Freeman College

Sheffield, South Yorkshire S1 2NG


The Trust expands north and Freeman College in Sheffield is opened, with a part gift of the Merlin Tintagel Theatre. Freeman is the Trust’s first city centre college, transforming a derelict silver cutlery factory

Freeman origins

Fifty years in the construction from 1797, the original structure of Sterling Works was a two-storey building with a barrel vaulted cellar and workshops with jack arch ceilings. As the need for manufacturing grew during the 1800s, more workshops were constructed on the site.

In 1908, C.W. Fletcher and Sons moved their business into Sterling Works and started to produce finished silver cutlery. By 1922, they were diversifying and manufacturing silver and electro-plate trophies, tableware, Britannia metalware, canteens, stainless cutlery and pocket knives.

Fletchers relocated their business in 2002 and the Sterling Works site in Arundel Street was left vacant. In 2004, Ruskin Mill Trust was looking at potential sites for a new college in Sheffield. In November that year, their offer was accepted on Sterling Works. Renovation work started in 2005.

Sterling Works, 2004

Sterling Works, 2004


Freeman College was launched in February 2005 with a ceremony at Cutlers’ Hall in Sheffield. John Ruskin remarked that, “In Cutlers Iron Works, we have in Sheffield the best of its kind done by English hands, unsurpassable when the workman chooses to do all he knows by that of any living nation.”

Freeman College opened in September 2005, not on the Sterling Works site, but in a nearby pewter factory. The initial curriculum included spoon forging, copper work, pewter work and whittle tang. In addition, there was a kitchen and canteen on the site, and a small garden nearby at Tintagel House.

The reconstruction of Sterling Works for Freeman College was funded in part by the Townscape Heritage Initiative, the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Objective One. It involved demolishing the courtyard area and then constructing a new two-storey extension in the shape of a pyrite crystal. The new extension, clad in copper, forms a central focus in which a pedagogical and social hearth brings the student journey into the heart of the college. Buried underneath the courtyard is a time capsule in the shape of a double dodecahedron, and within it a double pyrite crystal. Great attention and care went into the design and build of Sterling Works. Some aspects of the construction were informed by an understanding of the properties of the seven traditional metals (gold in the bell, silver, copper, iron in the steel works, tin, lead and mercury) and the seven woods (oak, elm, cherry, birch, ash, maple, conifer).

A research project was undertaken to apply, in a contemporary way, knowledge of Rudolf Steiner’s Seven Life Processes, and these can be seen in a beautifully constructed sevenfold glass window in the canteen. A later commission, informed by the seven woods using rootstock from the seven trees, was created by a sculptural artist to depict the sevenfold journey of the students.

The courtyard in the centre of the college softens the industrial building and provides a social space for the students. In February 2008, Freeman College moved into the new Sterling Works.

The new courtyard under construction.

The new courtyard under construction.


Cutlery has been made in Sheffield for 600 years and the city has been a centre for high quality cutlery for over 300 years. Freeman College breathed new life into an old silver forging factory. The Trust was fortunate to acquire the machinery from a famous Sheffield cutlery company called Samuel Staniforth Ltd. Students restored the blanking presses, a grinding machine, a polishing machine, multi-polishers and a large stock of tooling.

The curriculum incorporates a wide range of metal processes of which whittle tang is just one. ‘Tang’ describes the part of a knife that does not have a sharp edge. It connects the blade to the handle and may be partly exposed below the guard. A whittle tang is like a spike, hidden inside the handle.

Pewter in liquid form is poured into moulds to create objects or bent, shaped and soldered to make tankards and canteens. Copper can be forged or shaped by heat. Often a die is used to create the desired shape. Silver is a much harder metal than copper so it takes more hammering, and it does not oxidise in the same way as copper.

Metal is a hard substance to work with. It requires will and persistence to transform it into something useful and beautiful.

“As I began to polish my spoon, my picture of myself began to be reflected. It looked weird as it distorted my reflection. Sometimes I looked better than I thought, I felt, and sometimes I looked disturbed. My dislike for myself was tested because the spoon was beautiful.”


– Freeman College Student


A copper billet and a forged spoon

A copper billet and a forged spoon


Sheffield has been one of the biggest producers of cutlery and blades in Europe. The significant growth experienced during the industrial revolution was greatly impacted by the oil crisis of the 1970s. When Ruskin Mill Trust came to Sheffield, the intention was not only to revitalise a building, but also to recognise and celebrate the legacy of the metal crafts.

Forging relationships with masters from different metal trades was essential and as early as December 2004 conversations were held with local metalworkers about establishing an Academy of Makers next door to Freeman College in Butcher Works. Supported by the European Social Fund and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the re-imagining of the workshops brought great economic benefit and goodwill. The ground floor now includes a gallery, a café and workshop spaces for master craftspeople where students from the college can learn.

Fusion Café, a showcase for organic and biodynamic food, was designed to provide an opportunity for the students of Freeman College to mix with the local community and university students, as well as gaining valuable work experience.

Arnold Freeman had an aim to use performances as a way to offer education to those less able to access it. The Merlin Theatre, part of Freeman College, is where a former Freeman College drama tutor and five Freeman College graduates started the Spectrum Theatre Company. Brought back to life by Ruskin Mill Trust after years of disuse due to asbestos and water damage, the Merlin is also hired by local groups. Students help with the sets, lighting and front of house as part of their work experience.

A shave horse demonstration in the Butcher Works Gallery

A shave horse demonstration in the Butcher Works Gallery

All in a name

Arnold Freeman (1886–1972) was born in north London into a non-conformist family who owned and ran a cigar-making factory. Educated at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School, he went on to study history and economics from 1905 to 1908 at St. John’s College, Oxford. Ruskin Mill Trust has helped to rekindle the legacy of Arnold Freeman, along with that of Christopher Bolton who worked closely with him. Bolton established the Merlin Theatre at Tintagel House in Nether Edge.

Freeman was committed to the workers’ social movement and used drama and performing arts as a way to provide education for the workers. The Arnold Freeman Hall is in the Merlin Theatre, Tintagel House, part of Freeman College.

On acquiring a new site, the Trust undertakes a genius loci audit, a step-by-step collaborative Goethean inquiry into the four kingdoms of nature: mineral, plant, animal and human. The information gathered is used to inspire the creation of the situated craft and land-based curriculum, and the naming of the college.

Freeman College was named after Arnold Freeman for his work in Sheffield in education and social reform, and for his promotion of Rudolf Steiner’s work, both of which are aligned with the Trust’s vision, values, purpose and method.

“By ‘Education’ we mean everything by means of which people may become more spiritual; everything that enriches human beings, with that which described in three words is Beauty, Truth and Goodness.” Arnold Freeman, The Sheffield Educational Settlement Papers.”


– Arnold Freeman, The Sheffield Educational Settlement Papers


“Very shortly afterwards I came across an article of Dr. Steiner’s in the Hibbert Journal. This article made an immediate and profound impression upon me. Here was a thinker altogether greater than the Shaws and the Webbs and the Wellses. Here was somebody who saw all round the social problem. What Steiner had to say in this connection led me to consider what he had to say in other connections. It swiftly came about that for me there was now only one question in my life: ‘How can I help that man?’ For me and others like me this question knocks insistently at their hearts.”


Thou Eye Among the Blind (1921)

Arnold Freeman

Arnold Freeman


Ruskin Mill Trust worked with Robert Lord, a colour consultant who used colour theory and perceptions from Rudolf Steiner, John Ruskin and Goethe to create and enhance the aesthetic in rooms and buildings. Freeman College was the first Ruskin Mill Trust site that Robert developed.

The colours in the corridors of Freeman College create spaces of movement. Pale yellows and soft oranges that are light and bright provide an atmosphere of activity.

Entrances to a building should be warm and welcoming; the classrooms and workshops in Freeman needed to be awakening and refreshing. The soft pink and green colours used throughout Freeman inspire a feeling of vibrancy.

As Ruskin recognised, colour is an expression of emotion that enhances an individual’s experience in a space.

“The fact is, that, of all God’s gifts to the sight of man, colour is the holiest, the most divine, the most solemn…”

“You can only possess beauty through understanding it.”

– John Ruskin

The Freeman College colour palette

The Freeman College colour palette

Lamp of Beauty

Ruskin believed that the natural world was the model for beauty and that the lines, shapes and proportions in architecture should be derived from nature.

The renovation of Sterling Works attempted to bring in natural elements that were affiliated to the history of the building and locality, to help transform the identity of the building from a factory to a place of learning and development. The genius loci demanded that the building was designed to include the seven metals, natural materials that have a lawfulness and beauty unto themselves.

The extension was designed in the shape of a pyritohedron pyrite crystal; its shiny surfaces mirror and reflect. The two-storey extension, clad in copper, brings these qualities to Freeman College.

As Ruskin recognised, colour is an expression of emotion that enhances an individual’s experience in a space.

“The value of architecture depends on two distinct characters; the one, the impression it receives from human power; the other, the image it bears of the natural creation… consisting in a noble rendering of images of Beauty, derived chiefly from the external appearances of organic nature.”


– John Ruskin

Detail of copper cladding, Freeman College extension

Detail of copper cladding, Freeman College extension