Heritage: A century of engineering innovation at university

The University of Sheffield Mappin Building in 1912
The University of Sheffield Mappin Building in 1912

Famous alumni include the inventor of the wartime Bailey bridge and pioneering woman aviator Amy Johnson.

We are now celebrating 100 years of history for the departments of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, Civil and Structural Engineering and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Sheffield.

Engineers in 1915 making shells for the war

Engineers in 1915 making shells for the war

Engineering education began at the very formation of the colleges that went on to shape today’s university.

In the early 1880s, Sir Frederick Mappin, an industrialist who made his fortune in Sheffield’s cutlery and steel industries and was MP for Retford, was encouraged to create a technical school to educate city workers.

In 1886, the technical school’s first building, designed in a neo-Georgian style, was built behind the former grammar school, which was demolished in 1912, on what is now Mappin Street. It is the oldest purpose-built accommodation still occupied by the university.

The technical school merged with Firth College and the medical school to become University College in 1897, and eventually, the University of Sheffield in 1905.

Sir Frederick Mappin was encouraged to create a technical school to educate city workers

The foundation of the University of Sheffield is credited to the local support received from the public and industry who raised the money needed to create the civic institution.

Fundraising consisted of house-to-house visiting in the most prosperous streets and weekly collections in many places of work, to which thousands of workers contributed.

The university was a true creation of the city and people.

Engineering education at the technical school started from the very beginning with part-time studies being offered and an ambitious evening class programme up until the 1950s. These students were adults working in the steel industry.

Faculty of Applied Science building, old grammar school, in Mappin Street circa 1905, demolished 1912

Faculty of Applied Science building, old grammar school, in Mappin Street circa 1905, demolished 1912

One was Stanley Ellam, who left school at 14, got a job in an engineering workshop and attended four years at a local college before being admitted to the university.

For three or four nights a week he “had to go home, wash and change, have tea and catch a train or bus by 6.15pm to arrive at St George’s by 7pm”. After five years he qualified and was awarded the Mappin Medal.

Established during 1917, the three engineering departments soon found themselves affected by the needs of war.

Numbers of students soon decreased as men enlisted or were recruited to work in industries essential for the war effort.

Views of what the new Heartspace atrium, between the Grade II listed Sir Frederick Mappin Building and the 1885 Central Wing, at the University of Sheffield will look like

Views of what the new Heartspace atrium, between the Grade II listed Sir Frederick Mappin Building and the 1885 Central Wing, at the University of Sheffield will look like

However, the Government offered financial support to injured officers to study and the University of Sheffield launched an intensive training course, the first of its kind, for wounded and incapacitated soldiers.

These soldiers were later recruited for good positions in government departments.

As well as education, the engineering faculty manufactured high-grade inspection gauges and munitions.

After the war, the War Office and Board of Admiralty presented the Mechanical Engineering department with a German submarine engine, a German torpedo, a British tank and other German engines for the practical education of students.

Notable alumni include Sir Donald Bailey Coleman. Born in Rotherham in 1901, he was knighted for the invention of the Bailey Bridge, a simple transportable bridge for the army.

During the Second World War, the army needed transportable bridges that were easy to assemble and that could carry tanks and other armoured vehicles safely.

A portrait of Sir Donald Bailey Coleman (by Walter Bird 1962)

A portrait of Sir Donald Bailey Coleman (by Walter Bird 1962)

After the war, they were utilised on civilian structures and one is still in use over the River Don in Rotherham.

Amy Johnson, the first woman to fly solo from Britain to Australia, was not an engineering student but is probably one of the university’s most famous students.

She studied Latin, French and economics but attended engineering lectures which sparked her interest in aviation. After graduating in 1925, she moved to London and pursued her passion for flying.

Engineering at the University of Sheffield continues to go from strength to strength. From humble beginnings of just six students studying Mechanical Engineering in 1917, the whole faculty now has 5,400 students and more than 1,000 staff.

In September 2015, the Diamond building opened to provide world-class multi-disciplinary education for students. Further developments include the Heartspace, a new atrium between the Grade II-listed Sir Frederick Mappin building and the 1885 central wing, to provide new laboratories, office and social space.

Sir Frederick Mappin

Sir Frederick Mappin

Library filer dated 10/1/30 of Legendary flier Amy Johnson. See PA story AIR Amy.  PA PHOTOS.

Library filer dated 10/1/30 of Legendary flier Amy Johnson. See PA story AIR Amy. PA PHOTOS.