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In smokiest Sheffield

Updated Friday, 27 May 2016
William arrives in Sheffield - finding a city struggling environmentally and economically.

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If I had waited a little till I had got into the beautiful Derbyshire country which lies, or rather rolls, between Manchester and Sheffield, I could as easily have got rid of my epoch in the smiling agricultural landscape. I do not know just the measure of the Black Country in England, or where Sheffield begins to be perhaps the blackest spot in it; but I am sure that nothing not surgically clean could be whiter than the roads that, almost as soon as we were free of Manchester, began to climb the green, thickly wooded hills, and dip into the grassy and leafy valleys. In the very heart of the loveliness we found Sheffield most nobly posed against a lurid sunset, and clouding the sky, which can never be certain of being blue, with the smoke of a thousand towering chimneys. From whatever point you have it, the sight is most prodigious, but no doubt the subjective sense of the great ducal mansions and estates which neighbor the mirky metropolis of steel and iron has its part in heightening the dramatic effect.

Sheffield Town Hall Sheffield Town Hall


The English, with their love of brevity and simplicity, call these proud seats the Dukeries, but our affair was not with them, and I shall not be able to follow the footmen or butlers or housekeepers who would so obligingly show them to the reader in my company. I had a fine consciousness of passing some of them on my way into the town, and when there of being, however, incongruously, in the midst of them. Worksop, more properly than Sheffield, is the plebeian heart of these aristocratic homes, or sojourns, which no better advised traveller, or less hurried, will fail to see. But I was in Sheffield to see the capital of the Black Country in its most characteristic aspects, and I thought it felicitously in keeping, after I had dined (less well than I could have wished, at the railway hotel which scarcely kept the promise made for it by other like hotels) that I should be tempted beyond my strength to go and see that colored opera which we had lately sent, after its signal success with us, to an even greater prosperity in England. In Dahomey is a musical drama not pitched in the highest key, but it is a genuine product of our national life, and to witness its performance by the colored brethren who invented it, and were giving it with great applause in an atmosphere quite undarkened by our racial prejudices, was an experience which I would not have missed for many Dukeries. The kindly house was not so suffocatingly full that it could not find breath for cheers and laughter; but I proudly felt that no one there could delight so intelligently as the sole American, in the familiar Bowery figures, the blue policemen, the varying darky types, which peopled a scene largely laid in Africa. The local New York suggestions were often from Mr. Edward Harrigan, and all the more genuine for that, but there was a final cake-walk which owed its inspiration wholly to the genius of a race destined to greater triumphs in music and art, and perhaps to a kindlier civilization than our ideals have evolved in yet. It was pleasant to look upon those different shades of color, from dead black to creamy blond, in their novel relief against an air of ungrudging, of even respectful, appreciation, and I dare say the poor things liked it for themselves as much as I liked it for them. At a fine moment of the affair I was aware of a figure in evening dress, standing near me, and regarding the stage with critical severity: a young man, but shrewd and well in hand, who, as the unmistakable manager, was, I hope, finally as well satisfied as the other spectators.


I myself came away entirely satisfied, indeed, but for the lasting pang I inflicted upon myself by denying a penny to the ragged wretch who superfluously opened the valves of my hansom for me. My explanation to my soul was that I had no penny in my pocket, and that it would have been folly little short of crime to give so needy a wretch sixpence. But would it? Would it have corrupted him, since pauperize him further it could not? I advise the reader who finds himself in the like case to give the sixpence, and if he cares for the peace of my conscience, to make it a shilling; or, come! a half-crown, if he wishes to be truly handsome. It is astonishing how these regrets persist; but perhaps in this instance I owe the permanence of my pang to those frequent appeals to one's pity which repeated themselves in Sheffield. As I had noted at Liverpool I now noted at Sheffield that you cannot have great prosperity without having adversity, just as you cannot have heat without cold or day without dark. The one substantiates and verifies the other; and I perceived that wherever business throve it seemed to be at the cost of somebody; though even when business pines it is apparently no better. The thing ought to be looked into.

At the moment of my visit to Sheffield, it happened that many works were running half-time or no time, and many people were out of work. At one place there was a little oblong building between branching streets, round which sat a miserable company of Murchers, as I heard them called, on long benches under the overhanging roof, who were too obviously, who were almost offensively, out of work. Some were old and some young, some dull and some fierce, some savage and some imbecile in their looks, and they were all stained and greasy and dirty, and looked their apathy or their grim despair. Even the men who were coming to or from their work at dinner-time looked stunted and lean and pale, with no color of that south of England bloom with which they might have favored a stranger. Slatternly girls and women abounded, and little babies carried about by a little larger babies, and of course kissed on their successive layers of dirt. There were also many small boys who, I hope, were not so wicked as they were ragged. At noon-time they hung much about the windows of cookshops which one would think their sharp hunger would have pierced to the steaming and smoking dishes within. The very morning after I had denied that man a penny at the theatre door, and was still smarting to think I had not given him sixpence, I saw a boy of ten, in the cut-down tatters of a man, gloating upon a meat-pie which a cook had cruelly set behind the pane in front of him. I took out the sixpence which I ought to have given that poor man, and made it a shilling, and put it into the boy's wonderfully dirty palm, and bade him go in and get the pie. He looked at me, and he looked at the shilling, and then I suppose he did as he was bid. But I ought to say, in justice to myself, that I never did anything of the kind again as long as I remained in Sheffield. I felt that I owed a duty to the place and must not go about corrupting the populace for my selfish pleasure.


Between our hotel and the main part of the town there yawned a black valley, rather nobly bridged, or viaducted, and beyond it in every direction the chimneys of the many works thickened in the perspectives. It was really like a dead forest, or like thick-set masts of shipping in a thronged port; or the vents of tellurian fires, which send up their flames by night and their smoke by day. It was splendid, it was magnificent, it was insurpassably picturesque. People must have painted it often, but if some bravest artist-soul would come, reverently, not patronizingly, and portray the sight in its naked ugliness, he would create one of the most beautiful masterpieces in the world. On our first morning the sun, when it climbed to the upper heavens, found a little hole in the dun pall, and shone down through it, and tried to pierce through the more immediate cloud above the works; but it could not, and it ended by shutting the hole under it, and disappearing.

Beyond the foul avenues thridding the region of the works, and smelling of the decay of market-houses, were fine streets of shops and churches, and I dare say comely dwellings, with tram-cars ascending and descending their hilly slopes. The stores I find noted as splendid, and in my pocket-book I say that outside of the market-house, before you got to those streets, there are doves and guinea-pigs as well as a raven for sale in cages; and the usual horrible English display of flesh meats. The trams were one story, like our trolleys, without roof-seats, and there were plenty of them; but nothing could keep me, I suppose, till I had seen one of the works. Each of these stands in a vast yard, or close, by itself, with many buildings, and they are of all sorts; but I chose what I thought the most typical, and overcame the reluctance of the manager to let me see it. He said I had no idea what tricks were played by other makers to find out any new processes and steal them; but this was after I had pleaded my innocent trade of novelist, and assured him of my congenital incapability of understanding, much less conveying from the premises, the image of the simplest and oldest process. Then he gave me for guide an intelligent man who was a penknife-maker by trade, but was presently out of work, and glad to earn my fee.

My guide proved a most decent, patient, and kindly person, and I hope it is no betrayal of confidence to say that he told me the men in these multitudinous shops work by the piece. The grinders furnish their grindstones and all their tools for making the knives; there is no dry grinding, such as used to fill the lungs of the grinders with deadly particles of steel and stone, and bring them to an early death; but sometimes a stone, which ordinarily lasts six months, will burst and drive the grinder through the roof. The blade-makers do their own forging and hammering, and it is from first to last apparently all hand-work. But it is head-work and heart-work too, and the men who wrought at it wrought with such intensity and constancy that they did not once look up or round where we paused to look on. I was made to know that trade was dull and work slack, and these fellows were lucky fellows to have anything to do. Still I did not envy them; and I felt it a distinct relief to pass from their shops into the cool, dim crypt which was filled with tusks of ivory, in all sizes from those of the largest father elephant to those of the babes of the herd; these were milk-tusks, I suppose. They get dearer as the elephants get scarcer; and that must have been why I paid as much for a penknife in the glittering showroom as it would have cost me in New York, with the passage money and the duties added. Because of the price, perhaps, I did not think of buying the two-thousand-bladed penknife I saw there; but I could never have used all the blades, now that we no longer make quill pens. I looked fondly at the maker's name on the knife I did buy, and said that the table cutlery of a certain small household which set itself up forty years ago had borne the same: but the pleasant salesman did not seem to feel the pathos of the fact so much as I.


There is not only a vast deal of industry in Sheffield, but there is an unusual abundance of history, as there might very well be in a place that began life, in the usual English fashion, under the Britons and grew into municipal consciousness in the fostering care of the Romans and the ruder nurture of the Saxons, Danes, and Normans. Lords it had of the last, and the great line of the Earls of Shrewsbury presently rose and led Sheffield men back to battle in France, where the first earl fell on the bloody field, and so many of the men died with him in 1453 that there was not a house in all the region which did not mourn a loss. Which of the Roses Sheffield held for, White or Red, I am not sure; but we will say that it duly suffered for one or the other; and it is certain that the great Cardinal Wolsey rested eighteen days at Sheffield Manor just before he went to die at Leicester; and Mary Queen of Scots spent fourteen years of sorrowful captivity, sometimes at the Manor and sometimes in Sheffield Castle. This hold was taken by the Parliamentarians in the Civil War; but the famous industries of the place had begun long before; so that Chaucer could say of one of his pilgrims,

    "A Sheffield thwytel bare he in his hose."

Thwytels, or whittles, figured in the broils and stage-plays of Elizabethan times, and three gross of them were exported from Liverpool in 1589, when the Sheffield penknife was already famed the best in the world. Manufactures flourished there apace when England turned to them from agriculture, and Sheffield is now a city of four hundred thousand or more. Apparently it has been growing radical, as the centres of prosperity and adversity always do, and the days of the Chartist agitation continued there for ten years, from 1839 till it came as near open rebellion as it well could in a plot for an armed uprising. Then that cause of the people, like many another, failed, and liberty there, as elsewhere in England, was fain to

        "broaden slowly down
     From precedent to precedent."

Labor troubles, patient or violent, have followed, as labor troubles must, but leisure has always been equal to their pacification, and now Sheffield takes its adversity almost as quietly as its prosperity.


We were not there, though, for others' labor or leisure, which we have plenty of at home; but even before I appeased such conscience as I had about seeing a type of the works, we went a long drive up out of the town to that Manor where the poor, brilliant, baddish Scotch queen was imprisoned by her brilliant, baddish English cousin. In any question of goodness, there was little to choose between them; both were blood-stained liars; but it is difficult being a good woman and a queen too, and they only failed where few have triumphed. Mary is the more appealing to the fancy because she suffered beyond her deserts, but Elizabeth was to be pitied because Mary had made it politically imperative for her to kill her. All this we had threshed out many times before, and had said that, cat for cat, Mary was the more dangerous because she was the more feminine, and Elizabeth the more detestable because she was the more masculine in her ferocity. We were therefore in the right mood to visit Mary's prison, and we were both indignant and dismayed to find that our driver, called from a mews at a special price set upon his intelligence, had never heard of it and did not know where it was.

We reported his inability to the head porter, who came out of the hotel in a fine flare of sarcasm. "You call yourself a Sheffield man and not know where the Old Manor is!" he began, and presently reduced that proud ignoramus of a driver to such a willingness to learn that we thought it at least safe to set out with him, and so started for the long climb up the hills that hold Sheffield in their hollow. When we reached their crest, we looked down and back through the clearer air upon as strange and grand a sight as could be. It was as if we were looking into the crater of a volcano, which was sending up its smoke through a thousand vents. All detail of the works and their chimneys was lost in the retrospect; one was aware only of a sort of sea of vapor through which they loomed and gloomed.

Our ascent was mostly through winding and climbing streets of little dirty houses, with frowsy gardens beside them, and the very dirtiest-faced children in England playing about them. From time to time our driver had to ask his way of the friendly flat-bosomed slatterns, with babies in their arms, on their thresholds, or the women tending shop, or peddling provisions, who were all kind to him, and assured him with varying degrees of confidence that the Old Manor was a bit, or a goodish bit, beyond. All at once we came upon the sight of it on an open top, hard by what is left of the ruins of the real Manor, where Wolsey stayed that little while from death. The relics are broken walls, higher here, lower there; with some Tudor fireplaces showing through their hollow windows. What we saw in tolerable repair was the tower of the Manor, or the lodge, and we drove to it across a field, on a track made by farm carts, and presently kept by a dog that showed his teeth in a grin not wholly of amusement at our temerity. While we debated whether we had not better let the driver get down and knock, a farmer-like man came to the door and called the dog off. Then, in a rich North Country accent, he welcomed us to his kitchen parlor, where his wife was peeling potatoes for their midday dinner, and so led us up the narrow stone stairs of the tower to the chambers where Mary miserably passed those many long years of captivity.

The rooms were visibly restored in every point where they could have needed restoration, but they were not ruthlessly or too insistently restored. There was even an antique chair, but when our guide was put on his honor as to whether it was one of the original chairs he answered, "Well, if people wanted a chair!" He was a rather charmingly quaint, humorous person, with that queer conscience, and he did not pretend to be moved by the hard inexorable stoniness of the place which had been a queen's prison for many years. One must not judge it too severely, though: bowers and prisons of that day looked much alike, and Mary Stuart may have felt this a bower, and only hated it because she could not get out of it, or anyhow break the relentless hold of that Earl and Countess of Shrewsbury whose captive guest she was, though she never ceased trying. We went up on the wide flat roof, of lead or stone, whither her feet must have so often heavily climbed, and looked out over the lovely landscape which she must have abhorred; and the wind that blew over it, in late August, was very cold; far colder than the air of the prison, or the bower, below.

The place belongs now to the Duke of Norfolk, the great Catholic duke, and owes its restoration to his pity and his piety. Our farmer guide was himself a Protestant, but he spoke well of the duke, with whom he reported himself in such colloquies as, "I says to Dook," and, "Dook says to me." When he understood that we were Americans he asked after a son of his who had gone out to our continent twenty years before. He had only heard from him once, and that on the occasion of his being robbed of all his money by a roommate. It was in a place called Massatusy; we suggested Massachusetts, and he assented that such might be the place; and Mary's prison-house acquired an added pathos.


We drove back through the beautiful park, the Duke of Norfolk's gift to Sheffield, which is plentifully provided, like all English towns, with public pleasure-grounds. They lie rather outside of it, but within it are many and many religious and civic edifices which merit to be seen. We chose as chiefest the ancient Parish Church, of Norman origin and modern restoration, where we visited the tomb of the Lord and Lady Shrewsbury who were Mary Stuart's jailers; or if they were not, a pair of their family were, and it comes to the same thing, emotionally. The chapel in which they lie is most beautiful, and the verger had just brushed the carpet within the chancel to such immaculate dustlessness that he could not bring himself to let us walk over it. He let us walk round it, and we saw the chapel as a favor, which we discharged with an abnormal tip after severe debate whether a person of this verger's rich respectability and perfect manner would take any tip at all. In the event it appeared that he would.


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