5 May 2013

Kelham Island Museum, Sheffield

Over the primary school years our two local grandchildren have had several school visits to Kelham Island Museum to learn about Sheffield's industrial history and last Wednesday I went there myself for the first time with a friend. We met when we did a family history research course and we both have an interest in local history.
The museum has many interesting displays, reconstructions of different types of workshop and working machines. The largest of the machines is the River Don Engine which was used for hot rolling steel armour plate and is housed in its own huge space and fired up for several minutes on certain days.  It was an amazing sight to see the pistons moving up and down, steam rising and the huge wheel turning. The groups of schoolchildren and other visitors were impressed by the movement and the noise.

                                                           The River Don Engine

  I'm sure the school children learnt a lot thanks to this presenter's lively talk.

It's possible to spend a number of hours looking around the museum and learning about the development of the metal industry through the ages.

A boneshaker bicycle made in the mid 1880s
and tools made from the end of the 19th century.

                                                       A Victorian cast iron fireplace

'Staybrite items' for domestic and decorative use

As the welcome plaque in the entrance says: -  'You can discover how a small village grew into a city.  Find out why the words 'made in Sheffield' are a mark of quality all around the world.'
The story of workers, rivers, steam, trade, war, cutlery, steel, inventors, machines, wealth and poverty.

Personally, it was the story of the inventors and their experimental work on metal processes, the silversmiths and their skills in making fine items and the work of the men and women workers in the heavy and light metal-working industry that impressed me the most...

such as the strenuous labour that had to be undertaken to pick up the crucible of molten metal and pour it into the mould.  The men had to protect their lips from blistering by putting rags into their mouths.

The 'buffer girls and women' stood for up to 12 hours at a time.  'Buffing' or smoothing and polishing was the final stage in making decorative objects like spoons, tankards and teapots.  The girls needed a keen eye and nimble fingers, but their hands would often get scratched and burnt by hot resin.
There could be accidents and serious injuries if fast rotating buffer wheels flew off . 

We also had a look at the new Harry Brearley exhibition which was set up to commemorate the 100 years since the invention of stainless steel which was a break-through in the manufacture of  rustless steel.

Meeting my friend at the museum I walked through an area of the city which still retains many of the  old mills and workshops by the River Don.  I took photos to record a changing urban landscape as the bulldozers move in to demolish some of these interesting former industrial sites. 

In the city there's a new mural of Harry Brearley on the side of the Howard Pub near the Sheffield Train Station and the Sheffield Hallamshire University. 


  1. So interesting. It's such a shame that these skills and trades are being lost forever.

  2. Jo - there are still crafts people working in the industry in small workshops in the city. (See my post on Portland Works, for example.

  3. I think that is what I like so much about England, is your wealth of history everywhere you turn. We have history here of course, but it's not all around you and not as pretty or old. I love all your stone buildings.

  4. I can't imagine not having stainless steel around what a great invention! I've only been to Kelham Island once before when we were taken there on a bus from Leicester University when I was doing a Museum's diploma course there. I found it fascinating although I'm sure I didn't see it all as there were various talks and seminars going on; I must go back and visit again one day:)

  5. What a fascinating post. I do enjoy these tours I take with you.xxxx

  6. What a wonderful museum - I hope the kids are impressed half as much as I am!

  7. I so enjoyed this, Linda, as I do all glimpse of our history, especially the history of everyday life and work. There's a much smaller museum near us in France, which tells the story of the more than a hundred mills which were powered by one small but fast river and which made paper, cloth and cutlery, as well as grinding grain.