Former engineer's memory of apprentices adds to Sheffield's 'cannonball' intrigue

Mischievous apprentices from a bygone era might be to blame for a mystery experts are trying to solve.

Thursday, 17th May 2018, 16:14 pm
Updated Tuesday, 22nd May 2018, 12:11 pm
Graham Butler with the fly press in his garage. Picture: Andrew Roe

When police divers pulled a heavily-corroded metal ball from the River Don close to the site of the former Sheffield Castle, it was thought the item could have been fired from a cannon used to end a siege in the Civil War.

But, since the story appeared on The Star's front page, readers have been in touch to say the 'cannonball' looks remarkably similar to the weights on fly presses that were commonly used in the city's cutlery industry to stamp knives and forks.

A police diver with the item that was thought to be a cannonball.

Retired engineer Graham Butler shares the same theory - but he has a particularly vivid memory.

Graham used to work for Sheffield firm Laycock Engineering, and regularly carried out jobs at sites on the riverside. "Apprentices used to knock the weights off the top of the fly presses and chuck them into the river," he said. "The gaffers used to be going barmy about those weights going missing."

The young trainees' bosses never found out exactly why the weights were vanishing in such great numbers, he added - but the suspected culprits didn't go unpunished.

"Apprentices would be losing their wages," he said.

The suspected cannonball up close - it is claimed the hole punched through the centre gives it away as a weight from a fly press.

Graham, aged 73, lives in Staveley and has a fly press at home, where he restores classic cars in his workshop. He rescued the device from an old cutlery factory that was closing down in Neepsend.

"I bought it without proper weights and had to make my own," said Graham, who is presently restoring a 1947 Morris 8 Series E, and two Daimlers from 1934 and 1968. "I use the press on bushes and bearings, and to bend pieces of metal."

A team of nine divers found the object last July while searching the Don for evidence of a crime on the Wicker. The item was stuck in mud, and historians are trying to determine its original purpose with the help of specialists at the Royal Armouries in Leeds.

Archaeologists are preparing to begin work on an excavation of the medieval castle remains, a dig expected to last for four months. The stronghold, which gave its name to the now-demolished Castle Market, fell more than 300 years ago, and few remains have survived above ground.

Police took the suspected cannonball to Weston Park Museum, who recommended the services of John Moreland, of Sheffield University. He sent photographs to one of the country's leading authorities on ballistics, based at Leeds. "He got back to me and said yes, it's a kind of cannonball designed to carry explosive charges," John said. He said it was 'unlikely' to be a 'metal crushing ball used in the steel industry'. "If it's not a cannonball then what is it?"

Several readers said the telltale clue was a hole that is punched through the object. Graham agreed, saying the weights were 'a round ball, with a hole in, that fits on top of a fly press'.

"It's not a wrecking ball, it's nowhere near big enough," he added.

During the Civil War, which ended in 1644, 1,200 Parliamentary troops laid siege to Sheffield Castle. Soldiers bombarded the thick stone walls with fire - a large gun, Queen Elizabeth's Pocket Pistol, eventually breached the walls and the defenders gave in.