The question whether universities should have links with firms that are involved in the manufacture of armaments is topical. Since 2007, the policy of the University of Sheffield Students’ Union has been to end all connections with such companies. Earlier this year however it was reported in the Forge Press (12 February) that in the previous five years the University received almost thirty million pounds, mainly from Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems and Boeing, three firms prominent in arms production.
In response, a University spokesman stated that these links ‘bring major benefits to students, allow us to offer a unique education experience and also drive important research projects to overcome the world’s toughest challenges.’ A few weeks later the Vice-Chancellor wrote in the Daily Mail (16 May) of the need for more research and development to help create the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ called for by the government. He noted: ‘On the Yorkshire site where miners clashed with police 30 years ago is Europe’s first advanced manufacturing innovation district, begun between the University of Sheffield and Boeing.’
However, a look at the University’s history shows that these modern controversies are nothing new to Sheffield. In fact, the University has long had financially beneficial links with the arms trade. In 1879 Firth College, which was to become a constituent part of the University, was financed by Mark Firth, the industrialist whose firm specialised in the production of armaments. The arms manufacturer Vickers, which also had large premises in the city, was a substantial donor to the fund set up to help gain university status in 1905. Douglas Vickers, a director of the company, which has been described as perhaps the nearest English equivalent to the Krupp steelmaking dynasty, was the University’s treasurer between 1917 and 1926.
In return, arms companies (in common with a wide range of other commercial undertakings) have benefited from the University’s expertise. A striking example of this occurred a hundred years ago when William Ripper, the professor of engineering, became closely involved in the local munitions trade. (Ripper’s biography is being added to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography today).
Ripper arrived in Sheffield, aged 21, in 1874 as a newly qualified teacher at Carbrook board school. A year later he became head teacher at Walkley school, subsequently advancing to the posts of science master at Sheffield Central Higher School (1880) and professor of mechanical engineering at Firth College (1889). He remained professor of engineering until 1920 and also acted as the University’s vice chancellor from 1917 to 1919. His books included Practical Chemistry (1883) and Steam Engine Theory and Practice (1899).
By the spring of 1915 there was unease both locally and nationally about the conduct of the First World War. The tactic of using heavy guns to bombard enemy lines had not led to a breakthrough on the western front. On 14 May The Times carried an influential report that the recently fought battle of Aubers Ridge had been lost because of a shortage of shells. The recriminations that followed led to a political crisis and the formation of a coalition government, with Lloyd George as minister of munitions.
In Sheffield concern about the shell shortage had prompted a meeting at the Cutlers’ Hall on 7 May 1915. Subsequently a committee was formed to improve munitions production. It continued to operate, with its offices in the University and with Ripper as its vice-chairman, until the end of the war. (The papers of the Sheffield Committee on Munitions of War are kept in the University’s Special Collections.)
Ripper was already well known locally. For some thirty years he had promoted technical education through lectures and evening classes. He was a member of the city’s education committee. The munitions committee, which met on an almost daily basis, set out to identify firms in the city and surrounding areas that could adapt their machinery and workers for war production. Silversmiths, Ripper later wrote, became expert manufacturers of steel helmets. The workshops of his own department trained hundreds of men in shell turning. The University’s engineering laboratories also tested carbon steel tools and made thousands of precision gauges.
King George V attended a meeting of the committee and inspected local workshops in September 1915, and other distinguished visitors included General Smuts and Lord Jellicoe. In August 1917 Ripper’s work received further official recognition when he was created a Companion of Honour.
The controversy over the ethics of universities collaborating with arms firms is unlikely to burn out. In Sheffield the Students’ Union policy of opposing any involvement with arms companies seems firmly in place. But so embedded are the links, and so mutually advantageous to those in a position to take decisions, that it seems probable they will continue for some time yet.
David Martin is an honorary lecturer in the Department of History
Image: A steel works in Sheffield in 1918, from Wikipedia.