Steel making tycoon was the city’s big gun in 1800s

85 Wilkinson Street former home of Mark Firth
85 Wilkinson Street former home of Mark Firth

The clue picture on page three of the Sheffield Star supplement of Saturday, April 7, shows decorative iron work above the bay window on number 85 Wilkinson Street.

There is a similar piece of iron work above the other bay window on the other side of the front door.

Mark Firth (1819-1880)

Mark Firth (1819-1880)

And it was in this house in the 1840s that Mark Firth – a local steel manufacturer – lived with his first wife Sarah Bingham Taylor and their five children.

He had married Sarah on September 15 1841 and his children from this marriage were Sarah Bingham Firth, 1843-1855, twins Thomas and Ann Elizabeth Firth born and died 1845. Mary Ellen Firth 1847–1848 and Margaret Maria Firth 1853–1869 were from a second marriage. By 1862 Mark had moved into a purpose built house for him and his family. This house was named Oakbrook, Endcliffe, and this house later became Notre Dame School Sixth Form.

The name Oakbrook was suggested by the rivulet that runs through the grounds of the property, which consisted of some 28 acres, which were beautifully laid out.

The Prince and Princess of Wales were the guests of Mr Firth during a visit to Sheffield and, in 1879, Mr Firth also had the honour of entertaining the late Duke of Albany.

Woolwich Infant gun casting by Mark Firth

Woolwich Infant gun casting by Mark Firth

The entrepreneur, Mark Firth, was born in Sheffield on April 25 1819. He was the son of a steel Melter at Sanderson Brothers. At the age of 14 Mark, along with his brother Thomas, left school to join their father in the same foundry where he was employed.

It was 10 years later that the father and two sons together started a six-hole crucible furnace of their own, which was known as Thomas Firth and Sons, and was located on Charlotte Street, which is now Mappin Street.

This early venture of Mark’s along with his father and his brother proved to be very successful, and besides an extensive home business, they soon established a large American connection.

Their huge Norfolk Works was built at Sheffield in 1849, with others, including Clay Wheels near Wadsley.

The manufacture of steel blocks for ordnance was the principal feature of their business, and they produced shot and also produced heavy forgings, and for some time they supplied nearly all of the metal used for gun making by the British government and a large proportion of that used by the French.

It was on the death of his father in 1848, that Mark Firth became the head of the firm. In the 1850s and in the `1860s, Thomas Firth supplied Samuel Colt with most of the iron and steel used at his firearms factories both at Hartford Connecticut and also a short-lived facility in Pimlico, in London.

The business grew and it moved into the armaments market directly, with the company installing two Nasmyth Steam forge hammers in 1863, which were used to forge heavy artillery pieces.

In 1871, the Firth’s company cast the 35 ton Woolwich Infant gun. This particular gun was said to have required 1,000 crucibles to cast its outer body and four inner tubes.

Naval guns were also manufactured for the British navy and the French navy. Huge land guns reached a weight of 100 tons, with 16 inch gun blocks and also two thousand pound projectiles. In addition, Firth’s led the way in attempts to manufacture compound armour plate and five years later they produced an 80 ton gun.

Mark Firth was the Master Cutler of Sheffield in 1867, 1868, and 1869. It was at the end of his tenure as Master Cutler that he lost his first wife. In 1857 on September 3 he then married Caroline Gedling Bradley at The Methodist New Connexion Chapel, in Nottingham. They had seven children between them – John Bradley, Mark, Alfred, Caroline Bradley, Bernard Alexander, Charles Henry and Rachael – there was no television in the house!

Mark Firth was a generous benefactor to Sheffield. In 1869, he built and endowed Mark Firth’s Almshouses, at Nethergreen Road at Ranmoor and, in 1875, when he was the mayor, he presented a freehold park of 36 acres, now known to all as Firth Park.

He gave a total of £1,500 to Broomhill Chapel, £1,000 to the New Connection College at Ranmoor and £1,000 to the Wesleyan Thanksgiving Fund. He also founded and endowed Firth College for lectures and classes in connection with the university extension scheme, which was opened in 1879.

He also gave £5,000 towards the university’s endowment, as well as another £20,000 towards the actual building. Firth College went on to become part of the University of Sheffield.

On the 16 November 1880 Firth was at his Norfolk Works when he suffered a stroke and he died 12 days later.

He is buried in Sheffield General Cemetery on Cemetery Road, where his monument is a Grade II listed structure. In 1912 Harry Brearley invented stainless steel, although Firth’s did not recognise its potential. By 1914 their specialities included Firth’s rendable capped armour-piercing projectiles, gun forgings, marine engines, steel forgings and also castings of every description. In addition there were locomotive tyres and axles, shoes and dies for mining batteries, rifle barrel blanks and steel for component parts of rifles, special steels for motor car work, saws, edge tools and files, sheet steel for cylinder laggings and other purposes, crucible cast steel for all descriptions of tools, Firth’s Speedicut high-speed steel and twist drills and Firth’s special steel parts for ore crushers, stone breakers, ball mills etc. At this time they employed more than 5,500. In 1924 they did realise the potential of stainless steel and they used it in the production of turbines.

In 1930 a merger of the steel making interests of John Brown and Co and the neighbouring company Thomas Firth and Sons formed Thomas Firth and John Brown, otherwise known as Firth Brown. The company was second to none and the works went on forever, but now these have all gone along with the sounds and smells of steel manufacture. Firth’s – a Sheffield success story of a man and his two sons, mainly forgotten by the people they provided the means for education for and recreation.