Great expectations

The Norfolk Knife on display at the Company of Cutlers
The Norfolk Knife on display at the Company of Cutlers
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IT was the most magnificent exposition of its - or perhaps any other - age.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a spectacle so grand it was famously held in a specially constructed crystal palace in London’s Hyde Park and attracted more than six million people during its six month run.

Industrial and artistic developments from six continents were displayed during what is still considered the high point of Victorian culture. And at the very heart of it all, a new research guide reveals, was Sheffield.

The city was granted more floor space at the exhibition than any other in the world and had the third most individual displays after Manchester and Birmingham.

The reason? The British Government was determined to prove the UK’s industry was the greatest on the globe - and showing off the steel city’s work was considered one way of doing that.

“It was a huge achievement to be so well represented at such a defining moment,” says Pete Evans, author of the booklet - From The Great Exhibition To The Festival Of Britain - which has been produced by Sheffield Archives to help scholars researching the topic.

“Although the exhibition was a platform for all nations, the government wanted to emphasise Britain’s own superiority whether that be in iron, textiles or steel - and nowhere in the world was leading the way like Sheffield in steel.”

As such 158 city firms - including heavyweights such as by George Wostenholm of Washington Works and Ward and Payne of West Street - were given 12,000 feet of floor space.

Most prominent among the city’s displays was the Norfolk Knife, a 75-blade tool made by Joseph Rodgers and Sons, of Norfolk Street, which is still on permanent display at the Company of Cutlers today.

“It’s safe to say it wowed the crowds,” says Pete, archives manager.

“Other exhibits included sheath knives and a vast steel ingot - then the largest ever made - weighing 24 carats. The city won some 60 prize medals and 50 exhibits were honourably mentioned. It was a great success.”

And it was only the first of a series of global expositions, over the next 30 years, where Sheffield would impress.

The new guide - the latest of more than 40 such booklets produced by the city archives on various topics - details how, just two years later in New York, Marsh, Brother and Co of Pond Works were honoured for their cutlery, while Joseph Elliot of Hollis Croft took a medal for their razors.

That was followed by shows in Paris in 1867, Cape Town in 1877, and Sydney in 1878, where the city was again represented by the likes of John Brown of Savile Street and Martin, Hall and Co of Shrewsbury Works.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say without Sheffield’s involvement these exhibitions would have been poorer,” says Pete. “But it was the Great Exhibition which really proved how valued the city’s industry was.”