The museum was founded in 1982 following a great deal of background work, by Councillor Enid Hattersley, mother of Lord (Roy) Hattersley, one time deputy leader of the Labour Party. The museum is an ideal place to take children, either as family groups or in school parties, a perfect way for them to learn about Sheffield’s industrial and engineering heritage.
Ever since the River Don flooded central Sheffield in June 2007, we intended taking the grandchildren to see the wonders of Steel City’s industrial heritage. Fortunately we managed it just before the outbreak of Covid-19. In keeping with its image the museum uses an abandoned iron foundry, displaying just a few of the machines ranging from tiny to the really massive, all in mainly hands on, or easy to watch equipment.
Man-made Kelham Island was created in the twelfth century when part of the River Don was diverted to make a mill stream in order to power a corn mill. The mill or something similar operated at least well into the 1600s when the Town Armourer built a workshop powered by a second water wheel. His name was Kellam Homer and the wheel was named after him. How the change of spelling came about is unclear, but the island was called Kelham in the 1800s and it seems to have stuck ever since. With the expansion of Sheffield manufacturing in Victorian times, all kinds of industries moved on to the site and a small foundry, Kelham Island Ironworks was built by John Crowley in 1829.
Concentrating on making the sporting fad of the time, penny farthing bicycles, he also made corn grinders, lawn mowers, another invention of the day and decorative pieces cast in iron. He became so successful that by 1870 he was able to open a larger foundry at Meadowhall, now the site of Meadowhall shopping complex. Crowley’s Kelham Island foundry ran for a further twenty years until he concentrated everything on Meadowhall. The plant at Kelham Island was sold to Sheffield Corporation in early Edwardian times and demolished in order to build an electricity generating station, powering the city’s tram network. This continued until the 1930s when the building was used for storage; it is this building which now houses the museum.
The huge bulk of a 25 ton Bessemer Converter is the first indication of many huge and sometimes scary links with Sheffield’s steel industry and stands firmly rooted to the ground as we approached the museum. This monster when working acted like some massive firework, converting pig iron to steel. Just one of the wonders waiting inside, we soon were lost in the magic of steel making, exploring its history and the people who toiled in frequently hot, dangerous environments. In one gallery there is a mock-up of Benjamin Huntsman’s crucibles for making small quantities of steel; but the system was soon overtaken in 1913 by Harry Brearley’s ability to make stainless steel.
Several of the larger exhibits are in working order, from a Crossley gas engine, to the awesome three-cylinder River Don engine which drove a rolling mill in its working life. Just to stand and watch this monster fairly takes your breath away in the way it rapidly builds up speed first in one direction, only to reverse in a matter of seconds as it did when it drove billets of white hot steel to and fro through ever tightening rollers, producing sheet steel or girders on demand.
The monster rolling mill could produce sheet steel inches thick to make armour-plating for long gone battleships that once ruled the waves world-wide. The power of the engine, especially its ability to produce such heavy steel sheeting, vied for our attention against the casing of a 10 tonne Grand Slam Bomb. One of only 42 used, the bomb was designed by Barnes Wallis of bouncing bomb fame, in order to penetrate reinforced concrete protecting U-Boat pens and also sink the Tirpitz hiding in a Norwegian fjord during the last war. Fortunately this particular bomb in the museum display was empty, unlike one that stood guard for several years beside the main gate of RAF Scampton. By mistake it was fully charged and when the error was discovered the monster bomb was gingerly carried south on a low-loader and safely exploded at Shoeburyness artillery range. Rolled steel sheeting was also made to clad nuclear reactors towards the end of the River Don rolling mill.
Sheffield seems to have had the ability to produce brilliant inventors from time to time. Alongside Bessemer and Brearley, Joseph Brahmah who lived from 1749 to 1814, in his lifetime managed to design such things as a hydraulic press to flatten extra-large sheets of paper destined for maps. Other things to come from his inventive brain ranged from the design of beer pumps that are still used today, to fire engines, fountain pens, water closets and an unpickable lock. He was so confident with the latter that he was able to offer a reward of 200 guineas to anyone managing to pick one of his locks, but no one did. Benjamin Huntsman, another innovator, made a clock entirely composed of stainless steel.
We might think that Sheffield was a city devoted solely to making steel, but things like Yorkshire Relish, Bassett’s licorice allsorts, snuff, mushy peas, Izal toilet paper and beer have all first seen the light of day in and around a city where in the 1920s the short lived Sheffield Simplex luxury car was made in competition with Rolls Royce. The car on display is just one of three known to exist at the moment; the car was once described as one of the best and most remarkable vehicles ever made. Other inventions include a cast iron fireplace produced by Henry Hoole & Co for the Great Exhibition that could fetch thousands today. Galleries on higher levels are given over to the tool collection of Ken Hawley and a cross section of transport with local links.
Sheffield cutlery was around as far back as Chaucer’s time and no doubt his Canterbury Pilgrims cut their meat with a Sheffield blade. Then as until quite recently it might have been finished by one of the city’s ‘little mesters’, self employed craftsmen who operated from small workshops dotted around back streets. One of the last of the ‘little mesters’ was Stan Shaw, who works in a reconstructed street of printers busily making high quality table knives as we looked on, alongside watch repairers and the like. The only ‘live’ worker in the street, Stan was busy assembling bone-handled knives, after buffing and sharpening the blades blanked out by other back street manufacturers.
We paused when we saw a sign offering to melt children. What would their parents say if we returned our grandchildren to their parents as ingots? What it was is a perfect children’s hands on display where despite being, just like steel, melted, rolled and hammered, they still come out completely processed, but unharmed and still in one piece.
Kelham Island being in one of the lowest parts of Sheffield is rather prone to flooding; the latest was in June 2007 when all the ground floor exhibits were submerged by several feet of muddy water when the River Don burst its banks. Bad as it was, fortunately there was no loss of life, unlike the Dale Dyke Dam disaster of 1864 when hundreds of properties were washed away and scores of people drowned.
We had a pleasant lunch of home made meat and potato pie with mushy peas, a real steel maker’s dish, but oh dear, guess where the teaspoons came from? Korea! Fortunately the knives and forks were locally made from Sheffield stainless steel.
Once museums are fully opened as it looks now that the lockdown is gradually easing post pandemic, another visit to Kelham Island Industrial Museum will be high on the agenda for the Spencer family.