The Expansion of Sheffield Trades
The story of the cutlery trade in Sheffield has been traced in outline in the last chapter. In this chapter something must be said of the growth of other manufactures in the city, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, until the rise of the great firms of the East End, carrying on the "heavy trades," which are now the chief feature of Sheffield industry.
There is no doubt that, before the close of the seventeenth century, Sheffield was not only making cutlery of much improved quality, but was notably extending its manufactures to saws, files, and edged tools. There are records of the saw trade as far back as 1640, and file-smiths were members of the Cutlers' Company in 1681. Quite early in the eighteenth century, steel-making - no doubt from Swedish and Spanish iron largely - began to come into note. All blacksmiths' requisites, such as anvils, vices, and hammers, were made, and out of the cutlery trade grew such fine work as the production of surgical instruments.
The great expansion of the town's manufactures, however, followed events that happened in the year 1742. That was when Thomas Bolsover discovered how silver and copper could be united so as to give a silver surface on a copper ground, an invention that led to the establishment of the Sheffield silver-plate industry. This branch of Sheffield's business went on for a hundred years, when it became superseded by electro-plating; but the productions of Sheffield taste and skill from that period command high prices to-day.
Thomas Bolsover was a mechanic. It is said that he was mending a knife when he "hit upon the possibility of plating copper with silver by fusion." He did not, however, realise the immense scope which his discovery opened out to manufacturers, and was content to use his process for plating buttons, buckles, and snuff-boxes. As partner with him, when he began to extend his business, he had Joseph Wilson, who, somehow, became acquainted with a special method of preparing snuff. At that time the taking of snuff was almost a universal fashion, and the handling of a snuff-box and a pinch was a fine point in gentlemanly manners. Wilson founded the Top Mill at Sharrow, and the snuff mixed there has been making fortunes for 150 years.
Bolsover, besides plating buttons and buckles, made "saws, fenders, edge tools, and cast iron," according to an old directory, and devoted himself specially to rolling steel, particularly for saw-making. For this purpose he built rolling mills in the Porter valley, directly below Whiteley Wood Hall, where he lived, and erected a forge a little way higher up the stream, by what is now called Forge Dam. His name is preserved, in a corrupt form, in the name of the cottages that mark the site of the rolling mill - Bowser (Bolsover) Bottom.
Bolsover's discovery was soon used so extensively by his Sheffield neighbours that goods of a very great variety were made by the silver-plating method, and so much silver came into use in the manufactures of the town that an Assay Office, for stamping silver work, was established there in 1773. By that time Sheffield had sixteen firms of silversmiths. Among the earliest of them were the Tudor & Leader firm. Tudor gave the name to Tudor Street, and Leader, a button-maker who came from Essex by way of London, was the first of the family that afterwards became the historians of the city. Later, one of the most successful firms was Cadman & Roberts, the latter being the original Samuel Roberts, whose name continues through five generations to the present day.
The silver trade, including work in solid silver, has always held a place among Sheffield manufactures, through firms like the Dixons, and is now represented by such important works as those of Walker & Hall, and Mappin & Webb.
In the same year when Bolsover was introducing silver-plating in a small way - 1742 - Benjamin Huntsman, a Quaker watchmaker of German origin, removed from Doncaster to Handsworth in order to carry on with greater convenience experiments he was making in the production of a superior kind of steel. His experiments proved to be of extraordinary importance. On their foundation, very largely, has the whole modern structure of Sheffield's prosperity and fame been reared.
Huntsman found great difficulty in procuring steel for watch springs that was of the same consistency throughout. The steel of his day, hand forged, had been heated and hammered, and reheated and re-hammered till it became of the quality known as "double-shear," but still it showed the flaws of its method of preparation, and he believed that by a properly regulated process of melting, with a flux in the melting vessel to combine with impurities, a steel of a better quality, and of the same quality throughout, could be obtained. He therefore experimented with the fluid method of making steel, at a great heat, in a crucible, or pot, and at last was so successful that, for making articles requiring steel of the best quality, his steel held the field, and his competitors were nowhere.
The cutlers and manufacturers of Hallamshire did not take kindly to this new steel. The workmen said it was too hard to work easily. But it began to be exported to France, and, coming back in the form of French cutlery, was welcomed as altogether superior. Then the manufacturers tried to petition Parliament to prevent the export of Huntsman's steel; but when it was made clear that they might use it themselves and so compete with the French manufacturers, but would not, that stupid device failed. So there was nothing left except the adoption of the new steel; and, in one form or another, the making of crucible steel spread rapidly. In 1772, Huntsman removed his works to Attercliffe, and as he gradually improved his steel its sale increased, especially as in a few years a great trade sprang up with the American States, after they had broken away from the Mother Country.
The first firm to follow Huntsman's in making crucible steel seems to have been the Walkers of Grenoside, in the Ecclesfield parish of Hallamshire; and the story is told that they discovered the secret of Huntsman's method by Samuel Walker presenting himself, shivering with cold, on a bitter night, at the works where Huntsman's process was being secretly carried out. On being admitted and allowed to lie by the furnace fire and recover, the supposed ignorant traveller stealthily watched the process while he was believed to be asleep, exhausted.
Whether this was so or not, undoubtedly the Walkers soon afterwards began making crucible steel. They it was, too, who established the first iron works on a large scale in the neighbourhood, beginning in a small way at Grenoside, and removing afterwards to Holmes, near Rotherham. There, by the time of the American war, they were making cannon; and eventually the firm became one of the greatest in the land.
Another industry that sprang from Sheffield was the manufacture of Britannia ware, or white metal goods. This seems to have been started in Garden Street by James Vickers, one of the staunchest supporters of John Wesley. Later, it was very successfully carried on by the Dixons at their works in Cornish Place.
Other works that have not been persisted with were started at this time; as, for example, lead-works on the Porter at Lead Mill, and a silk-mill on the Don, changed later without success into a cotton mill.
The coming of steam as the ordinary working power in manufactures was a change which greatly influenced Sheffield trade, for, as industries sprang up and engineering extended, the tool-trade grew rapidly. In 1785 the steam grinding-wheel began to supersede the water-wheel in Sheffield itself, admirably though the town was situated for the use of water-power. In the last twenty years of the eighteenth century the opening up of collieries gave the town a better and cheaper supply of coal, though, with amazing short-sightedness, the people generally do not seem to have appreciated this enormous advantage.
In 1774, for example, the mineral agent of the Duke of Norfolk, John Curr, a man who has never received the praise he deserved, imitated what had been done in the North, and laid a wooden railway - hence the name "rail-way" - from the collieries in the Park down to where the Corn Exchange now stands, so that the cost of carting coals down the shocking roads was saved, and the coals were delivered much cheaper at the foot of the hill. But the people rose and riotously destroyed this improvement, on the ground that it was lessening the work of the carters. Afterwards a road of plates of cast iron was laid down, with a flange to keep trucks on the track, the maker of the plates, on John Curr's order, being one Outram of Ripley, and it is from the last syllable of Outram's name that we get the modern word "tram-way"
John Curr was responsible for the adoption of many improvements in coal mines, and it has been said of him that he " broadly established the system now in force in raising coal from pits." He substituted cast-iron rails for wooden ones, above and below, and wheeled waggons for the old "corves," put wooden guides in the pit shaft to keep the cage steady, used fixed engines for hauling waggons, and adopted a flat rope which increased the size of the drum of the winding-engine, thus enlarging the diameter of the drum as the cage neared the top of the pit and became of less weight. In this way he quickened the ascent. John Curr has an honourable place in the history of mining.
The modern era of Sheffield trade (which must be discussed in another chapter) may be said to begin with the establishing of the great East-end Sheffield firms during the periods of railway development of armour-plating men-of-war, of making big guns, building steel ships, and perfecting high-speed tools.
Before that time there were many ups and downs in the trade of the town, partly because it was not sufficiently varied in character. At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, the American States were Sheffield's best customers. But they gradually established their own manufactures. Then the Australian colonies and other developing parts of the world offered new fields for enterprise; but there were often times of stagnation before the city fell into its place as the provider of fine qualities of steel and tools for the manufacturers of all nations.
There really was no change from the old system of "little masters" and independent outside workers, as illustrated in the cutlery trade, to the modern system of great "works," with their thousands of skilled men, organized like clock-work, under discipline and scientific control. The fully organized works arose to fulfil other purposes, side by side with the more irregular methods of those trades whose details had been handed down, unwritten, from father to son. The old trades only slowly gave ear to new ideas. To this day they remain naturally distrustful of change, with a belief in hand-work rather than machine-work, in experience and personal skill rather than theory. The typical Sheffield workman has an unusually strong love of freedom, particularly the freedom to do as he has always done.
Most of the troubles that have arisen respecting conditions of work have developed in the older crafts, particularly in the cutlery trade, and in that trade chiefly among the grinders. It was among the grinders, almost exclusively, that the worst labour troubles ever known in the city occurred, and made an episode in its history which must now be described.