South Yorkshire boasts two of nationally significant historic metal-working sites, the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet on the southern edge of Sheffield and the Wortley Top Forge between Sheffield and Penistone. Both are scheduled ancient monuments and contain Grade I listed buildings.
They exist because of the foresight of the individuals who formed the South Yorkshire Industrial History Society because they recognised the significance of each site and campaigned to protect them from the risk of demolition before the Second World War – back in the prehistory of industrial archaeology and historical conservation.
Wortley Top Forge, abandoned by 1929, was acquired by the South Yorkshire Industrial History Society in 1953, and the Society continues to maintain and develop the site and open it to the public through its operational arm, the South Yorkshire Trades Historical Trust Ltd.
The leading light of the project was the late Ken Hawley (1927-2014), the celebrated saviour of much of South Yorkshire’s tools and machinery. His collections are now divided between Wortley and Kelham Island.
The Top Forge, along with the now-obliterated Low Forge, was operating by 1640, though water-powered metal-working was practised in the area from the thirteenth century onwards.
Alongside the remaining original buildings, the Trust has restored and built new structures to accommodate the growing collection of artefacts, including stationary steam engines – a very recent innovation, because the Forge was always powered by water.
A succession of enterprising and innovative lessees imported new techniques to the two forges: James Cockshutt brought Henry Cort’s reverberatory furnace from Wales to South Yorkshire in the 1790s and in the nineteenth century Thomas Andrews Jnr made Wortley renowned for the quality of its wrought iron for railway rolling-stock axles. Both these men became Fellows of the Royal Society; indeed, Thomas Andrews belonged to the Royal Societies in both London and Edinburgh.
Visiting the Top Forge is challenging. Its site is at least 1½ miles away from Wortley village, in the depths of the Don Valley, and access is encumbered by tight bends and the low bridges of the now closed Woodhead railway. Signage is minimal: a Yorkshire flag indicates the entrance: Flag of Yorkshire – Flags and symbols of Yorkshire – Wikipedia.
Those who have the determination to arrive are made warmly welcome, but on ordinary Sunday working days there is little provision for tourists. The location is beautiful. The loos are impeccable, but the place is otherwise innocent of visitor amenities. Donations are gratefully received, guided tours run ad hoc and rides on the miniature railway are free.
It’s not so much a tourist attraction as a man-cave, populated by friendly, welcoming gentlemen of a certain age in overalls, working with metal and tweaking their engines, who are more than happy to discuss the technicalities of the machinery they tend.
I was shown round by an admirable young guide, Emily, who, once she realised that I know very little about engineering, pitched her tour to my level of understanding.
Open days are a different matter: then the Top Forge is en fête. Details are announced on the website events page, which has been understandably disrupted by the pandemic.
The Society’s website provides a detailed history and description of this fascinating place: Wortley Top Forge – The oldest surviving heavy iron forge in the world.