Amberley Publishing - Transport, Military, Local and General History

Sheffield at Work by Melvyn and Joan Jones

Advertisement showing Vickers' 'contribution to the British naval fleet up to August 1914'. (Sheffield at Work, Amberley Publishing)

People and Industries Through the Years

What we set out to do was to record employment change over nine centuries, emphasising the combination of continuity and innovation that has characterised the evolution of employment in industry and other occupations in the city. It has been a fascinating journey. Although already familiar with Sheffield’s industrial past, we have been delighted to record the talent, determination and skill of twenty-first century workers, both those pursuing traditional skills in a competitive market and those entrepreneurs engaged in a host of other industries and occupations. We are keen to champion their cause and to celebrate their achievements through this publication.

Sheffield has been dubbed ‘Steel City’ but it was, and still is, much more than that. Sheffield grew prodigiously during the nineteenth century from an already substantial 91,000 in 1831 to over 400,000 by 1901 as a result of industrial expansion. But for centuries before that it had had a national reputation for its industrial products. Everyone knows the famous line from Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale written about the year 1390 about the miller stating that ‘A Scheffeld thwitel baar he in his hose’. A thwitel was a knife and Chaucer obviously believed that mention of a Sheffield knife would be as familiar then as a Cornish pasty is today. Nearly four hundred years later in 1779 Charles Burlington in The Modern Universal Traveller wrote that Sheffield was ‘the most remarkable place in England for cutlerywares’. During the nineteenth century the light steel trades continued to flourish in the town and in the surrounding villages and were joined by a completely new industry, heavy steel making and heavy engineering. This transformed the former mainly rural lower Don valley to the east of the old town. Even though Sheffield lay 80 miles from the sea, in 1910 it was claimed that three firms (John Brown’s, Cammells and Vickers) were capable of ‘turning out a battleship complete’ and on the outbreak of the First World War Sheffield was described as ‘the greatest Armoury the world as ever seen’.

Charcoal making (detail from a painting by John William Buxton Knight). (Sheffield at Work, Amberley Publishing)

It wasn’t all light and heavy steel trades. In the early 1840s George Bassett started his liquorice sweets business. Later, of course, the firm ‘invented’ Liquorice Allsorts. This came about, apparently, when a ‘rep’ was visiting a customer and an assistant accidentally dropped a tray of samples onto the floor. The customer liked the assortment and so Liquorice Allsorts came into being. In the 1920s the Bertie Bassett trademark was designed and with minor alterations is still being used. The firm is now part of the Maynards Bassetts group. In 1883 one of the best known food product firms was established – Henderson’s Relish, Sheffield’s answer to Worcester Sauce. The firm is still going strong today. In 1895 William Batchelor founded Batchelor Foods. The firm became famous for the production of processed peas (including ‘mushy peas’) and Cup-a-Soup. For a short period between 1908 and 1925 Sheffield had its own car industry. Simplex cars owned by Earl Fitzwilliam of Wentworth Woodhouse produced luxury cars and motor cycles. One of the few surviving examples can be seen on display in Kelham Island Industrial Museum in Sheffield. Perhaps the most unusual product was the disinfectant, Izal, produced for the first time in the 1890s by the iron manufacturing firm, Newton Chambers. It was a by-product of the production of coke for their blast furnaces. Their famous toilet rolls, initially given away to local authorities purchasing large quantities of Izal disinfectant for their new public toilets, were used to advertise the brand. Medicated toilet rolls went on sale to the general public in the 1920s and the firm went on to produce 137 disinfectant products that sold across the world.

Advertisement for Izal products. (Sheffield at Work, Amberley Publishing)

Industrial growth had its negative effects. As early as the 1720s Daniel Defoe in A Tour thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain wrote that the streets were narrow and the houses ‘dark and black, occasioned by the continued Smoke of the Forges, which are always at work’. Even more evocative was J. B. Priestley’s comments in his English Journeys in 1933. He said that when he approached the city from the south it ‘looked like the interior of an active volcano’ adding that the smoke was so thick that it appeared the descending streets ‘would end in the steaming bowels of the earth’.

Yet today Sheffield has the reputation of being the country’s greenest city. It had one of the country’s first green belts (1938) and 39,000 acres of the Peak District National Park lie within its boundaries. As you drive through or walk in the western parts of the borough, you have to shake yourself to realise that you are in a city of more than half a million people. The city also contains nearly 80 ancient woods, two of them covering more than 300 acres. Sheffield is the best wooded city in the country. What is astonishing is that the woods have survived because of their connection with local industry. They are full of charcoal heaths, charcoal before coal being the fuel for iron and steel making, and of the living archaeology (neglected coppice, stored coppice) of formerly worked trees that formed the raw material for the charcoal makers.

Today Sheffield is a prime example of a post-industrial city. Its two universities attract more than 60,000 students to the city every year; the lower Don valley, described in the 1970s as an industrial wasteland, is now crowded with edge of town shopping, entertainment and sporting destinations. The Heart of the City scheme has also helped to modernise the city centre with its Winter Garden, Millennium Galleries, new hotel and water features.  But manufacturing still continues from large works like Sheffield Forgemasters that supplies forged and cast steel to the engineering, nuclear and petro-chemical industries worldwide and Liberty Steel at Stocksbridge that produces special steels for the aerospace, oil and automotive industries. Another Sheffield engineering firm, SCX Group, has completed the second year of a three-year project to construct a foldaway roof for No.1 Court at Wimbledon which will be ready in 2019. They constructed the retractable roof on Centre Court in 2009. At the other end of the scale individual craftsmen, known locally for centuries as ‘little mesters’, still produce knives and other bespoke products in small workshops. A surprising number of firms continue the centuries-old tradition of manufacturing a wide range of metal products. These include Burgon & Ball who manufacture 50 different patterns of sheep shears and are the most important makers of these shears in the world and Swann-Morton who export surgical blades and scalpels to over 100 countries.

Melvyn and Joan Jones' new book Sheffield at Work is available for purchase now.