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A history of the 'Steel City'

Making steel bill hooks and knives in Sheffield by hand, 1932
Making steel bill hooks and knives in Sheffield by hand, 1932

With its famous cutlery-making trade first mentioned in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Sheffield – aka “Steel City” – was once the steel-making capital of the world. These days, Sheffield steel may be more associated The Full Monty – the 1997 comedy about unemployed steel workers forming a male striptease act to make ends meet.

From the outset, Sheffield’s unique geography offered optimal steel-making conditions. The hills supplied coal, iron and millstone grit for the workshops’ grinding wheels; The city’s seven rivers provided the water power (in the days before steam); its forests, the wood and charcoal.

Workmen in a steel workshop in Sheffield, 1866
Workmen in a steel workshop in Sheffield, 1866

In the early days, “little mesters” (self-employed craftsmen) made cutlery, tools and other smaller items from start to finish. The eighteenth century’s greater demand required more complex operations, and mesters began renting workshops in factories; each handling different production stages, such as forging, grinding or finishing.

In 1742, local manufacturer Benjamin Huntsman’s “crucible steel process” revolutionised production, creating tougher, high-quality steel, which could be made in larger quantities. The invention moved Sheffield from small township to leading European industrial city. In the 100 years that followed its annual steel production rose from 200 tonnes to 80,000 tonnes; almost half Europe’s total production.

Workers at Walter and Hall steelworks in Sheffield handling white hot metal
Workers at Walter and Hall steelworks in Sheffield handling white hot metal, 1959

In 1856, Henry Bessemer’s converter furnace took things further, enabling mass production of cheap refined steel for railway parts, armour plating and construction.

John Brown, Sheffield’s first steelmaker to be knighted, took the first licence to produce Bessemer steel in 1860. In the same year, he developed a rolling technique for armour plate and seven years later, he was supplying material for three-quarters of the British Navy's armour-plated ships.

The “Bessemer boom” sent Sheffield steel global. In 1871, America was importing over three times as much rail track from Sheffield as it made domestically.

Sheffield-based chemist Harry Brearley invented stainless steel in 1912. In 1924, Dr W. H. Hatfield, from the same laboratory, created “18/8” – probably today’s most commonly used stainless steel.

During both World Wars, Sheffield played a central role in arming the military; its strategic importance making it a bombing target. With men away fighting, women took over the city’s steelworks, including munition production – something commemorated by Sheffield’s ‘Women of Steel’ statue, unveiled in 2016.

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During the 1970s, market downturn caused several Sheffield steelworks to close. The Thatcher years devastating impact, with further recession, warring between government and unions, and ultimately British steel’s second and final privatisation. Sheffield lost more than 50,000 steel and engineering jobs between 1980 and 1983.

British steel has reached fresh crisis since the 2008 crash, due to lower demand, rising energy prices, a strong pound and China’s alleged “steel dumping”. Amid a flurry of high profile plant closures, Forgemaster, Sheffield’s biggest steel employer, announced 100 redundancies from its 630-strong workforce in 2016.

These days Sheffield’s steel industry (employing around 2,600 in 2016) focuses largely on specialist trade. Surviving “little mesters” operate in small workshops, across Sheffield’s remaining industrial spaces. International buyers – particularly from the US – are still drawn to the quality and heritage of tools and cutlery made from Sheffield steel.