Masters of hot metal

4th February 2000 at 00:00
Sheffield has been famous for its steel since the Middle Ages. You can still watch those who make it and shape it at work, writes Steven Hastings

Sheffield's story is one of steel and, although The Full Monty might suggest otherwise, it is still being written. The city is producing more steel now than ever before, but the once huge workforce has dwindled. Kelham Island Industrial Museum is a reminder of a time when Sheffielders' lives were dominated by steel-making.

Approaching the museum in the city's East End, the sound of clanking machinery echoes down the street, industrial smells drift out of small windows high in brick walls and a cluster of workers leaves a factory and heads across the road to the pub.

It could easily be a recreated scene as is so common at heritage cerntres, but in fact it is for real. The area around the museum is still home to some famous names in the steel and knife-making trades. It is an evocative and appropriate setting.

Kelham Island museum explores the varied history of this cradle of the industrial revolution. The museum shows how from the Middle Ages the city became synonymous with the production of steel, cutlery and tools, famed for both quality and quantity. It focuses on the 19th century, the era of steam power, and you can see the mighty River Don Engine at work.

This is the museum's star attraction and the most powerful steam engine in the world. A 12,000 horsepower engine, it is the size of a large house and runs as smooth as a Rolls Royce. It began its working life in 1905, hammering out armour plating for dreadnought battleships, and ended it 70 years later rolling thermal shields for nuclear reactors. Twice every day the engine is "in steam" and vistors can stand just a few feet away. The size and power of the machine and its effortless speed are spellbinding.

Another highlight is the chance to see "little mesters" at work. These are not re-enactors or educators used by the museum to amuse and entertain. They are self-employed craftsmen running successful businesses who enjoy rent-free workshops in return for allowing visitors to observe - though not disturb - them.

Sheffield was once teeming with hundreds of these little mesters, each of them specialising in one aspect of tool or cutlery production. Now only a handful remain.

The man who gave his name (although not the spelling of it) to the museum, Kellam Homer, was grinding knife blades on this site in the early1600s. Today Mick Tyler does the same job using similar methods. He finds it strange working while people watch - "I feel like a hamster in a cage sometimes" - but he takes an obvious pride in keeping a tradition alive. Next door, Peter Goss produces handmade surgical instruments. He is one of the last men in the world to do this.

The museum looks at the historical, social and scientific development of industry, so it is useful to have a clear plan for your visit. Pupils at Southey Green junior school have opted to explore its science and technology aspects. They have chosen a costumed educator to explain about steam power, wheels and pulleys. Tom Parkin adopts the persona of a Victorian taskmaster, the fearsome Mr Bessamer, who certainly knows how to keep order.

"I like to let them experience how strict life was back then." He explains the theories using models. Later, when the group sees the real machinery in action they will understand how it works.

Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust, which runs Kelham Island, also owns another site a few miles away. Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet is a unique collection of cottages and workshops dating from 1700. Built around a water-powered forge, it is home to the only remaining crucible steel furnace. There are no hands-on activities or gimmicks but the place is magical and authentic: it needs no effort to imagine what it must have been like in its heyday.

Combining a visit to both Kelham Island and Abbeydale Hamlet lets you trace the changes in the industry over three centuries. The museum's education team can also arrange a visit to a modern steelworks to see the process brought right up to date.

Today's vistors are happy. The teachers feel the material is well-tailored for the age group and the children have had a great time. The experience is particularly resonant for one member of staff - her father used to work on the site when she was a child.

The hooter sounds at the works next door, drowning out even the fearsome Mr Bessamer. Time to knock off.

* Kelham Island Industrial Museum, Alma Street, Sheffield S13 8RY. Tel: 0114 272 2106. Open all year Sundays 11am-4.45pm, Mondays-Thursdays 10am-4pm. LEA schools pound;1 per person, outside Sheffield pound;1.50.

Education officer Robin Fielder.

Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet is open to the public during summer but school visits can be arranged at any time. Contact the education team at Kelham Island.

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