Sheffield and South Yorkshire

Celtic Sheffield

Sheffield, situated at the point where the River Sheaf meets the River Don is mostly a product of the Victorian age but the surrounding area was important in ancient times. An Ancient British Celtic fortress was located nearby at Wincobank, now a north Sheffield suburb and other Celtic forts existed at Carl Wark on Hathersage Moor near Dore, to the south west of Sheffield and at Scholes Wood near Rotherham.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the fort at Wincobank was destroyed by a fierce fire, perhaps in Roman or Anglo-Saxon times. In the Roman era the area around Sheffield lay in the southern most territory of the huge Pennine tribe called the Brigantes. To the south of here lay the territory of a rival tribe called the Coritani who inhabited a large area of the north eastern midlands.

In early Anglo-Saxon times Welsh speaking Celts may have held out against the Anglo-Saxon invaders from northern Europe and the Sheffield area may have remained for a time within a Celtic kingdom called Elmet which survived in the early Anglo-Saxon period.

Another Celtic kingdom survived for a time on Hatfield Chase near Doncaster to the north. It was known as Meicen or Meigen. Without doubt the clearest indication of Celtic survival in the area is in the name of the village called Wales which lies a few miles to the south east of Sheffield near the Derbyshire border. Other Welsh place-names in Yorkshire include Craven, Pen-y-ghent and the name of Leeds.

Anglo-Saxon Sheffield

The Celtic area around Sheffield was eventually absorbed by the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria and the open land or ‘fields’ around the Sheaf (hence Sheffield) were perhaps one of the last areas to be captured by Northumbria. Sheffield would always lie right at the very southern edge of the Northumbrian kingdom. Today it lies on the very southern edge of the county of Yorkshire near the border with the midland counties of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.

Remains from the Anglo-Saxon era have been found in Sheffield in the area where Sheffield Castle was built in later times. A ridge known incorrectly as Roman Ridge, running from Sheffield north to Mexborough formed part of the frontier of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria. This frontier was built by the Northumbrian kings to mark the border with the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia. It is interesting to note that the Anglo-Saxon river name Sheaf means ‘boundary-river’ and perhaps formed part of the boundary of Northumbria. It could equally have been the boundary of Elmet in an earlier period.

Other rivers forming Northumbrian boundaries were the Humber to the east and the Mersey to the west. Mersey like the Sheaf is an Anglo-Saxon river name that means ‘boundary-river’. We also know for certain that the place called Dore, now the most south westerly suburb of Sheffield was right on the boundary between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia, where it formed a ‘door’ – a Pennine pass between the two kingdoms.

Dore was an assigned meeting place between the Kings of Mercia and the Kings of Northumbria. Today Dore lies close to the boundaries of Yorkshire and Derbyshire.

Medieval Sheffield

Sheffield was the site of a medieval castle founded by a Norman with the delightful name of William de Lovelot, but the castle was destroyed at the end of the Civil War. Its site is now occupied by shops. Very little if anything apart form the cathedral-church survives from medieval times.

Rebuilt by the Furnival family, Sheffield Castle was for many centuries a home to the Earls of Shrewsbury until 1516 when one of the earls built himself a manor house (Sheffield Manor), which has, like the castle, now gone.

Both the castle and the manor, (but mainly the castle) were for fourteen years a place of imprisonment for Mary, Queen of Scots, who was locked up here by Queen Elizabeth I. Mary was also imprisoned for a time at Bolton Castle in Wensleydale. Mary’s sympathetic guardian at Sheffield Castle, was the Sixth Earl of Shrewsbury. He was famous for being the fourth husband of Bess of Hardwick (1507-1608), one of the wealthiest women in England.

Sheffield Cathedral was nothing more than a parish church dedicated to St Peter and St Paul until Sheffield became a diocese in 1914. The building was extended in the 1950s and 60s and although it is of Norman origin, most of the older sections are fifteenth century. Inside the church are a number of monuments to the Earls of Shrewsbury. Sheffield also has a Roman Catholic Cathedral dedicated to St Marie that was built in 1850.

The only other notable medieval feature in Sheffield is the remaining tower of Beauchief Abbey near Dore in south west Sheffield. The abbey was founded in 1175 and although only the tower remains, stone from the abbey was used in building Beauchief’s seventeenth century church of St Thomas. Beauchief Abbey was the only Premonstratensian abbey in the old West Riding of Yorkshire.

Sheffield Town Hall
Historic view of Sheffield Town Hall from an old postcard.

Sheffield Steel

Sheffield has been famous for the making of steel since at least the fourteenth century when one of Chaucer’s pilgrims is described as carrying a Sheffield Thwitel in his hose. The proximity of iron ore, streams for power and suitable grinding stones made Sheffield an ideal centre for making steel. In the sixteenth century Sheffield began to increasingly specialise in making cutlery with the arrival of expertise in the form of Flemish immigrants and in the following century in 1624 a Company of Cutlers was established.

In the 1740s Benjamin Huntsman (1704-1776), a Sheffield man born to German parents made huge improvements to the steel making technique at Handsworth in the east of the city. Huntsman was a mechanic and an expert in making steel springs and pendulums for watches, but was unhappy with the quality of the steel.

Huntsman’s new steel making process involved the use of a crucible, but his high quality steel was rejected by the Cutlers of Sheffield who refused to use his steel on the grounds that it was too hard to work. Huntsman exported his steel to France and from there French knives made of Huntsman’s steel were exported back into England and outsold the work of the Sheffield cutlers. At first the cutlers tried to stop Huntsman from exporting but by 1750 his secret manufacturing methods had been discovered and were copied by other Sheffield cutlers. From then on the Sheffield steel industry boomed.

Steel making improvements continued in Victorian times particularly with the development of the Bessemer process of making steel in the 1850s. This was good fortune for the west Riding town of Sheffield, but a setback for the up and coming iron making town of Middlesbrough in the North Riding of Yorkshire, which was not able to effectively adopt this process until the 1870s. The Bessemer process was invented by Henry Bessemer (1813-98) who set up a steelworks at Sheffield.

The next major event in the history of steel making was the making of Stainless Steel which was pioneered at Sheffield in 1903 – although it was developed in Germany and the USA at around the same time.

Sheffield was a major centre for the manufacture of armaments during the first and second world wars and as a target for enemy bombing, suffered much wartime damage.

Sheffield Plate

In 1742, about the same time as Huntsman was making his discoveries, a Sheffield man called Thomas Bolsouver (1704-1788) pioneered the making of Sheffield Plate made by fusing silver and copper ingots and rolling them together. A thin sheet of silver was placed above and below the copper to make a sandwich and the whole sandwich was heated and rolled. It was at first used in the making of buttons but was soon adopted for making, pots, cheap silver plates and many other items. Sheffield Plate was known and used throughout the world, but was ultimately superseded by the electroplating process discovered in 1840.

Modern and Victorian Sheffield

Sheffield grew most rapidly in the nineteenth century and its population growth was as follows: 1700:5,500; 1736: 9,700; 1801: 31,000; 1841: 68,000.

The major Victorian building in Sheffield is the town hall by E.W. Mountford appropriately crowned by a statue of Vulcan – the Roman god of metal and fire. The town hall was built in 1890 and extended in 1923. It incorporates many interesting architectural features including two large figures representing electricity and steam. They are holding a scroll of fame that includes the famous figures of Watt, Stephenson, Faraday, Davy and Swan.

Other features of Sheffield include the 1932 City Hall, the University, chartered in 1905 and from a more recent age the out of town Meadowhall Shopping Centre which is built on the site of a steel works. To travel back in time it is possible to visit the Abbeydale Industrial hamlet to the south west of the city. This is a museum based around a restored scythe factory of 1742.

Rotherham and Conisborough

Rotherham lies in the coal mining district of South Yorkshire to the north east of Sheffield and grew principally as an iron, steel and brass producing centre. Its main historical features are a very large fifteenth century church and a chapel dating from 1483 located on an old bridge across the River Don. The church was made collegiate by a native of Rotherham called Thomas Scot in 1483. Scot was a Chancellor of England and an Archbishop of York. His tomb is located in York Minster.

A few miles to the east of Rotherham is Maltby, a Viking place-name and close by the ruins of Roche Abbey. Roche was a Cistercian foundation established in 1147 by Richard de Busli of Tickhill Castle and Richard Fitzurgis. The abbey was settled by monks from Newminster Abbey near Morpeth in Northumberland. Newminster was itself founded by monks from Fountain Abbey near Ripon. Roche Abbey fell into ruin in the reign of King Henry VIII after the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Conisborough, the site of Conisborough Castle is a town halfway between Rotherham and Doncaster. The castle overlooks the River Don close to where it is joined by the River Dearne and is thought to be located on the site of Anglo-Saxon earthworks. The castle may have been built by Hameline Warrenne in the reign of Richard I. He also built the neighbouring chapel which was featured in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. Conisborough Castle is now a National Trust property.

Barnsley and the River Dearne

Barnsley lies to the north of Sheffield and to the south of Wakefield and is principally a town of the Victorian age, though its history goes back much further. In Anglo-Saxon times it was the ley or clearing belonging to someone called Beorn – ‘Beorn’s ley’ and the place is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1089. In the following century a Cluniac priory called Monk Bretton Priory was established in the Dearne valley just to the east in the year 1154, but the abbey is now a ruin.

The Dearne is the river of Barnsley, rising south of Dewsbury and east of Huddersfield. It flows east through Barnsley before joining the River Don at Conisborough between Rotherham and Doncaster.

Historic features in Barnsley include a May Day Green market established in 1249 and a Grammar School established in 1660, although scholars no longer use the original building.

Barnsley is best known as the heart of the old South Yorkshire coalfield and there are many mining towns and villages in the area like Darfield where a monument at the parish church commemorates the 189 men and boys buried alive at Ludhill Colliery in 1857. It was not the only pit disaster to affect the Barnsley area. In 1866, 361 men and boys were killed at Barnsley’s Old Oaks Colliery.

Barnsley was principally famous for coal and iron and it grew in the Victorian age with its population in 1801 of 3,600 growing to 10,000 in 1831 and rising further to 30,000 in 1881. Its present day population is somewhere in the region of 80,000.

Famous sons of Barnsley include a Victorian railway engineer called Joseph Locke, the missionary and James Hudson Taylor who tried to convert the Chinese to Christianity. From a more recent age the TV personality Michael Parkinson, cricket umpire Dickie Bird, cricketer Darren Gough, actor Brian Glover and former miners’ leader Arthur Scargill all hail from the town.

Doncaster : Romans and Races

Doncaster is known to have been the site of a Roman fort which was probably called Danum. The fort was located somewhere near the River Don and traces of a Roman iron and pottery industry have been found in the neighbourhood. In Anglo-Saxon times the Kings of Northumbria are thought to have established a palace at Doncaster but it was attacked and destroyed by the Danes in a later century.

Medieval Doncaster lay around the area of St George’s Church. This was built between 1854 and 1858 by Gilbert Scott on the site of an earlier medieval church that was destroyed by fire. Almost cathedral-like in appearance, it is one of the tallest and most impressive parish churches in Yorkshire.

Doncaster was granted a charter by Richard I and became the site of a medieval Friary, but Doncaster’s real heyday was in the eighteenth century. Horse racing began at Doncaster in this period and races have been held in the town since at least 1703.

The famous St Leger race, older than Epsom’s Derby, commenced in 1778, two years after the Doncaster racecourse grandstand was built by John Carr, the famous Yorkshire architect. Other buildings dating from the Georgian period in Doncaster include the town’s Mansion House, built for the Mayor of Doncaster by James Paine between 1745 and 1748.

Adwick, Burghwallis and Hattfield

Adwick-le-Street to the north of Doncaster was for two centuries the home of the Washingtons, ancestors of George Washington who originally came from Washington in County Durham (now Tyne and Wear). The town has a Norman church and is situated on the site of an old Roman road.

A Celtic ridge system called ‘Roman Ridge’ runs nearby to the north towards Pontefract. Not actually Roman in origin, It protected the boundaries of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria and the Celtic kingdoms of Elmet or Hatfield (Meicen). Burghwallis nearby may be associated with this region – its name could mean ‘fort of the Welsh’ as the Celtic Britons spoke Welsh, but in the twelfth century it is known to have belonged to the Waleys family. Their surname also means ‘Welsh’.

Burghwallis and neighbouring Campsall are situated in Barnsdale Forest and both places are associated with the legendary Robin Hood who is supposed to have been active in the area. This neighbourhood’s claim to Robin Hood is just as strong as, if not stronger than Nottinghamshire’s Sherwood Forest.

Hatfield, to the north east of Doncaster lies close to the sparsely populated and poorly drained Isle of Axholme which forms the border with Lincolnshire. The area around Hatfield was known in the Anglo-Saxon days of the Venerable Bede as Haethfelth (Heath – field) and was synonymous with a Celtic region called Meicen (not to be confused with Mercia) which held out against the Anglo-Saxons for some time.

In 633 AD the area was the site of the Battle of Hatfield in which the powerful Northumbrian King called Edwin was defeated by Penda, the King of the Mercians (the midlands). The king’s head was laid in a small chapel at York which was later to become the site of York Minster. In later centuries Hatfield became the site of a manor and a famous Bishop of Durham called Thomas Hatfield was born here. His impressive tomb lies below the bishops’ throne at Durham Cathedral.

For most of its history the land surrounding Hatfield was known as Hatfield Chase. The chase was a swampy, fenland area and stretched far into Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire.

Much of the land was drained in the seventeenth century by a Dutchman called Cornelius Vermuyden who also created the ‘Dutch River’ at Goole just to the north of Hatfield. During his drainage activities the Dutchman was fired upon by the fenmen who who found their employment from this particular terrain. They also tried to destroy his dykes.

Hatfield village itself has a Norman church of the twelfth century with a fifteenth century tower. Seven miles north west of Hatfield is the little village of Fenwick – its name means Fen Farm and is thought to be the place of origin for the surname Fenwick, now most closely associated with Northumberland.

Bawtry, Austerfield and Tickhill

Bawtry on the River Idle is a former coaching town of Georgian origin centred around a Market place that resembles a High street. It lies south of Doncaster and east of Rotherham on the border with Lincolnshire and was one of the main points of entry into Yorkshire from the south. In historic times Kings and Queens were often greeted at Bawtry as they entered Yorkshire.

The River Idle on which Bawtry stands is mostly a Lincolnshire river and is a tributary of the River Trent, joining the Trent to the north of the Lincolnshire town of Gainsborough as it makes its way towards the Humber.

Austerfield village, just to the north of Bawtry was the birthplace of William Bradford, a Puritan who fled to Holland to escape religious persecution. He later sailed with the Pilgrim Fathers to America in 1620 and went on to become the second Governor of Plymouth in New England. He kept a diary of his journey, which is now a very important document of American history. He died in 1657.

Tickhill to the west of Austerfield is a mile from the Nottinghamshire border and has a fine church with architecture dating from the eleventh to the fifteenth century. It was once the site of a castle of which their are scant remains including a moat. The castle was built by Roger de Busli or de Bully who owned the estates here from the time of the Norman conquest. Bully also founded the abbey of Roche near Rotherham.

Tickhill castle was later visited by Henry I, Henry II and Prince John. The castle was garrisoned by Charles I in the 1600s but was destroyed by Parliament at the end of the Civil War. Tickhill itself is centred around a market place with a notable market cross of 1766.

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