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History of Cutlery and Tools with Geoffrey Tweedale


 
  Scythe Making at Abbeydale by Geoffrey Tweedale

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If one wants to discover the roots of Sheffield’s tool industry, then – paradoxically – it is best to ignore inner city Sheffield and instead head for the countryside.

Around Sheffield is some of the country’s most beautiful scenery: a hilly and wooded landscape, riven by numerous streams and dotted with picturesque old buildings.

It seems distant from any industrial past, yet this was where Sheffield’s tool (and cutlery) industry began. The hills and valleys are riddled with scores of weirs, dams, and forges – witness to an era when water wheels for grinding lined the river banks.

In the 19th century, they made Sheffield the most important scythe and sickle making region in the country (indeed in the world).

Most of these ‘wheels’ lie abandoned, decayed, or overgrown. Only one or two have survived intact. A short drive about 3˝ miles south west of Sheffield takes us to Abbeydale (a name derived from nearby Beauchief Abbey).

Our destination is Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet, a museum that encapsulates the early history of the region’s steel and tool industry. It was once the largest water-powered site on the River Sheaf. It is located on a main road and is skirted by the railway line to London: yet hidden by trees and set back from the road, it feels surprisingly isolated and timeless.

Stepping Back in Time

Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet has multiple ‘histories’. Documentary evidence shows that tool making at what became Abbeydale Works began in the second decade of the eighteenth century (though industrial activity in the locality began at least a century earlier).

The main components of the Abbeydale site – the dam, tilt forge, and crucible furnace – took shape between about 1750 and 1830. By then, the tenant at Abbeydale was John Dyson (c.1789-1858), a manufacturer of scythes and other edge tools, and a ‘refiner’ (i.e. melter) of steel.

He placed an advertisement in the Sheffield directory of 1833, which provides our first view of the Works. It shows the characteristic horseshoe-shaped layout of the site, with the dam (in Sheffield parlance, this meant the dam pond rather than the dam itself) and crucible furnace building (with its characteristic oblong-shaped chimney).

In 1849, Abbeydale Works was occupied by the Tyzacks. They operated Tyzack, Sons & Turner, which became a leading manufacturer of agricultural implements, such as reaping machine parts, plough mould boards, and harrow discs.

After the 1870s, Tyzacks relocated to the much larger Little London Works closer to Sheffield, where many of Abbeydale’s processes were duplicated.

Abbeydale Works was not particularly profitable, but the firm continued to use it for the manufacture of scythes and sickles. Its workforce was about 40 or so (over half of them grinders and forgers).

During the 1920s, activity at Abbeydale wound down (output had been falling since 1900), while Little London Works expanded. In 1935, Abbeydale was abandoned (though for three years during the War, the crucible furnaces were re-fired to make tool steel).

A new phase in Abbeydale’s history began, which was typified by stagnation and decay. Access to the site was difficult, roofs began leaking, and wooden shafting rotted.


 
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Sheaf Works of
Wm. Greaves & Sons

Tweedale’s Directory of Sheffield Cutlery Manufacturers
1740-2013

2nd Edition

Sheaf Works of Wm. Greaves & Sons, was built in the 1820s to supply the American demand for tools and cutlery (such as razors and Bowie knives). This firm is one of hundreds profiled and illustrated in Tweedale's Directory.

Find more in the Directory.

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