Abbeydale is an 18th century industrial works – one of the first working museums in the UK. It is the site of a former steel blade factory; its main product being agricultural scythes, although other bladed implements were made there.
It is on the outskirts of Sheffield, on the banks of the River Sheaf, which was the water source that drove the mill wheels that powered the machinery.
The site houses the only intact crucible steel furnace remaining in the world. It was built in around 1830 and was the source of Abbeydale’s steel for manufacturing the various tools and implements. During a visit to the site it is possible to see the associated pot shop where the clay crucibles that held the raw ingredients for steel were made.
The crucible furnace reached temperatures in excess of 1600 degrees Celsius. Making steel was hot, hard work.
The crucibles full of molten metal were lifted from the furnace by a “puller out” and then poured from the crucibles by a “teemer” to form ingots.
In turn, the ingots were forged under the site’s tilt hammers to create blank blades before they were sent on to the grinders to be given a sharp edge.
The grinding workshop, or hull, contained six sandstone grind stones and two polishing wheels, all powered by a waterwheel. The stones were huge – taller than many of the workers – and suspended with their lower edges in a trough of water to keep the surface wet while the grinders worked. The grinder sat astride the trough and held the blade against the rotating stone to give it an edge.
The work was hot, hard and dangerous with many hazards. The fine dust thrown off the stone during the process got into workers’ lungs, causing silicosis, a debilitating and usually fatal disease. But there was also risk of parts of the grindstone breaking away and causing injury or blindness. On some occasions the whole stone shattered, killing anyone close to it.