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.