My friend Stan Shaw, who has died aged 94, was Sheffield’s pre-eminent pocket-knife maker, and his career spanned almost 80 years.
Born in Worrall, near Sheffield, Stan was the son of Walter Shaw, a ganister miner, and his wife, Amelia (nee Coldwell). His father died aged 45 from silicosis, leaving his mother to raise a family of nine. Stan’s childhood and education were further blighted by illness, which kept him in hospital for several years.
In 1941 he knocked on the door of the Sheffield cutlery firm Ibberson and asked for a job. Ibberson was one of the last manufacturers to support the old skills, and he was apprenticed to the Osborne brothers – Fred and Ted – whom he would later describe as “two of the best cutlers in Sheffield”. By 1954, when he married Rosemary Burgin, Stan had succeeded them as the company’s premier pocket-knife craftsman.
However, his craft – and the family-based cutlery industry in general – was already in decline, due to imports of cheap goods from the far east and mass-produced Swiss Army knives. He held on until 1983 but then was made redundant.
Unwilling to retire at 57, he rented an old workshop and, helped by Rosemary), became an independent cutler (or “little mester”). With no co-workers, Stan had to master the gamut of traditional pocket-knife making skills himself, including grinding, hardening and tempering, fashioning the handles in pearl, ivory, horn, or wood, and assembling the parts into a a smoothly functioning end product.
His exhibition knives – entirely handmade in silver, gold, or platinum – were astonishing creations, though he was as happy making everyday pocket knives. His order book eventually became very full, which was fine, because he had a fierce work ethic.
Approachable and unassuming, Stan never seemed to lose his fascination in crafting knives. Even at the end of 2019, when he was into his 90s, he was still clocking on at 7.30am to spend the day at his workbench at Kelham Island Museum.
In 2003 he had become an honorary freeman of the Company of Cutlers; and in 2017 he was awarded the British Empire Medal – the first time a little mester had received any public honour. Characteristically, Stan saw it as belated recognition for his predecessors in the trade who had laboured in dreadful conditions for such poor wages.
He is survived by Rosemary and their three children, Jane, Andrew and Kevin.