When we came to the confluence of Porter Brook and the Sheaf, we were also directly underneath the Midland train station. This had been one of the first sections of the river to be covered over, when the station was built in 1870. The station was widely hailed as an engineering masterpiece for utilizing the site over the river, as this meant supporting the culvert against the weight of heavy trains. Looking around, we found ourselves in wide, low tunnel, divided into three channels, with each channel about twelve feet wide and a little taller than my head. Between the channels a series of heavy rough-stone arches looked like they would hold for the next thousand years. But the water level seemed low. The stream mostly flowed in just one or two of the channels, and we were able to walk dry in the third.
By the time Midland Station was built, the city had already turned its back on the Sheaf, though the river was not yet buried. A century before, in 1770, there had been 133 “wheels” (the general name for a factory/mill building with multiple workrooms), which used waterpower to run 896 “troughs,” or individual grinding-wheel workstations. The first steam-powered grinding wheel in Sheffield was installed in 1786, however, and by 1840 the power sources were evenly split. By 1865 there were 132 steam-powered factories and few, if any, that used waterpower.
A copy of a map from the 1890s showed us the factories and mills that had existed close to where we now stood, still at the confluence of the Porter and the Sheaf. There had been over a dozen cutlery, gilding, and silver plate factories within a five-block radius, places like the Pond Hill Works, the Clarence Works, and the Queens Plate and Cutlery Works. There were massive steel and iron mills: the Scandanavian Steel Works, the Soho Rolling Mills, the Central Hammer Works, and others. Larger than anything else, and closest to where now stood, there had been the giant Albion Saw Mills and the Sheaf Saw Mills. Their timber yards abutted the railroad tracks of Midland Station, and like the station the yards had been built over the underground Sheaf. Though next to the Sheaf, these factories and sawmills had all been powered by steam.
Almost all of these business had sprung up in that heady time between about 1819, when the Sheffield Canal was opened to provide a navigable waterway along the River Don, and 1890, when the city had become the undeniable center of the world’s steel and cutlery industries. The population growth during this period had been extremely rapid, from about 65,000 in 1819 when the Canal opened, to 161,475 in the 1851 census just thirty years later. By 1900, the city was close to a half-million, nearly the same as the population today.
Just as in the other industrializing cities of Britain, the downside of this fantastic growth was absolutely terrible conditions for the workers. Grinders suffered from silicosis and tuberculosis, and at mid-century nearly sixty percent of fork, needle, razor, and file grinders would die before age thirty. Children worked ten or twelve hour days in many factories, and an 1862 “Children’s Employment Commission on the Metal Manufactures of the Sheffield District” records witnesses such as William Henry Widdicombe, age 8, grinder; Thomas Darwin, age 6, grinder; Maria Lansley, age 9, hand-fly operator; Henry Kay, age 10, riveter; Joseph Broadhead, age 10, saw-glazer; and Sarah Ann Tingle, age 9, fork-filer.
Concomitant with the factory work were terrible, overcrowded living conditions for the workers. This translated into terrible pollution of the Sheaf, as it became both a trash dump and the primary sewer for the dense worker housing along its shores. A doctor speaking at an 1886 commission on contagious diseases complained that the river was “...filthy and disgusting,” and went on to describe what he’d found in the old millponds (or lakes) and in the river itself:
The bed of the River Sheaf, the bottom of the lakes, and the ground occupied by the mill reservoir, are extensively covered with black, decomposing mud, much of which still consists of putrefying organic matter; and, taking note of the dead dogs and cats which may be seen there….the whole appearance of the river and its tributaries, as they pass between and below the houses of Sheffield, is abominable. Offensive gases are constantly escaping in bubbles from the filthy deposit…
Other doctors at the conference agreed that “[t]he state of the Porter and the Sheaf is a disgrace to the civilization of the nineteenth century.” However, with no real possibility of cleaning up the river, their only serious proposal was to make a covered sewer around the last two miles of the Sheaf, between the neighborhood of Heeley and the confluence of the Don. The full length of this proposed culvert was never built, but the doctors would doubtless be gratified to know that by the early twentieth century, a little more than a mile of the river had been almost completely covered over.