The biggest, most significant industrial archaeology site in Sheffield is hardly known to the public, though it contains two of the three Grade II* listed buildings in the Lower Don Valley, the city’s former industrial heartland.
A visitor with time to spare can track the development of Sheffield’s steel industry through its museums and monuments. The early manufacture of blister steel can be understood at the Doncaster Street Cementation Furnace. Benjamin Huntsman’s pivotal development of crucible steel – and the process of using it to manufacture edge tools – is displayed at the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet and Shepherd Wheel.
The later growth of the heavy steel trades is shown at the Kelham Island Industrial Museum, and at the former Templeborough works of Steel, Peech & Tozer in the Borough of Rotherham the Magna Centre provides a convincing simulation of the operating of an electric-arc furnace in “The Big Melt”.
Very few people have ever seen Darnall Works, near to the Sheffield Canal, dating back at least to 1793, when the Darnall Glass Works stood on the site. The Sanderson Brothers, cutlery and steel manufacturers, took it over in 1835.
They concentrated their operations on the Darnall site by building several new structures, now the oldest above-ground survivals on the site, in 1871-74, and continued to use it through much of the twentieth century.
In 1934 Sandersons combined their operations with their neighbours Kayser Ellison & Company, which had used electric-arc furnaces from 1912, and the two companies merged in 1960 as Sanderson Kayser.
A major modernisation took place in 1967, but towards the end of the century Sanderson Kayser concentrated their business at Newhall Road, and left Darnall Road vacant.
The remains of over two hundred years of activity on the site are a rich archaeological resource waiting to be discovered and preserved.
These begin with the below-ground remains of the glass cone. Above them are the foundations of the cementation furnaces that Sandersons used in the early nineteenth century and many of the crucible furnaces, including some powered by a Siemens gas furnace.
The standing buildings from the 1870s onwards, many of them dilapidated, are capable of rescue.
Though much has been demolished during successive alterations, the ground levels have generally not been lowered, so there is huge scope to interpret the complex history of the site and to display it.
In particular, the sheer extent of the remaining crucible workshops makes the Works a unique survival.
There were well over a hundred crucible furnaces at Darnall Works in the 1870s, with the capacity to produce high-quality large castings by continuous teeming at the time when the industry was moving to Bessemer converters which produced coarser steel very rapidly.
The existing buildings include an intact range of workshops, each with six melting holes, ranged up the slope of Wilfrid Road, and – most spectacular of all – a large casting floor containing forty-eight crucible holes with a central crane. This space, last used during the Second World War, is a unique and precious survival.
Ruth Harman and John Minnis, in the Penguin Architectural Guide, Sheffield (2004), described Darnall Works as “one of the most important steelmaking sites in the country”. There is no question that it’s a historic monument of national, if not international significance. For the time being the most historic parts of the site are safeguarded, but finding a practical, economical way of investigating the archaeology and interpreting its story for public access remains problematic.
I envisage that within the next two decades, Darnall Works will become Sheffield’s premier museum of the steel industry, to which Magna and Kelham Island, Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet and Shepherd Wheel will be the jewels in the crown.