History: 19th century

Sheffield Forgemasters is the successor to such famous Sheffield names such as Vickers, English Steel, Firth Brown and British Steel.

The origins of the company go back to the 1750s. However it was Edward Vickers, a traditional miller owning a water mill on Millsands, close to the centre of Sheffield, together with other members of his and the Naylor family who really set the foundations for the business in 1805.

Vickers exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 making a vast steel ingot - the largest ever in its time - weighing in at 24cwts. More than 40 crucible heats were required for the ingot and other works in the Millsands area provided crucibles of molten steel.

In 1856 Henry Bessemer patented the first bulk steel-making process whereby several tons of steel could be produced in less than one hour. Within a few years bulk steel production would be the city's mainstay. John Brown built the Atlas Works on farmland immediately east of the city, closely followed by Vickers giant River Don Works in 1865.

Vickers had the largest crucible melting shop able to pour a single 20-ton piece. Cast steel bells became a significant product with Vickers exporting them around the world. The largest bell ever made at River Don was the 74inch San Francisco fire bell weighing nearly 2½ tons.

In 1850 Sheffield produced some 35,000 tons of steel - more than half of world production.

In the 1860's Tom Vickers designed the giant crucible melt shop, developed the Mayer moulding method, for castings and installed one of the first Siemens open hearth melting furnaces for quality bulk steel. That was followed in 1882 by the first heavy forging press.

Much of Vickers' success was due to demand from the USA for railroad equipment. Yet this business was to be soon lost due to the massive new US facilities such as those of Carnegie in Pittsburgh.

This lead to diversification into armaments. Vickers also diversified into shipbuilding with a shipyard at Barrow to build ‘ironclads', dreadnoughts and the world's first submarine. Sheffield Forgemasters continues as supplier of critical items for Britain's nuclear submarine construction programme.

By 1870 the River Don Works was one of the two largest engineering steel enterprises in the world rivaled only by Bochum in Germany - both Vickers and Firth Brown moved into the manufacture of armour plate. Vickers' portfolio also included the innovative Maxim machine gun.

Through the 1890's, Vickers, Cammells and Browns all had massive forging presses to form armour plate. Following the amalgamation into Vickers in 1897 of Armstrong Whitworth and the Barrow shipyard, the company became dominant worldwide and various subsidiaries and joint ventures appeared as far apart as Canada and Japan.

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