Retro: Sheffield engineers industrial success

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Sheffield is quite rightly proud of its history as the Steel City and the home of world-class 
cutlery, but engineering has also played a big role in its success.

That’s why our Midweek Retro A to Z of jobs is looking at engineering this week.

You only have to walk into Kelham Island Museum and marvel at the huge River Don Engine to understand how fundamental engineering has been to the city’s industrial success.

Many of the city’s major iron and steel firms were quick to realise that they could produce not just the metals but could also use them to manufacture components and equipment.

They also saw opportunities in industries like shipbuilding, civil engineering, power generation and mining that could add value on to the steel that they produced.

So Firth Brown Steels owned a Scottish shipyard that built the Lusitania, the River Don Engine was built in 1905 by Davy Brothers and early US railroad equipment was made by Vickers, whose shipbuilding arm produced the first submarine.

Sheffield engineering expertise also contributed to the Channel Tunnel, the Jodrell Bank telescope and the Thames Barrier and underground systems in London, Paris and Moscow, to name a few prestigious projects.

Companies like Shardlows, Moore and Wright and Chestermans specialised in making the measuring tools needed to produce such precise work.

The late Ken Hawley included metrology instruments in his collection of Sheffield-made tools that is housed at Kelham Island.

None of this could happen without the expertise of a highly-skilled workforce.

Those skills were at a premium during World War One and led to a wave of strikes among engineering workers.

The late Sheffield socialist, trade unionist and historian Bill Moore charted those struggles in his pamphlet, Sheffield Shop Stewards 1916-1918 (

Shop stewards in the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) led fights to ensure that exemptions from being drafted, that were agreed to keep highly-skilled engineers in the munitions factories, were not broken.

The movement had its best-known success when skilled fitter Leonard Hargreaves, who worked at Vickers Ltd, was drafted in 1916.

A mass meeting involving skilled workers in all trades demanded that Leonard Hargreaves should be returned to Sheffield in one week. If not, all work would stop.

Delegates were sent to the main engineering centres in the country to win support, defying trade union leaders.

Bill Moore wrote: “On the afternoon of November 15, 200 shop stewards were waiting at the ASE Institute, Stanley Street, ready to take whatever instructions were necessary to the factories.

“With them were delegates on cycles and motorcycles ready to go the length and breadth of the country – to Glasgow and London, Barrow and Derby, Manchester, Coventry and Birmingham – to bring out the workers everywhere in support.

“In addition delegates were ready to go by train to stay in the other centres in order to maintain reliable communications.

“Four o’clock came and no message from the Government. The delegates departed to their various destinations.

“The shop stewards went off to the factories and work stopped throughout the city. The battle was joined.”

Workers did not agree to return to work until they saw Leonard Hargreaves arrive on the platform of a union meeting in Sheffield.

The stewards’ movement fought successfully for better pay and conditions for skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers as anti-war sentiment began to spread.