Debauchery, workhouses, child labour, gin palaces – welcome to 19th century Sheffield . . .

The slums, where, even as late as the 1920s, people were crammed in lie sardines.
The slums, where, even as late as the 1920s, people were crammed in lie sardines.
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n In the mid-19th century there were 110,000 people living in Sheffield

Squalor, child labour and debauchery – that’s the Sheffield history revealed by one family tree, as Star reporter Rachael Clegg discovers

SUZANNE BINGHAM at Sheffield local Studies Library

SUZANNE BINGHAM at Sheffield local Studies Library

WHEN Suzanne Bingham started looking into her family history, she had no idea what was in store.

For years Suzanne worked in Sheffield Central Library’s Local Studies department, helping other people research their ancestors. Until recently, she had never explored her own family history.

But her research revealed more than genealogy.

Through the lens of the Bingham family’s history, focusing on her great-great-grandfather, James Bingham, Suzanne discovered not only how he lived, but how the majority of working class Sheffielders lived in mid 19th century.

Two Victorian children sat eating. �Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust

Two Victorian children sat eating. �Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust

Her findings could rip the rose-tinted spectacles from the face of anyone delving into the past.

James Bingham was born in 1847 in one of Sheffield’s workhouses – complexes designed for housing the poor.

Workhouses could accommodate thousands of paupers and their children. Women did domestic chores such as laundry and cooking while men worked long days doing heavy labour – jobs such as bone-crushing for fertiliser or stone-breaking.

Suzanne doesn’t know the precise circumstances that led to her great-great-great-grandmother giving birth in the workhouse, but she speculates there could have been a variety of reasons for her being there.

Workers at a little mester's workshop, Sheffield.

Workers at a little mester's workshop, Sheffield.

“The whole family could have been in hospital or she could have been kicked out of service in her ninth month of pregnancy,” said Suzanne. “Or she could have been sent there as punishment. Unfortunately, like a lot of things with genealogy, we’ll never know.”

By 1851 the young James Bingham had made it out of the workhouse to live with his grandfather, Samuel Bingham, on Ropery Row.

His grandfather shared a house with young women, all of whom worked as white metal rubbers.

By 13 years old James had moved in with his employer, working as an apprentice pearl and ivory fluter. “He lived with his employer and worked for food and lodgings – he didn’t get a wage,” said Suzanne.

Illustration detail of a Sheffield fork grinding workshop from the Illustrated London News of 1879. �Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust

Illustration detail of a Sheffield fork grinding workshop from the Illustrated London News of 1879. �Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust

“That was common in those days – many young lads lived with their employers and would work in their employer’s backyard or workshop.

“My great-great-grandfather shared a house not only with his employer, but with the employer’s wife and their four children. And these weren’t big houses – they were bigger than back-to-backs but they were modest terraces. It must have been cramped.”

James’s apprenticeship lasted seven years. By the time he was 20 he was a fully-trained ivory and pearl fluter.

By today’s standards, it seems criminal a 13-year-old should endure a full-time, physically exhausting job, but by mid-19th century standards, James was relatively old when he started his apprentice. Children as young as five worked in the cutlery trade, working 60-hour weeks in terrible conditions. The average life expectancy of an adult in Sheffield was just 27.

But there was relief: debauchery and drinking. In 1844 the social scientist Friedrich Engels reported that “immorality among young people is more prevalent in Sheffield than anywhere else”.

“The younger generation spend the whole of Sunday lying in the street tossing coins or fighting dogs, go regularly to the gin palace where they sit with their sweetheart until late at night, then take walks in solitary couples.”

SUZANNE BINGHAM at Sheffield local Studies Library

SUZANNE BINGHAM at Sheffield local Studies Library

Thousands of people lived like James, in cramped conditions. There was no sanitary infrastructure – all waste was dumped in the street and flowed through an open sewer.

This was less of a problem for Sheffield’s wealthier classes who, according to Suzanne, generally lived at the top of a hill. But, for the poor dwelling in squalid tenements at the bottom of the hill, disease was rife as sewage and waste surrounded them.

“You can’t imagine what it was like. It would have been like a different planet – absolutely filthy,” said Suzanne.

Contrary to our perception of the Steel City with its huge steelworks and colossal industrial complexes, much of the work done in the mid-19th century was piece work, completed on a small scale, self-employed basis.

“Sheffield wasn’t like Manchester in that we didn’t have the huge ‘satanic’ mills at this stage,” said Suzanne. “Instead people were completing their work at home, in their backyards or little mesters’ workshops, with a steam engine powering the machinery.

“Many of the workmen would collect their commissions on a Saturday, have Sunday, Monday and Tuesday off, work half a day on Wednesday and then put the hours in before they returned the work on Saturday, often working all the way through on a Friday night.”

This gritty but fascinating history is the result of Suzanne’s research into her family history, looking at census records, death and birth certificates.

“You’d find all this out looking at any family tree and now there is more and more information online,” she said.

“You’d never be able to find this sort of detail out so easily 15 years ago but now it’s all at the touch of a button. And more and more people are becoming fascinated by their own history these days.”

But the capacity of the internet has its limits. “It would be wonderful to go back in time, wouldn’t it?” says Suzanne.

“But looking at the state in which most Sheffielders lived back then, you wouldn’t want to stick around.”

Suzanne Bingham has just launched a website – https://sites.google.com/site/researchyourfamilytreecouk/home – to help people discover their family history.

rise of the little mesters

In the mid-19th century there were 110,000 people living in Sheffield

Most men and women were employed in the cutlery industry, working on a piecemeal basis in little mesters’ workshops or somethimes in their backyards.

Suzanne’s great-great-grandfather worked as a pearl and ivory fluter. We know there were at least 2,000 men working this particular trade, as after the Great Sheffield Flood of 1864 as many as 2,912 ivory and pearl fluters made small claims for damaged property as a result of the flood.

Many paupers lived in Sheffield’s workhouses. Northern General Hospital was originally built as Fir Vale workhouse, and provided schooling, food and accommodation for hundreds of Sheffield’s poor.