Sheffield steelworkers

Sheffield has a long history of making cutlery going back to the 13th Century. Local ironstone and coal provided the raw materials, fast flowing rivers provided water power, local gritstone provided grindstones. A concentration of trade and the support of local landowners allowed the trade to flourish. Once established many different metalwork items were produced in Sheffield. Later, coal, iron ore and other metals such as silver were imported through eastern ports to fuel the industry. Sheffield became the centre of the world for cutlery, silverware and eventually steel production.

To make cutlery, that is knives, there are three processes. Firstly, the knife must be forged and beaten into shape by a smith. Then it is ground on a wheel to create an edge. Then it is glazed and finished with a handle. Coal fires the furnace, and water power turns the grinding wheels. This industry concentrated in the low-lying areas of Sheffield and supplied knives to the country. As time developed a whole plethora of utensils were manufactured supplying a vast variation of markets. This specialisation required a huge and varied number of processes to achieve the required result. Unlike the cotton industry that flourished due to the invention of the water frame and small number of other machines, there were many in metalworking and there was a significant amount of skill required to operate them.

The various types of cutlery required slightly different manufacturing techniques. The products manufactured included tables knives, carving knives, scissors, razors, spoons, forks, teapots, bowls, pocket knives, flick knives and butchers knives. There were standard items for the home, and there were also a large range of high quality products.

Also, there was the manufacturing of edge tools. The types that are used in construction, woodwork and metalwork. There would be specialist hardening, shaping and individual edge creating techniques. Saws, files, rasps could even be edged by hand with metalwork tools, the skill required for this work was at a high level. A mistake would render the tool useless and cause financial loss and possibly unemployment for the worker. These range of tools would include hammerheads, saws, plane irons, rasps, files, hacksaw, shovels, garden tools, sheep shears, chisels and many types of drills.

Some of the techniques, like hardening, were not only highly skilled but highly dangerous. There were chemical tanks that had noxious mixtures that could be injurious to your health in many ways. Health and safety was not visibly present, but the workers were smart enough to think for themselves and avoid injury.

Silverwork became prevalent in the 18th Century with the invention of steel dyes. This quality work was mainly decorative and required silver and nickel. Techniques included soldering and assembling complex items. Shaping, etching and carving were silversmith skills creating beautiful and valuable items. In 1743 a Sheffield cutler, Thomas Boulsover invented Sheffield plate which involved fusing a thin layer of silver over a copper article. This made silverwork much cheaper, again Sheffield led the world.

This vast variation of products were sold all over the world. Standard and quality items were known to be the best. The expertise made the products competitive and the skills and the availability of raw materials attracted heavy industries as the industrial revolution gathered pace.

Until the mid-17th Century, steel production was a labour-intensive process that produced low quality blister steel. It had a high carbon content that made it brittle and only 200 tons a year were produced in Sheffield. Benjamin Huntsman invented the crucible process in 1742 after many years of experimentation. This meant that steel could be cast into ingots and was tougher and higher quality. Within 100 years Sheffield was producing 20,000 tons, which was 40% of European production. In 1856 Englishman Henry Bessemer invented the Bessemer convertor. Again, after a lot of experimentation, he developed a process that blew air through molten steel burning off the carbon. This created quality steel in much greater quantities than the crucible process.

In 1860 John Brown took out a licence to use the Bessemer convertor. He produced steel for the railway boom in Britain and all over the world. Large mills rolled steel into plate and this was used in armour for ships. New construction techniques required roll steel joists to build skyscrapers and they produced these too. The boom in demand from the industrial revolution and the invention of the Bessemer process gave Sheffield the opportunity to massively expand. The history of skills and experience, the proximity of resources and related industries made Sheffield the king of steel at the end of the 19th Century.

In the 20th Century saw the development of alloys. Chemist Harry Brearley from Sheffield experimented with adding rarer metals to steel to produce different products. Using nickel, he found that he could produce stainless steel that would not rust. The process could be used for combining metals to produce many different products of hardness, flexibility, electrical conductivity and many other qualities. Again, Sheffield led the world. The conditions that gave it an advantage, attracted those who wanted to make profit from a new advance that would give them an edge in the vastly competitive world markets.

But as with every other industry in Britain, by the end of the First World War the industry had started to contract. Competitors caught up, war created a skills deficit, new technology negated skilled labour, industrial relations paralysed the workforce and a lack of investment led to the inevitable closures of the 1980’s. There are still quality products manufactured in Sheffield and those skills have been maintained despite the ravages of time.

The steel industry was very different to the textile industry. Richard Arkwright used children women more and men were peripheral. Sheffield rarely employed women who were mainly housewives. But metalwork requires serious physical strength, the ability to exist in oppressive conditions and engineering skills even at the lowest level of expertise. In the future, I hope we can find women who can succeed at this level. But in the past Sheffield made real men, men of steel. It was a serious football area, United, Wednesday, Rotherham, Barnsley and Doncaster. They did not need the physicality of rugby that happened at work. The local culture is important to create pride in the workplace and motivate the workforce.

If the steel industry returns to its birthplace, it is worth remembering the people who made it happen. Entrepreneurs, scientists and the strength, ingenuity, skill and compassion of the Sheffield steel worker.

Conway-Laird (2018)

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