History of Sheffield

A map of Sheffield in 1736
A map of Sheffield in 1736

The growth in the number and size of settlements in the area that became the City of Sheffield was a product of the industrial revolution. However, the area has been occupied since at least the last ice age and some of the settlements that grew to form Sheffield date from Anglo-Saxon times. Following the Norman conquest a castle was built in order to control the Saxon settlements and a small town developed in the area that is now the modern city centre.

By the 14th century Sheffield was noted for the production of knives and by 1600 had become the main centre of cutlery production in England, overseen by The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire. In the 1740s the crucible steel process was improved by Sheffield resident Benjamin Huntsman, allowing a much better production quality. At about the same time a silver plating process was discovered (Sheffield plate). The associated industries led to the rapid growth of Sheffield during the industrial revolution. The town was incorporated as a Borough in 1843 and granted a city charter in 1893.

Pre-Anglo-Saxon History of the Sheffield Area

Some the evidence of Britain's early human occupation comes from the caves at Creswell Crags to the west of Sheffield (the western border of the Creswell Crags Heritage Area overlaps the eastern boundary of Sheffield at the modern M1 motorway). It shows the signs of Ice Age middle Paleolithic cave-dwellers (43 000 to 10 000 BC), who left artifacts and rock art dating to more than 12 800 years ago.[1]

By the Mesolithic, around 10,000 years ago, the ice age finally ended. Temperatures rose, probably to levels similar to those today, and forests expanded further. By 8,500 years ago, the rising sea levels caused by the melting glaciers cut Britain off from continental Europe for the last time. Other prehistoric remains, from this period, include Britain's earliest known "house"; a circle of stones in the shape of a hut-base (dating to around 8000 BC), which were found[2] at what is now Deepcar, in the north of the city.

By the Bronze Age the region was attracting more and more tribal peoples. In about 1500 BC, Middle Bronze Age tribes reached the area. These people (sometimes called the Urn people) were armed warriors led by fierce chiefs, who subdued the earlier pastoral dwellers. They built numerous stone circles, both large and small. Examples can be found on Moscar Moor, Froggatt Edge and Hordron Edge. Two Early Bronze Age urns have been found at Crookes and three Middle Bronze Age barrows found at Lodge Moor (both suburbs of the modern city).

During the Iron Age the area became the southernmost territory of the Pennine tribe called the Brigantes. It is this tribe who are thought to have constructed the hill fort at Wincobank, in what is now northeastern Sheffield, which stood on the summit of a steep hill above the River Don. Other Iron Age hill forts in the area are Carl Wark on Hathersage Moor to the southwest of Sheffield, and one at Scholes Wood, near Rotherham. To the south of Sheffield was the territory of a rival tribe called the Coritani who inhabited a large area of the northeastern midlands.[3]

The Roman invasion of Britain of AD 43 reached Yorkshire in the year 71. It is likely that there were two major thrusts to the north, one by the ninth legion crossing the Humber and the second following a route to the east of Sheffield through Doncaster. Consequently, few Roman remains have been found in the Sheffield area. A minor Roman road linking the Roman forts at Templeborough and Brough-on-Noe ran through the area covered by the modern city. Most of the route of this road through the Sheffield area is unknown, but it can still be seen between Redmires and Stanage. In April 1761 tablets dating from the Roman period were found in the Rivelin valley south of Stannington and close to the likely course of this road.Incidently a Roman helmet was found at 356 Walkley Bank Road, which leads onto the valley bottom. Roman burial urns were also found at Bank Street near Sheffield Cathedral, which, along with the name of the old lane behind the church (Campo Lane), has led to speculation that there may have been a Roman camp at this site.[4] However, it is unlikely that the settlement that grew into Sheffield existed at this time.

Anglo-Saxon and Norman Sheffield

The main Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms circa A.D. 600
The main Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms circa A.D. 600

Following the departure of the Romans parts of the Sheffield area may have come under the control of the Celtic kingdom of Elmet, with the rivers Sheaf and Don forming part of the boundary between this kingdom and the kingdom of Mercia.[5] The enduring Celtic influence over this area is evidenced by the survival of the Celtic names for these rivers and the existence of the settlements of Wales and Waleswood close to Sheffield. Gradually Anglian settlers pushed west from the kingdom of Deira. The Britons of Elmet delayed this English expansion into the early part of the 7th century, although the Sheffield area—being a border region—may have fallen to the Anglians at an earlier date.

It is likely then that the origin of the present-day city of Sheffield is an Anglo-Saxon settlement in a clearing beside the confluence of the rivers Sheaf and Don founded sometime between the end of Roman occucation in 410 and the end of the 8th century. Early evidence of this settlement is the shaft of an early 9th century stone cross held in the British Museum,[6] which is though to be part of a cross that was erected on the future site of Sheffield Cathedral but removed from the church yard in 1570. However, the earliest known written record of this district is an entry for the year 829 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which refers to the submission of King Eanred of Northumbria to King Egbert of Wessex at the hamlet of Dore (now a suburb of Sheffield): "Egbert led an army against the Northumbrians as far as Dore, where they met him, and offered terms of obedience and subjection, on the acceptance of which they returned home". This event made Egbert the first Saxon to claim to be king of all of England.

The areas of Sheffield, which are likely to have existed as settlements by the end of the Anglo-Saxon period include Attercliffe, Bramley, Brightside, Brincliffe, Darnall, Fulwood, Gleadless, Handsworth, Heeley, Longley, Norton, Owlerton, Shirecliffe, Southey, Tinsley, Totley, Wadsley, Walkley and Woodseats. It is interesting to note how many of these names end in 'ley', which signifies a clearing in the forest. 'Ton' at the end of a name means 'an enclosed farmstead', as in Norton and Owlerton. The latter part of the 9th century saw a wave of Norse (Viking) settlers and the subsequent establishment of the Danelaw. The names of such Danish settlements established in the Sheffield area generally end in 'thorpe', which means a farmstead, for example Grimesthorpe, Hackenthorpe, Jordanthorpe, Netherthorpe, Upperthorpe, Waterthorpe, and Woodthorpe. The Anglo-Saxons, under Edmund, re-conquered the Midlands, as far as Dore, in 942, and captured Northumbria in 944.

It was at the time of the Norman Conquest of 1066 that the districts around Sheffield were named for the first time as the manor of "Hallun" or Hallamshire, which retained its Saxon lord, Waltheof, for some years after the conquest. This is found in the Domesday Book, which William the Conqueror ordered written so that the value of the townships and manors of England could be assessed. The entries in the Domesday Book are written in a kind of Latin shorthand and the extract for this area begins:

Bayeux Tapestry depicting events leading to the Battle of Hastings
Bayeux Tapestry depicting events leading to the Battle of Hastings
M. hi Hallvn, cu XVI bereuvitis sunt. XXIX. carucate trae
Ad gld. Ibi hb Walleff com aula...

Translated it reads:

In Hallam, one manor with its sixteen hamlets, there are twenty-nine carucates [~14 km²] to be taxed. There Earl Waltheof had an "Aula" [hall or court]. There may have been about twenty ploughs. This land Roger de Busli holds of the Countess Judith. He has himself there two carucates [~1 km²] and thirty-three villeins hold twelve carucates and a half [~6 km²]. There are eight acres [32,000 m²] of meadow, and a pasturable wood, four leuvae in length and four in breadth [~10 km²]. The whole manor is ten leuvae in length and eight broad [207 km²]. In the time of Edward the Confessor it was valued at eight marks of silver [£5.33]; now at forty shillings [£2.00].
In Attercliffe and Sheffield, two manors, Sweyn had five carucates of land [~2.4 km²] to be taxed. There may have been about three ploughs. This land is said to have been inland, demesne [domain] land of the manor of Hallam.

In fact, by the time the Domesday survey was completed 1086, Waltheof, Earl of Northumbria had been executed 1076 for his part in an uprising against William I. He was the last of the Anglo-Saxon earls still remaining in England a full decade after the Norman conquest. His lands had passed to his wife, Judith of Normandy, niece to William the Conqueror. The lands were held on her behalf by Roger de Busli who died around the end of the 11th century, and was succeeded by a son, who died without issue. The family's lands passed to William de Lovetot, the son of a Norman baron who had come over with the Conqueror, and whom had succeeded the powerful Roger de Builli. William de Lovetot founded the parish church, St. Mary's Church at Handsworth, and also built the original wooden Sheffield Castle around which the city grew.

In 1180 Beauchief Abbey was established 4 miles southwest of the town of Sheffield in Beauchief, which is now a suburb of the city.

Mediaeval Sheffield

Following the death of William de Lovetot the manor of Hallamshire passed to his son Richard de Lovetot and then his son William de Lovetot before being passed by marriage to Gerard de Furnival in about 1204. The de Furnivals held the manor for the next 180 years. The fourth Furnival lord, Thomas de Furnival, supported Simon de Montfort in the Second Barons' War. As a result of this, in 1266 a party of barons, led by John de Eyvill, marching from north Lincolnshire to Derbyshire passed through Sheffield and destroyed the town, burning the church and castle. A new stone castle was constructed over the next four years and a new church was consecrated by William II Wickwane the Archbishop of York c1280. In 1294 Thomas de Furnival's son (also Thomas) was the first lord of Hallamshire to be called to Parliament thus taking the title Baron Furnivall. Two more generations of Furnivals held Sheffield before it passed by marriage to Sir Thomas Nevil and then, in 1406, to John Talbot, the first Earl of Shrewsbury.

Bishops' House.
Bishops' House.

In 1430 the 1280 Sheffield parish church building was pulled down and replaced. Parts of this new church still stand today and it is Sheffield's oldest surviving building forming the core of Sheffield Cathedral. Other notable mediaeval buildings include the Old Queen's Head pub in Pond Hill, which dates from around 1480, with its timber frame still intact, and Bishops' House, built c1500.

The fourth Earl of Shrewsbury, George Talbot took up residence in Sheffield, building the Manor Lodge outside the town c1510 and adding a chapel to the Parish Church c1520 to hold the family vault (memorials to the fourth and sixth Earls of Shrewsbury can still be seen in the church).

The sixth Earl of Shrewsbury, George Talbot was keeper of Mary Queen of Scots who spent 14 years, from 28th November 1570 onwards, imprisoned in Sheffield Castle and its dependent buildings. The castle park once extended beyond the present Manor Lane, where the remains of Manor Lodge are to be found. Beside them is the Turret House, an Elizabethan building, which may have been built to accommodate the captive queen. A room, believed to have been the queen's, has an elaborate plaster ceiling and overmantle, with heraldic decorations.

During the English Civil War, Sheffield changed hands several times, finally falling to the Parliamentarians, who demolished the Castle in 1648.

The Industrial Revolution brought large scale steel making to Sheffield in the 18th century. Much of the mediaeval town was swept away to be replaced in some part by Georgian elegance, but also by Victorian squalor. Sheffield's city centre has been largely rebuilt in recent years, but among the concrete and glass of modern buildings, some of the best old buildings have been retained.

Some Robin Hood legends link the character to the Sheffield region, not least the association of "Robert of Locksley" to the Sheffield region of Loxley, and the proximity of the city to the "Barnsdale" Forest.

Industrial Sheffield

Sheffield's situation—amongst a number of fast-flowing rivers and streams surrounded by hills containing raw materials such as coal and iron ore—made it an ideal place for water-powered industries to develop. Water wheels were often built for the milling of corn, but many were converted to the manufacture of blades. As early as the 14th century Sheffield was noted for the production of knives by Geoffrey Chaucer in The Reeve’s Tale from his book The Canterbury Tales:

Ther was no man, for peril, dorste hym touche.
A Sheffeld thwitel baar he in his hose.
Round was his face, and camus was his nose;

By 1600 Sheffield was the main centre of cutlery production in England, and in 1624 The Company of Cutlers in Hallamshire was formed to oversee the trade. Examples of water-powered blade and cutlery workshops surviving from around this time can be seen at the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet and Shepherd Wheel museums in Sheffield.

In the 1740s Benjamin Huntsman, a clock maker in Handsworth invented a form of the crucible steel process for making a better quality of steel than had previously been available. At around the same time Thomas Boulsover invented a technique for fusing a thin sheet of silver onto a copper ingot producing a form of silver plating that became known as Sheffield plate. In 1773 Sheffield was given a silver assay office.

Graph showing the rapid increase in the population of Sheffield in the 19th century.
Graph showing the rapid increase in the population of Sheffield in the 19th century.

Huntsman's, process was only made obsolete in 1856 by Henry Bessemer's invention of the Bessemer converter. Bessemer had tried to induce steelmakers to take up his improved system, but met with general rebuffs, and finally was driven to undertake the exploitation of the process himself. To this end he erected steelworks in Sheffield. Gradually the scale of production was enlarged until the competition became effective, and steel traders generally became aware that the firm of Henry Bessemer & Co. was underselling them to the extent of £20 a ton. One of Bessemer's converters can still be seen at Sheffield's Kelham Island Museum.

The Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century had seen the population of Sheffield increase rapidly and by 1800 Sheffield was a small town of around 31 000 people. The town gained the status of Parliamentary borough in 1832, a municipal borough was formed following an Act of Incorporation 1843, and this borough was granted the style and title of "City" by Royal Charter in 1893.[7] By 1900 the City of Sheffield had grown to a population of around 400 000 people. In this time Sheffield became known worldwide for the production of cutlery and knives such as the bowie knives that were mass produced and shipped to the United States.

In order to cope with the exponential population growth, the Sheffield Waterworks Company built a number of reservoirs around the town. Parts of Sheffield were devastated when the one such five year long construction project, the Dale Dyke dam, collapsed on Friday 11 March 1864 resulting in the Great Sheffield Flood.

The city's early success in steel production unfortunately involved long working hours, in unpleasant conditions that offered little or no safety protection. (Friedrich Engel's "The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844" contains a description of conditions prevalent in the city at that time, in which he comments "There are, in all, some 2,500 grinders in Sheffield. About 150 (80 men and 70 boys) are fork grinders; these die between the twenty-eighth and thirty-second years of age. The razor grinders, who grind wet as well as dry, die between forty and forty-five years, and the table cutlery grinders, who grind wet, die between fortieth and fiftieth year."). It was no coincidence, therefore, that Sheffield became one of the main centres for trade union organisation and agitation in the UK. By the 1860s, the growing conflict between capital and labour provoked the so-called 'Sheffield Outrages', which culminated in a series of explosions and murders carried out by union militants.

Sheffield's Victorian Town Hall. Opened in 1897.
Sheffield's Victorian Town Hall. Opened in 1897.

The UK Association of Organised Trades was founded in Sheffield in 1866, a forerunner of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The Sheffield Trades Council, which is still active today, was founded in 1871.

Stainless steel was invented by Harry Brearley in 1912, at the Brown Firth Laboratories in Sheffield. Brearley's successor as manager of these laboratories, Dr. W. H. Hatfield, is credited with the development, in 1924, of a stainless steel which even today is probably the widest-used alloy of this type, the so-called "18/8", which in addition to chromium, includes nickel (Ni) in its composition (18wt% Cr, 8wt% Ni).

The 20th century to the present

Sheffield remained a major industrial city throughout the first half of the 20th century, however the downturn in world trade following the 1973 oil crisis, technological improvements and economies of scale, and a wide-reaching rationalization in steel production throughout the European "Common market" (now European Community) led to the closure of many of the steelworks from the early 1970's onward. In the 1980s and 1990s various urban regeneration schemes aimed to fill the gaps (both economically and geographically) left by the shut-down of the factories.

In 1914 Sheffield became a diocese of the Church of England, and the parish church became a cathedral. During World War I the Sheffield City Battalion suffered heavy losses at the Somme and Sheffield itself was bombed by a German zeppelin. The recession of the 1930s was only halted by the increasing tension as World War II loomed. The steel factories of Sheffield were set to work making weapons and ammunition for the war. As a result, once war was declared, the city once again became a target for bombing raids. In total there were 16 raids over Sheffield, however it was the heavy bombing over the nights of 12 December and 15 December 1940 (now known as the Sheffield Blitz) when the most substantial damage occurred. More than 660 lives were lost and numerous buildings were destroyed. Following the war, the 1950s and 1960s saw large parts of the city centre cleared, new buildings were erected and a new system of roads, including the Inner Ring Road, were laid out. Also at this time many of the old slums were cleared and replaced with housing schemes such as the Park Hill flats. The 1980s saw the worst of the run-down of Sheffield's industries (along with those of many other areas in the UK), culminating with the 1984/85 miners' strike. The building of the Meadowhall shopping centre on the site of a former steelworks in 1990 was a mixed blessing, creating much needed jobs but speeding the decline of the city centre. Attempts to regenerate the city were kick-started by the hosting of the 1991 World Student Games and the associated building of new sporting facilities such as the Sheffield Arena, Don Valley Stadium and the Ponds Forge complex. Starting in 1992 Sheffield began construction of a tram system (the original tram system was closed in 1960), with the first section of the new system opening in 1994. Starting in 1995 the Heart of the City Project has seen a number of public works in the city centre: the Peace Gardens were renovated in 1998, the Millennium Galleries opened in April 2001, and the town hall extension was demolished in 2002 to make way for the Winter Gardens, which opened on 22 May 2003. A number of other projects grouped under the title Sheffield One aim to regenerate the whole of the city centre.

References and Notes

  1. ^ Experts put date to UK rock art. BBC News.
  2. ^ Radley, J., Mellars, P. (1964). "A Mesolithic structure at Deepcar, Yorkshire, England and the affinities of its associated flint industry.". Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 30: pp 1–24.
  3. ^ Roman Military Occupation Sites within the County of Yorkshire. yorkshirehistory.com.
  4. ^ The Roman finds near Stannington and at Bank Street are discussed in Hunter (1819) pp15–18. Further discussion of the possible route of the Roman road through the Sheffield area can be found in the transcription of a 1906 lecture given by R.E. Leader to The Sheffield Literary and Philosophical Society.
  5. ^ Cox, Tony (2003) The Ancient Kingdom of Elmet. The Barwicker 39 p.43
  6. ^ Stone cross shaft. The British Museum, COMPASS.
  7. ^ History of the Lord Mayor. Sheffield City Council website.


  • Hunter, Joseph (1819) Hallamshire. The History and Topography of the Parish of Sheffield in the County of York. London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mayor & Jones. This book is out of print but can be purchased on CD-ROM.
  • Vickers, J. Edward MBE (1999). Old Sheffield Town. An Historical Miscellany (2nd ed.). Sheffield: The Hallamshire Press Limited. ISBN 1-874718-44-X.

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