Forging the cityscape

by Sharon Macdonald

Forging the cityscape is concerned with the shaping of the city today as well as past Sheffields. Rather than recounting a single history as told in many popular histories of the city, however, the chapters in this section look in detail at other aspects of Sheffield’s past that are less often considered. By so doing, they address questions of which of Sheffield’s pasts tend to be remembered or forgotten. The material culture of the industrial past, for example, tends to predominate in many historical accounts – and in contemporary public memory – over that of other, especially earlier, periods. This has implications for the city’s identity as well as for issues of conservation and preservation. By highlighting different histories Materializing Sheffield shows the rich resource that the past offers for other city stories.

Steel City: an archaeology of Sheffield’s industrial past by James Symonds explores the industrial archaeology of Sheffield, providing a lively account of the city’s industrial past and showing well how a focus on material culture can provide a richer perspective on the city’s history than can relying on documents alone. As well as being of interest in itself, the industrial past should not be ignored, he argues, as an archaeology that highlights the individual and collective skill of former inhabitants has a therapeutic role to play in the remaking of the Twenty-first Century city. Interpretive historical archaeology can thus play a role in reanimating past lives and lifeworlds and creating new meanings that result from mediated encounters of the past with the present.

For the nineteenth century history of Sheffield, it is possible to use documentary as well as material cultural resources. Just how resourceful it is possible to be is well illustrated in Recreating Nineteenth Century Sheffield: The Sheffield urban study project by Peter Blundell Jones. He writes of a project by Sheffield University architecture students to literally materialize Nineteenth Century Sheffield – but in miniature. That is, by creating as accurate a model of the city at that time as possible on the basis of numerous different records. Although the model itself is in storage further work on the recreation of Sheffield’s history can be found on

Linked with this project were also two other studies, each with a more specific in-depth focus, both of which were originally Sheffield University architecture PhDs. Alan Williams’ PhD on the historically significant steel-works if Benjamin Huntsman in Attercliffe, Sheffield, has formed the basis of an e-project linked to this one and also called Materialising Sheffield. The project has involved creating a sophisticated virtual reconstruction of the famous crucible steel-works on the basis of historically rigorous research. It shows well how material culture research can be animated by innovative technological approaches.

Jo Lintonbon’s Designer shopping: the development of the department store in Nineteenth Century Sheffield looks at a site which, like the steel-making works that we more immediately associate with Sheffield’s material culture, was also involved in considerable and historically significant material cultural transformations. Her detailed and insightful account of the development of the department store in Nineteenth Century Sheffield provides ample rich detail about Sheffield in that period – and not only directly on the subject of the department store itself. Her study also speaks of a wider struggle in dealing with material culture at that time: between coping, on the one hand, with what seemed to be speeding up cycles of fashion and the production of obsolescence that this also entailed, and, on the other hand, with the fixity of buildings. This is a dilemma that continues.

One type of commodity available for purchase in the department stores – and indeed in specialist shops that later became department stores – was furniture. As Julie Banham shows in Materialising the domestic interior. Sheffield’s nineteenth-century furniture industry, Sheffield’s production and associated consumer boom brought about a great expansion in the need for home furnishing. Like the department store, the production and consumption of furniture in Sheffield provides a kind of material window into past lives and concerns, and also highlights the interrelationship between local and wider concerns. She shows us how some of the newly wealthy adopted fashionable styles that were current in other parts of the country. Others, however, especially those whose position was a little more economically precarious, resisted the temptations of fashion and the material obsolescence that accompanied it, and instead developed what came to be known as ‘the Sheffield code’. This entailed an emphasis on qualities such as ‘durability, practicality, propriety [and] comfort’ rather than on novelty and cosmopolitanism. This even resulted in certain styles still being produced by Sheffield furniture makers after they had ceased to be made elsewhere.

The theme of focusing on particular kinds of objects – and using these as a lens onto local and wider practices and social relations – continues , and indeed hones down further in its immediate subject scope, in A filecutter’s hammer from the Hawley Collection by Joan Unwin. Here she shows brilliantly how exploring one particular object – and, moreover, one which many might dismiss as too boringly mundane for attention – can form the focal point of a complex and nuanced history. This includes consideration of the craft and skill involved in both making and using such an object, gender relations and gendered work, local politics and radicalism, and even stories of the author’s own Sheffield forbears. Objects such as industrial tools are too often forgotten by collectors. Fortunately for Sheffield, these have been collected by Ken Hawley, though unfortunately there is no funding for the Hawley Collection, which is housed within the University, to be placed on permanent public display. Some of us included in this volume have been fortunate enough to have been shown around the Hawley Collection by Joan, and I think that all of us, even those who began with little interest in the collection itself, left utterly convinced of its value as a unique window onto some of Sheffield’s hidden lives and worlds. Joan’s article here likewise shows just what a significant contribution a permanent display of the Hawley Collection might make to telling stories of lives that were crucial to the forging of Sheffield.