Steel City: Entrepreneurship, Strategy, and Technology in Sheffield, 1743-1993

By Geoffrey Tweedale | Go to book overview

The Family Firm in Tool Steelmaking

Sheffield's steel-makers remain strongly convinced of the virtues of individualism as the springboard of enterprise.

The Economist, 130 ( 26 March 1938), 687.

With hindsight, it can be seen that the First World War marked a watershed for the Sheffield steel industry, as it did for the general development of Britain economy. Before 1914 Sheffield had enjoyed something of a long boom, characterized by full order-books and 'over-full' employment. This was symptomatic of steadily rising world steel demand from about 1870, which had been linked to major innovations, the substitution of steel for iron, the rapid development of major consumers such as shipbuilding and railways, and the utilization of new ore supplies. This picture changed abruptly in 1918. Between the Wars the British steel industry passed through three broad phases: chronic depression during the whole of the 1920s after a post-war slump; a severe depression between 1930 and 1933; and a steady revival thereafter (interrupted by a sharp recession in 1938) which continued to the outbreak of the Second World War. There were bright spots: output increased in the inter-war period; major steel consumers appeared in the 'new' industries, which partly replaced the decline of the old; technical progress continued uninterrupted and across a broader front; and there were opportunities for modernization. But this occurred against a troubled backdrop of sharp fluctuations in demand and output; stagnation in exports, with world steel demand relatively static; excess capacity; and structural weaknesses in an industry often saddled with old and obsolete plant--defects that had been exacerbated by the War.

The picture that business historians have painted of this period has consequently been a very gloomy one. Kenneth Warren has analysed the inter-war British steel industry, especially its attempts to affect a reconstruction of old locations and plants, and has concluded that the result was largely a patching operation that pre-empted the freedom of future industry planners.1 Alfred Chandler, having identified clear 'entrepre

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1
K. Warren, "Iron and Steel", in N. K. Buxton and D. H. Aldcroft (eds.), British Industry Between the Wars ( London, 1979), 103-28.

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