For students and staff at the University Sheffield, Firth Hall is familiar as the heart of the university – an iconic red-brick and ivy-clad building, where the VC is based and in whose courtyard graduation parties take place. Rather less well-known though today is the history of the person from whom it takes its name, Mark Firth (1819-1880) – and the role of arms-manufacture in how he made his fortune.
Firth was one of the most important Sheffielders of the 19th century. His fame and wealth came from the family steel company, Thomas Firth and Sons, established along with his brother Thomas and father Thomas senior in 1842. His importance was recognised by stints as both Mayor in 1874 and Master Cutler between 1867 and 1869. Firth was the first Master Cutler to achieve re-election, the position usually vacated by the incumbent Master in a tradition stretching back to 1624.
Firth was certainly philanthropic with the wealth he garnered from the family business. During the final 20 years of his life, he is believed to have donated some £200,000 to projects to help the people of Sheffield. Most famous is Firth Park, donated to the town in 1875 and opened by the future King Edward VII, to provide his workers and their families with quality housing, leisure facilities and greenery. In one of his last acts before his death, Firth provided £25,000 towards the construction (£20,000) and endowment (£5,000) of Firth College in 1879, which became part of the foundation of The University of Sheffield in 1905.
This philanthropy made him popular with the city. So beloved was Firth that when he died suddenly in 1880 at the age of 61, the local newspapers were published with a black border along with his obituary. His public funeral was attended by thousands, including all the workers of Thomas Firth and Sons, before his final internment at Sheffield’s General Cemetery where his grave can still be viewed.
It was no secret at the time, however, that Firth’s wealth was in large part derived from the manufacture of armaments. In many ways, Firth was continuing a long tradition of Sheffield tradesmen using steel for weapons and armaments manufacture. Only the fourth-ever recorded mark granted to a cutler from the Lord of the Manor from 1563 was for arrowheads, granted to Thomas Wright, and in 1595 Kellam Homer was awarded the position of town armourer. In 1604 he went into a partnership with two local manufactures to set up a grinding wheel in the area we now know as Kelham Island.
As the 19th century commenced, it was discovered that steel could be used for a wide range of offensive and defensive weapons, and following the Crimean War, the Sheffield armaments industry began to grow alongside the steel industry. A former University of Sheffield historian, Professor Sidney Pollard (1925-1998), once described the Crimean War as the birth of the modern Sheffield steel industry as the full range of applications for steel began to be realised.
Firths began producing solid round shot for cannons during the Crimean War, and in the 1860s branched into producing a range of projectiles and gun barrels. The technological development of gun barrels and gun tubes led to the establishment of the Gun Works at Firths in 1863, and ultimately the outlay of £100,000 for new plant and equipment, under the agreement that the firm would be rewarded for their expenditure by the British government. These weapons, such as the 35-ton ‘Woolwich Infant’, armed and equipped Britain’s (and France’s) imperial navy.
By the time of Firth’s death, the company had become world-renowned for their guns, and the increased profits available from producing armaments certainly contributed to his wealth and some of his philanthropic contributions to Sheffield. Was this provoked by guilt from where the money came from or was it based on purely altruistic intentions? Different readers may have different interpretations.
After Firth’s death, the Sheffield armaments industry continued to grow, with Vickers, Brown, Cammell, Hadfields and Firth producing armour, projectiles and gun barrels in Sheffield prior to the Great War. By 1914 the city was known as the ‘Arsenal of the World’ with technological and commercial connections across the globe. These companies reacted publicly to the Great War with horror, arguing that their weapons had been intended as deterrents (in the same way nuclear weapons were viewed in the Cold War).
When in the 1920s and 30s, these companies were branded as ‘Merchants of Death’, their directors defended themselves. In their view, they had done their Imperial duty by producing weapons to defend the British Empire with a show of strength. If they hadn’t produced the armaments required, someone else would have. We don’t know for certain, but Mark Firth may have viewed his guns of the 1860s and 70s in the same light.
In any case, as universities across the UK reconsider the circumstances of their establishment, and where their assets came from, it’s worth remembering that the University of Sheffield has a revealing history too, and one that perhaps ought to be reflected upon more.
Chris Corker is a business historian and Lecturer in Management at the York Management School. He has been researching the industrial and business history of Sheffield for over a decade, and in 2017 his PhD on the Sheffield Armaments Industry was awarded the annual Coleman Prize from the Association of Business Historians for excellence in new business history research. His latest article is available here: https://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/JMH-11-2017-0055?journalCode=jmh
Image credit: The ‘Woolwich Infant’ Hathi Trust Digital Library and The University of Michigan Library