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Forged in Steel, thanks to Harry

8 October 2018

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Below is an adaptation of an article, written by club historian, John Garrett, which appeared in UTB - United's official programme - at the weekend and tells how Kevin McCabe, Tony Currie and the Blades have honoured one of Sheffield's steel pioneers recently....

Last month club director Tony Currie joined father and son David and Ivantony Browne outside Walton Cottage, Mead Road, Torquay to unveil a blue plaque to a man who changed the world - a guy by the name of Harry Brearley, who was born in Sheffield and a Blade in more ways than one!

Brearley's invention of stainless steel revolutionised its manufacture and use; lifelong Blades David and Ivantony wanted to mark the fact that he had passed away in the town where they have been, for many years, successful hoteliers.

The steel industry that Harry served so well and gave so much to showed no interest, but a chance conversation with United co-owner Kevin McCabe saw Brearley finally recognised, but what connected the great inventor to the red and white wizards?

Harry Brearley was born on 18th January 1871, some 18 years before the birth of the Blades, on Spital Street, not far from the Burngreave area of Sheffield, in fact, he went to Woodside School on Andover Street in that very district, leaving school at the tender age of 12. His father was in the steel industry, as many where back then, so it was natural that Brearley would follow suit. Eventually, after being encouraged to attend evening classes, he joined a fledgling research laboratory facility and began his steps towards the great discovery he would make.

He married a local girl by the name of Ellen Crank in 1894 and moved to their own home on Brook Terrace, just off Mickley Lane, in Totley in 1895. Letters from the family show that, although blissfully in love and happy, money was, at first, short in supply. Also back then Totley would have been a real outpost of the then fledgling city and a fair journey from work. It would also have been some way away from the smogs of the steelworks, so a good place to start family life. Only son Leo, who would immigrate to Australia, was born there in 1896.

In 1908, principle steelmaking companies decided to join forces and create a common research facility which became known as Brown Firth Laboratories. Brearley was already regarded as one of the best in his field and was asked to lead the project, based off Princess Street in the Attercliffe area.

Around this time, it is believed that he moved to a house known as 'Elmwood' in Old Whittington, Chesterfield, a move even further away from the industry that employed him. It seems that he was living here when he changed the world, there are roads named after him there as well as the famous wing at the Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, not far from where he grew up.

His primary work was linked to finding a new steel that would give resistance to corrosion prior to what would become WWI. He added chromium to steel which raised the melting point compared to standard steel. Also, quite by accident, he found that the test pieces, when stored in normal conditions, were extremely resistant to rust - a vital discovery.

His background probably helped in finding a new way to exploit its potential, as did his connection with Ernest Stuart of RF Moseley's. Their base was the Portland Works, a stone's throw from our famous home, and now thankfully a listed building, owned and effectively saved by a working co-operative of 500 'shareholders' - built in the 1870s as the stadium developed over the road, the part it would play would be crucial.

Brearley had first truly created a definitive 'rustless' steel in an electric furnace on 13th August 1913, the name 'stainless' was given by Stuart, the manufacture of products that would bear the trademarked name of 'Rustnorstain' commenced in 1914 and would become a mark famous and respected throughout the world. The War interrupted further serious research, but Brearley was awarded the Iron and Steel Bessemer Gold Medal for his work in 1920. A mark of the quality of the steel that came from the Portland Works was a knife that was taken by a friend of Harry's, Griffith Taylor, on Scott's last expedition to Antarctica in 1912 on the Terra Nova, he survived, as did the stainless blade.

Brearley became a director of Brown Bailey's in 1925, the year United last won the FA Cup, was made a Freeman of the city in 1939 and in 1941 created, with a donation of £20,000 from his own back pocket, the 'Freshgate Trust Foundation' - still alive and well today and designed to give people from a less fortunate background the chance to enjoy education and the arts, some gift to the people.

It would seem that football and Sheffield United were in his blood, but his work in the city's primary industry would have also brought him close to many great names associated with the Blades. Richard Lawrence, builder of the famous open air swimming pool at Hathersage and the man who put the roof on the Shoreham Street Kop used his invention for the famed 'Laurel Blade Razor Blades' that were made on Nursery Street just off the Wicker, as were 'Wardonia Blades' - the Wards version that were turned out in Chaucer Yard on Countess Road under the very shadow of the John Street Stand itself, don't forget its birthplace at Portland Works is also only a short goal kick as well, familiar names not only to Sheffield but in the matchday programme of the Football Club itself as advertisers.

Brearley's path would almost certainly have also frequently crossed with our greatest ever goalscorer. Harry Johnson netted 252 goals in 395 appearances, a record made even more incredible by the fact that for his entire career he was a 'part time' player, who had a permanent occupation, and that was as a metallurgist for, wait for it, Brown Bailey's, the very company that Mr Brearley was a director of from 1925, about the same time that our Harry was lifting the FA Cup against Cardiff City. I'd guess that he was a frequent visitor to his office with the coveted winners' medal a time or two!

When he eventually retired, it was the Devon seaside town of Torquay that Brearley and his wife chose. After spending around a year in Australia with his son for what was reported as health reasons, they built Walton Cottage and moved in there. Interestingly, another Blades FA Cup hero, David Mercer, had moved there after his United career had finished. Joining the Gulls in 1929, his son, also called David, played for them on 66 league occasions as well. I wonder how many times they bumped into each other on the English Riviera? You would have hoped that one of Sheffield's greatest industrial minds would have enjoyed catching up with one of the club's brightest stars of the 1920s team, wouldn't you? Mercer passed away in Torquay in June 1950.

Brearley died on 14th August 1948 and his former employers received royalty cheques from all around the world for his attention for many years after he passed!

It seems fitting that David and Ivantony Browne, also sons of the city who relocated to picturesque Devon town, wanted to mark the fact that this great man spent his last years there and thankfully Kevin McCabe saw the value in marking that fact by supporting the plaque. It is also fitting that another legend of the steel city, TC, should be there to see the honour come true - he played his last games for Torquay United in the 1980s - and also attended a game at Plainmoor after the ceremony as guest of honour.

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