Knives, saws, scythes, files, razor blades, cutlery. No doubt about it, Sheffield is the English equivalent of Solingen. What began with small workshops in the 16th century quickly developed into the brand mark of an up-and-coming industrial city. Later Sheffield was to pioneer modern steel manufacturing. The Kelham Island Museum, housed on the site of a disused generating station, is an impressive presentation of the city’s industrial heritage. Here you can see one of the most powerful steam engines in the world. Alongside it stands a massive Bessemer converter whose invention in 1856 revolutionised steel manufacturing. “Little mesters” symbolise Sheffield’s longstanding craft tradition. These were the forgers, grinders and toolmakers who turned the term “Made in Sheffield” into an internationally famous trademark. Now there is very little work left for them – apart from in the Kelham Island Museum where two of them demonstrate their masterly abilities. Children can experience the steel industry at close quarters in the “Melting Shop” where they can get themselves processed like steel, melted, rolled and hammered into shape by “genuine” machines.
The preconditions were ideal. Water to drive the engines, and sandstone to produce top-quality grindstones. There was coal and iron, and rivers for transportation. Above all there were the skills and assiduousness of the Sheffield craftsmen. No wonder that Sheffield soon became a booming steelmaking town. The year 1742 marks the starting point when the mediaeval town began to transform itself into the “World’s Steel Capital”. In that year Benjamin Huntsman invented cast steel. A little over 100 years later an engineer called Sir Henry Bessemer invented a method of mass-producing steel with his so-called Bessemer converter. Shortly after that Robert Forrester Mushet invented a new form of alloy steel, and in 1913 Harry Brearley produced the first stainless steel. Correspondingly there is a huge range of goods boasting the label “Made in Sheffield”. They range from delicate surgical instruments, via the crankshaft of a Triumph Spitfire to a 12,000 horse power steam engine constructed in 1905 for a Sheffield armour plate rolling mill. The armament industry was another area of activity for the local steel works. Steel plates from Sheffield were used for armouring British battleships in the First World War. In the Second World War the so-called Grand Slam bombs were manufactured here – ten ton bombs with an enormous explosive power.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Sheffield was by far the leading centre of the global cutlery industry before Solingen took the lead in the late 19th century. Another century later, the decline of the old English industry resulted in the almost complete disappearance of Sheffield's cutlery trade. Only a couple of companies are still operational in the sector today, mostly focusing on high quality products. That’s why the industry has mainly survived in museums like the Kelham Island Museum, which draws a vivid picture of Sheffield's outstanding industrial history.
In addition, the city's cutlery industry is preserved at original production sites: the open-air Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, a water-powered scythe manufacturing facility, the former grinding shop Shepherd Wheel and the Wortley Top Forge, a traditional smithy. The Municipal Museum Weston Park showcases its impressive collection of cutlery in a spacious exhibition room in the Millennium Gallery.
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Monday to Thursday 10am-4pm
last admission 1 hour before closing