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The History of Industries and Toolmaking in United Kingdom

  The South Yorkshire Steel Industry and the Industrial Revolution - David Hey, University of Sheffield 1 of 3  

SHEFFIELD WAS A CUTLERY TOWN long before it became Steel City.  The first documentary reference to a Sheffield cutler comes from 1297,1 but steel was not made there until just after 1700.  

The town was known as a smoky centre of industry long before the first steel furnace was erected.  In 1608 a friend of Gilbert Talbot, seventh Earl of Shrewsbury and lord of Hallamshire, wrote about his forthcoming visit to Sheffield and joked that he expected to be ‘half choked with town smoke’.2  

A century later, Daniel Defoe observed that ‘The town of Sheffield is very populous and large, the streets narrow, and the houses dark and black, occasioned by the continued smoke of the forges, which are always at work.  The manufacture of hard ware, which has been so ancient in this town is not only continued but much increased’.3  By ‘forges’ Defoe meant cutlers’ smithies. Long before the Industrial Revolution, Sheffield had a national reputation for the manufacture of knives. By the middle of the seventeenth century three out of every five men were described in the parish register as cutlers.4   The story of the South Yorkshire steel industry must be seen against this background of centuries of industrial activity.

Where did the Hallamshire cutlers get the steel that was necessary for the sharp cutting edges of their knives before it was made locally?  The Tankersley seam of ironstone, which ran through Sheffield Park, was used by medieval cutlers and was certainly important in getting the industry established, but it does not account for the subsequent triumph of the Sheffield cutlery industry.  

Long before the Cutlers’ Company was formed in 1624 local craftsmen were working with foreign steel, which they obtained from the Basque Country via Bilbao, from Germany via Cologne and the Rhine, and from Sweden via Danzig and other Baltic ports.  Such was the reputation of Hallamshire cutlery that transport costs from long distances could be absorbed in the prices of their products.  

The type of steel that was made in Continental blast furnaces came from smelted iron ore of a better quality than was available in England.  Such steel was a superior form of iron, which had carbon added to make it harder, more malleable and easy to grind to a cutting edge, and to hold that edge once it was made.

All our information from the period before Benjamin Huntsman first made crucible steel in 1742 comes from scattered documentary sources.  No remains of the earliest steel furnaces survive in South Yorkshire and so far no site has been excavated.  T

he pioneering work was that of Dr Kenneth Barraclough, who in his later years as a steelman completed a Ph.D. thesis at the University of Sheffield and subsequently published this in two volumes.5   In 1991 I was able to add to his account for the period, 1660–1740,6 and then Dr Nevill Flavell, another mature student of the University of Sheffield, discovered later documentary sources for his unpublished Ph.D. thesis, which was awarded in 1996.7  

Probate inventories from Chesterfield note the use of Spanish iron in 1537 and 1538 but the earliest Sheffield reference to imported steel comes from the account book of William Dickenson, bailiff of Hallamshire, who noted: ‘Rec[eived] from Bawetry the viij October 1574 vj Barrells of Steele w[h]ich was Layd in the stawre howse at Sheffield Castle’.9  At that time, the local cutlery industry was organized through the manor court, and it seems that George Talbot, sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, took a personal interest in the trade, as he did in the local iron industry by introducing charcoal blast furnaces, and in the Derbyshire lead trade by building water-powered smelting mills.

During the second half of the sixteenth century — the first account of the process came from Prague in 1574 — someone in Central Europe invented the cementation process whereby bars of wrought iron were converted to what was commonly known as ‘blister steel’ because of the various-sized blisters that were raised on the surface.10  It was also known in England as ‘Cullen steel’ because it came via Cologne or as ‘German steel’, but that became a generic name that was applied to cementation steel made in England during the later seventeenth century. We do not know whether the ‘German steel’ that was sold to Hallamshire scissorsmiths by the Cutlers’ Company in 1681 or the ‘parcel of German Steel’ recorded in the inventory of a Sheffield cutler in 1702 actually came from Germany or from English sources.11  

The first evidence for steel making in South Yorkshire comes from a letter of 1642 in which Charles Tooker of Rotherham complained to Sir John Reresby about the destruction of his steel works by Parliamentary troops at the beginning of the Civil War.12   Tooker had arrived from Somerset and lived at Moorgate Hall, Rotherham, but whether his steel works was in Rotherham or Thrybergh (where he is known to have had a furnace later on) is not clear.  

We do not know whether he had previous experience of steelmaking or why he migrated north.  Another early owner of a steel works was Lionel Copley, the ironmaster of Wadworth Hall, who had a steel furnace in Kimberworth recorded in the hearth tax returns of 1672.13  Such isolated finds in perhaps unexpected sources indicate the fragmentary nature of the evidence.  Tooker and Copley were typical of men from gentry families, such as the Sitwells of Renishaw Hall, Derbyshire, and the Spencers of Cannon Hall, Cawthorne, who prospered by investing in the metal trades. 

The earliest English steel works were cementation furnaces that were modeled on those that had long been in use in Germany. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries several furnaces were erected in the rural district south-east of Sheffield by minor gentry or yeomen families — the Ardrons of Treeton, the Harrisons of Orgreave and the Staceys of Ballifield — and by John Fell, the clerk at Attercliffe Forge, where iron had been forged since the 1570s.  

The evidence comes from deeds, wills, inventories, and maps.14 Samuel Shore, the son of a Sheffield mason and a prominent member of the Upper Chapel congregation, built furnaces at Darnall and Woodhouse and about 1709 became the first person to build a steel furnace in Sheffield, on the site of the demolished castle.  

Soon afterwards, he erected a pair of furnaces at the then northern edge of the town in what became known as Steelhouse Lane, a site that is shown on Thomas Oughtibridge’s view of Sheffield in 1737.  

Shore was also an ironmaster and a merchant, the first to rise from a humble background to a prominent position in the town, and his descendants became landed gentry at Norton and Tapton.  Another early steel master was Thomas Parkin, a member of an old Hallamshire family based at Mortomley who had long been involved in the metal trades.  He had built a cementation furnace at Balm Green, on the western edge of the town, by 1716.  His descendant and heiress, Elizabeth Parkin, was the ‘Queen of the Sheffield Assembly’ until she retired to her new house at Ravenfield Park.  The well-known pattern whereby the original entrepreneur lived close to the works that he had created but his descendants became landed gentry was established well before the great events that we still label ‘The Industrial Revolution’. 

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W. & S. Butcher



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