Sheffield’s Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet museum illustrates the entire history of the city’s traditional metal trades on a single site.
Before the railway came and made possible Sheffield’s heavy steel industry in the East End, the manufacture of cutlery and edge tools took place on the fast-flowing river valleys of the Don Valley, mainly to the north and west of the town itself. Only with the arrival of steam power did the “little mesters” begin to concentrate their works in town.
The Abbeydale Works can be traced back to at least 1714, perhaps to the “New Wheel” mentioned at the site in 1685. The present buildings date from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and show the full range of processes involved in producing edge-tools using the crucible steel methods developed by Benjamin Huntsman in 1742.
The Abbeydale works made scythes in a sequence from the manufacturing of clay crucibles, the furnace, to the forging and grinding, boring and setting of scythe-blades ready for the handle to be fitted elsewhere, laid out logically around a spacious courtyard.
The vernacular buildings, including the workmen’s cottages and the Manager’s House of 1838, all built of local sandstone, sit easily in the wooded landscape, and it’s possible to forget the large millpond behind, holding back a placid-looking, prodigious weight of water that provided power for the works.
The waterwheels, tilt-hammers, blowing-engine and grindstones show that, because materials were simple and technology primitive by modern standards, the high level of precision and workmanship achieved in the trade depended on the skill and physical hardiness of the craftsmen who worked here.
For all its peaceful, rural setting, the site also recollects the “Sheffield Outrages”, a series of terrorist acts by which trade-union members sought to intimidate non-members by sabotage and violence.
In November 1842 an explosion in the middle of the night destroyed the grinding shop and practically immobilised the works, presenting, according to the Sheffield Iris, “a scene that is rarely witnessed in a country not at war”.
The manager, Mr Dyson, had employed two workmen “who, though industrious and efficient workmen, did not belong to the union, and therefore Mr Dyson came under the displeasure of the men who compose the committee appointed by the union”.
Twenty years later, a subsequent tenant, Joshua Tyzack, was shot at: the fact that the only casualty was his top hat didn’t make the incident any less threatening.
Tyzack, Sons & Turner finally closed the works down in 1933, and two years later the charitable trust set up by the Sheffield philanthropist J G Graves purchased it complete and largely intact.
Indeed, the works briefly resumed during the Second World War.
In 1964 the Council for the Conservation of Sheffield Antiquities began to investigate and restore the site, and since the 1970s it has been a popular tourist site as well as an invaluable educational resource.
The 60-page, A4 handbook for the 2017 ‘Sheffield’s Heritage’ tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing. To order a copy, please click here or, if you prefer, send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.