The time machine of working life

Shepherd Wheel Open Day: Keith Wall demonstrating grinding
Shepherd Wheel Open Day: Keith Wall demonstrating grinding

As the monsoon clattered on the roof of the Shepherd Wheel workshop in the Porter Valley, Sheffield Industrial Museums engineer Keith Wall thought he’d be able to get some work done.

“But I only had half an hour at the beginning of the day. People have still been coming in all the time.”

Shepherd Wheel Open Day: Ros Hancock showing Ken Wilson a flat stick used to hold a knife

Shepherd Wheel Open Day: Ros Hancock showing Ken Wilson a flat stick used to hold a knife

Like Ken and Mary Wilson, from East Anglia, who were visiting Fulwood, the location of Keith’s wartime boyhood.

“I used to work in windmills, so I wanted to come and see the site,” said Ken. “It’s wonderful it’s been kept as it used to be, and hasn’t been modernised. People can understand what working life was like, and understand the hardships.”

Ken’s family ran an ironmonger’s in Fulwood during the war years, and he remembered he and a friend coming to Endcliffe Park the day after the crash of the Mi Amigo American bomber.

“We managed to get into the park, which had been closed off, but then we met a soldier with a gun who warned us we’d be shot if we got any nearer.”

Shepherd Wheel is open to the public every weekend and bank holiday, with staff from Sheffield Industrial Museums Trust and volunteers from Friends of the Porter Valley on hand to talk to visitors about the history of the site, which has seen metalworking since Tudor times. “When people look through the door they’re amazed to see machinery that has been here since the early 1800s that’s still working,” said Keith. “We have visitors from all over the world, including a lot of university students who know that we made steel in Sheffield, but are very surprised that there’s been grinding on the River Porter since the 1500s.

“I had one visitor from the USA who was travelling the world ticking off industrial heritage sites, and I remember a student from Africa, who laughed as he left and said: ‘We still have machines like this in Africa.’”

The Shepherd Wheel and associated dam have been restored as a visitor attraction and educational site following grants of almost £1m from the Heritage Lottery Fund and funds from Sheffield City Council and others.

Maintenance on the site is continuous to keep going the sometimes 200-years-old machinery – FOPV volunteer Ros Hancock showed visitors one of the new wooden teeth for the wheel mechanism that had to be made once the wheel started turning again two years ago.

On Saturday there’ll be an allotment sale at Shepherd Wheel, where Hangingwater allotment holders are donating half their sales money towards the site upkeep. Although such donations are always welcome, Ros said that the main resources needed by the Friends at present are volunteers for the open days. Lord Kitchener looks sternly down from the Shepherd Wheel wall in a poster instructing: ‘Shepherd Wheel needs you!’

“People need to be interested in the site and local history, but our guides have many different specialities,” said Ros. “Shifts are usually for two hours on a rota, and if you’re interested in helping, we’ll teach you how.”

“If I still lived in Sheffield, I’d be down here all the time,” noted Ken Wilson.

Keith Wall said: “I’ve been working here for two years, but you never get fed up because of all the different questions people ask.

“One man in his 80s who came down from Highcliffe recently said he remembered the site being reopened in the war to help do some grinding in the war effort, but there’s nothing in the records so we’d like to hear of anyone else who knows about that, for example.”

As the rain hammered down last Saturday, Keith reminisced about his own Shepherd Wheel history.

“I used to be one of the naughty boys who climbed on the roof. We would climb up to look through the holes in the roof at the old machinery inside. I was always fascinated about what I saw, so when the chance came to work here I had to say ‘yes’.”