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Made in Sheffield: Some historic Steel City connections you might not know about

We didn’t get the ‘Steel City’ moniker for nowt. In fact, Sheffield’s association with the steel industry and cutlery-making can be traced back to the Middle Ages, and you can uncover some quite illustrious connections in the process.

From Chaucer to Custer, here are a few things you may not know about our steel…

Yeah, you read that correctly. the steel used in the construction of one of the most famous bridges in the world – and the world’s first steel-wire suspension – was, as they say, made in Sheffield. First opened in 1883, New York’s Brooklyn Bridge is an iconic landmark in architectural achievement and is used by an average of 150,000 people daily. It is a film icon, too, having been featured in countless films and TV shows such as Sex and the City, Godzilla and I Am Legend. It is even likely that this steel would have been made at Brooklyn Works in Kelham Island, whose original signage is still standing to this day.

Brooklyn Bridge (Alexander Rotker).

One of the earliest references to a product of Sheffield steel is in The Canterbury Tales (or for you Middle English lovers, Tales of Caunterbury) by Geoffrey Chaucer. Written c.1400, the twenty-four-story collection tells the tale of a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to see the shrine of St Thomas Becket. However, in ‘The Reeve’s Tale’, the character Symkyn is described as follows: Ay by his belt he baar a long panade, And of a swerd ful trenchant was the blade. A joly popper beer he in his pouche; Ther was no man, for peril, dorste hym touche. A Sheffield thwitel baar he in his hose. For those who are not Middle English lovers, this loosely translates as, ‘he were a rough lad, wi’ a big knife from Sheffield, and if tha touches him, tha’ll cop for it’. Specifically, a ‘Thwitel knife’ was a general-purpose knife, used in this context as a weapon for Symkyn.

The great American Bowie hunting knife soon become a sought-after accessory once Sheffield makers Joseph Rodgers and George Wostenholm began making them in the mid-1800s. The Sheffield-made Bowie knives came to be coveted long after the American Civil War, right up to the late-1800s. In fact, it is rumoured that it was a Rodgers-made hunting knife, given to Buffalo Bill by General Custer, which Bill used in his duel with Native leader Sitting Bull!

A Sheffield Bowie (thesheffieldcutleryshop.co.uk).

The clock hands and inner workings of Big Ben were restored in 2021 at Sheffield’s very own Shepley Engineers. In addition, St. Paul’s Cathedral owes its stainless steel reinforcement chain – the links which hold the building together – to Sheffield, being made in the Steel City by Brown Bailey in 1930. You’re welcome, London.

Big Ben (James Newcombe).

The UK’s only manufacturer of tuning forks is based in Sheffield. Since 1841, Ragg Tuning Forks have been forging the tool mainly used for tuning musical instruments, assessing a patient’s hearing within the medical field and even timekeeping in the watch manufacturing trade.

A Ragg Tuning Fork.

Some of the largest and most grandiose steel items can be found in our very own Kelham Island Museum. In the Hawley Exhibition, celebrating the life work of master toolmaker Ken Hawley, you will be greeted by no less than a 51” trowel and a padlock over two hands wide! The Giant’s Toolbox showcases the work of toolmaker Arthur Pond after having said he could make any tool necessary and proved it by creating items such as a spanner the size of your leg. However, perhaps the most striking feature of this exhibit is the Year Knife. Created in 1821, this knife was claimed to have 1,821 knives (one for every Christian year) and is added to every five years. As the museum itself states, there is no other knife that has as many blades!

Ken Hawley with a tool from the collection (taths.org.uk)

It cannot go without mentioning the importance of Sheffield’s ‘Little Mesters’, who, upon their origins in the mid-17th century, were self-employed individual craftsmen operating individually. This concept of Little Mesters was unique to Sheffield, as initially, there were no firms as we know them today. Little Mesters continued in one form or another until 2021, when Sheffield’s last Little Mester Stan Shaw sadly died at the age of 94. A master knife-maker, he even made knives for Queen Elizabeth II, Elvis Presley and some US presidents!

Stan Shaw, the last of the Little Mesters (simt.co.uk)

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