A Brief History of Industry - Sheffield Steel
You may have heard that industrial Sheffield is sometimes referred to as the ‘Steel City’. Sheffield was synonymous with steel production for many years. In the 19th Century Sheffield’s population boomed because of the steel industries success. The population went from 60,000 thousand to over 570,000 in between 1800 and 1950!
The roots of the steel industry date back to the 14th century. The year 1740 saw Benjamin Huntsman invent the crucible technique for steel manufacture in Handsworth, Sheffield. This grew industrial Sheffield from a small town into a thriving metropolis. In the 100 years that followed the discovery of crucible steel Sheffield would make almost half of the steel produced in Europe. Its production rose from 200 tonnes to a staggering 80,000 tonnes per year.
The crucible process was only surpassed, in 1856 by Henry Bessemer’s invention of the Bessemer converter. The Bessemer converter converted pig iron into steel and effectively kicked off the mass production of cheap steel. Bessemer’s business, the Bessemer Steel Company, was based in Sheffield. Another pioneer was Sheffield’s Harry Brearley invented Stainless Steel in 1912. Stainless steel proved to be revolutionary product as it was rust resistant.
After the devastating recession of the 1930’s, the war years saw industrial Sheffield producing a huge amount of material for the WW1 and WW2. The Vickers Works famously had the only forge hammer in the country strong enough to forge the camshaft for the mighty merlin engine that powered the iconic Spitfire. Hadfield Steelworks produced 18” armoured shells a many other companies churned out armour and artillery.
Vickers and company produced the famous, Grand Slam, a bunker busting bomb of 10 tonnes. A very fine replica can be seen at the equally, very fine, Kelham Island Museum. German Luftwaffe bombed Sheffield in December 1940. The Sheffield Blitz took place on the 12th, 13th and 15th and sadly 660 people lost their lives. 80,000 buildings were destroyed. The supposed target, the steelworks, was surprisingly undamaged and Sheffield industry was able to continue production.
An increasing competition from imports meant a decline in the amount of heavy industry in Sheffield from the 1960’s. In 1980 Thatcher’s Conservative government ‘rationalised’ the industry. By the end of 1981 the amount of people employed in the steel fell by almost 50% from 156,00 to 88,000. After further privatisation in the late 80’s the industry faltered further.
Sheffield still produced more steel, by value, than at any other time. A lot of Sheffield’s production is specialist alloys . There is still a huge industry in heat treating and forging and testing.
Firms such as Outokumpu, Forgemasters, Special Steels Ltd, Swann Morton, Spear & Jackson continue to thrive in Sheffield. With uncertain economic times ahead Sheffield is still changing. Most recently both Boing and Mclaren opened facilities in the city.
Case Study – Special Steels Ltd
Special Steels Ltd dates back to the 1920’s and has grown to become the UK’s largest independent Nadcap accredited heat treatment company.
This company does everything from manufacturing small components to heat-treating huge pieces of steel (up to 25 tonnes) in their huge ovens. Whilst photographing the facilities I was amazed at the scale and capability of the business. The testing facilities are huge and the amount of machine shops and different types of machines is mind boggling. For a non-engineer such as myself I loved the mix of processes that are involved in shaping steel. Some of the massive forge hammers feel very Victorian and yet the state-of-the-art CNC machines are surgically clean and incredibly complex and computer driven.
Special Steels Ltd is a family business and pride itself in offering a total service, supply, forging, heat treatment, testing and machining.
Industrial Photography is challenging and fun. It also allows you to witness both new and passing processes that often inhabit the same continuum. Processes, like steel manufacture or coal mining, often have a sentimentality that surrounds them that belies the dirty reality of the work. I think this is because there is a legacy of many generations that work within these industries, passing the baton down. The identity of the City of Sheffield is entangled with Steel production in the same way that Hull is entwined with fishing, Doncaster, the rail industry. Sorry for such a lenghy post. I hope you enjoyed and learnt a little. For more examples of Industrial Photography see here.
Also for some samples of the process and manufacturing photography.