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SHEFFIELD'S INDUSTRIAL HISTORY
Sheffield was once the undisputed iron,
steel and cutlery captial of the world. The city's association with
metalworking is almost as old at the city itself. Evidence of cutlery
dates back more than 700 years.
The city's hills provided it with the necessary raw materials for the
industry that led to it becoming known as 'Steel City': coal, iron and
millstone grit for the grinding wheels of its workshops. And its seven
rivers provided the water power it needed in the days before steam,
while its forests supplied it with plentiful supplies of wood and charcoal.
As early as the 14th century Sheffield was noted for the production
of knives by Geoffrey Chaucer in his book The Canterbury Tales.
In the 16th century Sheffield became more famous for its cutlery. Before
1500 watermills were adapted to grinding tools and the cutlery trade
boomed. By 1600 Sheffield was the main town in England (apart from London)
In 1624 The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire was formed to oversee
the trade. Examples of water-powered blade and cutlery workshops surviving
from around this time can be seen at the Abbeydale
Industrial Hamlet and Shepherd Wheel museums.
The city reached its zenith in the 17th and 18th centuaries Thanks to
three major innovations. In the 1740's, two developments took place
that put Sheffield at the head of the new techniques that were to revolutionise
steel production and cutlery manufacture:
Benjamin Huntsman (1704-1776), who
operated a foundry at Handsworth, invented the crucible steel process
in 1742 following many years of experimentation. He was the first person
to cast steel ingots.
Until the mid-18th century, the quality of steel produced was unreliable.
Steel was made by heating iron bars, covered with charcoal, for up to
a week. The end product was called "blister steel". Blister
steel was then turned into "shear steel" by wrapping blister
steel bars into a bundle and re-reheating them before forging the bundle.
The heat and action of the forge hammer welded the bundles together
to the required size. Although this steel was used to make razors, files,
knives and swords, the process was extremely laborious and no more than
200 tons a year were produced in Sheffield in this way. Benjamin Huntsman's
invention of the crucible steel process changed all of that. He was
the first person to cast steel bars, producing tougher, high-quality
steel in larger quantities (from less than 200 tons of steel a year
to more than 20,000 tons, or 40% of total European steel production,
a century later).
The demand for Huntsman's steel increased rapidly and, in 1770, he moved
his factory to a new site in Attercliffe in the Don Valley. This area
later became the main location for the huge special-steel making industry
In 1743 a Sheffield cutler, Thomas Boulsover
(1705-1788), devised a means of fusing a thin layer of silver to copper
to produce silver plate the famous 'Sheffield Plate' that looked like
silver but was far cheaper, and was to take silver-plated cutlery into
the dining rooms of almost every middle class family in the land.
Boulsover noticed that silver and copper had fused together very strongly
after heating. Experiments showed that the two metals behaved as one
when he tried to reshape them, even though he could clearly see two
different layers. Boulsover carried out further experiments in which
he put a thin sheet of silver on a thick ingot of copper and heated
the two together to fuse them. When the composite block was hammered
or rolled to make it thinner, the two metals were reduced in thickness
at similar rates. Using this method, Boulsover was able to make sheets
of metal which had a thin layer of silver on the top surface and a thick
layer of copper underneath. This silver plate was, of course, cheaper
than silver and was very popular for items such as candlesticks and
In 1773 Sheffield was given a silver assay office.
1856, Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) introduced a new method
of producing steel, using a special furnace called a convertor. This
came after years of experimentation. The Bessemer process was able to
produce much larger quantities of refined steel than the crucible process.
It was worked by blowing air into the bottom of the furnace so that
it bubbled through the molten iron. This burned carbon from the iron
producing a great deal of heat as it refined the metal.
The 150th anniversary of this invention is being celebrated. One of
Bessemer's converters can still be seen at Kelham
Steam and Bulk
In 1850 the production of steel in Britain was about
50,000 tons. About 85% of this was produced in Sheffield.
After the Crimean War (1854-1856), there was
a large demand for iron and steel for making armaments and also for
supplying steel for the new railways.
In 1860, John Brown (1816-1896)
of Sheffield took out the first licence to produce Bessemer steel. Bessemer
set up a works in Carlisle Street, next door to Brown's Atlas Works.
John Brown quickly recognised the importance of Bessemer's process and
obtained a licence to use it for the production of steel rails.
Using the Bessemer process, steel-making
companies in Sheffield were able to supply cheap steel in large quantities
for railway parts, armour plating and construction. Sheffield firms
continued to produce high quality steel for precision tools.
In the same year, Brown turned his attention
to the production of armour plate by rolling instead of a forging process
which was used elsewhere. He set up a rolling mill and started to produce
the material which, by 1867, was used in three quarters of the British
Navy's armour plated ships. John Brown became the first Sheffield steelmaker
to be knighted in 1867
The Bessemer boom made Sheffield the kings of world
steel. Its products were sent all over the world. In 1871, two firms
(Browns & Cammell's) exported to America three times as much railway
track as was produced by the entire American domestic industry.
By 1880, production of Bessemer steel was over
a million tons out of a total steel production of about 1.3M tons.
By the end of the 18th century, there were 97
recorded water-powered wheel sites in Sheffield, compared with a third
of that number at the beginning of the century. It was the development
of steam power and the bulk production of steel that led to the really
massive expansion of the industry and the city in the 19th century.
Chemist Harry Brearley (1871-1948).
In 1907 Brearley returned to Sheffield from abroad
to take charge of the Brown-Firth Research Laboratory. Five years later
he was investigating the corrosion (rusting) of rifle barrels. As a
result of his investigations, he developed a chrome alloy steel which
was much more rust resistant than the steel which had been used until
then. This is now known as Stainless Steel. Brearley's chrome steel
formed the basis for the wide range of stainless and special steels
which are now used so widely.
Brearley's successor as manager of these laboratories,
Dr. W. H. Hatfield (1882-1943), is credited with the
development, in 1924, of a stainless steel which even today is probably
the widest-used alloy of this type, the so-called "18/8",
which in addition to chromium, includes nickel in its composition (18%
Chromium, 8% Nickel).
The city was pivotal in arming the military in both
World Wars and continued in full production untli the 1960's. It was
a target for bombing raids because of its importance.
In The 1970's the market dipped drastically and Sheffield suffered badly.
Employment fell from 60,000 in 1971 to 10,000 in the mid 90's. The downturn
co-incided with the decline of the regional coal industry. The city's
Labour leaders were in conflict with the government. During the early
1970's many of the steelworks closed.
The 1980s saw the worst of the run-down of Sheffield's industries. In
1984, striking miners fought battles with police at the Orgreave Coking
Plant. During this time Sheffield was suffering from unemployment, deprivation
and urban blight. This is shown in the film The
Nowadays the city's leaders have turned this around with hugh amounts
being spent on eduction and the expansion of the two universities. The
injection of large amounts of public funds has helped.
Lustre / Stainless
British experts have pioneered the world’s first
non-tarnishing sterling silver in a breakthrough that could revolutionise
the silver industry. Researchers in Sheffield have developed a "stainless
silver" alloy that resists the discolouring effect of pollutants
and retains its bright finish. The new product outshines standard sterling
silver by keeping its shine and colour intact, putting an end to regular
polishing and high care costs. Marketed as Carr's Lustre Silver, makers
hope it will change the public’s perception of traditionally high-maintenance
silverware. The new alloy has potential to be exploited in areas other
than silverware, e.g. in electrical connectors.
Independent tests at the Sheffield Assay Office and the Cutlery and
Allied Trades Research Association have proven its resistance to tarnishing,
which occurs when silver reacts with sulphur containing substances in
the air, forming a silver sulphide film that blackens the surface of
the metal. Not only does our alloy resist tarnishing, but it can be
cast, rolled, worked by silversmiths, soldered, heat-treated and polished
without any of the problems that can arise when you change the chemistry
and mechanical properties of an existing alloy. It’s also resistant
to fire-staining, which makes the production process more efficient.
For more information see: