The History of Sheffield
Archaeologists have uncovered evidence that the Sheffield area was occupied by man as early as 12,000 BC, and both Bronze Age stone circles and Iron Age hill forts were built nearby, but it appears there was no permanent community of consequence until far later. After the departure of the Romans the land split into various kingdoms, and what would later be Sheffield was on the border of Elmet and Mercia, the threat of cross-border raids probably deterring settlement.
Eventually the Saxons did put down roots in the area, clearing land and building homes: the Sheffield Cross now in the British Museum dates from the 9th century and shows that permanent dwellings and a place of worship existed there at that time. In 829 King Egbert of Wessex accepted the submission of the Northumbrians at nearby Dore, in effect giving him control of all England. Norse incursions in the mid-10th century were repulsed by the Saxons by 942, but a century later the Normans with the genocidal Harrying of the North in 1069 consolidated their conquest, and in so doing laid waste the Saxon Sheffield.
It was the Normans who recognised the strategic value of the existing site and developed it. Sheffield as Escafeld and Scafeld is mentioned twice in the Domesday Book , the name derived from the river Sheaf which runs through the place. The Norman de Lovetot family held the place for many years, building several churches and vital to the settlement’s future a wooden castle there about 1150. The castle made trading safer (though it and the town were in fact razed to the ground by rebellious barons in 1266), and provided a market for goods; soon the first bridge over the River Don was constructed; sometime around 1180 Beauchief Abbey was founded to the south: Sheffield had within half a century become significant.
Sheffield’s geography and geology combined to make it a metal-working centre even in medieval times: it had coal for furnaces and beneath that coal ganister for lining them; iron ore; millstone grit for grinding- and sharpening-wheels; and water from its rivers to drive them. “A Sheffeld thwitel baar he in his hose” (A Sheffield knife he carried in his hose) wrote Chaucer of his Reeve in the late 14th century; and 100 years earlier ‘Robert the Cutler’ is mentioned in official documents.
Eventually the cutlery trade grew beyond even London ’s production; in 1624 the Company of Cutlers was established to control the trade and ensure its profitability – and by 1638 the Company had funds enough to build their first Cutlers’ Hall. Many milestones in metal processing occurred in Sheffield: local clock-maker Benjamin Huntsman improved steel quality with changes to the crucible process in the 1740s; in the same decade cutler Thomas Boulsover happened on how to make what became Sheffield Plate; a quarter of a century later Britannia metal, a silvery tin/antimony/copper alloy was first made there; Henry Bessemer built his own steelworks in Sheffield in the 1850s to perfect his revolutionary converter process; and it was in Sheffield that Harry Brearley invented stainless steel in 1913.
To facilitate this trade the River Don Navigation was radically improved in the mid-18th century; and in 1819 the Sheffield Canal built. The then town (finally made a city in 1897) was an early adopter of railways, gaining its first in 1838.
But metal industries brought problems along with (for some) prosperity. The town was noted for its grime by visitors over the centuries. In the Civil War Sheffield changed hands several times as Royalists and Parliamentarians vied for its militarily important industry. The filthy conditions of industrial Sheffield contributed to the devastating 1832 cholera outbreak there. Life expectancies of metal grinding workers was short because of industrial illness; this and poor labour relations led to the Sheffield Outrages in the 1860s, when militant workers took violent direct action including using explosives. In WWI Sheffield was the target of a Zeppelin raid because of its steel-making; in WWII it suffered the Sheffield Blitz for the same reason, its horrors including the 1940 Marples Hotel tragedy when 70 people sheltering from an air-raid died.
Sheffield deserves its place in history for more than metal-working, however. Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned at the castle for 14 years from 1570, her probable ‘home’ Turret House still standing. In 1857 the world’s first football club, Sheffield FC, was formed, the rules they played by informing the FA’s version when it was formed six years later. And the city has had its share of disasters, most notably the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864 when a poorly constructed dam burst and killed 270 people.
When the steel industry shrank after WWII the city eventually reinvented itself as a major university centre; and as a leisure destination: in the 1990s in particular the council and Sheffield Development Corporation radically changed the city bringing it Meadowhall Shopping Mall; the Sheffield Arena; and the Ponds Forge swimming complex; and Sheffield hosted the World Student Games in 1991.
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