A scrapbook of steel

Ther crucible melting shop at Cammell's Cyclops Works, circa 1890.
Ther crucible melting shop at Cammell's Cyclops Works, circa 1890.
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HARD men doing hard jobs – these are the steel workers who built our city.

These astonishing pictures are so close to the action you can almost feel the heat, smell the furnace, hear the roar.

And they are just some of the photos – ranging from the late 19th century to the early 1970s – uncovered by South Yorkshire writer Geoffrey Howse for his book A Photographic History Of Sheffield Steel.

“What I was looking for while I was hunting these pictures were the hidden gems that would put the viewer right at the heart of the action and the age,” says the 55-year-old, who grew up in Elsecar and Hoyland but now lives in north London.

Allow your Diarist to be so bold as to say he’s succeeded.

While there is no shortage of books on the Sheffield steel industry, few have the sheer jaw-dropping images which Geoffrey has uncovered.

Among those featured in the 128 page tome – being released as an updated second edition exactly 10 years after the first was a huge city seller – are up-close images of crucible melting, vertical drop stamping and hand carving taken at a range of the city’s most famous steel places. Thomas Turner’s Suffolk Works, Messers Firth & Sons Norfolk Works, Thomas Firth & John Brown Ltd, and George Ibberson & Co’s Cutlery Works all appear.

Not that gathering such a collection was an easy job.

Geoffrey spent hundreds of hours going through old archives – including the 10,000 pictures in the Firth Brown collection stored at Kelham Island Museum.

“I would say for every picture in this book, you’re talking 400 or 500 that had to be rejected,” he says. “What I was looking for is something that would be of interest to people who worked in these steel factories and cutlery workshops but also the general public who hadn’t.

“But the problem with getting great pictures is many of the factories didn’t let photographers in for fear of revealing industrial secrets. Then many of those that did have photo collections simply destroyed them when they moved or shut down.”

Those that survive meanwhile aren’t always of great quality or have no captions detailing where or when they were taken.

“It’s such a shame,” says Geoffrey who has written five previous books on South Yorkshire including Sheffield Past & Present and A Century Of Sheffield. “This is a massive part of South Yorkshire history. Everyone knows someone who worked in the steel trade – I had a couple of uncles and cousins – so, yes, I think it’s hugely important to preserve these pictures.

“So many have already been lost but hopefully books like mine can draw attention to what gems we have.”

n A Photographic History Of Sheffield Steel is released today by The History Press.