A history of steel in Sheffield

FEM is proud to be based in Sheffield, which is still known to this day as the ‘steel city’. Looking back, it appears as though the city and its people were always destined to herald innovations in metalwork and fabrication. Sheffield was uniquely positioned to focus on this industry for several reasons though. Lets take a trip back in time and take a look at the history of steel in Sheffield.

Sheffield Geography

The city has always been well positioned to be a hub for steel production and manufacturing. The hills in Sheffield and the surrounding area contain coal, iron, and the other raw materials needed for create steel. This process involves combining iron ore with chromium, aluminium, cobalt, lead, copper, nickel, tin, magnesium and more to create steel alloys. The surrounding woodland also gave early metalworkers an abundance of fuel for smelting and blacksmithing.

What’s more, Sheffield contains five rivers – The Don, Loxley, Porter Brook, Sheaf, and Rivelin. Pre industrialisation, water power was used to operate equipment like blast furnace bellows and trip hammers. Furthermore, before railway networks were established, rivers were essential to transport goods/raw materials in and out of the city.

The Origins of Sheffield Steel

Sheffield steel had its humble origins in cutlery production, around 700 years ago. Probably the earliest mention of steel fabrication in Sheffield came from hearth tax records, which mention ‘Robert The Cutler’ in 1297. After this, a Sheffield-made knife was found at the Tower of London dating back to 1340. It was then mentioned in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, describing one character as a Sheffield steel knife maker.

Metalworking would continue to grow in popularity in Sheffield between the late 14th century and into the 17th century. The steel industry was beginning to take its first steps, however, it was only with the introduction of ‘crucible steel’ in 1740 that steelmaking in Sheffield would expand. Discovered by Sheffield local Benjamin Huntsman, the process created the temperatures needed to melt pig iron, sand, glass, ashes and other materials. The demand for Huntsman steel throughout Europe heralded the major expansion of steelmaking factories in Sheffield.

The Industrial Revolution

The widespread adoption of fossil fuels brought many technological innovations that would form the basis of modern steel fabrication work. This, coupled with the steelmaking reputation Huntsman had laid the foundations of, led to an explosion of Sheffield steel production. A few decades after Huntsman’s breakthrough, the city was responsible for 40% of the steel being produced in Europe at the time. By the mid-1800’s annual steel production in Britain was around 50,000 tonnes per year, 85% of which came from Sheffield. Demand was in part helped by the advent of the Crimean war in 1853 and the subsequent need for weapons.

During this period, many processes were developed and implemented to improve the efficiency of steel production. Steel fabrication methods were also expanded upon to aid in the manufacturing of infrastructure and weapons. Prior to inventions like the Bessemer process, steel was too expensive to produce on a large scale. With the availability of steel however, mechanisation and steel products were seen in all parts of society. A prime example in farming and agriculture.

At the turn of the 20th century, steel mainly found use in the production of ammunition, household appliances, bridges, rail tracks, and vehicle bodies. This showed the importance of the metal fabrication process, as it was instrumental in creating a huge range of strong and durable products. Read the history of sheet metal fabrication.

The massive demand for steel in the 20th century meant the Sheffield’s production experienced consistent growth until the city was heavily bombed during WWII. The Sheffield steelworks would then be hit by repeated market downturns and the destructive policies of the Thatcher years. Nevertheless, Sheffield still continues to produce a vast array of steel products to this day.

Steel in Sheffield Today

There are many fabrication companies in Sheffield today. As such, if you’re looking to source steel for manufacturing projects there are lots of options around the city. For excellence and precision, choose FEM. We’re a business that was born and bred in the area, meaning we know metal fabrication through and through. Our metal fabrication work services extend beyond just steel too. If your project requires sheet metal fabrication, stainless steel fabrication, or aluminium fabrication, we can help with that too.

Contact us today.