Sheffield, situated at the point where the River Sheaf meets the River Don is mostly a product of the Victorian age but the surrounding area was important in ancient times. An Ancient British Celtic fortress was located nearby at Wincobank, now a north Sheffield subburb and other Celtic forts existed at Carl Wark on Hathersage Moor near Dore, to the south west of Sheffield and at Scholes Wood near Rotherham.
Archaeological evidence suggests that the fort at Wincobank was destroyed by a fierce fire, perhaps in Roman or Anglo-Saxon times. In the Roman era the area around Sheffield lay in the southern most territory of the huge Pennine tribe called the Brigantes. To the south of here lay the territory of a rival tribe called the Coritani who inhabited a large area of the north eastern midlands.
In early Anglo-Saxon times Welsh speaking Celts may have held out against the Anglo-Saxon invaders from northern Europe and the Sheffield area may have remained for a time within a Celtic kingdom called Elmet which survived in the early Anglo-Saxon period.
Another Celtic kingdom survived for a time on Hatfield Chase near Doncaster to the north. It was known as Meicen or Meigen. Without doubt the clearest indication of Celtic survival in the area is in thename of the village called Wales which lies a few miles to the south east of Sheffield near the Derbyshire border. Other Welsh place-names in Yorkshire include Craven, Pen-y-ghent and the name of Leeds.
The Celtic area around Sheffield was eventually absorbed by the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria and the open land or 'fields' around the Sheaf (hence Sheffield) were perhaps one of the last areas to be captured by Northumbria. Sheffield would always lie right at the very southern edge of the Northumbrian kingdom. Today it lies on the very southern edge of the county of Yorkshire near the border with the midland counties of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.
Remains from the Anglo-Saxon era have been found in Sheffield in the area where Sheffied Castle was built in later times. A ridge known incorrectly as Roman Ridge, running from Sheffield north to Mexborough formed part of the frontier of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. This frontier was built by the Northumbrian kings to mark the border with the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia. It is interesting to note that the Anglo-Saxon river name Sheaf means 'boundary-river' and perhaps formed part of the boundary of Northumbria. It could equally have been the boundary of Elmet in an earlier period.
Other rivers forming Northumbrian boundaries were the Humber to the east and the Mersey to the west. Mersey like the Sheaf is an Anglo-Saxon river name that means 'boundary-river'. We also know for certain that the place called Dore, now the most south westerly suburb of Sheffield was right on the boundary between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia, where it formed a 'door' - a Pennine pass between the two kingdoms. Dore was an assigned meeting place between the Kings of Mercia and the Kings of Northumbria.Today Dore lies close to the boundaries of Yorkshire and Derbyshire.
Sheffield was the site of a medieval castle founded by a Norman with the delightful name of William de Lovelot, but the castle was destroyed at the end of the Civil War. Its site is now occupied by shops. Very little if anything apart form the cathedral-church survives from medieval times.
Rebuilt by the Furnival family, Sheffield Castle was for many centuries a home to the Earls of Shrewsbury until 1516 when one of the earls built himself a manor house (Sheffield Manor), which has, like the castle, now gone.
Both the castle and the manor, (but mainly the castle) were for fourteen years a place of imprisonent for Mary, Queen of Scots, who was locked up here by Queen Elizabeth I. Mary was also imprisoned for a time at Bolton Castle in Wensleydale. Mary's sympathetic guardian at Sheffield Castle, was the Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. He was famous for being the fourth husband of Bess of Hardwick (1507-1608), one of the wealthiest women in England.
Sheffield Cathedral was nothing more than a parish church dedicated to St Peter and St Paul until Sheffield became a diocese in 1914. The building was extended in the 1950s and 60s and although it is of Norman origin, most of the older sections are fifteenth century. Inside the church are a number of monuments to the Earls of Shrewsbury. Sheffield also has a Roman Catholic Cathedral dedicated to St Marie that was built in 1850.
The only other notable medieval feature in Sheffield is the remaining tower of Beauchief Abbey near Dore in south west Sheffield. The abbey was founded in 1175 and although only the tower remains, stone from the abbey was used in building Beauchief's seventeenth century church of St Thomas. Beauchief Abbey was the only Premonstratensian abbey in the old West Riding of Yorkshire.
Sheffield has been famous for the making of steel since at least the fourteenth century when one of Chaucer's pilgrims is described as carrying a Sheffield Thwitel in his hose.The proximity of iron ore, streams for power and suitable grinding stones made Sheffield an ideal centre for making steel. In the sixteenth century Sheffield began to increasingly specialise in making cutlery with the arrival of expertise in the form of Flemish immigrants and in the following century in 1624 a Company of Cutlers was established.
In the 1740s Benjamin Huntsman (1704-1776), a Sheffield man born to German parents made huge improvements to the steel making technique at Handsworth in the east of the city. Huntsman was a mechanic and an expert in making steel springs and pendulums for watches, but was unhappy with the quality of the steel.
Huntsman's new steel making process involved the use of a crucible, but his high quality steel was rejected by the Cutlers of Sheffield who refused to use his steel on the grounds that it was too hard to work. Huntsman exported his steel to France and from there French knives made of Huntsman's steel were exported back into England and outsold the work of the Sheffield cutlers. At first the cutlers tried to stop Huntsman from exporting but by 1750 his secret manufacturing methods had been discovered and were copied by other Sheffield cutlers. From then on the Sheffield steel industry boomed.
Steel making improvements continued in Victorian times particularly with the development of the Bessemer process of making steel in the 1850s. This was good fortune for the west Riding town of Sheffield, but a setback for the up the coming iron making town of Middlesbrough in the North Riding of Yorkshire, which was not able to effectively adopt this process until the 1870s. The Bessemer process was invented by Henry Bessemer (1813-98) who set up a steelworks at Sheffield.
The next major event in the history of steel making was the making of Stainless Steel which was pioneered at Sheffield in 1903 - although it was developed in Germany and the USA at around the same time.
Sheffield was a major centre for the manufacture of armaments during the first and second world wars and as a target for enemy bombing, suffered much wartime damage.
In 1742, about the same time as Huntsman was making his discoveries, a Sheffield man called Thomas Bolsouver (1704-1788) pioneered the making of Sheffield Plate made by fusing silver and copper ingots and rolling them together. A thin sheet of silver was placed above and below the copper to make a sandwich and the whole sandwich was heated and rolled. It was at first used in the making of buttons but was soon adopted for making, pots, cheap silver plates and many other items. Sheffield Plate was known and used throughout the world, but was ultimately superceeded by the electroplating process discovered in 1840.
MODERN AND VICTORIAN SHEFFIELD
Sheffield grew most rapidly in the nineteenth century and its population growth was as follows;
- 1736: 9,700
- 1801: 31,000
- 1841: 68,000.
The major Victorian building in Sheffield is the town hall by E.W.Mountford appropriately crowned by a statue of Vulcan - the Roman god of metal and fire. The town hall was built in 1890 and extended in 1923. It incorporates many interesting architectural features including two large figures representing electricity and steam. They are holding a scroll of fame that includes the famous figures of Watt, Stephenson, Faraday, Davy and Swan.
Other features of Sheffield include the 1932 City Hall, the University, chartered in 1905 and from a more recent age the out of town Meadowhall Shopping Centre which is built on the site of a steel works. To travel back in time it is possible to visit the Abbeydale Industrial hamlet to the south west of the city. This is a museum based around a restored scythe factory of 1742.
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