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The Basic Industries of Great Britain by Aberconway: Chapter III: Part 2

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CHAPTER III. SHEFFIELD STEEL

PART II

Introduction

The quick adaptability of the Sheffield worker to the varied conditions of his trade is best illustrated by a glance at what he has done in the continuous development of steel-making. When the lord of the manor of Kimberworth in the twelfth century granted the monks of Kirkstead liberty to erect iron works there for smelting ore and making iron into bars, Sheffield was busy using the material thus obtained. Four centuries later Sheffield was buying Danish and Spanish iron for its finer work. About the same period it encouraged the immigration of desirable aliens from the Netherlands. Flemish cutlers took up their residence in Sheffield, and no doubt improved the manufacture by introducing new and better styles, and it is believed that the shear, sickle and scissor trades were introduced by them. With these immigrants came a larger importation of foreign iron, and a century later, in 1625, the trade was so highly organised that the well-known Cutlers' Company, whose annual "Feast," given by the Master Cutler, ranks second only to that of the Lord Mayor of London, was incorporated by Act of Parliament. It was really a trade-mark Act, but it did not make any distinction between the native-born cutler and the resident alien.

The year 1770 saw, in Huntsman's invention of cast steel, a complete transformation of the Sheffield trade. He was a clock-maker of a Quaker family in Doncaster, who, finding it difficult to get steel of the high quality required for his springs, turned his attention to steel-making itself. While in later days the object of Bessemer and of Siemens was to produce high-class metal in large masses, Huntsman was the first to show that a homogeneous solution of carbon of definite quantity in an iron matrix could be produced at the will of the steel-maker, by first selecting and then properly treating suitable materials. Steel became from that date no longer a chance product; and to-day the laboratory staff in every steel firm ensures the exact quality and physical characteristics of the steel that the firm has to turn out. About the period of Huntsman's invention, coal was first converted into coke as melting fuel; and the process of cementation, or the soaking of soft iron bar in powdered charcoal in order to give it the carbon needful to turn it into steel, was in general use. But unquestionably Huntsman was the discoverer once and for all of the method of removing from iron those minute mechanical impurities which had previously prevented the steel from taking a perfect cutting edge, and which for the first time, at all events in England, produced that combination of carbon and pure iron which constitutes a faultless steel. [1] From that day Sheffield ceased to be an iron centre and became a steel centre. The water power, the clay for crucibles and the stone for grinding which the locality provided undoubtedly contributed to its success. The iron furnace moved eastwards towards Rotherham and southwards towards Chesterfield; and to this migration is due the prosperity of the Rotherham iron founders during the last one hundred and fifty years and the wealth of the old Derbyshire makers of pig iron. In 1746 Samuel Walker founded at Rotherham one of the largest iron foundries in the kingdom, which took the place then which the Armstrong and Vickers firms occupy to-day, in supplying most of the ordnance or iron cannon used by the Government up to 1815, as well as the material for one of the iron bridges that cross the Thames. It was then that John Roebuck of Sheffield introduced the iron trade into Scotland. He founded the Carron Works in 1760, and by reason of having befriended James Watt and paid his debts, he deserves to share in the fame of that inventor.

The consumption of Swedish iron in Sheffield was then about 4,000 tons, out of a total iron consumption of 12,000 tons a year; while the population of the parish was 20,000. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1841, the consumption of iron had risen to 20,000 tons, and the population to 110,000. The increase was mainly due to the trade the town was doing in steel files and cutlery with the American colonies. This was the period when the great works as we know them to-day were planned and founded. The honour of pioneering in this direction must be given to the Greaves family, the predecessors of Thomas Turton and Sons. Their works were erected in 1823, at a cost of 430,000, near the canal, with the object of taking in the crude iron at one end and turning it out at the other in the finished tool, ready for use. With the establishment of this undertaking the life of the great Sheffield of to-day may be said to have begun.

In 1851 the production of cast steel in Sheffield by the Huntsman process was estimated at upwards of 40,000 tons. In 1881, which, perhaps, may be considered as the high-water mark of cast-steel production by this process, the amount was probably not less than 100,000 tons. The process is now confined to the supply of steel of a specially high class. The demands of the railway companies, however, which could be satisfied with a much less refined material, stimulated a number of inventions such as "steel iron," which one of the Brightside firms laid itself out to make, and which allowed the use of iron made from the argillaceous ore of the district. In the period from 1856 to 1886 puddled bar was one of the most important manufactures of the district, and gave employment to large numbers of men. This bar, subsequently converted into steel by cementation and remelting, was found suitable for springs and for other purposes, and was produced at much less cost than if made from foreign bar iron. The advent of Bessemer into the metallurgical world was, however, nowhere welcomed so eagerly as in Sheffield, where his plant was first set up. The objections raised to Bessemer steel by the engineers of that time, and their stipulation for a twenty years' guarantee, are evidence then as now of the difficulties with which new processes are faced. They were ultimately overcome by the persistence of the Sheffield firms and by the reputation of the city for material of high-class character. The four principal processes of steelmaking until recently used in Sheffield, with the characteristics of each, are as follow:

  • Huntsman's. — Perfect homogeneity, but at great cost of money and labour.
  • Bessemer's. — Expedition in manufacture, but limited quantity, and uncertain in homogeneity. This process is now but little used in Sheffield.
  • Siemens'. — Approaching nearer to Huntsman's in homogeneity, and capable of production in almost any weight up to 100 tons at one operation and in one furnace.
  • The Electric Furnace. — Producing steel approaching crucible steel in its properties, and especially high-grade alloy steels.

Sheffield has been the laboratory and workshop of all four processes; but the Siemens' furnace now supplies by far the greatest weight of steel used. The high wages that are paid to the Siemens' melters are a serious handicap to Sheffield's export trade. The earnings of the "first hands " average over £9 a week, or £460 a year. Of the twenty other men who work a furnace none gets less than 10s. a day. As the plant of the heavy firms has grown, so have grown the population and wealth of the district. When these firms were founded in or soon after 1851, the population of Brightside, the city of the Don, was 15,000, out of a total town population of 135,000. The population of the same district in 1901 was 125,000, with an overflow to other parts of the town of at least a further 20,000. The rateable value of Brightside, including Attercliffe, in 1851 was £44,000. In 1925 the rateable value was £475,235. The nominal capital of the heavy firms when turned into limited companies in the sixties was about £4,000,000. Many were over-capitalised, and the shares of nearly all during the seventies stood at a heavy discount. The year 1879 was the worst the steel trade had up to then ever seen. At the present day, with their various extensions and subsidiary interests, the same firms control, in share capital, debentures (of which they can issue any reasonable amount at 5 or 6 per cent.) and reserves, over £40,000,000. In normal times they employ at Sheffield and elsewhere not fewer than 80,000 to 90,000 men. The wages they pay approach £8,000,000 per annum. In magnitude their works, which are contiguous to one another in Sheffield and occupy two miles on both sides of the railway, with furnaces and machinery engaged in one occupation, dwarf the Krupp works at Essen. Taking a rough estimate of the destination of these heavy products, the following are the percentages of consumption calculated in respect of an average year before the war which Sheffield can provide:

  • Railway material, other than rails, used by British, Indian and Colonial railways, 75 per cent.
  • War material made by private firms in this country — viz., guns, gun forgings, shot, shell and steel for small arms - 70 per cent.
  • Armour plates for British battleships and cruisers now afloat, 70 per cent.
  • Shafting and steel castings for ocean liners, 60 per cent.
  • Special castings used in modern electrical power and traction plant, such as tramway crossings, magnet castings, etc., 70 per cent.
  • Nearly all the steel for tools and pens made in this country, nearly all the clock and watch-spring steel used at home and abroad, and a hundred other kinds of steel goods, are of Sheffield make.

All these trades have been built up by the genius and enterprise of Sheffield men without initial Government subsidy, and with no special Government favour. Their pioneers and managers have always been equal to, and have often anticipated, the various requirements they have had to meet. During Lord Goschen's administration at the Admiralty he put pressure on the three armour- making firms to double their capacity of output, which was at that time about 5,000 tons each per annum. They at once responded to his appeal, and spent large sums of money in this direction. But the Admiralty has never given orders for armour plates to the extent of the capacity provided, or much over and above the quantity which the original plant could have turned out.

In the course of their existence, the exigencies of supply and demand have compelled the larger firms to extend their undertakings into allied industries. Some have become colliery owners, and have acquired, in addition, iron mines abroad. The three armour-plate firms of Brown, Cammell and Vickers found it to their interest to construct and equip the war vessels for which they made costly materials, and they are now also shipbuilders at Clydebank, Birkenhead and Barrow-in-Furness, respectively. They have proved their capacity over and over again to undertake any class of war vessel our own or any other country may require.

Thomas Firth and Sons

The firm of Thomas Firth and Sons, whose Chairman is Mr. Bernard Firth, son of the founder of the firm, and whose Directors are Mr. Fairholme and Mr. Edward Dixon, Sir Charles Ellis, G.B.E., the writer of these pages, Mr. Willoughby and Mr. John Firth, Colonel Strang and Mr. Percy Fawcett, owns large steel interests in the United States, and before the War established a complete steel-making works at Riga. Perhaps best known to-day for armour-piercing shell, marine shafting and for the exceptionally high quality of the steel it supplies for the finer parts of motor-car and aeroplane engines, it produced in the Victorian period nearly all the gun forgings required by the British Government. These were at first iron built-up guns made of strips wound round mandrils and afterwards forged and sent to Woolwich to be finished. Then came steel guns, forged solid, bored and turned in the lathe and also finished at Woolwich or at Whitworths. The "staybrite" and the "stainless" steel discovered in the laboratory of this firm now constitute an important branch of its output. Although the process of introduction has been a slow and arduous one, owing to the necessity for the method of treatment being carefully adhered to, there is a large tonnage of this material manufactured. This special alloy steel for turbine blades has been largely adopted, for it entirely avoids erosion and far outlasts the materials previously used for this purpose.

Great progress has been made in Sheffield since the war in the production of a variety of alloy steels, especially for motor cars and aeroplanes, and this is an industry which has specially developed in the city, no doubt owing to the large number of highly qualified metallurgists who are employed on the staffs of the different steel works. In most cases the material is cast, forged and treated at the necessary temperature to obtain satisfactory physical results, and is delivered to the various engineering firms in the country, ready for them to machine the forgings and castings to the final dimensions. It is noteworthy that "staybrite" steel is used in connection with reinforced concrete for the safeguarding of St Paul's Cathedral.

United Steel Companies

Some of the amalgamations carried out by the larger firms during the last ten years are interesting, pointing as they do towards cheapening the cost of production. The United Steel Companies was registered in 1918 with an Ordinary Share capital of £8,006,549, a Preference Share capital of £1,317,516 and Debenture and Notes exceeding £3,000,000. The promoters were the important firm of Steel, Peech and Tozer, and on the basis of an exchange of shares the new Company acquired ten other well-known concerns, including:

The Chairman was the late Harry Steel, who was succeeded by Mr. Albert Peech. Among the Directors are Sir W. B. Jones, Bart., and Mr. Benton Jones, Chairman of the South Yorkshire Coal-owners' Association. During the War the firm very largely increased its steel-melting capacity between Sheffield and Rotherham, for the production of steel for military purposes. The promoters anticipated a great demand for steel for industrial purposes when peace was declared, and therefore constituted a group of firms to supply all the necessary raw material for the manufacture of commercial steel on a large scale. The Frodingham Iron and Steel Co. and the Appleby Iron Co. gave them pig iron and steel for the rolling of sections, etc. Modern continuous-rolling mills were put down at Templeborough for the production of strip and bar, and for this purpose the United Strip and Bar Mills., a subsidiary Company, was formed. The 8 per cent. dividend on the Preference Shares (£1,500,000) is guaranteed by the parent Company, which holds all the ordinary capital of £500,000.

Vickers

Vickers, registered by Thomas and Albert Vickers as long ago as 1867, acquired, under another title, at the termination of the War the control of a very large number of subsidiary companies. The firm had works in Sheffield, Barrow-in-Furness, Birmingham, Erith, Dartford, Crayford and Ipswich, also in Canada, Italy, Japan, Spain and Russia. It has a direct controlling interest in Canadian Vickers, the Electric and Ordnance Accessories Co, the Metropolitan Railway Carriage Wagon and Finance Co, and five other firms, besides an indirect controlling interest in the Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Co, and the Metropolitan-Vickers Supplies and three other manufacturing concerns. Realising that the armament work on which it had hitherto principally relied would be bound to diminish seriously in the future, the firm made a bold bid for the capture of a wide general engineering trade, and extended its activities not only to shipbuilding, marine engineering and motor-car manufacture, in all of which it had been previously engaged but also to aeroplane manufacture, rolling-stock, heavy electrical machinery, cable-making and many other interests. Owing, however, to the falling away of trade, this combination failed to produce the expected results. The recent consequent reconstruction of this gigantic agglomeration of ancillary companies is fresh in the mind of the public, and does not call for comment here. Prior to this reconstruction the capital of the parent Company was £12,315,483 in Ordinary Shares, £750,000 Preferred Stock, £750,000 Preference Shares, £6,863,807 tax-free Preference Shares, £1,250,000 5 per cent. Mortgage Debenture Stock, £2,000,000 5 per cent. Mortgage Debenture Stock and £1,500,000 7 per cent. Notes. The Ordinary Share capital has been reduced to £4,105,161 by writing off £8,210,322. The present Board consists of Mr. Douglas Vickers (President), General Hon. Sir H. A. Lawrence, K.C.B. (Chairman), Sir George Buckham, Sir Vincent Caillard, Commander C. W. Craven, R.N., Sir A. Trevor Dawson, Bart., Sir M. W. Jenkinson, Sir Edmund Wyldbore Smith, Mr. George Taylor, Mr. A. Cartwright and Sir David Yule, Bart., besides others appointed as members of subsidiary Boards.

John Brown and Co

John Brown and Co, founded by the late Sir John Brown, was registered as a limited company in 1864 under his chairmanship. He was succeeded by John Devonshire Ellis, who gave thirty-six years' service as Chairman to the Company. Among his colleagues on the Board were Henry Davis Pochin and Benjamin Whitworth, M.P. It has acquired interests in Thomas Firth and Sons, Harland and Wolff, Dalton Main Colliery Co, Rossington Main Colliery Co, Trent Iron Co, Cravens Railway Carriage and Wagon Co, Carnforth Hematite Iron Co (1915) and the English Electric Co. The firm down to 1920 was largely engaged in the production of railway and war material, such as iron and steel compound armour plates, and gun forgings; and it continues to make armour plates, marine engine forgings and shafting, railway material such as axles, tyres and springs, and heavy steel forgings, hollow-rolled or pressed. At the termination of the War it found itself obliged to face the reduced demand for armament work. Some years previously it had acquired a shipyard at Clydebank and a considerable interest in Harland and Wolff. It has built many of the most notable warships and passenger liners of the day. Its shipbuilding work is referred to with more detail in Chapter XVI, on the Clyde. Owing to the fact that nearly all the hematite blast furnaces on the north-west coast were being rapidly acquired by other steel-makers, a controlling interest was taken jointly with the Darlington Forge in the Carnforth Hematite Iron Co. The supply of ordinary iron had been safeguarded many years previously by the acquisition of the Trent Iron Co. at Frodingham. A further assured outlet was desired for its production of railway material, and a controlling interest was, therefore, taken in Cravens Railway Carriage and Wagon Co., and, through it, an interest in the well-known and historic firm of Nasmyth Wilson and Co, locomotive builders, Manchester. The firm has also large colliery interests at Rotherham, being the proprietors of Aldwarke and Rotherham Main Collieries of the Dalton Main Colliery Co., and of a large share in the Yorkshire Amalgamated Collieries, which owns some of the chief South Yorkshire pits.

The present writer is Chairman of the Company. The Managing Directors are Sir Charles E. Ellis, G.B.E., K.C.B., who during the war was Director-General of Ordnance Supply and Member of Council of the Ministry of Munitions; Sir William Ellis, G.B.E., D.Eng., who during the War was on the War Trade Committee, Deputy-Chairman of the Disposals Board, and as Master Cutler from 1914 to 1918 advised the Government on matters relating to steel production; and Sir Thomas Bell, K.B.E., at Clydebank, who during the War had charge at the Admiralty of the output of vessels for the Royal Navy. The other Directors are Mr. Bernard Firth (Deputy-Chairman), Captain Tolmie Tresidder, R.E., Mr. Allan J. Grant, the Hon. Henry D. McLaren, C.B.E., who during the War was Deputy-Director of Area Organisations at the Ministry of Munitions, and Captain Crease, C.B., C.B.E., R.N. The Rt. Hon. Viscount Pirrie, K.P., was a Director for some years before his death. The issued capital of the Company is £2,750,000 in Ordinary and £1,750,000 in Preference Shares of £1, with about £1,500,000 of Terminable Debentures.

Cammell, Laird and Co

Cammell, Laird and Co, formerly Charles Cammell and Co., established in 1845, was registered in 1864. It has a controlling interest in the Midland Railway Carriage and Wagon Co and the Leeds Forge Co, with an indirect controlling interest in the Newlay Wheel Co. Under the Chairmanship of Mr. W. L. Hichens, it amalgamated about 1904 with the shipbuilding and marine engineering works of Laird Brothers of Birkenhead, the firm being subsequently known as Cammell, Laird and Co. The Directors are Messrs. J. M. Allan, A. S. Bailey, R. S. Johnson, Sir A. Gracie, K.B.E., formerly Managing Director of the Fairfield shipyard on the Clyde, Lt.-Col. Handley, C.B., and Mr. R. Whitehead. It joined with John Brown and Co in establishing the Coventry Ordnance Works — a great armament undertaking, which contributed largely to the success of our forces in the Great War, and which, since the peace, has been taken over with other firms by the English Electric Co. Its products include armour and gun forgings, much on the same lines as John Brown and Co., with the exception that it now has no colliery or blast-furnace interests. It has large works at Penistone, which have recently been re-modelled, where acid and basic steels are produced and railway material is manufactured. To secure an outlet for its products, the firm took over the national factory at Nottingham, which it had managed during the War, and converted it into works for the production of railway rolling-stock of all descriptions, particularly of steel carriages and wagons. Subsequently the control of the Midland Railway Carriage and Wagon Works, at Birmingham, was acquired, and lastly the Leeds Forge Co, which manufactures various specialities connected with rolling-stock. The capital is £3,234,060 in Ordinary Shares, £1,225,225 in Preference Shares and over £2,000,000 in Debentures and Notes.

Hadfields

Hadfields was registered in 1888 as Hadfields Steel Foundry Co., and changed its name in 1913. The Chairman is Sir Robert Hadfield, and on the Board are Major A. Clarke and Mr. P. B. Brown, Messrs. J. P. Crosbie, W. J. Dawson, I. B. Milne, W. B. Pickering and B. Sandford, as well as Com. E. Nicholson. Its manufactures are primarily steel castings, forgings, mine and crushing machinery, manganese steel, guns, projectiles, etc. Its great speciality has been manganese steel, the properties of which were discovered by Sir Robert Hadfield, and which is largely used for railway points and crossings and other purposes. Like the other "heavy firms," it has also taken a great interest in the development of alloy steels, both heat-resisting and non-corrodible. In 1919, the firm entered the Harper Bean combination and its reconstructed Company, Bean Cars, so as to ensure a definite outlet for alloy steels for motor-car manufacture. It has always had an export trade to the Malay States for dredging machinery for the recovery of tin, and also has branches in Australia and America.

Sheffield Steel Products

Sheffield Steel Products was registered as a private company in 1918, and converted into a public company in 1919, with an authorised capital (after reconstruction) of £1,992,334. It acquired twenty other existing limited companies, mostly old-established firms, whose shares were bought up by the parent concern to work in conjunction with the main works of the Company. These are installed on the site of the National Shell Factory, erected during the war by Thomas Firth and Sons at Templeborough, and controlled during the war period by that firm, which employed there 6,000 women in making shells. The idea underlying Sheffield Steel Products was mass production of cutlery and tools by the installation of machinery and consequent cheapening of manufacture, as against the more conservative methods of the orthodox Sheffield cutlery concerns. The idea is undoubtedly sound, but the Company was overcapitalised. This led to a reconstruction, a heavy writing down of shares, and a general change of directorate and management. The Chairman is Mr. C. P. Johnstone.

Industrial Steels

The firm of Industrial Steels, registered in 1922, of which Sir Dennis Readett-Bayley, K.B.E., was Chairman, was formed to acquire steel works in Sheffield. The works have for many years past been producing high-grade Siemens acid and basic steels from a plant having a capacity of 100,000 tons per annum. A shortage of working capital somewhat impaired the early operations of the Company, and a reconstruction was brought about in June, 1925. The present Chairman is Viscount Falmouth. The authorised Ordinary capital of the Company is 4700,000. The works cover an area of eighteen acres.

Samuel Osborn and Co

Samuel Osborn and Co, with a paid-up capital of £554,214, is a private steel-making Company, of which Mr. W. F. Osborn is the Chairman.

William Jessop and Sons

William Jessop and Sons, an old Sheffield firm, whose Chairman is Sir Edward Manville, with a subscribed share capital of £484,000, has been acquired by the Birmingham Small Arms Co.

Brown Bayley Steel Works

Brown, Bayleys Steel Works is a firm with a capital of £800,000. Mr. Robert Armitage is Chairman and Lord Ernest Hamilton is a Director. Its works are at Attercliffe. It has absorbed the Farnley Iron Works, and is itself a reconstructed company to take over the works of an older one, viz., Brown Bayley and Dixon.

These great firms do not monopolise the heavy steel manufactures of Sheffield. Spacious as is the Don Valley, it would by no means accommodate the whole of those engaged in the steel industry. Scores of other firms exist whose presence elsewhere would call for special comment. Many of these firms are more deeply engaged in the old steel trade of the town than the heavy firms of Brightside. Not a few still combine the two processes of steel manufacture by the Huntsman process with that of cutlery manufacture. The other branches of the engineering trade of Sheffield deal chiefly with the production of tools, the makers of which are legion. Sheffield has never been a great engine-building or machine-tool centre. Leeds, as the terminus of the old Midland Railway and the junction of other railways serving Yorkshire, naturally took the position of engine-builder by reason of local requirements. Sheffield is not, however, without firms of high standing in that trade, such as Davy Brothers, the Yorkshire Engine Co and Brightside Foundry Co.

Sheffield has always taken the lead in regard to the welfare of the apprentices who come forward in the engineering trades. John Brown and Co. and Thomas Firth and Sons were the first Sheffield firms to establish a thorough educational system for the boys in their works. When a boy leaves school at the age of fourteen and begins to earn his living in these steel works, he is not, as in the old days, left to struggle along and fight his own way; he feels that in the "welfare supervisor" he has a real friend on whom he can rely, and who takes a personal interest in him. Although working and receiving a weekly wage, he still continues his education. There are evening classes at the Council schools, and special classes at the Central Commercial School and the University. Everything is done to encourage the lads to attend. Special prizes are given and advances in wages to those youths who take the various courses who do well in the examinations which are set from time to time on the different subjects. There are prizes for metallurgy, engineering, commercial subjects, artisan work and foundry work. In addition to these evening school classes, a day continuation school has been organised by Thos. Firth and Sons, which is the only one of its kind in South Yorkshire. Every boy employed under the age of sixteen attends the school for two half-days per week. The syllabus is of a general character, and includes civics, English, mathematics, engineering science and engineering drawing.

Not only is the education of the lads the object of these firms, but everything is done for them on the recreative side. They have clubs for football, cricket, swimming, harriers and cycling, and in their sports field in Oaks Lane the majority of them spend their Saturday afternoons. In addition to the sports club, there is a social club. The boys meet there any night in the week for games, such as billiards, bagatelle and table tennis. One night is devoted to the gymnasium and boxing. In the club-room there is a well-used library. The object of this scheme is to fit the boys for the work they may choose, and in so doing to mould their characters, that they may become good employees and citizens, who will carry on the fine traditions of these old firms in years to come.

See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. The Huntsman family are still connected with the works of this old and distinguished firm, the shares in which have been absorbed by Thomas Firth and Sons.