In Sheffield, we visited the River Sheaf, which runs underground beneath the city center in a series of 19th-century stone culverts. Sheffield was founded at the confluence of the Sheaf and the larger River Don, and it was a world center of metallurgy, steel production, cutlery, and armaments well into the 20th century.
The city’s metalworking industry developed the two most important processes behind the modern steel industry: the “crucible steel” process in 1740, and the Bessemer Converter in 1856. Stainless steel was invented here in 1912. The city manufactured decorative metalwork and household wares as well, especially after a Sheffield cutler invented an early method of silver-plating (“Sheffield Plate”) in 1742.
When visiting the town in 1762, the writer Daniel Defoe wrote:
This town of Sheffield is very populous and large, the streets narrow, and the houses dark and black, occasioned by the continued smoke of the forges, which are always at work: Here they make all sorts of cutlery-ware, but especially that of edged-tools, knives, razors, axes, & and nails….
These knives had been the core of the city’s production since the Middle Ages, and had made Sheffield famous throughout England and the world. In the 14th-century Canterbury Tales, one of the characters in the Reeve’s Tale carries a “Sheffeld thwitel,” or knife. Sir Walter Scott lived four centuries later, but he set his novel Ivanhoe in the 12th century and the first character in the book carries “…one of those long, broad, sharp-pointed, and two-edged knives, with a buck’s-hoon handle, which were fabricated in the neighborhood, and bore even at this early period the name of a Sheffield whittle.” Sheffield knives came the U.S. as well. (As did the word “whittle,” now used as a verb.) The humble Barlow knife, oft considered an American classic, was invented in Sheffield by Obadiah Barlow in 1670. Bowie knives were invented by the American Colonel Jim Bowie—but within a few years of his invention, Sheffield was producing most of the Bowie knives sold in America.
The River Sheaf and its smaller neighboring streams provided the power behind this long tradition of metalsmithing. Neither the Sheaf nor the Don were big enough to navigate with a cargo-carrying boat of any large size (although smaller boats on the Don provided vital transportation of raw materials for the knifemakers), but the Sheaf was fast-flowing, with steep grades that could drive waterwheels. Smaller tributaries of the Sheaf flowed equally swiftly, and small water-powered mills were built in the area as early as the 12th century. In the centuries leading to the Industrial Revolution (and for many years after), waterwheels moved bellows, powered forge hammers, and drove the machines that rolled and cut metal for these knives and tools.
Most importantly for Sheffield’s development, water was able to power grinding mills, which was a necessity for any serious cutlery manufacturing. (Cutlery includes edged weapons and tools like hoes, shovels, and axes as well as knives and tableware.) Without waterpower from the Sheaf or Porter Brook, Sheffield could not have developed the early industries and technologies that allowed the city to become a leader in the industrial production of metal products into the modern age.
To get into the tunnel of the Sheaf, we followed the old course of the Porter Brook, which had once been a long and winding stream that flowed from across the city to merge with the Sheaf. The little stream had been altered almost beyond recognition, however, by mills seeking to use its water for power in the 18th century. Millraces had re-channeled the water into a series of millponds that only vaguely followed the Brook’s original path. Now the remnants of the stream—an ankle-high trickle—flows through concrete troughs and into its own tunnel, and then merges with the Sheaf underground. John, Chris and I followed the water until we came to the concrete mouth of the Porter’s culvert. Turning on headlamps and tugging up our waders, we plunged into the darkness.