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Sheffield History

Sheffield History

The area known as Sheffield got its name from the River Shef, one of the four tributaries of the River Don. However it was the area’s location amidst these rivers and seven hills, that was the key to its success.

Although it is difficult to know exactly when people first settled in the area, evidence found in the north of the city suggests that people could have been living in the area since around 8,000BC. However it is believed that the area was certainly inhabited during the Bronze Age (1,500BC).

In around 1AD the northwest of Sheffield was home to an Ancient British Celtic fortress near Wincobank. This later became part of a Celtic kingdom known as Elmet, an area left virtually untouched by the Romans, who built a road to the north of the area.

It was not until Anglo Saxon times that Sheffield really started to develop. The fields around the River Sheaf (hence the name Sheffield) became a settlement for the Saxons as well as several other areas nearby, which were cleared of forest to make way for people, signified by the areas whose names end in ‘ley’.

This area remained part of the Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria until the Normans invaded in 1066. The town then began to grow significantly around the wooden castle built by William de Lovetot and the parish church, which formed the foundations of Sheffield Cathedral. The cathedral and the tower at Beauchief Abbey founded in 1175 are the only medieval buildings in the area that have survived.

From as early as the 14th century, the town's smiths and cutlers were using iron ore and metal smelting, this was the origins of Sheffield’s steel industry. Chaucer even mentions Sheffield steel in Canterbury Tales as the Miller carries a Sheffield knife.

The location offered everything the industry needed to flourish, the hills were used for the iron ore, the woods were used for the charcoal, the local rivers were used as a source of power, and the nearby gritstone provided grinding wheels. So when Thomas Boulsover invented Sheffield Plate (silver plated copper) in the early 18th century and new techniques for making steel were invented; the Crucible technique by Benjamin Huntsman and later using the blast furnace, Sheffield was well placed to take full advantage. In fact during the industrial revolution Sheffield became the biggest producer of steel in the world with 97% of the culters in the UK working in Sheffield.

However while steel brought prosperity to the area, resulting in some beautiful Georgian architecture, it also had a detrimental effect on the people, who had to work long hours in dangerous conditions. By the 19th century people were living in squalid back-to-back homes.

George Orwell in his book The Road to Wigan Pier wrote of Sheffield:
"'[It] could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World: its inhabitants, who want it to be pre-eminent in everything, very likely make that claim for it … And the stench! If at rare moments you stop smelling sulphur it is because you have begun smelling gas.'

However the steel industry continued to boom.

The 20th century brought other interests to Sheffield, Sheffield University in 1905, the city’s first cinema in 1910 and Graves Art Gallery in 1934.

World War II however took its toll on Sheffield, with German bombers destroying nearly 3,000 homes causing the deaths of around 600 people. It took a while for the city to recover but new houses were built, immigrants from Asia and the West Indies arrived, shopping centres and museums were created and the Supertram began operatation in 1994.

Today Sheffield is a centre for sport, a mecca for climbers, and as England's fourth largest city, is still an important force in industry. However while it celebrates its past, this city also has plenty to look forward to.


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