Category Archives: Industrial history

Brinsley Headstocks

Brinsley Headstocks, Nottinghamshire (2017)

The Nottinghamshire-Derbyshire coalfield, like other British coalfields, has a mining heritage of which its inhabitants are justifiably proud.  The prosperity and power of the United Kingdom was, in the age of steam, almost entirely fuelled by the labour of the country’s coal-miners.

A mile away from the Nottinghamshire market town of Eastwood, the Brinsley Headstocks have long been a landmark from the days when the green fields of the Erewash valley yielded black wealth from below to power the Industrial Revolution.

The Headstocks deserve the overused adjective “iconic” because they’re distinctive and unique. 

To industrial archaeologists they’re precious as the only surviving example of tandem headstocks, by which two adjacent mine-shafts could be wound by one winding engine. 

To readers of English literature they’re treasured because the site is featured in the early fiction of the local writer D H Lawrence (1885-1930) in his short story ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ (1911) and his novel Sons and Lovers (1913).

Lawrence certainly knew Brinsley Colliery, because his father Arthur worked there, and his grandfather Bert before him.  The colliery was still operational, though no longer drawing coal, when the 1960 film of Sons and Lovers was made, and the headstocks, painted an uncharacteristic shade of pale blue to show up in monochrome, are part of the movie’s background.

The colliery began as shallow workings in the early nineteenth century, and the deep second shaft was sunk in 1872.  The original headstocks were badly damaged in an explosion in 1883, and were either repaired or replaced by a pair from the nearby Willey Wood colliery which had closed in the late 1870s.

After it ceased producing coal in 1934 Brinsley Colliery was retained for ventilation and to provide underground access to neighbouring collieries at Moorgreen and Pye Hill, so when it was finally closed and sealed off in 1970 it presented an important example of untouched nineteenth-century mining practice, which the industrial archaeologist Alan Griffin detailed in ‘Brinsley Colliery:  a conflict of evidence’, Industrial Archaeology, vol 9, no 1 (February 1972), pp 28-47/100.

The above-ground buildings were demolished and the headstocks transported to the then new Coal Museum at Lound Hall near Retford.  When that museum closed in 1989 the Brinsley Headstocks were returned to their original location as the centrepiece of a wildlife reserve and picnic site that is maintained by the volunteer Friends of Brinsley Headstocks.

Problems have arisen because inspections by the local authority, Broxtowe Borough Council, revealed a serious physical danger to the visiting public.  The site was fenced off initially;  in September 2023 the winding wheels were removed to reduce the load on the timberwork, and in December the entire structure was dismantled and some of the timber chopped up.

This caused uproar in the local community, and the Friends were left uninformed of what had been done and why:  ‘Disgust’ in Nottinghamshire village as historic mining feature removed without consultation – Nottinghamshire Live (;  ‘It makes me want to cry’: anger over Brinsley Headstocks demolition | Nottinghamshire | The Guardian.

There is no need for this.  Keeping the local community in the dark is bound to generate more heat than light:  “Nobody’s informed us what was happening…This village isn’t Brinsley any more.”

In an age where communication has never been easier, yet the scope for misunderstanding through haste is abundant, it should be a priority to manage with care the relationship between local communities and the elected representatives who serve them.

I have no personal connection with Brinsley, but in my native Sheffield I continue to come across situations where amenities are threatened and the people who care about them feel they aren’t heard:  History repeats itself | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.  In some parts of the city you need only say “trees” to provoke a reaction.

Broxtowe Borough Council has proposed three strategies to restore the Headstocks site, two of which don’t seem at all satisfactory:  News (  Before the councillors decide how to proceed, they need to ensure that their constituents feel that they’re being listened to.

When you need to get out of a hole, or a mine shaft, the first thing to do is stop digging.

Rylands Building

Rylands Building, Market Street, Manchester (2023)

John Rylands (1801-1888) was a Manchester textile manufacturer whose name lives on in the John Rylands Library, founded as a memorial by his widow Enriqueta Augustina Rylands (1843-1908) and opened in 1900.

From 1822 his company, Rylands & Sons Ltd, occupied a site in the city’s High Street in what is now called the Northern Quarter, and replaced these premises with the Rylands Building (1929-32), a bulky modern textile warehouse on Market Street faced in Portland stone with distinctive corner turrets, in a sober version of Art Deco.

The architects were Harry Smith Fairhurst (1868-1945) and his son Philip Garland Fairhurst (1900-1987).  The elder Fairhurst had already built Lancaster House (1905-1910), India House (1906) and Bridgewater House (1912), all on Whitworth Street, and York House (1910-11, demolished 1974) on Major Street – all of them to the Manchester pattern of a packing house and wholesale showroom.

The Rylands Building is prominently visible at the corner of Piccadilly Gardens, an ornamental space opened up on the site of the demolished Manchester Royal Infirmary. 

In 1957 it was bought by the owners of Paulden’s department store after a fire destroyed their All Saints premises south of the city centre.  The splendid architectural treatment, inside and out, and the vast amount of floor space made the former warehouse an admirable retail store, which was rebranded by its ultimate owners, Debenhams, in 1973. 

The debacle that led to the complete closure of the Debenhams chain in 2021 meant that the Rylands Building suddenly became a huge void in the heart of Manchester’s retail quarter – half a million square feet of retail floor-space over ten floors encased in a magnificent and prominent building within sight of the city’s tourist hub, Piccadilly Gardens, and within reach of the nearby Northern Quarter.

The way forward is Rylands Manchester.  The developer AM Alpha gained permission for a scheme by Jeffrey Bell Architects adding four storeys on top of the present roof to compensate for carving an open atrium out of the centre to bring natural light within the building from the second to the seventh floor.

The project respects the appearance of the 1929 design while observing the Manchester Zero-Carbon Action Plan which aims to make Greater Manchester carbon-neutral by 2038 [Zero Carbon Manchester | Zero Carbon Manchester | Manchester City Council].  Insulation, glazing and energy provision will conform to expected future needs, and the respect for original architectural detail includes installing up-to-date Crittall Windows units corresponding with the appearance of the original fenestration.

The finished scheme will offer 70,000 square feet of retail space at ground level, 258,000 square feet of office space above and a winter garden on the sixth floor.  The atrium storeys each include open space, terraced to provide sight of the sky and sheltered by a glazed roof:

Work is expected to be completed by 2025, a tribute to Manchester’s efficacy in grabbing opportunities to improve the urban environment, as it did after the IRA bomb-attack in 1996.

An urban-explorer report uploaded in April 2023 reveals surviving architectural details in the less-frequented areas of the Rylands Building:  Exploring Manchester’s Abandoned Debenhams: Found 1930s Secrets – YouTube.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Manchester’s Heritage, please click here.

The 60-page, A4 handbook for the 2019 ‘Manchester’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.

Brown Bayley’s steam wagons

Brown Bayley Steels Ltd, Sentinel steam lorry no 6 (1968)

I’m very grateful to Stephen Johnson for providing me with a copy of his book The Other Mr Brown’s Business:  a short history of the firm of Brown Bayley’s Steel Works Ltd, Sheffield (2021), which is a significant contribution to the history of the Sheffield steel industry.

My granddad was a furnace bricklayer at Brown Bayley’s until shortly after the end of the Second World War, but my memory of the works in the 1950s is the common sight of their steam wagons, forerunners of the modern lorry, chugging around the streets.

The steam wagon like its contemporary, the electric tramcar, occupies the window between the initial superseding of horse power with mechanical traction and the eventual dominance of the internal combustion engine.

They were powerful and relatively fast, capable of 20mph fully loaded, and in their heyday far superior for their purpose to early petrol lorries.

Brown Bayley’s wagons were Sentinel Standard flat-bed lorries, mostly dating from the time of the First World War, bought to transport heavy materials around the company’s extensive Attercliffe steelworks and on occasions used for delivering materials further afield.

A well-documented journey in 1925 transported five-ton lengths of chain in three trips to stabilise the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, taking just over two days each way, with a day to unload at the destination.

The Brown Bayley fleet consisted of at least a dozen vehicles at its maximum, almost all of them registered in Shrewsbury rather than Sheffield or Rotherham by the manufacturer, Sentinel Waggon [sic] Works Ltd.

Brown Bayley’s wagons survived because they were robust and dependable, but they required a two-man crew like a railway steam locomotive, and they took ninety minutes to prepare from cold and used 1½cwt (1,524kg) of coke per shift.

Nevertheless they continued to work until 1970, when the last three were taken out of use.  The remaining wagons were snapped up for preservation by enthusiasts, apart from No 6 (AW 2964) which the Brown Bayley company exhibited at rallies.  It remains on static display at the Riverside Museum, Glasgow.

Others are still going strong, as these YouTube clips illustrate:  What’s the Greatest Machine of the 1930s…the Sentinel Steam Waggon? – YouTubeSentinel/ERF No.9370 ‘Typhoo’ Norwich to Ledbury – YouTube.

Forty Bridges

Great Northern Railway Pinxton Branch: Giltbrook Viaduct (1973)

One of the highlights of my freelance history lecturing work is speaking to the Kimberley Historical Society, north of Nottingham, where I’m made welcome and feel I know many of the members after repeated visits.

Almost invariably, my lecture is introduced by the chairman, Roy Plumb, and a few years ago I looked forward to visiting as a guest to sit back and listen to Roy lecture on the railways of Kimberley and the neighbouring settlement of Awsworth.

It didn’t work out because of a mix-up of dates, but I eventually caught up with Roy’s presentation when he spoke to the Friends of Bennerley Viaduct at the Hogs Head Pub and Restaurant at Awsworth on January 31st this year.

Roy continues to use a Carousel projector to show his slides, and achieves a clarity and precision that rivals digital projection.  He also has a steady hand with a laser pointer – a skill which I lack – and his account of the growth and decline of the local railways from 1797 until the early 1960s was masterly.

Two rival railway companies served the area between the Erewash and Leen valleys, the Midland and the Great Northern, bitter rivals trying to grab the coal trade from each other.  The Great Northern’s ambitious Derbyshire & Staffordshire Extension opened in 1878, running to Derby Friargate and beyond and with a branch up the Erewash Valley to Pinxton, and the Midland’s Bulwell-Bennerley Branch began working freight trains a year later.

Both lines entailed heavy civil engineering.  The Great Northern built the now-celebrated Bennerley Viaduct, which survived because its wrought-iron construction made demolition uneconomic in the 1970s.

At Awsworth Junction, where the Pinxton branch diverged from the Great Northern main line, the Giltbrook Viaduct curved across a road, two Midland Railway lines and the Greasley Arm of the Nottingham Canal.  Almost a third of a mile long, it was known locally as the Forty Bridges, though there were in fact forty-three arches,

Two arches, 8 and 23, were occupied by four-storey dwellings, which were used by construction workers and later served as an air-raid shelter for Awsworth schoolchildren during the First World War.  Their chimney pots graced the viaduct’s parapet.

This magnificent sinuous structure has disappeared because unlike the Bennerley Viaduct its brick-arch construction made it practical to demolish.  It was taken down in 1973, and much of the trackbed of the Pinxton Branch as far as Eastwood became the A610 trunk road.  Local people of a certain age still bemoan the loss of a magnificent landmark;  younger people haven’t a clue it ever existed.

If I’ve read the 1899-1900 25-inch Ordnance Survey sheet correctly, the Hogs Head pub stands on or near the site of Gilt Briggs Farm, which was surrounded by a cat’s cradle of railway lines.

Stepping out into the night at the end of Roy’s talk, it was possible to sense the ghosts of great embankments and bridges, and the clatter of goods trains in the night, trundling across the arches sixty feet above ground level.

The National Library of Scotland website provides an overlay of historic Ordnance Survey maps against modern satellite imagery:  Explore georeferenced maps – Map images – National Library of Scotland (  If necessary key the name ‘Awsworth’ into the search panel.

Aqueduct Cottage

Aqueduct Cottage, Cromford Canal, Derbyshire (1977)
Aqueduct Cottage, Cromford Canal, Derbyshire (2010)
Aqueduct Cottage, Cromford Canal, Derbyshire (2020)
Aqueduct Cottage, Cromford Canal, Derbyshire (2022)

Among the wealth of industrial archaeology structures at the north end of the Cromford Canal, one of the most photographed is the picturesque little lock-keeper’s cottage at the end of the Wigwell Aqueduct, guarding the junction with the private Lea Wood branch.

This branch canal was constructed in 1802 by Peter Nightingale (great-uncle of Florence) to his mills at Lea Bridge 2½ furlongs away.  In 1819, as a result of a dispute over water rights, the branch was reduced to half its length and the wharf resited.

The lock at the junction was required to maintain the water-level in the branch at twelve inches higher than the main line, so that there was no risk of the canal losing water to the branch or vice versa.  An 1811 map shows that only half the existing building is original, extended sometime in the nineteenth century to make two dwellings, each with its own front door, and later combined to make a single house with the second doorway converted to a window.

Maintaining a household in this remote spot must always have been arduous.  Anne Eaton, who lived with her husband Josiah in the two-bedroomed cottage in the 1890s, raised eight children there.  She was on social terms with Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), whose family continued to own the surrounding land after selling the mills to the Smedley family in 1893.

The canal branch was last used in 1936, and traffic ceased on the main line from Hartshay to Cromford two years later.  The then owner, the London, Midland & Scottish Railway, formally abandoned the canal in 1944.

The local writer Alison Uttley (1884-1976) called Aqueduct Cottage “a Hans Anderson dwelling”, but she didn’t have to live in it.

By the time Lea Wood was sold to a private owner, Mr Bowmer, in 1951 the lack of amenities at the cottage was daunting.  The last occupant, Mr Bowler, lived there alone without piped water, sanitation, gas or electricity, until circa 1970.

The Derwent Valley section of the Cromford Canal was taken into guardianship by Derbyshire County Council in 1974 and most of it declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 1981, but when Lea Wood was sold to the Leawood Trust for the benefit of the community there seemed no practical way to make the cottage usable, let alone habitable.

After the Derwent Valley World Heritage Site was established in 2001 the County Council produced a Conservation Management Plan which identified Aqueduct Cottage as a significant heritage asset.

In 2012 the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust took over Lea Wood, the canal branch and the cottage, and a volunteer group set about returning Aqueduct Cottage to its nineteenth-century condition as a visitor centre which, despite the interruption of the pandemic, is well on its way to completion [], proving what can be done for a building on the brink with inspiration, energy and the know-how to find funding.

The Leawood Pump

Leawood Pump, Cromford Canal, Derbyshire

There are two reasons why the Cromford Canal terminates at Cromford:  Sir Richard Arkwright was prepared to invest in the waterway in order to secure cheap, easy transportation for his cotton mills, and he had built his water-powered factories at Cromford to take advantage of two reliable sources of water – the Bonsall Brook and the Cromford Moor Sough, a lead-mine adit draining the ore-field below Wirksworth.  Its water emerged at a constant year-round temperature of 52°F so that the upper section of the canal hardly ever froze in winter. 

Sir Richard Arkwright would have preferred the canal to take water from the River Derwent above Masson Mill, presumably to protect the supply to his mills at Cromford.  Instead, after the sough-water had powered the mills it entered the canal through a culvert at Cromford Wharf, later supplemented by an open channel to a second basin.

Soon after the opening of the Cromford Canal, reservoirs were constructed at the watershed between the Amber and Erewash Valleys, at Butterley, Butterley Park (drained in the late 1930s) and Codnor Park, to supply the Nottingham Canal by way of the flight of locks from Codnor Park to Langley Bridge.

The lead miners ultimately needed to extract ore from below the level of the Cromford Moor Sough and in 1772 began to dig the Meerbrook Sough, a lead-mine adit which drains into the River Derwent just north of Whatstandwell.

When the Meerbrook Sough opened circa 1836 it deprived the Cromford Canal of the dependable supply of thermal water from the older Cromford Moor Sough, and obliged the Canal Company to construct the Leawood Pump

Designed by Graham & Co of Elsecar, South Yorkshire and completed in 1849, the pump is a Cornish-type engine located beside the aqueduct over the River Derwent, lifting water thirty feet from the river during the weekend hours when the water-mills downstream were closed. 

The stone chimney, 95 feet high, has a cast-iron crown with a Venturi device to improve the draught. 

The existing locomotive-type boilers were manufactured by the Midland Railway and installed in a specially built extension to the engine house in 1904. 

After years of neglect the engine was restored to working order in 1979.

The pump house is open to visitors from Easter to October:

A short walk through the history of canal engineering

Wigwell Aqueduct, Cromford Canal, Derbyshire
Leawood Aqueduct, Cromford Canal, Derbyshire (2010)

Two silver threads run down the Derbyshire Derwent Valley between Matlock and Derby, the River Derwent and the Cromford Canal.

The valley bristles with monuments of industrial history, and the stretch of canal south from its terminus in Cromford is particularly rich in structures that typify and explain the archaeology of Britain’s inland waterways.

One of the most impressive – though difficult to see and photograph except in winter – is the Wigwell Aqueduct, designed by William Jessop to cross the River Derwent on a wide arch that carries the date 1793.

In its progress up the Amber and Derwent valleys the canal crossed both rivers by masonry-arch aqueducts – low arches in a long embankment over the Amber at Bull Bridge, now demolished, and a much higher, elegant single span across the Derwent at Lea Wood.  Both of these structures failed during construction and each had to be partly rebuilt at Jessop’s voluntary expense:  his famous comment on the injudicious economy of using Crich lime in the masonry of the Leawood aqueduct was,–

…Painful as it is to me to lose the good opinion of my Friends I would rather receive their censure for the faults of my head than of my heart.

The Wigwell Aqueduct (sometimes called the Leawood Aqueduct) has since stood the test of time, and it’s an outstanding example of the masonry-arch construction that James Brindley had pioneered at the Barton Aqueduct (1761) taking his Bridgewater Canal across the River Irwell west of Manchester.

A short walk further south along the canal stands an example of the successor to the masonry arch – the iron-trough aqueduct that Thomas Telford developed to span the wide Dee Valley at Pontcysyllte, east of Llangollen in North Wales. 

Telford showed that it was possible to carry a waterway in an iron trough at far greater height than was possible with masonry.  On the Cromford Canal, the iron-trough technique proved useful in other ways.

Twice in a decade, railway engineers needed to burrow a way under the canal for double-track railways.  In the late 1830s the North Midland Railway at Bull Bridge pierced the canal embankment to take its main line north towards Rotherham, and within ten years the Manchester, Buxton, Matlock & Midland Junction Railway needed to tunnel through Lea Wood, where the canal main line and a private branch to Lea Mills had hugged the hillside.

In each case, iron troughs in segments were fabricated at Butterley Works near Ripley and floated down the canal.  Dropping them into place and making the join watertight was accomplished in a matter of hours over Saturday night, when canal traffic could be paused, and then the embankment below was excavated and railway track laid.

The iron-trough rail arch and the original gothic road-arch at Bull Bridge were demolished in 1968.  Of the two aqueducts at Lea Wood, the one over the main line survives, and stopping trains to Matlock pass by.  The corresponding aqueduct on the Leawood branch was demolished sometime soon after the Second World War and has been replaced by a footbridge. 

Anyone seeking to understand the difference between the two types of aqueduct found on British canals need only park at the High Peak Junction car park and walk down the canal.

A short distance beyond the Leawood Aqueduct is a bijou example of the other major civil-engineering achievement of the Canal Age, the 42-yard Gregory Tunnel.

The towpath continues south as far as Ambergate, where the line of the canal was lost to a natural gas processing plant in the 1960s.

The hourly Derby-Matlock train service provides opportunities to explore the canal from Cromford, (rather than High Peak Junction), returning from Whatstandwell or Ambergate stations.

Benevolent despots

Darley Abbey, Derbyshire

Of the late-eighteenth century company settlements that distinguish the Derbyshire Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, Cromford, Belper and Milford are well-known, but visitors tend to pass by Darley Abbey.

Thomas Evans, who had lead-mining interests in Bonsall and iron-slitting mills at The Holmes in Derby, founded a bank in Derby in 1771, the same year that Richard Arkwright, Jedediah Strutt and Samuel Need began their cotton-spinning enterprise at Cromford. 

Arkwright banked with Evans, and in 1783 they began a partnership using Arkwright’s patent to run the Boar’s Head Mill – named after the Evans family crest – at Darley Abbey, where there had been a paper mill in 1700. 

Before his death in 1814 Thomas Evans had bought out all the partners who were not members of his immediate family.

The Boar’s Head Mill stood on the east bank of the Derwent, drawing its head of water from a magnificent six-foot-high weir stretching 360 feet across the river.  The original mill was burnt literally to the ground in 1788, but its replacement was back in production within a year. 

Apart from an abundant head of water, the site was near enough to Derby to provide connection with the Derby Canal and a supply of available labour, just as Cromford drew on the workers of the declining lead industry and Belper had an existing community of nailers and knitters. 

However, like Arkwright and Strutt, Evans saw the need to provide housing and community facilities to promote a stable workforce. 

On the opposite bank to the mills, connected by a bridge, grew a community of three-storey cottages,– Brick Row, Flat Square, Lavender Row, Mile Ash Lane, North Row and West Row,– until by 1830 over five hundred employees worked at the mills, the majority of them living in nearly two hundred cottages in the factory village.

The Evans family had a high reputation as enlightened employers and landlords.  Sir Richard Phillips (1767-1840) praised their “unwearied philanthropy” and remarked that their “kindness and rewards are constantly bestowed in promoting cleanliness and neatness, and in stimulating industry and good conduct”.

Of course, Evans’ mill and its adjuncts provided almost the only available employment in the village, and the housing belonged to the company, so workers’ discipline was firm.

Like the Arkwrights and the Strutts, the Evans family provided a full range of community facilities at Darley Abbey, largely financed by the disciplinary fines – a playing field, the parish church of St Matthew (1819) and the village school, hot dinners for the aged and infirm, medical treatment, convalescent opportunities, and when all else failed, burial and a free gravestone.

Brian Cooper in his book Transformation of a Valley:  the Derbyshire Derwent (1983;  Scarthin Books 1991) tells of the lock-up at the entrance to the village, where “a watchman was stationed…every night, whose task…was to arrest and imprison any boisterous revellers and enter in a book the names of all women returning from Derby later than ten o’clock.  According to legend, the girls were more successful at evasion than the men.  On seeing the watchman, they pulled their skirts high above their faces and ran for the village…”

Darley Abbey Mills remained in the hands of the Evans family until 1903, and continued as textile mills until 1970.

Since then diverse uses have kept the buildings intact and recognisable.

The mills and the village are connected by a bridge across the river, and are easily accessible from the A61/A6 intersection at Allestree, north of Derby city centre.

The 80-page, A4 handbook for the 2016 The Derbyshire Derwent Valley tour, with text, photographs, maps and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £10.00 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.

Still making steel

Special Quality Alloys Ltd, Continental Works, Attercliffe, Sheffield [© Jon Dennis, S6 Photography Ltd]

The Continental Works of Sheffield’s Jonas & Colver high-speed steel company in Attercliffe is still dedicated to highly skilled metal-bashing.

In its heyday before the First World War, Jonas & Colver made their mark in the grimy East End by embellishing their forge building with elaborate cartouches of their trademarks and the date ‘1911’.

When the company left the Bessemer Road site by the 1970s the site was turned over to a training centre for out-of-work steel workers needing to learn new trades.

In 2014 Continental Works once again returned to steel manufacture and there’s a curious connection between Jonas & Colver and the current occupiers.

Special Quality Alloys Ltd, which is part of the Special Steel Group, was founded by Bennett Beardshaw, who began his career in the steel industry as a junior accounts clerk at Jonas & Colver in 1906.  He would have known, at least by sight, both Sir Joseph Jonas (1845-1921) and Mr Robert Colver (1842-1916).

In 1925 Bennett Beardshaw suggested that Jonas & Colver should start a heat-treatment business.  The management was unconvinced and Beardshaw was invited to leave.  He set up the Special Steel Co Ltd, half a mile away at Bacon Lane on the Sheffield Canal, a site that still remains the base of the parent company.

Four generations of the Beardshaw family have led the company for almost a century, and the current managing director, great-grandson of the founder, is also called Bennett Beardshaw. 

Earlier this year I was privileged, thanks to Shane Higgins, the company’s Sales Engineer, to watch a team of four men using a fork-lift truck to place red-hot steel Polo mints, up to three feet in diameter, under the sort of drop hammers that lulled me to sleep in my Attercliffe childhood, bashing the glowing metal to the shape and thickness required.  Even when you’re outside the building, the earth moves.

This is noisy, dangerous, highly-skilled work that goes on behind the high brick walls.  A new recruit to one of these teams simply watches for the first six months before they’re trusted to take part.  Almost all of their communication is non-verbal, because they’re masked up to the eyeballs and wear ear-protectors against the deafening noise. 

Most people think that the steel industry has largely deserted Sheffield, and certainly the thousands of gaberdine-clad men with flat caps and mufflers no longer trail daily into the huge black sheds that filled the valley floor until the 1980s.

But the city’s proud tradition remains of know-how and skill that produces steel of world-class quality to meet modern demands.  Continental Works produces high-specification critical parts for oil and gas, defence, space and the emerging renewable sectors.

This promotional video gives a vivid idea of the combination of precision technology and traditional metal-bashing that is too hazardous to invite the public to see: Special Quality Alloys – A look behind the scenes at our facility here in Sheffield, UK (

It’s not easy to see how it’s done, but you have only to walk down Bessemer Road to hear it and feel it whenever the forge is working.

Jonas & Colver

Jonas & Colver, Continental & Novo Steel Works, Bessemer Road, Attercliffe, Sheffield (1985)

Joseph Jonas was born in Bingen-am-Rhein, Germany in 1845.  In his youth he worked for a couple of German iron-and-steel companies until he emigrated to England in 1867 to avoid military service.

He arrived in Sheffield, a total stranger, and initially worked as a commercial traveller.  He began his own manufacturing business in 1870 and two years later went into partnership with Robert Colver making high-quality crucible cast steel and, later, “Novo” high-speed steel for high-temperature cutting edges in hand tools and machine tools.

The partnership, which became a limited-liability company in 1892, was based at Continental Works and Novo Steel Works in Attercliffe, the heart of Sheffield’s heavy steel industry, and developed a reputation as one of the largest and most reliable suppliers of specialist steels in the industry.

Joseph Jonas made an outstanding contribution to public life in Sheffield.  He joined the town council in 1890, became a magistrate and an alderman and served as Lord Mayor in 1904-05. As an Attercliffe councillor he took a lead in acquiring High Hazels Park, Darnall, for public use.  He also acted as German Consul for Sheffield.

He gave financial support to the University’s Applied Sciences, French and German programmes, and was knighted in 1905 when King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited the city to open the Sheffield University building on Western Bank.  In 1916 he contributed £5,000 to a bequest from the late Edgar Allen to found the Allen & Jonas Laboratory for metal-testing.

The company took the name Sir Joseph Jonas, Colver & Co Ltd in 1907.  Robert Colver kept a lower public profile than his partner, except that he served as Master Cutler in 1890.  He died in 1916, aged seventy-four, leaving Sir Joseph to continue the business.

Continental Works was heavily involved in supplying steel for armaments in the First World War, but in 1918 Sir Joseph was accused of contravening the Official Secrets Act by obtaining and communicating “certain information prejudicial to the interest of the State and information useful to the enemy”.

This prosecution harked back to an answer to an enquiry from a German customer in 1913 about a new rifle to be marketed by the Vickers company.  There was considerable pre-war trade between Sheffield steel firms and such companies as the Krupp corporation:  orders, materials, equipment and information were regularly exchanged until the declaration of war abruptly broke contact.

Sir Joseph and his co-defendant were found not guilty of a felony but convicted of a misdemeanour on a legal technicality.  They were fined £2,000 and £1,000 respectively, plus costs.

Then Sir Joseph’s troubles began. 

He immediately retired and gave up his position as chairman of Sir Joseph Jonas, Colver & Co Ltd, which shortly afterwards was renamed simply Jonas & Colver.

Three weeks later he was deprived of his knighthood by King George V, and the following month he was removed from the magistrates’ bench.

What in 1913 had been an entirely normal exchange of trade information between companies in two countries that were not at war became in 1918 a pretext for anti-German prejudice against a naturalised British subject, as an article on Chris Hobbs’ website shows in detail:  Joseph Jonas (1845-1921) – Was a former Lord Mayor of Sheffield, a traitor? (

Sheffield people would have none of it.  His workers continued to call him “Sir Joseph”, and after his death aged seventy-six on August 22nd 1921 his funeral at Ecclesall Church was attended by the Lord Mayor and the Master Cutler, the Pro-Chancellor and the head of the Applied Science Department of Sheffield University, the chairman of the Sheffield Education Committee and, according to The Times, “representatives of every side of the city’s activities”.

Sir Joseph was not alone. 

At the very beginning of the Great War the Lord Mayor of Coventry, Siegfried Bettmann, was, so to speak, sent to Coventry:  World War One: Coventry mayor vilified over German roots – BBC News.   

Similarly, Sir Edgar Spayer (1862-1932), chairman of the London Underground Electric Railways group, was ostracised after the War: On the margin | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.

It was not a time to reveal any connection, by name, birth or association, let alone activity, with Germany.

This was, after all, the period in history when German Shepherd dogs became Alsatians.