The Age of George III

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Sheffield in 1830

from Rural Rides by William Cobbett. 31 January 1830

Compare this description with that of Daniel Defoe, written in 1724

All the way along, from Leeds to Sheffield, it is coal and iron, and iron and coal. It was dark before we reached Sheffield; so that we saw the iron furnaces, in all the horrible splendour of their everlasting blaze. Nothing can be conceived more grand or more terrific than the yellow waves of fire, that incessantly issue from the top of these furnaces, some of which are close by the way-side. Nature has placed the beds of iron and the beds of coal alongside of each other, and art has taught man to make one, to operate upon the other so as to turn the iron-stone into liquid matter, which is drained off from the bottom of the furnace, and afterwards moulded into blocks and bars, and all sorts of things. The combustibles are put into the top of the furnace, which stands thirty, forty, or fifty feet up in the air, and the ever-blazing mouth of which is kept supplied with coal and coke and ironstone, from little iron waggons forced up by steam, and brought down again to be re-filled. It is a surprising thing to behold; and it is impossible to behold it. without being convinced that, whatever other nations may do with cotton and with wool, they will never equal England, with regard to things made of iron and steel. This Sheffield, and the land all about it, is one bed of iron and coal. They call it Black Sheffield, and black enough it is; but from this one town and its environs go nine-tenths of the knives that are used in the whole world; there being, I understand, no knives made at Birmingham; the manufacture of which place consists of the larger sorts of implements, of locks of all sorts, and guns and swords, and of all the endless articles of hardware which go to the furnishing of a house. As to the land, viewed in the way of agriculture, it really does appear to be very little worth. I have not seen, except at Harewood and Ripley, a stack of wheat since I came into Yorkshire; and even there, the whole I saw, and all that I saw during a ride of six miles that I took into Derbyshire the day before yesterday, all put together would not make the one-half of what! have many times seen in one single rick-yard of the vales of Wiltshire. But this is all very proper: these coal-diggers, and iron-smelters, and knife-makers, compel us to send the food to them, which, indeed, we do very cheerfully, in exchange for the produce of their rocks, and the wondrous works of their hands.

The trade of Sheffield has fallen off, less in proportion than that of the other manufacturing districts. North America, and particularly the United States, where the people have so much victuals to cut, form a great branch of the custom of this town. If the people of Sheffield could only receive a tenth part of what their knives sell for by retail in America, Sheffield might pave its streets with silver. A gross of knives and forks is sold to the Americans, for less than three knives and forks, can be bought at retail in a country store in America. No fear of rivalship in this trade. The Americans may lay on their tariff, and double it, and triple it; but as long as they continue to cut their victuals, from Sheffield, they must have the things to cut it with.

The ragged hills all round about this town, are bespangled with groups of houses inhabited by the working cutlers. They have not suffered like the working weavers; for, to make knives, there must be the hand of man. Therefore, machinery cannot come to destroy the wages of the labourer. The home demand, has been very much diminished; but still the depression has here, not been what it has been, and what it is, where the machinery can be brought into play.

Upon my arriving here on Wednesday night, the 27th instant, I by no means intended to lecture, until I should have a little recovered from my cold; but to my great mortification, I found that the lecture had been advertised, and that great numbers of persons had actually assembled. To send them out again, and give back the money, was a thing not to be attempted. I, therefore, went to the Music Hall, the place which had been taken for the purpose, gave them a specimen of the state of my voice, asked them whether I should proceed, and they answering in the affirmative, on I went. I then rested until yesterday, and shall conclude my labours here tomorrow, and then proceed to "fair Nottingham," as we used to sing when I was a boy, in celebrating the glorious exploits of "Robin Hood and Little John." By the by, as we went from Huddersfield to Dewsbury, we passed by a hill which is celebrated as being the burial-place of the famed Robin Hood, of whom the people in this country talk to this day.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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