How Sheffield turned to forging spirit of unity

Have your say

Yorkshire’s towns and cities played a big part in Britain’s war effort. Chris Bond looks at Sheffield’s role and the impact the First World War had on the industrial city.

WHEN war broke out during that sweltering summer a century ago, nobody envisaged how long it would last or just how costly it would be.

But as the weeks turned into months it soon became clear that it wouldn’t be over by Christmas, as some had predicted. What also became evident was the war would not just be won on the muddy fields of Flanders. It would need the support of people back home not only to keep the home fires burning, but also the country’s war effort moving.

If Britain was going to emerge victorious then its industrial powerhouses, including cities like Sheffield, were going to have to play a crucial role. Scott Lomax, a local author and historian, has written a book, The Home Front: Sheffield In The First World War, chronicling the steel city’s wartime story.

“Sheffield made a huge contribution to Britain’s war effort,” he says. “A large number of men from the city went to the front and during the course of the war vast quantities of munitions used on the battlefields were produced in Sheffield.”

But it wasn’t just the apparatus of war that was being feverishly produced in the city’s factories. “There was a massive amount of clothing made in the city and used overseas including mittens, jumpers and balaclavas.”

More than 50,000 men from Sheffield went to fight on the various “fronts” and they had to be replaced, which meant many women ended up working in munitions factories like the Fitzwilliam Works, in Tinsley, and Cammell Laird and Co Ltd, in Sheffield. “Not only did women work in the munitions factories, some of them were completely run by a female workforce, and all over the city jobs that had been done by men were now being carried out by women.”

Lomax says the war boosted some businesses that had been struggling. “Quite a few firms had been in a bad state but all of a sudden they were producing the tools of warfare and that led to massive expansions.”

Prior to the war Cammell-Laird had been struggling to stay afloat but by 1918 its income had doubled to £8m. It was a similar tale at Hadfields Ltd. Its workforce rose from 5,690 in 1914, to almost 13,000 in 1918, with the company making more than £1m in profits by the time the guns stopped.

It wasn’t just human resources that were put to good use. As the war unfolded the country’s railways were increasingly used to move troops around the country, while horses, which had previously carted materials to and from factories, now had to carry wagons and supplies to the front line. This left a transport shortage in some places and in Sheffield trams were used at night to ferry materials to the factories.

However, in 1916 one man came up with a novel answer to the problem. Thomas Ward, who ran a scrap merchant’s business based at Albion Works, in the Attercliffe area of the city, had seen his own horses taken off to the front so he decided to use an elephant. Lizzie, an Indian elephant, was leased from a travelling menagerie called Sedgewicks – like many circuses and zoos its men had been called up for service and now faced travel restrictions and feed shortages.

Ward’s business provided a thousand tons of recycled metal a day to the country’s steel firms and for the next two years Lizzie was used to haul heavy loads of steel and machinery through the streets of Sheffield. She was kept in a stable nearby at Lady’s Bridge and there are stories of her eating a schoolboy’s cap and pinching food through a kitchen window using her trunk. “It must have been bizarre for people to begin with but she became a familiar sight around the city,” says Lomax.

But while the war brought some exotic sights to the city’s streets, on September 25, 1916, it also brought terror. At around 10.45pm the city’s air raid sirens sounded. They had gone off before but this time there was the unmistakable drone of a zeppelin overhead. In a letter, one woman described the shock as the bombs began to drop while people lay asleep in their beds. “There were high explosive shells and they shook the earth, then a number of pale green lights like lightning with terrible crashes after each one,” she wrote. “I sat and watched it all through. I could not move, I felt numbed.”

By the time the attack was over 29 people were dead, 19 had been injured and 89 houses had been destroyed. Lomax says although the air raid terrified people it also stiffened their resolve. The editor of a local newspaper spoke for the people of Sheffield when he wrote: “We have been given another reason for hoping not only for the defeat of Germany, but the killing of as many Germans as possible, so that the Earth may be rid of their fiendish wickedness.”

Although the zeppelin attack inflamed anti-German feeling in the city, Sheffield was also home to a German prisoner of war camp at Norton and some locals felt sympathy for the men kept there. Some people were even fined for giving bread to the prisoners.

By the time the fighting stopped in 1918 Sheffield was a changed place. “During the war almost everybody in the city had a job because there was so much demand for work and people had more money than ever before,” says Lomax.

Even before the war had finished the Sheffield Corporation’s committee was already planning for the future. “They wanted to clear the slums and improve housing, education and transport. In many ways it was the start of the process that created Sheffield as we know it today.”

• The Home Front: Sheffield In The First World War, published by Pen & Sword, is out now priced £14.99