Materialising Sheffield - re-presenting the past  
steel ingots

Benjamin Huntsman – Early Life

Benjamin Huntsman and the world of eighteenth-century science

Early Eighteenth-Century Steel Production


Industrial Secrecy and Espionage

6. Opposition of the Sheffield cutlers

7. Huntsman’s works at Handsworth and Attercliffe

Swedish Visits to the Attercliffe Works

The evolution of the Attercliffe Works in the later 18th Century



7. Huntsman’s works at Handsworth and Attercliffe

Huntsman's new steelworks were built on a long burgage plot behind a cottage in the village of Attercliffe. As at Handsworth, the innocuous cottage frontage and tightly knit village layout was ideal for somebody concerned about security. As late as the nineteenth century, many of the fields surrounding the village remained undeveloped or were subdivided into allotments for the cultivation of food. Even so, it was not unusual to find workshops and even small furnaces in the backyards of dwelling houses, a pattern of development that characterised much of the early industry of Sheffield.

Working from early sources it is possible to reconstruct the earliest plans of the 1760s, quite probably as built by Benjamin Huntsman in 1751. The furnace was a small single-storey building with two stacks of equal size projecting from the rear. Each stack was wide enough to contain three flues, suggesting a six-hole furnace was originally used. This early scale of production is supported by the contemporary evidence of B. Q. Andersson, an early visitor to Huntsman's works who observed "there are usually six such furnaces in one house". In 1761 when Robsahm visited, Huntsman had just three assistants and an output of eight tons of cast steel per annum, but could have produced up to twelve tons had he "cared to hire" more workers, again corroborating the survey evidence.

Projecting from the South elevation would have been the annealing stove, essential to the working of the process, and rebuilt in the same relative position when the shop was later extended. The small structure built into the angle between the 'Furnace' and 'Mill House' may have been the pot-room, used for crucible making, and directly accessible from the furnace shop floor. The 'Mill House' and adjoining 'Shed' are not hatched in Fairbank's survey notes, a convention often used to represent structures partially open to the elements and suggesting these structures were accessed externally.

The yard was the hub of the works, enclosed by buildings apart from two short stretches of wall at the front and back, both punctuated by gates. Like many later steelworks, the yard was of the 'drive-through' type with gates at both ends, obviating the need for carts to turn in its relatively confined space. Regular deliveries would have included cartloads of raw clay from a number of sources, coal for coking, bars of cementation steel, glass for flux and possibly even crucibles to be pounded up for 'grog'.

The mixing was done in a simply constructed trough of timber planks, resulting in a stiff clay that was subsequently trodden by the workmen using their bare feet, in order to detect any remaining lumps which could lead to the failure of the crucible in the furnace.

Huntsman probably made his crucibles in the small room attached to the side of the furnace building: this dedicated 'pot room' became a standard feature of almost every crucible furnace that followed. Making the crucibles involved completely drying out the clay before grinding it to a powder, for which purpose Huntsman had built the horse-powered edge roller mill adjacent to the furnaces. These dry ingredients were combined and water added, in this case drawn from the well between the cottage and the works. The finished crucibles were then left to dry slowly, first in the pot room and then on shelves built above the melting holes for at least ten days. The night before their intended use, the next day's crucibles were put into the annealing stove specially designed for the purpose, and brought to a red heat. In this instance, the stove was built out from the far wall of the furnace building as to leave the area in front of the furnace holes unobstructed.

The later extension of the furnaces did not significantly change the basic operation of the works. In plan, the main furnace was simply enlarged by an additional four holes, and even the annealing stove was rebuilt in the same relative position. Behind the casting shop, a row of new buildings was erected, with a narrow yard in between. A survey of 1781 records these uses as a 'smithy', 'furnace' and 'iron house', the latter confirming that this was a small cementation furnace. The same drawing shows that access to the smaller yard was by a gate alongside the extended cast steel furnaces. Organisationally, these buildings were not immediately connected to the main steel casting side of the works, and could have operated independently. The cementation furnace in particular would have required round-the-clock attendance for over a week at a time, so its relative isolation from the main yard was an advantage.

Benjamin Huntsman lived in the cottage on the site of his steelworks, initially with his son, and possibly others, the house also serving as the works office. In addition to this cottage, the rate books from the 1780s indicate that there were several tenements adjoining the works, probably built in Benjamin's lifetime. These properties may have formed the nucleus of what was later to be known as Huntsman's row, a terrace of two-storey workers' housing which extended back from Attercliffe Green and further increasing the security of the works. In form, the row was similar to that still in existence at Abbeydale Works, two storeys high and built of local sandstone. As both Abbeydale and Attercliffe were some distance from town, the accommodation of workers was desirable, although later rate book and census evidence indicates that not all of the occupants of Huntsman's Row were employed at the works.





Copyright Alan Williams and HRI online

illustration: attercliffe 1795 materials

Copyright Alan Williams and HRI online
illustration: Survey 1763

Copyright Alan Williams and HRI online

illustration: Survey 1767