A tale of two cities

What kind of place would have greeted new migrants to Sheffield in the late 1800’s?

By the latter half of the century, steel had eclipsed cutlery manufacture as Sheffield’s predominant industry, fed by a global demand for railway stock and armaments, both of which helped to position the city as the world’s most famous steel manufacturing centre.  Cutlery making continued as an important industry through the nineteenth century, and was joined by tool making and other industries.

The steel boom was accompanied by soaring population growth.  In 1851, the borough had a population of 135,000; fifty years later, this number had almost trebled.  Much of the population increase was due to people marrying earlier – and therefore having larger families – but also to in-migration from neighbouring counties and countries such as Ireland. [1]

The huge expansion in industry occurred in tandem with major urbanization.  The centre of town was remodelled into a commercial district and new housing was developed for both the working and middle classes.

Industrialisation also brought unprecedented pollution.  Rivers were subject to both the removal of water and discharge of industrial effluent. Many were used as open sewers.  Not surprisingly, aquatic life in the Don almost disappeared and the river became a “stinking, barren channel”.

Where the more prosperous of Sheffield’s residents were able to move to wooded estates away from the workshops and factories, worker housing could be found cheek by jowl with industry, and often sharing the same yards.[2]

Standards of health and housing increasingly became the focus of commentators’ attention.

Penned in 1848, this report on sanitary conditions in Sheffield observed that “…the particles of soot floating about in the atmosphere (are) so numerous that people (are) prevented from having recourse to the most common method of ventilation by opening windows and doors; in many places the evil is so extensive that the inhabitants find the greatest difficulty in maintaining personal or domestic cleanliness…”[3]

Another report written in 1861 noted that “…a thick pulverous haze is spread over the city, which the sun even in the dog days is unable to penetrate, save by a lurid gaze, and which has the effect of imparting to the green hills and golden corn fields in the distance the ghostly appearance of being whitened by snow…”[4].

As the middle classes shifted west and north-west to the less polluted parts of town in the mid-nineteenth century, inner city areas – and the tenements in particular – attracted working class families.

Tenements – which saved space and building costs – were reproduced, with minor variations, in almost all working class quarters.  A standard “apartment” was one room deep, and built “back to back” with another, one facing into the street and another into the yard.  Behind each set of rooms was the staircase, and behind it the partition wall to the other house.  In such terrace housing, three walls of each apartment were common with adjoining apartments, and one wall, facing either into the street or into the yard, was freestanding and broken by windows and the door.  The terraces were built around courts to which the entrance was commonly gained by a narrow passage built under the first floor rooms to the depth of two apartments.

About half the houses opened inwards into confined yards which were generally unpaved and contained the toilets.  These had to serve the entire complex of buildings with each toilet possibly being shared between two and a dozen households.  Many houses were not connected to potable drinking water and had to rely on communal standpipe in the yard.  Residents living in houses facing outwards thus had to go out into the street, through a passage into the yard to fetch water or visit the toilets.  By 1864, Sheffield had 38,000 of these “back to back” houses. [5]

In the same year, a by-law was proclaimed prohibiting any further construction of this type of housing on health grounds[6], although much of it survived into the twentieth century.

At the close of the nineteenth century, little had changed.  This extract from JS Fletcher’s A pictorial history of Yorkshire sums up the author’s impression of Sheffield thus:

“Under smoke and rain, Sheffield is suggestive of nothing so much as of the popular conception of the infernal regions.  From the chimneys, great volumes of smoke pour their listless way towards a forbidding sky; out of the furnaces shoot great tongues of flame which relieve the sombreness of the scene and illuminate it at the same time; in the streets there is a substratum of dust and mud; in the atmosphere, a choking something that appears to take a firm grip of one’s throat.  The aspect of the northern fringe of Sheffield on such a day is terrifying, the black heaps of refuse, the rows of cheerless-looking houses, the thousand and one signs of grinding industrial life, the inky waters of river and canal, the general darkness an dirt of the whole scene serves but to create feelings of repugnance and even horror.”[7]

It was into this world that my grandfather was born.


[1] Hey, David A history of Sheffield 2010, pages 185-187

[2]  Pollard, S A history of Labour in Sheffield 1850-1939 (1959)

[3]  Quoted in Hey, page 134

[4]  Ibid page 235

[5] Pollard, op cit.

[6]  Hey, page 241

[7]  (1899) quoted in Hey, pages 237-39

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4 thoughts on “A tale of two cities

  1. Thankyou Rose… wonderful information.
    I was an adult when dad told me about his “back to back” home in West Yorkshire but I couldn’t really imagine what he was talking about until I visited in 1995. Thanks again 🙂

    • Thanks for the feedback, Catherine. If I make it back to the UK in the near future, and if any of these houses are still remaining, I would be interested to check one out.

      • Sadly my dad’s house/ street was removed in the re-development of the 1960’s but, at least I was able to show him the maps (new and old) and photos of surrounding areas which were very familiar to him… just before the dementia took over. It made him very happy. Thanks again 🙂

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