Hallamshire (the geographical term for Sheffield and its environs), like Stoke on Trent, is a region whose identity is synonymous with its industry. Both regions can be thought of as craft industries before the onset of the industrial revolution. This term of course is used to describe the period of industrial change in the later 18th and early 19th centuries, manifest in large-scale production, the introduction of mechanisation and the employment of large numbers of individuals under one roof. Although the steel industry fits this model reasonably well the cutlery industry does not. Small works in back streets remained the typical unit of cutlery production until well into the 20th century. Similarly potbanks, although often much larger, were divided into small workshops for the segregation of different tasks. Many tasks employed in the cutlery trade were outsourced, and again this was not unknown in the pottery industry. So there are a number of similarities between both trades.
There are also obvious differences. The area known as the Potteries was a collection of six different towns, geographically very close to each other. Hallamshire’s cutlery production was largely centred in one town – Sheffield. But the industry of Sheffield was not solely consigned to its cutlery production. By the 18th century both the iron and steel industries became established, the latter of which would later come to dwarf the cutlery trade. Because of this the metalworking trades as a whole became divided into ‘light trades’ (cutlery, tools and utensils) and ‘heavy trades’ (iron and steel production). This talk attempts to focus on the development of the ‘light trades’ and of those it employed from its origins to its demise towards the end of the 20th century.
The name Hallamshire derives from the original parish of the area containing 71,526 acres. By the 13th century this had been divided into the parishes of Sheffield, Ecclesfield, and the chapelry of Bradfield. The parish of Sheffield contains 22,370 acres and stretches far beyond the city, and for the purposes of civil administration was divided further into six townships.
The first documentary reference to a Sheffield cutler was Robert the Cutler in a tax list of 1297, although the industry was probably well-established by then. Forges or ‘smithies’ had probably been in existence in Sheffield long before 1322 when they were first recorded. A ‘John del Smithe’ was listed in 1329, and 50 years later the poll tax returns recorded several people with the surname ‘del Smythe’ or ‘de Smethe’. In North Staffordshire the surname ‘Potter’ began to appear in the manor of Audley from the 1280s and by 1327 a Thomas the Thrower was recorded at Biddulph. A number of licences to make pots were granted by the manor court of Tunstall from the 1340s onwards.
Sheffield ‘whittles’ (multi-purpose knives carried in a sheath attached to a belt) were popular enough for Chaucer to refer to one in The Reeve’s Tale in the late 14th century. John Leland, England’s first topographer, visited Sheffield in 1540 and noted ‘Ther be many smiths and cutlers in Hallamshire’. The cutlers continued to make cheap wares of simple design throughout the Middle Ages, and from 1554 the trade became regulated through the manor court of Hallamshire, when it began issuing marks, and instigated common working practices, including a seven-year apprenticeship. In North Staffordshire during this period the main items produced were domestic wares – pitchers, jugs, cooking pots and storage jars, along with roofing tiles. It is also possible that the butterpots for Uttoxeter market mentioned by Robert Plot in 1680 were being produced by the potters of Burslem. Only occasionally when commissioned were christening goblets and show dishes produced.
A parish census taken in 1616 counted 2,2,07 inhabitants in the town revealing that Sheffield was considerably smaller than most provincial cities but larger than most market towns. In that same year manorial control of the cutlery trade passed to a jury of sixteen cutlers. They began by recording the marks of 182 cutlers who were working in Hallamshire. In 1624 an Act of Parliament was obtained incorporating the Company of Cutlers, who were empowered to enrol apprentices, admit freemen, make orders and act on behalf of the membership. The preamble to the Act claimed that the major part of the local work-force was employed in the cutlery trades and that goods were made for a wide market. Despite the natural border of the Pennines to the west, Hallamshire was nevertheless well-connected with all parts of England by a network of carriers’ and packhorse routes. Local packmen were selling cutlery in Hertfordshire, Worcestershire and Chester by Elizabethan times. A weekly carrying service to London had probably been in existence long before 1637 when John Taylor’s Carriers’ Cosmographie reported that ‘The Carriers from Sheffield, in Yorkshire, doth lodge at the Castle in Woodstreet, they are to bee found on Thursdaies and Fridayes’. Much of the produce of Hallamshire was not carried laboriously overland but taken east to Bawtry Wharf and then down the Rivers Idle, Trent and Humber to the east coast and London.
The term ‘Cutler’ covered a variety of skills, but some of the first members of the Company were described as scissorsmiths, and as makers of shears and sickles. The Company became established as a leading institution in the town and in 1638 built the first Cutlers’ Hall. Their strength was demonstrated during the reign of Charles II when they succeeded in preventing the Hearth Tax being levied upon smithies as well as houses.
During the 17th century it is estimated that three out of every five men were employed in some aspect of the cutlery business. The expansion of the cutlery trade is evident from the number of water-powered grinding sites. Sheffield’s five rivers – the Don, Sheaf, Porter, Loxely and Rivelin – had been damned and provided power for 49 works by 1660. Water supply was crucial in Sheffield’s development and no other place in Britain had such a concentration of sites. Eventually during the 1780s steam power was introduced to supplement water power, such was the demand for space at a grinding trough and before the end of the century more than 300 steam-driven troughs were in use. The change from water to steam had little effect on the techniques of grinding itself, though it changed the way of life of grinders, who became town-dwelling, full-time industrial workers instead of members of a part-time rural industry. However, during this period cutlery production was still a dual occupation mixed with farming as was the pottery trade.
The Hearth Tax returns of 1672 suggest that in the central township of Sheffield the best houses were grouped together in High Street, but generally the rich and poor were not housed in separate residential areas. Despite under-recording of the exempted poor, the returns list about 600 metalworkers smithies in Hallamshire and adjacent parts of South Yorkshire and north Derbyshire. The central township of Sheffield contained 224 of these smithies, and the figures suggest a smithy for every 2.2 houses. A greater number of cutlers would have worked in the town as the more skilled did not do their own forging but bought blades from others and specialised in assembling and finishing goods in a work chamber. Probate inventories that survive suggest that one in every four cutlers had work chambers but no smithies.
Most cutlers required little in the way of capital beyond a hearth and an anvil. Having served an apprenticeship some simply continued to work as labourers, or ‘journeymen’, but most began their own small businesses. Smithies were built of stone or brick as outbuildings or ‘lean-to’s’s at the rear of a house. It was here where blades were forged and shaped. After forging was the next step was to grind the steel part of the blade into a cutting edge. Most forgers took their own blades to the grinding wheels in the river valleys where they rented space and ground their own wares. The wheels were housed in troughs which were filled with water so that the revolving grindstones were kept wet enough to prevent burn marks on the knife blades. (Some items however, such as forks, needles, brace bits and spindles were all dry-ground). A typical grindstone was 3ft in diameter when new, but would only last from four to eight weeks. The grinder crouched over the grindstone by sitting astride a wooden seat, known as a ‘horsing’. The stone revolved away from the grinder (except in the scythe trade), and threw up large quantities of ‘swarf’ (a wet mixture of tiny particles of sandstone and steel). After grinding, the blades were dried and then glazed to protect from rust and give a smooth appearance, which was further improved by polishing. The items were finished by fitting the handles or ‘hafting’ as it was known.
During the mid-17th century a sub-division of labour developed in the manufacture of knives which was matched by the emergence of specialist trades concentrating on the making of particular products. The first of these new trades was filemaking. Cutlers had long made their own files, but by the 1650s the Sheffield marriage register recorded the first specialist filesmiths. The trade quickly attracted others as the demand for files grew and in 1682 the Cutlers’ Company accepted 21 filesmiths into its membership.
The new craft of button-making was particularly attractive to poor immigrants because it lay outside the jurisdiction of the Cutlers’ Company and was therefore unregulated. No button-makers were named in the marriage register in the 1650s but 40 years later the baptism and burial registers recorded sixteen. After the discovery of being able to plate copper with silver in 1743 the trade flourished. So too did the manufacture of small metal boxes for keeping tobacco, snuff and money that had been started by craftsmen in the late 17th century. Eventually a whole range of household goods, starting with candlesticks, saucepans and coffee pots were produced and the same firms soon turned their hands to making solid silver artefacts as well. This branch of metalworking brought different occupations such as silversmiths, platers, die-cutters, chasers, piercers. Other new crafts were pursued on a more modest scale such as awl-makers (small pointed tools with wooden handles that were used by shoemakers for piercing holes in leather), razor-makers and fork-makers, although the medieval craft of making arrowheads had ceased before the end of the 17th century.
The cutlers who made high-quality knives lived and worked in central Sheffield, whereas ‘common wares’ were made throughout Hallamshire. Scissorsmiths were found in the townships of Sheffield and Attercliffe-cum-Darnall, and certain other metal trades were confined to particular parts of Hallamshire. Nailmakers lived in the central and northern parts of Ecclesfield parish, and in other hamlets and scattered farmsteads. Scythe-making was the distinctive occupation of the parish of Norton, and the manufacture of sickles was concentrated in the Moss Valley in Eckington parish. Both Norton and Eckington had captured a large part of the agricultural edge-tool industry by the 17th century. A few axe makers were occasionally mentioned in the rural parishes around Sheffield during the 17th and early 18th centuries although saw-makers were not recorded until the end of the 18th century. This zoning of trade is not dissimilar to the pottery industry of North Staffordshire with Tunstall in the north noted for its tiles and bricks, the central towns of Burslem, Hanley and Stoke making earthenware, and Longton in the south producing bone china.
A Cutler who had set up as a ‘little mester’ was able to arrange his working time to his own convenience providing that he met his targets by the end of the week. He often celebrated ‘Saint Monday’, as did many potters, working longer during the remainder of the week. When trade flourished he earned high wages. Arthur Young in his ‘A Six Month Tour Through The North of England’ in 1770 recorded that ‘upon the whole, the manufacturers of Sheffield make immense earnings…in general they get from 9s to 20s a week.’ By comparison Young also recorded the wages at the Wedgwood factory which averaged between 9 and 12s a week.
By 1748 sufficient men worked full-time as grinders to form a mutual-help organisation, the Grinders’ Sick Club. Accidents sometimes occurred when a revolving grinding wheel fractured or spun off its frame. Grinding became a notorious trade in the 19th century steam-powered factories, when ‘grinders asthma’ (inhaling minute particles from the grindstones) caused many premature deaths from damaged lungs. In 1843, G. C. Holland stated that of 42 saw grinders who had died since 1821, five had been killed by stones and 13 out of 78 living grinders had suffered serious accidents from the same cause, while one grinder asserted that in 18 years 10 stones had broken under him. Other occupational hazards of grinders were injuries to the eyes by red-hot particles of steel, and injury by moving belts, particularly to inexperienced boys. The occupation had been less hazardous in earlier times when grinding was a part-time job in an open setting.
During the second half of the C18th the ‘little mester’ with his apprentice and a journeyman remained the typical unit of production but small partnerships were now common and a few large firms had been formed. These large employers were content with a system by which specialist tasks were performed at agreed prices by outworkers, who provided their own tools and accommodation and in return chose their days and hours of work. Quality control could be enforced by the refusal of payment for poor work, and when trade was bad the outworkers were left to fend for themselves. The same regulation over quality in the pottery industry was governed by the ‘good from oven’ system which was replaced by ‘good from hand’. By the end of the 18th century, due to the extensive number of applicants, the Cutlers’ Company was forced to abandon its customary insistence on a formal seven years apprenticeship and to admit as freemen, upon payment of fees, all those who wished to work in the trade. In 1814 entry fees into the cutlery trades were abolished.
By the late 18th century the London and overseas markets, especially America, became more important than before. A few of the larger firms had warehouses in London and employed full-time travelling salesmen or agents selling on commission. Both the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars had a severe effect upon trade although after both conflicts the industry was able to recover relatively quickly. These same factors also affected pottery production in the same way which also managed to recover quickly. During the early 19th century large factories began to be built, such as The Sheaf Works, Sheffield’s first self-contained factory, making its own steel, tools and cutlery. Small backstreet works employing a few hands remained the typical unit of production, but by the middle of the 19th century other large factories had been erected employing hundreds of hands. The largest cutlery firm in Victorian Sheffield was Joseph Rodgers and Sons who in 1870 employed 1,200 men.
The ‘light trades’ however remained a handicraft, or series of handicrafts, as trades were divided and much was still done by outworkers. An article in The Penny Magazine in 1844 observed that ‘Nearly all the articles of cutlery made at Sheffield travel about the town several times before they are finished.’ The range of products was wide and firms were quick to respond to changing demand. One example of this readiness to exploit a new market was the Bowie knife, made in thousands between the 1830s and 1860s in response to the American craze.
The hours of work varied from trade to trade, but could be as many as 12 to 14 a day, with half an hour for breakfast, an hour for lunch, and half an hour for tea, a regime that was similar to the pottery industry in North Staffordshire. The monotony was relieved by the continuing tradition of ‘Saint Monday’ and occasionally ‘Saint Tuesday’. In the steel industry this was tolerated as it gave the opportunity for routine maintenance work. The practice of the working week ending on Saturday lunchtime became common from the 1840s.e worked at HHHH
It was not until the middle of the 17th century that steel furnaces began to appear. These early Cementation furnaces were similar in appearance to the ‘bottle ovens’ of the Potteries and by 1740 enough cementation steel was being made in and around Hallamshire to meet the local demand of the cutlery and tool makers. The South Yorkshire steel industry prospered because the expanding Hallamshire cutlery industry, which was already centuries old, provided a ready market for its products. Eventually the Sheffield steel industry was to outgrow the cutlery industry with the production of cast (or ‘crucible’) steel, but during the 17th and 18th centuries the ‘light trades’ were still the major industry.
In 1860 steelmakers were admitted into the Cutlers’ Company. Steel had overtaken cutlery as Hallamshire’s major industry but the cutlery trades nevertheless remained buoyant. During the 1870s Sheffield was still the world’s main producer of cutlery and virtually all of Britain’s knifemakers worked in Sheffield. The steel industry boomed with the building of railways, ships and bridges, and the steel manufacturers no longer regarded the cutlers as their main customers. However, when the railway system became established it brought a decrease in demand as rails and engines were no longer needed as frequently as before. America, as well as Germany, began to mechanise their cutlery industries resulting in mass produced articles of poorer quality but which could be sold considerably cheaper. The decrease in exports to these countries, particularly America, had drastic consequences for the Sheffield steel industry.
The cutlery industry remained dependant on the handicraft skills of thousands of outworkers in small workshops. Cutlery factories that employed more than 500 men were still exceptional, and even they relied on outworkers for certain tasks. But the independent ‘little mester’ often faced problems. His working hours and conditions were not regulated by parliamentary legislation, and in times of depression found himself in a poor bargaining position with the factory owners. He was often simply an outworker with little control over his business affairs. Yet many preferred to remain independent, unlike the pottery industry where employees did not have the opportunity with annual hirings forming the normal terms of employment.
When trade was good however the ‘little mester’ continued to do well. He was generally more affluent than a lot of artisans and labourers in other parts of England. He took pride in his skills which kept Hallamshire ahead of its international competitors. The ‘light trades’ were unaffected by the processes that had transformed the ‘heavy trades’ of the east end. The business leaders shared their workers’ determination to continue in the old ways, confident that the quality of their products would enable them to withstand the competition of the cheap, mass-produced knives of the mechanised factories of America and Europe. It seemed that the handicraft skills of Hallamhsire craftsmen would ensure their invincibility and the threat posed by mechanisation was scoffed at. The Hallamshire cutlery industry became complacent and failed to modernise.
Those owners who did try to introduce machines faced the hostility of a workforce that resisted change. The first attempts to install machinery were made during the 1860s. The great filemakers’ strike, which began in February 1866, and lasted 16 weeks before collapsing, started as a dispute over wages, but soon became clear that fear of machinery taking jobs was the principal motivation of the 4,000 strikers. The grinders used physical intimidation to force their fellow workers into a trade union. The customary method, known as ‘rattening’, involved the removal of a non-unionist’s wheel bands and tools, to which employers turned a blind eye. But during the 1850s and 1860s more violent methods were used. Charges of gunpowder were placed in chimney stacks and grinding troughs, resulting occasionally in death.
From the middle of the 19th century many Sheffield cutlery firms turned to the manufacture of silver- and electroplated goods. They began to produce a whole range of utensils for middle- and upper-class households including dessert knives, lemon saws, silver carving sets, fish carvers and silver fruit knives. They went on to supply tea- and coffee services, claret jugs, cruet sets, cups, salvers, trays, cake baskets and entrée dishes.
The Sheffield tool industry had grown from a modest size in the mid-18th century to world leadership by the late 19th century. It had the advantage of ready access to supplies of crucible steel. Like some of the larger cutlery firms some of the most prominent tool-making firms also made their own steel and often had an interest in the manufacture of cutlery. By the early 1870s there were over 250 tool-making firms in Sheffield. Most were small-scale businesses, but several larger firms employed between 200 and 400 men.
The town became distinctly urban in character during the C18th. Daniel Defoe in his A Tour Through The Whole Island of Great Britain (1724-26) remarked that ‘The town of Sheffield is very populous and large, the streets narrow, and the houses dark and black, occasioned by the smoke of the forges [smithies], which are always at work.’ But the success of the industry naturally brought wealth and in 1736 Joseph Broadbent, a cutlery merchant, built five houses at the top of his meadow in the town and named them Paradise Row. In 1771 his eldest son, Thomas, built the houses that formed the other three sides of what is still known as Paradise Square. But Sheffield was not a social centre which attracted the gentry from the surrounding countryside as it was commonly perceived as a dirty manufacturing centre and retained its appearance of an old market town, soiled by its industry.
Between 1736 and 1801 the population of Sheffield trebled. In 1736 the population of the central township had been 10,121, while the whole of the parish (including the town) was 14,531. By the time of the first official census in 1801 the population of the central township had risen to 31,314 and that of the parish to 45,755. It is now accepted by demographers that earlier marriages and therefore more births account for about two-thirds of the rise in national population levels and that lower death rates explain the remainder. Young couples were able to marry at an earlier age than their parents because of increased opportunities to find employment. Immigration also played a large part in the rise of the town’s population.
To accommodate the increasing population rows of terraced cottages were erected in the town. Built of brick with sliding sash windows and blue slate roofs, they provided the standard working-class accommodation available in Sheffield during the early 19th century. They had a frontage of 12ft and a ground floor area of about 150sqft, and consisted of single rooms on the ground floor and first floor, a cellar and an attic. In many northern industrial towns the cellar was used as a living space but this was not the practice in Sheffield. The ground floor room served as a combined kitchen, dining room, and living room. The floor was paved with stone flags, and an oven and a boiler were fixed at either side of the fire. The husband and wife slept on the first floor with their younger children, while older children or a lodger slept in the attic. Cottages such as these were surrounded on three sides by neighbouring buildings, for they stood ‘back-to-back’, one side fronting the street and the other facing into an unpaved yard or court, which contained the water pump and privies. The typical builders of such cottages were speculators of modest means with insufficient resources to erect more than a few buildings and were more interested in a return on their capital than undertaking necessary maintenance let alone improvements. A local building regulation of 1864 forbade the building of any more back-to-backs, by which time there were more than 38,000 in Sheffield.
The claims for compensation following the Sheffield Flood of 1864 when the Bradfield reservoir burst its banks reveal that most households possessed the basic items of furniture, such as bedsteads, table and chairs, sideboards dressers, and chests-of-drawers, many of which were crudely homemade. There was the necessary minimum of earthenware and cutlery, and rugs covered parts of the stone floor. Lighting at night was provided by candles or oil. Children up to any age had to share beds with brothers or sisters.
A man commonly had two sets of clothes, week-day and Sunday, and so had his wife. The Sunday suit was replaced every year or two and the old one became the working suit. The woman's clothing, like the child's, and the man's underwear, was usually homemade. In lean times the Sunday suit was pawned and the consumption of food was curtailed. The first savings were made on tea, coffee and sugar, and the next expendable item was meat. In 1833 many working-class families were said to have gone for weeks without meat and to have lived on cabbages, potatoes and bread.
Sheffield may have been healthier than some industrial towns but it made an unfavourable impression on visitors. Samuel Lewis, in his A Topographical Dictionary of England (1835) recorded ‘numerous streets, which, with the exception one or two of the principal, are narrow and inconvenient: the houses, chiefly of brick, have obtained from the works a sombre appearance, and are intermingled with many of very ancient character.’ Six years later in 1841 the Revd JC Symons described Sheffield as ‘one of the dirtiest and smokey towns I ever saw. There was a quantity of small forges without high chimneys. The town is also very hilly, and the smoke ascends to the streets instead of leaving them…One cannot be long in the town without experiencing the necessary inhalation of soot…There are, however, a number of persons who think the smoke healthy.’ It was a common perception amongst the local population that that the fires of the smithies that kept them warm in winter also helped to keep illness at bay.
In 1848 the second edition of James Haywood and William Lee’s A Report on the Sanitary Condition of The Borough of Sheffield noted (after describing the Ponds area which was by far the worst in Sheffield)‘…the district bounded by Beet Street, Upper and Lower Allen Street, Gibralter Street, Westbar Green, Tenter Street, and Broad Lane…[is] more densely populated in relation to its extent than any [other] district…The houses, especially those erected in the yards (which are of a very confined character), are ill-constructed, badly lighted and ventilated; being built back to back, generally in three stories high, which of itself is an impediment to the free access of light and air; and from the accumulations of filth and bad drainage in the lower part of the district the atmosphere is loaded with miasma to a degree which is highly pernicious…the particles of soot floating about in the atmosphere [are] so numerous that people [are] prevented from having recourse to the most common method of ventilation by opening windows and doors; in many places the evil is so extensive that the inhabitants find the greatest difficulty in maintaining personal or domestic cleanliness…We are aware that a strong feeling prevails among the manufacturers, most of whom are opposed to any interference on this subject.’
The compilers of these reports were deliberately looking for the worst examples in order to press the case for reform. Their descriptions of life in the slums depict an appalling state of affairs, but not all the working-class population of Sheffield lived in such miserable conditions, the majority of which regarded themselves as ‘respectable’. A report by JC Hall entitled On the prevention and treatment of the Sheffield grinders’ disease (1857) noted that ‘In Sheffield the artisans generally have a house for themselves, and those who live in the suburbs frequently a garden. In times of good trade, at least, it is unusual to find two families under the same roof, and there is hardly an instance of an inhabited cellar in the town…There is probably less of the confined alley and narrow cul-de-sac in Sheffield than in many other manufacturing towns, and…a good deal has been done of late years to improve the sewers and surface drains of the town.’ Sheffield was not as bad as some industrial towns, especially those that housed many of their inhabitants in cellars.
Sheffield’s smoke problem worsened as industrial and domestic chimneys multiplied. John Murray’s Hand-book for travellers in Yorkshire (1867) judged that ‘Sheffield, with the exception of Leeds, the largest and most important town in Yorkshire, is beyond all question the blackest, dirtiest and least agreeable. It is indeed impossible to walk through the streets without suffering from the dense clouds of smoke constantly pouring from great open furnaces in and around the town.’
The Public Health Act (1872) was the catalyst for many improvements. Reports stated that in the worst parts of the town some privies were shared by more than 60 persons. Even after the installation of a sewage system during the mid 1880s privy middens remained commonplace and towards the close of that decade Sheffield only had just over 4,300 water closets compared with 37,000 privies. Yet improvements were made and those quarters that were considered filthy and neglected were no longer characteristic of the whole of the working-class residential districts.
During the Victorian period the central streets of Sheffield were remodelled as a commercial centre, giant new steelworks were erected in the east end, and rows of red-brick terraced houses were built forming working-class suburbs. From the 1830s the middle classes began to retreat to the west, away from the smoke and grime. In 1851 the town contained 83,447 people (compared with 10,121 in 1736); by 1901 the inhabitants numbered 90,398. The result was the spread of the town westwards and north-westwards beyond its ancient boundaries. The division of the middle-class west end and working-class east end had been formed.
The population of the whole borough soared to new heights at a speed never seen before (or since). In 1851 the new borough contained 135,310 inhabitants; by 1901 the number had grown to 380,793, or to well over 400,000 if the newly incorporated areas were added. In 1893 Sheffield was granted city status in recognition of its growth (by now the 5th largest city in Britain) and the international reputation of its products.
The centres of the ‘light trades’ in the central district, as well as other areas that were becoming merged with the town as it spread outwards, were very different in character and occupational structure of their inhabitants from the new east end communities that were principally involved in the ‘heavy trades.’ In the east end especially, young immigrants came from the surrounding rural areas to live in new terraced houses and seek employment in the steelworks. At the time of the 1851 census 36% were born outside the borough boundary, although most of the immigrants had not travelled great distances: 21.5% had been born elsewhere in Yorkshire or Derbyshire, and only 5.6% had been born in Leicestershire, Lincolnshire or Nottinghamshire. Puddlers were attracted from Staffordshire and other ironworking districts. Many young men came in search of higher wages from agricultural districts, especially Nottingham and Lincolnshire. The steelmasters did not own the houses of their workers and made no attempt at social control. These immigrants found rooms as lodgers with local families or in boarding houses and when there was a slump in trade they returned to their native villages.
Only 3.3% of Sheffield’s entire population were Irish in 1851, with fewer Scots and Welsh, although more Irish people settled in Sheffield during the next few decades. They came mostly from western and central Ireland, and congregated in the north western part of the central township where in 1861 some census enumerators’ districts contained as many as 25% Irish residents (if English-born children of Irish parents are counted). Meanwhile large numbers of Sheffielders emigrated, particularly to America where the native cutlery industry offered employment.
Using the 1881 census and examining two streets in the north-west section of the town it is possible to observe the characteristics representative of that area. The two streets chosen were Regent Street and Pitt Street, along with their associated courts, giving a total of 95 dwellings with a population of 424. The average household size was 4.5.
Two-thirds of households contained nuclear families (those households containing only the head and their spouse were omitted to help reveal true families), while only 13% contained extended families (households with relatives other than immediate offspring of the head, the most numerous being parents, mothers-in-law and brothers- and sisters-in-law). Extended family members accounted for just over 3% of the sample population, which was significantly lower than in the Potteries. In Etruria, for example, almost 14% of the population were extended family members, the most numerous being grandchildren. The number of lodgers and borders was only slightly higher in Sheffield, accounting for 4.2% of the population sample, comparable to 3.5% in Etruria.
60% of the two streets were under the age of 30, a figure comparable with the majority of population samples studied in the pottery towns. 62% of heads of households had been born in the town, with a further 8% from the remainder of Yorkshire. Other immigrants were fairly evenly distributed from across the rest of Britain. In central Longton only 48% of household heads had been born in the town, while 25% accounted for local immigration from other pottery towns and rural Staffordshire. This figure is comparable to similar studies of Burslem and Penhull, and suggests that Sheffield had a much larger figure of locally-born individuals and therefore less immigration.
80% of households were headed by married couples, 10% were widows (including one widower), and 10% bachelors and spinsters. In Etruria, for example, married couples accounted for 90% of households; just over 10% were widows or widowers, with unmarried householders being extremely rare. Of these married couples only a fifth had been born elsewhere. Despite the higher than average occurrence of locally born heads which would inflate the figures, one remarkable feature is that 97% of all children (regardless of age) had been born in Sheffield. This was significantly higher than in the pottery towns (as well as elsewhere generally) and suggests that those who moved to Sheffield did so at an early age and arrived in the town directly from their birthplace. It also suggests that despite the rapid growth the community was extremely settled.
Just over a quarter of all males were employed in the cutlery trade, a figure which increases to almost 40% if other light trades and associated trades are taken into account. The remainder of occupations were evenly distributed between the heavy trades, non-metalworking occupations, commerce and sundry occupations. The figure of males employed in the pottery industry in central Burslem was 35%. 32% of females were employed in the cutlery trade, and again this figure increases to almost 40% if those employed in other light trades are taken into account. 16% accounted for commerce, and not surprisingly there was a fairly high percentage employed in some form of domestic service. The figure of females employed in the pottery industry in central Burslem was considerably lower at only 18%.
The results as a whole reveal a more stable community than in the Potteries despite a higher rate of unmarried householders, with a higher instance of nuclear rather than extended families, lower immigration and no instances of overcrowding. Over a third of both sexes were employed in some form of the cutlery industry, a higher figure than those employed in the pottery industry in Stoke on Trent, suggesting less alternative employment was available in Sheffield.
At the beginning of the 20th century both America and Australia placed duties on imports and which affected the Sheffield cutlery business badly. This was stabilised to a certain degree with the first and second World Wars which brought a demand for steel through Britain’s re-armament programme, a demand that was sustained throughout the war. During the 20th century Sheffield concentrated on specialist steels such as high-grade alloys including manganese and stainless steel. Yet the wars had the opposite effect on the cutlery industry which was hit by the evaporation of luxury goods. Some cutlers either enlisted in the army or sought higher wages in the profiting steelworks. After the war many cutlers did not return to their old jobs.
Small firms continued in their Victorian methods, arguing that mass-production meant low quality. They emphasised that Sheffield’s reputation was firmly based on the high quality of its products, believing that hand-forging gave extra quality. They were contemptuous of foreign competition, believing that their standards could never be matched.
Slowly the traditional features of the Hallamshire cutlery industry faded away during the inter-war years. The last of the water-powered grinding wheels ceased production, and the hand-forging of forks in Shiregreen, and the hand-cutting of files in Ecclesfield and other villages and hamlets came quietly to an end. Their passing was not mourned at the time. The later sentimental attachment to the memory of the ‘little mester’ and the ‘buffer girls’ conflicts with the fact that many workers were glad to see the end of what had become a monotonous and dreary occupation.
By the late 1950s 650 of the 700 cutlery firms in Britain were still based in Sheffield. The trade was characterised by small family firms, most of which had been in Sheffield for generations. Over 500 of these 700 firms had fewer than 11 workers, and only 11 firms had more than 200 employees.
During the 1960s and 1970s the Far Eastern countries including Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea were able to sell cutlery at a lower price than Sheffielders could buy their raw materials. Cheap foreign imports came flooding into Britain and many well-known firms ceased trading during the 1970s and 1980s. Only a few firms survived at the quality end of the market. A small number of ‘little mesters’ can still be found in workshops in the decaying Victorian courtyards of the old cutlery area of Rockingham Street, Solley Street, Garden Street, Furnace Hill, Arundel Street and Milton Street. Both the tool and Steel industries encountered similar problems with the same outcome. By 1981 all the metalworking trades together employed 27.5% of the Sheffield workforce, and all other manufacturing activity employed only another 8%. The trend, as in other parts of the country, was to employment in services and retail.
This has been a mere aperitif to the history of Hallamshire. Many of the topics briefly glanced at here are more than worthy of fuller investigation – the shift of a part-time rural occupation to full-time urban employment, the organised violence with the introduction of mechanisation, and the effects of the Sheffield flood to name just three.
The town was producing cutlery (probably mostly knives) before the 13th century and expanded in such a form as to be regulated through the manor court by the 16th century. Although it was still a dual occupation mixed with farming and despite its geographical barriers by the 17th century the town had developed a substantial export trade. Developments such as plating copper with silver led to a whole range of household items being produced, the success of which was responsible for the silver business.
It is true that similarities between potters and cutlers may also have existed between other localised industries elsewhere in Britain, but not to such an extent. Both trades required relatively little capital to begin with and a zoning of different trades became established, although this was more apparent in Hallamshire. Both were very smokey places leaving an unfavourable impression on visitors and with high rates of occupational disease. A potter from Stoke on Trent might not have felt so alienated in a town where bottle ovens were a common sight. Both occupations enabled employees to arrange their own working hours to a certain degree and both were familiar with the practice of ‘St Monday’. The industrial revolution had little physical effect on both trades, and many manufacturers remained small, relying on the outsourcing of different tasks, although this was more common in Hallamshire. The ‘little mesters’ in their backstreet workshops typified the cutler rather than the larger factories, which has continued through to the remaining few still employed in the industry today.