I had to make a hurried and brief visit to London. There is somebody you need to meet, said my friend. Come straightaway. The fact I heard this at 9am, and had only been asleep for four hours, made it an interesting journey. And so, hungover, I found myself waiting outside the world famous Savoy Hotel in The Strand. I would like to say the meeting was in the hotel, but it would take place in a nearby Costa Coffee.
I watched London rush by and looked up at the hotel entrance. “Fantastic engineering, isn’t it?” said a voice behind me. “It’s stainless steel,” said the member of staff. “Do you know they once found a dead body on top of the glass canopy?” I didn’t, and later found out it was true. In 1935, a down-and-out, one of the unemployed, exhausted, and defeated, had painfully climbed on to the shining stainless steel canopy over the entrance to the hotel to die of starvation.
And this got me thinking. Stainless steel. Was there a Sheffield connection? On my way home, I found out that there was.
“Isn’t it lovely?” exclaimed a girl gazing at the entrance to the adjacent Savoy Theatre. “Fancy a theatre front made of silver!” The year was 1931, and her boyfriend knew better. “That’s not silver. It’s stainless steel, and it’s made in Sheffield.”
But he was only partly right. The famous Sheffield product was not, strictly speaking, stainless steel, but a development of it – chromium nickel steel – which could be polished up to a degree that eclipsed the brilliance of polished silver and retained its sheen in any atmosphere.
‘Staybrite’ was a product of Thomas Firth and Sons, and in the 1920s and 1930s was making its mark in London. It was used for the imposing entrance to the Oxford Street Corner House, and combined with glass, there were the massive entrances to the Savoy Hotel and Savoy Taylor’s Guild, the beautiful rotating doors of the Strand Palace Hotel, and glittering turnstiles at the Olympia.
And there were examples abroad. Including the main entrance and ticket barriers of Geneva railway station, ornamental gates at Berne, and the doors of the Palais de Justice at Lausanne.
It was all manufactured in Sheffield.
Harry Brearley was the man credited with the invention of ‘rustless steel,’ but he left Brown Firth Laboratories in 1915 after a disagreement. It was his successor, Dr W.H. Hatfield who created the so-called “18/8” – Staybrite, still the most widely used alloy of this type.
The testing of it was rigorous. It was buried in a garden for six months and came up gleaming as new. It was attached to a vessel bound on a nine months’ voyage and dragged through the waves for that long period, hauled aboard, and found to be bright as polished silver.
Its use is ubiquitous now, but how did the Savoy Hotel come to get this Sheffield product? It was all about art-deco. A young architect, Howard Robertson, wrote to the hotel pitching for work, and in 1929 he revealed his most famous and prominent design – The Savoy’s iconic ‘Staybrite’ sign which runs the width of Savoy Court.
©2022 David Poole. All Rights Reserved.