Metalworking and cutlery production has always been a key industry in Sheffield due to the availability of nearby raw materials such as iron ore, coal, charcoal and stone for grinding wheels. Sheffield had another advantage; several fast flowing rivers and nearby forests for wood and charcoal to help power machinery.
The finest cutlery has been produced right here in the city of Sheffield for centuries. "Cutlery" in this case refers to tools with an edge such as knives, razors, scalpels, scissors, scythes etc. Flatware (items without a sharp edge) include spoons, forks and serving implements.
The first reference to cutlery made in Sheffield was in 1297, when the Hearth Tax Records include Robertus le Coteler - Robert The Cutler.
By the 14th Century Sheffield was noted for the production of knives. A Sheffield knife was found in the possession of Edward III at the Tower Of London in 1340. As early as 1379, 25% of the population of Sheffield were listed as metal-workers.
In the 16th Century Sheffield became far more famous for its cutlery. Before 1500 watermills were adapted to grinding tools and the cutlery trade boomed.
During the mid 16th Century Cutlers' Juries were set up to control the cutlery and metalworking industries. This included registered cutlers' marks, apprenticeships and working practices. These rules were later incorporated into the Rules of the Cutlers' Company. In 1624 the Company of Cutlers was established in the district of Hallamshire. This included the parishes of Sheffield, Ecclesfield, Handsworth, Eckington and Norton.
By 1600 Sheffield was the main centre of cutlery production in England outside of London. In 1638 the first Cutlers' House was built.
In 1650 Blister Steel was invented. This involves wrought iron being heated with charcoal for around a week. The carbon and charcoal absorption was uneven leading to blisters. Once it was taken out of the furnace it was then forge-welded into bars of shear steel. The heating and hammering helping to diffuse the carbon in the steel evenly and eliminate the blisters.
During the 17th Century water power was used to help stamp out metal objects and power heavy drop hammers and tilt hammers and grinding wheels. By 1660 at least 49 sites on the River Don and its tributaries had been dammed for industrial purposes, with two thirds of these used for grinding wheels.
By 1672 Sheffield city had 224 metal-working smithies within the town itself, and another 376 in its suburbs.
In 1743 Old Sheffield Plate was discovered by Thomas Boulsover. This involves fusing copper between 2 thin sheets of silver to create a sandwich. This led to silver items becoming more affordable. Sterling silver cutlery in Sheffield dates back over 250 years.
Experiments by Benjamin Huntsman in the 1740's resulted in the crucible steel process being discovered. This involves blister steel being melted into a crucible along with a purifying agent. This resulted in the slag and impurities being skimmed off and the carbon being distributed evenly in the molten metal. The outcome of this was a better quality of steel being produced in greater quantities leading to larger scale production and a stronger and harder final product. This allowed Sheffield to push ahead of other competitors such as Germany, supplying the growing world-wide demand for cutlery, holloware and tools.
The development of a new Atlantic empire also provided new markets - the slave plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas were equipped with plantation knives and machetes made in Sheffield.
In 1751 Joseph Hancock first used Sheffield Plate to make kitchen and tableware. This prospered and between 1762 and 1765 Hancock built the water-powered Old Park Silver Mills at the confluence of the Loxley and the Don rivers.
The increased production of silver items led to the formation of the Sheffield Assay Office in 1773 to verify the quality of sterling silver. Before this date the item had to be taken to London to be hallmarked. This was a perilous journey that often involved robberies by highwaymen.
Steam powered machinery led to the creation of the first factories. The majority of work was still being carried out by 'Little Mesters'. This was (and still is) a highly-skilled craftsman who worked in a small workshop, occasionally with a few employees and/or apprentices. Each mester would specialise in one process, such as forging, grinding or hafting, and they later specialised further by making specific types of cutlery or working in a single material. This meant that one item of cutlery would pass through many pairs of hands before it was finally finished. There are still a handful of Little Mesters working to this day. Due to this specialisation, most of the cutlery manufacturing was concentrated around a small area (1 square mile within the city centre) as each item produced relied on another mester to complete the finished products.
During the 1800's the factory system gradually replaced the system of people working in their own homes or in small workshops.
In the early 1800's, the largest market for Sheffield Cutlery was America. In 1812, 1 in 3 people were making items that were exported there. Following American Independence, the USA continued to be a major market for Sheffield-made cutlery and flatware.
In the 1830's the Bowie Knife became popular. Demand increased and Sheffield became the market leader, specialising in knives with decorations on the blade or handle. Bowie knives were the centre-piece of the catalogues that were produced for the American market.
In 1836 brothers George & Henry Elkington of Birmingham invented the electro-plating of silver. This took over from Old Sheffield Plate. The process has been refined by 1840. Elkington Cutlery can still be purchased today from this website. Silver plate or electroplate is formed when a thin layer of pure or sterling silver is deposited electrolytically on the surface of a base metal (usually nickel silver). See EPNS for more details.
With the introduction of plating by electrolysis, the production of Sheffield plate declined and by the 1870s had all but ceased. Around 30 years after its disappearance as a commercial commodity, Sheffield plate became collector's items.
Huntsman's process was only made obsolete in 1856 by Henry Bessemer's invention of the Bessemer Converter, but production of crucible steel continued until well into the 20th century. His invention transformed steel from being a material for making small, high value artefacts to building the infrastructure of the modern world - being used on railways, bridges, ships and sky-scrapers. The Bessemer Converter was able to convert 25 tonnes of iron into steel within half an hour; It reduced the price of steel by a factor of five and greatly increased the volumes produced. A Bessemer Converter can still be seen at Kelham Island in Sheffield.
The building and expansion of railway networks led to ever-increasing demand for steel.
The late 19th Century saw a naval arms race between Britain and Germany, with bigger, more heavily-armed ships being built, and more powerful guns and armour-piercing shells being made in response. Sheffield firms dominated these new markets for armour plate and guns, which accounted for much of the expansion of the industry at the time.
In 1882, Robert Hadfield invented Manganese Steel. This is an alloy which maintains its toughness on hardening, has very high impact strength and great resistance to wear.
Sheffield was made a city in 1893.
In 1913 Harry Brearley of Firth Brown invented Stainless Steel in Sheffield but production was halted due to the outbreak of war. By varying the Chromium content in the steel it is possible to produce dfferent properties in the finished piece. Brearley was looking for a material that was able to resist the hot and corrosive environment found inside the barrels of rifles and naval guns. It took a while for the metal to be accepted by the Sheffield Cutlers as it could not be forged or ground in the traditional manner so new machinery was required. Brearley's successor, Dr William Hatfield FRS (with a doctorate in Metallurgy from the University of Sheffield), continued Brealey's work and refined the process. In 1924 Hatfield patented '18/8 Stainless Steel' (18% Chromium / 8% Nickel).
The years between the end of the First World War and 1930 were probably the high water mark for steel in Sheffield with its competitors in Germany still recovering from the war.
Cutlery manufacturing took a down-turn following the Second World War and post-war austerity. In 1950, 15,000 people were employed in the industry. From the 1960's the size of the industry contracted rapidly due to competition from the Far East and other foreign markets and materials. The difficulties of the 70's and 80's forced many companies out of business. There are still a reduced number of companies operating today.
Meadowhall Shopping Centre (opened in 1990) is built on the site of a former steelworks.
Over the following 100+ years the production of stainless steel, in particular cutlery, reaffirmed Sheffield's age-old reputation for quality metal products. 18/8 Stainless Steel is still to this day probably the most common alloy of this type.
Today's Sheffield cutlery manufacturers are indeed standing on the shoulders of giants.