Chris Corker: When German arms giant came calling

IN 1914, Sheffield was home to five of the leading armaments manufacturers not just in Britain, but the world.

These are names that are among the most well known in Sheffield’s industrial history: John Browns, Thomas Firths, Cammell-Laird, Hadfields and Vickers.

Between them, they manufactured armour plate, shell and armour-piercing projectiles, and both gun forgings and finished guns.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The leading German counterpart of the day was Krupps of Essen. Krupps had invented the most resistant type of armour plate in 1894, which all the Sheffield armour manufacturers licensed and produced.

In a curiosity of history, this meant that all of the British Navy’s capital ships built from the late 1890s were protected by armour of German design.

From 1909, Krupps had been under the leadership of Gustav Krupp von Bohlen und Halback. Herr Krupp was one of the leading industrialists in Europe. He had married Bertha Krupp, heiress to the Krupp dynasty, in 1906 and taken her surname.

Representatives of Sheffield’s armaments manufacturers had visited the Krupp Works in Essen to tour their vast manufacturing complex in the years prior to the war, though much care was taken to avoid showing them the company’s secrets. The German government was extremely guarded when it came to the manufacture of armaments.

In late May 1914, letters began to be received in the offices of Sheffield’s armaments companies. Herr Krupp was looking to tour Britain in June with two of his directors and hoped to visit each of their works. They all happily obliged.

Upon receiving word of the visit, the Admiralty issued letters to each company that was expecting to welcome the group. They advised the same level of secrecy be observed as Krupps had provided them when visiting Essen.

In particular, they strongly advised against showing them any large projectiles, or the manufacture of guns. It appears that each of the companies took the necessary precautions to avoid Herr Krupp seeing anything of a confidential nature.

After arriving in Britain on June 13, 1914, and hosting a dinner party at the Ritz, Herr Krupp and his colleagues toured the UK, visiting shipyards and steelworks in Birkenhead, Barrow, Glasgow and Elswick, each of which had links to armaments manufacture.

The group arrived in Sheffield on June 18, 1914, guests of Sir Robert and Lady Hadfield at their Sheffield residence, Parkhead House. Sir Robert was the chairman of Hadfields, a leading manufacturer of armour-piercing projectiles which had licensed the means of manufacture to Krupps since the 1890s.

On their first night in Sheffield, Sir Robert organised a dinner of welcome for Herr Krupp. Guests included the Lord Mayor, Oliver Charles Wilson, Master Cutler Thomas William Ward, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield Herbert Fisher and the chairman of Cammell-Laird, William Lionel Hitchens. This was very much the great and the good of Sheffield’s industrial scene welcoming their German visitors.

The following day Herr Krupp and his associates toured each Sheffield armaments manufacturer’s works. Sir Robert took them on a tour of the East Hecla Works (now the site of the Meadowhall shopping centre), before they explored Vickers River Don Works (now Sheffield Forgemasters).

They next ventured to Cammell-Laird’s Cyclops Works for luncheon and a stroll around the armour shops, before moving to Thomas Firths’ Norfolk Works and John Browns’ Atlas Works, where they were welcomed by John Browns’ chairman, Lord Aberconway. Krupp finished the day with a second night at Parkhead House with the Hadfield family.

Recounting the visit in 1918, Sir Robert claimed that upon visiting the East Hecla works Herr Krupp had said to him: “I hope you do not think I have come here to spy.”

He must have forgotten that his company received royalties from Krupps for using their projectile patents up to 1915. Spying wasn’t necessary. These companies had been sharing technical information for two decades.

Herr Krupp left Sheffield on Saturday, June 20. Eight days later, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, beginning a chain of events that led to Britain declaring war on Germany on August 4.


• Chris Corker is an associate lecturer and researcher at Sheffield Hallam University. He will be talking about the Sheffield Armaments Industry in 1914 at Weston Park Museum on Wednesday at 1pm.