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The Assay Office on Leopold Street in Sheffield City Centre

Sheffield History

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Sheffield History

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There has been an Assay Office in Sheffield since 1773, when local silversmiths, who resented the inconvenience of having to send their wares to London for hallmarking, joined with Birmingham petitioners to ask Parliament for their own Offices. Despite fierce opposition from the London Goldsmiths' Company, an Act of Parliament was passed, granting Sheffield the right to assay silver.

Because the Select Committee which considered the petition had uncovered so many abuses by the existing Assay Offices, Parliament made sure that the new ones were more strictly controlled. The Act appointed thirty local men, including Thomas, the 3rd Earl of Effingham as 'Guardians of the Standard of Wrought Plate within the Town of Sheffield' to supervise the work of the Office.

By restricting the number of Guardians who were silversmiths to fewer than ten, Parliament made sure that the Office was run for the benefit of the consumer rather than the manufacturer. The day to day running of the Office was entrusted to an Assay Master who had to take his oath before the Master of the Royal Mint and enter into a Bond for £500. The Office was to be non-profit making, and its running costs were to be met by the hallmarking charges paid by the manufacturers. More than two hundred years later, the Office is still funded in exactly the same way.

Originally, Sheffield had the right to mark all silver goods produced within a twenty mile radius of Sheffield. After the second Sheffield Act of 1784, the office also had the right to keep a Register of all makers' marks on plated silver wares made within one hundred miles radius - which of course included Birmingham.

From 1836 this Register unfortunately fell into disuse, but before then Sheffield and Birmingham frequently quarrelled over Sheffield's monopoly, and Sheffield occasionally threatened to prosecute Birmingham makers for using unregistered marks. Possibly this explains why more Birmingham platers than Sheffield registered their marks.

The 1773 Act empowered Sheffield to use a Crown for its town mark. The story goes that this was because the Birmingham and Sheffield petitioners for the Act met at the 'Crown and Anchor', an inn situated off The Strand in London, and that each town adopted one of these signs as its mark. Certainly the inn existed - but whether there is any truth in the story is unknown. After 1903, when Sheffield was finally allowed to assay and mark gold as well as silver (the result of a clause in the Sheffield Corporation Act), Sheffield was unique in having two town marks - the Crown for silver and the Yorkshire rose for gold.

For the first eleven years the Office struggled to survive, borrowing heavily from local silversmiths. By using mass-production methods for stamping out thin silver, Sheffield made very light wares which competed strongly with heavier London-made goods. Assaying, however, was charged for by weight. Over 100 knife handles could be marked for only 5p - a price which did not reflect the time and effort involved. The only way to make ends meet was to increase charges. The Act of 1784 charged for small articles by count instead of weight. As a result, the Office's fortunes revived.

The first Assay Office was a rented house on Norfolk Street and the first Assay Master a Londoner, Daniel Bradbury. The Office only opened on Mondays and Thursdays, though Mr. Bradbury was allowed to open on a third day for private assays. In 1774 the Office moved to a court off Norfolk Street "lately occupied by Thomas Boulsover" - the inventor of Old Sheffield Plate. By 1795 the Office had moved again, this time to a brand new building on Fargate.

In the nineteenth century, Sheffield became a major manufacturing centre with an international reputation for its silver and cutlery. Production continued to grow rapidly and it became obvious that the Office could no longer cope unless its opening hours increased. When, in 1880, the Fargate premises were needed for road-widening, the Guardians acquired a new site in Leopold Street and remained there until 1958. By this time, however, the demand for silver goods had fallen dramatically and the building was much too large.

Before the War 1,250,000 ounces of silver passed through the Office each year. By 1958 this had fallen to 300,000 ounces. Many large local firms closed and it seemed as though the only people still making silverwares were skilled craft-workers. The Office moved again, this time to a much smaller building in Portobello Street.

After the Hallmarking Act was passed in 1973, the nature of the work submitted to the Assay Office changed. No longer were the main customers the traditional Sheffield silversmiths producing large pieces of hollow-ware. Goods from all over the United Kingdom and abroad came in to be assayed, and foreign gold (especially 9ct gold chains) became very important. The extra workload involved by this increase in smaller articles necessitated re-development - initially within the existing building, to streamline the laboratories and make more marking space. In 1973, Jack Cheetham made some cufflinks in which the hallmark was a necessary and important part of the decoration; Jack Spencer adapted this idea and used the largest size of hallmark as decoration on a range of gold and silver jewellery.

A cheaper alternative then appeared, in which the mark was placed vertically down a rectangular block to make 'dog-tag' pendants, and these, especially when they incorporated the Special Mark to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee, became phenomenally successful.

The income from this extra work was used in alterations to make the Goldsmiths' Wing to create more marking space, and the foundation stone was laid by Ian Threlfall, Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths' Company, in October 1978. More space for marking was created by renting office space elsewhere in the town and converting the existing offices into marking rooms. Meanwhile, the Office bought the former 'Willow Tree' public house next door and fitted it out for offices and marking. By now the British Hallmarking Council was pressing for an expansion of hallmarking facilities in Britain, so the Office bought the Charleston Works on Orange Street adjacent to the 'Willow Tree' to give better access to customers and more off-street parking, and to allow room for more building. In March 1983 Sir Frederick Dainton, then Prime Warden of the Goldsmiths' Company, laid the foundation stone of the Guardians' Hall. The new building was completed in 1985 and officially opened by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in December 1986. It provided extra space for offices, laboratories, staff facilities, Board Room and Library.

The Hallmarking Act of 1973 removed many restrictions on marking and consolidated many earlier Acts. It was based on the Trade Descriptions Act and made it an offence to sell almost anything as gold, silver or platinum unless first assayed and marked. For the first time, all the Offices adopted the same date-letter and alphabet. After 200 years, Sheffield lost its Crown mark for silver and used the Yorkshire Rose on both gold and silver. Platinum was not assayed in Sheffield until June 1975, mainly because of the cost of the equipment needed, but testing and marking were finally introduced to meet local customers' demands.

The Office has continued to adapt to customers' needs. Recent internal alterations have created more laboratory space and streamlined the hallmarking process. In 1997 laser marking was introduced for hollow articles such as necklaces, watch-cases and bangles, which would have been damaged by traditional methods. Over a quarter of a million of such items were marked in 1999. Other services, such as nickel-free testing for jewellery and mercury-screening for occupational exposure, complement traditional assaying and hallmarking.

January 1999 saw the introduction of additional (lower) standards for gold, silver and platinum to enable free competition within the European Community. For the first time the date-letter became voluntary rather than compulsory, and the sterling lion mark and crown gold mark also became optional. Now all goods are marked with their standard of fineness in parts per thousand, and it is no longer possible to distinguish between British and foreign-made articles. The effect on British manufacturing remains to be seen. However, an additional special mark for the millennium was also introduced, to be used on any item made between January 1999 and December 2000, at the manufacturer's request. This captured the imagination of the public, and increased the sale of precious metal wares.

In the 21st century the workload has continued to grow. 2001 was the busiest year ever in the Office's long history. Over 12.9 million articles were assayed and marked in Sheffield. More staff were taken on, and the building extended yet again, this time to create a new top floor for Guardians' Hall, providing comfortable staff accommodation, whilst the old staff room was converted to make more room for marking. The extension was opened on April 11th 2002 by HRH the Duke of Kent, KG, the third Royal visitor to the Office in 30 years. Another special mark, to commemorate H.M Queen Elizabeth II's Golden Jubilee, was used for one year only in 2002.

Initially, any profits made by the Office had to be used solely for prosecuting those who broke the law on hallmarking. However, by the beginning of the twentieth century when the local silver industry was at its height, the Office was making a large profit. As a result, a new Act was granted in 1906, permitting some of the surplus to be spent on providing a collection of books or objects relating to the silver and gold industry, to promoting technical education in Sheffield especially for the silver and gold industry and to charitable donations.

Since then, the Office has built up a large specialised library and a collection of silver, mainly made in Sheffield. In addition, the Office has sponsored various competitions to encourage local craftsmen, and, most recently, financed a fully equipped workshop unit at Persistence Works for metalwork and jewellery graduates starting out in business. In addition, the Office is a corporate member of the Millennium Galleries, where the splendid Millennium Punch Bowl is on display. This ongoing commission was the result of collaboration between four local designers; Alex Brogden, Chris Knight, Brett Payne and Keith Tyssen. A new cup is to be added each year, commissioned by the Assay Office from a modern designer.

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