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Sheffield as a Woodland Centre

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So far, in reading the Story of Sheffield and Hallamshire, we have heard of the great people who lived in halls, castles, and manor houses, who built churches, founded monasteries, were granted lands by kings, through right of conquest or by forcible seizure, and who fought abroad, or in civil war at home; but we have not heard much about the people who did the work of the world in those distant days, and were ninety-nine hundredths of the population. What were the ordinary people doing throughout these years when our knowledge of the district is only dim?

Then, as now, of course, the life of all men was sustained from the earth's soil, or from the waters, or, indirectly, by skilful work upon the minerals hidden in the earth. Earls and knights in their power, the monk in his seclusion, and the thrall in his slavery, lived upon the life that was renewed year by year in earth, or air, or river; and that ancient society, from top to bottom, depended on the plough, the hunter's bow, the woodman's axe, the fisherman's rod or net, the bellows of the iron-worker who made men's tools. Nowhere could these primitive, yet everlasting, works of men's hands be seen in a simpler and better way, all going on together, than in the region known as Hallamshire.

If we would imagine what it was like, we must see, in our mind's eye, all the houses of Sheffield cleared away, except a cluster down by the castle where Wain Gate now is, and a straggling lane or two, perhaps, on the hillside where Bank Street runs, between what is now High Street above and West Bar below, and extending, as time went on, to the Crofts which, later, were real crofts, or small enclosures. Sheffield was then, at most, a village or hamlet. Here and there outside the place - though the sites are now covered with houses - were little farms, scattered far apart in the valleys or on the hillsides, with ploughed lands or pasture around; but on the hills above we must fancy all the present stone walls as not yet built, and the land not only open but thickly covered with woods, in which deer roamed without being disturbed except by hunters or poachers.

Beyond Owlerton and Wadsley stretched the hunting ground of Wharncliffe Chase, with Loxley Chase adjoining it and extending to the Stannington ridge. There Rivelin Chase began, and continued through the valley to what is now the Redmires Road and was the Roman causeway. Next followed Fulwood Chase - then only a wood and not even a village - sweeping round to Ecclesall and Abbeydale; and from Heeley over the hills to Gleadless and Handsworth was the Great Sheffield Park. It was a real forest land, such as one may still see in foreign countries, with pasturage for deer and cows and swine among the trees. The patches of woodland most like it to-day are Ecclesall Wood, above the Abbeydale Road, the copse in the Rivelin Valley where the School for Crippled Children is built, and the wooded sides of the beautiful Wyming Brook; but the trees in the olden days had been left undisturbed to grow larger and more stately.

Of course, there were no roads in these valleys, but only tracks to the farms and ploughed lands; and the rivers, clear and pure except in times of storm, abounded in fish. In some parts of this district, from the earliest times, it is certain that iron was worked, and, later, as soon as coal became known as a fuel, it, too, was brought into use in small quantities. The reason in each case was that both coal and iron were found practically on the surface.

It is recorded that there were iron works at Kimberworth, near Rotherham, as early as 1160, both for smelting ore and for further working up and purifying the iron. Throughout the district there are numerous places where in distant ages the surface-working of metals has been carried on, and Roman coins have been found mixed with the refuse. The original name of Pitsmoor was Ore Pits.

To this day there are surface outcrops of coal in Sheffield Park, at Wincobank, and other places, and to some extent it was worked in connection with iron at a very early period. It is mentioned, for instance, in the twelfth century as being "digged" for use in liberating iron from the iron ore. Still, probably, there would not be much coal used for that purpose, because wood was plentiful, and wood more easily frees iron from its earthy impurities. Indeed, the full use of coal for this purpose was quite a late discovery.

With iron ready to men's hands, and the woods all around for making charcoal, can we wonder that a homely manufacture of iron, and the goods that can be made with wrought iron, began very early in Hallamshire? Such iron, smelted in small quantities with charcoal as the fuel, is often very good of its kind, though all the iron is not extracted from the ore.

The place where the smelting hearth was arranged was often where the best draught could be obtained; that is, at the top of a very steep hill up which the west wind will sweep, gathering strength as it ascends till it fans the fire fiercely at the top. Hills so used were called Bole hills, and Bole hills may be found in many places round Sheffield. One of these westward-looking ridges at the back of Crookes is specially called "The Bole Hills."

No doubt, too, bellows were used to create an artificial draught, for they are made almost everywhere by people but little removed from savages. The word "bellows" in Old English means blow-bag, and it suggests something made of skins, just as bag-bellows arc used to-day by Indian iron-workers.

Not only were the iron, and the wood-fuel, and the draughty hill slopes, all around the early people of Hallamshire, but the stone for sharpening the iron tools and weapons they made was also close at hand. Grindstones for mills were, of course, then, as now, to be obtained from all the gritstone moors, such as the Millstone Edge and Stanage Edge, but the softer stone used for sharpening tools was plentiful. It is now obtained largely from Wickersley, but was formerly quarried as near the town as Brincliffe Edge.

When the use of water-power became understood - and that must have been very early, for the earliest records mention mills - there were the mountain streams and their feeders hurrying down towards the central point at the castle, and capable of filling dam after dam, in almost continuous succession, till at last there were more than 130 dams in the district, each with its grinding wheel.

No city in the world illustrates more perfectly than Sheffield how a great industry has grown out of natural conditions. It seems as though it was appointed from the beginning of things that Sheffield should be the home of the steel-trade. Its natural advantages were increased when the woods were burned up in the smelting furnaces, for coal was at hand even more conveniently than wood; and the continued fitness of the place for the business into which it has grown drew towards it the best iron supplies of the whole world. Then, as methods of manufacture changed, and furnaces grew fiercer with more and more artificial heat, fire-resisting materials were needed to hold the ten-times greater heat that was generated. But the district supplied, too, in abundance, those "refractory" materials, as they are called, such as fire clay.

This chapter began by asking how the common people lived and worked in Hallamshire in the earliest days, and the story has wandered a little away from that to show what materials were all around them to help them in their work. But we must not suppose that at first, say in the time of the Normans, iron-working was a principal occupation.

The land was all owned first by the lords of the manor, and later, in small part, by a few other families who chiefly came into it by marriage, and practically all the work carried on was done either for the lord of Hallamshire, or the right to do it was rented from him. Those who cultivated the soil were either the tenants of the lord, or they were his serfs. In any case his power over them was complete. In his name the Court was held where all offences were tried. To him went, no doubt, a large share of the profits of any work that was done. His were the keepers of the forest lands; his the deer and the sole right of hunting; only by his leave could any business grow; he even claimed that the cultivators of the soil should grind their corn at his mill. The charcoal burners, and the iron smelters and cutlers would all be his men, and would owe him service if he called on them. Their work was not grouped in the little town, but was scattered over the whole country from Ringinglow to beyond. Ecclesfield, from Gleadless to Bradfield. Hallamshire was the lordship, not Sheffield only; and the handicraftsmen who made knives and arrow heads and bolts for the cross-bow were countrymen who, probably, farmed a little, as well as worked in the smithy or hull, fished the streams and ponds, and, if they saw a good chance, occasionally poached the forest.

Quite 500 years of this life passed with the whole country round Sheffield centred on the lord in his castle - on the Lovetots, and Furnivals, and Talbots, and, in a much smaller degree, on the Howards. And there can be no doubt now that, if we regard trade as a good thing, enriching the people and tending to make them independent, the feudal life centring on one family had a bad effect; for it prevented men from rising into a more wealthy condition, obtaining capital, and extending business. It left the mass of the people poor and dependent. There was no scope for individual enterprise. That is why Sheffield remained for centuries less wealthy than such places as Rotherham and Doncaster. These towns were on the highroads of commerce, and had in them more people of what we now call the middle-class. It was not till Sheffield ceased to be the seat of a great family which controlled the district that it organized a vigorous independent life of its own, and really developed the great natural resources that surrounded it.

In fact, Sheffield, which is now known throughout the whole world as widely as any city of any nation, had a remarkably slow start, and some signs of its rural beginning remain, in a number of curious ways, even to this day, connecting us with the earliest times. It long remained an out-of-the-way, backward place. It did not become incorporated as a borough till 1843. It has only taken rank as one of the really great cities of the world for about twenty years, though its manufactures before then were of much importance. Its place in the world was long like that of the blacksmith's smithy among the institutions of a village - useful, interesting, but with a homely, shed-like simplicity. Sheffield was a country place long after it had the population of a large town, and it retains now some of the traces of its earliest forms of work and play.

We must follow in separate chapters the story of the growth and changes of its great cutlery business, showing how they have kept alive the methods of the earliest industry; but here mention may be made of some existing forms of sport which link up this twentieth century with the days when Sheffield was a large forest village, or small forest town, sheltering under the walls of a great lord's castle. Then hunting was the rich man's chief sport, and cast its glamour over the poor man, to whom it often proved a danger, for in him it was counted a vice. The poor man's sport, and no small part of his livelihood, was fishing. So prolific were the streams that at a much later period provision was made in the indentures of apprentices that they should not be fed too often on salmon. It seems as if devotion to both hunting and fishing lives in the very blood and bones of the Sheffielder to this day, as we see in the continued support of the poor man's harriers, and the tens of thousands of fishers who yearly go forth from the streets - particularly the cutlery streets - of Sheffield to the waters of every county within a hundred miles where a poor man may cast a line. A love of the hills and moors, with a dog as companion of the walk, is also deep-seated in the Sheffielder's heart from a dozen generations of forefathers.

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Pictures for Sheffield as a Woodland Centre

Loxley Chase
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