The Rise and Fall of the Sheffield Steel Industry

The Sheffield Steel industry dates back several hundred years and its origins are still visible today. The city has certainly leaned into its metal production as its claim to fame. But with this history come stereotypes: a smelted, ashen hellscape with opaque skies and gravel- covered parks.

Less explored is it’s greenness: it is the greenest city in England in terms of ratio, and it isn’t hard to imagine its landlocked position as contributing to the stereotype.

It’s surrounded by arguably more desirable major cities such as Leeds, York and Manchester, all reachable within an hour or so. Even being deemed a “less-favoured-region” (LFR) by the European Union.

Sheffield Hallam is an often-derided once-polytechnic school in the centre of the city with its more industrial looking structures, and many students will gather from a visit that that’s all there is to the city. Not to mention its brutal nightclubs and Park Hill flats (actually Grade II listed). Yet the Peak District lies a mere bus journey away!

Legend has it that, in the 1800s at the peak of the Industrial Revolution, King George III himself described it as a “damned bad place”.

So the third of Sheffield that is all green horizons and gorgeous mountains are often forgotten about. I consider this a failing by previous councils to emphasise Sheffield’s contributions to Green energy and peacekeeping.

Sheffield Steel City

Some Sheffielders have argued that the label “Steel City” has rough connotations that the city doesn’t deserve, but I believe that it is a label not to be changed but to be proud of. Of course it can be associated with the collapse of the steel industry, with economic ruin and Thatcher’s savage policies. Yet steel can apply to the people as well – people sturdy and proud enough to survive whatever the South threw at them and prove themselves as crucial to Britain’s economy and culture as its neighbours.

Industrial progress and nature conservation are not mutually exclusive. Take an anecdote that came to my mind one morning: an old 19th century grinding wheel, powered by one of the five great rivers that run through Sheffield, now creating pieces of sculptured metal that we use in our homes… both the river and the mill giving and taking from each other, in perfect harmony.

Sheffield’s history of steel-working dates back several hundred years, maybe to the 15th century. Men and woman both worked as cutlery makers, which included, in its old- English terminology, “works of knives and tools”. Chaucer described the appearance of a “Sheffield thwitel” in The Canterbury Tales, dated loosely between the end of the 14th century to the turn of the 15th.

Benjamin Huntsman

In Benjamin Huntsman, the fourth child of a family of farmers, Sheffield found its next great inventor. Turning away from his role as a clockmaker to experiment with steel-working, it was in 1740 that he discovered that by using the crucible method – put simply, using a crucible (yes, like that crucible) to re-melt fragments of blister steel – impurities would be removed that could be discarded as slag. Thus Huntsman (yes, that Benjamin Huntsman) created the strongest and purest metal this side of Europe.

Although there was much industry earlier in the millennium through the cutlery trade, it wasn’t until a few hundred years later that Sheffield truly became Steel City. Britain’s expansion as a ruthless colonial power fed Sheffield’s steel industry with new markets that came about from mid-18th century imperialism.

Sheffield flourished economically through the steel trade using cementation (baking bar iron in charcoal-filled chests – its scorched appearance afterwards yielding its name) and crucible methods, and by the mid-19th century, Britain was producing heights of 50,000 tonnes of steel a year, with Sheffield alone contributing around 85% of this.

It wasn’t until the end of the 1800s that Sheffield lost its steam, when players like America and Germany began building highly mechanised factories that quickly began to dominate the market.

But our steel industry production didn’t die, and we contributed significant production to WWI and WWII. And stainless steel, a more modern invention, also harbours its origin in Sheffield… and may be printed on the butter knives you own.

However, draw a line in the air of the rise and fall of England’s steel production and you’ll roughly arc the progress of Britain’s Empire throughout the last millennium. British history always has its problematic caveats and Sheffield is no different – perhaps a synecdoche of Britain’s achievements as a whole throughout the industrial era.

It would be remiss to delve into the industrial era and not acknowledge that Sheffield also contributed to some of the earliest forms of mass-destruction, whether the Crimean war or selling to other powers.

And yet it should always be remembered its what we do with technology that matters, not it’s mere existence.