Sunday, 19 June 2016

Big wheel

Long before the Industrial Revolution, the various hamlets that surrounded Sheffield were harnessing the renewable power of its five rivers in all kinds of manufacturing processes. One of the most important, the one for which the city was to become famous, was the manufacture of blades and 'edge tools'. All along the river Rivelin and the Porter Brook, from the sixteenth century (and possibly earlier) dams were built, forming pools whose water was directed over massive wheels, driving the spinning grindstones hewn from local gritstone, honing the edges of blades forged nearby prior to their final finishing and polishing in the city's innumerable small workshops.

One of these was the Shepherd Wheel, so named after the man who was its tenant in the late eighteenth century; a wheel and workshop existed on the site as far back as 1584, when it was mentioned in the will of one William Beighton, a cutler of Stumperlowe. It was referred to there as 'Potar Whele', presumably referring to its situation on the Porter Brook. In 1794, Mr Shepherd employed ten men, in ten 'troughs', in each of which a grindstone ran while a man straddled a wooden bench and bent over it.

The workshops were damp and dusty and frequently cold. Injuries from flying swarf and - if you can imagine it - exploding grindstones, were common, and if that didn't get you, the pneumosilicosis from the constant dust probably would. Nonetheless, as in most industries in most parts of the world, in most eras of history, children were commonly employed. While Mr Shepherd apparently directly employed the men who worked at Shepherd Wheel, it was common for the main tenant to sublet troughs to self-employed individuals. (As an aside, this tradition of small scale manufacture and independent craftsmen is quite distinctive to Sheffield, among big industrial cities, and has had knock on effects in all sorts of areas, including housing tenure.) At times of water shortages, fights would often break out between the tenants of the different wheels on the same stream, accusing each other of 'stealing' the vital water.

Shepherd Wheel remained in commercial use into the 1930s, which seems to me to be pretty remarkable.The land on which it sits was purchased by Sheffield City Council in 1900 to create a public park in Whiteley Woods (one of the city's many, a few of which I tramped through today). By 1957 the Shepherd Wheel was derelict and the Council voted £500 for its demolition. However, a local campaign led by the Council for the Conservation of Sheffield Antiquities succeeded in getting the funds put towards restoring it as a museum instead, and it opened as such in 1962. In 1997 is was closed again by the City Council, but transferred to the Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust the following year and re-opened. Further restoration took place in 2012 and the wheel is now operational, and staffed by volunteers at weekends. It's not a massive attraction - two rooms (known as hulls) and the wheel itself but it's great for a passing visit whilst out on a walk, especially as it's free. They were just starting up the wheel while we were there this morning and I actually got some video, but need to work out the best way to upload it somewhere straight from the phone, as I don't seem to be able to transfer it to the computer. It was pretty impressive to think that it was working in a way not so different from over four hundred years ago.

I have actually used some sources for this!
Wikipedia (of course; don't tell the students)
Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust - Shepherd Wheel leaflet
J. Edward Vickers, A Popular History of Sheffield, Sheffield, Applebaum, 1978 (3rd edn 1992) p. 90


  1. Did you like the steps made out of old millstones?

    1. Do you know what, I didn't notice them!

  2. Photo (not very good) on my blog here: By the side of the building leading up to the millpond (is it called that?)

  3. Oh yes! Didn't spot that at all. I think the pond is actually (confusingly) called a dam though I wouldn't like to swear to that. Adrian will be along in a bit, he'll know.

  4. Quite right Sarah, the south of sheffield has a number of Dams that have been created by Sheffield's industrial past. Forge Dam, Abbeydale, Wire Mill Dam and the one at Shepherds Wheel, to name a few. All now very picturesque, but once hives of industry.