Sheffield - The Steel City

28.03.2022

Sheffield – dubbed "The Steel City" because of its famous cutlery-making activity, which was first referenced in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales – was once the steel capital of the world.

Sheffield's distinctive location provided ideal steel-making conditions from the start. The city's seven rivers provided water power (in the days before steam); its forests offered wood and charcoal; and the hills produced coal, iron, and millstone grit for the workshops' grinding wheels.

"Little mesters" (self-employed craftsmen) used to make cutlery, tools, and other small objects from start to finish in the early days. The increased demand in the eighteenth century necessitated more sophisticated operations, so mesters began renting workshops in factories, each of which handled separate stages of production, such as forging, grinding, or finishing.

Benjamin Huntsman's "crucible steel technique" revolutionised production in 1742, allowing for the production of stronger, higher-quality steel in bigger quantities. Sheffield grew from a modest village to a prominent European industrial city because to this idea. Its yearly steel production increased from 200 tonnes to 80,000 tonnes in the following 100 years, accounting for about half of Europe's total.

In 1856, Henry Bessemer's converter furnace advanced the process even further, allowing for the mass manufacture of low-cost refined steel for railway parts, armour plating, and construction.

In 1860, John Brown, Sheffield's first knighted steelmaker, received the first licence to produce Bessemer steel. He invented a rolling technique for armour plate the same year, and seven years later, he was supplying material for three-quarters of the British Navy's armoured ships.

Sheffield steel went global thanks to the "Bessemer boom." In 1871, America imported more than three times the amount of rail track it produced domestically from Sheffield.

A single development shaped the history of twentieth-century cutlery: stainless steel. Harry Brearley, the head of Firth-Brown Research Laboratories, discovered in 1913, that low-carbon steel containing 12% chromium can resist rust. The First World War interrupted manufacturing, but it took some time for Sheffield cutlers to embrace the new metal once the restrictions were overturned. Because it couldn't be forged or ground the old way, new machines were developed to punch blanks from cold-rolled stainless steel and heat treat, grind, and polish the blades. Many skilled workers lost employment during the interwar era as mechanised production increased to fulfil the need for stainless steel goods.

Sheffield was a vital part of arming the troops throughout both World Wars, and its strategic importance made it a bombing target. Women took over the city's steelworks, including munition manufacturing, while men were away fighting - a fact honoured by Sheffield's 'Women of Steel' statue, which was unveiled in 2016.

Several Sheffield steelworks closed throughout the 1970s due to a market downturn. The Thatcher years had a disastrous impact, resulting in more recession, conflict between the government and labour unions, and the second and last privatisation of British steel. Between 1979 and 1983, Sheffield lost over 50,000 steel and engineering jobs.

In 1979, Peter Fish founded the company now known as MEPS International Ltd. It began life as a consultancy company called Management, Engineering and Production Services. MEPS developed a unique method of steel price discovery in the early 1980s, as a need for accurate price data was required, during and after the ‘manifest crisis’ in the European steel industry. In the late 1980s, the company was renamed MEPS Europe Ltd. to reflect the increasing coverage of its published steel price data across the continent. In July 2001, it evolved once again into MEPS International Ltd. – reflecting the global coverage of their steel price research.

Due to decreasing demand, increased energy prices, a strong pound, and China's claimed "steel dumping", British steel has entered a new crisis since the 2008 recession. In 2016, Forgemaster, Sheffield's largest steel company, announced 100 redundancies from its 630-strong staff, amid a flurry of high-profile facility closures.

Sheffield's steel sector (which employed roughly 2,600 people in 2016) now concentrates primarily on specialised trade. Survivors of Sheffield's "little mesters" work in small workshops scattered throughout the city's residual industrial sites. The quality and legacy of Sheffield steel tools and cutlery continue to attract international purchasers, particularly from the United States.