Mark Firth (1819-1880) was a significant figure in the life of Victorian Sheffield. His father had been head smelter of the long-established steel manufacturer Sanderson Brothers, but Mark and his brother Thomas Jnr set up their own works in 1842 and ten years later moved to Savile Street, where the Sheffield & Rotherham Railway entered the town along the flat flood-plain of the Don Valley.
Their Norfolk Works quickly built a reputation for building armaments: indeed, a veritable arms race took place on Savile Street, as Sir John Brown’s Atlas Works next door developed armour plate to resist the Firth company’s shells. Though John Brown & Co acquired a majority shareholding in Thomas Firth & Sons in 1902, the two companies operated independently until 1930 when they became Thomas Firth & John Brown, commonly known as Firth Brown Ltd.
Mark Firth and Sir John Brown were also domestic neighbours in Ranmoor, up on the western hills away from the smoke and dirt of Sheffield’s east end: Mark Firth lived at Oakbrook (c1860) and Sir John lived next door at Endcliffe Hall (1863-5).
Mark Firth enlarged Oakbrook in 1875 when he entertained the Prince and Princess of Wales (latterly King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) on their visit to open the 36-acre Firth Park, his gift to the city at Page Hall, just over the hill from the Don Valley.
Mark Firth dominated civic life in the years before Sheffield became a city: indeed, some of his munificence may have made civic status a possibility. He served as Master Cutler in 1867 and Mayor in 1874. As well as Firth Park his name is linked to Firth College, opened in 1879, which ultimately became Sheffield University, and the thirty-six Firth Almshouses at Hangingwater, near to his Ranmoor home.
A modest and devout member of the Methodist New Connexion, he retained his links with his working-class roots to the end of his life. Travelling daily by carriage from Oakbrook back to the works on Savile Street, he lunched on pies cooked by his foreman’s wife. He was at the Works when he suffered a fatal stroke.
When he died the whole of Sheffield shut up shop for the day, and the funeral procession from Oakbrook stretched two miles to his grave in the General Cemetery, where his monument is now restored and listed Grade II.
The Firth Almshouses continue to operate as a registered charity [http://www.sheffieldhelpyourself.org.uk/full_search_new.asp?group=17923], and Oakbrook has been part of Notre Dame High School since 1919: http://www.notredame-high.org.uk/index.php/information/item/161-history-of-notre-dame.
The Sheffield General Cemetery features in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘Victorian Cemeteries’. For further details, please click here.