are carried within his every action, and in that moment he is one man, and he is every man whoever walked in to the cutler’s world.
Having left school with nothing but memories for his efforts, Trevor was offered a job at his uncle Emil’s cutlery firm, JY Cowlishaw, “I didn’t know what to do, but I weren’t going to be a doctor that was fer sure. Luckily me uncle Emil gave me a job wi him.” He spent the next decade with Emil, learning each step on the path to producing a knife, until an argument and youthful folly led him to leave. But he didn’t go far. Simply letting gravity take him downstairs and into the arms of A Myers & Co. cutthroat razor manufacturers, who occupied the building's ground floor.
Five years later, Trevor found himself making the journey in reverse, time having put his family disagreement to rest. And so it would have continued, but for the tragic death of uncle Emil and his wife in a car accident. “What a character Emil was. He’d come from Poland during the war and never left. He were built like a brick, solid, and the hardest worker I ever met.”
The tragedy, and a suggestion from his mentor Harry Wragg, saw Trevor strike out under his own mark, TW Ablett, in 1980. “Harry were a great cutler, and taught me everything I know. I owe it all to him. He says to me, 'Trevor I’ll show you how to make a decent pocket knife. One that’ll sell'. And he did.”
Taking out a workshop in the barracks, Harry and Trevor worked together until Harry’s death. After which Trevor worked alone for a time, before renting a bench out to Reg Cooper. Also a Little Mester, Reg’s forte is hand-making America’s most iconic blade, the Bowie Knife. At 83, Reg has been in the game almost 70 years. He’ll retire when Trevor leaves the trade.
It is only his own mortality that is bringing Trevor’s work to a close, with the diagnosis of a life ending illness. And when this cutler, who has seen the passing years reflected in the blade's unforgiving stare, locks up on his final day, it will be a profound loss. It will be the folding away of an ordinary life, and an extraordinary piece of history.