Man who invented stainless steel was undoubtedly worthy of blue plaque

Torbay Weekly

The stories behind Torbay's blue plaques by Ian Handford, chairman of Torbay Civic Society. This week: Harry Brearley

This was always going to be an incredible plaque story of importance and yet I admit to having initially missed its significance to Torquay.

I was first alerted to the Harry Brearley Stainless Steel Centenary Conference and Exhibition in Sheffield by past owners of Upton Metal Works in Torquay being members of our society.

Had I recognised the importance of the 2013 conference to Torquay, I would have likely attended.

The next reference came in a letter from Darrell Clarke of the North East Derbyshire Industrial Society (NEDIS) who believed NEDIS would sponsor a plaque to celebrate the life of this amazing inventor who had retired to Torquay.

Looking back Darrell's initial enthusiasm soon ebbed, as it actually took me three years before finalising the full sponsorship so that plaque could be formally agreed.

Stainless steel is one of the planet's most versatile metals as we use it to for virtually everything from cutlery to items sent out to space and there is no human in the world that has not come into contact with this amazing steel.

For the man who invented the product, he undoubtedly was fully worthy of a TCS plaque at his home.

Eventually, a blue plaque was unveiled at what had been his home - 21 Mead Road, Livermead - in retirement and until his death in 1948.

Sixty years later vice chairman of Torbay Council Mrs Jane Barnby with escort Richard and the famous footballer Tony Currie, holder of 17 Caps for England who even played for Torquay United in 1984, was in attendance with his wife.

Tony is a director of Sheffield United Football Club and a member of a sponsor, The Scarborough Group Foundation, and he attended the unveiling as a joint representative although, sadly, Darrell did not attend.

Harry was just 12 when joining his father at the crucible steel works of Thomas Firth & Sons Sheffield as a 'cellar boy'.

In his autobiography many years later it tells us that his father 'was an expert steel smelter and an expert ale suppa', while he was picked out 'as his face was cleaner than another's'.

It started Harry's career as fully outlined in our pamphlet - a career from cellar boy to laboratory assistant, precursors towards his inventing of the new product 'rustless steel' - ultimately stainless steel.

Harry married Helen Crank at age 24 and they had one son Leonard and, again from his biography, we glean that during his early years in the North he “dreamed of being in a cottage on the edge of the Derbyshire Moors – where the air quality was of a degree of purity he could never experience in Brightside.”

His book Knotted String tells us of the discovery of rustless steel and that at first no-one in authority saw anything of commercial value or use, still less being a scientific breakthrough.

It led to his famous comment: "I hope I will not be taken amiss if I say - that workmen are often much wiser than their masters.”

Harry eventually left Yorkshire and Derbyshire to live in South Africa before moving to Australia, where Leonard and his five children lived.

Eventually, after much more travelling, the Brearleys finally came home to England to eventually move to Devon, where in 1928 they came to live at Livermead, after Harry had arranged to build his own home 'Walton Cottage' in Mead Road, Torquay.

The sponsorship of the blue plaque and our pamphlet was assured via the generosity of four sponsors - The Foundation Group, Mrs Tibbetts, Mr and Mrs Browne of Exmouth View Hotel and Mr and Mrs P and L Phillips.

Having taken three long years until the plaque was officially unveiled on the gatepost of 21 Mead Road, Livermead, on September 29, 2018, now everyone attending enjoyed afternoon refreshment courtesy of our hosts - Patrick and Lynne Phillips.

A colour pamphlet 'Walton Cottage - Harry Brearley (1871-1948) inventor of stainless steel' can be obtained by sending two second class stamps plus a stamped addressed envelope to Torbay Civic Society, 4 Palace Avenue, Paignton TQ3 3HA.