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



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

Benjamin Huntsman naturally looked to his only son, William, to succeed him in the running of the steelworks, which by the time of his death in 1776 had become famous throughout Europe. William, however, had ambitions of his own, and had established his own button manufactory in Sheffield. Buttonmaking was a lucrative and growing trade at the time, and William had perhaps been inspired by his father's business with Matthew Boulton in Birmingham, probably the largest and most successful manufacturer of decorative metal wares in the country. He also had the means to supply himself with the best rolls, punches and dies -- all of his own steel -- used to manufacture these items.

However, William Huntsman and his partner Robert Asline had become increasingly absorbed in the merchanting side of the button business, and in the volatile economic climate of the 1780s the venture soon hit trouble. In March 1781, both partners were declared bankrupt. Ironically, this came at a time when Huntsman's steel was more in demand than ever, and before the commercial embargos of the Napoleonic Wars effectively cut off all trade with Europe.

Fortunately, bankruptcy was not ultimately fatal to the business, and the firm was re-established soon after, this time concentrating on steelmaking and merchanting.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Huntsman's steel still commanded a premium abroad, and the Huntsman 'brand' had also maintained a high reputation at home. The firm supplied the dies for Boulton's new coining machinery, used to manufacture of the infamous 'cartwheel' copper coinage from 1797.

The works continued to grow under William, and during the spring of 1787 he built another cementation furnace (possibly as a replacement to the earlier), bringing a degree of independence from the merchants upon whom he depended for the supply of blister steel. By the end of 1805, another 'Steel Furnace' had been added to Huntsman's rate, although it is unclear whether this was the second converting furnace or a new crucible shop.

However, it was under the direction of William's son, Francis Huntsman, that the Attercliffe Steelworks saw its greatest period of expansion. The fabric and practices of the steelworks as inherited by Francis had changed little since Benjamin's day, and the layout remained essentially that recorded in the earlier surveys.

Francis had served a five year apprenticeship in Leicester under the ironmongers and founders James and Benjamin Cort, during which time he must have gained considerable experience of foundry practice. He clearly had great ambitions for the business, even if this meant a break with family tradition, and almost immediately he began to make changes.

After almost seventy years of continued use, Benjamin's original furnaces were demolished, and by 1826 a second steelworks site, called the Weigh House Furnace, had been established practically adjacent to the Attercliffe works. This was a major addition to the Huntsman plant, and included a large cementation furnace and new crucible steel furnaces with steel room, pot house and coke shed, all entered from a central yard.

The family cottage was also abandoned, although it escaped demolition, and a new house built alongside it. This was a fairly substantial residence, square in plan, and in the bare classical style common to many manufacturers' houses of the late Georgian era.

In 1842 a large 12-hole furnace was built at Huntsman's Row, the final significant addition to Huntsman's steelmaking plant at Attercliffe. However, beyond the works' boundaries other developments were taking place. The extension in 1819 of the canal from Tinsley to Sheffield had passed just to the east of Attercliffe village and enabled the delivery of imported iron from Hull directly to Sheffield itself. Many of the larger firms had acquired land adjacent to the canal to construct their own private wharves, saving time and money on the storage and transportation of the heavy raw materials, and in 1840 Huntsman did the same.

A warehouse was built directly alongside the wharf in 1843, enabling the storage of bar iron off-site and easing pressure on the recently extended Huntsman's Yard works. The wharf continued to be used until 1860, when the route of the proposed railway line resulted in its purchase by the South Yorkshire Railway Company and its eventual demolition, later becoming the site of Attercliffe Station.

In addition to the steelworks and Huntsman's Row, by 1868 Francis owned most of the 27 houses at the adjacent Swallow Row and almost all of the Town Well Yard, while his son, Benjamin, owned 32 houses along with a wharf, office, machinery and premises at Effingham Road. He had made substantial investments in coal, as the proprietor by 1869 of the 'New Winnings Colliery'. Meanwhile, the steelworks remained static, reflecting this shift in focus of the business.

Alongside the steel furnaces and warehousing, the complex also contained some unexpected structures. At the very back of the site was a cow-house and other ancillary buildings related to animal husbandry, while closer to the main house was a hen roost and poultry cages. Buildings such as these were not unprecedented in nineteenth century steelworks, as steelmaking was not a continuous process and during inactive periods the workmen would have had time to look after the animals and tend the nearby allotment gardens.

By 1900, most of Francis Huntsman's empire had been replaced by rows of terraced housing along new streets. A new school had already built to serve the new district, named 'Huntsman's Gardens School' in recognition of its location in the fields behind the works. Ultimately, these too were demolished, leaving an area of featureless parkland until the development in 2001 of the 'Attercliffe Village' housing scheme. The village of Attercliffe has all but ceased to exist, now dominated by the Don Valley sports stadium, and few signs remain of the impact that the Huntsman family made upon this community.




Movie: The evolution of the Attercliffe Works

Copyright Alan Williams and HRI online

illustration: William Huntsman

Copyright Alan Williams and HRI online

illustration: Survey 1819

Copyright Alan Williams and HRI online