We walked along in a darkness alleviated only by our headlamps. The water was still shallow, never occupying more than two of the three channels. The arched stonework was beautifully laid, though still of rough stones, and it felt to me like we were in the foundations of a cathedral. The thick stonework completely insulated us from the sounds of the city, and in this silence the trickling and gurgling of the water sounded loud.
“It is no great tax on the imagination to divest the Sheffield of to-day of its furnaces, its rumbling rolling-mills, and its brick and mortar, and to clothe its sharp crests and undulating hollows with their primaeval timber and pristine verdure,” a writer opined in The English Illustrated Magazine in 1884. As I walked along, I tried to imagine that I was walking alongside the full, unpolluted river that Sweyn, the Saxon lord of Sheffield Manor, had looked upon in the 11th Century AD.
“….the Sheaf in those days was an unspoiled, very charming stream with plenty of fish in it, and the banks edged with flowers,” I had read in a book called The Making of Sheffield. The fish had always been so plentiful, in fact, that even into the 19th century some apprentice indenture contracts specified that the master could not make the apprentice eat salmon more often than twice a week. The water that flowed next to me seemed clean enough, with no more refuse than is expected in an urban stream, but I was completely unable to imagine fish in it.
I couldn’t imagine what the river would look like with “primaeval timber and pristine verdure,” either, and so after the trip I looked at old maps of Sheffield to try to see how the river and town had changed. A map from 1780 showed me the Sheaf in a nearly-natural state: far from being covered over, the river was crossed by only a single bridge. The Porter Brook fed two small ponds for watermills—the “Forge Pond,” the water from which went to power grindstones and tilt hammers, and the “Mill Pond,” which powered a mill for grinding grain.
A map from 1832, fifty years later, showed surprisingly few differences. As on the 1780 map, the industrial district seemed to contain only a few mills clustered around the two central millponds. Most of the forges and grinding mills at the time would still have been located in small hamlets outside of town, with a large workshop/mill building employing a dozen people, and with various machinery all powered by a single waterwheel. In a grinding mill, for example, one waterwheel would power six to ten “troughs,” or individual grinding-stations; at each station, the grinder would side or lie in a wooden framework that suspended him over the six-foot-diameter stone grinding wheel.
By 1855, maps began to show an inchoate version of the modern city layout Porter Brook was no longer visible, the water channeled instead through a series of millponds and underground millraces. Three bridges cross the Sheaf in the downtown area, and though the factories and millponds had proliferated since 1832, they remained consolidated in a small area, only about a half-mile square. Just to the south, an expanse of land labeled “The Farm” began around Granville Square, where today’s culvert around the Sheaf ends. In the contemporary city, this landmark is memorialized with a two-block-long street called Farm Road.