Sheffield’s History of Steel

Posted by Chris Sugden on

Sheffield has a worldwide reputation for its steel. There can be few households in the country that don’t have at least one knife with ‘Sheffield Stainless Steel’ etched into the blade. And while industry has left Sheffield, much like different industries have left their centres all over the country, the city has made its mark on history and, literally, the world.

The origins of Sheffield’s reputation

Sheffield was notable for its cutlery as early as the 14th century. In the Chaucer’s The Reeve’s Tale, part of The Canterbury Tales, mentions a Sheffield blade. This small industry probably started as a result of geographical and geological luck, with local coal and iron ore deposits available to provide the raw materials for manufacture.

However, manufacture remained, like most manufacture before the industrial revolution, a small-scale affair. Notability came from the concentration of small workshops, between which the craftsmen would develop and share expertise, rather than because it was a major industrial base.

The industrial revolution

This was transformed, like much of northern Britain, in the industrial revolution. The first major innovation came in 1742 when Benjamin Huntsman developed the crucible process. This transformed the manufacture of steel, allowing it not just to be manufactured in larger quantities than before, but also to a higher quality. The combination of volume and durability meant that Sheffield, using this process, quickly rose to a dominant position, going from producing 200 tonnes of steel a year to 80,000 tonnes a year.

Over 100 years later, in 1856, Henry Bessemer refined the technique further. His converter furnace made mass production of cheap, refined, steel possible. It was now possible to not just make steel in large quantities, but to manufacture steel components, from railways parts to armour plating. A little over ten years later Sir John Brown was using this technique to provide steel armour for three-quarters of the British navy. British dominance at sea, and all this meant for the country and the world over the next hundred years, owes a lot to Sheffield.

Stainless Steel

Harry Brearley developed the first stainless steel in 1912. While different alloys have been developed since, improving the quality of the metal and adding specific qualities, modern stainless steels, which offered a corrosion resistant and durable metal, dates back to this discovery.

Stainless steel’s qualities and range of uses, in construction, manufacture, or the familiar stainless-steel knife, made both the material and its city of origin worldwide names.

Sheffield and steel today

Although much of the steel industry has left the city, some manufacturers do remain, and the reputation of Sheffield steel continues to be upheld with smaller scale businesses having come full circle to continue the craft-focused manufacture. And businesses like Prime Tooling also play their part, helping to highlight premium Sheffield steel blades, making them easily available and affordable for both trade and public.