Sheffield’s Armament Industry in 1914 – Dr. Chris Corker – 27/4/15

In 1914, in the Don Valley, in an area 3.5 miles long by half a mile wide, Sheffield was home to five of the lead­ing arma­ments man­u­fac­tur­ers in the world – Vickers (the biggest, where Forgemasters are today), Cammell Laird, John Brown at the Atlas Works, Firths, and Hadfields at the Hecla Works (now the site of Meadowhall). Combined, they employed around 25000 people and they man­u­fac­tured armour plate, shell and armour pier­cing pro­jectiles, and both gun for­gings and fin­ished guns for the armed forces. Although these com­pan­ies were at the cut­ting edge of tech­no­logy and man­u­fac­ture, at the out­break of war they were not geared up for the sudden surge of mil­it­ary orders, espe­cially as some of the work­force had signed on to fight and the gov­ern­ment defence policy was meant to be deterrent not offens­ive.

Nevertheless, at the time, Sheffield was the Arsenal of the world, selling to every­one world­wide, friend or foe.

Armour plate and other tech­no­logy had been shared around the world for some time, and their main com­pet­itor, Krupps of Essen, who had inven­ted the most res­ist­ant type of armour plate in 1894, allowed all the Sheffield armour man­u­fac­tur­ers to pro­duce it, under licence. This arrange­ment fin­ished in 1908.

Herr Krupp, one of the lead­ing indus­tri­al­ists in Europe, in May 1914, asked to visit Britain to see all the arma­ments pro­du­cing com­pan­ies. The Admiralty reques­ted that noth­ing secret should be on show, espe­cially wire gun barrel pro­duc­tion, and as much inform­a­tion about the German Armaments industry should be extrac­ted from Herr Krupp. The visit went ahead cor­di­ally, between 13–20th June, but 8 days after­wards, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assas­sin­ated and WW1 began on 4th August 1914.

Sheffield’s com­pan­ies, who were inex­tric­ably linked, went into over­drive, but still sold to friend and foe alike, world­wide. This enabled the com­pan­ies not to have to seek gov­ern­ment sub­sidies, to keep the com­pan­ies run­ning.

Chris, is a lec­turer and researcher in the Faculty of Development and Society at Sheffield Hallam University, with par­tic­u­lar interest in the cent­ral role of Sheffield in the pro­duc­tion and tech­no­lo­gical devel­op­ment of arma­ments in the early 20th cen­tury.

Besides arm­a­ment pro­duc­tion in 1914, he told us about the birth, rise and invent­ive­ness of the large steel com­pan­ies in Sheffield, serving the Empire and Industrial Revolution, as well as their sub­sequent decline and splin­ter­ing after WW2, to serve  more con­sumer mar­kets, with little work in Heavy Armament products.

The morn­ing was a fas­cin­at­ing insight, into the remark­able tech­no­logy and pro­duc­tion cap­ab­il­it­ies of 100 years ago, when the Sheffield steel industry served the world and respon­ded to the demands of WW1, to win the war.