Wheel of history turns for city’s industrial heritage

Shepherd Wheel opening: FoPV volunteer Maggie Marsh shows the water wheel to  Ella Yates (10) and brother Finlay (9)
Shepherd Wheel opening: FoPV volunteer Maggie Marsh shows the water wheel to Ella Yates (10) and brother Finlay (9)

DURING breaks in answering questions from children, former steelworkers and amateur historians of Whiteley Woods, Duncan Edwards reflected on the new (but very old) museum on the banks of the River Porter.

“It is very special,” he said. “In which other city could you get a working water wheel so close to the city centre?”

The Shepherd Wheel celebrated its first bank holiday open weekend since its restoration following grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Sheffield City Council and others, totalling close to £1m.

“I’m absolutely thrilled, on behalf of all the volunteers, contributors, contractors, the council and Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust,” said Maggie Marsh of the Friends of the Porter Valley. “It’s been a long time coming.”

Over 400 years, in fact. The first reference to a water wheel on the site came from a will in 1584. Mr Shepherd’s Wheel was working in 1794 and continued in operation as a grinding wheel until the 1930s when the council had become the owners of Whiteley Woods. The grinding shop was opened as a rather dusty museum for some years until it closed to the public in the late 1990s.

The problem was largely to do with the dam that had powered Shepherd Wheel, which had become leaky and silted. Much of the recent funding went towards the restoration of the dam itself, although other additions and renovations include an outdoor classroom and a full inventory of the artefacts from the site.

“There were old overalls, hats and shoes, tins of grease, blades for knives and scissors and some things that we don’t know what they were,” said FoPV volunteer Walter Fox. “We had a container full of stuff.”

Now the idea is to recreate the atmosphere of the grinding shops as they were 80 or 90 years ago, said Duncan Edwards, engineer and educator from Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust.

“It’s as though the grinders put their tools down and walked out yesterday. We’re trying to make it look as it was, rather than an interactive museum with lots of shiny exhibits. I think people are more fascinated when it’s like this.”

Older visitors talked of the days Sheffield supplied the Empire and many remembered visiting the wheel in the past. “They say ‘I remember this place, I used to come in and it was full of cobwebs. I can’t believe it’s working now’.

“It’s good to see that in our time now of misery and gloom you can open something like this and show people what Sheffield did in the past. And all the time spent by volunteers to make it happen gives people an idea of the community spirit here, which is as important as preserving the heritage. I feel privileged to work here – people tell me you’ve got the best job around.”

Visitors on Sunday were impressed. “We first came about a year ago and we’ve been waiting to see it all happen,” said Dawn Brammer, visiting with children Luke, ten, and Imogen seven. “It’s a good experience for kids to see what happened in the old days.”

“It would have been dark and smelly and hard to work at Shepherd Wheel,” said Luke.

“I wouldn’t have liked to work here because it’s too dark,” said Imogen. “You wouldn’t have been able to see what you were doing.”

The plan is to open from about 10am to late afternoon every weekend and on bank holidays, with the site staffed by Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust and volunteers from the Friends of the Porter Valley. There will also be a ceremonial opening on May 12.

“I’ve lived around here for over 20 years and never saw much of the museum in the past and the dam was in a terrible state,” said Maggie Marsh, of FoPV.

“A lot of the money raised went into excavating the dam and the silt removed went on to local allotments including the ones next to the site. Now some of the allotment holders will be selling some of the produce to help raise money, so the silt is coming back again.”

Maggie added: “There has been grinding here since the late 1500s at least, and Shepherd Wheel shows a unique survival of a stage in making penknives and table knives with so much of the original machinery.

“At the time, this was out in the sticks, far from the town, and the grinders were probably farmers diversifying to improve their income.

“And now people can come down and see how the city came about. This is Sheffield’s heritage whether you’re a visitor or you’ve lived here all your life, this is Sheffield’s roots, the start of its industry, and why Sheffield is here today.”

lVolunteers’ duck race, page 16.