All Dun: The Story of Dun Works

Words: Loz Harvey

Much like the River Don, this piece of writing has travelled a meandering journey from its source. First intended as a podcast in February 2020, it ran dry when the pandemic hit, only to find a fresh flow when it somehow trickled its way on to Exposed’s radar. Behold the story of Dun Works, now dun and dusted, 18 months on. It’s a story about a name, and forging a new identity for a forgotten factory complex in the heart of Kelham.

“I’ve always loved the name River Don,” says social media expert and innovator Justine Gaubert, drinking out of a mug inscribed with the words All Dun, Nearly Dun and Not Dun, together with the appropriate water, I mean, tea, levels.

Dun Works mugs

The woman behind the Academy of Dangerous Dreamers, one of Sheffield’s best thought-of creative agencies, is sitting in one of the new bedrooms at Dun Works, South Yorkshire Housing Association’s social housing development on the site of Williams Brothers, a factory that made rivets, sockets and screws in the 19th and 20th centuries.

South Yorkshire Housing Association (SYHA) has always been looking for new areas to build beautiful and affordable homes. It struck up a partnership with Cheyne Capital Management’s Social Property Impact Fund to develop Dun Works in Kelham Island, the first deal of its kind for a housing association.

Now it’s built more than 200 apartments, with a third of these available to rent at ‘sub-market’ level. The third and final phase of Dun Works completed earlier this year.
To preserve the area’s rich industrial history, SYHA has restored and reused. It salvaged 36,000 of the original bricks — and sills, lintels and the metal signage — from the building when it belonged to Williams Brothers. It also re-erected some of the original signage, which you can see on Dun Fields and Green Lane.

Justine Gaubert in Dun Works

To celebrate Kelham Island’s renowned heritage, community and creativity, SYHA commissioned a piece of public art on the exterior of Dun Works. Owen Waterhouse, a local Sheffield artist, has used stainless steel spheres to illustrate the true path of the River Don.

And Justine was brought in to shape the narrative and identity of the new homes — based on her love of language and the river itself, which courses nearby.

“It always strikes me as something solid,” Justine says of the river, which gave the development its name. “Don. It’s like it’s your dad, or something,” she tells me over a brew in Dun Works in February 2020.

History and heritage are very important to Dun Works — a development that has transformed part of Kelham’s industrial past. Even the bin store and cycle racks are a reconditioned grade two listed kiln from the early days of Sheffield industry.

Inside Dun Works apartments

We were talking to Justine and SYHA’s guiding light Miranda Plowden for a podcast of Looking Up Sheffield that was due to air in March 2020. It was a beautiful sunny morning and we had a really great, long and free-flowing chat that led to a podcast that was really strong — but then, the first lockdown happened, and all that vibrancy and positivity suddenly didn’t seem in keeping with the mood music of the nation. I sat on the tapes — and time went by.

Eighteen months, with the final phase at Dun Works completed and part of a Kelham that continues to change and develop, it was time to revisit that interview. And the way words, poetry and language, as well as the Don itself, have influenced a key city centre development.

Back to 2020. Justine takes up the story of how she became involved in Dun Works.

Dun Works

“I’ve always been drawn to the area,” she says. “I was having a few beers with a neighbour, and on the back of a Richard Hawley album she’d brought along, we saw a mention of The Gardener’s Rest.

“And we set off to find it. I sat in the beer garden all afternoon and fell in love with it. When I left the agency to set up my social enterprise, Silent Cities, I made an office on Burton Road, just down the road from The Gardeners, where Yellow Arch is now.

“We ran community journalist programmes for anyone without a voice in mainstream society, and the people were so talented in film and photography and it was such a buzz to help people tell their own stories.

“But as anyone who runs workshops like that will testify, it takes quite a lot out of you. I’m autistic and much as I loved what I did, being with people all day meant I had nothing left at the end of the day.

Justine Gaubert outside Dun Works

“I used to come down to the Gardeners afterwards for a pint and cadge a roll-up from someone, and lean out over the Don.

“And the sense of peace it’s always given me, restores my balance. You can breathe out, you feel like you’ve come home.

“And then from nowhere, there’s a flash of blue out of the corner of your eye and it’s a kingfisher! And it reveals itself to you as a gift. Something to soothe your eyes, you know?”
Justine was approached by SYHA to create a visual identity for the new flats, complete with a public art installation that resembled the broad sweep of the river, visible from Green Lane.

SYHA and its partner Cheyne are the driving force behind Dun Works — a different offer for people, an offer that’s affordable for people who risk being priced out of the market, the kind of people who made Kelham a great place to live.

And that’s where Justine, fresh from a TED talk that talked about her experiences of autism and the creative sector, came in.

“As I said, the name Don always made me smile,” she says. “Because it’s a real Sheffield dad’s name innit! Go and speak to Don — he’ll sort yer art!”

“So to have a river called ‘DON’ has always just made me smile. AND it got me wondering about the origins of the name Don.

“In my loo I’ve got a book called the History of Sheffield by David Hey and he says that the names of Britain’s major rivers are amongst the oldest words in our lexicon. He reckoned that the Don was actually pronounced and spelt Dun. The name is pre-celtic in origin, and goes far back into the prehistoric period.

“This led me to a guy called Albert Huw Smith and his book ‘The Place Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire’. He said the origin of the name was Brittonic, the ancient celtic language that eventually broke off into Celtic languages like Welsh and Cornish. In Brittonic, Don probably comes from: Dānā from a root dān-, meaning “water” or “river”.

Outside Dun Works

“So I guess from that it went from Dan, to Dun, to Don. But I’m sure there are other people out there with doctorates in etymology and local history who could tell us more about the evolution of the name.

“So I was really excited when Miranda asked me to come up with a brand for this new development that they were doing on a road in Kelham that was called Dun Fields Road.”

And then things got metaphysical, as Justine recalls.

“I started to think about John Donne and how ‘No man is an island’, she says.

“It reminded me of a letter he’d written, that had ended with the phrase…John Donne. Anne Donne Undonne.

Outside Dun Works

“And that led me back to the Don and my love of Sheffield rivers. And my love of real ale, forged over many years in the Gardeners.

“I thought about the floodlines that are painted on the side of the Fat Cat pub in Kelham Island, which show the water levels when the River Dun broke its banks in the Great Sheffield Flood.

“And that was it. I’d got the whole campaign sorted in my mind before I got off the tram to meet Miranda.

“I knew we’d call it Dun Works and that on the hoardings around the building site, we’d have Not Dun, Nearly Dun and Almost Dun. And these mugs we’re drinking out of are of course a continuation of that theme too.”

Circular and yet ever-changing. Drawing inspiration from the loo and metaphysical poetry in equal measure. That’s the Don. And that’s Dun Works too.

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