Steel City: an Archaeology of Sheffield’s Industrial Past

by James Symonds


On a summer’s day in 1800, King George III was taking the sea airs on the south coast near Brighton. When one of his party announced that they would soon be leaving for Sheffield the King’s face fell and he is reputed to have bellowed:

“Sheffield? Damn’d bad place, Sheffield!”

We will of course never know whether this forcefully expressed opinion was a symptom of the King’s celebrated madness, or was uttered in a moment of lucidity.

The perception that Sheffield is a rather grim northern industrial city, however, persists to this day, at least in the minds of those living further south. Why should this be?

According to Sheffield City Council, Sheffield is England’s greenest city, containing more than 150 woodlands and public parks. One third of the city is within the Peak National Park, and half of the city’s population live within 15 minutes drive of open country.

Figure 1. Green Sheffield

It may be that Sheffield’s land-locked location has contributed to this hostile perception by outsiders. Prior to the opening of the M1 motorway in the 1960s, Sheffield was a difficult place to get to and from. The city was effectively contained by hills, creating an enforced sense of isolation that at times encouraged an unhealthy degree of introspection and conservatism among its citizens.

The city is still overshadowed in economic and cultural terms by its two major rivals, Leeds, to the north, and Manchester, to the west. And then there is pristine medieval York – the regional seat of ecclesiastical power, just one hour by train or car to the north.

Since the decline of the traditional metals trades in the 1980s Sheffield, (as part of South Yorkshire) has been recognised as a European Union ‘less-favoured-region’ (LFR). Inward investment is flowing into the city, and in terms of new development, Sheffield is the fastest growing British city outside London.

Sheffield’s ‘urban renaissance’ has been hailed as an opportunity for the city to re-invent itself as a city of European significance. In place of the traditional manufacturing base a new economy of service and creative industries is being developed.

Figure 2. Location of Sheffield

So where does the city’s industrial heritage fit into all of this? At one level, some town hall policy makers actively shun the industrial heritage of the city. ‘Steel City’ is viewed as a negative epithet, tied to industrial failure and collapse, and to images of immiserated workers and run-down back-to-back houses. It is reminiscent of the film The Full Monty, which played upon the comedic struggles of redundant Sheffield steel workers, and thereby reinforced the image of Sheffield as a place of industrial decline and failure for cinema audiences worldwide.

Fig 3a. Redeveloping Sheffield

Fig 3b. Redeveloping Sheffield

Some argue that Sheffield should start from scratch, re-branding itself as ‘Innovation City’ or as ‘Creative Sheffield’ – the name of the new City Council backed company that has been formed to facilitate the reinvention of Sheffield as a 21st century technopolis. But the past, however uncomfortable it might at times seem, should not be so lightly dismissed.

In the light of all this re-development, can archaeology really say anything new or helpful about the historic environment in Sheffield and Sheffield’s industrial past?

Brownfield Archaeology: Problems and Potential

The majority of the archaeology that is being uncovered ahead of redevelopment in Sheffield is located in rather down-at-heel locations, the often semi-derelict sites of former factories, poor quality housing, or transport links. Such locations – known as ‘brownfields’ – a short hand term for ‘previously developed land’ in the lexicon of property developers – often seem distinctly unpromising in terms of their archaeological potential

Brownfield sites were, nevertheless, once the epicentres of manufacturing activity in Britain’s emerging industrial towns and cities. This fact is often reflected in their locations, which frequently line urban river valleys. In the age before steam technology water was harnessed to power tilt hammers and grinding wheels – in this respect Sheffield – with five rivers – had an early advantage over other metal working towns. When steam power, gas, and then electricity were also employed to power machines, workshops and factories, no longer reliant on water power, crowded still closer together. The river valleys in which they sat now became in-filled with metres of material, an accumulation of waste products and other industrial residues.

Brownfield sites are thus frequently contaminated by the residues of their former industrial uses, and for this reason tend to be written off. For the majority of town planners and urban developers the perceived value of brownfield sites, or at least those brownfield sites that are sufficiently polluted to be classed as contaminated land, lies not in what they may once have been, but in what they may become.

In practise this means that the upper layers of the majority of brownfield sites are mechanically removed, sometimes to a depth of several metres. In many parts of the country – although gracefully not so much in Sheffield these days- this takes place with little or no archaeological intervention, and means that the layers that were created during the industrial age are effectively destroyed with no record being made.

The physical traces of urban industrial life may be found both above and below ground, and urban regeneration schemes are rarely faced with an open site. Difficult choices need to be made as to how to deal with the buildings that occupy a brownfield site, even before the issue of ground remediation can be addressed.

The nature of industry shapes the character and physical appearance of a city even long after those industries have declined. Manchester and Leeds, two northern leviathans of the industrial age, specialised in the finishing of textiles, and retain their monumentally constructed mills and warehouses. These multi-storey open-plan buildings are easily converted into city-living apartments for the young professional market.

In contrast, cities such as Sheffield and Birmingham, which were famed for their metals trades, have fewer large factories and warehouses, but a greater number of small workshops ranged around open courtyards which offer less opportunity for re-use as modern luxury apartments.

The Sheffield Metals Trades

Two forms of Sheffield metals trade may be distinguished: light i.e., cutlery and edge tools, and heavy i.e., steel making and armaments. Taking each of these in turn:


Figure 4a. Backstreet cutlery workshops

Figure 4b. Interior of backstreet cutlery workshop

Sheffield has been world famous for cutlery and tableware for more than two hundred and fifty years and involved both male and female workers.

In Sheffield the word ‘cutlery’ refers to ‘that which cuts‘, i.e. knives and scissors, but also other edge tools such as sickles, shears and scythes. The rural craft traditions from which the city’s nineteenth century industry developed extend back to the Middle Ages. The first reference to a Sheffield cutler dates to 1297. In the 1370s, Chaucer’s described a Sheffield ‘thwitel‘ (a straight wooden-handled knife) on the belt of a Miller in The Reeves Tale.

Figure 5. Useful gifts.

In the sixteenth century the power of the five rivers that flow through Sheffield was harnessed to drive cutlers’ grinding wheels. In 1624 a Cutlers’ Company was established to regulate the trade in Sheffield and the surrounding parishes of Hallamshire. The Company – in many senses a form of Guild – established a seven year period of indentured apprenticeship for cutlers, and allowed trade marks to be registered.

Within fifty years Sheffield had developed a highly specialised proto-industrial workforce, perhaps more so than that of any other English town. In 1662 it was estimated that three out of every five Sheffield men worked in a branch of the cutlery trades and the majority of common English knives were made in Yorkshire, with the parish of Sheffield at the heart of the industry.

However, the real take-off in Sheffield cutlery production only occurred after the mid-eighteenth century and was fed off the new markets created by British imperial expansion. The story of Sheffield is thus intimately tied to the story of British colonialism, and to the wars that resulted from the clash of international powers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Sheffield cutlery dominated world markets until the early twentieth century, and came up with new innovations as late as 1913 – such as Harry Brierley’s discovery of stainless steel.

Steel Making

Sheffield is famed for its steel and actively commemorates the industry in public places. The first positive record of steelmaking in Sheffield is in 1692. The steel making industry grew slowly. Only two steel furnaces are shown on a 1737 Prospect of Sheffield (by Thomas Outibridge).

Both furnaces are of the cementation type, and were used to convert bar iron into blister steel by baking it in charcoal filled chests; the method was so called because of the blistered appearance of the converted steel bars.

Significant expansion in steel production occurred after 1751, with the introduction of the crucible method of refining blister steel, attributed to a Doncaster- born clock-maker, Benjamin Huntsman. The crucible method re-melted fragments of blister steel in clay crucibles – this allowed impurities to be removed as slag. The molten metal was then poured into ingots and could be hammered or rolled.

Figure 6. Cementation furnace.

Figure 7. Excavated remains of a crucible furnace

These two methods were to dominate Sheffield steel making until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when the amount of steel produced in Sheffield was overshadowed by the output of highly mechanised steel mills in the U.S.A., and Germany. Sheffield nevertheless retained and extended its reputation as a steel city by producing specialist steels for world markets, particularly armaments and the early forms of weapon of mass destruction.

Ironically, of the two largest early twentieth century firms, Brown and Cammell, claimed that their armour plating could withstand any shell, while Firth, Hadfield and Vickers, claimed that their shells could pierce any armoured-plating.

Surveying the Remains (Some Preliminary Findings)

Research on Sheffield metals trade sites has revealed a diverse range of archaeological remains.

Figure 8. Excavations at Riverside Exchange.

Figure 9. Excavations at Wisewood Forge.

The common theme in these two images is the use of water-power to drive cutlers’ wheels. The processes of industrialisation that have been revealed are highly particular to Sheffield. At a very basic level this allows us to dispel the notion that the so-called British “Industrial Revolution” – was either homogenous, or homogenising in its effects, even among northern English industrial cities.

The importance of above ground archaeology, and the potential for analysing standing structures and their contents – be they from the steel – or cutlery trades – has already been alluded to. These have ranged from the small workshop – where a skilled self-employed cutler – known locally as a ‘Little Mester’ may have rented a room (or even workbench) to ply his trade (hot-desking is not a modern invention) – to sprawling integrated steel factories, with multiple furnaces and rolling mills.

Two examples may be given that show how the historical archaeology of industrialization can reveal information on life at opposite ends of the social spectrum.

First: The Grinder and the Apprentice

Figure 10. Excavations at Suffolk Works.

Figure 11. Discarded knife blanks.

At the former Suffolk Works of Thomas Turner excavation retrieved over 4000 steel table knife blades relating to the later period of the works, in the early to mid -twentieth century.

The total assemblage of excavated material included rough-outs and part finished blades, as well as the tools for making cutlery. Many of the blades were stainless steel. Contemporary reports suggest that many of the traditional carbon steel manufacturers disliked working with stainless steel as stainless steel was harder to forge, and was difficult to grind and polish.

The Suffolk Works assemblage gives us direct evidence of grinders learning to work this new material. Almost all the blades that were found were discards, either because of flaws in the raw material or the production process. Many had been terribly over-ground, so that they had become too thin, burnt or brittle, and were therefore useless.

At Riverside Exchange in Sheffield, excavation of the wheel-pit, which once housed the water wheel for the Cutlers’ Wheel, yielded more than 2500 artefacts. These artefacts included a large number of cutlery wasters, in the form of off-cuts and knife broken blades.

Figure 12. Wheel pits at Riverside Exchange.

Figure 13. Two knives.

Metallographic analysis of two late-18th century steel knives recovered from the wheel-pit of the Cutlers Wheel by Dr Rod Mackenzie of ARCUS has revealed that the first knife, which bore the stamped mark of an established cutler , had been forged from seven layers of good steel, to make a blade of reasonable quality. In contrast, the microstructure of the second knife revealed that it had been forged from several off-cuts of steel of variable carbon content, most likely re-cycled scrap. This knife bore the mark of an apprentice.

In this one broken blade, which had very likely been tossed into the water in a moment of frustration, the struggle of a young apprentice to create something new using the inherited knowledge and experience of generations of Sheffield cutlers is revealed.

Second: The Entreprenuer

The influence of trade with America has left its mark on the cultural geography of Sheffield, and my second example involves a reputed entrepreneur.

Figure 14. Nether Edge Street.

George Wostenholm amassed a vast fortune, largely through the export of pocket-knives, ranch knives and other specialist hunting knives to America. Wostenholm gloried in his New World connections (he travelled there no less than seven times by sailing ship) and named the tenement factory in Sheffield (which he acquired in 1848) the Washington Works. Wostenholm’s Kenwood mansion and estate in Sheffield were modelled upon the country estates that he had admired during his visits to up-state New York.

The wide tree-lined roads that approached his self-styled sub-urban retreat carried forth his idyllic American vision, imposed upon the sombre smoke-wreathed fields of a northern English industrial town. In the first half of the nineteenth century many Sheffield cutlery firms were quick to respond to the fashions of the American market, although in an age before the spread of multi-national corporations and global communication networks it must be presumed that information was spread either by letter, newsprint, or by word of mouth.

Figure 15. Grinding troughs at the Washington Works.

The Bowie knife offers one such example. When, on 19th September 1827, the trader and land speculator James Bowie successfully defended himself in a fight on a sandbar in the River Mississippi, with a purpose-made hunting knife given to him by his brother, he became an American icon. Bowie’s reputation was further enhanced by his heroic death at the Alamo in 1836. His trademark knife soon became a sought after personal effect for all would-be frontiersmen.

In the absence of an established American steel making and cutlery trade Sheffield cutlers quickly stepped in to service this demand. Bowie knives were made in Sheffield for export as early as the 1830s; the catalogue of firms manufacturing these knives included William Butcher, William Greaves, Samuel C Wragg, and Unwin & Rodgers. But it was George Wostenholm who gained pre-eminence in this field by the 1850s, and his firm – with punning trade mark – I.X.L. – continued to dominate the American market until the 1890s. Here is a view of a ‘grinding trough’ similar to those that were used in the Washington Works, in an adjoining works, under excavation.


The detailed study of brownfield sites in Sheffield has shown how a late-medieval market town was transformed by industrialisation into an internationally renowned cutlery and steel-making city. The process of industrialisation was highly particular to Sheffield, and has left distinctive local signatures in both the above and below ground material record.

At a very basic level this allows us to dispel the notion that the first phase of industrialisation in Britain was either homogenous, or homogenising in its effects. If there are lessons to be learned from how Sheffield rose to industrial pre-eminence, two factors may be singled out.

First, the diversity of metals trades that took place in Sheffield, with the five staple industries of steel making, tool making, engineering, and the manufacture of cutlery, and silverware, creating a broad skill base within the city.

Second, the fact that this activity was clustered in a relatively small area meant that several industries were able to feed off one another in what Geoffrey Tweedale has termed a “self-reinforcing system”1. The nature of Sheffield’s industrial workforce was of paramount importance. Although by the last quarter of the 19th century large factories were in operation, producing both steel and, increasingly, cutlery, the long tradition of craft-based production of cutlery and edge tools had an enduring legacy, and shaped the development of both the physical and mental landscape of the city.

Can this type of archaeology be made relevant to contemporary social concerns?

It is easy to view archaeological work on factory sites that local residents remember as standing buildings, or may even have worked in themselves, as a self-indulgent exercise, particularly when visitors see finds trays full of familiar things, such as fragments of willow pattern plates, or stainless steel table knives. However, by making such mundane objects the subject of archaeological inquiry the everyday world of work is, nevertheless, imbued with a sense of importance.

Onlookers, seeing that such things are of archaeological interest, are more likely to share their own experiences of working in a factory, or even those of their parents or grandparents, and to ask what the archaeology has revealed about the history of the site. At a very simplistic level this can mean that the brownfield sites we excavate have the capacity to touch upon and inform us about people, processes, or even periods, that have been air brushed out of conventional municipal or economic histories.

As Australian urban historian Alan Mayne puts it, in relation to the image of the urban slums of Melbourne:

“Cities have often been likened to palimpsests. Too often, however, it has been assumed that the layers are bound together in organic togetherness, with natural and explicit continuities and progressions between the layers. We ignore the disjunctions and contradictions between the surface and its underlays. Selectively, we erase and deny traces of the past.”2

What possible value can there be in resurrecting evidence for the traumas of Sheffield’s industrial past through archaeology?

Gavin Lucas and Victor Buchli have suggested that the act of archaeology constitutes objects for the formation of discourses about absent or denied subjects. In short it is a form of:

“creative materialising intervention, which has redemptive and therapeutic powers which help individuals and communities cope with painful contradictions that otherwise would remain unarticulated.”3

The implications for contemporary issues such as social inclusion are clear. In drawing attention to Sheffield’s industrial past through brownfield archaeology we are not content to simply perpetuate old myths and prejudices. We regard our work as an opportunity to confront and re-interpret the material conditions that both enabled and constrained ordinary working people to make their way through life.

We must acknowledge that their lives were, in many cases, harsh by modern day standards, and yet the evidence that has been brought to light by our investigations has shown that many individuals were highly skilled, and took great pride in their work. They no doubt gained some satisfaction from the fact that the goods and materials that they produced supplied markets world-wide. The investigation of brownfield sites in Sheffield, as elsewhere, must therefore be viewed as far more that a contribution to local knowledge, or local history.


Tweedale, G. 1995, Steel City : Entrepeurship, Strategy, and Technology in Sheffield 1743-1993, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Mayne, A. & Lawrence, S. 1999 ‘Ethnographies of place: a new urban research agenda’, Urban History, 26, 3, p.326-348.
Buchli, V. & Lucas, G. (eds.) 2001, Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, London & New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

  1. Tweedale 1995, 18-19.
  2. Mayne & Lawrence 1999, 333.
  3. Buchili & Lucas 2001, 17.