Industry in South Yorkshire during World War One

Research and images relating to industry in South Yorkshire during World War One. by Jack White

Shell (photograph took after firing), made by Thomas Firth and Sons Ltd.
J.S. Tulley & Co.
Munitions workers, possibly from Firth Browns
Sheffield Archives and Local Studies
Finished 16 inch Gun Barrels, Gun Shop Examination Bay, Vickers Ltd., River Don Works
Sheffield Archives and Local Studies
12,000 Tons Armour Plate Bending Press, Cammell Laird and Company Ltd., Cyclops Steel and Iron Works, 1916
Sheffield Archives and Local Studies
Shells produced by Messrs. Hadfields Ltd., East Hecla Works, taken on the occasion of the visit of the Prime Minister, The Right Hon. D. Lloyd George, October 1919
Sheffield Archives and Local Studies


Sheffield and Rotherham have long been known to be giants in the world of steel manufacture so at the outbreak of war in 1914 the factories in South Yorkshire were about to put their work to the test, in a matter of life and death. During the war the steel works surrounding Sheffield became a crucial part in the creating the British war machine, manufacturing large amounts or munitions such as ammunition shells, guns and cannons for ships, alongside armour plating and also parts for aeroplanes and torpedo’s[1]. It cannot be underestimated the amount of work that these factories contributed towards the war effort, many of the major firms in South Yorkshire expanded their plants extensively and the likes of Steel, Peech and Tozers, and Cammell’s built whole new works.

Whilst most of the men who had worked in these factories had joined the Armed forces and moved to fight the war, many of the women who were left behind took up a lot of the jobs in the factories, they are most often remembered as the Munitionettes. A large amount of the munitions used by the British forces in the First World War were made by women, the Sheffield branch of the National Union of Women Workers membership increased from 350 in 1914 to around 5,000 by June 1918.[2]

Vickers increased its annual output of guns from 300 to over 3000[3] in its effort to aid the war. This is an increase of ten times in annual production previously, seeing what could only have been a huge reorganisation of the production line. [4]

Steel works such as Hadfield’s produced a lot of steel products for the military such as helmets, body armour and bayonets. These smaller yet also crucial pieces of protection would have kept the soldiers on the front line better protected against various forms of warfare.

The Cyclops steel and Iron works owned by Cammell Laird and Company Ltd were major producers of huge armour plating used to build the battleships that would take on the German Navy. These platings had to be designed to withstand huge levels of pressure from the German artillery that would be designed with the sole purpose of piercing it and destroying the ship. The plates would be made in huge mills were the steel would be rolled flat. [5]

Shell Crisis & The Munitions of War Act

At the start of the war a change in tactics and doctrine meant that artillery would play a more extensive role in warfare, it would no longer be used just to assist the infantry, but as a weapon on its own used to level the battlefield and destroy large groups of soldiers. This new approach to warfare meant that the supply of shell for the artillery cannons were being consumed at a rate much higher than they were being produced, this lead to the foundation of the Minister of Munitions and the Munitions of War act in 1915.

The Ministry of Munitions was created in to order to direct the production and supply of munitions for the war effort in response to the shortage of shells. It was headed by business men and was run in a fashion to keep up with the demand for munitions on the war front and at the same time to enable factories to be able to run efficiently and smoothly. The Munitions of War in 1915 contributed to the task of overseeing that production was effective as possible and ensured that there was a constant strong work force available at all times, it made sure that people could and would not leave their job at a munitions factory without very good cause. This all helped towards ensuring that the guns on the battlefield would be able to fight the war as best they could without having to worry about running out of shells.

Hadfield Ltd and T. Firth & sons both became National Projectile Factories and many of the other larger factories were took under control so supplies, labour and wages could be regulated co-ordinated with the other works.[6]

Zeppelin Attack

The factories in South Yorkshire were one of Britain’s most important locations for creating munitions for the war, because of this they became a large target for the German air force. If the Germans could halt the production of munitions and other products of the steel industry they would damage Britain’s chances in the war, because of this on the night of Monday, 25th September 1916 a Zeppelin was sent from Germany with the intention of destroying some of Sheffield’s key steel works. Fortunately the Zeppelin did not cause any damage to any of the industry in its fifteen minute raid, however it caused damage to local houses and buildings causing the deaths of 28 victims, mainly women and children, with its payload of 36 high-explosive and incendiary bombs.

The Aftermath

The end of the war hit industry hard as the war machine that had turned the South Yorkshire steel works into mass engines of the British War effort had ceased instantly, the guns of the British Navy no longer called out for Sheffield steel and the endless gears ground to an unfamiliar halt. The works were left with a surplus of steel products that no one needed which sat in piles, wasted, for months. However with war and the urgency to save lives and bring victory, innovation was at a height and the factories had learnt how to improve products and production alike.


[3] Walton, M. Sheffield its story and its Achievements. (S.R. Publishers, Sheffield, 1968.) p.243

This page was added on 29 January 2015.

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